This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Discontent, Political and Religeous.
Before the French Revolution, the bloodiest and also the most consequential revolt was the Peasant’s Revolt in Germany in 1524 to 1525. This brief revolt was part of the Reformation and influenced by the “New Learning” of the Renaissance.
This selection is from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle d’Augbigne published in 1853 For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
J. H. Merle D’Aubigne was a Protestant historian and President of the College of Geneva. He could see justice on both sides of the great controversy.
A political ferment, very different from that produced by the Gospel, had long been at work in the empire. The people, bowed down by civil and ecclesiastical oppression, bound in many countries to the seigniorial estates, and transferred from hand to hand along with them, threatened to rise with fury and at last to break their chains. This agitation had showed itself long before the Reformation by many symptoms, and even then the religious element was blended with the political; in the sixteenth century it was impossible to separate these two principles, so closely associated in the existence of nations. In Holland, at the close of the preceding century, the peasants had revolted, placing on their banners, by way of arms, a loaf and a cheese, the two great blessings of these poor people. The “Alliance of the Shoes” had shown itself in the neighborhood of Spires in 1502. In 1513 it appeared again in Breisgau, being encouraged by the priests. In 1514 Wuertemberg had seen the “League of Poor Conrad,” whose aim was to maintain by rebellion “the right of God.” In 1515 Carinthia and Hungary had been the theatres of terrible agitations. These seditions had been quenched in torrents of blood, but no relief had been accorded to the people. A political reform, therefore, was not less necessary than a religious reform. The people were entitled to this; but we must acknowledge that they were not ripe for its enjoyment.
Since the commencement of the Reformation, these popular disturbances had not been renewed; men’s minds were occupied by other thoughts. Luther, whose piercing glance had discerned the condition of the people, had already from the summit of the Wartburg addressed them in serious exhortations calculated to restrain their agitated minds:
Rebellion,” he had said, “never produces the amelioration we desire, and God condemns it. What is it to rebel, if it be not to avenge one’s self? The devil is striving to excite to revolt those who embrace the Gospel, in order to cover it with opprobrium; but those who have rightly understood my doctrine do not revolt.”
Everything gave cause to fear that the popular agitation could not be restrained much longer. The government that Frederick of Saxony had taken such pains to form, and which possessed the confidence of the nation, was dissolved. The Emperor, whose energy might have been an efficient substitute for the influence of this national administration, was absent; the princes whose union had always constituted the strength of Germany were divided; and the new declaration of Charles V against Luther, by removing every hope of future harmony, deprived the reformer of part of the moral influence by which in 1522 he had succeeded in calming the storm. The chief barriers that hitherto had confined the torrent being broken, nothing could any longer restrain its fury.
It was not the religious movement that gave birth to political agitations; but in many places it was carried away by their impetuous waves. Perhaps we should even go further, and acknowledge that the movement communicated to the people by the Reformation gave fresh strength to the discontent fermenting in the nation. The violence of Luther’s writings, the intrepidity of his actions and language, the harsh truths that he spoke, not only to the Pope and prelates, but also to the princes themselves, must all have contributed to inflame minds that were already in a state of excitement. Accordingly, Erasmus did not fail to tell him, “We are now reaping the fruits that you have sown.” And further, the cheering truths of the Gospel, at last brought to light, stirred all hearts and filled them with anticipation and hope. But many unregenerated souls were not prepared by repentance for the faith and liberty of Christians. They were very willing to throw off the papal yoke, but they would not take up the yoke of Christ. And hence, when princes devoted to the cause of Rome endeavored in their wrath to stifle the Reformation, real Christians patiently endured these cruel persecutions; but the multitude resisted and broke out, and, seeing their desires checked in one direction, gave vent to them in another. “Why,” said they, “should slavery be perpetuated in the state while the Church invites all men to a glorious liberty? Why should governments rule only by force, when the Gospel preaches nothing but gentleness?” Unhappily, at a time when the religious reform was received with equal joy both by princes and people, the political reform, on the contrary, had the most powerful part of the nation against it; and while the former had the Gospel for its rule and support, the latter had soon no other principles than violence and despotism. Accordingly, while the one was confined within the bounds of truth, the other rapidly, like an impetuous torrent, overstepped all limits of justice. But to shut one’s eyes against the indirect influence of the Reformation on the troubles that broke out in the empire would betoken partiality. A fire had been kindled in Germany by religious discussions from which it was impossible to prevent a few sparks escaping, which were calculated to inflame the passions of the people.
The claims of a few fanatics to divine inspiration increased the evil. While the Reformation had continually appealed from the pretended authority of the Church to the real authority of the holy Scriptures, these enthusiasts not only rejected the authority of the Church, but of the Scriptures also; they spoke only of an inner word, of an internal revelation from God; and, overlooking the natural corruption of their hearts, they gave way to all the intoxication of spiritual pride, and fancied they were saints.
To them the holy Scriptures were but a dead letter,” said Luther, “and they all began to cry, ‘The Spirit! the Spirit!’ But most assuredly I will not follow where their spirit leads them. May God of his mercy preserve me from a church in which there are none but saints. I desire to dwell with the humble, the feeble, the sick, who know and feel their sins, and who groan and cry continually to God from the bottom of their hearts to obtain his consolation and support.”
These words of Luther have great depth of meaning, and point out the change that was taking place in his views as to the nature of the Church. They indicate at the same time how contrary were the religious opinions of the rebels to those of the Reformation.