Vol.7, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Erasmus and the Reformation


I. Erasmus: De Libero Arbitrio diatribe (1524), in Opera ed. Lugd. IX. Pars I. 1215 sqq., in Walch, XVIII. Hyperaspistae diatribes libri duo contra Servum Arbitr. M. Lutheri, in 2 parts (1526 and 1527), in Opera IX. Pars II. 1249 sqq., and in Walch, XVIII.

Luther: De Servo Arbitrio ad Erasmum Roterodamun, Wittenbergae, 1525. On the last p. of the first ed. before me is the date “Mense Decembri, Anno MDXXV.” German in Walch, XVIII. Erl. ed. Opera Lat. VII. 113 sqq. Letters of Luther to Erasmus and about Erasmus in Walch, XVIII., and in De Wette, I. pp. 39, 52, 87, 247; II. 49; III. 427; IV, 497.

II. Chlebus: Erasmus und Luther, in “Zeitschr. f. Hist. Theol.,” 1845. Döllinger in his Die Reformation, 1846, vol. i. pp. 1-20. Kerker: Er. u. sein Theol. Standpunkt, in the “Theol. Quartalschrift,” 1859. D. F. Strauss: Ulrich von Hutten, 4th ed. Bonn, 1878, pp. 448-484, 511-514, and passim. Plitt: Erasmus in s. Stellung zur Reformation, Leipz., in the “Zeitschrift f. Hist. Theol.,” 1866, No. III. Rud. Stähelin: Eras. Stellung z. Reformation, Basel, 1873 (35 pp.; comp. his art. In Herzog2, quoted in §71). Froude: Times of Erasmus and Luther. Three Lect., delivered at Newcastle, 1867 (in the first series of his “Short Studies on Great Subjects,” New York ed., 1873, pp. 37-127), brilliant but inaccurate, and silent on the free-will controversy. Drummond: Erasmus, etc., 1873, vol. II. chs. xiii.-xv. E. Walter: Erasmus und Melanchthon, Bernburg, 1879. A. Gilly: Erasme de Rotterd., sa situation en face de l’église et de la libre pensée, Arras, 1879. Comp. also Kattenbusch: Luther’s Lehre vom unfreien Willen, Göttingen, 1875, and Köstlin: Luther’s Theologie, vol. II. 32-55.

Erasmus was eighteen years older than Luther, and stood at the height of his fame when the reformer began his work. He differed from him as Jerome differed from Augustin, or Eusebius from Athanasius. Erasmus was essentially a scholar, Luther a reformer; the one was absorbed in literature, the other in religion. Erasmus aimed at illumination, Luther at reconstruction; the former reached the intellect of the educated, the latter touched the heart of the people. Erasmus labored for freedom of thought, Luther for freedom of conscience. Both had been monks, Erasmus against his will, Luther by free choice and from pious motives; and both hated and opposed monkery, but the former for its ignorance and bigotry, the latter for its self-righteousness and obstruction of the true way to justification and peace. Erasmus followed maxims of worldly wisdom; Luther, sacred principles and convictions. The one was willing, as he confessed, to sacrifice “a part of the truth for the peace of the church,” and his personal comfort; the other was ready to die for the gospel at any moment. Erasmus was a trimmer and timeserver, Luther every inch a moral hero.

Luther wrote upon his tablet (1536), “Res et verba Philippus; verba sine re Erasmus; res sine verbis Lutherus; nec res nec verba Carolostadius.” But Luther himself was the master of words and matter, and his words were deeds. Melanchthon was an improved Erasmus on the side of evangelical truth.

It is easy to see how far two men so differently constituted could go together, and where and when they had to part. So long as the Reformation moved within the church, Erasmus sympathized with it. But when Luther, who had at first as little notion of leaving the Catholic Church, burnt the Pope’s bull and the decretals, and with them the bridge behind him, Erasmus shrank back, and feared that the remedy was worse than the evil. His very breadth of culture and irresolution became his weakness; while Luther’s narrowness and determination were his strength. In times of war, neutrality is impossible, and we must join one of the two contending armies. Erasmus was for unity and peace, and dreaded a split of the church as the greatest calamity; and yet he never ceased to rebuke the abuses. It was his misfortune, rather than his fault, that he could not side with the Reformation. We must believe his assertion that his conscience kept him from the cause of the Lutherans. At the same time he was concerned for his personal comfort and literary supremacy, and anxious to retain the friendship of his hierarchical and royal patrons. He wished to be a spectator, but not an actor in “the Lutheran tragedy.”

Erasmus hailed the young Melanchthon with enthusiastic praise of his precocious genius and learning, and continued to respect him even after his breach with Luther. He stood in friendly correspondence with Zwingli, who revered him as the prince of humanists. He employed Oecolampadius as his assistant, and spoke highly, though evasively, of his book on the eucharist. He was not displeased with Luther’s attacks on indulgences and monasticism, and wrote to Zwingli that he had taught nearly every thing that Luther teaches, but without his coarseness and paradoxes. In a letter of reply, dated Louvain, May 30, 1519, he courteously but cautiously and condescendingly accepted Luther’s compliments and friendship, but advised him to moderate his tone, and to imitate Paul, who abolished the law by allegorical interpretation; at the same time he frankly admitted that he had not read his books, except portions of the commentary on the Psalms, and that he considered it his duty to keep neutral, in order to do the more for the revival of letters. In conclusion he expressed the wish: “May the Lord Jesus grant you daily more of his Spirit for his glory and the general good.”

So far, then, he objected not so much to the matter as to the manner of Luther, whose plebeian violence and roughness offended his cultured taste. But there was a deeper difference. He could not appreciate his cardinal doctrine of justification by faith alone, and took offence at the denial of free-will and human merit. He held the Catholic views on these subjects. He wished a reform of the discipline, but not of the faith, of the church, and cared little for dogmatic controversies.

His gradual alienation may be seen in the following extracts from his letters.

To Albrecht, Cardinal-Archbishop of Mainz, he wrote from Louvain, Nov. 1, 1519: — 

“Permit me to say that I have never had any thing to do either with the affair of Reuchlin or with the cause of Luther. I have never taken any interest in the Cabbala or the Talmud. Those virulent contentions between Reuchlin and the party of Hochstraten have been extremely distasteful to me. Luther is a perfect stranger to me, and I have never had time to read his books beyond merely glancing over a few pages. If he has written well, no praise is due to me; if not, it would be unjust to hold me responsible …. Luther had written to me in a very Christian tone, as I thought; and I replied, advising him incidentally not to write any thing against the Roman Pontiff, nor to encourage a proud or intolerant spirit, but to preach the gospel out of a pure heart …. I am neither Luther’s accuser, nor advocate, nor judge; his heart I would not presume to judge — for that is always a matter of extreme difficulty — still less would I condemn. And yet if I were to defend him, as a good man, which even his enemies admit him to be; as one put upon his trial, a duty which the laws permit even to sworn judges; as one persecuted — which would be only in accordance with the dictates of humanity — and trampled on by the bounden enemies of learning, who merely use him as a handle for the accomplishment of their designs, where would be the blame, so long as I abstained from mixing myself up with his cause? In short, I think it is my duty as a Christian to support Luther in this sense, that, if he is innocent, I should not wish him to be crushed by a set of malignant villains; if he is in error, I would rather see him put right than destroyed: for thus I should be acting in accordance with the example of Christ, who, as the prophet witnesseth, quencheth not the smoking flax, nor breaketh the bruised reed.”

To Pope Leo X., from Louvain, Sept. 13, 1520 (three months after the excommunication of Luther, June 15):

“I have no acquaintance with Luther, nor have I ever read his books, except perhaps ten or twelve pages, and that only by snatches. From what I then saw, I judged him to be well qualified for expounding the Scriptures in the manner of the Fathers, — a work greatly needed in an age like this, which is so excessively given to mere subtleties, to the neglect of really important questions. Accordingly, I have favored his good, but not his bad, qualities, or rather I have favored Christ’s glory in him. I was among the first to foresee the danger there was of this matter ending in violence, and no one ever hated violence more than I do. Indeed, I even went so far as to threaten John Froben the printer, to prevent him publishing his books. I wrote frequently and industriously to my friends, begging that they would admonish this man to observe Christian meekness in his writings, and do nothing to disturb the peace of the church. And when he himself wrote to me two years ago, I lovingly admonished him what I wished him to avoid; and I would he had followed my advice. This letter, I am informed, has been shown to your Holiness, I suppose in order to prejudice me, whereas it ought rather to conciliate your Holiness’s favor towards me.”

On Dec. 5, 1520, five days before the burning of the Pope’s bull, Erasmus, being asked for his opinion about Luther by the Elector Frederick of Saxony, whom he happened to meet at Cologne, hesitated a while, and looked blank; but being pressed by the Elector, who stood square before him and stared him in the face, he gave the well-known answer, — 

“Luther has committed two sins, — he has touched the Pope on the crown, and the monks on the belly.”

The Elector smiled, and remembered the expression shortly before his death. Returned to his lodgings, Erasmus wrote down some axioms rather favorable to Luther and disapproving of the “Pope’s unmerciful bull,” and sent them to Spalatin, but concealed the manuscript from fear that Aleander might see it; but it had been already published.

From a letter to a friend in Basel (Louis Berus), dated Louvain, May 14, 1521: — 

“By the bitterness of the Lutherans, and the stupidity of some who show more zeal than wisdom in their endeavors to heal the present disorders, things have been brought to such a pass, that I, for one, can see no issue but in the turning upside down of the whole world. What evil spirit can have sown this poisonous seed in human affairs? When I was at Cologne, I made every effort that Luther might have the glory of obedience and the Pope of clemency, and some of the sovereigns approved of this advice. But, lo and behold! the burning of the Decretals, the ‘Babylonish Captivity,’ those propositions of Luther, so much stronger than they need be, have made the evil, it seems, incurable …. The only thing that remains to us, my dear Berus, is to pray that Christ, supreme in goodness and in power, may turn all to good; for he alone can do so.”

In the same month, during the sessions of the Diet of Worms, he wrote to Nicholas Everard, from Mechlin, 1521:

“If Luther had written more moderately, even though he had written freely, he would both have been more honored himself, and done more good to the world; but fate has decreed otherwise. I only wonder that the man is still alive …. They say that an edict is in readiness far more severe than the Pope’s bull; but from fear, or some other reason, it has not yet been published. I am surprised that the Pope should employ such agents, some of them illiterate men, and all of them headstrong and haughty, for the transaction of such affairs. Nothing can exceed the pride or violent temper of Cardinal Cajetan, of Charles Miltitz, of Marinus, of Aleander. They all act upon the principle of the young king who said, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.’ As to Aleander, he is a complete maniac, — a bad, foolish man.”

After the Diet of Worms, several events occurred which seemed to confirm his worst fears about the effects of the Reformation, and imbittered him against its leaders; namely, the disturbances of Carlstadt at Wittenberg (1521), Luther’s invective against Henry VIII. (1522), and the fierce attack of his former friend and admirer Ulrich von Hutten (1523).

Nevertheless, he advised Pope Adrian VI. to avoid all harsh measures, to deal gently with errors, to pardon past misdoings, to reform abuses, and to call a general council of moderate men. The counsel was disregarded.

Glareanus (Loriti) of Basel described Erasmus very well, when he wrote to Zwingli, Jan. 20, 1523, “Erasmus is an old man, and desires rest. Each party would like to claim him, but he does not want to belong to any party. Neither party is able to draw him. He knows whom to avoid, but not whom to attach himself to.” Glareanus added, however, that Erasmus confessed Christ in his writings, and that he never heard any unchristian word from his lips.


73. The Free-will Controversy. 1524-1527

See Literature in §73.

After halting some time between approval and disapproval, Erasmus found it impossible to keep aloof from the irrepressible conflict. Provoked by Hutten, and urged by King Henry and English friends, he declared open war against Luther, and broke with the Reformation. He did so with great reluctance; for he felt that he could not satisfy either party, and that he was out of his element in a strictly theological dispute. He chose for his attack Luther’s doctrine of total depravity.

Here lay the chief dogmatic difference between the two. Erasmus was an admirer of Socrates, Cicero, and Jerome; while Luther was a humble pupil of St. Paul and Augustin. Erasmus lacked that profound religious experience through which Luther had passed in the convent, and sympathized with the anthropology of the Greek fathers and the semi-Pelagian school.

In September, 1524, Erasmus appeared on the field with his work on the “Freedom of the Will.” It is a defence of freedom as an indispensable condition of moral responsibility, without which there can be no meaning in precept, repentance, and reward. He maintains essentially the old semi-Pelagian theory, but in the mildest form, and more negatively than positively; for he wished to avoid the charge of heresy. He gives the maximum of glory to God, and a minimum to man. “I approve,” he says, “of those who ascribe something to free-will, but rely most upon grace.” We must exert our will to the utmost, but the will is ineffective without the grace of God. He urged against Luther Christ’s call upon Jerusalem to repent (Mat_23:37), and the will of God that no one should perish, but that all should be saved (Eze_33:11; 1Ti_2:4; 2Pe_3:9). He treated him with respect, but charged him with attempting to drive out one extreme by another.

Luther appreciated the merits of Erasmus, and frankly acknowledged his literary superiority. But he knew his weakness, and expressed, as early as 1516, the fear that he understood too little of the grace of God. He found in his writings more refutation of error than demonstration of truth, more love of peace than love of the cross. He hated his way of insinuating doubts. On June 20, 1523, he wrote to Oecolampadius: “May the Lord strengthen you in your proposed explanation of Isaiah [in the University of Basel], although Erasmus, as I understand, does not like it …. He has done what he was ordained to do: he has introduced the ancient languages, in the place of injurious scholastic studies. He will probably die like Moses in the land of Moab. He does not lead to better studies which teach piety. I would rather he would entirely abstain from explaining and paraphrasing the Scriptures, for he is not up to this work …. He has done enough to uncover the evil; but to reveal the good and to lead into the land of promise, is not his business, in my opinion.” In a letter to Erasmus, dated April, 1524, a few months before the open breach, he proposed to him that they should let each other alone, and apologized for his subserviency to the papists, and his want of courage, in a manner which could not but wound the sensitive scholar.


Luther on the Slavery of the Human Will

He waited a whole year before he published his reply on the “Slavery of the Will” (December, 1525). It is one of his most vigorous and profound books, full of grand ideas and shocking exaggerations, that border on Manichaeism and fatalism. He thanked Erasmus for going to the root of the controversy instead of troubling him “about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and other fooleries.” He inseparably connects divine foreknowledge and foreordination, and infers from God’s almighty power that all things happen by necessity, and that there can be no freedom in the creature. He represents the human will as a horse or a donkey which goes just as the rider directs it; and that rider is the Devil in the state of fallen nature, and God in the state of grace. The will has no choice of master; it is God and the Devil who are fighting for its possession. The Scripture exhortations to repentance and holy living must not be understood seriously, but ironically, as if God would say to man: Only try to repent and to do good, and you will soon find out that you cannot do it. He deals with man as a mother with the child: she invites the child to walk, in order that he may stretch out the arm for help. God speaks in this fashion solely to convict us of our helplessness, if we do not implore his assistance. Satan said, “Thou art free to act.” Moses said, “Act,” in order to convict us, before Satan, of our inability to act.

In the same book Luther makes a distinction between the Word of God and God himself, or between the revealed will of God, which offers salvation to all, and the concealed or hidden will, which means to save only some, and to leave the rest to deserved perdition. In this way he escapes the force of such passages as Eze_18:23; Eze_33:11; 1Ti_2:4, urged by Erasmus, that God does not wish the death but the salvation of the sinner (namely, according to his revealed will only). But this distinction puts a contradiction in God, which is impossible and intolerable.

If we except the peculiar way of statement and illustration, Luther’s view is substantially that of St. Augustin, whom Erasmus, with all due reverence for the great man, represents as teaching, “God works in us good and evil, and crowns his good works in us, and punishes his bad works in us.” The positive part is unobjectionable: God is the author and rewarder of all that is good; but the negative part is the great stumbling-block. How can God in justice command us to walk when we are lame, and punish us for not walking? The theory presupposes, of course, the apostasy and condemnation of the whole human race, on the ground of its unconscious or impersonal pre-existence and participation in the sin and guilt of Adam.

All the Reformers were originally Augustinians, that is, believers in the total depravity of man’s nature, and the absolute sovereignty of God’s grace. They had, like St. Paul and St. Augustin, passed through a terrible conflict with sin, and learned to feel in their hearts, what ordinary Christians profess with their lips, that they were justly condemned, and saved only by the merits of Christ. They were men of intense experience and conviction of their own sinfulness and of God’s mercifulness; and if they saw others perish in unbelief, it was not because they were worse, but because of the inscrutable will of God, who gives to some, and withholds from others, the gift of saving faith. Those champions of freedom taught the slavery of the will in all things pertaining to spiritual righteousness. They drew their moral strength from grace alone. They feared God, and nothing else. Their very fear of God made them fearless of men. The same may be said of the French Huguenots and the English Puritans. Luther stated this theory in stronger terms than Augustin or even Calvin; and he never retracted it, — as is often asserted, — but even twelve years later he pronounced his book against Erasmus one of his very best. Melanchthon, no doubt in part under the influence of this controversy, abandoned his early predestinarianism as a Stoic error (1535), and adopted the synergistic theory. Luther allowed this change without adopting it himself, and abstained from further discussion of these mysteries. The Formula of Concord re-asserted in the strongest terms Luther’s doctrine of the slavery of the human will, but weakened his doctrine of predestination, and assumed a middle ground between Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism or synergism. In like manner the Roman Catholic Church, while retaining the greatest reverence for St. Augustin and indorsing his anthropology, never sanctioned his views on total depravity and unconditional predestination, but condemned them, indirectly, in the Jansenists.


Final Alienation

The Erasmus-Luther controversy led to some further personalities in which both parties forgot what they owed to their cause and their own dignity. Erasmus wrote a bitter retort, entitled “Hyperaspistes,” and drove Luther’s predestinarian views to fatalistic and immoral consequences. He also addressed a letter of complaint to Elector John. The outrages of the Peasants’ War confirmed him in his apprehensions. He was alienated from Melanchthon and Justus Jonas. He gave up correspondence with Zwingli, and rather rejoiced in his death. He spoke of the Reformation as a tragedy, or rather a comedy which always ended in a marriage. He regarded it as a public calamity which brought ruin to arts and letters, and anarchy to the Church.

He was summoned to the Diet of Augsburg, 1530, as a counsellor of the Emperor, but declined because he was sick and conscious of his inability to please either party. He wrote, however, to Cardinal Campeggio, to the bishop of Augsburg, and other friends, to protest against settling questions of doctrine by the sword. His remedy for the evils of the Church was mutual forbearance and the correction of abuses. But his voice was not heeded; the time for compromises and half measures had passed, and the controversy took its course. He devoted his later years chiefly to the editing of new editions of his Greek Testament, and the writings of the church fathers.

Luther abandoned Erasmus, and abused him as the vainest creature in the world, as an enraged viper, a refined Epicurean, a modern Lucian, a scoffer, a disguised atheist, and enemy of all religion. We gladly return from this gross injustice to his earlier estimate, expressed in his letter to Erasmus as late as April, 1524: “The whole world must bear witness to your successful cultivation of that literature by which we arrive at a true understanding of the Scriptures; and this gift of God has been magnificently and wonderfully displayed in you, calling for our thanks.”


74. Wilibald Pirkheimer

Bilibaldi Pirkheimeri Opera politica, historica, philologica, et epistolica, ed. by M. Goldast, Francf., 1610, fol. With a portrait by A. Dürer. His Encomium Podagrae was translated into English by W. Est, The Praise of the Gout, or the Gout’s Apology, a paradox both pleasant and profitable. Lond., 1617.

Lampe: Zum Andenken W. P.’s. Nürnberg, 1828. Karl Hagen: Deutschlands literarische und relig. Verhältnisse im Ref. Zeitalter. Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Wilibald Pirkheimer. Erlangen, vol. I., 1841, pp. 188 sqq., 261 sqq., 2d ed. 1868. Döllinger: Reformation, vol. I., 161-174. D. F. Strauss: Ulrich von Hutten, 4th ed., Bonn, 1878, pp. 118 sq.; 227-235; 514-518. Lochner: Lebensläufe berühmter und verdienter Nürnberger, Nürnb., 1861. Rud. Hagen: W. P. in seinem Verhältniss zum Humanismus und zur Reformation, Nürnberg, 1882. Lic. P. Drews: Wilibald Pirkheimer’s Stellung zur Reformation, Leipz., 1887 (138 pp.).

About this time, and after the Peasants’ War, the most eminent humanists withdrew from the Reformation, and followed Erasmus into the sheepfold of the mother church, disgusted with the new religion, but without being fully reconciled to the old, and dying at last of a broken heart. In this respect, the apprehension of Erasmus was well founded; the progress of the Reformation arrested and injured the progress of liberal learning, although not permanently. Theology triumphed over classical culture, and fierce dogmatic feuds took the place of satirical exposures of ignorant monks. But the literary loss was compensated by a religious gain. In the judgment of Luther, truth proved mightier than eloquence, faith stronger than learning, and the foolishness of God wiser than the wisdom of men.

Among the pupils, friends and admirers of Erasmus, who were first attracted and then repelled by the Reformation, are Wilibald Pirkheimer, Crotus Rubeanus, Mutianus Rufus, Ulrich Zasius, Vitus Amerpach, Georg Wizel, Jacob Strauss, Johann Wildenauer (Egranus), Johann Haner, Heinrich Loriti Glareanus, and Theobald Billicanus.

Wilibald Pirkheimer (1470-1530), the most distinguished and influential of them, was descended from an ancient, rich, and noble family of Nürnberg, and received a liberal military and diplomatic education. He spent seven years in Italy (1490-1497), and became a leader in the Renaissance. He occupied also a high social position as senator of Nürnberg and imperial counsellor. He was honored by important diplomatic missions, and fulfilled them with great ability. He was not an original genius, but the most learned and most eloquent layman in Germany. He mastered philology, jurisprudence, geography, astronomy, music, painting, botany, and all the discoveries and sciences of the time. He collected a rare library of books and manuscripts and a cabinet of coins, and gave free access to visitors. He translated writings of Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch, Euclid, Ptolemy, Lucian, Gregory Nazianzen, and Nilus, into Latin. He was called “the Nürnberg Xenophon,” for his account of the rather inglorious Swiss campaign (1499) in which he took part as an officer. He carried on an extensive correspondence with the leading humanists, especially Reuchlin, Ulrich von Hutten, and Erasmus, and also with the Reformers, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Luther. He was the Maecenas of Germany, and a gentleman of striking and commanding presence, social culture, charming manners, and princely liberality. He constantly entertained distinguished strangers at his hospitable board. Nürnberg was then the first German city in politics, industry, and commerce. He made it also a centre of literature and illumination. At Venice there was a proverb: “All German cities are blind, except Nürnberg, which has one eye.”

Pirkheimer hailed the beginnings of the Reformation with patriotic and literary enthusiasm, invited Luther to his house when he returned utterly exhausted from Augsburg in 1518, distributed his books, and, with his friends Albrecht Dürer and Lazarus Spengler, prepared the way for the victory of the new ideas in his native city. He wrote an apology of Reuchlin in his controversy with the Dominicans, contributed probably to the “Letters of Obscure Men,” and ridiculed Dr. Eck in a satirical, pseudonymous dialogue, after the Leipzig disputation. Eck took cruel revenge when he published the Pope’s bull of excommunication, by naming Pirkheimer among the followers of Luther, and warning him through the magistrate of Nürnberg. Luther burnt the Pope’s bull; but Pirkheimer helped himself out of the difficulty by an evasive diplomatic disclaimer, and at last begged absolution.

This conduct is characteristic of the humanists. They would not break with the authorities of the church, and had not the courage of martyrs. They employed against existing abuses the light weapons of ridicule and satire rather than serious argument and moral indignation. They had little sympathy with the theology and piety of the Reformers, and therefore drew back when the Reformers, for conscience’ sake, broke with the old church, and were cast out of her bosom as the Apostles were cast out of the synagogue.

In a letter to Erasmus, dated Sept. 1, 1524, Pirkheimer speaks still favorably of Luther, though regretting his excesses, and deprecates a breach between the two as the greatest calamity that could befall the cause of sound learning. But soon after the free-will controversy, and under the influence of Erasmus, he wrote a very violent book against his former friend Oecolampadius, in defence of consubstantiation (he did not go as far as transubstantiation).

The distractions among Protestants, the Anabaptist disturbances, the Peasants’ War, the conduct of the contentious Osiander, sickness, and family afflictions increased his alienation from the Reformation, and clouded his last years. The stone and the gout, of which he suffered much, confined him at home. Dürer, his daily companion (who, however, differed from him on the eucharistic question, and strongly leaned to the Swiss view), died in 1528. Two of his sisters, and two of his daughters, took the veil in the nunnery of St. Clara at Nürnberg. His sister Charitas, who is famous for her Greek and Latin correspondence with Erasmus and other luminaries, was abbess. The nunnery suffered much from the disturbances of the Reformation and the Peasants’ War. When it was to be secularized and abolished, he addressed to the Protestant magistrate an eloquent and touching plea in behalf of the nuns, and conclusively refuted the charges made against them. The convent was treated with some toleration, and survived till 1590.

His last letters, like those of Erasmus, breathe discontent with the times, lament over the decline of letters and good morals, and make the evangelical clergy responsible for the same evils which he formerly charged upon the Roman clergy and monks. “I hoped,” he wrote to Zasius (1527), a distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Freiburg, who likewise stood halting between Rome and Wittenberg, — “I hoped for spiritual liberty; but, instead of it, we have carnal license, and things have gotten much worse than before.” Zasius was of the same opinion, and Protestants of Nürnberg admitted the fact of the extensive abuse of the gospel liberty. In a letter to his friend Leib, prior of Rebdorf, written a year before his death, Pirkheimer disclaims all fellowship with Luther, and expresses the opinion that the Reformer had become either insane, or possessed by an evil spirit. But, on the other hand, he remained on good terms with Melanchthon, and entertained him on his way to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.

His apparent inconsistency is due to a change of the times rather than to a change of his conviction. Like Erasmus, he remained a humanist, who hoped for a reformation from a revival of letters rather than theology and religion, and therefore hailed the beginning, but lamented the progress, of the Lutheran movement.

Broken by disease, affliction, and disappointment, he died in the year of the Augsburg Confession, Dec. 22, 1530, praying for the prosperity of the fatherland and the peace of the church. He left unfinished an edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, which Erasmus published with a preface. Shortly before his death, Erasmus had given him an unfavorable account of the introduction of the Reformation in Basel and of his intention to leave the city.

Pirkheimer made no permanent impression, and his writings are antiquated; but, as one of the most prominent humanists and connecting links between the medieval and the modern ages, he deserves a place in the history of the Reformation.


75. The Peasants’ War. 1523-1525

I. Luther: Ermahnung zum Frieden auf die zwölf Artikel der Bauernschaft in Schwaben (1525); Wider die mörderischen und raüberischen Rotten der Bauern (1525); Ein Sendbrief von dem harten Büchlein wider die Bauern (1525). Walch, Vols. XVI. and XXI. Erl. ed., XXIV. 257-318. Melanchthon: Historic Thomä Münzers (1525), in Walch, XVI. 204 sqq. Cochlaeus (Rom. Cath.), in his writings against Luther.

II. Histories of the Peasants’ War, by Sartorius (Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs, Berlin, 1795); Wachsmuth (Leipzig. 1834); Oechsle (Heilbronn, 1830 anti 1844); Bensen (Erlangen, 1840); Zimmermann (Stuttgart, 1841, second edition 1856, 3 Vols.); Jörg (Freiburg, 1851); Schreiber (Freiburg, 1863-66, 3 vols.); Stern (Leipzig, 1868); Baumann (Tübingen, 1876-78); L. Fries, ed. by Schäffler and Henner (Würzburg, 1876, 1877); Hartfelder (Stuttgart, 1884).

III. Monographs on Thomas Münzer by Strobel (Leben, Schriften und Lehren Thomä Müntzers, Nürnberg and Altdorf, 1795); Gebser (1831); Streif (1835); Seidemann (Dresden, 1842); Leo (1856); Erbkam (in Herzog2, Vol. X. 365 sqq.).

IV. Ranke: II. 124-150. Janssen: II. 393-582. Häusser: ch. VII. Weber: Weltgesch., vol. X. 229-273 (second edition, 1886).

The ecclesiastical radicalism at Wittenberg was the prelude of a more dangerous political and social radicalism, which involved a large portion of Germany in confusion and blood. Both movements had their roots in crying abuses; both received a strong impetus from the Reformation, and pretended to carry out its principles to their legitimate consequences; but both were ultra- and pseudo-Protestant, fanatical, and revolutionary.

Carlstadt and Münzer are the connecting links between the two movements, chiefly the latter. Carlstadt never went so far as Münzer, and afterwards retraced his steps. Their expulsion from Saxony extended their influence over Middle and Southern Germany.


Condition of the Peasants

The German peasants were the beasts of burden for society, and in no better condition than slaves. Work, work, work, without reward, was their daily lot, even Sunday hardly excepted. They were ground down by taxation, legal and illegal. The rapid increase of wealth, luxury, and pleasure, after the discovery of America, made their condition only worse. The knights and nobles screwed them more cruelly than before, that they might increase their revenues and means of indulgence.

The peasants formed, in self-protection, secret leagues among themselves: as the “Käsebröder” (Cheese-Brothers), in the Netherlands; and the “Bundschuh,” in South Germany. These leagues served the same purpose as the labor unions of mechanics in our days.

Long before the Reformation revolutionary outbreaks took place in various parts of Germany, — a.d. 1476, 1492, 1493, 1502, 1513, and especially in 1514, against the lawless tyranny of Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg. But these rebellions were put down by brute force, and ended in disastrous failure.

In England a communistic insurrection of the peasants and villeins occurred in 1381, under the lead of Wat Tyler and John Balle, in connection with a misunderstanding of Wiclif’s doctrines.

The Reformation, with its attacks upon the papal tyranny, its proclamation of the supremacy of the Bible, of Christian freedom, and the general priesthood of the laity, gave fresh impulse and new direction to the rebellious disposition. Traveling preachers and fugitive tracts stirred up discontent. The peasants mistook spiritual liberty for carnal license. They appealed to the Bible and to Dr. Luther in support of their grievances. They looked exclusively at the democratic element in the New Testament, and turned it against the oppressive rule of the Romish hierarchy and the feudal aristocracy. They identified their cause with the restoration of pure Christianity.


Thomas Münzer

Thomas Münzer, one of the Zwickau Prophets, and an eloquent demagogue, was the apostle and travelling evangelist of the social revolution, and a forerunner of modern socialism, communism, and anarchism. He presents a remarkable compound of the discordant elements of radicalism and mysticism. He was born at Stolberg in the Harz Mountain (1590); studied theology at Leipzig; embraced some of the doctrines of the Reformation, and preached them in the chief church at Zwickau; but carried them to excess, and was deposed.

After the failure of the revolution in Wittenberg, in which he took part, he labored as pastor at Altstädt (1523), for the realization of his wild ideas, in direct opposition to Luther, whom he hated worse than the Pope. Luther wrote against the “Satan of Altstädt.” Münzer was removed, but continued his agitation in Mühlhausen, a free city in Thuringia, in Nürnberg, Basel, and again in Mühlhausen (1525).

He was at enmity with the whole existing order of society, and imagined himself the divinely inspired prophet of a new dispensation, a sort of communistic millennium, in which there should be no priests, no princes, no nobles, and no private property, but complete democratic equality. He inflamed the people in fiery harangues from the pulpit, and in printed tracts to open rebellion against their spiritual and secular rulers. He signed himself “Münzer with the hammer,” and “with the sword of Gideon.” He advised the killing of all the ungodly. They had no right to live. Christ brought the sword, not peace upon earth. “Look not,” he said, “on the sorrow of the ungodly; let not your sword grow cold from blood; strike hard upon the anvil of Nimrod [the princes]; cast his tower to the ground, because the day is yours.”


The Program of the Peasants

At the beginning of the uprising, the Swabian peasants issued a program of their demands, a sort of political and religious creed, consisting of twelve articles.

Professing to claim nothing inconsistent with Christianity as a religion of justice, peace, and charity, the peasants claim:

1. The right to elect their own pastors (conceded by Zwingli, but not by Luther).

2. Freedom from the small tithe (the great tithe of grain they were willing to pay).

3. The abolition of bond-service, since all men were redeemed by the blood of Christ (but they promised to obey the elected rulers ordained by God, in every thing reasonable and Christian).

4. Freedom to hunt and fish.

5. A share in the forests for domestic fuel.

6. Restriction of compulsory service.

7. Payment for extra labor above what the contract requires.

8. Reduction of rents.

9. Cessation of arbitrary punishments.

10. Restoration of the pastures and fields which have been taken from the communes.

11. Abolition of the right of heriot, by which widows and orphans are deprived of their inheritance.

12. All these demands shall be tested by Scripture; and if not found to agree with it, they are to be withdrawn.

These demands are moderate and reasonable, especially freedom from feudal oppression, and the primitive right to elect a pastor. Most of them have since been satisfied. Had they been granted in 1524, Germany might have been spared the calamity of bloodshed, and entered upon a career of prosperity. But the rulers and the peasants were alike blind to their best interests, and consulted their passion instead of reason. The peasants did not stick to their own program, split up in parties, and resorted to brutal violence against their masters. Another program appeared, which aimed at a democratic reconstruction of church and state in Germany. Had Charles V. not been taken up with foreign schemes, he might have utilized the commotion for the unification and consolidation of Germany in the interest of an imperial despotism and Romanism. But this would have been a still greater calamity than the division of Germany.


Progress of the Insurrection

The insurrection broke out in summer, 1524, in Swabia, on the Upper Danube, and the Upper Rhine along the Swiss frontier, but not on the Swiss side, where the peasantry were free. In 1525 it extended gradually all over South-Western and Central Germany. The rebels destroyed the palaces of the bishops, the castles of the nobility, burned convents and libraries, and committed other outrages. Erasmus wrote to Polydore Virgil, from Basel, in the autumn of 1525: “Every day there are bloody conflicts between the nobles and the peasants, so near us that we can hear the firing, and almost the groans of the wounded.” In another letter he says: “Every day priests are imprisoned, tortured, hanged, decapitated, or burnt.”

At first the revolution was successful. Princes, nobles, and cities were forced to submit to the peasants. If the middle classes, which were the chief supporters of Protestant doctrines, had taken sides with the peasants, they would have become irresistible.

But the leader of the Reformation threw the whole weight of his name against the revolution.


Luther Advises a Wholesale Suppression of the Rebellion

The fate of the peasantry depended upon Luther. Himself the son of a peasant, he had, at first, considerable sympathy with their cause, and advocated the removal of their grievances; but he was always opposed to the use of force, except by the civil magistrate, to whom the sword was given by God for the punishment of evil-doers. He thought that revolution was wrong in itself, and contrary to Divine order; that it was the worst enemy of reformation, and increased the evil complained of. He trusted in the almighty power of preaching, teaching, and moral suasion. In the battle of words he allowed himself every license; but there he stopped. With the heroic courage of a warrior in the spiritual army of God, he combined the humble obedience of a monk to the civil authority.

He replied to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants with an exhortation to peace (May, 1525). He admitted that most of them were just. He rebuked the princes and nobles, especially the bishops, for their oppression of the poor people and their hostility to the gospel, and urged them to grant some of the petitions, lest a fire should be kindled all over Germany which no one could extinguish. But he also warned the peasants against revolution, and reminded them of the duty of obedience to the ruling powers (Rom_13:1), and of the passage, that “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Mat_26:52). He advised both parties to submit the quarrel to a committee of arbitration. But it was too late; he preached to deaf ears.

When the dark cloud of war rose up all over Germany, and obscured the pure light of the Reformation, Luther dipped his pen in blood, and burst out in a most violent manifesto “against the rapacious and murderous peasants.” He charged them with doing the Devil’s work under pretence of the gospel. He called upon the magistrates to “stab, kill, and strangle” them like mad dogs. He who dies in defence of the government dies a blessed death, and is a true martyr before God. A pious Christian should rather suffer a hundred deaths than yield a hair of the demands of the peasants.

So fierce were Luther’s words, that he had to defend himself in a public letter to the chancellor of Mansfeld (June or July, 1525). He did not, however, retract his position. “My little book,” he said, “shall stand, though the whole world should stumble at it.” He repeated the most offensive passages, even in stronger language, and declared that it was useless to reason with rebels, except by the fist and the sword.

Cruel as this conduct appears to every friend of the poor peasants, it would he unjust to regard it as an accommodation, and to derive it from selfish considerations. It was his sincere conviction of duty to the magistrate in temporal matters, and to the cause of the Reformation which was threatened with destruction.


Defeat of the Rebellion

The advice of the Reformer was only too well executed by the exasperated princes, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, who now made common cause against the common foe. The peasants, badly armed, poorly led, and divided among themselves, were utterly defeated by the troops of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, Duke Henry of Brunswick, the Elector Jolin, and the Dukes George and John of Saxony. In the decisive battle at Frankenhausen, May 25, 1525, five thousand slain lay on the field and in the streets; three hundred were beheaded before the court-house. Münzer fled, but was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed. The peasants in South Germany, in the Alsace and Lorraine, met with the same defeat by the imperial troops and the forces of the electors of the Palatinate and Treves, and by treachery. In the castle of Zabern, in the Alsace (May 17), eighteen thousand peasants fell. In the Tyrol and Salzburg, the rebellion lasted longest, and was put down in part by arbitration.

The number of victims of war far exceeded a hundred thousand. The surviving rebels were beheaded or mutilated. Their widows and orphans were left destitute. Over a thousand castles and convents lay in ashes, hundreds of villages were burnt to the ground, the cattle killed, agricultural implements destroyed, and whole districts turned into a wilderness. “Never,” said Luther, after the end of the war, “has the aspect of Germany been more deplorable than now.”

The Peasants’ War was a complete failure, and the victory of the princes an inglorious revenge. The reaction made their condition worse than ever. Very few masters had sufficient humanity and self-denial to loosen the reins. Most of them followed the maxim of Rehoboam: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1Ki_12:14). The real grievances remained, and the prospect of a remedy was put off to an indefinite future.

The cause of the Reformation suffered irreparable injury, and was made responsible by the Romanists, and even by Erasmus, for all the horrors of the rebellion. The split of the nation was widened; the defeated peasantry in Roman Catholic districts were forced back into the old church; quiet citizens lost their interest in politics and social reform; every attempt in that direction was frowned down with suspicion. Luther had once for all committed himself against every kind of revolution, and in favor of passive obedience to the civil rulers who gladly accepted it, and appealed again and again to Rom_13:1, as the popes to Mat_16:18, as if they contained the whole Scripture-teaching on obedience to authority. Melanchthon and Bucer fully agreed with Luther on this point; and the Lutheran Church has ever since been strictly conservative in politics, and indifferent to the progress of civil liberty. It is only in the nineteenth century that serfdom has been entirely abolished in Germany and Russia, and negro slavery in America.

The defeat of the Peasants’ War marks the end of the destructive tendencies of the Reformation, and the beginning of the construction of a new church on the ruins of the old.