Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, by Brad S. Gregory
If everyone who rejected Rome had agreed with Luther about the Bible, the entire Reformation era and indeed the last five hundred years of Western history would have played out very differently.
They didn’t, so it didn’t. Luther unleashed a movement he couldn’t control. The disagreements among Protestants were no less than the disagreements that the Protestants had with the Church. Luther would lash out against his Protestant rivals as fiercely as he did against the Catholic Church. Luther launched sola scriptura, but as far as he was concerned there could only be one sola: his.
That didn’t last long. Absent the institution of the Church regarding interpretation of Scripture, every man was free to develop his own view. Regardless of one’s view of the right and wrong of this history and event, it is clear that such a position could only lead to a fractious movement. Countless sects were born in this wake.
By the mid-1520s, these events would inspire mass uprisings – for example, the so-called German Peasants’ War – a revolt by the downtrodden against the traditional political hierarchy realities of the time, and the largest mass uprising in Europe prior to events in France in 1789.
This war began in the Black Forest, just north of Zürich; soon, nearly three-hundred thousand would be involved.
The most popular list of grievances during the uprisings, The Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants, is written by the furrier Sebastien Lotzer and the Memmingen priest Christoph Schappeler.
A read of the twelve articles will show concerns of both a furrier and a priest, with concerns ranging from proper preaching and tithes to open woods and streams, and hunting open to all. Like Luther, they employ the strategy of humbling themselves on any issue where it can be shown that an article is incorrect according to scripture.
Instead of debate, they received the sword; unlike Luther, they had no protection offered by the prince. These uprisings were put to a swift end by the armies of the many princes. The peasants are hugely overmatched, including one battle where more than six-thousand die against a loss of six for the princes’ armies. Altogether, perhaps 100,000 peasants are killed or otherwise put to death.
What was once a cohesive social order was quickly beginning to disintegrate:
Luther’s defiant stand based on his understanding of God’s word inadvertently inspires armed conflict and threatens a society dependent on religion as the foundation for a shared social and political life.
Luther’s Catholic critics gloat with glee – as they warned, rejecting the Catholic Church will lead to a meltdown of social order. Fair enough, yet it seems to me that some version of challenging the Church was coming with or without Luther. As an anonymous commenter has offered as a nice reminder: the printing press came to this story several decades before; people who had little reason to learn to read would soon thereafter have both reason and ability to learn to read.
It seems to me that a reason large segments of the population (along with many princes – although they had political reasons as well) supported reform in the Church was because many of Luther’s words rung true to their own understanding of the Bible and / or contrary to what they heard from the Church.
While the Protestant factions were numerous, two of the sects attained political protection. Known as “magisterial Protestants,” the Lutherans and Reformed Protestants gained and kept a foothold in regions where the local prince held sympathetic views. All other competing Protestant views are outlawed – just as the Church has outlawed even these two. Persecution and punishment were the means of enforcement.
What to say about the situation? New Protestant leaders emerge – a few aligned with Luther, many not. Countless sects. Protests are held by the laity – disrupting mass, destroying icons, harassing priests, refusing to pay tithes. Priests – now in protest – get married, serve the parishioners the wine, and conduct other actions in defiance of Church practices.
In a complete turnaround, local magistrates are protecting the Protestant “heretics” from punishment by the local bishop and Rome – local magistrates have taken the position of religious authority. Such action completely overturns the separate governance institutions of Church and king. The transition begins – from true separation to subservience – with the king on top, and local churches more than willing to comply as it meant protection from Rome.
Most of the free cities (with Cologne a notable exception) chose to defy the emperor – a chance for true independence, at least for a time:
The Reformation gives them the opportunity to extend their jurisdictional control over the Church, an oversight that has already increased in the late Middle Ages.
The Reformation will undermine the authority of the old Church but not the authority, power, or control of political rulers.
Sowing the seeds of monopoly political power. All the while, the Church’s hands are virtually tied: while the Reformers are happy to take their message(s) to the streets in a fundamentally populist manner (thousands of pamphlets are published), the Church most certainly doesn’t want a public debate about religion – such things shouldn’t be decided by the laity, and certainly not individually.
Life as Europe has known it for approaching 1000 years is suddenly overturned, for example in Zwingli’s Zürich:
Gone are the mass, the priests, monks, friars, nuns, and countless religious paintings and sculptures and panes of stained glass. Gone too are fasting ad processions and candles, pilgrimages and prayers to saints and celebration of saints’ days.
Given how integral these were to life – not merely religious life, but life, as these were indistinguishable – the result would be a chaos that engulfed Europe for more than a century. The Peasants’ Wars were merely an appetizer.
During the time of the Peasants’ Wars, Luther and Erasmus are fighting their own battle. Erasmus asks regarding Luther’s view of the clarity of scripture on the subject of free will: “If it is really so clear, why have all the excellent people here acted like blind men for so many centuries….?”
The scripture has been subject of complex and sophisticated commentary for a thousand years and more, yet many disagreements remain – even without Luther – and many questions are still unanswered. This remains true today.
My own editorial comment: both sides can have a point; in other words, neither is 100% right. The Church did play a power game, including on interpretation. Yet, interpretation is something man will never get completely right – not even Luther.
Man will never fully and completely comprehend the heart, mind, and will of God. Humility is called for. Neither the Church or Luther displayed this.