These disturbances left a lasting and deep impression on men’s minds.
Today’s installment concludes The Peasants’ War in Germany,
our selection 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.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of «DaysAlpha» thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in The Peasants’ War in Germany.
The remnants of the insurrection were quenched in blood; Duke George, in particular, acted with the greatest severity. In the states of the Elector, there were neither executions nor punishment. The Word of God, preached in all its purity, had shown its power to restrain the tumultuous passions of the people.
From the very beginning, indeed, Luther had not ceased to struggle against the rebellion, which was, in his opinion, the forerunner of the Judgment-day. Advice, prayers, and even irony had not been spared. At the end of the articles drawn up at Erfurth by the rebels he had subjoined, as a supplementary article: “_Item._ The following article has been omitted. Henceforward the honorable council shall have no power; it shall do nothing; it shall sit like an idol or a log of wood; the commonalty shall chew its food, and it shall govern with its hands and feet tied; henceforth the wagon shall guide the horses, the horses shall hold the reins, and we shall go on admirably, in conformity with the glorious system set forth in these articles.”
Luther did not confine himself to writing. While the disturbance was still at its height, he quitted Wittenberg and went through some of the districts where the agitation was greatest. He preached, he labored to soften his hearers’ hearts, and his hand, to which God had given power, turned aside, quieted, and brought back the impetuous and overflowing torrents into their natural channels.
In every quarter the doctors of the Reformation exerted a similar influence. At Halle, Brentz had revived the drooping spirits of the citizens by the promise of God’s Word, and four thousand peasants had fled before six hundred citizens. At Ichterhausen, a mob of peasants having assembled with an intent to demolish several castles and put their lords to death, Frederick Myconius went out to them alone, and such was the power of his words that they immediately abandoned their design.
Such was the part taken by the reformers and the Reformation in the midst of this revolt; they contended against it with all their might, with the sword of the Word, and boldly maintained those principles which alone, in every age, can preserve order and subjection among the nations. Accordingly, Luther asserted that, if the power of sound doctrine had not checked the fury of the people, the revolt would have extended its ravages far more widely, and have overthrown both church and state. If the reformers thus contended against sedition, it was not without receiving grievous wounds. That moral agony which Luther had first suffered, in his cell at Erfurth, became still more serious after the insurrection of the peasants. No great change takes place among men without suffering on the part of those who are its instruments. The birth of Christianity was effected by the agony of the Cross; but He who hung upon that cross addressed these words to each of his disciples, “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the same baptism that I am baptized with?”
On the side of the princes, it was continually repeated that Luther and his doctrine were the cause of the revolt, and, however absurd this idea may be, the reformer could not see it so generally entertained without experiencing the deepest grief. On the side of the people, Munzer and all the leaders of the insurrection represented him as a vile hypocrite, a flatterer of the great, and these calumnies easily obtained belief. The violence with which Luther had declared against the rebels had displeased even moderate men. The friends of Rome exulted; all were against him, and he bore the heavy anger of his times. But his greatest affliction was to behold the work of heaven thus dragged in the mire and classed with the most fanatical projects. Here he felt was his Gethsemane: he saw the bitter cup that was presented to him; and, foreboding that he would be forsaken by all, he exclaimed: “Soon, perhaps, I shall also be able to say, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night.'”
Yet in the midst of this deep bitterness he preserved his faith:
He who has given me power to trample the enemy under foot,” said he, “when he rose up against me like a cruel dragon or a furious lion, will not permit this enemy to crush me, now that he appears before me with the treacherous glance of the basilisk. I groan as I contemplate those calamities. Often have I asked myself whether it would not have been better to have allowed the papacy to go on quietly, rather than witness the occurrence of so many troubles and seditions in the world. But no! it is better to have snatched a few souls from the jaws of the devil than to have left them all between his murderous fangs.”
Now terminated the revolution in Luther’s mind that had begun at the period of his return from the Wartburg. The inner life no longer satisfied him: the Church and her institutions now became most important in his eyes. The boldness with which he had thrown down everything was checked at the sight of still more sweeping destructions; he felt it his duty to preserve, govern, and build up; and from the midst of the blood-stained ruins with which the peasant war had covered all Germany, the edifice of the new Church began slowly to arise.
These disturbances left a lasting and deep impression on men’s minds. The nations had been struck with dismay. The masses, who had sought in the Reformation nothing but political reform, withdrew from it of their own accord, when they saw it offered them spiritual liberty only. Luther’s opposition to the peasants was his renunciation of the ephemeral favor of the people. A seeming tranquility was soon established, and the noise of enthusiasm and sedition was followed in all Germany by a silence inspired by terror.
Thus the popular passions, the cause of revolution, the interests of a radical equality, were quelled in the empire; but the Reformation did not yield. These two movements, which many have confounded with each other, were clearly marked out by the difference of their results. The insurrection was from below; the Reformation, from above. A few horsemen and cannon were sufficient to put down the one; but the other never ceased to rise in strength and vigor, in despite of the reiterated assaults of the empire and the Church.
This ends our series of passages on The Peasants’ War in Germany by J. H. Merle d’Augbigne from his book History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century published in 1853. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.