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Lecture 4: The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation

By the early 1520s, Luther had attracted a vast following while the printing presses spread his message and reputation across Germany. With his death in 1546, we can find people of all social classes who had clearly sided with Luther and Lutheranism. The major question we must ask remains this: why did Lutheranism cut across class lines and appeal to so many people? What was so passionate about Luther's message that made people turn their back on the Roman Church?

The explanations for Luther's success may be endlessly debated by scholars but for the most part, and leaving theological opinion aside, we can say that the people were prepared for the message Luther delivered. Is it simply a matter of Luther appearing at the right time and in the right place? Perhaps. Since the 15th century there had been a growing resentment against clerical privilege. The clergy paid no taxes and were exempt from those civic responsibilities that increasingly fell on the shoulders of the urban dweller. Added to this simple fact was the increased visibility of the clergy -- there in the cities the common person could witness the luxury and splendor of a church whose purpose was to minister the spiritual needs of its flock but which now seemed indifferent, lax and, in a word, corrupt. Luther, then, offered an alternative that was appealing perhaps for the simple reason that is was an alternative.

Luther's religion was also spread by preachers who were to deliver approximately one hundred sermons per year, each lasting about forty-five minutes. Although Luther thought the Eucharist to be one of the most important sacraments in the Lutheran religious gathering, it was clearly the sermon that became the central focus of the service.

Meanwhile, German peasants in the countryside flocked to Luther's camp. Such a development was perhaps unsurprising since Luther himself was of peasant stock. The peasants also backed Luther's criticism of the authority of the Roman Church. In 1520, Luther had written, "A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none" (On Christian Liberty). Such a statement would have fallen on ready ears since there were numerous instances of social unrest throughout the 15th century. The situation was made worse in the 16th century by crop failures in 1523 and 1524. In 1525, representatives of the peasants of Swabia drew up what were called the "Twelve Articles," a document that expressed their grievances. The Articles focused on social and economic grievances and clearly were not intended to raise debate about theological issues. Furthermore, the peasants complained that the nobility had seized the common lands of the villages and had increased dues and taxes at the same time. So, the peasants appealed to Luther because they believed that he could prove that their demands were in accordance with Scripture.

But Luther was no revolutionary and wished to avoid social rebellion at all costs. In his An Admonition to Peace, he took the side of the peasantry and criticized the manorial lords. However, he did not justify armed force. In Swabia, Thuringia, the Rhineland and elsewhere, the peasants spoke of "God's righteousness," and the "Word of God," in an effort to have their social and economic grievances addressed. But support from Luther was not to come. Luther had, of course, spoken many times of the freedom of the Christian, but he was speaking in terms of religious faith and not matters pertaining to society. Freedom meant independence from Rome. In response to the peasant's rebellion Luther wrote AGAINST THE MURDEROUS, THIEVING HORDES OF PEASANTS. In the wake of this tract the nobility quelled the rebellion and by 1525, it is quite possible that 100,000 peasants had been killed.

There were also across Europe a growing number of humanists who were attracted by Luther's message. Luther's call for a more personal and immediate religion based on faith, the focus on the Scriptures in the liturgy and in life as well as the abolition of Catholic ceremony were just the kind of reforms that northern Christian humanists had been willing to address. For instance, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) took Luther's message into the city of Zurich and, as we have already seen, John Calvin took Lutheranism into Geneva (see Lecture 3).

In 1523 Luther offered his German translation of the New Testament. Since Luther had argued persuasively that everyone at the right to read and comments on the Scriptures, his translation attracted supporters from the literate middle classes. For the merchant and other members of the commercial classes, Luther perhaps offered hope that salvation may even be possible for the person whose sole interest was financial gain.

Meanwhile Luther wrote hymns, psalms and a variety of other works. His A Mighty Fortress Is Our God was perhaps his most important hymn (indeed, it is the one hymn truly attributable to Luther's pen), since it reflected deep human feelings and gave to be listener key points of Luther's doctrine. The Large Catechism, intended for an adult audience, contained brief expositions on the main articles of a Lutheran faith. The Small Catechism did pretty much the same thing only in a condensed version and was intended for the education of children. 

By the mid-16th century, many inhabitants of towns and villages had deviated from Christian dogma: many of these people were heretics; many believe that Nature was God (pantheism); and still more believe that witches had just as much spiritual power as did priests. The number of radical groups which appeared during the 16th century makes them difficult to classify. They make up what historians call the Radical Reformation.

There were men and women, many of them poor and illiterate, who claimed to have knowledge of their own salvation through an inner light. That is, these men and women believed they had a direct an immediate communication from God to his chosen people. Should this be that surprising? Such a knowledge made his chosen people free.

These Saints, as they called themselves, said the poor shall inherit the earth which they believed was now governed by the anti-Christ, i.e., the Pope. Their task was to purge the world of evil and make the world ready for the second coming of Christ. For these people, the Holy Scriptures became inspiration for their brand of social revolution. All of this, as you might have expected, was condemned by both Luther and Calvin (as well as the Church). The largest group of radical reformers were the Anabaptists (literally "re-baptizers," used as a term a derision).

Luther and Zwingli had argued that infant baptism marked the moment of one's entry into the Church, even though this had no sanction in the Bible. The Anabaptists believed the first baptism did not count since only mature adults could make a conscious choice for Jesus not to young children who are totally incapable of understanding God's grace. The Anabaptists were a diverse group of people. Some rejected the Trinity while others refused to take oaths, pay taxes, hold public office or serve in the army. Since the Anabaptists gave the individual free choice, it was indeed possible that Church organization was unnecessary since many believed in personal communication with God. Many radicals formed their own voluntary associations and abandoned the world in order to pursue their faith, regardless of what Luther or the Church might think. Many practiced a primitive communism in which everything was held in common, including property and wives. When all of this was coupled with their idea that the end of the world was imminent, their mission was one of urgency.

Of course, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli detested the radicals. By practicing a Protestant faith that deviated from Lutheranism or Calvinism, Luther and Calvin both argued that the radicals were damned. At an imperial Diet held in 1529, the death penalty was issued against all Anabaptists.

In 1534, the Melchiorites, an inflammatory sect of Anabaptists, captured the German city of Münster. They immediately burned all books except the Bible, banned the use of money and seized the property of non-believers. They killed Protestants and Catholics and practiced polygamy and sexual excess. Their leader, John of Leyden, had sixteen wives. As to be expected, they proclaimed the Day of Judgment was close at hand. Lutheran princes and Catholic bishops joined forces to condemn and defeat the Anabaptists, who were placed in cages and hung from the church steeples where they were eventually tortured and left to die. The radicals were pursued wherever they found themselves and to survive, many of them fled to Poland, the Low Countries, England and to the New World.

While Luther and Calvin struggled against the Anabaptists and other radical sects, the Roman Church was also gathering momentum to enact a genuine reform movement -- the Catholic Reformation (see Lecture 5).

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