Taken from, “Luther and Cromwell”
Written by J. T. Headley
With a foreword
[Historians aspire to study history by learning history forwards. That is, they seek to read out of the pages of history events as they flow from their source, just as you would trace a drop of water directly from its fountain head and follow its path, tracing each event and turn until it finally reaches the sea. But sometimes we are distracted by those thunderbolts of history which are seemingly thrown by an angry hand, shaking apart the trees and even mountains of civilization, while heaving the earth and humanity in mighty cataclysms. Such was the time of the Reformation. It may seem to those gazing at this period with bewildered thoughts, especially at those poor souls living in such a beleaguered times, that some gigantic hand has seemingly turned the heavens upside down with an explosion of occurrences and events in an unstoppable and irreversible sequence; and that some blind eye, some malignant force, has seemingly caused almost endless destruction and needless death. But if we look carefully, we see that at the same time, those same events have planted the seeds for new growth and regeneration in the now fertile (desperate) hearts of humanity. And if a careful observer should take the time and cautiously trace backwards those separate drops of thought and action, he would see that they were ultimately caused at earlier times and from other chains of events.
However, for most of us, we only see the occurrences of history and its effects after the seeds of change have traveled down the river of time, and even then, only where they have been united together by the invisible hands of Providence. But it is at God’s specifically designated nexus points, where, under the building pressure and energy, these various pieces of civilization and thought are finally united together and combust in a titanic reaction for destruction and change. Then, as is ever the process, the paradigms of civilization shifts yet again.
I firmly believe, however, that it is at just such junctures (for it happens over and over), when such events have come together in a signal climax, that the Christian student, by careful examination, might see the hand of God openly at work, turning the pages of history, guiding here, restraining there, and finishing in certain aspects all that which he has begun; for God is certainly in control. But just when one might begin to think that he has finally grasped all of what God has done, is doing, and that he can see where God is leading, –events again lurch forward, –and again, certain grand “truths” must lurch forward also, for they, and the questions they generate, are the goads that God uses to drive mankind onward throughout the course of history. It is with certainty that these great events which have preceded us, though leaving us in their wake, are but examples leading us back to the Savior so that we might follow on with the eyes of faith, looking only unto Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith, who is the giver of the crown of life to all those who have been given the grace to run the race in him. –MWP]
…from the commencement of its history until now. Revolution has seemed indispensable to progress, and every step forward which the world has taken, has caused a tremor like the first pulsations of an earthquake. We turn from “revolutions” with a shudder, for the violence and bloodshed that accompany them are revolting to our feelings; but we forget that, constituted as governments and society are, they are necessary.
A higher wisdom, guided by a truer sympathy than ours, has said, “I come not to send peace, but a sword; to set a man at variance against his father,”–Matthew 10:34. The world is full of oppressive systems, whose adherents will not yield without a fierce struggle, and the iron framework of which will not crumble except to heavy blows. Nearly, if not quite all the moral struggles of the race have at length come to a physical adjustment ; for the party weakest in the justice of its cause has generally been the strongest in external force. Hence, when overthrown with argument, it has resorted to the sword. Then comes martyrdom; but with increase of strength to the persecuted, and the co-operators of rulers, resistance has followed, ending in long wars and wasting battles.
Thus did the Reformation under Luther which “began in silence and in weakness” ended in revolutions, violence, and war.
There seems sometimes a vast disparity between causes and the results they accomplish. We behold a poor monk, haggard and wan, praying alone in his cell, with tears and groans; we look again, and he is shaking thrones, and principalities, and powers. Today he is sweeping the convent, and engrossed in the occupations of a menial; tomorrow, confronting kings and awing princes, by the majesty of his bearing. And yet no visible power has passed into his hands; he is a single, solitary man, with nothing to sustain him but truth, and leaning on no arm but that of the invisible God!
But we are to look for the cause of the Reformation out of Luther. That great movement was not a sudden impulse; the war that swept over Europe was born in a deeper sea than Luther’s bosom. Although Rome seemed secure, and her power supreme, the heavens had been for a long time giving indications of an approaching tempest. The world was expecting some great change, and this expectancy grew out of its need. The church had no spirituality, and was worse than dead –it was corrupt. With its observances, and ceremonies, and indulgences, it could not reach the heart and wants of man. The human soul, slowly awaking from its long slumbers, called pleadingly for that Christianity which the Son of God had established. But it could not be found in the church.
The doctrines of grace and justification by faith were scoffed at as ridiculous, and salvation by works was loudly proclaimed, thus bringing back a religion of mere ceremonies “Judaism, under another form, which the world had shaken off at the appearance of Christ.
Added to this, the Romish Church was the den of every vice. The capital and palace of the Pontiff exhibited scenes of debauchery, drunkenness, and irreligion, that made them a byword in the mouths of the people. The same immorality characterized the priesthood every where. It finally became a custom to pay a tax for keeping a mistress; and one bishop declared that eleven thousand priests came to him in one year to pay this tax. The climax to all these absurdities and immoralities was the sale of indulgences, not carried on at Rome, but over the continent, by which a few groats would buy pardon for any crime, even for incest.
Thus, under its own corruptions, was the immense fabric of papacy tottering to its fall. Kings and princes were also in a state of preparation for a change; they began to question the right of the Pope to the vast power he wielded, and which they had so often suffered under; while the burghers and more wealthy citizens,especially of the free cities of Germany, did not hesitate to express their views of the oppressions of the hierarchy. The common people, too, began to see their rights and ask for them.
Thus, in the church and state were found the elements of revolution. The revival of learning, by expanding the human mind, also pushed on the movement. The mysticism of the schoolmen, and the skepticism of the Aristotelians, were not enough to counterbalance the invigorating power of letters.
Civilization had advanced, and knowledge increased, until the whole iron framework of the papal and ecclesiastical system, which had been fitted for a darker age and a more ignorant, slavish race of men, could no longer keep its place. Man had outgrown the narrow limits in which he was confined, and pressed painfully upward against the bars which held him down. A single blow, and every thing would heave and part asunder. Europe did not need to be roused by the advent of a new prophet; it wanted simply relief. The church, the state, the wealthy and the poor –the universal soul asked for relief, and Luther brought it.
To the contemplative mind, how sad is one aspect of the human race! We see the heavens darkened with the smoke of altar-fires ; we behold men prostrating themselves under the statues of idols; women casting their children into the Ganges, suffering self-chastisement and death, cheerfully endured, to solve this single problem of justification, the study of which so well-nigh wrecked Luther for ever. That problem has saddened the soul of man from the commencement of his history till now. The smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, ascending from the borders of Eden, was endeavoring to pierce the sky for its solution. All the ceremonies of the Jewish religion tended to the same end.
The pagan before his idol, and the Christian at a holier shrine, have been asking the same question for ages. Pilgrimages have been made, and tortures and martyrdom endured, to answer it. The spire of every temple and church in the world is now pointing to the heavens as if in answer.
Every bell on the Sabbath day, calling men to the house of prayer, says, Come and hear the solution of this great problem.