Luther: The New Church Established

ALTHOUGH he had not intended it, the result of Luther’s defiance of the Pope was the birth of a separate Lutheran Church which be­came popular in many parts of Germany. It developed its own beliefs, expressed in Luther’s Catechism and the Confession of Augsburg, and its own form of worship for which Luther wrote hymns. Luther himself was moderate in his religious outlook and would not support the revolutionary hopes of the German peasants. He married, and led a happy family life. Though he was influential outside Germany, his reliance upon the German princes to forward his movement restricted the spread of Lutheranism abroad, and after his death the Peace of Augsburg split Germany between the new and old religions.

A papal envoy reported on Nuremberg, a Lutheran town, in 1524: ‘We arrived at Nuremberg on the Wednesday in Passion Week. In these parts the sincere faith of Christ is utterly cancelled; no respect is paid either to the Virgin Mary or the saints. On the contrary, it is said that those who employ their aid sin mortally. They deride the Papal rights and call the relics of the saints bones of those who have been hanged. In Lent they eat meat openly, saying they do not con­sider it prohibited. Confession is neglected, as they say it should be made to God, and that auricular confession is a buffoonery. They generally communicate under both forms. They make a laughing­-stock of the Pope and Cardinals, and other ambassadorial ecclesiastics, by means of paintings and other caricatures. In short, they consider Martin their illuminator, and that until now they have been in darkness, and the indulgences are held by them like bread sold in the market-place (34).

Here is an account by a Yorkshire seaman, who was at Bremen in 1528, of the new services there: ‘And there the people did follow Luther’s works and no masses were said there, but on the Sunday the priest would revest himself and go to the altar, and proceeded till nigh the sacring time [consecration of the bread and wine], and then the priest and all that were in the church, old and young, would sing after their mother tongue and there was no sacring (35).

In 1522, Luther had to urge moderation upon his followers in a sermon in Wittenberg Church, so as to preserve unity: ‘What you did was good, but you have gone too fast, for there are brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won. . . . Faith never yields, but love is guided according as to how our neighbours can grasp or follow it. There are some who can run, others must walk, and still others who can hardly creep. Therefore we must not look on our own, but on our brother’s powers, so that he that is weak in faith . . . may not be destroyed . . . Let us therefore throw ourselves at one another’s feet, join hands and help one another (36).

In the climate of new thinking, some people joined the Anabaptists, a sect which opposed infant baptism. One of them explained their views in a letter of 1524: ‘We believe … that all children who have not yet come to know the difference between good and evil are saved by the sufferings of Christ … Also that infant baptism is a silly blasphemous outrage, contrary to all Scripture … Since … you have published your protestations against infant baptism, we hope you do not act against the eternal Word, wisdom, and command of God, according to which only believers should be baptized, and that you baptize no children (37).

Social disorder soon followed in the wake of religious turbulence. When the Peasants’ Revolt first broke out in Germany in 1524, Luther condemned the landowners, saying: ‘They can hardly do anything else than flay and beat and add one burden upon another. Now God is going to punish them by rebellion of the oppressed. They ought not, they cannot, they will not endure your tyranny and insolence any longer. No longer is the world in such a state that you can please yourself how you drive and hunt human beings. Therefore let the Word of God do its work (38).

But he was alarmed when the peasants claimed that he supported their demands; and he warned them: ‘If you are anxious to appeal to the rights laid down by the Gospel, then remember that these rights consist in suffering with Christ on the Cross (39).

And, as the violence of the peasants increased, he wrote a strong pamphlet, Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of the Peasants, saying: ‘If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans and turns everything upside-down like a great disaster. Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when you must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike, he will strike you and the whole land with you (40).

In the following years, Luther worked to provide instruction for Short his own Church people. This extract from his Short Catechism (1529) explains the meaning of the first sentence of the Creed, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’: ‘I believe that God has created me and all other creatures, and has given me, and preserves for me, body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason and all my senses; and that daily He bestows on me clothes and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and child, fields and cattle, and all my goods, and supplies in abundance all needs and necessities of my body and life, and protects me from all perils, and guards and defends me from all evil. And this He does out of pure fatherly and Divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am bound to thank Him and praise Him, and, moreover, to serve and obey Him. This is a faithful saying (41).

To those who thought the Catechism was too slight and short, he replied: ‘Do not think the Catechism is a little thing to be read hastily and cast aside. Although I am a doctor, I have to do just as a child and say word for word every morning and whenever I have time the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Psalms. I have to do it every day, and yet I cannot understand as I would. But these smart folk in one reading want to be doctors of doctors. Therefore I beg these wise saints to be persuaded that they are not such great doctors as they think. To be occupied with God’s Word helps against the world, the flesh and the devil and all bad thoughts. This is the true holy water with which to exorcize the devil (42).

These are two of the sections of the ‘Confession of Augsburg’ (1530), a statement of Lutheran belief written by Luther’s friend, Augsburg Philip Melanchthon: ‘ Section Four: Of Justification. They teach that men cannot be justified in the sight of God by their own strength, merits or works, but that they are justified freely on account of Christ through faith, when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are remitted on account of Christ who made satisfaction for sins on our behalf by his death. God imputes this faith for righteousness in his own sight (Romans iii and iv).

‘Section Seven: Of the Church. They teach that the one Holy Church will remain for ever. Now this Church is the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacra­ments rightly administered. And for that true unity of the Church it is enough to have unity of belief concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that there should everywhere be the same traditions of men, or the same rites and ceremonies devised by men … (43).

The Confession of Augsburg was drawn up in a vain attempt to secure religious peace in Germany. Luther defended it against those who thought it was too conciliatory: ‘I have been through our friend Philip’s apologia, and it seems to me quite excellent. I should be at a loss to know how to alter or improve it. Nor should I be willing to try, because it is impossible for me to speak so gently or cautiously. May Christ our Lord grant that it will bear much rich fruit, as we all hope and pray. Amen (44).

Luther brought congregational singing into worship for the first time, because he greatly loved music: ‘Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mis­tress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me from dire plagues (45).

Here is a chronicler’s account of an incident in the city of Magde­burg, concerning Luther’s newfangled hymns: ‘On the day of St John between Easter and Pentecost, an old man, a weaver, came through the city gate to the monument of Emperor Otto and there offered hymns for sale while he sang them to the people. The burgomaster, coming from early mass and seeing the crowd, asked one of his servants what was going on. “There is an old rogue over there”, he answered, “who is singing and selling the hymns of the heretic Luther”. The burgomaster had him arrested and thrown into prison; but two hundred citizens interceded and he was released (46).

Luther wrote thirty-six hymns. This is the first verse of his best-known:

A safe stronghold our God is still,

A trusty shield and weapon;

He’ll help us clear from all the ill

That hath us now o ‘ertaken.

The ancient Prince of Hell

Hath risen with purpose fell ;

Strong mail of Craft and Power

He weareth in this hour,

On earth is not his fellow (47).

By way of contrast, here is the last verse of a Christmas hymn written by Luther for his little son Hans, in 1540:

Were earth a thousand times as fair

Beset with gold and jewels rare,

She yet were far too poor to be

A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee (48).

Luther’s house attracted crowds of followers and sightseers. A Luther at picture of Luther’s crowded home is recounted in a letter to Prince home George of Anhalt. The writer advises him not to spend a night there: ‘The house of Luther is occupied by a motley crowd of boys, stud­ents, girls, widows, old women and youngsters. For this reason there is much disturbance in the place, and many regret it for the sake of the good man, the honourable father. If only the spirit of Doctor Luther lived in all of these, his house would offer you an agreeable, friendly quarter for a few days so that your Grace would be able to enjoy the hospitality of that man. But as the situation now stands and as circumstances exist in the household of Luther, I would not advise your Grace to stay there (49).

Yet while Luther talked during these crowded meals, many made a note of what he said. A book was later published, called Luther’s Table Talk. These are a few of his sayings from it: ‘Printing is God’s latest and best work to spread the true religion throughout the world—A dog is a most faithful animal and would be more highly prized if less common—They are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet—Germany is the pope’s pig. That is why we have to give him so much bacon and sausages (50).

In later life Luther fully enjoyed his meals, because: ‘If our Lord found it right to create great pike and Rhenish wine, then we may take and use them (51).

As Luther’s reputation grew, students from many countries came to Wittenberg to hear him teach. A contemporary said: ‘As they came in sight of the town, they returned thanks to God with clasped hands, for from Wittenberg as heretofore from Jerusalem the light of evangelical truth hath spread to the utmost parts of the earth (52).

Here is a letter written by Francis I in 1530; but in France, as elsewhere outside Germany, Lutheranism had little influence compared with Calvinism: ‘We are much annoyed and displeased because this cursed heretical sect of Lutherans flourishes in our good city of Paris, the head and capital of our realm, containing the principal University of Christendom, where many will be able to imitate it. This sect we intend to attack with all our power and authority, sparing nobody. We therefore will and intend that such and so heavy punishment may fall upon it as to correct the cursed heretics and be an example to all others (53).

Two days before he died in 1546 Luther had inscribed a friend’s book with a text from St John’s Gospel, ‘If anyone obeys my teaching, he shall never know what it is to die. He added: ‘How incredible is such a text, and yet it is the truth. If a man takes God’s word in full earnest and believes in it and then falls asleep, he slips away without noticing death and is safe on the other side (54).

Lutheranism had become such a great movement, that a compromise agreement was adopted by the German princes in the Diet, letting each prince decide whether Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism should prevail in his state: ‘In order to bring peace into the holy empire of the Germanic Nation, between the Roman Imperial Majesty and the Electors, Princes, and Estates: let neither his Imperial Majesty nor the Electors, Princes, etc., do any violence or harm to any estate of the Empire on account, of the Augsburg Confession, but let them enjoy their religious belief, liturgy and ceremonies as well as their estates and other rights and privileges in peace; and complete religious peace shall be obtained only by Christian means of amity, or under threat of the punishment of the imperial ban (55).