State of Europe Before the Reformation
Excerpt adapted from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, Swiss Protestant minister, translated by H. White (Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh: 1846).
God Plants the Seeds of the Reformation in Europe
The evils which thus afflicted Christendom; superstition, unbelief, ignorance, vain speculation, and corruption of morals, the natural fruits of the hearts of man, were not new upon the earth. Often they had appeared in the history of nations. They had invaded, especially in the East, the different religious systems that had seen their day of glory. Those enervated systems had sunk under these evils, had fallen under their attack, and not one of them had ever risen again.
Was Christianity now to undergo the same fate? Would it be lost like these old national religions? Would the blow that had caused their death be sufficient to deprive it of life? Could nothing save it? Will these hostile powers that overwhelm it, and which have already overthrown so many various systems of worship, be able to seat themselves without resistance on the ruins of the Church of Jesus Christ?
No! There is in Christianity what none of these national systems possessed. It does not, like them, present certain general ideas mingled with tradition and fable, destined to fall sooner or later under the assault of reason: it contains a pure and undefiled truth, founded on facts capable of bearing the examination of every upright and enlightened mind. Christianity does not propose merely to excite in man certain vague religious feelings, whose charm once lost can never be recovered: its object is to satisfy, and it does really satisfy, all the religious wants of human nature, whatever may be the degree of development which it has attained. It is not the work of man, whose labors pass away and are forgotten; it is the work of God, who upholds what he has created; and it has the promise of its Divine Head as the pledge of its duration.
It is impossible for human nature ever to rise superior to Christianity. And if for a time man thought he could do without it, it soon appeared to him with fresh youth and a new life, as the only remedy for souls. The degenerate nations then returned with new ardor toward those ancient, simple, and powerful truths, which in the hour of their infatuation they had despised.
In fact, Christianity manifested in the sixteenth century the same regenerative power that it had exercised at first. After fifteen centuries the same truths produced the same effects. In the day of the Reformation, as in the time of Peter and Paul, the Gospel overthrew mighty obstacles with irresistible force. Its sovereign power displayed its efficacy from north to south among nations the most dissimilar in manners, character, and intellectual development. Then as in the times of Stephen and James, it kindled the fire of enthusiasm and devotedness in the lifeless nations and elevated them to the height of martyrdom.
Two Divine Laws that Revived True Christianity in Europe
How was this revival of the church accomplished?
We observe here two laws by which God governs the Church in all times.
First, he prepares slowly and from afar that which he designs to accomplish. He has ages in which to work.
Then, when the time is come, he effects the greatest results by the smallest means. It is thus he acts in nature and in history. When he wishes to produce a majestic tree, he deposits a small seed in the bosom of the earth; when he wishes to renovate his Church, he employs the lowliest instruments to accomplish what emperors and learned and distinguished men in the Church could not effect. We shall soon go in search of, and we shall discover, that small seed which a Divine hand placed in the earth in the days of the Reformation. But we must here distinguish and recognize the different means by which God prepared the way for this great revolution.
The Apparent Strength of Rome
At the period when the Reformation was about to burst forth, Rome appeared in peace and security. One might have said that nothing could ever disturb her in her triumph: great victories had been achieved by her. The general councils, those upper and lower chambers of Catholicism, had been subdued. The Waldenses and the Hussites had been crushed. No university, except perhaps that of Paris, which sometimes raised its voice at the signal of its kings, doubted the infallibility of the oracles of Rome. Everyone seemed to have taken his own share of its power. The higher orders of the clergy preferred giving to a distant chief the tithe of their revenues, and tranquilly to consume the remainder, to risking all for an independence that would cost them dear and would bring them little profit. The inferior clergy, attracted by the prospect of brilliant stations, which their ambition painted and discovered in the distance, willingly purchased by a little slavery the faltering hopes they cherished. Besides, they were everywhere so oppressed by the chiefs of the hierarchy, that they could scarcely stir under their powerful hands, and much less raise themselves and make head against them. The people bent the knee before the Roman altar; and even kings themselves, who began in secret to despise the bishop of Rome, would not have dared lay hands upon his power for fear of the imputation of sacrilege.
But if external position appeared to have subsided, or even to have entirely ceased, when the Reformation broke out, its internal strength had increased. If we take a nearer view of the edifice, we discover more than one symptom that foreboded its destruction. The cessation of the general councils had scattered their principles throughout the Church and carried disunion into the camp of their opponents. The defenders of the hierarchy were divided into two parties: those who maintained the system of absolute papal dominion, according to the maxims of Hildebrand; and those who desired a constitutional papal government, offering securities and liberty to the several Churches.
And more than this, in both parties faith in the infallibility of the Roman bishop had been rudely shaken. If no voice was raised to attack it, it was because everyone felt anxious rather to preserve the little faith he still possessed. They dreaded the slightest shock, lest it should overthrow the whole edifice. Christendom held its breath; but it was to prevent a calamity in which it feared to perish. From the moment that man trembles to abandon a long-worshipped persuasion, he possesses it no more. And he will not much longer keep up the appearance that he wishes to maintain.
God Prepares the Reformation
The Reformation had been gradually prepared by God’s providence in three different spheres: the political, the ecclesiastical, and the literary. Princes and their subjects, Christians and divines, the learned and the wise, contributed to bring about this revolution of the sixteenth century. Let us pass in review this triple classification, finishing with that of literature, which was perhaps the most powerful in the times immediately preceding the reform.
And, firstly, Rome had lost much of her ancient credit in the eyes of nations and of kings. Of this the Church itself was the primary cause. The errors and superstitions which she had introduced into Christianity were not, properly speaking, what had inflicted the mortal wound. The Christian world must have been raised above the clergy in intellectual and religious development, to have been able to judge of it in this point of view. But there was an order of things within the comprehension of the laity, and by this the Church was judged. It had become altogether earthly. That sacerdotal dominion which lorded over the nations, and which could not exist except by the delusion of its subjects, and by the halo that encircled it, had forgotten its nature, left heaven and its spheres of light and glory to mingle in the vulgar interests of citizens and princes. The priests, born to be the representatives of the Spirit, had bartered it away for the flesh. They had abandoned the treasures of science and the spiritual power of the Word, for the brute force and false glory of the age.
This happened naturally enough. It was in truth the spiritual order which the Church had at first undertaken to defend. But to protect it against the resistance and attacks of the people, she had recourse to earthly means, to vulgar arms, which a false policy had induced her to take up. When once the Church had begun to handle such weapons, her spirituality was at an end. Her arm could not become temporal and her heart not become temporal also. Erelong was seen apparently the reverse of what had been at first. After resolving to employ earth to defend heaven, she made use of heaven to defend the earth. Theocratic forms became in her hands the means of accomplishing worldly enterprises. The offerings which the people laid at the feet of the sovereign pontiff of Christendom were employed in maintaining the splendor of his court and in paying his armies. His spiritual power served as steps by which to place the kings and nations of the earth under his feet. The charm ceased, and the power of the Church was lost, so soon as the men of those days could say, She is become as one of us.
The great were the first to scrutinize the titles of this imaginary power. This very examination might perhaps have been sufficient for the overthrow of Rome. But fortunately for her the education of the princes was everywhere in the hands of her adepts, who inspired their august pupils with sentiments of veneration towards the Roman pontiff. The rulers of the people grew up in the sanctuary of the Church. Princes of ordinary capacity never entirely got beyond it: many longed only to return to it at the hour of death. They preferred dying in a friar’s cowl to dying beneath a crown.
Italy, that European apple of discord, contributed perhaps more than anything else to open the eyes of kings. They had to contract alliances with the pope, which had reference to the temporal prince of the States of the Church, and not to the bishop of bishops. Kings were astonished at seeing the popes ready to sacrifice the rights belonging to the pontiff, in order that they might preserve some advantage to the prince. They perceived that these pretended organs of the truth had recourse to all the paltry wiles of policy, to deceit, dissimulation, and perjury. Then fell off the bandage which education had bound over the eyes of princes. Then the artful Ferdinand of Aragon played stratagem against stratagem. Then the impetuous Louis XII had a medal struck, with the inscription, Perdam Babylonis Nomen. And the good Maximilian of Austria, grieved at hearing of the treachery of Leo X, said openly: “This pope also, in my opinion, is a scoundrel. Now may I say, that never in my life has any pope kept his faith or his word with me……I hope, God willing, this will be the last of them.”
Kings and people then began to feel impatient under the heavy burden the popes had laid upon them. They demanded that Rome should relieve them from tithes, tributes, and annates, which exhausted their resources. Already had France opposed Rome with the Pragmatic Sanction, and the chiefs of the empire claimed the like immunity. the emperor was present in person at the council of Pisa in 1511, and even for a time entertained the idea of securing the Papacy to himself. But of all these leaders, none was so useful to the Reformation as he in whose states it was destined to commence.
Frederick of Saxony, surnamed the Wise, was at that time the most powerful of all the Electors. Coming to the government of the hereditary states of his family in 1487, he had received the electoral dignity from the emperor; and in 1493, having gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was there made a knight of the Holy Sepulchre. the influence he exercised, his wealth and liberality, raised him above his equals. God chose him to serve as a tree under whose shelter the seeds of truth might put forth their first shoots, without being uprooted by the tempests around them.
No one was better adapted for this noble ministry. Frederick possessed the esteem of all and enjoyed the full confidence of the emperor. He even supplied his place when Maximilian was absent from Germany. His wisdom did not consist in the skillful exercise of a crafty policy, but in an enlightened, far seeing prudence; the first principle of which was never from interested motives to infringe the laws of honor and of religion.
At the same time, he felt the power of God’s word in his heart. One day, when the vicar general Staupitz was with him, the conversation turned on those who were in the habit of delivering empty declamations from the pulpit. “All discourses,” said the elector, “that are filled only with subtleties and human traditions, are wonderfully cold and unimpressive; since no subtlety can be advanced, that another sublety cannot overthrow. The Holy Scriptures alone are clothed with such power and majesty, that, destroying all our learned reasoning machines, they press us close, and compel us to say, Never man spake like this man.” Staupitz having expressed himself entirely of that opinion, the elector shook him cordially by the hand and said: “Promise me that you will always think the same.”
Frederick was precisely the prince required at the beginning of the Reformation. Too much weakness on the part of the friends of this work would have allowed of its being crushed. Too much precipitation would have made the storm burst forth sooner, which from its very commencement began to gather I in secret against it. Frederick was moderate but firm. He possessed that virtue which God requires at all times in those who love his ways: he waited for God. He put in practice the wise counsel of Gamaliel: “If this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.”
“Things are come to such a pass,” said this prince to Spengler of Nuremberg, one of the most enlightened men of his day, “that man can do no more; God alone must act. For this reason we place in his powerful hands these mighty works that are too difficult for us.” Providence claims our admiration in the choice it made of such a ruler to protect its rising work.