Wartburg, a castle high above Thuringia Forest in East Germany, shielded outlawed Martin Luther in 1521. A Bible lies open in the very room where he fought daily idleness, doubt, and the Devil by producing Protestantism’s strongest weapon - - a New Testament in the language of the people.
Scandalized by his evangelistic fervor, many of his fellow clergymen closed their churches to him. But George Whitefield, preaching outdoors where the breezes of reform swept unhindered through his sermons, drew multitudes wherever he went in 18th-century England and America. Stripping sinful souls naked before the vengeful gaze of God, he sent men and women quaking to their knees. He could bring tears to the eyes, it was said, merely by pronouncing “Mesopotamia”; Whitefield’s eloquence made even thrifty Ben Franklin empty his pockets into the collection plate.
Calling for conversion, Whitefield cared little for denominational labels. In one sermon he presented this conversation: “Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians?” “No!” “Any Presbyterians?” “No!” “Any Indepen-dents or Methodists?” “No, no, no!” “Whom have you then?” “We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians!”
Whitefield’s heaven may not have known such denominational names, but the New Jersey town where I live does, and I suspect my town is not unique in this respect. Out of some 35 churches, two are Catholic, the rest Protestant: Baptist, Christian Science, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Covenant, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Seventh-day Adventist, arid on clown the roster to the Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ. A bewildering diversity of denominations, yet a common bond unites them. All are related to that cataclysmic movement which shattered Christendom in the 16th century—the Protestant Reformation. To explore the roots of that complex of events which still affects us today, let me take you hack to the land of my birth—Germany— where our story begins with a thunderbolt ~ .July, 1505.
Caught iii a storm on his way back to the university, a 22-year-old student was hurled to the ground when lightning struck near him. He was Martin Luther, son of an ambitious miner of Eisleben, in Saxony, who reluctantly had followed his lather’s urging to study law. A jovial fellow who liked to play the lute and sing with friends, he was also beset by anxiety about his eternal destiny. Terrified by the thunderbolt, he vowed, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk.” The skies cleared — and he kept his promise, disappearing behind the walls of the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.
But the deep comfort that monastic spirituality had given generations of the Faithful eluded him. He felt that God asked him to marshal his moral resources He was convinced that he did not possess any — and that God therefore condemned him to everlasting damnation. “I hated this God,” Luther wrote, “who asked me to do the impossible.” Then, like Augustine, agonized by his sense of hopeless sinfulness, Luther discovered the message of God’s forgiveness in the epistles of Paul. Men are justified not by being good or doing good, he read, but by faith alone in God’s mercy. To Luther, beginning a new life of redemption, it seemed as though “the gates of heaven opened before me.”
In June 1520, Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domirie — “Arise, 0 Lord... A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard.” It declared 41 propositions in Luther’s writings “heretical” or “offensive to pious ears.” Asked to recant, Luther, accom- panied by students, marched outside Wittenberg’s gates and cast the bull, together with a volume of the canon law, into a bonfire. The students rejoiced in the spree, but Luther trembled—the next fire might be his. In January 1521, he was excommnuiiicated, in part because he defended some of the teachings of John Has, Bohemian reformer burned at the stake a century earlier. Four months later, after Luther refused to recant at the Diet of Worms, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared Luther a political outlaw.
Spirited off to Duke Frederick’s castle, the Wartburg, Luther wrestled with demons of self-doubt. Torments rose to haunt him: How could he claim he was right and all the faithful for 1,500 years in error? Was he that much wiser? He immersed himself in translating the New Testament into German, a masterpiece of popular style, and found scriptural sanction to dispel all doubt. Like Erasmus, Luther wanted the plowman to be able to recite scripture in the field, the weaver at his loom. But unlike Erasmus , who sought to reform the church without raising tumult, Luther pressed on inexorably. “Printing is God’s latest and best work,” he said, and wielded it like a bludgeon. His tracts grew more strident, his views more rigid. The plea for reform within the church became a demand for existence without.
Monasteries closed down. Priests and nuns married. Luther himself, back at his professorship iii Wittenberg, married a former nun. He rejected all but two of the seven sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist, modified so that communicants received both bread amid wine. He preached that the faithful enjoyed immediate access to God— “the priesthood of all believers.” He extolled the Bible as the sole authority, not “man-made” church tradition, and maintained that salvation came through God’s grace without any contribution of man. That was his pivotal concern. In 1 529, Luther’s supporters protested a decision by the Catholic majority of German rulers to prohibit Lutheran teaching—and promptly were labeled “Protestants. Wars with France and the Turks kept the emperor, secular custodian of the church, from crushing this heresy. So Luther lived to see the sundering of Chris- tendom. Grieved, he nonetheless believed the pope was “the AntiChrist,” that Rome had perverted true religion, and that the gospel had been restored. As for his role: “The Word did it all,” he remarked. “Had I wished to do so, I could have started quite a conflagration. But while I sat quietly and drank Wittenherg beer with my friends, God through His Word dealt the papacy’ a mighty blow.”
But God s Word was subject to manifold interpretation. As the fires of rebellion spread through Europe, the Reformation became not one movement but many. It was one thing to be against the Roman church, quite another to agree on what constituted the Christian religion. Feuds among Protestant factions grew hardly less intense than strife between Protestants and Catholics. The last years of Ulrich Zwingli, Zurich patriot and reformer who died in 1531 in battle against the Catholics, were overshadowed by his controversy with Luther. Zwingli found it impossible to believe that the eucharistic bread and wine truly embodied the physical Christ; the Lord’s Supper seemed to him to convey merely a spiritual presence. And whereas Luther composed chorales~, prescribed a liturgy and catechisms, and retained vestments, Zwingli’s followers considered hymns and traditional clerical garb unscriptural, stripped their churches of organs, images, and stained glass, and held the most austere of services.
Some Protestant radicals took issue with the reformers’ acceptance of infant baptism, claiming there was Biblical mandate only for adult baptism upon con- fession of faith. So, in a peasant cottage or by a river they secretly received the rite, with baptismal water poured from a kitchen ladle by one of themselves. The authorities charged that theirs was a second baptism (after that in infancy), called them Anabaptists (ana means “again”), and persecuted them. Gentle, pious folk for the most part, who patterned their lives after the Sermon on the Mount and refused to swear oaths or take up arms, they ignited the wrath of Catholic prince and Protestant council alike. Ranks winnowed through the trial by fire and sword that marked their pilgrimage through Europe, Anabaptist followers of the Dutch reformer Menno Simons—the Mennonites—and the Tyrolean Jacob Hutter—the Hutterites—finally found haven in the New World to live by the Bible apart from worldly society.
The “New World” in America derived in no small degree from the principles of the “City of God” established at Geneva by John Calvin, the most famous reformer after Luther. The determination anti rigidity’ that show in portraits of Calvin are mirrored in the tall-hatted, white-collared Puritans — grim and humorless, many’ of them, hard-working and frugal, dedicated to the proposition that anything enjoyable is sin. With zeal born of the conviction that they were an elect siding with God and fulfilling his purpose in the world, these Calvinists founded New England—and many an American fortune. French by birth, lawyer-humanist by training, practical reformer in Geneva almost by accident, Calvin had come to Switzerland where he could safely publish his Institutes of the Christian Religion. A keystone of Protestant theology, it outlines with clarity what the reformers believed about God, man, and the world. He saw the book through press in Basel in 1536. Passing through Geneva later that year, the 27-year-old scholar was pressured into staying; tile city had expelled its bishop, was in the process of reorganizing, and needed a Protestant teacher. Except for a three-year exile when he lost out in a clash with the city council, Calvin stayed on till his death in 1564, seeking to establish his vision of the apostolic church and a “community fit to worship God.”
He preached the majesty and sovereignty of God—who had predestined those to be saved and those to be condemned. “To indulge oneself as little as possible” should be the Christian’s goal, as well as “unflagging effort” to cut “all show of superfluous wealth, not to mention licentiousness.” Calvin prevailed upon the council to set up a consistory to investigate offenses ranging from card playing, dancing, possessing a book of saints, to overcharges by physician or tailor. Wearing down, banishing his opponents—even getting the council to burn one, the anti-Trinitarian scholar Servetus — he persisted in molding Geneva into what John Knox, the dour disciple who took Calvin’s message to Scotland, called “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.” Yet, flail, nervous, constantly plagued by illness, Calvin shuddered at the calumnies and dangers he had endured. He confessed on his deathbed he was “naturally by no means bold.” Only his conviction “that the Lord had truly blessed my labors” gave him his zeal and iron insistence he was right.
His legacy to Protestant mainstreams was immense. And he bequeathed a style of worship followed widely to this day: no elaborate liturgy, a simple gathering of the congregation for scriptural reading, prayer, singing, and sermons. Suspicious of harmony, he had his congregation sing in unison Psalms metrically matched to solemn tunes. The familiar doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” conies from Calvin’s Geneva Psalter.
How different was England! Whenever I travel there I am impressed by the religious continuity. Whether in Canterbury Cathedral or in a Cambridgeshire parish church, the liturgy, the minister’s vestments, the music remind me of the richness of Catholic Christendom. One might expect greater change, considering those turbulent 25 years in the 16th century when England broke with Rome, broke with Protestantism, and again broke with Rome. The Reformation in England was related to “the King’s Great Matter” — Henry VIII’s attempt to get the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. By 1532 Henry’s patience ran out. The king (whom Pope Leo had dubbed Defender of the Faith for his essay against Luther) rejected papal authority, took the title Supreme Head of the Church in England, wed his second queen, and enriched his gentry’ with monasteries of the realm.
In 1537, a year after English priest William Tyndale was strangled and burned as a heretic on the Continent, Henry authorized publication of a Bible translation, largely Tyndale’s, printed in Catholic France. He ordered a copy put in each parish church and urged Englishmen to read it “as the very word of God and the spiritual food of man’s soul.” Like a hot wind, the new Bible spread Protestant sparks ignited 150 years earlier when John Wyclif attacked church doctrine and privilege~ influencing
John Hus in Bohemia—and gave his countrymen their 1st Bible in English.
But Henry wanted an independent, not a heretical church. He soon prohibited the “common sort” from reading the Bible, and in 1539 his Parliament passed the Six Articles Act, which re-asserted principal points of Catholic doctrine. Yet adamant Catholics were persecuted no less than Protestants. The willful monarch’s executions provoked an observer’s remark, “What country is his where they hang papists and anti-papists the same day?”
Henry’s scholarly archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, swung with every regal breeze—even packing his wife off to her native Germany when the Six Articles restored clerical celibacy. (She reappeared after Henry’s death.) Cranmer’s religious genius shows, however, in the Book of Common Prayer. In this he created, from the Latin liturgical heritage, services in the vernacular whose cadences and beauty of language, like those of the King James Bible, have ennobled English worship for four centuries. In its 1559 edition it charted a knightly course through burning theological issues. To transubstantiation it answered Yes, Christ is present in the bread and wine (“The Body’ of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”) — arid No, we merely remember Christ in the Last Supper (“Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ Cued for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”).
There was no compromise when Catherine’s daughter Mary came to the throne in 1553, married Philip II of Spain, and forcibly reintroduced Catholicism in England. She committed a colossal blunder: she made martyrs. John Foxe, expanding on Bloody Mary’s” executions in grotesque detail in his Book of Martyrs convinced many that Englishmen should never again live under “popish oppressours.” He told of heroic churchmen suffering ‘~with great rejoycing, as one going to a bridal.” Not the last to go was Cranmer himself. At his trial Cranmer recanted. But on the day that he went to the stake, he astonished the assemblage by disavowing his recantations and lauding the Reformation. “And because this hand has sinned the most,” he said, raising the hand that had signed the confessions, “it shall be the first burned.”
The Church of England was firmly established during the long reign of Henry’s other daughter Elizabeth. But for all its moderation, it continued to be buffeted te(l by demands for change. First came the Puritans, bent on “purifying it of any popish taint. In time encompassing cranks and sages, apostles of instant utopia and brooders the divine mysteries, the Puritans were terribly serious about religion. They tell us much about themselves in diaries filled with analyses of their thoughts and actions — moral account books listing spiritual credits and debits. Oliver Cornell, , Bible in one hand, sword in the other, would consider himself God’s avenger and send a king to the executioner’s block.
Scarcely had Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558 when English exiles returned from Calvin’s Geneva to complain that ministers should wear plain black gowns. Then they clamored for the governance of a local church by its lay elders
(prcsbyters) rather than by a distant bishop—a presbyterian rather than an religious freedom, the Quakers worshiped without liturgy or clergy in plain steeple-less meetinghouses. Sitting thoughtfully, one might rise to speak from the heart or mind, then another, then all would listen to the inner voice. In 1681, the Quakers found a New World home in Penn’s Woods–Pennsylvania–named for their patron William Penn, Fox’s most illustrious disciple.
John Wesley had a stormy crossing to America. The mainsail split. Seawater, he recorded in his diary, “covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’”
The “Germans” were Moravian Brethren — followers of the Count of Zinzeiidorf. Wesley, who with his brother had founded a prayer group at Oxford (a group so methodical in devotions they had been nicknamed “Methodist”) was on his way to minister to Georgia colonists and Indians. After that shipboard experience he kept in touch with those fervent Pietists whose steadfast faith had so impressed him. And at a Moravian service back in England in 1738, listening to episcopal organization. Later some even wanted to separate completely and set up independent congregations. Frustrated at Elizabeth’s middle course, harried by for nonconformity by King James, many Puritans sailed for the New World. They likened themselves to the Israelites setting out for the Promised Land. America had been kept hidden by God for a purpose, a Puritan divine noted. God had sent them on an “errand into the wilderness,” where he would “create a new heaven and a new earth, new churches and a new commonwealth.”
But even in this Congregationalist Eden dissension arose. Dissenters who had left Europe in search of religious freedom frequently denied this to others in their midst. It took a Roger Williams to remind Puritan elders that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, he named his Rhode Island settlement “in commemoration of God’s Providence,” grew up America’s ’s first document separating church and state, and founded America’s first Baptist church.
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The Reforming Spirit, by: Hans J. Hillerbrand, (pgs. 360-375)
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