Vol. 8, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Luther Restores Order in Wittenberg. — The End of Carlstadt


I. Eight Sermons of Luther preached from Sunday, March 7 (Invocavit) to the next Sunday (Reminiscere), after his return to Wittenberg. The oldest editions, slightly varying in length, appeared 1523. Altenb. ed., II. 99 sqq.; Walch, XV. 2423 sqq.: XX. 1-101; Erl. ed., XXVIII. 202-285 (both recensions). Luther’s Letters to Spalatin, the Elector, and others from March, 1522, in De Wette, II. 144 sqq.

II. Of modern historians, Marheineke, Merle D’Aubigné, Ranke, Hagenbach, and Koestlin (I. 537-549) may be compared.

On the Sunday after his arrival, Luther ascended his old pulpit, and re-appeared before his congregation of citizens and students. Wittenberg was a small place; but what he said and did there, and what Calvin did afterwards in Geneva, had the significance of a world-historical fact, more influential at that time than an encyclical from Rome.

Protestantism had reached a very critical juncture. Luther or Carlstadt, reformation or revolution, the written Word or illusive inspirations, order or confusion: that was the question. Luther was in the highest and best mood, full of faith in his cause, and also full of charity for his opponents, strong in matter, sweet in manner, and completely successful. He never showed such moderation and forbearance before or after.

He preached eight sermons for eight days in succession, and carried the audience with him. They are models of effective popular eloquence, and among the best he ever preached. He handled the subject from the stand-point of a pastor, with fine tact and practical wisdom. He kept aloof from coarse personalities which disfigure so many of his polemical writings. Not one unkind word, not one unpleasant allusion, escaped his lips. In plain, clear, strong, scriptural language, he refuted the errors without naming the errorists. The positive statement of the truth in love is the best refutation of error.

The ruling ideas of these eight discourses are: Christian freedom and Christian charity; freedom from the tyranny of radicalism which would force the conscience against forms, as the tyranny of popery forces the conscience in the opposite direction; charity towards the weak, who must be trained like children, and tenderly dealt with, lest they stumble and fall. Faith is worthless without charity. No man has a right to compel his brother in matters that are left free; and among these are marriage, living in convents, private confession, fasting and eating, images in churches. Abuses which contradict the word of God, as private masses, should be abolished, but in an orderly manner and by proper authority. The Word of God and moral suasion must be allowed to do the work. Paul preached against the idols in Athens, without touching one of them; and yet they fell in consequence of his preaching.

“Summa summarum,” said Luther, “I will preach, speak, write, but I will force no one; for faith must be voluntary. Take me as an example. I stood up against the Pope, indulgences, and all papists, but without violence or uproar. I only urged, preached, and declared God’s Word, nothing else. And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my Philip Melanchthon and Amsdorf, the Word inflicted greater injury on popery than prince or emperor ever did. I did nothing, the Word did every thing. Had I appealed to force, all Germany might have been deluged with blood; yea, I might have kindled a conflict at Worms, so that the Emperor would not have been safe. But what would have been the result? Ruin and desolation of body and soul. I therefore kept quiet, and gave the Word free course through the world. Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: ‘Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it.’ But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear. The Word is almighty, and takes captive the hearts.”

Eloquence rarely achieved a more complete and honorable triumph. It was not the eloquence of passion and violence, but the eloquence of wisdom and love. It is easier to rouse the wild beast in man, than to tame it into submission. Melanchthon and the professors, the magistrate and peaceful citizens, were delighted. Dr. Schurf wrote to the Elector, after the sixth discourse: “Oh, what joy has Dr. Martin’s return spread among us! His words, through divine mercy, are bringing back every day misguided people into the way of the truth. It is as clear as the sun, that the Spirit of God is in him, and that he returned to Wittenberg by His special providence.”

Most of the old forms were restored again, at least for a season, till the people were ripe for the changes. Luther himself returned to the convent, observed the fasts, and resumed the cowl, but laid it aside two years afterwards when the Elector sent him a new suit. The passage in the mass, however, which referred to the unbloody repetition of the sacrifice and the miraculous transformation of the elements, was not restored, and the communion in both kinds prevailed, and soon became the universal custom. The Elector himself, shortly before his death (May 5, 1525), communed with the cup.

Didymus openly acknowledged his error, and declared that Luther preached like an angel. But the Zwickau Prophets left Wittenberg for ever, and abused the Reformer as a new pope and enemy of spiritual religion. Münzer stirred up the Peasants’ War, and met a tragic fate.

Carlstadt submitted silently, but sullenly. He was a disappointed and unhappy man, and harbored feelings of revenge against Luther. Ranke characterizes him as “one of those men, not rare among Germans, who with an inborn tendency to profundity unite the courage of rejecting all that is established, and defending all that others reject, without ever rising to a clear view and solid conviction.” He resumed his lectures in the university for a time; but in 1523 he retired to a farm in the neighborhood, to live as “neighbor Andrew” with lowly peasants, without, however, resigning the emoluments of his professorship. He devoted himself more fully than ever to his mystical speculations and imaginary inspirations. He entered into secret correspondence with Münzer, though he never fully approved his political movements. He published at Jena, where he established a printing-press, a number of devotional books under the name of “a new layman,” instead of Doctor of Theology. He induced the congregation of Orlamuende to elect him their pastor without authority from the academic Senate of Wittenberg which had the right of appointment, and introduced there his innovations in worship, storming the altars and images. In 1524 he openly came out with his novel theory of the Lord’s Supper in opposition to Luther, and thus kindled the unfortunate eucharistic controversy which so seriously interfered with the peace and harmony of the Reformers. He also sympathized with the Anabaptists. Luther after long forbearance gave him up as incorrigible. With his consent, Carlstadt was exiled from Saxony (1524), but allowed to return on a sort of revocation, and on condition of keeping silence (1525). He evaded another expulsion by flight (1528). He wandered about in Germany in great poverty, made common cause with the Zwinglians, gave up some of his extravagant notions, sobered down, and found a resting-place first as pastor in Zürich, and then as professor of theology in Basel (1534-1541), where during the raging of a pestilence he finished his erratic career.


69. The Diets of Nürnberg, a.d. 1522-1524. Adrian VI

I. Walch, XV. 2504 sqq. Ranke, vol. II. pp. 27-46, 70-100, 244-262. J. Janssen, Vol. II. 256 sqq., 315 sqq. Koestlin, I. 622 sqq.

II. On Adrian VI. Gachard: Correspondance de Charles Quint et d’Adrian VI. Brux., 1859. Moring: Vita Adriani VI., 1536. Burmann: Hadrianus VI., sive Analecta Historica de Hadr. VI. Trajecti 1727 (includes Moring). Ranke: Die roem. Paepste in den letzten vier Jarhh., I., 59-64 (8th ed. 1885). C. Hoefler (Rom. Cath.): Wahl und Thronbesteigung des letzten deutschen Papstes, Adrian VI. Wien, 1872; and Der deutsche Kaiser und der letzte deutsche Papst, Carl V. und Adrian VI. Wien, 1876. Fr. Nippold: Die Reformbestrebungen Papst Hadrian VI., und die Ursachen ihres Scheiterns. Leipzig, 1875. H. Bauer: Hadrian VI. Heidelb., 1876. Maurenbrecher: Gesch. der kathol. Reformation, I. 202-225. Noerdlingen, 1880. See also the Lit. on Charles V., § 50.

We must now turn our attention to the political situation, and the attitude of the German Diet to the church question.

The growing sympathies of the German nation with the Reformation and the political troubles made the execution of the papal bull and the Edict of Worms against Luther more and more impossible. The Emperor was absent in Spain, and fully occupied with the suppression of an insurrection, the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, and the war with France. Germany was threatened by the approach of the Turks, who had conquered Belgrad and the greater part of Hungary. The dangers of the nation were overruled for the progress of Protestantism.

An important change took place in the papacy. Leo X. died Dec. 1, 1521; and Adrian VI. (1459-1523) was unexpectedly elected in his absence, perhaps by the indirect influence of the Emperor, his former pupil. The cardinals hardly knew what they did, and hoped he might decline.

Adrian formed, by his moral earnestness and monastic piety, a striking contrast to the frivolity and worldliness of his predecessors. He was a Dutchman, born at Utrecht, a learned professor of theology in Louvain, then administrator and inquisitor of Spain, and a man of unblemished character. He had openly denied the papal infallibility; but otherwise he was an orthodox Dominican, and opposed to a doctrinal reformation. He had combined with the Louvain professors in the condemnation of Luther, and advised Charles to take rigorous measures against him at Worms. Barefooted and without any ostentation, he entered Rome. He read daily mass at early dawn, took a simple meal, slept on a couch, and lived like a monk. He introduced strict economy in the papal household, and vigorously attacked the grossest abuses. He tried to gain the influence of Erasmus and Zwingli. But he encountered opposition everywhere.

Under these circumstances the Diet met at Nürnberg, March 23, 1522, and again Nov. 17, under the presidency of Ferdinand, the brother of the Emperor. To avert the danger of the Turks, processions and public prayers were ordered, and a tax imposed; but no army was raised.

Adrian demanded the execution of the Edict of Worms, and compared Luther to Mohammed; but he broke the force of his request by confessing with surprising frankness the corruptions of the Roman court, which loudly called for a radical moral reform of the head and members. Never before had the Curia made such a confession.

“We know,” wrote the Pope in the instruction to his legate, Francesco Chieregati, “that for some time many abominations, abuses in ecclesiastical affairs, and violations of rights have taken place in the holy see; and that all things have been perverted into bad. From the head the corruption has passed to the limbs, from the Pope to the prelates: we have all departed; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” He regarded Protestantism as a just punishment for the sins of the prelates. He promised to do all in his power to remedy the evil, and to begin with the Curia whence it arose.

The Emperor was likewise in favor of a reform of discipline, though displeased with Adrian for not supporting him in his war with France and his church-spoliation schemes.

The attempt to reform the church morally without touching the dogma had been made by the great Councils of the fifteenth century, and failed. Adrian found no sympathy in Rome, and reigned too short a time (Jan. 9, 1522 to Sept. 14, 1523) to accomplish his desire. It was rumored that he died of poison; but the proof is wanting. Rome rejoiced. His successor, Clement VII. (1523-1534), adopted at once the policy of his cousin, Leo X.

Complaint was made in the Diet against the Elector Frederick, that he tolerated Luther at Wittenberg, and allowed the double communion, the marriage of priests, and the forsaking of convents, but his controlling influence prevented any unfavorable action. The report of the suppression of the radical movements in Wittenberg made a good impression. Lutheran books were freely printed and sold in Nürnberg. Osiander preached openly against the Roman Antichrist.

The Diet, in the answer to the Pope (framed Feb. 8 and published as an edict March 6, 1523), refused to execute the Edict of Worms, and demanded the calling of a free general council in Germany within a year. In the mean time, Luther should keep silence; and the preachers should content themselves with preaching the holy gospel according to the approved writings of the Christian church. At the same time the hundred gravamina of the German nation were repeated.

This edict was a compromise, and did not decide the church question; but it averted the immediate danger to the Reformation, and so far marks a favorable change, as compared with the Edict of Worms. It was the beginning of the political emancipation of Germany from the control of the papacy. Luther was rather pleased with it, except the prohibition of preaching and writing, which he did not obey.

The influence of the edict, however, was weakened by several events which occurred soon afterwards.

At a new Diet at Nürnberg in January, 1524, where the shrewd Pope Clement VII. was represented by Cardinal Campeggio, the resolution was passed to execute the Edict of Worms, though with the elastic clause, “as far as possible.”

At the earnest solicitation of the papal nuncio, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and the Dukes William and Louis of Bavaria, together with twelve bishops of South Germany, concluded at Ratisbon, July 6, 1524, a league for the protection of the Roman faith against the Reformation, with the exception of the abolition of some glaring abuses which did not touch doctrines. The Emperor lent it his influence by issuing a stringent edict (July 27, 1524). This was an ominous event. The Romish league called forth a Protestant counter-league of Philip of Hesse and John of Saxony, at Torgau in June, 1526, although against the advice of the Wittenberg Reformers, who feared more evil than good from a union of politics with religion and trusted to the power of the Word of God without any carnal weapons.

Thus the German nation was divided into two hostile camps. From this unhappy division arose the political weakness of the empire, and the terrible calamities of the Smalkaldian and the Thirty Years’ Wars. In 1525 the Peasants’ War broke out, and gave new strength to the reaction, but only for a short time.


70. Luther and Henry VIII

Henricus VIII.: Adsertio VII. Sacram. adv. Luth. Lond. 1521. A German translation by Frick, 1522, in Walch, XIX., 158 sqq. Lutherus: Contra Henricum Regem. 1522. Also freely reproduced in German by Luther. His letter to Henry, Sept. 1, 1525. Auf des Koenigs in England Laesterschrift M. Luther’s Antwort. 1527. Afterwards also in Latin. See the documents in Walch, XIX. 153-521; Erl. ed., XXVIII. 343 sqq.; XXX. 1-14. Comp. also Luther’s letters of Feb. 4 and March 11, 1527, in De Wette III. 161 and 163.

With all his opposition to Ultra-Protestantism in church and state, Luther did not mean to yield an inch to the Romanists. This appears from two very personal controversies which took place during these disturbances, — the one with Henry VIII. concerning the sacraments; the other with Erasmus about predestination and free-will. In both he forgot the admirable lessons of moderation which he had enjoined from the pulpit in Wittenberg. He used again the club of Hercules.

Henry VIII. of England urged Charles V. to exterminate the Lutheran heresy by force, and wrote in 1521 (probably with the assistance of his chaplain, Edward Lee), a scholastic defence of the seven sacraments, against Luther’s “Babylonish Captivity.” He dedicated the book to Pope Leo X. He treated the Reformer with the utmost contempt, as a blasphemer and servant of Satan. He used the old weapons of church authority against freedom. He adhered to the dogma of transubstantiation, even after his breach with Rome. Pope Clement VII. judged that this book was written with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and promised indulgence to all who read it. At the same time he gratified the ambition of the vain king by confirming the title “Defender of the Faith,” which Leo had already conferred upon him.

The Protestant successors of Henry have retained the title to this day, though with a very different view of its meaning. The British sovereigns are defenders of the Episcopal Church in England, and of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and in both characters enemies of the Church of Rome.

Luther read the King a lecture (in Latin and German) such as was rarely read to any crowned head. He called him “King Henry, of God’s disgrace (or wrath), King of England,” and heaped upon him the most abusive epithets. He incidentally hit other princes, saying that “King Henry helps to prove the proverb that there are no greater fools than kings and princes.” Such a style of polemics can not be justified by the coarseness of the age, or the nature of the provocation, and did more harm to Luther than to Henry. His best friends regretted it; yet long afterwards he even surpassed the violence, if possible, in his savage and scurrilous attack upon Duke Henry of Brunswick.

When there was a prospect of gaining Henry VIII. for the cause of the Reformation, Luther made the matter worse by a strange inconsistency. In a most humble letter of Sept. 1, 1525, be retracted (not his doctrine, but) all the personal abuse, asked his pardon, and offered to honor his name publicly. Henry in his reply refused the offer with royal pride and scorn, and said that he now despised him as heartily for his cowardice as he had formerly hated him for his heresy. He also charged him with violating a nun consecrated to God, and leading other monks into a breach of their vows and into eternal perdition. Emser published a German translation of Luther’s letter and the King’s answer (which was transmitted through Duke George of Saxony), and accompanied it with new vituperations and slanders (1527). All the Romanists regarded this controversy, and the similar correspondence with Duke George, as a great blow to the Reformation.

Luther now resumed his former sarcastic tone; but it was a painful effort, and did not improve the case. He suspected that the answer was written by Erasmus, who had “more skill and sense in his finger than the King with all his wiseacres.” He emphatically denied that he had offered to retract any of his doctrines. “I say, No, no, no, as long as I breathe, no matter how it offend king, emperor, prince, or devil …. In short, my doctrine is the main thing of which I boast, not only against princes and kings, but also against all devils. The other thing, my life and person, I know well enough to be sinful, and nothing to boast of; I am a poor sinner, and let all my enemies be saints or angels. I am both proud and humble as St. Paul (Phi_2:3).”

In December of the same year in which he wrote his first book against King Henry, Luther began his important treatise “On the Secular Power, and how far obedience is due to it.” He defends here the divine right and authority of the secular magistrate, and the duty of passive obedience, on the ground of Mat_5:39 and Rom_13:1, but only in temporal affairs. While he forbade the use of carnal force, he never shrank from telling even his own prince the truth in the plainest manner. He exercised the freedom of speech and of the press to the fullest extent, both in favor of the Reformation and against political revolution. The Reformation elevated the state at the expense of the freedom of the church; while Romanism lowered the dignity of the state to the position of an obedient servant of the hierarchy.

One wrong does not justify another. Yet those Roman-Catholic historians who make capital of this humiliating conduct of the Reformer, against his cause, should remember that Cardinal Pole, whom they magnify as one of the greatest and purest men of that age, in his book on the Unity of the Church, abused King Henry as violently and more keenly, although he was his king and benefactor, and had not given him any personal provocation; while Luther wrote in self-defense only, and was with all his passionate temper a man of kind and generous feelings.

Melanchthon regretted the fierce attack on King Henry; and when the king began to favor the Reformation, he dedicated to him the revised edition of his theological Loci (1535). He was twice called to England, but declined.


71. Erasmus

I. Erasmus: Opera omnia, ed. by Beatus Rhenanus, Basil. 1540-41; 8 vols. fol.; best ed. by Clericus (Le Clerk), Lugd. Bat. 1703-06; 10 tom. in 11 vols. fol. There are several English translations of his Enchiridion, Encomium, Adagia, Colloquia, and smaller tracts. His most important theological works are his editions of the Greek Test. (1516, ’19, ’22, ’27, ’35, exclusive of more than thirty reprints), his Annotations and Paraphrases, his Enchiridion Militis Christiani, his editions of Laur. Valla, Jerome, Augustin, Ambrose, Origen, and other Fathers. His Moriae Encomium, or Panegyric of Folly (composed 1509), was often edited. His letters are very important for the literary history of his age. His most popular book is his Colloquies, which contain the wittiest exposures of the follies and abuses of monkery, fasting, pilgrimages, etc. English transl. by N. Bailey, Lond. 1724; new ed. with notes by Rev. E. Johnson, 1878, 2 vols. After 1514 all his works were published by his friend John Froben in Basel.

Comp. Adalb. Horawitz: Erasmus v. Rotterdam und Martinus Lipsius, Wien, 1882; Erasmiana, several numbers, Wien, 1882-85 (reprinted from the Sitzungsberichte of the Imperial Academy of Vienna; contains extracts from the correspondence of Er., discovered in a Codex at Louvain, and in the Codex Rehdigeranus, 254 of the city library at Breslau, founded by Rehdiger). Horawitz and Hartfelder: Briefwechsel des Beatus Rhenanus, Leipzig, 1886.

II. Biographies of Erasmus by himself and by Beatus Rhenanus, in vol. I. of the ed. of Clericus; by Pierre Bayle, in his “Dictionnaire” (1696); Knight, Cambr. 1726; Jortin, Lond. 1748, 2 vols.; 1808, 3 vols. (chiefly a summary of the letters of Erasmus with critical comments); Burigny, Paris, 1757, 2 vols.; Henke, Halle, 1782, 2 vols.; Hess, Zürich, 1789, 2 vols.; Butler, London, 1825; Ad. Müller, Hamburg, 1828 (Leben des E. v. Rotterdam … Eine gekrönte Preisschrift; comp. the excellent review of Ullmann in the “Studien und Kritiken,” 1829, No. I.); Glasius (prize essay in Dutch), The Hague, 1850; Stichart (Er. v. Rotterd., seine Stellung zur Kirche und zu den Kirchl. Bewegungen seiner Zeit), Leipz. 1870; Durand de Laur (Erasme, précurseur et initiateur de l’esprit moderne), Par. 1873, 2 vols.; R. B. Drummond (Erasmus, his Life and Character), Lond. 1873, 2 vols.; G. Feugère (Er., étude sur sa vie et ses ouvrages), Par. 1874; Pennington, Lond. 1875; Milman (in Savonarola, Erasmus, and other Essays), Lond. 1870; Nisard, Rénaissance et réforme, Paris, 1877. — Also Woker: De Erasmi Rotterodami studiis irenicis. Paderborn, 1872. W. Vischer: Erasmiana. Programm zur Rectoratsfeier der Univers. Basel. Basel, 1876. “Erasmus” in Ersch and Gruber, vol. XXXVI. (by Erhard); in the “Allg. Deutsche Biogr.” VI. 160-180 (by Kämmel); in Herzog,1 IV. 114-121 (by Hagenbach), and in Herzog,2 IV. 278-290 (by R. Stähelin); in the “Encycl. Brit.,” 9th ed., VIII. 512-518. Schlottmann: Erasmus redivivus, Hal. 1883. Comp. Lit. in §72.

The quarrel between King Henry and Luther was the occasion of a far more serious controversy and open breach between Erasmus and the Reformation. This involved a separation of humanism from Protestantism.


The Position of Erasmus

Illustration, Erasmus

From a Portrait by Holbein.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was the king among scholars in the early part of the sixteenth century. He combined native genius, classical and biblical learning, lively imagination, keen wit, and refined taste. He was the most cultivated man of his age, and the admired leader of scholastic Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain, from England to Hungary. The visible unity of the Catholic Church, and the easy interchange of ideas through the medium of one learned language, explain in part his unique position. No man before or since acquired such undisputed sovereignty in the republic of letters. No such sovereignty is possible nowadays when distinguished scholars are far more numerous, and when the Church is divided into hostile camps.

Erasmus shines in the front rank of the humanists and forerunners of the Reformation, on the dividing line between the middle ages and modern times. His great mission was to revive the spirit of classical and Christian antiquity, and to make it a reforming power within the church. He cleared the way for a work of construction which required stronger hands than his. He had no creative and no organizing power. The first period of his life till 1524 was progressive and reformatory; the second, till his death, 1536, was conservative and reactionary.

He did more than any of his contemporaries to prepare the church for the Reformation by the impulse he gave to classical, biblical, and patristic studies, and by his satirical exposures of ecclesiastical abuses and monastic ignorance and bigotry. But he stopped half way, and after a period of, hesitation he openly declared war against Luther, thereby injuring both his own reputation and the progress of the movement among scholars. He was a reformer against reform, and in league with Rome. Thus he lost the respect and confidence of both parties. It would have been better for his fame if he had died in 1516, just after issuing the Greek Testament, a year before the Reformation. To do justice to him, we must look backward. Men of transition, like Staupitz, Reuchlin, and Erasmus, are no less necessary than bold leaders of a new departure. They belong to the class of which John the Baptist is the highest type. Protestants should never forget the immense debt of gratitude which they owe to the first editor of the Greek Testament who enabled Luther and Tyndale to make their translations of the word of life from the original, and to lead men to the very fountain of all that is most valuable and permanent in the Reformation. His edition was hastily prepared, before the art of textual criticism was born; but it anticipated the publication of the ponderous Complutensian Polyglot, and became the basis of the popularly received text. His exegetical opinions still receive and deserve the attention of commentators. To him we owe also the first scholarly editions of the Fathers, especially of Jerome, with whom he was most in sympathy. From these editions the Reformers drew their weapons of patristic controversy with the Romanists, who always appealed to the fathers of the Nicene age rather than to the grandfathers of the apostolic age.

Erasmus was allied to Reuchlin and Ulrich von Hutten, but greater and far more influential than both. All hated monasticism and obscurantism. Reuchlin revived Hebrew, Erasmus Greek learning, so necessary for the cultivation of biblical studies. Reuchlin gave his nephew Melanchthon to Wittenberg, but died a good Catholic. Hutten became a radical ultra-reformer, fell out with Erasmus, who disowned him when he was most in need of a friend, and perished in disgrace. Erasmus survived both, to protest against Protestantism.

And yet he cannot be charged with apostasy or even with inconsistency. He never was a Protestant, and never meant to be one. Division and separation did not enter into his program. From beginning to end he labored for a reformation within the church and within the papacy, not without it. But the new wine burst the old bottles. The reform which he set in motion went beyond him, and left him behind. In some of his opinions, however, he was ahead of his age, and anticipated a more modern stage of Protestantism. He was as much a forerunner of Rationalism as of the Reformation.


Sketch of His Life

Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, Gerard, and Margaret, the daughter of a physician, — their last but not their only child. He was born in Rotterdam, Oct. 27, in the year 1466 or 1467. He received his early education in the cathedral school of Utrecht and in a flourishing classical academy at Deventer, where he began to show his brilliant talents, especially a most tenacious memory. Books were his chief delight. Already in his twelfth year he knew Horace and Terence by heart.

After the death of his mother, he was robbed of his inheritance by his guardians, and put against his will into a convent at Herzogenbusch, which he exchanged afterwards for one at Steyn (Emaus), near Gouda, a few miles from Rotterdam.

He spent five unhappy years in monastic seclusion (1486-1491), and conceived an utter disgust for monkery. Ulrich von Hutten passed through the same experience, with the same negative result; while for Luther monastic life was his free choice, and became the cradle of a new religious life. Erasmus found relief in the study of the classics, which he pursued without a guide, by a secret impulse of nature. We have from this period a number of his compositions in poetry and prose, odes to Christ and the holy Virgin, invectives against despisers of eloquence, and an essay on the contempt of the world, in which he describes the corruptions of the world and the vices of the monks.

He was delivered from his prison life in 1491 by the bishop of Cambray, his parsimonious patron, and ordained to the priesthood in 1492. He continued in the clerical profession, and remained unmarried, but never had a parish.

He now gave himself up entirely to study in the University of Paris and at Orleans. His favorite authors were Cicero, Terence, Plutarch, and Lucian among the classics, Jerome among the fathers, and Laurentius Valla the commentator. He led hereafter an independent literary life without a regular charge, supporting himself by teaching, and then supported by rich friends. In his days of poverty he solicited aid in letters of mingled humility and vanity; when he became famous, he received liberal gifts and pensions from prelates and princes, and left at his death seven thousand ducats. The title of royal counsellor of the King of Spain (Charles V.) brought him an annual income of four hundred guilders after 1516. The smaller pensions were paid irregularly, and sometimes failed in that impecunious age. Authors seldom received copy money or royalty from publishers and printers, but voluntary donations from patrons of learning and persons to whom they dedicated their works. Froben, however, his chief publisher, treated Erasmus very generously. He traveled extensively, like St. Jerome, and made the personal acquaintance of the chief celebrities in church and state.

He paid two important visits to England, first on the invitation of his grateful and generous pupil, Lord Montjoy, between 1498 and 1500, and again in 1510. There he became intimate with the like-minded Sir Thomas More, Dean Colet, Archbishop Warham, Cardinal Wolsey, Bishop Fisher, and was introduced to King Henry VII. and to Prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII. Colet taught him that theology must return from scholasticism to the Scriptures, and from dry dogmas to practical wisdom. For this purpose he devoted more attention to Greek at Oxford, but never attained to the same proficiency in it as in Latin. On his second visit he was appointed Lady Margaret’s professor of divinity, and reader of Greek, in Cambridge. His room in Queen’s College is still shown. The number of his hearers was small, and so was his income. “Still,” he wrote to a friend in London, “I am doing my best to promote sound scholarship.” He had much to say in praise of England, where he received so much kindness, but also in complaint of bad beer and bad wine, and of his robbery at Dover, where he was relieved of all his money in the custom-house, under a law that no one should take more than a small sum out of the realm.

Between his visits to England he spent three years in Italy (1506-1509), and bathed in the fountain of the renaissance. He took the degree of doctor of divinity at Turin, and remained some time in Venice, Padua, Bologna, and Rome. He edited the classics of Greece and Rome, with specimens of translations, and superintended the press of Manutius Aldus at Venice. He entered into the genius of antiquity, and felt at home there. He calls Venice the most magnificent city of the world. But the lovely scenery of Italy, and the majestic grandeur of the Alps, seem to have made no more impression upon his mind than upon that of Luther; at least, he does not speak of it.

After he returned from his last visit to England, he spent his time alternately at Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain (1515-1521). He often visited Basel, and made this ancient city of republican Switzerland, on the boundaries between France and Germany, his permanent home in 1521. There he lived several years as editor and adviser of his friend and publisher, John Froben, who raised his press to the first rank in Europe. Basel was neutral till 1529, when the Reformation was introduced. It suited his position and taste. He liked the climate and the society. The bishop of Basel and the magistrate treated him with the greatest consideration. The university was then in its glory. He was not one of the public teachers, but enjoyed the intercourse of Wyttenbach, Capito, Glarean, Pellican, Amerbach. “I am here,” he wrote to a friend, “as in the most agreeable museum of many and very eminent scholars. Everybody knows Latin and Greek, most of them also Hebrew. The one excels in history, the other in theology; one is well versed in mathematics, another in antiquities, a third in jurisprudence. You know how rarely we meet with such a combination. I at least never found it before. Besides these literary advantages, what candor, hospitality, and harmony prevail here everywhere! You would swear that all had but one heart and one soul.”

The fame of Erasmus brought on an extensive correspondence. His letters and books had the widest circulation. The “Praise of Folly” passed through seven editions in a few months, and through at least twenty-seven editions during his lifetime. Of his “Colloquies,” a bookseller in Paris printed twenty-four thousand copies. His journeys were triumphal processions. Deputations received him in the larger cities with addresses of welcome. He was treated like a prince. Scholars, bishops, cardinals, kings, and popes paid him homage, sent him presents, or gave him pensions. He was offered by the Cardinal of Sion, besides a handsome board, the liberal sum of five hundred ducats annually, if he would live with him in Rome. He was in high favor with Pope Julius II. and Leo X., who patronized liberal learning. The former released him from his monastic vows; the latter invited him to Rome, and would have given him any thing if he had consented to remain. Adrian VI. asked his counsel how to deal with the Lutheran heresy (1523). Clement VII., in reply to a letter, sent him a present of two hundred florins. Paul III. offered him a cardinal’s hat to reward him for his attack on Luther (1536), but he declined it on account of old age.

The humanists were loudest in his praise, and almost worshiped him. Eoban Hesse, the prince of Latin poets of the time, called him a “divine being,” and made a pilgrimage on foot from Erfurt to Holland to see him face to face. Justus Jonas did the same. Zwingli visited him in Basel, and before going to sleep used to read some pages of his writings. To receive a letter from him was a good fortune, and to have a personal interview with him was an event. A man even less vain than Erasmus could not have escaped the bad effect of such hero-worship. But it was partly neutralized by the detractions of his enemies, who were numerous and unsparing. Among these were Stunica and Caranza of Spain, Edward Lee of England, the Prince of Carpi, Cardinal Aleander, the leaders of scholastic divinity of Louvain and Paris, and the whole crowd of ignorant monks.

His later years were disturbed by the death of his dearest and kindest friend, John Froben (1527), to whose memory he paid a most noble tribute in one of his letters; and still more by the progress of the Reformation in his own neighborhood. The optimism of his youth and manhood gave way to a gloomy, discontented pessimism. The Lutheran tragedy, he said, gave him more pain than the stone which tortured him. “It is part of my unhappy fate, that my old age has fallen on these evil times when quarrels and riots prevail everywhere.” “This new gospel,” he writes in another letter, “is producing a new set of men so impudent, hypocritical, and abusive, such liars and sycophants, who agree neither with one another nor with anybody else, so universally offensive and seditious, such madmen and ranters, and in short so utterly distasteful to me that if I knew of any city in which I should be free from them, I would remove there at once.” His last letters are full of such useless lamentations. He had the mortification to see Protestantism triumph in a tumultuous way in Basel, through the labors of Oecolampadius, his former friend and associate. It is pleasant, however, and creditable to him, that his last interview with the reformer was friendly and cordial. The authorities of the city left him undisturbed. But he reluctantly moved to the Roman Catholic city of Freiburg in Baden (1529), wishing that Basel might enjoy every blessing, and never receive a sadder guest than he. He bought a house in Freiburg, lived there six years, and was treated with every demonstration of respect, but did not feel happy, and yielded to the solicitations of the Queen Regent of the Netherlands to return to his native land.

On his way he stopped in Basel in the house of Jerome Froben, August, 1535, and attended to the publication of Origen. It was his last work. He fell sick, and died in his seventieth year, July 12, 1536, of his old enemies, the stone and the gout, to which was added dysentery. He retained his consciousness and genial humor to the last. When his three friends, Amerbach, Froben, and Episcopius, visited him on his death-bed, he reminded them of Job’s three comforters, and playfully asked them about the torn garments, and the ashes that should be sprinkled on their heads. He died without a priest or any ceremonial of the Church (in wretched monastic Latin: “sine crux, sine lux, sine Deus”), but invoking the mercy of Christ. His last words, repeated again and again, were, “O Jesus, have mercy; Lord, deliver me; Lord, make an end; Lord, have mercy upon me!”

In his will, dated Feb. 12, 1536, he left his valuables to Froben, Rhenanus, and other friends, and the rest to the aged and poor and for the education of young men of promise. The funeral was attended by distinguished men of both parties. He lies buried in the Protestant cathedral of Basel, where his memory is cherished.

Erasmus was of small stature, but well formed. He had a delicate constitution, an irritable temperament, fair skin, blonde hair, wrinkled forehead, blue eyes, and pleasant voice. His face had an expression of thoughtfulness and quiet studiousness. In his behavior he combined dignity and grace. “His manners and conversation,” says Beatus Rhenanus, “were polished, affable, and even charming.”

He talked and wrote in Latin, the universal language of scholars in medieval Europe. He handled it as a living language, with ease, elegance, and effect, though not with classical correctness. His style was Ciceronian, but modified by the ecclesiastical vocabulary of Jerome. In his dialogue “Ciceronianus,” or on the best mode of speaking (1528), he ridicules those pedantic semi-pagans, chiefly Italians, who worshiped and aped Cicero, and avoided Christian themes, or borrowed names and titles from heathen mythology. He had, however, the greatest respect for Cicero, and hoped that “he is now living peacefully in heaven.” He learned neither German nor English nor Italian, and had only an imperfect knowledge of French, and even of his native Dutch.

He had a nervous sensibility. The least draught made him feverish. He could not bear the iron stoves of Germany, and required an open fireplace. He could drink no wine but Burgundy. He abhorred intemperance. He could not eat fish on fast days; the mere smell of it made him sick: his heart, he said, was Catholic, but his stomach Lutheran. He never used spectacles either by day or by candle-light, and many wondered that study had not blinded his eyes. He walked firm and erect without a cane. His favorite exercise was horseback-riding. He usually traveled on horseback with an attendant, and carried his necessaries, including a shirt, a linen nightcap, and a prayer-book, in a knapsack tied to the saddle. He shrank from the mere mention of death, and frankly confessed that he was not born to be a martyr, but would in the hour of trial be tempted to follow St. Peter. He was fond of children, and charitable to the poor.


His Theological Opinions

Erasmus was, like most of the German and English humanists, a sincere and enlightened believer in Christianity, and differed in this respect from the frivolous and infidel humanists of France and Italy. When charged by Prince Albertus Pius of Carpi, who was in high favor at the papal court, with turning sacred things into ridicule, he answered, “You will much more readily find scoffers at sacred things in Italy among men of your own rank, ay, and in your much-lauded Rome, than with us. I could not endure to sit down at table with such men.” He devoted his brilliant genius and classical lore to the service of religion. He revered the Bible as a divine revelation, and zealously promoted its study. He anticipated Luther in the supreme estimate of the word of God as the true source of theology and piety. Oecolampadius confessed that he learned from Erasmus “nihil in sacris scripturis praeter Christum quaerendum.”

He had a sharp eye to the abuses of the Church, and endeavored to reform them in a peaceful way. He wished to lead theology back from the unfruitful speculations and frivolous subtleties of scholasticism to Scriptural simplicity, and to promote an inward, spiritual piety. He keenly ridiculed the foolish and frivolous discussions of the schoolmen about formalities and quiddities, and such questions as whether God could have assumed the form of a woman, or an ass, or a cucumber, or a flint-stone; whether the Virgin Mary was learned in the languages; and whether we would eat and drink after the resurrection. He exposed the vices and follies, the ignorance and superstition, of the monks and clergy. He did not spare even the papacy. “I have no desire,” he wrote in 1523, “that the primacy of the Roman See should be abolished, but I could wish that its discipline were such as to favor every effort to promote the religion of the gospel; for several ages past it has by its example openly taught things that are plainly averse to the doctrines of Christ.”

At the same time he lacked a deeper insight into the doctrines of sin and grace, and failed to find a positive remedy for the evils he complained of. In using the dangerous power of ridicule and satire which he shared with Lucian, he sometimes came near the line of profanity. Moreover, he had a decidedly skeptical vein, and in the present century he would probably be a moderate Rationalist.

With his critical faculty he saw the difficulties and differences in the human surroundings and circumstances of the Divine Scriptures. He omitted in his Greek Testament the forgery of the three witnesses, 1Jo_5:7, and only inserted it under protest in the third edition (1522), because he had rashly promised to do so if a single Greek MS. could be found to contain it. He doubted the genuineness of the pericope of the adulteress (Joh_8:1-11), though he retained it in the text. He disputed the orthodox punctuation of Rom_9:5. He rejected the Pauline origin of Hebrews, and questioned the Johannean authorship of the Apocalypse. He judged Mark to be an abridgment of Matthew. He admitted lapses of memory and errors of judgment in the Apostles. He denied any other punishment in hell except “the perpetual anguish of mind which accompanies habitual sin.” As to the Lord’s Supper, he said, when asked his opinion by the magistrate of Basel about the book of Oecolampadius and his figurative interpretation, that it was learned, eloquent, well written, and pious, but contrary to the general belief of the church from which it was dangerous to depart. There is good reason to believe that he doubted transubstantiation. He was also suspected of leaning to Arianism, because he summed up the reaching of Scripture on the Trinity in this sentence: “The Father is very frequently called God, the Son sometimes, the Holy Spirit never;” and he adds: “Many of the fathers who worshiped the Son with the greatest piety, yet scrupled to use the word homoousion, which is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture.” He moderated the doctrine of hereditary sin, and defended human freedom in his notes on Romans. He emphasized the moral, and depreciated the doctrinal, element in Christianity. He deemed the Apostles’ Creed sufficient, and was willing to allow within this limit freedom for theological opinions. “Reduce the number of dogmas,” he advised Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, “to a minimum; you can do it without injury to Christianity; on other points, leave every one free to believe what he pleases; then religion will take hold on life, and you can correct the abuses of which the world justly complains.”

He had a high opinion of the morality and piety of the nobler heathen, such as Socrates, Cicero, and Plutarch. “The Scriptures,” he says in his Colloquies, “deserve, indeed, the highest authority; but I find also in the writings of the ancient heathen and in the poets so much that is pure, holy and divine, that I must believe that their hearts were divinely moved. The spirit of Christ is perhaps more widely diffused than we imagine, and many will appear among the saints who are not in our catalogue.” Then, after quoting from Cicero and Socrates, he says, “I can often hardly restrain myself from exclaiming, ‘Holy Socrates, pray for us.’ “

The same liberal sentiments we find among the early Greek fathers (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen), and in Zwingli.

Bigoted Catholics hated and feared him, as much as the liberal admired and lauded him. “He laid the egg,” they said, “which Luther hatched.” They perverted his name into Errasmus because of his errors, Arasmus because he ploughed up old truths and traditions, Erasinus because he had made himself an ass by his writings. They even called him Behemoth and Antichrist. The Sorbonne condemned thirty-seven articles extracted from his writings in 1527. His books were burned in Spain, and long after his death placed on the Index in Rome.

In his last word to his popish enemies who identified him with Luther to ruin both together, he writes: “For the future I despise them, and I wish I had always done so; for it is no pleasure to drown the croaking of frogs. Let them say, with their stout defiance of divine and human laws, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ That was well said by the Apostles, and even on their lips it is not without a certain propriety; only it is not the same God in the two cases. The God of the Apostles was the Maker of heaven and earth: their God is their belly. Fare ye well.”


His Works

The literary labors of Erasmus may be divided into three classes: — 

I. Works edited. Their number proves his marvellous industry and enterprise.

He published the ancient Latin classics, Cicero, Terence, Seneca, Livy, Pliny; and the Greek classics with Latin translations, Euripides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Lucian.

He edited the principal church fathers (some for the first time from MSS.); namely, Jerome (1516-1518; ed. ii., 1526; ed. iii., a year after his death), Cyprian (1520), Athanasius (in a Latin version, 1522), Hilarius (1523), Irenaeus (Latin, 1526, ed. princeps, very defective), Ambrose (1527), Augustin (1529), Epiphanius (1529), Chrysostom on Matthew (1530), Basil (in Greek, 1532; he called him the “Christian Demosthenes”), Origen (in Latin, 1536). He wrote the prefaces and dedications.

He published the Annotations of Laurentius Valla on the New Testament (1505 and 1526), a copy of which he had found by chance on the shelves of an old library.

The most important of his edited works is the Greek New Testament, with a Latin translation.

II. Original works on general literature.

His “Adages” (Adagia), begun at Oxford, dedicated to Lord Mountjoy, first published in Paris in 1500, and much enlarged in subsequent editions, is an anthology of forty-one hundred and fifty-one Greek and Latin proverbs, similitudes, and sentences, — a sort of dictionary and commonplace-book, brimful of learning, illustrations, anecdotes, historical and biographical sketches, attacks on monks, priests, and kings, and about ten thousand quotations from Greek poets, literally translated into the Latin in the metre of the original.

“The Praise of Folly” (Encomium Moriae) was written on a journey from Italy to England, and finished in the house of his congenial friend, Sir Thomas More (whose name in Greek means “Fool”), as a jeu d’esprit, in the manner of his favorite Lucian. It introduces Folly personified as a goddess, in ironical praise of the merits, and indirect ridicule of the perversities, of different classes of society. It abounds in irony, wit, and humor, in keen observations of men and things, and contains his philosophy of life. The wise man is the most miserable of men, as is proved by the case of Socrates, who only succeeded in making himself ridiculous; while the fool is the happiest man, has no fear of death or hell, no tortures of conscience, tells always the truth, and is indispensable to the greatest of monarchs, who cannot even dine without him. In conclusion Erasmus, rather irreverently, quotes Scripture proofs in praise of folly. Pope Leo X. read and enjoyed the book from beginning to end. Holbein illustrated it with humorous pictures, which are still preserved in Basel.

In his equally popular “Colloquies” (Colloquia Familiaria), begun in 1519, and enlarged in numerous editions, Erasmus aims to make better scholars and better men, as he says in his dedication to John Erasmius Froben (the son of his friend and publisher). He gives instruction for Latin conversation, describes the good and bad manners of the times, and ventilates his views on a variety of interesting topics, such as courtesy in saluting, rash vows a soldier’s life, scholastic studies, the profane feast, a lover and maiden, the virgin opposed to matrimony, the penitent virgin, the uneasy wife, the shipwreck, rich beggars, the alchemist, etc. The “Colloquies” are, next to the “Praise of Folly,” his most characteristic work, and, like it, abound in delicate humor, keen irony, biting satire. He pays a glowing tribute to Cicero, and calls him “sanctum illud pectus afflatum coelesti numine;” and in the same conversation occurs the famous passage already referred to, “Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis.” He shows his sympathy with the cause of Reuchlin in the dialogue Apotheosis Reuchlini Capnionis, by describing a vision in which the persecuted Hebrew scholar (who died June 22, 1522) was welcomed in heaven by St. Jerome, and, without leave of the Pope, enrolled in the number of saints. But during Reuchlin’s life he had kept neutral in the Dominican quarrel about Reuchlin’s orthodoxy. He is very severe on “the coarse, over-fed monks,” and indulges too freely in insinuations which offend modern taste. He attacks war, which he hated even more than monkery; and in his description of a reckless, extravagant, debauched, sick, poor and wretched soldier, he took unchristian revenge of Ulrich von Hutten after his miserable death. In the dialogue, “Unequal Marriage,” he paints him in the darkest colors as an abandoned roué. He gives an amusing description of a German inn, which makes one thankful for the progress of modern civilization. The bedrooms, he says, are rightly so called; for they contain nothing but a bed; and the cleanliness is on a par with the rest of the establishment and the adjoining stable. The “Ichthyophagia” is a dialogue between a butcher and a fishmonger, and exposes the Pharisaical tendency to strain out a gnat and to swallow a camel, and to lay heavy burdens on others. “Would they might eat nothing but garlic who imposed these fish-days upon us!” “Would they might starve to death who force the necessity of fasting upon free men!” The form of the dialogue furnished the author a door of escape from the charge of heresy, for he could not be held responsible for the sentiments of fictitious characters; moreover, he said, his object was to teach Latin, not theology. Nevertheless, the Sorbonne condemned the “Colloquies,” and the Inquisition placed them in the first class of prohibited books.

The numerous letters of Erasmus and to Erasmus throw much light upon contemporaneous literary and ecclesiastical history, and make us best acquainted with his personality. He corresponded with kings and princes, popes and cardinals, as well as with scholars in all parts of Europe. He tells us that he wrote sometimes forty letters in a day.

III. Theological works. The edition of the Greek Testament, with a new Latin version and brief annotations, and the independent paraphrases, are the most important contributions of Erasmus to exegesis, and have appeared in very many editions. The paraphrastic form of commenting, which briefly explains the difficulties, and links text and notes in continuous composition, so as to make the writer his own interpreter, was a great benefit to the incipient scholarship of his day, and facilitated a more general spread of the New Testament, which he eloquently defended. He did not penetrate into the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, but he made the surface more intelligible by the moonlight of philology and refined culture. His Paraphrases cover the whole New Testament, except the Apocalypse, and fill the seventh volume of Le Clerk’s edition of his works. A translation was published in two volumes folio, in black-letter, at London, 1551, and appointed, by public authority, to be placed in all the parish churches of England.

His “Method of True Theology” (Ratio verae Theologiae) was prefixed to his first edition of the Greek Testament, and afterwards expanded and separately published, and dedicated to Cardinal-Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz (1519), in a preface full of complaints over the evil times of violent controversy, which, in his judgment, destroyed charity and the peaceful cultivation of learning and practical piety. He maintains that the first requisite for the study of the Scriptures is a knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Nor are poetry and good letters to be neglected. Christ clothes his teaching in poetic parables; and Paul quotes from the poets, but not from Aristotle.

The Enchiridion Militis Christiani, first published at Louvain, 1501 (or 1503), and translated into several languages, is a treatise on practical piety in its conflict with the Devil and unruly passions. The author borrows his weapons from the Scriptures, the fathers, and the Greek and Roman philosophers, and shows that the end of all human effort is Christ, and that the way to Christ is faith abounding in good works. In a later edition he added a defense, with a sharp attack on the scholastic theology contrasted with the plain, practical teaching of Christ and the apostles. The book was condemned by the Sorbonne as heretical.

In the tract on the Confessional (1524), he enumerates the advantages and the perils of that institution which may be perverted into a means of propagating vice by suggesting it to young and inexperienced penitents. He leaves, on the whole, the impression that the confessional does more harm than good.

In the book on the Tongue (1525), he eloquently describes, and illustrates with many anecdotes, its use and abuse. After its publication he wrote to his friends, “Erasmus will henceforth be mute, having parted with his tongue.”

But a year after appeared his book on the Institution of Christian Matrimony (1526), dedicated to Queen Catherine of England. It contains the views of an unmarried man on the choice of a mate, the duties of parents, and the education of children. He justly blames Tertullian and Jerome (he might have included all the fathers) for their extravagant laudation of celibacy, and suggests doubts on the sacramental character of marriage.

One of his last works was a Catechism on the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer, which he dedicated to the father of the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. For the same nobleman he wrote a short devotional work on preparation for death.