The Magisterial Reformation: Book



David Stamen             

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021


Chapter 1     From New Testament times to the beginning of the Reformation.

Chapter 2    Reasons for the success of the Reformation.

                        Zwingli, and the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland.

                        The rise of Anabaptism and the first Anabaptist martyr.

Chapter 3    The Anabaptists and Persecution.

                        The persecution of the Anabaptists by the Reformers.

                        The teachings of the reformers ‘justifying’ their persecution of others.

                        The reformers’ religious worldview.

Chapter 4    The Reformers’ false views on the Church, infant baptism and conversion.

                       The Reformers’ false notion of the Church.

                        The Reformers’ false notion of infant baptism.

                        The Reformers’ false notion of conversion. The reformers deny                                                                                        conversion experience.

 Chapter 5   Conduct in Reformed churches and Iconoclasm.

                        The conduct of the Anabaptists.

                        Iconoclasm. The beginnings at Luther’s Wittenberg.

                        The Reformation was a movement of outward religious reform, not of spiritual renewal and                            awakening.

Chapter 6    Martin Luther.

                        The Peasants’ War. Luther against the Jews. Colluding in Bigamy.

Chatper 7    Farel and the Reformation in western Switzerland.

                        The story of the imposition of a religion on a reluctant people.

                        Bern, Neuchatel, Laussane and Geneva.

                        Useful background to Calvin’s arrival in Geneva.

Chapter 8   The imposition of an ‘external and disciplined religion’.

                        The arrival and ejection of Calvin and Farel from Geneva.

Chapter 9    Calvin’s return to Geneva.

                        The difficulty of imposing religion on an unwilling people.

                        Calvin almost gives up.

Chapter 10  The Execution of Servetus under Calvin.

                         Reaction to the execution and Calvin’s ‘justification’ of it.

                         Calvin’s victory over political opponents.

                         Summary and Conclusion.



“Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

It is with this verse in mind that I have set out to write a historical survey of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This written survey evolved from the notes which formed the basis of eleven audio talks which I gave, and these are also available. The main purpose is to look at some of the fundamental teachings of the Reformed Tradition and contrast them to what the Scriptures teach. However, I thought it would be instructive and illuminating to have a look at the nature of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century as a background to looking at what the reformers taught. The frame of mind of the reformers and how they dealt with what they considered to be the ‘opposition’ to them also helps to highlight where they erred in doctrine.  

The question considered in this book will be this:

To what extent was the Reformation just a religious movement – to do only with outward or nominal religion – and to what extent, if any, was it a spiritual movement, where the preaching of the Gospel led to a spiritual ‘awakening’ in communities, with people being brought to genuine repentance and faith, and being genuinely converted and finding salvation in Christ. Did the Reformation of the magisterial reformers only represent a change in religious allegiance in the communities – from Catholic to Reformed – or did it represent a movement that changed people’s hearts by the power of the Gospel that led to their lives being manifestly different.

It may be thought that this cannot easily be assessed. However, Both D’Aubigne and Philip Schaff in their histories of the Reformation speak of the reformers’ work as representing a revival of apostolic Christianity and teaching, the like of which had not been seen since New Testament times. This book seeks to provide a counter-balance to this view.

I shall attempt a historical overview of the 1500 years leading up to the Reformation, but only commenting on those events and periods that are relevant to the purpose of this study.

At issue is the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fundamental to our salvation is a clear understanding of why Jesus came to die on the cross. The motivation for writing these things is to bring home to us the nature of the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation. This overview of the history of the Reformation represents just a first step by providing a background to Reformed doctrines. The main aim is to consider the doctrines themselves and contrast them to the teaching of the New Testament, which will be addressed in the second study.

An explanation of terms: The term ‘magisterial’ refers to the reformers of the 16th century, such as Luther and Calvin, who gained their position, authority and power by allowing themselves to be linked with, and come under the supervision and jurisdiction of the secular power – in Germany this was represented by the Princes and in Switzerland by the magistrates of the city council. By doing this, they supplanted the status of the Catholic Church, becoming the new ‘state church’ in the respective regions. Their position was not only safeguarded by the civic authorities, but these authorities, as patrons of the ‘new’ religion’, ensured that no other form of doctrine or practice was allowed in their domains. Hence, because their position and authority derived from the secular power – the ‘magistrates’ – they have become known as the magisterial reformers. And as such, the continued the persecution of any dissenters to their Reformed dogma and practice, just as the Catholic Church had done. The magisterial reformers continued in upholding the notion of ‘Christendom’.

However, there were those who believed that the Reformation of these magisterial reformers did not go far enough in changing things, and sought for a greater severance from Catholic teachings and practices than the magisterial reformers were willing to concede to. The Anabaptists, for example, also believed in the separation of Church and State, which was an unthinkable step for those with a ‘Christendom’ mindset, which the magisterial reformers fiercely clung on to. As a result, the Anabaptists, as well as some others, have become known as the radical reformers. They found themselves outside of the state church system and were therefore cruelly persecuted by the magisterial reformers.


Longer references to quotes and sources will be found at the end of each chapter (where relevant) and are signalled by the reference marker (Nx).



The Gradual Emergence of an Ecclesiastical Institution.

In this historical survey, I want to begin in New Testament times, as this highlights for us certain important truths regarding how quickly believers can fall away from an intimate relationship with the Lord, become legalistic and formal, depart from the truth and allow sin into their midst and into their lives. These things eventually give rise to a dead religion.

The New Testament records are clear about this. Within a few years of churches being established, and during a period where the apostles were still in their midst and teaching among them, churches and individuals descended into false teaching, into formalism and legalism, and into sin. We only need to read what the apostle Paul had to write to the Corinthian and Galatian churches to get a clear picture of some of these things.

Chapters two and three of the book of the Revelation show us how zeal for religious duties and correct doctrine can supplant a believer’s personal intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus, as was the case with the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:4,5). The Lord told them that if they didn’t repent He would take away their candlestick, and we are told that the candlesticks represented the churches. In other words, He was telling them that if they didn’t repent and change, He would not recognise them as His church. Oh yes, they could continue to meet together, but they wouldn’t be representing Him or His church! They would simply be representing dead, outward religion.

Other churches had also got things dangerously wrong. Whether it was a desire for success, or for fame and fortune, or the love of other things, the churches at Sardis and Laodicea chose a way that pleased them and suited them, probably ‘valuing the things of man more than the things of God’ (Mtt. 16:23). This brought them into a perilous condition before God, where Sardis was told it was ‘dead’, and Laodicea was threatened with being rejected totally by the Lord Jesus. (Rev. 3:1,16,17).

Another thing that troubled the churches was men who were seeking things for themselves, for their own profit, for their own status and reputation, building their own little ‘empires’. The apostle John writes about the church leader, Diotrephes, who, he says “loves to have the pre-eminence among them, receives us not…neither does he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church.”  (3 John 9-10). Here we have a clear manifestation of an absolute domineering control that wouldn’t even recognise the authority of the apostles of the Lord! We see here in miniature that which would emerge, within a very few centuries, on a far wider scale through the rise of an institutionalised church which easily allowed itself to be associated and identified with the state power.

And of course, the case of Diotrephes was not an isolated incident. Paul makes this amazing statement when writing about Timothy to the Philippians: “For I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philippians 2:20-21. Italics mine.) Even if, to some extent, this is hyperbole, it nevertheless underscores the reality that there were few men at that time who served the Lord and His people without a self-seeking disposition. Paul even saw this self-seeking nature among the elders of Ephesus, saying that even from among them “shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30. Italics mine.)

The desire for recognition, position, authority, pre-eminence and control seemed to prevail in many men who had gained some kind of position in the church at the time of the apostles. And if this happened when the apostles were still alive and able to counteract by their teaching and interventions the the selfish acts and false teachings of many who sought position and power, how much more would this be the case when there was no such recognised authority among the churches – in other words, after the apostles had departed this earth?

Furthermore, in the early church, it was not only those who gained position and power that led others into deception, but believers themselves were prone to get bored with God’s ways and thus seek for themselves, or be attracted to, preachers who preached to them what they wanted to hear! So within one generation, we see Paul writing to Timothy and saying, “Preach the word; be diligent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they draw to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4. Italics mine.)

Within one generation, Paul recognised a tendency among some, if not many believers to depart from the truth and seek something that suits their own desires and ambitions, instead of truly and sacrificially following the Lord Jesus Christ.

All this is not just academic. It is not just a revelation of what happened in the early church of the first century, but reveals features, tendencies and realities that are common to every generation – and how much more so in the absence of apostles who had manifestly been sent by Jesus Himself.

What I am saying is this:

The idea that in the following few centuries ‘the Church’, so-called, could sort itself out and develop into some kind of spiritual Christian network of churches is an idealised fantasy.

What we find instead is the rise of an ecclesiastical hierarchy and the development of a highly organised and institutional ‘Church’, which bore no resemblance to the church we read about in the New Testament.

During the 2nd century we see the creation of another tier of authority through the appointment of ‘bishops’ as distinct from ‘elders’ or ‘overseers’ (which comes from the Greek word that is wrongly translated ‘bishop’) and the growth of a clerical system under the domination of the bishops. Broadbent writes in his book, The Pilgrim Church, that this process “substituted a human organisation and religious forms for the power and working of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Scriptures in the separate churches. This development was gradual.” (Broadbent, Pilgrim Church, p. 9).

When I was at university I studied ‘early church history’, and part of the course meant reading a book called Creeds, Councils and Controversies. And truly, the immediate centuries after the New Testament period were filled with ecclesiastical infighting, mutual accusations of heresy, the setting up of councils, the strivings for dominance and power etc. It didn’t make for edifying reading!


In this early period, along with Rome, a few other cities had claims on the leadership of the ‘Church’. However, it was Rome that grew in importance. We find an indication of this in a writing of Bishop Irenaeus, where he states: “With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree … and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” (Against Heresies, 3:3:2. Italics mine.) This was written in 189, and in 195, Pope Victor I, attempted to issue an excommunication against the churches in Asia Minor in a dispute over the date of Easter! Leading men of the ‘Church’, so called, had already lost their way – had lost the plot.

We can see here how quickly things had degenerated from what we read in the New Testament and how the apostles conducted themselves. The church in Rome was seeing itself as the centre and defender of orthodoxy. By the end of the 2nd century, Rome’s status and primacy was aslo strengthened by the teaching that claimed that the apostle Peter had been designated by Jesus Christ as His representative on earth and as head of the church. Significantly, this theory claimed that Peter’s position would be passed on to his successors!

However, Rome’s primacy was not left without challenge. In the third century, when Pope Stephen I (254–257) tried to claim that he had doctrinal authority over all the Church, it was met with a strong challenge from Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. Nevertheless, Rome’s primacy continued to establish itself over the next two centuries, despite rivalry from the see of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Eastern Empire.

What was emerging here was a far cry from the pleadings of the apostle Paul who told the Corinthians, “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy…” (2 Corinthians 1:24. Italics mine.) The ‘Church’ that had emerged very quickly in those early centuries was one that sought complete control over every church and individual in all matters of dogma and practice.

In those days there was no printing press, let alone social media! In other words, we know little or nothing of other groups of believers or churches that may have dissented from, and seen through the carnal and human ways of an institutional church. The writings of such dissenters have largely perished, and much of what is written comes from the pen of those that opposed them. Personally, I believe there must have been groups of Christians that were meeting in homes in those early centuries, and had no association, and wanted no association with a domineering human institution, calling itself the ‘church’.

At university, I made an extensive study of the Montanist movement, which began in the second century. It was named after its founder Montanus and began in Phrygia, Asia Minor. I was hoping perhaps to find some elements in it that were true to New Testament Christianity, as opposed to the ecclesiastical formalism and the organised control that was emerging across Europe and the Mediterranean. The Montanist movement seemed to be a reaction to such formalism and was more inspirational in nature and had a strong prophetic aspect to it. Montanus had two female adherents, Prisca and Maximilla, who likewise engaged in prophetic utterances and claims to divine revelations. They soon had quite a following and caused considerable concern to the developing ‘organised’ Church. It was claimed that what was being taught and prophesied was unscriptural and not from a divine source. Eventually, the bishops of Asia Minor gathered in synods and finally ‘excommunicated’ the Montanists, probably about 177 CE. There do seem to have been some extreme excesses within this movement, which casts doubts on its orthodoxy, but most of what we know comes from those who opposed them, since the Montanist writings themselves have perished.

As mentioned earlier, we are here confronted with the problem that what we know of dissenting groups or movements outside the still emerging Catholic Church is mostly known by the writings of those who sought to quash them. This largely remains true until the invention of the printing press.


We of course know that Christian believers suffered persecution under various Roman Emperors. These persecutions and the varying reactions to them by Christians also led to the assertion of authority and primacy of one group of ‘Christians’ over another. There were believers that suffered death and persecution because they had refused, under duress, to offer sacrifices or divine honours to the emperor or to the Roman gods. This was an instrument used by Roman emperors, particularly against Christians, to weed out those citizens who they considered to be treasonous and a danger to the Empire. Moreover, when it suited him, a ruler could blame Christians as a scapegoat for other problems that might occur in the Empire. Generally, Christians were subject to intermittent and sometimes fierce local discrimination in the empire.

In the second half of the third century, under the reigns of Decius and Valerian (Roman Emperors during the period 249 to 260 AD), Roman subjects, including Christians, were compelled to sacrifice to Roman gods or face imprisonment and execution. During this persecution, some clerics denied the faith but were re-instated once the persecution had passed, but this was met with opposition from Novatian. Novation (200-258) was a noted theologian and priest who eventually set himself up with support from his followers as the ‘true’ pope, in opposition to the elected Pope Cornelius. Novatian argued that it was wrong to so quickly and easily re-instate lapsed clergy and believers. This also brought him into conflict with Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. The clergy in Rome sided with Cyprian that the question should be handled with moderation and balance by a council. Cyprian called Novatian a ‘schismatic’ – someone who threatened the unity of the church, and Cyprian considered schismatics worse than apostates.

Broadbent writes, “Writing of Novatian and those who sympathised with him in their efforts to bring about greater purity in the churches, Cyprian denounces ‘the wickedness of an unlawful ordination made in opposition to the Catholic Church’; he says that those who approved Novatian could not have communion with the Catholic Church because they endeavoured ‘to cut and tear the one body of the Catholic Church’, having committed the impiety of forsaking their Mother, and must return to the Church, seeing that they have acted ‘contrary to Catholic unity’. Cyprian said there are, ‘tares in the wheat, yet we should not withdraw from the Church, but labour to be wheat in it, vessels of gold or silver in the great house.’… Referring to Novatian he asserts, “He who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian … there is one Church … and also one episcopate.” (Broadbent, Ibid, p.11)

Cyprian freely uses the term ‘the Catholic Church’ and sees no salvation outside of it. Following the letters of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, the Church of Rome declared the Novatianists heretical.

Notice here what is considered the greatest of crimes – it is causing division within the ‘Mother Church’. There is only one church, and it is the Roman Church. (A similar, if not identical argument was made by the reformers in the 16th century against Anabaptists and others in excluding and persecuting them.) Notice also the reference to ‘tares and wheat’ in Bishop Cyprian’s writing above. This reference (from Matthew 13) is one that will now constantly be alluded to by the Catholic Church and then, subsequently, in exactly the same way by the Magisterial Reformers in their defence of ‘Christendom’, namely that entity which includes virtually all of  the ‘Christianised’ citizens under its jurisdiction. In other words, it was the establishment of a nominal or cultural Christianity, where all the infant-baptized citizens were now automatically considered to be Christians and to represent ‘the Church’.

Those who down the centuries would claim that a church should consist of committed, converted believers who were leading holy lives that actually distinguished them from the world, would be met with the argument that ‘we cannot know who really is a Christian and who is not in the church because the Church consists of ‘tares and wheat’. Those who insisted on the ‘purity’ of the church, of members who distinguished themselves through changed and holy lives were castigated as being proud, idealistic, hypocritical and the like. Such groups were persecuted down the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, and then by the Protestant Reformers, as we shall see later.

This rise of Christendom (or of ‘nominal’ Christianity) under Roman Catholicism was carried on unaltered by the reformers of the 16th century. There was no change in this.

So we have seen that early on the Church in Rome was establishing itself as the centre of orthodoxy and assuming control over all other churches. This bears no resemblance to the church of the New Testament, nor did its leading men bear any resemblance to the way the apostle Paul conducted himself among the churches and who said, “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith you stand.” (2 Corinthians 1:24). The Roman Church was establishing itself as the one and only Christian ‘denomination’ to whom all others must submit. It is difficult to see how any of this, or the leaders in it, actually represented the Lord’s church.

The Diocletian persecution.

At the beginning of the fourth century, there was another severe persecution of Christians under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, who came to power in 284. This was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In 303, edicts were issued taking away Christians’ legal rights and demanding that they comply with the Empire’s religious practices. Scriptures were to be burnt and Christians banned from meeting together for worship. Later further edicts were issued targeting the clergy and requiring sacrifice to the gods. This persecution varied in intensity across the Empire, but ultimately failed in its purpose and edicts were rescinded in 311.

However, the temporary apostasy of some Christians, and the surrendering of scriptures during the persecution played a major role in the subsequent Donatist controversy, which we will consider shortly.


Constantine was Roman emperor from 306 to 337. Eusebius of Caesarea and other Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine claimed the emperorship in the west, and ‘converted’ to Christianity.  Eusebius of Caesarea recounts that Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words ‘Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα’ (‘in this sign, conquer!’). Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Rho, X and P overlapping), and thereafter they were victorious.

This was supposed to be an account of Constantine’s conversion. However, in this account it lacks all the features of true conversion, namely, conviction of sin, repentance and faith in a pardoning God.

Constantine immediately declared that Christians and pagans should be allowed to worship freely, and restored property confiscated during previous persecutions and other lost privileges to the Christians. The Edict of Milan in 313, decreed tolerance for Christianity in the Empire.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity began to transition to be the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, launching the era of the State Church of the Roman Empire, with Constantine becoming the great patron of the Church.

Constantine saw himself as an ‘emperor of the Christian people’, the Christian emperor within the Church. He supported the Church financially, had an extraordinary number of basilicas built, granted privileges (e.g., exemption from certain taxes) to clergy, promoted Christians to high-ranking offices, returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and endowed the church with land and other wealth. Before Constantine, being a Christian meant persecution – after Constantine, it would mean promotion.

Broadbent writes, “The prominence of the Bishops and especially of the Metropolitans in the Catholic churches made for ease in communication between the Church and the civil authorities. Constantine himself, while retaining the old imperial dignity of chief priest of Pagan religion, assumed that of arbitrator of the Christian churches. The Church and the State quickly became closely associated, and it was not long before the power of the State was at the disposal of those who had the lead in the Church, to enforce their decisions. Thus the persecuted soon became persecutors.” (Broadbent, Ibid, p. 20. Italics mine)

When reading about these developments, I thought that surely this close association between Church and State, where the two become as one in upholding a Christian religion, will inevitably result in unavoidable tensions between the two. The State power (whoever that may happen to be represented by at any given time in history) can, and will only recognise and support one Christian religion or Church. The emperor, for example, cannot commend to his citizens to choose between differing or rival Christian religions! He cannot sponsor and support rival Christian groups, because he would thus be creating ‘a house divided against itself’. The peace and security of the State depends on the stability of the one ruling political power and this now also means it is dependent on the integrity and unity of the one Christian religion, that is, on the State Religion.

It is now not only the State religion, but also the State’s religion, with the Emperor overseeing and ensuring the unity of the Church, for this is now linked to the peace and security of the State. Offence against the State Religion is now an offence against the State, the political power, itself. The nature of this union between church and state would have far-reaching consequences for more than 1000 years. On the one hand, it provides the opportunity and the means for the so-called Church to banish, persecute, imprison, torture and kill all those dissenters who also call themselves Christians, but disagree with, and depart from the State church’s dogma and practice. On the other hand, to continue to win such support from the State, the Church itself must in some measure concede authority and control to the State. As I mentioned, this tension, this arrangement, would result in the distinction that would be made between what would be called the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation.

Some have called this arrangement between church and state the Constantinian or sacrilist model. It was the arrangement that the Roman Catholic Church totally bought into, exploited and submitted to. It was also the arrangement that the Protestant reformers of the 16th century totally embraced and perpetuated, using the forces of the state power to banish, persecute, imprison and kill all dissenters to Reformed dogma and practice. The brutal persecution of ‘nonconformist’ Christian believers continued under the Protestant reformers as it had done under the Roman Catholic Church. There was no change.


Returning to the rule of Constantine, what we would see in this arrangement is that when push came to shove, real power lay with the state and not the church. For the sake of the unity and peace of the Empire, Constantine took responsibility for maintaining and ensuring the peace and unity of the church.

When first informed of the unrest in Alexandria due to the Arian theological disputes, he was ‘greatly troubled’ and, ‘rebuked’ both Arius and Bishop Alexander for originating the disturbance and allowing it to become public.  (Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book 1, Ch. 16). Constantine, in a letter to the Nicomedians, wrote the following:

“Should any of the bishops unadvisedly excite tumult, his audacity shall be restrained by the minister of God, that is, by my executive” (Theodoret. Lib. 1 c. 20. Italics mine). If the Emperor was financing and supporting Religion, he took it upon himself to ensure peace and tranquillity in the Church just as he did in the political realm. The clerics did not always take kindly to this when they felt the Emperor was actually making decisions that were the prerogative of the Church. But this was an inbuilt tension that would never really be resolved. How far can you ‘push’ the power that was responsible for your very existence?

Calvin put a more innocuous interpretation of this in his Institutes. He writes:

“…Romish clergy. They deem it unworthy of them to answer before a civil judge in personal causes; and consider both the liberty and dignity of the Church to consist in exemption from ordinary tribunals and laws. But the ancient bishops, who otherwise were most resolute in asserting the rights of the Church, did not think it any injury to themselves and their order to act as subjects. Pious emperors also, as often as there was occasion, summoned clergy to their tribunals, and met with no opposition. For Constantine, in a letter to the Nicomedians, thus speaks: ‘Should any of the bishops unadvisedly excite tumult, his audacity shall be restrained by the minister of God, that is, by my executive.’” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 4, Ch. 8. P. 15)

It was precisely because the ‘ancient bishops’ did not want to incur ‘injury’ from the Emperor that they answered to his summons! It is this scenario and arrangement that would cause John Calvin himself so much heartache, frustration, exasperation and nervous exhaustion during his time in Geneva. Most of his years in Geneva were spent in constant conflict and struggles with the councils and syndics (magistrates) of Geneva as each tried to assert their own authority over the other in important matters regarding the running of the church. The ‘Constantinian’ arrangement that gave Calvin his position and authority in Geneva (the civic authority) was the same power that would clip his ecclesiastical wings when it deemed he had ‘overstepped’ the mark.

We see Constantine’s oversight and direction of the Church in the matter of the Council of Nicaea. Constantine organised a local church council to deal with issues that were troubling church unity, but when that failed, he called a special Council to be held at Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea was convened by Constantine upon the recommendations of a synod in 325 AD – this was the first empire-wide (ecumenical) meeting of church leaders to discuss various doctrinal controversies and to arrive at a consensus. It resulted in a formulation of Christian doctrine concerning a whole number of doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues.

What we can also note here is that there was already a unified body of churches that was ready and willing to be thus absorbed into, and united with the great secular power. That this organised body of churches could so easily feel themselves at home and comfortable with such an arrangement, in itself speaks volumes about their spiritual condition. They might have had a reputation for being spiritually ‘alive’ (Rev. 3:1), but then the standards and values of the Lord are very different to man’s. The way has been prepared for the creation of ‘Christendom’ – the ‘Christianisation’ of society; the creation of nominal Christianity.


The Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in AD 380. The edict was issued in the name of Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius 1, and it stated:

“It is Our Will that all people who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans, as the religion which he introduced makes clear even unto this day. It is evident that this is the religion that is followed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria….We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative.” (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.i.2. Italics mine).

Theodosius 1 (Roman emperor from 379 to 395) also issued decrees that effectively made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. In 393, he banned the pagan rituals of the Olympic Games. He issued decrees against Roman paganism, Hellenistic religion, and Arianism.

The Emperor now becomes, as it were, the defender of the faith, and was ready to use all the power and might at his disposal to quell and crush any religious dissent. As we can see from the quote above, the Emperor would actually see himself as God’s instrument of vengeance upon those who would seek to cause division in the church. And as the Pharisees connived with the Roman authorities, represented by Pontius Pilate, to arrest and kill Jesus Christ, so both the Catholic Church and later the Protestant Reformers would use the physical force which was at the disposal of secular power to persecute and kill dissenting believers. This feature of ruthless dictatorial rule made it self-evident that Christendom and those that aligned themselves to it had nothing to do with Christ or His Church. One just had to read the New Testament to realise that the truth of this.


Below are two quotes which reflect the increased formalism and further departure from New Testament Christianity that the Church was undergoing.

“When in the fourth century Christianity was granted the status of a legal religion, the Christian celebrations took on a more formal appearance and were embellished by the use of vestments, lights and incense. Extempore prayers by the presider gave way to texts previously approved by synods of bishops as a guarantee of the orthodoxy of the content, leading to the formation of liturgical forms or ‘rites’ generally associated with influential episcopal sees.” (Bradshaw and Johnson, 2012, pp. 70,71. ).

“Eventually, pictures, images, and icons began to be valued. Churches were built to receive relics or to commemorate the death of martyrs. The meetings of the disciples of the Lord, in simple houses and rooms, changed to the gathering of all in a given location, willing or unwilling, believers or not, in consecrated buildings dedicated to the Virgin or one of the saints, filled with images, pictures, and relics, which became objects of worship. Prayer was diverted from God to the Virgin and the saints, and the idolatry of Paganism was reproduced in the gross superstitions that grew up around the images, the priests, and the forms of religion.” (Broadbent, Pilgrim Church, p.43).


Christianity grew much more rapidly in Africa than in any other western province, and by the 3rd century it was strongly represented in Carthage and other Tunisian towns. I have already previously mentioned that there were groups of Christians emphasised and insisted on the purity of the church, namely, that it was to be a communion of committed believers who distinguished themselves from the unrighteous lives of unbelievers. This was to a significant extent true of Christians in North Africa. In particular, holiness of life was regarded as essential in validating the ministry of the priest. Where the priest was lacking in this respect – in holiness and uprightness of life – he was considered unfit to administer the sacraments. They believed that when the Church lost its holiness, it ceased to be the Church. We shall see how the now ‘institutionalised’ Roman Church would become a relentless adversary of this outlook – and later the Church of the Reformaton.

During the Diocletian persecution some believers held fast to their faith and refused to hand over the Scriptures or to make sacrifice to the gods. Consequently, they suffered for their faith. However, there were those who did surrender the scriptures, in effect, denying their faith, and among these were clerics, as well. When the persecution ended, Christians who had reneged on their faith were called ‘traditores’, meaning ‘those who handed (the holy scriptures) over’ to the Roman authorities.

Division and trouble arose when in 311 Felix of Aptungi, an alleged traditor, consecrated Caecilian as a new bishop of Carthage. But many did not recognise this appointment as Caecilian allowed himself to be consecrated by a traditor bishop – or you could say a ‘traitor’ bishop.

Donatus was a Christian leader in North Africa at this time and he led the campaign against the easy re-instatement of those who had denied the faith. The churches in numerous communities, especially in Numidia, followed Donatus and claimed that they alone constituted the true church of the martyrs, who were greatly esteemed among African Christians. This dispute about the nature of the church resulted in a split on the part of the Donatists, as they were called, from the Catholic Church. In 313, in an attempt to resolve the schism, the Donatists appealed to Constantine to determine which group was entitled to imperial recognition. 

We note here how already the lines between Church and State were being blurred – who should decide in such matters? The Church or the State? It was the one who had the greater power. The Emperor cannot be seen to be funding two rival churches. Division in the Church was equated to division and instability within the Empire. It was a threat to the State and to society itself. This would be the axiom down the centuries, used by Catholics and Protestants alike.

The schism developed into a situation where there were two rival bishops – one Catholic and the other Donatist. Constantine called for arbitration, and the bishop of Rome led the argument against the Donatists and his view prevailed. However, the Donatists appealed against this decision, so Constantine summoned a council of bishops, which, in 314, again sided with Rome against the Donatists. As a result, in 316 Constantine validated the recognition of the newly-consecrated bishop, whose appointment the Donatists had opposed.

Constantine tried to persuade the Donatists to come back into the fold of the Catholic Church. But those attempts failed and he eventually resorted to force. Some Donatists were killed when their churches were confiscated, the victims being honoured as martyrs.

However, coercive measures by the imperial authorities failed to curtail the expansion of Donatism in North Africa. In 321, Constantine was forced to change tack, which resulted in him granting the Donatists full liberty of faith and worship. At the same time, he urged the Catholic Church to patience and indulgence. However, such qualities were in short supply.

Here is another feature that would repeat itself down the centuries. The secular authority, though powerful, was nevertheless guided in the end by prudence and pragmatism. The Donatists in North Africa were so numerous and popular, particularly among the poorer classes, that an attempt to suppress and eradicate them only led to an unacceptable degree of social instability in the region. Constantine recognised that the ‘greater good’ for the Empire was to be found in allowing the Donatists their freedom rather than inflicting persecution on them – irrespective of what the Catholic Church felt or wanted!

Julian the Apostate: 361 to 363.

Emperor Julian was called Julian the Apostate because when he became Emperor in 361, he rejected Christianity, and it was then that the Donatists began to flourish again in Africa and represented the majority Christian party for the next 30 years. However, his reign only lasted 2 years.

AUGUSTINE (354 – 430).

As far as our story is concerned, it was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa) who now appears on the scene and takes up the fight against the Donatists, and the struggle against them took up much of his time. He had been made Bishop shortly after 395. At this time, the Donatists were more numerous than the Catholics in parts of North Africa. As we shall see with the reformers of the 16th century, this combat with ‘seperatists’ (the Donatists) influenced his theology, in other words, in response to their teachings, Augustine had to develop a theology that countered it.

The Donatists couldn’t be won over by persuasion – though Augustine did try that through numerous writings. So Augustine evolved a theory that supported the right of Christian rulers to use force against heretics and those who cause division within the Church. In this way, Augustine could justify the use of the political and legal power of the Roman Empire to suppress the Donatist church – or any schismatic. This would be the stance that the Magisterial Reformers not only aligned themselves to, but also rigorously applied to stamp out the Anabaptists and other dissenters.

In 411 an imperial commission summoned a conference in Carthage to bring the schism between the Catholic and Donatist parties to an end. This was presided over by Augustine’s friend, the imperial tribune Marcellinus. The conference, which was designed to settle matters once and for all, was attended by 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatist bishops. This council decided against the Donatists and for the Catholics. In 412 and 414 severe laws denied the Donatists civil and ecclesiastical rights. 

An important issue that has already been touched upon appears here again. The validity of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had been traditors was denied by the Donatists. However, according to Augustine, a sacrament was from God and ex opere operato (Latin for “from the work carried out”). ‘It is Christ who baptizes.’ A priest or bishop in a state of sin could continue to administer sacraments, because the validity of the sacrament lay not in the spiritual condition of the priest, but in the God-ordained ministry itself. However, the Donatists believed that a ‘repentant’ apostate priest could no longer consecrate the Eucharist.

The failure of the above conference led to the re-imposition of strict imperial laws and persecution against the Donatists. Augustine, who had for years tried to win the Donatists over by persuasion, now began to advocate the use of force against them, in order to bring them back into the fold of the Catholic Church. In support of this stance, he appealed to the command in the parable of the Great Supper in Luke 24:23 to “compel them to come in.” In other words, those who keep themselves outside the ‘Church’ should have force used against them to ‘bring them back in’. His interpretation of this text no doubt suited his ends, but it displays complete disregard for the meaning of the passage and disrespect for the Scriptures themselves.

Augustine and the nature of the church.

We have already noted that the Donatists maintained the idea of pure Church with committed believers. However, in his letters to them, Augustine sought to show the Donatists that the Church is a mixed society which consists of the godly and the ungodly, and that the Church does not consist of saints alone. As we have seen earlier, Augustine uses Matthew 13:30 to maintain that the visible church consists of ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’. It is this interpretation of the Church that provided the Catholic Church (and later the reformers) with the justification of creating and maintaining ‘Christendom’ – the Christianisation of the whole of society.

In consequence of this teaching, Augustine claimed that the Donatists had put themselves outside of the one true universal Church, and that they were not a pure church at all but apostate, because they had forsaken the ‘mother’ church. Augustine also claimed that baptism administered by a sinner was no different than baptism offered by a saint because it was Christ’s ministry, not man’s. (This was also adamantly affirmed by Martin Luther and other reformers in their disputes with the Anabaptists.) Augustine goes on to say that baptism was effective only within the unity of the Church. Since the Church is the place of the Holy Spirit, in which sins are forgiven, the Donatists, who were outside the Church, lacked the Holy Spirit and thus could not be saved.

In his reactions and writings to the Donatist schism, Augustine developed his doctrine of the church. He taught that there is one universal Church in the world. For him, this was the Catholic Church. Furthermore, Augustine maintained that the church visible will, according to the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, be made up of the godly and the ungodly until the end of the world. Augustine insisted that there could be no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

Augustine supporting violence.

Earlier in his career, Augustine was not in favour of schismatics being violently coerced into communion with the Catholic Church by the force of secular power, but he developed exactly such an outlook and teaching in his controversies with the Donatists. (This is exactly the path that Luther and Calvin themselves went down in their fight against dissenters. They perceived that the scriptures taught no such thing, but in trying to eradicate ‘heresy’ from their regions, they resorted to the expediency of using the brute physical force of the secular power to put down dissenters, using such arguments as were developed in the first few centuries by the emerging Catholic Church.)

Indeed, Augustine became increasingly supportive of intervention by the state in view of the Donatists’ determined resistance against the Church’s efforts to unite them with itself, and particularly since some among the Donatists, called the Circumcellions, reacted with violence against Catholics.

The Donatist bishop Petilian complained to Augustine that Catholics were persecuting them. He pointed out that the only victory for Donatists was to be killed or to escape. He asked how Augustine could justify this killing because Jesus never killed anyone. Augustine replied by suggesting that Christian love meant ecclesiastical unity. He advocated the use of force against the Donatists, asking “Why . . . should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction?” (Saint Augustine 354- 430 Of the Correction of the Donatists, Trans. by J. R. King, Ch. 6). Again, this was an argument used by the 16th century reformers.

Petilian angrily replied that love does not punish people nor incite emperors to take away the lives or to plunder the possessions of individual citizens. However, Augustine countered that Christ punished people when he expelled the merchants from the temple with a whip!

Vincentius was an old friend of Augustine from Carthage who eventually became a Donatist. He was shocked that Augustine supported the use of the state power to force Donatists back into the Catholic Church. In his letter to Vincentius, Augustine used the New Testament parable of the Great Banquet to justify using force against the Donatists: “You are of the opinion that no one should be compelled to follow righteousness; and yet you read that the householder said to his servants, ‘Whomsoever ye shall find, compel them to come in….’ We have no hesitation in finding fault with you, who think that we are criminal in bringing any complaint before a Christian emperor against the enemies of our communion.

“Truly, if past events recorded in the prophetic books were figures of the future, there was given under King Nebuchadnezzar a figure both of the time which the Church had under the apostles, and of that which she has now. In the age of the apostles and martyrs, that was fulfilled which was prefigured when the aforesaid king compelled pious and just men to bow down to his image, and cast into the flames all who refused. Now, however, is fulfilled that which was prefigured soon after in the same king, when, being converted to the worship of the true God, he made a decree throughout his empire, that whosoever should speak against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, should suffer the penalty which their crime deserved. The earlier time of that king represented the former age of emperors who did not believe in Christ, at whose hands the Christians suffered because of the wicked; but the later time of that king represented the age of the successors to the imperial throne, now believing in Christ, at whose hands the wicked suffer because of the Christians.” (The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin, P.Schaff, p. 550,551, Letter of St. Augustine To Vincentius, Letter 93, Ch. 3, P. 9. Italics mine).

From Augustine’s words, we see that he cared nothing for the context and correct interpretation of the passages he was quoting from. Those passages that seemed to suit his purpose were simply abused to make them fit his own outlook. He quotes Scriptures in order to justify violence against dissenters. And in his attempt to justify the dictatorial rule of the Church through state power, he gives his incredible interpretation from the passage above in the book of Daniel. He goes on to say,

“We see not a few men here and there, but many cities, once Donatist, now Catholic, vehemently detesting the diabolical schism, and ardently loving the unity of the Church; and these became Catholic under the influence of that fear which is to you so offensive by the laws of emperors.”

Augustine believed that the threat and use of violence against dissenters was a blessing in that it brought back into the fold of the Church those who otherwise were destined to eternal perdition. It is a remarkable misuse of scripture, and went towards establishing a so-called biblical basis for the persecution, imprisonment, torture and death of dissenters for many hundreds of years to come. Augustine’s writings against, and treatment of the Donatists would be quoted by the leading reformers of the 16th century to justify their violence against dissenters.

Augustine was hesitant about the more violent oppression of the Donatists, but without doubt he supported and availed himself of the Imperial Power to suppress and persecute those who separated from the Catholic Church.


We now have the Roman Empire supporting and representing one religion. State and Church work in tandem. Unified by one religion. A threat to one of them, represents a threat to both of them. Both together tolerate only the one recognised Catholic church. Any who dissent from the prevailing Catholic Church, from its doctrines or its practices, represent a threat to the harmony of society and the well-being of the State; religious dissent is equated to sedition and rebellion. (Again and again, this axiom is repeated during the Reformation by the leading reformers against the Anabaptists.) How can the State, the Empire, support two or three different versions of Christianity? It is unthinkable. Thus the persecution, banishment, beatings, torture and death is assured to any who dissent. That persecution of Christians that heretofore was sporadic and intermittent under hostile Emperors of Rome, now became persistent, continual and unrelenting under this sacrilist regime of Church and State – and this continued for over a millennium and included the reign of Protestant States.

In addition to this, it was not only the idea that there can be only one genuine Church that held sway; but because of this ‘union’ between church and state, particularly with the emergence of the baptism of infants, everyone in a given locality was regarded as ‘Christian’ – the community became by definition ‘Christian’, or more accurately put, ‘Christianised’. This was underpinned by the baptism of infants. Thus you have the idea developing of a ‘Christian’ nation, who now represent the ‘people of God’, just like in the Old Testament. The clerics – whether Catholic or Reformed – represent something like the priests of the Old Testament, and the Emperor or civic authorities the King of Israel; and the clerics can now call on their ‘king’ to persecute and annihilate the enemies of the so-called true religion. These kinds of arguments were used by the reformers who also quoted Romans 13 in order to justify the persecution of dissenters by using the force of the state.

So Europe now undergoes a process of ‘Christianization’.

THE MIDDLE AGES: The Church all-pervading.

By now religion pervaded all aspects of society and daily life, and the church with its priests, rituals and sacraments, was seen as the means of obtaining eternal life. To incur the wrath or displeasure of the Church, was to put your soul in mortal danger – whether you were a beggar or a King. Belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church was not only a requisite, it was the norm. And of course, the Church could profit greatly from such control and submission to itself.

The Church found ways to charge people for all and sundry. Baptisms, burials, taxes, tithes, relics – charges were required and levied at every turn, impoverishing the people. And then of course there was the sale of indulgences – paying for sins to be forgiven or escape from purgatory. The Church itself paid no taxes and was able to accumulate wealth that exceeded that of monarchs, and this of course perpetuated the tension between State powers and the Roman Pontiff. ‘Christian’ Kings were now meant to be in submission to the Pope for the good of their own souls! The influence of the Church was deep and widespread. It had accumulated to itself great power, and could muster up nations to fight on its behalf against heretics at home and abroad. And we must not forget, with all this power, the Catholic Church continued ruthlessly to persecute and eliminate those who represented a threat to its dogma and practice.

However, the size, wealth and power of the church led to far greater corruption in the course of the middle ages.


I will only make a few brief statements about the Holy Roman Empire. It was around the 900s (CE) that saw the emergence of what would become known as the ‘Holy Roman Empire’, and which would last for about 1000 years, if you date it from then. It wasn’t officially called by this name until the 13th century. Although, as someone has noted, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire in the strict sense. It was a patchwork of different lands, mainly in central and western Europe. This alliance of nations and the papacy was also there to safeguard and promote the Catholic faith, and it was ruthless in putting down and eliminating those who disagreed with the tenets of the Church. However, as from the time of Constantine, there were at times inevitable tensions – to say the least – between nations or regional rulers and the papacy.


With power and wealth came the rampant corruption of the Church. The Church’s easy-going abuse of power though, would also, to some extent, be its Achilles heel. It gave rise to various reformers, who would not only point out and inveigh against these corruptions, but who would also write to correct the false teachings of Catholicism. The following summaries are given to show that there were those who challenged Catholic corruptions and false teachings long before the appearance of the 16th century reformers.

The Waldensians

In the 12th century, a movement began in France under the leadership of Peter Waldo, and they were called the Waldensians. They emphasized voluntary poverty, but because of the scarcity of their own writings it is difficult to absolutely pinpoint all their beliefs. However, many of their teachings anticipated those of the later Reformers. They rejected the use of indulgences. Baptism was to be by full immersion in water and was not administered to infants. Eventually, they taught that the bread and wine were to be understood as symbols only. They also rejected the notion of purgatory, and of prayers offered for the dead. They accepted the Bible as the only authority for all doctrine. They opposed the superstitious beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church with regard to relics, Lent and fasting and pilgrimages. They rejected what they perceived as the idolatry of the Catholic Church and considered the Papacy as the Antichrist of Rome.

So here we can see that the abuses, false teachings and superstitions of the Catholic Church that the reformers argued against and exposed, had already been opposed and attacked by the Waldensians 300 years earlier – and also by others later. In fact, Martin Luther’s initial attack on the Roman church was far more tentative than that of some others who preceded him.

Inevitably, the teachings of the Waldensian brought them into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215 the Waldensians were declared heretical and subjected to intense and terrible persecution over a long period of time, with many being burned at the stake. This led to them spreading to many different parts of Europe. At one stage, the Waldensians briefly ruled Buda, the capital of Hungary from 1304 to 1307, and the Waldensians in turn excommunicated Pope Benedict XI. Although they survived, their existence was a precarious one, which required them to meet in secret. At the time of the Reformation, representatives from the reformers met with some of the representatives of the Waldensians, and a Confession of Faith with Reformed doctrines was formulated, thus enabling some of the Waldensians to worship openly again.

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe (born c. 1324 in Yorkshire) was an influential theologian and dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood and is considered an important predecessor to Protestantism. He wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church by getting rid of the immoral clerics, by relieving them of their properties which he considered to be a source of corruption. In 1378 he began a systematic attack on the beliefs and practices of the church. He regarded the Scriptures as the only basis for teaching, and maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy or clerical celibacy. In one of his writings he calls monks the pests of society, enemies of religion, and patrons and promoters of every crime and advocated the dissolution of the monasteries. The Catholic Church was not pleased!

The pope and the English clerics moved against Wycliffe, but he had support from the nobility, particularly from John of Gaunt, the father of the future King Henry IV. Wycliffe had particularly won them to his side as he was advocating the conveyance of church properties and endowments to the state. The Roman Catholic Church was already perceived as rich and corrupt, as it owned one third of all the land in England and was exempt of all taxes, so certain of the nobles had reasons other than doctrinal for protecting Wycliffe.

But when he spoke against the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation, he lost the support of the nobles and had to retire to the rectory of Lutterworth, his former parish.

Of course later, under a different King of England, and as a result of Catholic edicts against Wycliffe and his works, his body was exhumed and burnt at the stake under King Henry VI.

How was it that Wycliffe survived his onslaught on the Catholic Church? I think that one main element in this was the fact that he exposed what was evident to many, namely, the corruption and exploitation exercised by the Catholic Church. It struck a chord not only in the hearts but also in the ‘pockets’ of the ruling classes in England. The other factor that assured his survival was the support he got from the nobility. In the end, the secular power would decide what was in its own best interests. This again is another example of the inevitable tension and jostling for power that existed from the time of Constantine and onwards between the church and the secular power.

Jan Huss

Jan (John) Huss was born in Bohemia (c. 1370). He was a theologian and was to some extent influenced by John Wycliffe and, like Wycliffe, is considered a forerunner of the Reformation. He was ordained a priest and began to preach in the city of Prague.

The history surrounding John Huss and the Hussite wars that followed is too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say that Huss incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church when he forthrightly spoke against the sale of indulgences in a public disputation and finished by burning the papal decree authorising such sales! Eventually, he was offered safe passage by the Catholic authorities to attend the Council of Constance to offer his defence, with the promise that he could freely leave whatever the outcome. So Huss came and attended the council. However, after Huss refused to recant, they had him imprisoned and burnt at the stake.

However, by this time Huss had gained a large following and the resistance of the Hussites, as his followers were known, led to what was called the Hussite or Bohemian wars. Again, the history is complex, with different battles being fought and one side gaining the upper hand and then the other. These wars continued from 1419 to 1431. At the end of the Hussite Wars, the lands of Bohemia were left totally ravaged and hundreds of thousands were killed. However, the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t quite eliminate the Hussites and they remained a thorn in the Church’s side for some time.

What I want to draw attention to is this: true religion is religion of the heart, which means a change of heart, a radical change of life; an inward spiritual change that then results in a manifest outward change of behaviour. It doesn’t matter what doctrines you hold, which doctrines you teach if your life hasn’t been radically changed by a new birth from above. You can preach against the abuses and false teachings and practices of the Catholic Church, you can proclaim ‘justification by faith’ and you can insist on sola scriptura, but it will do you no good – or anyone else – unless your heart has been changed. The Pharisees knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out and ‘believed’ many things correctly, but their hearts were not right, and so these people who knew the scriptures so well, ended up killing Him who was the Son of God. These religious Pharisees continued to persecute and kill the Lord’s people after His resurrection – and they thought they were rendering a service to God!

Jesus didn’t say that “we shall know them by their doctrine” but that we would “know them by their fruits”! (Mtt. 7:16)

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from here.” (John 18:36. Italics mine).  He furthermore instructed His disciples with the following words: “…for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52. Italics mine). 

His words are clear. They direct themselves specifically to the matter of fighting and taking up arms in the protection of one’s faith, and He declares it is not in the nature of His Kingdom or of His servants to do so! It certainly was not in His nature! Nothing could be clearer. All those who take up arms in His name and for His truth to defend themselves and their ‘faith’, or fight against, kill and persecute others who believe differently to them – all those who do such things do not represent Christ, they do not represent His church, they are not of His Kingdom…and they are certainly not His servants.

What is called, and written about as ‘church’ history is, by and large, not the history of His church, of the true church. That history, so to speak, is written in heaven and shall be fully revealed in a day that is to come.

In the above account I am not writing to support the Hussites against the Catholics. I see no difference between them. They were all men of war. They were religious wars. Such actions have nothing to do with Christ or His Church. Both sides believed in taking arms against one’s enemies. In the face of such conduct, in view of bearing this kind of fruit in their lives, scriptural knowledge, however ‘correct’, makes no difference. It is all dead religion; it is a useless faith that cannot beget children from above; it doesn’t change the heart. The apostle Paul’s heart was changed by the Gospel, by Christ – and what a change the Gospel wrought in his life!  Paul gives a wonderful account of his conversion from being a persecutor who used violence – in the name of God – to becoming an example to all generations of the longsuffering, gentleness and meekness of Christ. (1 Timothy 1:12-16; 2 Cor. 10:1). A man who allowed himself to be abused and misused – and didn’t fight back!

Whether it is the Catholics, the Hussites, or the Puritans – or others that we shall look at shortly – they were all one and the same. They believed, contrary to the teaching of the Son of God, in using severe physical violence to kill and destroy their enemies. It is all dead religion, veiling the glory of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ from the spiritual view and understanding of people. Such religion, because it convinces people that they are in the service of God, because they have a form of godliness and a form of correct doctrine, keeps people outside of Christ’s Gospel and Kingdom. They take up the sword, and they die by the sword (like Ulrich Zwingli), but they are none the wiser! They are not taught by God from scripture, even though they may proclaim ‘justification by faith’ and ‘eternal judgement’ from their pulpits, while they put down their opponents with the sword.

We shall see all this more clearly when we come to look at the Reformation of the 16th Century.

What is important to note from this is that a man, whether he is religious or non-religious – if has familiarised himself with the teaching of the New Testament, can easily discern what the Catholic Church was doing in many respects was either unbiblical or had nothing to do with Christ and His Church. One didn’t need ‘special revelation’ to ascertain this, nor did it necessarily mean that a person with this kind of understanding was a converted Christian themselves.


  1. Reasons for the success of the Reformation.
  2. Zwingli, and the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland. 


 Why was the Reformation ‘successful’ in the 16th century? It seems to me there were four main reasons.

  1. Major powers were pre-occupied.

There was a continuing struggle for power and dominance between the powerful Catholic countries of Europe and the papacy. The supremacy of the papacy itself was dented in the 15th century when the Catholic Council of Constance clipped the wings of the popes.

The Italian wars (1494–1559) were a series of violent wars for control of Italy, fought largely by France and Spain but involving the Pope and much of Europe. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was allied with England and the Pope against France, and they drove the French out of Milan, defeating and capturing Francis I, the King of France in 1525, and forced him to sign a peace treaty while he was imprisoned. When he was released, however, the King of France denounced the treaty because it had been signed under duress. France then joined an alliance that the Pope had formed with Henry VIII of England as well as others to resist the growing power of the Holy Roman Emperor. In the ensuing war, Charles’s mercenary troops sacked and plundered Rome itself and the Pope came under virtual imprisonment in 1527.

We can see that all this was going on at the very time that the Reformation was breaking onto the scene! (Martin Luther had made his 95 theses public in 1517.) Catholic nations, together with the Catholic Church, were all involved in a struggle for dominance and expansion of territory.

It was during this period that King Henry VIII had asked the pope (Pope Clement VII) for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused for several reasons – one being that Emperor Charles V of Spain, who was essentially holding the Pope as prisoner, was Catherine’s nephew.

To add to their woes, there was also the threat from the east from the Ottoman Empire that was expanding westwards.

  1. Resentment towards the Catholic Church.

The wealth, corruption and exploitation of the Church caused growing resentment, as did the lavish and indulgent life-style of its clerics and popes. At the beginning of the 15th century the Catholic Church and its papacy were in disarray when they found themselves with three competing popes! There were all sorts of intrigues and plots in the papal court, and the Catholic Church was trying to bleed people dry of money through the sale of indulgences in order to fund its lavish building enterprises in Rome. The church was also plagued with immorality. Priests and monks were known for their dissolute lives. In a pastoral letter, shortly before the Reformation, one bishop complained of the immorality of many priests who openly kept concubines in their houses, and refused to dismiss them, who gambled, who loved to sit in taverns and get drunk, and who were not averse to using foul language. Feeling secure in their status after so many centuries of being in control, many Catholic priests and monks disgraced themselves openly. Luther himself testified to these things.

Towards the end of the 15th century in a region of southern Germany about 1,500 children were born annually to priests. The church condoned their behaviour by exacting a cradle fee for each child and a mistress fee from each offending clergyman.

European states were not too happy as they watched the papacy enriching itself at their expense, and discontent was rife among many citizens of all classes. The Catholic Church’s opulence, corruption, abuses and immorality was creating discontent and resentment among the peoples of Europe, making them open and ready to embrace a movement that attacked such abuses.

  1. Renaissance Humanism.

Renaissance humanism occurred during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. It was not anti-Christian or like the humanist teaching of today. On the contrary, Renaissance humanists wanted to bring the clear teaching of the Bible to the people. Their efforts went towards making society more moral, Christian and cultured. Renaissance humanism effected every single aspect of society – scientific, artistic, cultural, moral, religious, etc. To put it briefly, it was a movement that saw the traditional mode of teaching and learning of previous centuries as a straight-jacket to free thinking – they particularly wanted to be free from the dogma of the church which had determined so much learning. Renaissance humanism advocated and applied a return to the reading of Greek and Latin ancient literature. With regard to our focus, what was an essential part of the humanist approach was their focus on the return to, and use of ancient sources, and this would mean ancient biblical sources.  

They believed people are best informed on Christian truth by making the Word of God available to them instead of allowing church tradition to dictate what is believed.

This brings us to Erasmus, one of the most famous humanists of that period. He was a Catholic priest and a very notable scholar of the 16th century. He gathered together Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and eventually published a Greek New Testament in 1516. A future edition of this became the basis for the ‘received text’ on which the King James Authorised Version of the Bible is based. In 1516, in his introduction to the New Testament he writes, “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

Erasmus throughout his career sought to provide Christians and the reformers with a scriptural approach that would enable them to challenge some of the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Bible becomes the standard by which to judge things. In 1516 Erasmus wrote, “I am delighted to know that my labours, such as they are, find some favour with men of good will. Many are taking this opportunity to read the Scriptures who would never have read them otherwise, as they themselves admit….” (N1)

Erasmus and other Christian humanists paved the way for the reformers that followed by using Scripture to highlight the ecclesiastical abuses of the Catholic Church. However, Erasmus himself sought to reform the Catholic Church from within, not to fight it from the outside or separate himself from it.

Moreover, although Christian humanists like Erasmus pointed out the failings of the Catholic Church, they represented notable theologians from reputable learning centres and their criticisms found favour among many, including at that time the Catholic King of France. Christian humanism itself was finding favour across Europe and, initially, all this lent an air of respectability to the efforts of scholars like Erasmus and thus avoided a severe backlash from the Catholic Church – initially, at least.

What needs to be mentioned here – as has already been hinted at – is that, before appearing on the scene, many of the leading reformers of 16th century were influenced by humanist scholars, like Erasmus and others. Martin Luther, Zwingli, William Farel, Calvin and others had come under the direct influence of such humanists and imbibed teaching – not just with regard to Scripture, but also with regard to classical Greek and Latin works. With a nod to the Humanist movement, some of the reformers changed their names to Latin or Greek alternatives, which were not always easy to pronounce. Thus Philip Schwartzerdt (right-hand man to Martin Luther) changed his surname to Melanchthon, and Johannes Hussgen (the leading reformer in Basel) changed his surname to Oecolampadius.

Another significant humanist was Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455 – c. 1536). He was a French theologian and a leading figure in French humanism, who taught at the University of Paris.

He was a significant forerunner of the Protestant movement in France, and like Erasmus, he too influenced some of the budding reformers with an understanding and application of Scripture with which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma.

Lefèvre had a significant influence on Luther, who made use of Lefèvre’s writings in his lecture preparations. However, though Renaissance humanism gained a foothold in the University of Paris, the conservative Catholic element viewed this new humanism with great distrust, and Lefèvre came under suspicion of being a Lutheran himself, or even being the instigator for the rise of Lutheran thought. The theologian Noël Béda, who was an opponent of Renaissance humanism, and of course of Lutheranism, inveighed against Lefèvre as providing the seedbed for Lutheran thought. He wrote, “Luther is a great heretic, but Lefèvre is the master and Luther the disciple… Lefèvre, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius are men of their ilk all the same.” (N2)

These comments clearly show the close connection between Renaissance humanism and the development of the thinking of the reformers – at least in the eyes of their adversaries! Lefèvre was seen to be an originator of Lutheranism. There are any number of histories now that show this connection between Reformed thinking and Renaissance humanism.

As I mentioned in Chapter One, you didn’t need special spiritual revelation to conclude that many Catholic doctrines and practices were clearly unbiblical. In just reading the New Testament, common sense and unprejudiced thinking reveal certain Catholic teachings as totally wrong. Renaissance humanism, among other things, just highlighted what was obvious to common sense and furnished the upcoming reformers with biblical teaching and the tools by which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma, and in that sense provided them with the platform and impetus to do so.

As a result of these criticisms, Lefèvre had to flee Paris, though he remained a Catholic throughout his life. Like Erasmus, Lefèvre sought to reform the Church without separating from it.

Not only did Lefèvre come under fire, but also Erasmus himself started to be accused of inspiring Luther. In fact, Martin Luther had been pressing Erasmus to change camps and join him in the Reformation movement. However, as has been noted, Erasmus wanted to stay firmly in the Catholic camp and change things from within. Moreover, Erasmus found the Reformation movement to strident and divisive and also criticised its excesses in violence and iconoclasm. In the end, Erasmus wrote against Luther’s notion of the total inability of man to choose what is right, thus sealing the division between them.

While studying at Paris, John Calvin too was significantly influenced by the humanist teachings of Maturin Cordier, who himself would later be attacked for being a Lutheran.

One could write a lot more about the extent of the influence of humanist teaching on the leading reformers of the 16th century, but I will let the above suffice to show the connection, though it will inevitably be touched upon again as we study the lives of the Magisterial Reformers.

The significance of the above raises the question, to what extent, if any, did the leading reformers come to an understanding of Scripture as a result of a deep spiritual change in their lives at that time, and to what extent was their growing understanding of Scripture – whether gradual or sudden – simply a matter of intellectual enlightenment or development? This whole article is an exploration in an attempt to answer this question.

  1. The growing nationalism and independence of European states and regions.

For me this is probably one of, if not the most important factor that gave opportunity for the reformation to take root and spread. Resentment against the Catholic Church and its abuses had been around for some time.  As we have seen, others, in previous generations had already spoken and written against the superstitious teachings of the Catholic Church, pointing out that the scriptures themselves should alone be our guide in doctrine and practice. And many had risked and given their lives in doing so. They hadn’t succeeded because, in the end, Catholic power was too prevalent and strong, and any such individuals or movements were brutally suppressed.

Also, as we have seen, in the rise and spread of humanist teaching, the reformers found a basis and impetus for clear, biblical and reasoned attacks on the Catholic Church and its superstitions and abuses. But this in itself again would not have been enough for success.

What aided the Reformation was that certain ruling city councils in Switzerland and  some notable princes in the German lands were now ready and in a position to support and protect the emerging reformation. Their motives for doing so, however, were at least to some extent mixed, and related to using the budding Reformation as an opportunity to free themselves from the economic exploitation and political dominance of the Roman Church.

So, it was not that men like the reformers were more courageous in the 16th Century to stand up for the truth against the Catholic Church. Not at all. In fact, as we shall see, the leading reformers compromised the truth and even their own stated allegiance to sola scriptura when they themselves actually came up against the power of the religious state.

When push came to shove, ‘might’ was ‘right’. That is, in the final analysis, it is the state or city power and authority that would decide what would be permissible or not in its dominion concerning religious matters. And this was a decisive factor in the emergence of the Reformation.

Once the Reformation was under way, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – a conference between the emerging German Protestant states and the Catholic Church – a significant phrase was coined. In translation from the Latin it reads, “Whose realm, his religion”. This underscores what I have been saying throughout this article. If you get the (religious) state power behind you, yours becomes the religion of the state! In other words, in the last analysis, the secular power, which has the overriding power, decides the religion of their realm.

The wealth, power and exploitative abuses of the Catholic Church had already created a climate where princes in Germany and city authorities in Switzerland were ready to exploit an opportunity to free themselves from Catholic domination and retrieve wealth for themselves instead of it going to Rome and the pope. So when the reformers came along, with their scriptural teaching against the abuses of Rome, political reasons undoubtedly also played a part in leading a state or regional power into supporting the Reformation. The secular authorities could also benefit by freeing themselves from church taxes and confiscating church property.

In other words, it would be difficult to determine how much was religious conviction and how much was political expediency that led a regional power to support the Reformation.

So how did this change in the power balance come about? Apart from other things, in particular:

In Germany, tensions had already existed between German princes and the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick III, Prince Elector of Saxony in the German lands, had been vying to be chosen as the Holy Roman Emperor but had been bribed by Charles V. Jockeying for power and authority was already a feature in Europe in the 16th century, and German princes were ready to flex their muscles at this time, and it is the support of the German princes and other nobles that would be absolutely decisive for the success of the Reformation in Germany.

Switzerland was within the Holy Roman Empire but in 1499 the Swiss won autonomy for themselves after wars ending in that year. The Swiss Confederation consisted of 13 Cantons or regions, and each one of these could decide its destiny for itself. Again, this would be an absolutely crucial factor for the development of the Reformation in Switzerland. Swiss councils and their magistrates had the final word, and they could decide which direction to take without any interference from Rome.


The Church in Switzerland was corrupt and as much in need of reform as in Germany. The clergy were ignorant, superstitious, and immoral, and set a bad example to the laity. Celibacy made having a concubine a common and pardonable offence.


Zwingli was one of the leading reformers and was responsible for introducing the Reformation to Switzerland. Zurich, where he laboured, was the first Swiss city to go over to the Reformation.

Zwingli was born 1484. He studied in Bern and the University of Vienna (1498), and then went  on to the University of Basel (1502). This University was a centre of literary activity and came under the influence Renaissance Humanism. The Humanist Thomas Wyttenbach taught theology there between 1505 and 1508, and spoke against indulgences, the mass, and the celibacy of the priesthood. Zwingli attended his lectures and learned much from him. Erasmus also spent several years actively working In Basel. Zwingli, like other reformers, was deeply influenced by humanist teachers and modern trends in scholarship.

In about 1506, Zwingli became vicar in Glarus. It was during his stay at Glarus that Zwingli became acquainted with the writings of Erasmus. His library was full of humanist books. Zwingli met Erasmus in 1515, and they continued corresponding until the late 1520s, when Zwingli’s religious views were no longer in tune with those of Erasmus. During his time Glarus, Zwingli became convinced that the Bible had supremacy over all other books.

However, in speaking against a certain practice that was political in nature (the mercenary system and the ‘pensions’ related to that), he was forced to leave Glarus.

In 1516 he moved to Einsiedeln and became chaplain at the Benedictine Abbey there. During this period he continued his studies, and concentrated on the Epistles of St. Paul and started to teach against Catholic superstitions and abuses. By this time Zwingli had resolved to preach nothing but what the scriptures taught. Zwingli afterward stated that he had developed his evangelical understanding of the Scriptures during this period. According to D’Aubigne (History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 2, Ch. 4), Zwingli dated the beginning of the Swiss reformation to this period – although D’Aubigne makes clear that it was Luther’s public pronouncements that first got the Reformation off the ground.

While at the Abbey, he developed a style of expository preaching – teaching from the biblical text itself rather than from set lessons laid down by Catholic custom. This was a totally new type of preaching and it very much impressed the pilgrims from Zurich, who came in large numbers to see the Black Madonna at the Abbey. As a result of this preaching, his sermons made him well known in the city of Zurich. So, in 1519 he was invited to become people’s priest at the Great Minster in Zurich (1 Jan. 1519).

But why would the Catholic Church invite someone like Zwingli who was showing signs of Lutheranism in his teachings, to be their lead man at the Great Minster?

One of the factors in this might have been that several cantons in Switzerland, being disgusted with the papacy and its clerics, were on the point of breaking with it. As I have already mentioned, politics at least to some extent played a part in all that was happening, both on the part of the Catholic Church and here, on the part of the Zürich Council. So it is possible that the Catholic Church induced Zwingli to take up the appointment in Zürich rather than to oppose him like they had done with Luther. In other words, they sought to get him on their side.

We noted that Zwingli had already embraced reformed views by this time. He had also read Luther in 1519, but maintained that he had already discovered ‘evangelical’ principles by then. However, embracing evangelical principles doesn’t mean the same as being spiritually regenerated. This was revealed by what happened while his appointment to Zürich was being considered. Although he seemed to be getting his ‘reformed doctrine’ straight, it didn’t seem to reform his lifestyle.

During the election process for the appointment to the great Minster in Zürich, Zwingli’s friend, Oswald Myconius, relates to him a rumour that could jeopardise his appointment. Zwingli was being accused of sexual misconduct. Though not all the details of the accusations were true, yet there was substance to them.

So on December 5, 1518, in the middle of the selection process for the appointment in Zürich, Zwingli writes a letter to Heinrich Utinger, who is one of the officials responsible for appointing a priest to the Great Minster. In this letter, though acknowledging sexual misconduct with shame and regret, Zwingli nevertheless seeks to justify himself to some extent. He even states, “I cannot ignore this slander”, which is a curious form of defence, given his guilt.

Zwingli explains that three years earlier – while he was at Glarus – he had made “a firm resolution” to “never touch a woman again”, but that it didn’t exactly end well. In the rumours that were going around, Zwingli had been accused of seducing the daughter of a high-ranking Zurich official. Zwingli admitted that it “does not bode well to openly vilify a woman”, but he claims to have good reasons for doing so. Zwingli clarifies, if not protests, that the woman was a barber’s daughter, and a very loose one at that, whose reputation was well known – “a virgin by day and a wench by night”, as Zwingli put it. He confesses that she might be pregnant by him or by someone else, but claims the parents are not concerned about it! To counter the accusation that he had dishonoured the young woman, Zwingli asserts that he has followed three principles throughout his life: never deflower a virgin, defile a nun or “violate a marriage”. Moreover, he maintained that thanks to his “sense of decency” he had always been highly discreet “in such matters”. Even in Glarus, at his previous position, he had done it “with such secrecy” that even “his closest acquaintances hardly noticed anything”. (Letter-Writing in the Early Swiss Reformation: Zwingli’s Neglected Correspondence. Nigel Harris, Zürich, 7th May 2019 /

The only point in referencing the above is because it relates directly to the question posed by this study. By 1519 Zwingli had already declared that he had embraced evangelical principles and was already preaching along reformed lines. How is it that in his letter to Utinger, Zwingli makes no mention of any spiritual change or experience in his life during those few preceding years? Can one convert to reformed doctrine without being converted? That is the pertinent question. Zwingli’s letter is a mixture of different sentiments, and if he had undergone a true spiritual conversion one would have expected him to write of his repentance in unqualified terms. There would have been not only something like an unqualified admission of guilt, but also of an experience that had now given his life a totally new direction morally. There is none of that. Apart from a resolve to do better – which any (godless) person can do – there is no hint of a Gospel experience in the letter. The point of saying these things is not to judge the man for his failings, but to highlight what seemed to be lacking in the Protestant Reformation, namely, a radical inward transformation.

D’Aubigne writes of the above incident in sympathetic terms: “One man even accused him of seduction. Zwingli was not blameless, and although less erring than the ecclesiastics of his day, he had more than once, in the first years of his ministry, allowed himself to be led astray by the passions of youth. We cannot easily form an idea of the influence upon the soul of the corrupt atmosphere in which it lives. There existed in the papacy, and among the priests, disorders that were established, allowed, and authorised, as conformable to the laws of nature.” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 2, Ch. 6.)

D’Aubigne refers to the immorality that was common among Catholic priests – which has already been noted – and proceeds to suggest, probably accurately, that the tide of what was happening around Zwingli was, to some extent, carrying him with it. He seems to be correct in his assessment – but where does that leave the Gospel and the experience of it in Zwingli’s life? We are not here talking about perfection and infallibility, but the experience of the power of the Gospel in a person’s life to which they can give testimony to – a reference to a ‘turning’ point in the reformer’s life that is more than just an advance in doctrine. This seems to be altogether lacking in Zwingli’s letter or conversation with others at this time. Did Zwingli experience the power of the Gospel and the radical change it produces in a life after this period? If so, we know nothing of it. Moreover, his actions toward the Anabaptists would contradict such an experience. One might well ask, what, in fact, did evangelical truth mean to Zwingli?

Nevertheless, as such failings were common among the clerics, it did not prove problematic for Zwingli to get the required votes to install him at the Great Minster in Zürich.

Zwingli In Zurich.

Zwingli’s labours made Zurich one of the main centres of the Reformation in Switzerland.

On 1 January 1519, Zwingli gave his first sermon in Zürich. Deviating from the prevalent practice of basing a sermon on the Gospel lesson of a particular Sunday, Zwingli, using Erasmus’ New Testament as a guide, began to go through the Gospel of Matthew, giving his interpretation during the sermon. This was something altogether new to the hearers. In his sermons he exhorted people to moral improvement and also called for ecclesiastical change, which were well in line with the reforms advocated by Erasmus. He attacked moral corruption and even named the individuals who were guilty of it. Monks were accused of indolence and self-indulgence. He attacked those practices and teachings which had no Scriptural basis and soon became a renowned figure in Zürich. In his preaching he emphasised that salvation and forgiveness was through Christ alone.

Zwingli was dissatisfied with the Catholic Episcopal control over Zurich so resigned his post in November 1521 and accepted a new authorization from the city council. This was a shrewd political move, because his bosses were now not the Catholic Church, but the city council.


By 1522 other men with Catholic backgrounds and a zeal for reform were drawn to Zurich to study with Zwingli. Under him, they began to study the secular Greek classics, as was typical of Renaissance humanists, but also the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. It is interesting to note, even at this stage, the extent to which the non-Christian humanistic studies were still occupying the mind and time of Zwingli. Two of the names of those that joined Zwingli at this time were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, who was soon to become the first Anabaptist martyr to be murdered under the reformers. Both Grebel and Manz were educated men and their fathers were notable citizens.

The Lent Affair.

In March 1522, the printer Froschauer served sausages to his workers, who, he claimed, were exhausted from putting out the new edition of the Epistles of Saint Paul. Because the eating of meat during Lent was prohibited, the event caused a public outcry and led to Froschauer being arrested. Zwingli was quick to defend Froschauer from allegations of heresy in a sermon he gave after the incident. The Catholic Bishop of Constance, was so scandalised by Zwingli’s preaching that he called for a mandate to be issued by the council to prohibit the preaching of any Reformation doctrine in Switzerland. However, Zwingli defended his position in writing and, significantly, the council took no further action. This is another example of the inevitable tension between the secular authority and the religious institution. As I mentioned, Switzerland being autonomous meant that the Roman Catholic Church had no overriding say in what happened there. This was decisive in the success of the Reformation in Switzerland.

In this same year Zwingli also wrote against compulsory celibacy, which was part of Catholic dogma.

(Just a note to say that in Swiss cities the government normally consisted of three councils, with the Small Council – which had the least number of members – being the most important, and on which the Magistrates or ‘Syndics’ sat. This was followed by the Council of the 200, and finally a far wider general council. For the sake of simplicity, in this study I will normally just use the word ‘council’ or ‘councils’ when referring to the city authorities.)

The First Public Debate.

All this lead to quite a commotion not only in Zurich but in all of Switzerland, with the Catholic Church concerned that Zurich might follow Luther’s path and separate from the church. So at Zwingli’s suggestion the government  – the small and large councils – orders a public disputation to try and settle the matter. This would be the First Public Debate (29 Jan. 1523) and they would consider the whole question of reform. Zwingli drew up 67 theses; in these he upholds that salvation is through Christ alone, and maintains that the Word of God is the only rule of faith; he rejects and attacks the church hierarchical structure, the Catholic Mass, praying to saints, the merit of human works, fasts, pilgrimages, celibacy, and purgatory, stating they are the unscriptural commandments of men.

600 distinguished and representative citizens gathered in the city hall. The Catholic bishop declined to attend – declaring it was not a secular matter! (Another instance of the inevitable tension between Church and State.) In the bishop’s absence, Zwingli won the support of the council and he was allowed to continue “to proclaim the holy gospel and the pure holy Scripture”, and the council ordered that all preachers should teach in accordance with the same standards. Because the council had the power to do this, they used it!

Zwingli’s ‘67 Articles’ were adopted by Zurich as the city’s official doctrine. The Reformation was happening.

So a city that was Catholic in practice and doctrine becomes ‘Reformed’ by a vote at the council meeting. Is this spiritual renewal, or dare we say revival, or is it just people adopting a different religious outlook for reasons that might not be altogether religious?

Whatever the case may be, here we have a hugely significant example of how the civic authority can not only interfere with, but decide on matters of religious doctrine and practice in a given region. This afterwards became a decisive factor throughout Switzerland and aided the Reformation there. It was by the decision of Swiss city councils through public disputations of this kind that Swiss regions became Reformed. Not only did they become reformed, but working in tandem with the council, the reformers made sure that no other brand of Christianity would or could exist in their regions except that taught by the reformers.

However, at this time, the zealous reformers Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were working side by side with Zwingli for reforms. But all this continued to create a tremendous stir in the city and further debates, so a second disputation was called.

The Second Disputation took place on 26 October, 1523, and lasted 3 days. 900 were present, with the Roman Catholics in attendance this time to fight their corner. The main discussion related to the nature of the Eucharist, and images in churches. After the debate on the Eucharist, the council was not persuaded to abandon the Catholic Mass so easily – this tradition was still quite ingrained in them. They wanted to carry on with the next topic without making a decision on the Eucharist. However, Zwingli’s associates, Grebel and Manz, who had been labouring with him for reform, were concerned that the Catholic Mass would be allowed to continue and called for a vote on it. Here Zwingli, to the astonishment of the radicals, intervened and insisted it was for the council to decide on these matters. He was then countered by one of the radicals that it is God’s Spirit who decides such matters, not the council. However, Zwingli stood fast with the council, so the Catholic Mass continued to be celebrated under Zwingli’s supervision. Grebel and Manz wanted to restore the sacrament to apostolic simplicity but were shocked to find themselves thwarted by their ally and mentor, Zwingli. At this disputation, no decision was made concerning the Catholic mass and images and the homage paid to them.

It would seem that Zwingli was playing politics rather than being led by his convictions. He could see that the council wasn’t prepared to be pressurised into change regarding the Eucharist. His position and status could certainly be jeopardised if he pushed too hard on this issue. He probably felt that discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion. Again, this is another example of secular power trumping religious conviction and authority. However, this kind of ‘compromise’ on the part of Zwingli would have disastrous results for his erstwhile colleagues.

This now led to a separation between Zwingli and some others who had been associated with him, in particular Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, and others that I shall shortly mention.

These radical reformers – as they will also now be called – became increasingly frustrated with Zwingli’s hesitancy to implement further reformed changes in Zurich, and also disillusioned with what they considered Zwingli’s abandonment of evangelical principles. Conrad Grebel believed that Zwingli’s failure to stand firm on the word of God in this Second Disputation resulted in the collapse of the Reformation in Switzerland. He wrote the following to his brother-in-law, “On that occasion, the Word was overthrown, setback, and bound by its most learned heralds.” (Letter of Grebel to Vadian, Dec. 18, 1523; Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, p. 276.)

Conrad Grebel kept up a writing campaign on behalf of the radical brethren to the Zurich Council, but it was all in vain. It is not just that Zwingli disagreed with these radical reformers – he now became an opponent and their enemy.

After all their efforts in negotiating with, and writing to Zwingli and the council, the radicals started now to meet together informally in houses for bible-study, particularly in the home of Felix Manz.

Third private discussions

During the course of the next year, 1524, further more private consultations were held in the council to allow additional reforms to be undertaken against medieval Roman Catholic devotion and practices. Images, pictures, candles and altars were disposed of, frescoes were whitewashed and saints relics buried. Eventually, in April 1525 the council did abolish the Catholic mass.

Nevertheless, the rift remained between Zwingli and the radical reformers. And by this date of 1525, the radical reformers had been meeting together for some time and had gone far beyond just wanting to reform Catholic practices and false teaching – they had progressed to a preaching of the Gospel that would result in an inward spiritual change of the individual, through personal repentance, conversion and a baptism that witnessed to that repentance and to their commitment to a Christian life.

However, this new understanding inevitably impinged on infant baptism, which was very much regarded as a sign of being incorporated into the Christian community. One pastor in a neighbouring village to Zürich (Wilhelm Reublin) was among the first to preach against infant baptism, resulting in some families withholding their children from being baptised. This met with an immediate reaction from the authorities. Reublin was imprisoned and then forced to leave Zürich in August 1524. He is the one who would later baptise Balthasar Hübmaier, who was to become one of the most energetic Anabaptist evangelists in southern Germany.

The rejection of infant baptism and the adoption of  believer’s baptism would become a major reason for the persecution of Anabaptists on the part of the reformers.

The main issue that now arose between the radical reformers and Zwingli (the magisterial reformer) together with the civil authorities was infant baptism. Grebel and Manz reminded Zwingli that he had once rejected infant baptism, and they claimed they had derived their own view from him. He responded by saying that there had been a misunderstanding! The radical reformers believed that there was no scriptural basis for infant baptism. They believed in a personal repentance leading to that indidual’s conversion which was demonstrated by a changed life – and it was upon such a testimony that the individual would be baptised. These radicals, or Anabaptists as they would be called (‘anabaptism’ meaning ‘to be baptised again’), rejected the teaching on infant baptism as a means of becoming a member of the church.

As we shall see, such ideas were alien to all the reformers, including Zwingli, and they violently opposed them – particularly as these teachings of the radical reformers directly and fundamentally touched on the nature of the church. The radical reformers believed in a church composed of committed believers, not in the idea of a church made up of the mixed multitude of so-called wheat and tares of the whole community, which was the view of all magisterial reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. The radicals, however, wanted to base their teaching on the Scriptures alone, and they could see that the church was not represented by a ‘Christianised’ community, a community of all those who had been born and baptised as infants in the parish, irrespective of their subsequent conduct! The true church, like that of the apostles, was to be made up only of those confessing Christ as Lord, and then followed by believer’s baptism.

There is an irony here, in that the radical reformers took up the banner of ‘sola scriptura’ against the arguments of the magisterial reformers, which the latter were using against the Catholics in their arguments with them!

This radical ‘reformation’ did not stop with just changing a number of Catholic doctrines and superstitious practices; it had at its foundation the total ‘reformation’, or transformation, of the inward spiritual state of the individual! This is what represented the great dividing line.

This teaching of the radicals struck at the heart of the idea of ‘Christendom’, of the ‘Christianised’ community or nation. Both the secular powers and the magisterial reformers were wedded to the idea that the community is already ‘Christian’ by virtue of infant baptism and by participation in the traditions of the Church. It is certain that the reformers were aware that this would be the immovable positon of the civic authorities, and to what extent the magisterial reformers knowingly compromised previously held convictions or genuinely subscribed to this viewpoint can be a matter of debate. Was is certain is that in the ensuing debates the reformers developed teachings that totally supported infant baptism and that opposed believer’s baptism, and that in fact, denied the notion of  ‘conversion’ experience.

The Anabaptists believed that the church is only for believers who are committed to Christ and whose lives demonstrate that. This logically leads to the understanding that church and state are completely separate, with the state having no say in church matters! There is no way the secular power, the council in Zurich, would tolerate a teaching that threatened the church state model that had been reigning and ruling for the last 1200 years! In the eyes of the political rulers – the city council – and the magisterial reformers, this was tantamount to schism, sedition and treason, and threatened to overthrow both church and state. As we saw in Chapter 1, this had been the belief and outlook of the emerging institutional church from the 3rd century onwards. 

This indeed was radical, explosive stuff – to both the reformers and the Catholics! It would not be tolerated by either.

During this time, the radical reformers continued to make various representations to Zwingli and the council in writing concerning the scriptural validity of believer’s baptism, but it was to no avail – neither Zwingli nor the council would give any ground. In fact, as I said, Zwingli turned against his erstwhile friends, argued against them to the council, wrote against them, and in a short time, under his leadership, it would lead to laws being passed to punish, imprison, banish and even to kill the radical reformers – the Anabaptists.

The commotion that was now being caused led to another public disputation.

The Public Disputation of Jan. 1525

On January 17, 1525, a public disputation was held in Zurich, with Zwingli together with others, including his colleague Heinrich Bullinger who would become the leading reformer in Zurich after Zwingli, facing the radicals, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and those associated with them. Though the radical reformers defended their views well, denying that infant baptism had any sanction in the Scriptures, it was Zwingli who argued against them, with the city council ruling in Zwingli’s favour and for infant baptism.

Earlier in his career as a reformer, Zwingli found it difficult to accept the baptism of infants. He wrote, “Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptise children, for I know it ought not to be done.” (N3) He stated that infant baptism had no foundation in Scripture and to follow Scripture means not to baptise anyone until they reach the age of discretion. However, he recognised that the religious culture he was in would not accept such a change, and he was not willing to incur the displeasure or hostility of the council. Zwingli writes, “If however I were to terminate the practice, then I fear that I would lose my prebend.” (Ibid, quoted Verduin, p. 199). In other words, if Zwingli pressed the council to change their stance on infant baptism, he would be ousted – and further reform with him. As I have mentioned, infant baptism was regarded by the religious secular powers as an indispensable foundation to the ‘Christian’ state.

As we shall later see, like Luther, Zwingli was quick to compromise on infant baptism and to abandon the principal ‘by scripture alone’ in the face of opposition from those keeping him in power. It was in this conflict with the Anabaptists that both Zwingli and Luther developed ideas contrary to their original outlook. To begin with, Luther had not believed in the persecution of schismatics or heretics. It was the conflict with the Anabaptists that pushed him in this direction.

So, in this third public disputation with the radicals, or Anabaptists as they would be called, Zwingli rejected their arguments and claimed that infant baptism in the New Covenant took the place of circumcision of the Old Covenant. And as circumcision was a seal to becoming part of God’s people in the Old Covenant so, by extension of the comparison, it would mean that infant baptism makes the child a part of God’s people – the child is incorporated into the Church, into the body of Christ by baptism. And of course, this is exactly the position that Luther and Calvin took in their writings, as we shall see. The Anabaptists regarded this comparison as unbiblical, pointing out that infant baptism is nowhere to be taught or found in the New Testament.  Zwingli responded by quoting Augustine, saying that he is sure that infant baptism had begun at the time of Christ and the apostles, although he concedes that no mention is made explicitly in the New Testament.

It was a hard choice for the magisterial reformers. If they held to their original convictions on infant baptism, they would so alienate the secular authorities that they, the magisterial reformers, would not only lose their position and status, but the Reformation itself would be halted if not banned, throwing the secular authorities back into the lap of the Catholic Church. Should one hold onto the power one has to change at least some things, or lose all such power and influence by holding on to one’s convictions – if such convictions were held? Magisterial reformers like Zwingli and Luther chose the former. Only they would know if their ‘turn around’ on the subject of infant baptism was the result of genuine reconsideration and conviction, or just political expediency. Luther acknowledged that society was not ready at all to do away with infant baptism.

One could wonder if this verse in Hebrews ever crossed their minds in these circumstances: “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time.” (Hebrews 11:25). Or to make it more relevant, we could change some of the words to read this, “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy position and power for a season.” However, this position and power included them becoming the persecutors of believers (the Anabaptists) and the cause of much of their cruel suffering

Or to approach this from another angle one could ask, had the Gospel brought about a deep inward conversion, regeneration that resulted in unshakeable convictions in the reformers – such as the Anabaptists had? Or is Zwingli a person religiously and zealously devout but lacking the courage and conviction that comes from an inward transformation – and thus willing to compromise on the basis of political expediency? Is Zwingli just adjusting and reforming the ‘religious worldview’ of a ‘Christianised’ community, just disabusing them of the superstitions and false teaching of the Catholic Church without bringing about a change of heart in his listeners that would lead to their conversion – a conversion that would make redundant the years it was taking of trying to persuade people to change their religion? Were the reformers like Zwingli, Luther and Calvin just ‘intellectually enlightened’ through Renaissance Humanism concerning some aspects of the Gospel and the false teachings of the Catholic Church? Were they just using the New Testament to preach a higher morality to their listeners, rather than preaching in a way that caused them to know they had never known Christ in truth? This latter approach was certainly true of the Anabaptists.

What we can say is the following: This decision of the magisterial reformers on infant baptism did result in them retaining power and position and securing safety for themselves, but it also turned them into the persecutors of those that disagreed with them, subjecting them to the most unspeakable sufferings!

So Zwingli sides with the secular authorities and keeps his position, which allows reforms to continue at a pace and to the degree that the city council allows. Reforms could be implemented in Zurich because the Catholic Church had no overriding power or threat of physical force in the Swiss confederation to oppose or stop it. As I said, this was a decisive factor in the success of the magisterial Reformation in Switzerland. But now it was the civil power that had supremacy, and reform could only progress as far as this civil authority allowed it to.

After the public disputation of January 1525, the council issued measures banning the meetings of the Anabaptists, and parents were ordered to have their infants baptised within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city.

The Anabaptists had either to conform, leave Zurich or face imprisonment.

However, the Anabaptists were undeterred; they were going to follow their conscience and convictions. On January 21, 1525, about a dozen men met at the house of Felix Manz, and in a solemn manner Conrad Grebel, a layman, baptised George Blaurock, an ordained priest. By now George Blaurock had joined the radical reformers in Zürich. After this, they baptised all the others present. Thus on January 21, 1525, as one historian writes, “Anabaptism was born. With this first baptism, the earliest church of the Swiss Brethren was constituted. This was clearly the most revolutionary act of the Reformation. No other event so completely symbolised the break with Rome…The Brethren emphasised the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism.” (The Anabaptist Story, W. R. Estep, 1996; p.14; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge UK).

This was a huge challenge to the state-patronised Reformation promoted by Zwingli, Luther and others.


We will now have a closer look at the radical Reformation by following the lives of some of its prominent figures.


In February of that year, Grebel and Manz went from house to house witnessing, baptizing, and conducting the Lord’s Supper after the new order of the Swiss Brethren. This evangelisation soon spread to neighbouring villages and towns and even further afield in Switzerland.

Two of Grebel’s converts then started to witness in and around another the city (St. Gall) in Switzerland with marked success, so Grebel joined them there. At St. Gall he preached and found great response among the people. This preaching resulted in about five hundred people being baptised in the Sitter River by the Anabaptists on April 9, 1525. However, eventually the authorities in St Gal followed the lead of Zürich and suppressed the movement. From the latter part of April until June, Grebel was forced into hiding in Zurich, as his activities were illegal. Fearing imprisonment at the hands of Zwingli, he became extremely cautious about his movements.

In fact, during this period the Anabaptists were in and out of prison, as they simply kept on preaching and witnessing, whether from house to house, in fields or even churches that initially happened to be open to them.

Grebel then started to evangelise in his home town just east of Zurich, where his father had been a magistrate. Again his efforts met with extraordinary success from the end of June until his arrest on October 8, 1525. The Anabaptists often worked to­gether in an intensive effort to spread the Gospel, and as Grebel, Manz, and a fiery man called George Blaurock, who I mentioned earlier, were preparing for a service in a nearby field, Grebel and Blaurock were arrested by the magistrate and imprisoned in the castle. Three weeks later Felix Manz was seized and thrown into the same prison. Their messages had emphasised the necessity of repentance and faith, all based on the authority of the Scriptures.

They were put on trial, where Zwingli spoke against them, accusing them of sedition. But his charges were based on hearsay accounts rather than on evidence and fact. They were charged with being opposed to all civil government, believing that all things should be held in common, and holding that those who had received believer’s baptism could not sin. This last charge against them was certainly not true. And of course, the charge of sedition, rebellion and threatening to overthrow the state was an accusation labelled against all dissenters from the time of Constantine! Concerning the other charges mentioned, I will not take time at the moment to expand upon these as it is rather involved. But it would be generally true to say that in their attempt to discredit the Anabaptists’ the magisterial reformers would exaggerate or misinterpret (wittingly or unwittingly) the writings of these radical reformers. An excellent book on this topic and on the radical Reformation is Leonard Verduin’s book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. The basis for this book was a series of lectures sponsored by the Calvin foundation in 1963.

Anyway, as a result of the trial, on November 18, 1525, the Anabaptists were condemned to lie in the tower on a diet of bread and water, and no one was permitted to visit them except the guards. During that winter other Anabaptists were imprisoned in Zurich.

In a letter to an acquaintance Zwingli wrote:

“It has been decreed this day by the Council of Two Hundred that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower, in which they formerly lay, and be allured by a bread-and-water diet until they either give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that they who after this are immersed shall be submerged permanently: this decision is now published…I would rather that the newly rising Christianity should not be ushered in with a racket of this sort, but I am not God whom it thus pleases to make provision against evils that are to come, as He did when in olden time He slew with a sudden and fearful death Ananias who lied to Peter, so that He might cast out from us all daring to deceive…”  (Staehelin, Briefe aus der Reformationszeit; Huldrych Zwingli, Letter to Vadian, March 7, 1526, p. 252)

It is amazing, if not a revelation, that he who was called a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland could write with such coldness and murderous intent about those who believed in believer’s baptism! This was no vain threat. It wouldn’t be long before reformed Zurich would have its first martyr at the hands of Zwingli.

After five months of imprisonment, starvation had not worked, so a second trial was held in March 1526. A sentence of life imprisonment was passed on all the defendants. In addition to this, a new mandate was issued on the same day which made the act of performing baptism a crime punishable by death.

However, two weeks later all the Anabaptists managed to escape through the help of a friend. Hounded by the authorities, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz continued their itinerant ministry in various regions of Switzerland, but Grebel eventually died of the plague that was hitting the region at that time.

However, the preaching of these Anabaptists drew in vast numbers of converts. The academic Tudor Jones in his book ‘The Great Reformation’ writes, “Their preaching was accompanied by spiritual effects of the kind that were to characterise the revivalism of later generations. They created a profound conviction of sin, followed by repentance, conversion and believers baptism. So baptism of these converts was not an academic theological matter; it was deeply embedded in profound spiritual experience.” (The Great Reformation, R. Tudor Jones, p.68; 1997, Gwasg Bryntirion Press, Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales).

I have nowhere come across statements like these relating to the magisterial reformers. Let me say briefly here, what we will consider in greater depth later. It was not the custom of the magisterial reformers to go out in the highways and byways, preaching the Gospel. They did not preach in the marketplaces or go from house to house exhorting people to faith and repentance so that they might be converted and receive new life. In Switzerland, the magisterial reformers sought to occasion public religious disputations through which they could exploit any disaffection with Roman Catholicism and influence the civic magistrates, and thus lead the latter to impose upon the city the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. It was a change of religion ‘from the top’. It was by a vote of the city council that the whole region declared ‘Reformed’ – not by conversions among the people.

The people sitting in the pews who had been Catholic before the vote, were, after the vote, ‘Reformed’ in doctrine and practice. Just like that! The Catholic priests in that region who did not ‘embrace’ the Reformed traditions normally found themselves without a job. The reformers then preached in churches from pulpits, inculcating in their listeners a switch from one religion to another. There is no account of people weeping or repenting, or crowds of people being converted under Reformation teaching – none that I have come across, anyway. Fundamentally, nor could it be so! The religious worldview of the magisterial reformers was akin to that of the Catholics, to that which had been established in people’s hearts and minds since the time of Constantine; that is, the community, or nation, consists of those who have already been baptised as infants and therefore have already been incorporated into the body of Christ, the church! Why should you convert the converted? In this sense, the magisterial reformers utterly believed in Christendom, as we shall see.


But back to our story. With Conrad Grebel now dead, let us look at some of his fellow Anabaptists who had been working with him; one of these was Felix Manz, mentioned earlier.

He had in vain tried to explain to the Zürich authorities the Anabaptists’ view on believers’ baptism before the great division that happened after January 1525. In referring to Paul’s baptism by Ananias, Manz argued that the passage made clear that baptism was only to be administered to those who had been converted by the word of God and who had had their heart changed, leading to a new life. He argued that a change in the traditional baptism of infants would in no way threaten the stability of the government. Zwingli and the magistrates would not give such a thought the time of day!

Manz was a notable, popular figure and leader who wrote a hymn which is still sung today by some Amish Mennonites and Hutterites. As we saw, Manz managed to continue with his itinerant ministry after escaping from prison – but he was eventually imprisoned and tried again. The Anabaptist movement was a huge thorn in the side of the reformers both in Switzerland and in Germany. A lot of time and energy was taken up in opposing them and writing against them. Now the time had come to enforce the new law.


On January 5, 1527, Manz was sentenced to death at the Council Hall, where he was charged “because contrary to Christian order and custom he had become involved in Anabaptism, had accepted it, taught others, and become a leader and beginner of these things because he confessed having said that he wanted to gather those who wanted to accept Christ and follow Him, and unite himself with them through baptism, and let the rest live according to their faith, so that he and his followers separated themselves from the Christian Church and were about to raise up and prepare a sect of their own under the guise of a Christian meeting and church; because he had condemned capital punishment, and in order to increase his following had boasted of certain revelations from the Pauline Epistles. But since such doctrine is harmful to the unified usage of all Christendom, and leads to offense, insurrection, and sedition against the government, to the shattering of the common peace, brotherly love, and civil cooperation and to all evil, Manz shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall tie his hands, put him into a boat, take him to the lower hut, there strip his bound hands down over his knees, place a stick between his knees and arms, and thus push him into the water and let him perish in the water; thereby he shall have atoned to the law and justice. . . . His property shall also be confiscated by my lords.” (Mennonite Encyclopedia, 3:473. Italics mine.)

Manz, was bound and taken from the prison to the boat. But on the way he witnessed to his faith to those lining the way, and praised God that he was dying for the truth. His mother too, was encouraging him to stay faithful to Christ. As he was then put into a boat and his arms and legs were tied, he cried out with a loud voice, Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. He was then plunged into the waters of the river to drown. The budding Reformation in Switzerland was making its impression!

Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the reformers.

The above quote shows that nothing had changed since the time of Augustine. The same accusations of separating themselves from the one true church, and of a sedition that undermines the stability of the state, was brought against the Anabaptists as it had been against the Donatists and others over 1000 years earlier. Christendom continued unabated in its suppression of all dissent. The city councils, in the name of the Reformation and with Zwingli as the religious head, carried on the tradition of suppressing dissent, even if it meant killing their opponents. Some of the reformers’ doctrines may indeed have been different to those of the Catholics, but their deeds and methods of dealing with other Christians who dissented from their beliefs and practices were the same as the Catholics. They carried on the same brutal and dictatorial religious regime that we saw emerging in the fourth century.

Later, in November 1527, the council brought in the death penalty for anyone listening to Anabaptist preaching. And Zwingli was presiding over all this!

A chameleon can change its colour for whatever reason, but it remains a chameleon. Although its colour has changed, its nature remains the same – it hasn’t turned into another creature! So too with the reformers – they had a change of religious outlook and conviction, but were their hearts changed in a way that distinguished them from their Catholic predecessors? This is the question that lies at the heart of what we are considering. In the end, people act according to their nature, not according to their doctrine, and what kind of nature is it that is content to see others killed in order to secure their own form of religion? As we have seen, when push comes to shove, Sola Scriptura has to take a backseat!


We come now to look at George Blaurock. He had been a catholic priest and it was he who asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him on that momentous occasion in January 1525. He could be rather hot-headed though, more than once entering a church and stepping into the pulpit just as the parish priest was about to do so! However, as we shall later see, the reformer William Farel did much the same thing a few years later in the west of the country.

Blaurock was involved with the others in itinerant preaching, being in and out of jail several times as an Anabaptist. On one occasion, after being imprisoned in Zurich (1525) and then released again, he continued witnessing from house to house. The householder, Ruedi Thomann, relates the following, “After much conversation and reading, Hans Bruggbach stood up weeping and crying out that he was a great sinner and asking that they pray God for him. Then Blaurock asked him whether he desired the grace of God. He said he did. Then Manz rose and said, ‘Who will forbid that I should baptise him?’ Blaurock answered, ‘No one.’” (Albert Newman, History of Anti-pedobaptism, 1902, p. 107). Then Manz proceeded to baptise him. Before they left the next morning the whole household turned to Christ and were baptised, except for Rudi’s brother.

Eventually, however, Blaurock was imprisoned with Felix Manz, but as he was not a citizen of Zurich, he was not subject to the death penalty. Instead, on the same day that Felix Manz was executed by drowning, Blaurock was stripped to the waist and beaten with rods publicly till the blood ran down his back.

Blaurock then went with other Anabaptists to the Swiss city of Bern, which at that time was strongly leaning towards the Reformation. A Disputation was held in the council at which Zwingli appeared and argued against them. The reformers did all they could to put out the fires of Anabaptism. As a result, the Anabaptists were expelled from Bern. Blaurock continued to labour successfully but kept getting banished and so left Switzerland.

He then entered Austria and became a pastor there (in the Adige Valley). He witnessed in the region and his preaching was accompanied by great crowds. Believers were baptised and congregations formed up and down the river valleys. On 14 August, 1529, Blaurock and another layman were arrested by the Catholic Innsbruck authorities. Three weeks later Balurock and Langegger were burned at the stake.

As was often the case, the persecution of Anabaptists by the reformers sent them into the hands of the Catholics, who did not hesitate to burn them at the stake.


Lastly I will mention Balthasar Hübmaier (1480 – 1528). Among the other radical reformers who were in Zurich about this time was Hübmaier. He was a Catholic priest and a noted theologian. However, while in Basel, he had come under the influence of Erasmus and he began to change his thinking along reformed lines. On returning to his parish in Regensburg he started to preach and teach from the texts of Scriptures rather than follow the set readings of the Catholic Church. Under his teaching, images and pictures were removed, and not long after, priests were allowed to marry. In other words, he was starting his own Reformation in Regensburg. But he too went further than the magisterial reformers and witnessed to a change of life and started to preach repentance, conversion and believer’s baptism. However he had to flee his town because the Catholic Archduke of Austria threatened to invade Regensburg.

He wrote to some close friends in Regensburg about the change that had occurred in him:

“In the meantime, so great plague and pursuit has befallen those who preach the divine, true and pure word, that I have not dared to venture. Further, I hear with great sadness how in your city of Regensburg more men preach vanity than the pure word of God. That makes my heart ache; for what does not flow forth from the living word is dead before God. Therefore says Christ, search the Scriptures. He does not say follow the old customs – though I did nothing else when I was the first time with you. However, I did it ignorantly. Like others, I was blinded and possessed by the doctrine of men. Therefore I openly confess before God and all men, that I then became a doctor and preached some years among you and elsewhere, and yet had not known the way unto eternal life. Within two years has Christ for the first time come into my heart to thrive. I have never dared to preach so boldly as now by the grace of God. I lament before God that I so long lay ill of this sickness.” (Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hübmaier, 1905, pp. 77,78.)

In April 1525 he was baptised by Wilhelm Reublin, who had been driven out of Zürich and sought refuge in Waldshut where Hübmaier was then working. 60 others were also baptised with him. On the following Easter Sunday, Hübmaier baptised 300 people and on the Monday they observed the Lord’s Supper in a simple New Testament manner.

In 1524 Hübmaier wrote a little tract entitled Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. This is regarded as the earliest work that called for religious toleration. He argued that one should only use the Scriptures to convince others of their errors, and that those who burn heretics were the greatest heretics of all. One would have thought this was clear enough and accorded with the idea of sola scriptura! Hübmaier pleaded the case that true Christians should not use force and the death penalty against heretics, but it was Anabaptists like Hübmaier that were persecuted, beaten and even killed by the magisterial reformers. They obviously did not agree with his writings.

In January 1525, he wrote against infant baptism as having no basis in Scripture. Zwingli responded by writing a pamphlet entitled ‘On Baptism, Anabaptism, and Infant Baptism’. In it he attacked the teaching of believer’s baptism. Hübmaier then publishes a response entitled ‘The Christian Baptism of Believers’.

Hübmaier arrived in Zurich with his wife at the end 1525, fleeing from the Catholic forces that were about to descend on his town. After their arrival, he and his wife were seized and imprisoned. Zwingli maintains he was arrested to keep him from stirring up an insurrection. Hübmaier requests a disputation and in it quotes what Zwingli had previously taught against infant baptism. Zwingli maintained that he had been misunderstood! However, the arguments of the magisterial reformer prevailed with the council and Hübmaier was called upon to recant, which, under threat of further punishment, he did before the Small Council and the Council of 200. He was then told to read the recantation in church before the congregation after Zwingli’s sermon on Friday, December 29. However, once Hübmaier was in the pulpit, he found himself in great anguish, and declared that there was no way he could recant, and actually proceeded to defend believer’s baptism. Hübmaier was immediately placed back in prison. While in prison he wrote the 12 Articles of Christian Belief.  

During this second imprisonment, Hübmaier was stretched on the rack and brutally tortured, which led to him giving the recantation that Zwingli wanted. Zwingli then mocked him for betraying his own beliefs. This was done by the leading reformer in Switzerland in the name of the Reformation and he saw nothing wrong in it! To so torture and mock a man seemed normal and natural to him. Zwingli was comfortable using the torture tactics of the Spanish Inquisition.

This was heart-breaking for Hübmaier and resulted in a genuine repentance and confession as witnessed by his eventual death when he was burnt at the stake by Catholic authorities for his beliefs and for his refusal to recant. Hübmaier went to Nikolsburg in Moravia. Here Hübmaier’s work thrived. Converts were rapidly made, including a Moravian baron who was baptised by Hübmaier. It is said that at least 6000 people were baptised in one year alone through Hübmaier’s work at Nikolsburg. He also continued writing and particularly inveighed against the moral laxity of the Lutherans – something that we shall address later.

But when Moravia came under the jurisdiction of Catholics, Hübmaier was taken prisoner, tortured on the rack once again, and this time burnt at the stake for his refusal to recant. His wife was murdered three days later by drowning. If one were to give the designation, ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, to which group of people would this designation best fit?

We will finish our study of Zwingli with a look at how things ended for him.


Zwingli had been canvassing for an alliance of reformed cities, and as the Reformation spread in Switzerland, in January 1528, eight of the 13 regions of the Swiss Confederation which had become reformed, joined in an alliance called ‘the Christian Civic Union’. In April 1529 the five other Catholic regions felt encircled and isolated, and formed an alliance with Catholic Austria (under Ferdinand), called the ‘Christian Alliance’. So the Swiss confederation of 13 regions broke into two camps – Protestant (8 regions) and the Catholic (5 regions). 

At this time, a reformed preacher, Jacob Kaiser, was captured in one of the Catholic regions and executed. This put Zwingli on a war footing. He recommended to the government that they should go to war against the Catholic regions and gave reasons to justify such an attack. However, Bern, which was also Reformed by this time, was very uneasy about such a hasty violent reaction and urged a more diplomatic approach. They were concerned that such a war could bring in other neighbouring Catholic forces. But Zwingli was adamant and so, along with the Zurich authorities, continued with plans to invade the Catholic regions. As the two armies met at Kappel in June 1529, the Catholic forces were significantly outnumbered. However, war was averted through the intervention of a relative of Zwingli, who managed to get the two sides to negotiate a peace.

So the First Peace of Kappel was agreed on 26 June 1529. However, tensions remained, with the imposition of a food blockade against the Catholics that was then later withdrawn.

Then, in a surprise move, on 9 October 1531, the Catholic Five States declared war on Zürich. This caught Zurich on the hop and they could not gather sufficient men in time. The battle lasted not more than an hour and the Catholic forces were victorious. Many pastors, including Zwingli, were part of the army from Zurich. Among the 500 casualties was Zwingli, who died of his injuries. As Jesus had said, “…all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Mtt.26:15).

Zwingli seemed to feel quite at home carrying on the kind of wars that the Catholic religion had waged against dissenters and foes. As someone who believed in ‘the Scriptures alone’, did it not occur to him that Jesus had said that His servants would not fight because His kingdom is not of this world – and that neither are His servants of this world (John 18:36; 15:19)? By his life Zwingli contradicted the words quoted here and placed himself clearly in this world and of its kingdom.


Should the Anabaptists have known better than to challenge the State?

Some might suggest or even maintain that the Anabaptists were unwise if not foolish to ‘challenge’ the authorities in this way. I think it is a legitimate question but it treats the issue far too simply and ignores a number of factors that are involved in the historical context. As was the case with Luther in Germany, so it was in Reformation Switzerland. There were those who started out with the reformers, more or less sharing the same values and outlook. The expectation was growing that there would be great change and liberation in the religious scene. However, once the leading reformers were absorbed within the authority of the secular power, the rate at which things changed, significantly slowed down or stalled completely. More than that, from the point of view of those who had been working together with the reformers, the reformers were now backtracking on certain key points of Scripture. This caused a rift between the emerging ‘magisterial’ reformers and those who had been working with them, who we then come to know as the ‘radical’ reformers.

What we have seen so far, and shall continue to see is that it was not just a case of the secular government persecuting nonconformists. The magisterial reformers not only disagreed with Anabaptist teachings, which would have been one thing, but they themselves became active opponents and persecutors of the Anabaptists, to the point of even urging and inciting the secular power to put down all religious dissent. This will become abundantly clear as we continue this study.

Did some Anabaptists at times act unwisely? Yes, there certainly seem to be instances of that. Was there a lunatic fringe who were also given the name ‘Anabaptists’ who acted in a violent and appalling way, and who erred wildly in doctrine? Yes there was, but this chiefly occurred in Germany and such groups could hardly be compared with the large number of true Anabaptists who neither shared the nature or the teachings of such extremists. I write about this in more detail in Chapter 3.

But much more than all this, a fire had been lit in the hearts of men and women! They had experienced a radical change in their lives. The life-changing power of the Gospel had turned their lives around, and such was the change that they could not forbear but to preach this life-changing Gospel to others. This fire was unstoppable and unquenchable. For all the unspeakable atrocities against them, the Anabaptists continued to flourish and spread.

If laws were passed to make home bible-study and prayer meetings illegal; if laws were passed to make the preaching of the Gospel from house to house, in marketplaces or in the fields illegal; if laws were passed to punish and execute those who baptised others or were baptised by others, what were such believers to do, whose lives had been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ and whose hearts were on fire for the Gospel? Were they now to sit at home and keep quiet? Hardly! No doubt in their own hearts the same words echoed that were spoken by Peter and the apostles to the Pharisees who were persecuting and punishing them, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).

It needs to be noted or reiterated on the other hand, that during all this time the magisterial reformers did not take a backseat with regards to the persecutions that were going on. They had fully bought into the idea of Christendom with all its cruel intolerance of religious dissenters and nonconformists. They not only colluded with, but urged and directed the civil powers in persecuting the Anabaptists. We have seen this in a small measure but we will see it in greater measure as this study proceeds.

Let me also add that the main purpose of the above is not to support the Anabaptists in what they taught and did – though I find much to agree with and admire – but to reveal the nature of the Reformation through a consideration of how they treated those that held different religious views to them, and the reasons they gave for doing so.

Finally one might ask, but what if the reformers had stuck to their guns and held to their original convictions at the start of their alliance with the secular powers, would not the Reformation have collapsed altogether? One presumes that it would have. But the question is hypothetical. As we shall increasingly observe, in their thinking and outlook the reformers were part of Christendom. They belonged to that entity that is called by that name. They naturally fitted into that type of ‘Christianity’ and state church model that arose at the time of Constantine.

And if it had failed, what difference would it have made to the many thousands of Anabaptists who were persecuted and killed? Presumably, no difference whatsoever. Instead of being cruelly persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike, they would have been persecuted alone by the Catholics – but indeed, the Catholics might have excelled in cruelty. However, where is the gain in supplanting one cruel intolerant reign for another?

It does seem though that the emergence of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland did provide a window of opportunity for the rise and spread of Anabaptism. Particularly during the period of 1517 to 1525 when things were still in a state of flux and transition, and before the Protestant Reformers had turned against the Anabaptists, the latter had opportunity and relative liberty to preach those things that they had come to believe and experience. However, even under terrible persecution, Anabaptism still grew and spread.

But wouldn’t it have been a terrible loss if the Reformation had ‘failed’? Again, this question is rather hypothetical and depends on your point of view and on your theology. The Protestant Reformation partook of the same religious intolerance that was characteristic of the Catholic Church. This creation of two ‘Christendoms’ led to terrible ‘religious’ wars with huge casualties over a period of more than a century. I touch on this at the end of the book.

‘The word of God is not bound.’ Nor is the Gospel bound. This is the truth. There have always been those who declare it and adhere to it, and there always will be, right to the end. No matter what opposition is encountered or what trials faced, the word of God is not bound and shall have those who declare it.

This study is only the first step towards a consideration of the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation by giving a historical background to those doctrines and the men who formulated them. In this second study I hope to show that they Protestant Reformers erred as much in their doctrines as they did in their cruel conduct.


(N1) Letter to John Fisher, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 3: The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters 298 to 445, 1514 to 1516. Trans. R.A.B Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976)

(N2) Noël Béda, Annotationum Natalis Bede Doctoris Theologi Parisensis in Jacobum Fabrum Stapulensem (Cologne 1526), 133r and 146r.

(N3) Quellen zur Geshichte der Taüfer in der Schweiz, I Band, Zürich, von Leonhard von Muralt und Walter Schmid (Zürich, 1952), p. 184. / Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, L. Verduin, 1964, p. 198.



  1. The spread of Anabaptism.
  2. The persecution of the Anabaptists by the Protestant Reformers.
  3. The teachings of the reformers justifying their persecution and execution of Anabaptists.
  4. The reformers’ religious worldview. 

The Anabaptists and their Teachings.

Anabaptist means ‘rebaptiser’, and it was definitely not a term that the Anabaptists used for themselves. It was used by their opponents, which included the Protestant Reformers, who used it in a completely derogatory sense. It was a term that expressed their contempt, because ‘rebaptism’ was regarded as a crime that undermined both Church and State. This opposition to believer’s baptism in itself highlights the animosity and the incomprehension that the reformers had towards the idea that anyone could so respond to the Gospel that they would want to be baptised ‘again’, having already been ‘baptised’ as an infant. Though of course, the Anabaptists did not recognise the validity of their infant baptism, but were baptised on the basis that it was the first time that they had truly turned to Christ for salvation. It further also highlights the utterly false notion of the reformers that infant baptism is the initiation of the child into the New Covenant, and makes the infant a child of God. To ‘re-baptise’ someone therefore, was considered an offence and a threat to both the State and the Church because it undermined the whole notion of ‘Christendom’ by suggesting all the infant-baptised ‘Christians’ in the community were not actually already converted or Christian. This latter idea horrified the Protestant Reformers.

And there was nothing new about this. The imperial law code from the time of Justinian (A.D. 529) on, made rebaptism punishable by death, the other crime with the same sentence was denying the Trinity. Another term and ‘accusation’ that the reformers would dredge up from the past is that of calling the Anabaptists ‘Donatists’ (which I mentioned in Chapter 1), and they would appeal to Augustine’s writings and actions against the Donatists to ‘validate’ their own persecutions of the Anabaptists.

The name the Anabaptists commonly used to describe themselves was ‘brethren’, or ‘Swiss brethren’ in the Swiss regions. However, the Anabaptists did not begin as some kind of unified movement. There was no centralised leadership or base. Different groups started to spring up in different places with no unified teaching. So, in (February) 1527, in the Swiss-German border-town of Schleitheim, in Switzerland, a small group of Anabaptists met to create a document that some consider to be the real birth of Anabaptism. They did not come up with a complete confession of faith, but rather sought common ground upon which they could agree. It was called The Schleitheim Confession, because of the town where they met. The Anabaptists also warned against and criticised the ‘state’ religion of the reformers, and deemed it nothing more than nominal Christianity, as a ‘dead’ religion that allowed its adherents to continue in licentious living and immoral conduct. In the Confession, the Anabaptists wrote,

“A very great offence has been introduced by certain false brethren among us, so that some have turned aside from the faith, in the way they intend to practice and observe the freedom of the Spirit and of Christ. But such have missed the truth, and to their condemnation are given over to the lasciviousness and self-indulgence of the flesh. They think faith and love may do and permit everything, and nothing will harm them nor condemn them, since they are believers… But you are not that way. For they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts.”

Their main articles of faith consisted of the seven points, which I have summarised in brief:

  1. “Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ…This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abominations of the pope.”
  2. ‘The Ban’ – This refers to the only act of discipline that the Church can exercise. It consists of admonishing believers up to two times if they fall into some sin and then being banned from the fellowship of believers if they persist after the second warning. This to be done in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.
  3. ‘Breaking of bread’ – only for genuine baptised believers, in remembrance of the death of the Lord.
  4. Separation from the world: not unequally yoked with unbelievers. Living righteously.
  5. Pastors must be blameless and supported by the church.
  6. ‘Use of the Sword’: The church does not use force. Its only means is the ‘ban’. The Confession acknowledges that “the sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same [sword] is [now] ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates. In the perfection of Christ, however, only the ban is used for a warning and for the excommunication of the one who has sinned, without putting the flesh to death, – simply the warning and the command to sin no more.”

Not appropriate for a Christian to be a magistrate.

  1. Christ forbids swearing, that is, taking the oath.

As we saw in Chapter 2, the issue that particularly incurred the wrath of the reformers and the magistrates was believer’s baptism, which was seen as a teaching that would lead to the separation between Church and State, thus threatening both and heralding the end of Christendom. It was an obnoxious idea to the reformers, who wrote profusely against this teaching in the severest terms. Christendom existed and survived on the inviolable axiom and understanding that all infant-baptised citizens in a given area already belong to the ‘Christian’ community, which is represented by the State and Church.  The teaching of a personal ‘conversion’ that led to a believer’s baptism – in ‘addition’ to infant baptism – was viewed by the reformers as something that would completely fracture the religious, social and political structure of the Christian State and lead to its overthrow. Its proponents were therefore regarded as blasphemers and guilty of sedition and subversion, and who, therefore, needed to be appropriately punished as criminals of the State.

However, apart from the issue of baptism, two of the other main accusations levelled against the Anabaptists by the reformers were points 6 and 7. While acknowledging the use of ‘sword’ – the use of physical force to apprehend and punish criminals – by the secular powers, the Anabaptists believed that true believers should not allow themselves to be voted onto the magistracy. They believed it was not a Christian’s duty to judge in other men’s matters. This may seem somewhat extreme, but it must be remembered that the secular power, that is, the magistrates, ruled over a ‘Christianised’ society. So there is a blurring of issues between church and state, between civil and religious matters, since both worked in harmony to ensure religious orthodoxy in their territory. The pastors would teach ‘sound’ doctrine to their congregations – ‘use the word’ – and the magistrates were responsible for ensuring purity of doctrine in their domains, so they would issue warrants of arrest against, and mete out punishments to dissenters like the Anabaptists, including the death penalty, which is represented by the phrase, ‘use the sword’! So, it is no wonder that the Anabaptists didn’t feel that they could function as magistrates! They didn’t believe that ‘the sword’ should be used in matters of religion to persecute and kill their own brethren! However, the reformers used their refusal to serve as magistrates as a clear indication of sedition.

The other of these issues was point 7 – the Anabaptists refusal to take the oath – mainly based on Matthew 5:34-37. This point was also eagerly picked up on by the reformers in an attempt to show that the Anabapatists were rebels of the state. However, the historical context may again provide some explanation. Generally, an oath is given to emphasise or to validate the truth of something, but as we saw in Chapter 1 of this study, oath taking was a means of securing allegiance and subjection to the reigning power, as was the case in Roman times, when oath taking was a means of weeding out Christians who were considered a threat to society. So again, since the reformers perpetuated the idea of Christendom, oath taking still had the flavour of an oath of fealty to the reigning power, which is something the Anabaptists could not do. They would not take an oath of allegiance to a government that persecuted religious dissenters. Moreover, as we shall see, citizens were obliged by decree to inform on any Anabaptist preachers or meetings that took place in their locality. To underline their obligation to do this, citizens were reminded of the oath of allegiance they had taken to the state. It would hardly be possible to take an oath that obliges you to inform on your fellow believers to have them thrown in prison or worse! Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Anabaptists’ arguments in this matter, the reformers were very happy indeed to seize upon this custom of the Anabaptists as evidence that they were rebels against the state and a danger to society.

The teaching that it is not in the nature of the Lord’s Church to use the arm of the secular authorities to persecute, punish and stamp out religious dissenters in the name of the Christian religion, horrified the reformers – and the ‘Christianised’ secular authorities! That is tantamount to saying that anyone can set up their own sect and believe and teach what they want. It was considered a teaching that would sink Christendom. 

Those who support or sympathise with Luther, Calvin and other reformers of this period, often use the excuse that the reformers were ‘men of their times’ when trying to explain or lessen the impact of their cruel actions and murderous intent against dissenters. Somehow this argument is meant to find ‘understanding’ among those who would otherwise criticise or condemn their actions. I deal with this fallacy later on, but let me just say here that there were other men (the Anabaptists) who lived at the same time and in the same historical context, and yet we see that not only did they write clearly in scriptural terms against Christians using violence and executing heretics, but also lived out these principles and truths in their own lives to the point of allowing themselves to be beaten, tortured, drowned and burnt. The argument that the culture you are born in necessarily determines your behaviour as a Christian to the point of persecuting and executing other believers, is a fatally flawed one. New birth through Christ can and does raise a person above and out of such a culture and such behaviour. We have the Scriptures and the testimony of the apostle Paul that demonstrate this clearly – 1 Timothy 1:12-16. Or what views regarding the new birth do those hold who suggest that the reformers somehow inevitably had to follow a culture of punishing, imprisoning and even sanctioning the execution of religious dissenters? Does culture in such matters ‘trump’ the work of God in regenerating a person?

I will return to the nature of the accusations against the Anabaptists later.

Persecution of the Anabaptists.

Let us now continue with the story.

The Martyrs’ Synod

Another meeting took place in Augsburg, Southern Germany, later in 1527 (August 20 to 24). This meeting was attended by about sixty representatives from different Anabaptist groups, and its purpose was to iron out differences between the Swiss and south German Anabaptists regarding the central Anabaptist teachings.

At the time, Augsburg was an active centre of the Anabaptist movement in southern Germany. By 1526, only a year after the first Anabaptist baptism in Zurich, the number of Anabaptists had grown to between 700 and 1,000 people, despite persecution and the fact that they had to meet in secret.

However, on the Protestant side, Urban Rhegius was the head of the local clergy in Augsburg. (He was a close associate of Luther, who called him his bishop of Lower Saxony). As soon as the Augsburg authorities learned of the synod, they took steps towards putting down the movement. Within days of the Synod starting (24th August), the city council arrested and tortured Anabaptists and used the forced confessions to warn other governments to be on the lookout for them. During the autumn of 1527, most of the leaders of the Augsburg congregation were arrested, tortured and banished, and the city threatened severe punishment against anyone caught baptizing or meeting in secret. The Anabaptist Hans Hut was tortured horribly (for 4 months), and accidentally died in the Augsburg prison in December 1527 because of a fire which resulted in his death by suffocation. The next day, the authorities sentenced his dead body to death and burned him.

This Synod became known as the ‘Martyrs’ Synod’, because most participants were killed for their faith soon afterwards. The Martyrs’ Synod took place just as persecution of the Anabaptists began to escalate throughout Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

Also, during this time (in the last quarter of 1527 and the first half of 1528) decrees and mandates were continually being issued by rulers and authorities against the Anabaptists. The Swabian League (a defensive force in southern Germany) passed a cruel decree at Augsburg on 22nd February 1528, which authorized a band of four hundred armed horsemen to hunt down, arrest and bring to trial the Anabaptists. Those who did not recant suffered being burnt at the stake without trial. Even those that did recant simply received the more speedy punishment of being beheaded, while women were executed by drowning. Two weeks after this decree was passed Joachim Helm, a citizen of Augsburg, wrote: “It is such a misery, that the whole city of Augsburg is saddened. They are daily beheading some, at times four or six, and at times ten persons.” (Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 1916, 154. /

However, these Anabaptists did not resort to violence. Violence and the use of force had no part in authentic Anabaptist teaching or practice. There would be others who did resort to violence and insurrection and who would be called Anabaptists, especially by the reformers, but who both in practice and principal differed greatly from the great many Anabaptists who simply endured persecution and death. More of this later.

The Anabaptists were hunted down ruthlessly like animals. They were forced to meet in secret, but the persecution of them was constant and merciless, with many being hauled before magistrates, interrogated, imprisoned and tortured. The reformers banned its adherents and hounded them out of their regions, sending them into Catholic territories, where the Catholic Church had no compunction about torturing and burning them at the stake. To read about their sufferings is to read about prolonged and unspeakable cruelties.

Philip Melanchthon and the Punishment of Anabaptists.

Philip Melanchthon was a leading reformer and Luther’s right-hand man and successor in Wittenberg. In 1527, Melanchthon was commissioned by John, Elector of Saxony, to inspect the churches in the region of Thuringia. With him were two other Lutherans, Friedrich Myconius and Justus Menius. As a result of this visit, he wrote his Visitation Articles, which he later expanded in 1528 into a refutation of the beliefs of the Anabaptists in his Adversus Anabaptistas Iudicium (German: Unterricht wider die Lehre der Wiedertäufer; Englsih: Against the Teachings of the Anabaptists.)  Two years later he defended the death penalty for Anabaptists who would not recant in a letter to Myconius:

“At first when I began to become acquainted with Storch and his following, to whom the whole family of Anabaptists owes its existence, I was possessed by a foolish tolerance. Others were also of the opinion that heretics are not to be destroyed with the swordNow I regret this lenience not a little. What disturbances, what heresies did he not stir up afterward?…All the Anabaptists, even if they are blameless in all other respects, reject some part or other of their civic duties. Though the matter in and for itself may be insignificant, yet at this time and in so many crises it is extremely dangerous…Therefore it is my opinion concerning those who hold beliefs that are, to be sure, not seditious, but still obviously blasphemous, that the government is under obligation to kill them.” (Letter to Myconius, 1530. Wappler, Paul; Die Stellung Kursachsens und des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen zur Täuferbewegung; Kursachsen, 13 f. Italics mine.)

In this passage, Melanchton deeply regrets his earlier ‘foolish tolerance’ in hesitating to destroy heretics with the sword. Now he is of the firm opinion that they should be killed.

Later on, the execution of six Anabaptists in 1530 (January 18) at Reinhardsbrunn in Saxony caused a great stir. The Elector John now wanted the Lutheran Wittenberg theologians to give a written clarification and basis for dealing with the Anabaptists. It was put together by Melanchthon and submitted to the Elector in October 1531, entitled Gutachten an den Kurfürsten Johann von Sachsen. This writing addressed the matter of appropriate punishments for Anabaptists, and in this Melanchthon distinguishes between three kinds of Anabaptists. There are those that are ringleaders and proclaimers of Anabaptism. Secondly, there are the followers and those who have been misled, and finally there are those who may be weak in their belief and who could possibly be persuaded to recant. Melachthon continues:

The first class is to be killed with the sword, because they persisted contrary to the electoral mandate in holding meetings; for they have thereby shown themselves disobedient to the government. But the second class who hold obviously seditious articles of faith and persisted in them in spite of warning and instruction, should as revolutionaries also be put to death. . . . Finally those of the third class, who have erred because of ignorance, should be shown mercy after they have been instructed and have recanted their error, after they have made public confession and have been warned not to repeat the error. But if they do not desist from their error – ‘for many of them are possessed by the devil’ – they should be expelled from the country, provided that no seditious beliefs or malicious intentions are found in them, or be punished by some other mild penalty.” (Ibid, 26 f. Italics mine.)

The words of Melanchthon above reveal a cold, murderous intent in the name of religion that made the reformers scarcely any different to their Catholic counterparts. Luther signed this document and added his own comments upholding the death penalty for the worst offenders. (See Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 138.)

A few years later, on 20th November 1535 Jobst Möller and his wife, Ursula Wedekind, were arrested along with other Anabaptists in the home of Hans Peissker at Kleineutersdorf in Saxony. Ursula’s mother, Greta Knobloch (from her first marriage) and her first husband had both been martyred. In all, sixteen people were arrested and taken to Leuchtenburg where they were interrogated. Among them were also Heinz Kraut who had baptised Jobst and his wife in July 1535. For logistical reasons to do with available space, the women remained at Leuchtenburg and the men were split between different locations (Jena, Kahla and Neustadt and the Arnshaugk castle). At Jena, Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut and Lorenz Petsch were interrogated concerning their beliefs during the first week of December 1535 by Melanchthon and others in the presence of the city council.

Lorenz Petsch was separated from the others as he seemed to be a very recent convert and inclined to recant. (N1) Concerning forgiveness of sins, the captives said, “They must sincerely ask for forgiveness and must thereafter walk in righteousness, believe and trust God’s Word, do the will of the Father, and the sins would be forgiven. In short, one must practice truth and righteousness.”

Melanchthon sent a report of the interrogations of the prisoners at Kahla and Leuchtenburg to John, Elector of Saxony on 19th January 1536, which included advice about what he considered to be suitable punishment.  Referring to one wavering father he wrote, “With this one I beg you not to hasten punishment. For I hope that when his master Heinz Kraut, who lies in Jena, and a few other stubborn ones are executed, he will let himself be instructed. On the obstinate ones it is necessary to inflict serious punishment. And even though some may not be otherwise untractable, nevertheless this harmful sect must be resisted, in which there are so many terrible, dangerous errors. But with the poor obstinate women I think it is not necessary to hurry, but first deal earnestly with their husbands.” John wrote a letter on 23rd January concurring with Melanchthon’s opinion. (Corpus Reformatorum III, 16 f.)

Accordingly, the ‘obstinate’ ones in Jena were questioned further but eventually put on the rack to induce them to recant, but they refused to be thus ‘persuaded’ and were condemned to death and beheaded. (Jan. 26th, 27th, 1536). Their condemnation was that they were Anabaptists and were responsible for ungodly, seditious views and had held meetings at Kleineutersdorf.

The wives of those executed (Jobst and Heinrich Möller) were being held at Leuchtenburg, and had held out against the attempts to make them renounce their beliefs, for which reason Melanchthon had called them ‘stubborn’ (Corp., Ref. III, 21).  However, learning of the death of their husbands broke the resolve of the women, and they were finally induced to recant, just as Melanchthon had anticipated. To finish this process the women were forced to make a public recantation in the church at Kahla by order of the Elector John Frederick, which he made in March.

During the trials of the Anabaptists in Jena, Melanchthon wrote to the Elector John, stating that it would be good to have public warnings against the Anabaptists: “Perhaps it would be advisable for your Excellency to have a public writing issued, which would show what coarse, seditious, and dangerous articles the Anabaptists have, wherefore such earnest measures must be taken against them” (Corp. Ref. III, 17). This was agreed to and Melanchthon was commissioned by the Elector to compose such a writing to submit to him for approval.

Following this, Melanchthon wrote more articles against the Anabaptists, and as the executions had caused such a stir in this region of Germany, he engaged his pen again in defence of the severe sentences in a writing entitled, ‘An Account of several unchristian Articles which the Anabaptists promote’ (Verlegung etlicher Unchristlicher Artikel welche die Widerteuffer furgeben), which was published in Wittenberg in 1536.

Before that, he had written a guide for pastors to warn them against the Anabaptists, which had the title, A Refutation of several revolutionary Articles promoted and defended by the Anabaptists. (Widerlegung auf etliche aufruhrische Artikel so die Wiederteufer treiben und verteidigen. Corp. Ref. III, 28-34). (N2)

The Lutheran Reformers carried on and perpetuated the cruel religious dictatorship that had begun under the Roman Catholic Church.

If you wish to read about the case of the Anabaptist martyr, Fritz Erbe, this will be found at the end under Appendix 1.

How did the reformers justify the use of force against the Anabaptists?

The reformers believed that the magistrates were ordained of God to ensure religious orthodoxy and to punish blasphemers and heretics.

The reformer Henry Bullinger, who was the successor to Zwingli in Zürich, complained about the teachings of the Anabaptists and wrote the following, “They say that one cannot and may not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, seeing that faith is the free gift from God. It is wrong, say they, to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put anyone to death because of erring faith. It is an error, they assert, that in the church any other sword is used than that of the divine Word. The secular kingdom, they hold, should be separate from the church and no civil ruler ought to exercise his authority there. The true church of Christ, according to them, has this characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict it upon any.” (John Horsch, Menonnites in Europe, p. 325. Italics mine.)

What was totally reasonable to anyone with common sense, let alone scriptural knowledge, was baffling and objectionable to Bullinger. The incomprehension of the Protestant Reformers, whose outlook was still determined by, and rooted in Christendom, is obvious here. Christendom is upheld by the secular authority forcing religion on people and punishing and executing those who do not conform.

John Calvin ended up writing a notorious work, justifying the persecution of, and death penalty for ‘heretics’.

For Calvin the government and the church are one in upholding ‘pure’ religion; they together represent Christendom and godly rule over the nation. But he maintains that the proper, true position of the government is that of subjection to the church. Calvin states:

“For the magistrate, if he is pious, will have no wish to exempt himself from the common subjection of the children of God, not the least part of which is to subject himself to the Church, judging according to the word of God…For, as Ambrose says, “What more honourable title can an emperor have than to be called a son of the Church? A good emperor is within the Church, not above the Church.” (Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 11, P. 4. Italics mine).

The reformers loved the idea of ‘Christendom’ as much as the Catholics did. We can see that, in essence, Calvin did not believe in the separation of Church and State at all – both work together to uphold the integrity of religion, with the secular power being directed in such matters by the Church.

Commenting on Psalm 82:6 (‘I have said, You are gods…’), Calvin says, “When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God.” (Bk 4, Ch. 20, P. 4. Italics mine.) As we shall see, Calvin is saying nothing different to what Luther had said in his exposition of Psalm 82.

Commenting on Romans 13, Calvin states concerning magistrates, “…rulers are the ministers of God, ‘not a terror to good works, but to the evil’ (Rom. 13:1, 3). To this we may add the examples of saints, some of whom held the offices of kings, as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah; others of governors, as Joseph and Daniel; others of civil magistrates among a free people, as Moses, Joshua, and the Judges. Their functions were expressly approved by the Lord. Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.” (Italics mine).

Calvin has here elevated and equated the civil authority in a so-called Christian nation, to that of the Kings, prophets and judges of Israel. In other words, the magistrates are not only divinely appointed, but appointed as being subject to the church and an instrument of the church. Such an interpretation is not enlightenment, but a reveals deep darkness that is devoid of a true understanding of Scripture and of spiritual truth. Here we see how Calvin perpetuates and develops the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, of Christendom, which is to be modelled on the theocracy of the Old Testament. He says that just as Kings, prophets and judges ruled over Israel in the Old Testament, exhorting to goodness and righteousness, and punishing and killing the wicked, so too now a city, region or nation which has embraced the Reformation, is regarded as ‘the people of God’, and the so-called ‘Christian’ magistrates of such a nation or region rule over the inhabitants – who are regarded as God’s people – upholding righteousness and punishing, persecuting and killing the wicked heretics!

The consequences of this outlook, and modifications or extensions of it, have reverberated down the centuries. The Puritans would go to war against a Catholic king, regarding themselves as the soldiers of Christ and on the mission of God to purify the land of heresy and heretics, and reclaiming the country for God. Multitudes across Europe were ‘baptised’, or brainwashed by this kind of outlook into the religious delusion that they were doing God’s work and fighting His cause by persecuting the ‘enemies of God’ and waging war against Catholic forces.

Calvin simply upheld the model created under Constantine. He also took up his pen in writhing against the Anabaptists. His ideas concerning these matters become clearer in his attacks on them. He writes:

“Those who are desirous to introduce anarchy object that, though (in the OT) ancient kings and judges presided over a rude people, yet in the present day, that servile mode of governing does not at all accord with the perfection which Christ brought with his Gospel. Herein they betray not only their ignorance, but their devilish pride…” (Book 4, Ch. 20, P. 5. Italics mine).    

Here Calvin pours scorn on the teachings of the Anabaptists who maintain that civil magistrates have no sanction from Scripture to persecute and punish religious dissenters. Ominously, he accuses such people of introducing anarchy, and sedition was a crime punishable by death. Calvin claims that it is only their ignorance and devilish pride that makes them think thus! What should we say about what makes Calvin think the way he does?

Calvin continues to show his contempt of the Anabaptists’ teaching in his treatise against them by saying:

“Last of all, like as a drunkard, after he hath well belched, doth disgorge the villainous broth which charged his stomach, even so these wicked men, after they have detracted this holy estate which the Lord hath so much honoured, finally with full throat, they do spew out exceeding deformed blasphemies. The governance, say they, of the Magistrates, is after the flesh: and that of Christian men, is after the spirit... But this is nothing, compared to that which followeth, The habitation of Magistrates, say they, is permanent in this world: but the habitation of the Christians is in heaven. And such like. I beseech you, by the name of God, all faithful men, and I admonish you, well to consider those things, which Peter and Jude have written of certain corrupters, which in their time perverted the faith of the simple; and by their words I pray you make comparison with those things which I will recite of the Anabaptists.” (Calvin, To The Ministers Of The Churches In The County Of Neuchatel, or A Refutation of the Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists. Taken from an English translation of Calvin’s treatise printed in the year 1549.)

Calvin, in his blindness, castigates the Anabaptists as deceivers and perverters of the truth. Because of the tremendous spread and impact of the Anabaptist movement, many of the reformers were constantly engaged in writing against the Anabaptists.

Martin Luther wanted his close associate Urbanus Rhegius (of Augsburg, if you remember) to undertake a written work attacking the Anabaptists. In this work, Rhegius praises Constantine for creating the state church model and for applying the use of force. He wrote, “The truth leaves you no choice; you must agree that the government (magistracy) has the authority to coerce his subjects to the get people to the services with fine words and admonitions is the preachers duty, but to keep them there with recourse to force if need be and to frighten them away from error is the proper function of the rulers…What do you suppose ‘Compelle intrare’ means?” (N3)

In the last sentence Rhegius is echoing the sentiments of Augustine when he quoted the scripture, ‘Compel them to come in”. Here you have the mind of the reformers – they believe it is obvious that the magistrates have the authority to force their citizens to the Gospel. The ruthless religious dictatorial rule of the Catholic Church of many centuries is here subscribed to and supported by the Protestant Reformers. What motivation was it in the hearts of these reformers that could so blind them to the simple clear meaning of Scripture?

Ulrich Zwingli, it is no surprise, was in full agreement. Writing of Zwingli, the historian Philip Schaff states, “Zwingli…occupied the theocratic standpoint of the Old Testament, as did Calvin. The preacher is a prophet: his duty is to instruct, to exhort, to comfort, to rebuke sin in high and low places…his weapon is the Word of God. The duty of the magistrates is to obey the gospel, to protect religion, to punish wickedness. Calvin took the same position in Geneva, and carried it out much more fully than Zwingli.”  (History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. Philip Schaff Chpt. III, S.23).

According to the outlook of the reformers, Christendom is the new Israel, where the magistrates and the preachers work together to correct, punish and if necessary to eliminate the ‘wicked’ from the land.

The Execution of Heretics.

In the 1518 version of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, “The burning of heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, this was one of his ‘errors’ that the Catholic Church mentioned when denouncing him as a heretic in 1520. In the early days Luther believed that the proper spiritual means to change people’s view was the preaching of the word of God. And in 1520 in his ‘Address to the Nobility of the German Nation’ he wrote against the use of force regarding heretics, saying “One should overcome the heretics with Scripture and not with fire.”

Very good indeed! But due to disturbances in Germany, and with the spread of Anabaptism, by 1530 he had declared that the Anabaptists were to be condemned by the state for sedition and blasphemy. From then on, for a number of years he supported the death penalty for them, and it was through his and Melanchthon’s advice to the princely rulers, based on ‘theological’ grounds, that Anabaptists were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and put to death in the German regions.

The idea that Luther began a process of introducing liberty of conscience and freedom of religion in 16th century Europe is false, as many Anabaptists who were imprisoned, tortured, banished and martyred for their faith by the Protestants could bear witness to.

In 1527 and 1528, as we have already noted, John the Prince-Elector of Saxony, who was Luther’s protector, issued mandates instructing imprisonment and the death of any Anabaptists carrying on their work in his region, and a number were duly found and executed by this Protestant Prince, while others fled to neighbouring regions. When faced with religious non-conformists that impaired and undermined his movement, Luther’s seemingly pious and charitable views regarding freedom of conscience evaporated and turned into cruel persecution of those that he perceived as his opponents – just as was the case with Augustine.

Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82.

In his exegesis of the 82nd Psalm (1530), Luther declares that the Anabaptists were both seditious and blasphemers, and deserving of the severest punishment. In this exposition he repeatedly states that blasphemers are worthy of death. I have read through the whole exposition in German – which is quite long – and the translated excerpts below are my own. (Source: Luther, Martin, Sämmliche Werke, Band 30, Erlangen, Carl Heyder, 1846.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular authority (German: Obrigkeit; e.g. Princes, rulers, magistrates) have been placed there by God, and that they equate to the ‘gods’ mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, he highlights the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden). The first of these is to protect and promote ‘the word of God’ and to support the ministry of the Church. Luther declares that one of the chief responsibilities of the Princes and noblemen in the matter of religion is to ensure that only the ‘true’ Gospel is preached and that the Princes are failing when they allow ‘false’ teachers to propagate their views and remain in their regions. He states of this failure, “But who can furthermore tell what horrendous vice and harm such a Prince or Lord causes by chasing so many souls into hell and robs them of eternal bliss. He should rather be called a Devil than a god…”

These words of Luther leave the Princes in no doubt about their duty to eradicate false teachers in their regions, just as the Kings of Israel should have eradicated the false prophets of Baal, as he later intimates. Luther, in his comments on verse four of this Psalm, devotes more time to the issue of the suppression and persecution of religious dissenters than to any other specific topic in his whole exposition. Luther introduces his commentary on verse four by giving an answer to the question whether, along with promoting God’s word, the ‘gods’ or ‘authorities’ (these are the same for Luther according to Psalm 82) should oppose and punish false teachings and heresies, since, it is argued, that one cannot and should not force anyone to believe. Luther then proceeds to give his answers in support of the authorities acting to suppress religious dissent. He says,

“Firstly, some heretics are revolutionaries, who openly teach that one should not tolerate any authority.”

It is true that there were violent elements at that time among those that may have been called Anabaptists by some, but then he gives a list of subversive activities that may apply to some but would be a misrepresentation if applied to all Anabaptists in the way that he does. Luther mentions the refusal to sit as a magistrate, and the idea of the ‘communal sharing of goods’ as seditious activities, which were taught by the Anabaptists but not by all in the same way. (I dealt briefly with these accusations earlier in this Chapter, and shall elaborate towards the end.)  But his conclusion is clear,

“These ones are immediately and without doubt to be punished by the authority, because they openly fight against the worldly government and authority (Rom. 13:1f).” (Italics mine.)

As I have said, the reformers grossly misinterpreted the views of the Anabaptists so that they could make them look like revolutionaries. Luther then mentions a number of heresies which he claims are taught by Turks and Anabaptists alike, and then states,

“…neither should one tolerate these but punish them as those who blaspheme openly. Since they are not only heretics but open blasphemers. Now, it is certain that the authority is responsible for punishing these public blasphemers, even as one punishes swearing, revilers, blasphemers…etc.” (Italics mine.)

Luther’s message is clear, heretics and blasphemers are not to be tolerated but punished and banished. He accepts that no one can be forced to believe, but to publicly teach heresy and to blaspheme is forbidden, and with such people one should not even dispute and argue but they are to be condemned out of hand once their heresy is revealed, just like the Arians were at the council of Nicaea. He then adds,

“Moses also in his Law commands that all such blasphemers and, indeed, all false teachers are to be stoned. So, in this matter, one should not dispute much, but condemn such public blasphemers without being heard or answered.”

He pointedly makes his case to the German Princes regarding the need to punish heretics by referring to the custom of stoning blasphemers in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. From all he said previously, it is difficult to imagine that this allusion is just hyperbole! He was writing in the 16th century, after all. Luther then goes on to mention ‘clandestine sermons’ (German: Winkelpredigten), which is a reference to the Anabaptists, whom he calls ‘clandestine preachers’, because they ‘sneak’ into people’s homes and in secret places teach their doctrines. (Winkel in German means ‘corner’, so the idea is of things being done ‘in a corner’, in other words, secretly.)

“But what I say about public preaching, I say that much more about ‘clandestine sermons’ (Winkelpredigten) and secret ceremonies; because these are altogether not to be tolerated.”

He continues to hold forth the against the Anabaptists: “In all this no one is to be forced to believe, but the community is to have peace secured from the stubborn heads, and from the rubbish of the ‘clandestine preachers’ (Winkelpredigern), who repeatedly sneak into houses and pour out their poison before the pastor or authority knows anything about it. These ones are robbers and murderers of whom Jesus speaks in John 10.”  (Italics mine.)

In his fervour to have Anabaptists punished and banished, Luther now puts obligation on all citizens to inform on Anabaptists and their activities, referencing the oath of allegiance they made to the civil authority:

“And a citizen is guilty when one such ‘corner sneak’ (Winkelschleicher) comes to him and he does not immediately – before he actually hears him or allows himself to be taught by him – inform the authorities and also his pastor, whose parish child he is. If he does not do this, then he should know that he acts contrary to his oath and that he is being disobedient to the authorities… (he) acts against God and makes himself guilty, and becomes a thief and a rogue like those who sneak about.” (Italics mine.)

Christians have suffered such persecutions in the past and suffer them today, where the regime is so set against them that you do not know who to trust, since even your next door neighbour could inform on you to the authorities. What a climate of fear and mistrust this can create. What hardships for the Christians who want to meet to pray and study the word of God. And it is this kind of religious ‘police state’ that Luther was exhorting and compelling the German Princes and their citizens to establish – or simply to continue what had been happening under the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

I mention elsewhere that the Anabaptists generally refused to take the oath. Here we can see one clear reason for it. The oath is an oath of loyalty to the State. An Anabaptist is hardly going to take an oath that morally obliges him or her to inform against other believers! Yet the reformers were to pick on this point to ‘prove’ that Anabaptists were seditious.

Luther builds up his argument to an ominous threat. He continues to rail against them, exhorting pastors and the authorities to warn their people with all diligence to have nothing to do with those rogues who ‘sneak around’ (Schleichern) with their deadly sermons, and to avoid them as if they were the devil’s agents (“des Teufels gewisse boten”). Indeed, unless they can show proof of their calling and their commission from God to preach in the parish (which he has just denied them above!), they are “not to be allowed entry or to be heard even though they want to teach the pure Gospel, indeed, even if they were an angel or…Gabriel from heaven…If he wants to preach or teach, so let him prove his Call and Commission, which drives and compels him to do this, otherwise let him keep quiet. But if he does not, then command the authority to hand such a rogue over to the Master (German: Meister), who is called ‘Meister Hans’”.

‘Master Hans’ was a designation for the man who was appointed by the local authority to carry out the executions of criminals and public offenders. There would be no point in referencing ‘Master Hans’ unless the death penalty was in view. However, with or without this last reference to ‘Master Hans’, Luther’s exposition of this Psalm and his many words decrying the Anabaptists as heretics, blasphemers and seditious could hardly be less severe.

That Luther himself was aware of this is shown in his answers to objections that he says might be raised against what he has so far written in his exposition. Luther defends himself against one of the objections by saying:

“Moreover, perhaps someone will want to be clever and imagine against me that I will strongly encourage tyrants who oppose the Gospel [presumably, the Catholic Church] and will open the window and door to them by my teaching, and that because our Gospel is regarded as heresy and blasphemy by them…their own conscience and authority will compel them to punish us as blasphemers etc. Answer: what is that to me….” (Italics mine.)

Luther realises that some people will complain that if we thus punish heretics, we will encourage and justify the Roman Catholics in their persecution of us – which certainly included executions. Luther dismisses this objection out of hand. Apart from ‘what is that to me’, he says that their (the Lutherans’) teachings cannot be determined by what the other side do, otherwise they would have had to abandon the Gospel long ago. Luther continues with this extraordinary comparison when referring to the Catholic Church and to the killing of heretics:

“It is no wonder that they do wrong since they are like the blind that cannot see and as the senseless that cannot hear our teachings. In like manner the Kings of Israel killed the true prophets. Nevertheless, one could not remove or hide the command to stone the false prophets. But pious authority will punish no one, unless it first hear, establish and be certain that they are blasphemers.”

Luther claims that the Catholic killings of Lutherans equates to the evil Kings of Israel killing the true prophets of God, but that the Protestant killings of heretics represents the pious Kings of Israel killing the ‘false’ prophets of Baal! Taking his cue from the OT, Luther says that no pious authority / government will execute a blasphemer arbitrarily, but only after careful examination! Presumably following the format of the Spanish Inquisition.

Luther does devote time in his exposition to writing about the two other virtues he mentions, which include works of compassion for the poor and the sick. Nevertheless, Luther’s exhortations and directives to the Princes and Nobles of Germany regarding the suppression, banning and punishment of the Anabaptists and all religious dissent do not represent some passing comment or digression, as some have suggested. They are an integral part of the first of the three virtues that Luther refers to, the responsibility for which Luther firmly places on the shoulders of the ‘gods’ – the Princes and Nobles of Protestant Germany.

That this so is underlined by Luther himself when writing again in 1530, when he not only emphasised the same point, but also clearly statesd that part of the purpose of his exposition of Psalm 82 was to warn the authorities against the Anabaptists and to ensure their suppression and banishment. He states that people “should understand that the devil had sent them (i.e., Wiedertäufer, the Anabaptists);…and it is certain that they come from the devil, as Christ says in John 10, ‘All that came before me are thieves and murderers’…Thus have I previously warned both the authorities and those under them in Psalm 82… that on no account should such secret preachers (‘Winckelprediger)’ be tolerated.” (Italics mine.) (Luther, Martin, Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 30. Band. Zweite Abteilung, pp. 212,213. Weimar, Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger 1909.)

Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 gives a good perspective on the thinking of the reformers. The reformers readily abandoned their earlier moderate and even scriptural views concerning the use of force against dissenters – from toleration and freedom of conscience to cruel persecution and the death penalty – once they were confronted with a force that threatened their status and authority!

Another Lutheran Reformer, Urbanus Rhegius (Luther’s ‘Bishop of Lower Saxony’), is uncompromising. He states: “When heresy breaks forth then the magistrate must punish not with less but with greater vigour than is employed against other evil-doers, robbers, murderers, thieves, and the like….God raises up the magistrates against heretics, faction makers, and schismatics in the Christian church in order that Hagar may be flogged by Sarah (here referring to an allegory made by Augustine)…All who know history will know what has been done in this matter by such men as Constantine, Theodosius and others.” (Quellen Hesse, pp.111,112. Italics mine.)

According to Rhegius, religious dissenters must be punished with greater vigour than murderers. It is a bizarre rant from the pen of the Reformer. The minds of the reformers are already made up, and any scripture (Sarah flogging Hagar, for example) that seems to serve their purpose is simply corrupted to validate their murderous intent.

Earlier in his Institutes, Calvin had written that the magistrates should not intervene in matters of the Church, and that the Church should not assume the role of the magistrates in persecuting of punishing evil-doers and heretics. He wrote, “For the Church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain, has no power to coerce, no prison, nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict…The two things, therefore, are widely different, because neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to what is done by the Church.” (Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 11, P. 3).

This is rather disingenuous. Yes, on the one hand, Calvin certainly did not want the council and its magistrates to interfere with his running of the church in Geneva – as we shall clearly see when we look at that period of his life later. However, from the above quotes, including his own, it becomes obvious how the reformers not only deemed it a moral and spiritual obligation for the secular authorities to act – ‘on behalf of God’ – in persecuting and punishing heretics, but actually goaded them on to do so. The supposed ‘separation’ of church and state that Calvin alludes to, is one that works in his favour. Yes, the magistrates and councils must not tell the church what it is to teach and do, but it is clear by the reformers’ actions and writings that they felt they could direct the ‘Christian’ authorities in how to handle dissenters. After all, they all were bound by the one purpose to maintain Christendom!

So, given the above quotes, we may again ask, are the leading Reformers among those who have been converted and transformed by the Gospel of Christ, or are they just ‘enlightened Humanists’ with regard to certain biblical truths like justification by faith? However, regarding the treatment of others, Erasmus, the renowned humanist, was far more ‘enlightened’ than them, for he would have nothing to do with the reformers’ violent measures and actually wrote against them.

It is an amazing phenomenon that such brutish, blind men as these leading Reformers could have created a doctrinal system that is believed and adhered to by millions!

Supporting The Death Penalty.

John Calvin wrote to his close friend Farel, saying, “I am struck with horror when I hear with what cruelty the godly are persecuted in France.” (Letter to Farel; May, 1540).

It is a strange contradiction that Calvin could express horror at the cruelty of the persecution of Protestants in France, while he justified the persecution and death of those that dissented to his religion! Calvin writes in defence of magistrates punishing heretics, “…how can magistrates be at once pious and yet shedders of blood? But if we understand that the magistrate, in inflicting punishment, acts not of himself, but executes the very judgments of God, we shall be disencumbered of every doubt.” (Bk 4, Ch. 20, p. 10. Italics mine.)  

Of course, included in this for Calvin is the punishment and death of ‘heretics’. Calvin might have been ‘disencumbered of every doubt’, but that did not hold true for everyone who lived in his day.

In one notorious case, John Calvin orchestrated the procedures that would lead to the death penalty for Michael Servetus, who, among other things, was accused of attacking the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin compiled the charges against Servetus and after the trial Servetus was burnt at the stake in Geneva. There was such an outcry against it that Calvin immediately wrote a Defence of this punishment! There are those, of course, who would argue that Calvin was not really responsible for the death of Servetus. However, the facts prove otherwise. But then again, for those who want to distance Calvin from Servetus’s death, how do they justify Calvin’s writing that defends the death penalty for heretics that followed Servetus’s execution?

In his letter to his close associate Farel in 1546 (13th Feb.), Calvin writes concerning Servetus, “He takes it upon him to come here, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word of safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)  

These words were written to Calvin’s friend, Farel. He did not mince his words nor were they just hyperbole. If Calvin had anything to do with it, Servetus would not leave Geneva alive. These are the words of a man considered to be a great Christian leader and theologian!

Writing again to Farel in 1553 (20th August) about the trial of Servetus, Calvin writes, “He (Servetus) intended perhaps passing through the city…But after he had been recognised, I thought he should be detained. My friend Nicholas summoned him on a capital charge. On the following day he had used against him 40 written charges. He had first sought to evade them. Accordingly, we were summoned…At length the Senate pronounced all the charges provenI hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine.)

It was Calvin who spotted Servetus in the church service when he arrived in Geneva, and then immediately notified the authorities to have him detained. Calvin got his associate Nicholas to bring the charges which no doubt he, Calvin, had framed against Servetus, and it was to be upon a capital charge, in other words, a charge that incurred the death penalty. Servetus was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Geneva in 1553, October 27.

At no time whatsoever did Calvin ask for the death penalty to be commuted to something less. He only asked the council to change the manner of death to hanging rather than being burnt at the stake.

The medieval mindset and disposition of Calvin is further revealed in 1555, when some of his political opponents in Geneva were arrested, tortured and executed for conspiracy and insurrection – though it is debated how great a crime they had actually committed. Calvin played no part in the judicial process, but expresses his ‘satisfaction’ at the suffering and execution of those that had been his political opponents in Geneva. The two Comparet brothers were sentenced to death – one by having his head cut off, the other by having his body chopped into pieces and displayed in different locations. Unfortunately for the latter victim, the executioner botched up the execution and thereby prolonged the suffering of the victim, for which the council dismissed the executioner. Calvin, however, commenting on the extended suffering of the victim, says in a letter to Farel:

“And assuredly I am convinced that not without the judgement of God they suffered, contrary to the sentence of the judges, a long torture under the hand of the executioner.” (Letter to Farel, 24th July 1555. P. 205,206; Letters of John Calvin, Vol. 3, Dr. J. Bonnet, 1858.)

In other words, Calvin expressed his conviction and satisfaction that this ‘accident’ that horribly prolonged the victim’s suffering in contravention to the judges’ instructions was actually an act of God. There were others also who were to be interrogated about their part in the ‘conspiracy’, and in the same letter Calvin states:

“Now, those who are kept in fetters have pretty clearly revealed their misdeeds, though these also grossly mislead the judges…Before two days we shall see, I hope, what the rack shall wring from them.”

Though he played no part in deciding these men’s fate, Calvin nevertheless felt quite at home with the use of torture to extract information from those that had been opposing his endeavours in Geneva.

Let us now, however, return to the case of Servetus. His burning at the stake caused a public outcry from many quarters. But Calvin immediately produced a writing called, ‘Defence of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, in which he defends the death penalty for heretics.

Calvin writes in his Defence of the Orthodox Faith: “That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep.  I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?”

These are the same arguments that were used by Augustine, whom Calvin loved to quote. He advocates killing heretics in order to safeguard the Lord’s flock! We find no such instructions from Jesus or the apostles! But then again, we must remember that both the Catholics and Reformers believed that God had turned things around after the time of the apostles, so that, whereas at the beginning Christians did not ‘rule’ but were the persecuted, now however, God, through Constantine and the Emperors, had put power into the hands of the Church, and of the Christian rulers that would also reign in future – be it princes, councils or magistrates. As we saw in Chapter 1, Augustine had ‘explained’ this ‘turnaround’ by using the passage in Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar changed from forcing his people to the worship of idols, to imposing the worship of the God of Daniel to all in his kingdom!

Calvin continues, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.” (A Defence. Italics mine.)

There you have it! According to Calvin, whoever argues against the punishment of death for heretics, argues against God, and incurs the guilt of the heretics. But it was Calvin who taught (above quote: “neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate…”) that the ministers of the church had no right to tell the magistrates how to go about their business in dealing with law-breakers. However, here he is putting divine obligation on them regarding how to deal with and punish heretics. It is ‘God’ who has spoken, according to Calvin.

Much of the Reformed doctrine is built on the writings of such a man as this. There is a contradiction here, namely, that a man who could get things so dangerously long – not least for his own soul – should become a pillar of Christian theology for many down the centuries.

However, this disposition of murderous intent found a home in the hearts of many of the leading Reformers. It is noteworthy, that as voices were raised at the burning of Servetus, the leaders of the Reformation across Europe flew enthusiastically to Calvin’s defence. They were all of one mind – ‘it is good to kill heretics.’ Here are some quotes that illustrate this.

Letter of Bullinger to Calvin (Bullinger was successor to Zwingli of the Reformation in Zurich):

“In all places there are good men who are of the opinion, that impious and blasphemous heretics are not only to be admonished and imprisoned, but also capite esse mulctandos, to be punished with death. Be not therefore discouraged that you have undertaken this labour. The Lord will assist your holy endeavours and studies. I do not see how it was possible to have spared Servetus, that most obstinate man, the very hydra of heresy.” (Zurich, June 12, 1554. The Life of John Calvin, Theodore de Beze, pp. 192,193. Italics mine.)

Whatever else the Protestant Reformers may have ‘broken free from’, they certainly did not break free from the apostate culture of Christendom.

Letter of Melanchthon to Calvin (Melanchthon was Martin Luther’s right-hand man and succeeded him in leading the Reformation in Germany):

“Reverend and dear brother, I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus ; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was…the awarder of your crown of victory, in this your combat. To you also the church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man. (Ibid. Oct. 14, 1554. Italics mine.)

The burning at the stake of Servetus, according to the reformer Melanchthon, is a matter of thanksgiving to the Son of God, and for which future generations will be grateful! What depths of darkness of heart and mind these men lived in!

John Knox (1514-1572), the Scottish theologian and preacher and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, wrote fervently in defence of the execution Servetus, giving it the unambiguous title: The Execution Of Servetus For Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended. In it he defends Calvin against those that criticise him for this execution, adding that he believes Calvin’s writings concerning the execution shall prove profitable to posterity!

“John Calvin hath besides committed to writing the Examination of Servetus, and the Cause of his miserable death. Which books, albeit to you they be a perpetual memory of cruelty, yet I have good hope, that to our posterity they shall be profitable.” (Italics mine.)

In the following century, the 1600s, John Owen, who is considered the Prince of Puritans within the Calvinist tradition, wrote that Servetus was such an evil blasphemer that the zeal of them that put Servetus to death may be acquitted.

Letter of Peter Martyr to Calvin (Martyr was a Reformed theologian in England, who influenced the Edwardian Reformation in the 16th century):

It bitterly grieves me and all good men, that against the truth and your name, they spread such foolish and false things about…the punishment of heretics with death. But it is well, in what they write they dare not mention his (Servetus’) name. As often as we are asked about this, both Zanchius and I defend your side of the question and the truth, in public and private, with all our strength.” (Ibid, Strasburg, May 9. pp. 193,194. Italics mine.)

Peter Martyr is not grieved about the burning of a heretic, but that men should criticise it!

Theodore Beza was Calvin’s successor in Geneva and an important Reformation figure. He is also known for having issued an edition of the Greek New Testament. He writes in the same vein as other reformers: “Shame upon that contradictory charity, that extreme cruelty, which, in order to save (Lord knows how) many wolves, exposes the whole flock of Jesus Christ! … For the sake of the salvation of the flock use that sword righteously against those monsters disguised as men.” (N4)

Shall we proclaim that freedom of conscience should be grantedCertainly not in the sense it is usually taken that each could adore God in his own fashion.  That is simply a diabolical dogma.  It pretends that everyone is at liberty to perish if he wants to.” (N5)  Beza thought it was the devil’s work to allow freedom of conscience and freedom to worship God according to one’s own beliefs. This was tantamount to allowing people to eternally perish. The reformers were convinced of the rightness of their form of religion just as the Catholics were of theirs, and just like the Catholics, they believed they had a right to persecute and kill those who were leading others ‘astray’ in order to preserve the ‘pure’ doctrine, which alone could save souls.

A Note about the Accusations brought against the Anabaptists.

In their zeal to deal with and eradicate the Anabaptists, the reformers did not always represent their teachings accurately. The reformers were quick to incorporate misinformation about the Anabaptists as facts in their writings against them. In fact, it seems that misrepresentation of their beliefs was an easy tool in the hands of the reformers in order to justify labelling them as heretics and as being seditious. There are many examples of this. For example, the Anabaptists were accused of claiming to be sinless or that they wanted a church in which there was nothing but perfection. All this is simply false. The truth is that the reformers simply could not comprehend that an individual could have a sense of sins forgiven through the personal experience of conversion. (We shall be looking at this later on.) This is what the Anabaptists meant – not that they were made perfect or sinless by their conversions. In their writings and answers, Anabaptists do not make the claims imputed to them by the reformers.

Moreover, the reformers believed in Christendom, in the idea of a church that consists of ‘tares and wheat’, where you could not really distinguish clearly between the godly and ungodly, and where the Church encompasses virtually everyone in the (‘Christianised’) community. So when the Anabaptists pointed to the immoral and unrighteous lives of church-goers and called for a church of committed believers whose lives had been changed, they were immediately countered with the accusation that they believed in an unattainable perfectionism.

In the records of the interrogations of Anabaptists, some did express strange or erroneous views. However, among the thousands that were being converted in towns and villages, it is not easy to know how much teaching some had received or what teaching they had imbibed. The presence of various splinter groups may also account for this. But as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is not my purpose to support what every Anabaptist group taught and did, but to determine the nature of the Reformation by how they handled and responded to dissidents. 

It is also true that during this period a number of diverse radical leaders sprung up who were not representative of ‘mainstream’ Anabaptism. Some of these movements had outlandish views or views differing from the Anabaptists, or were notoriously violent. Two traumatic events that caused reverberations around Europe at this time were the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) and the Münster rebellion, which involved the violent seizure of the German city of Münster (1534-1535). Both involved terrible violence and bloodshed and the reformers would indiscriminately attribute these events, particularly the latter, to the spread of Anabaptist teachings, without distinguishing between things that were essentially different. 

However, as early as 1524 (Sept. 25) the Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, whose life we considered in Chapter 2, wrote to Thomas Müntzer, who was initially involved in the Reformation in Wittenberg, but who would become a revolutionary leader in the disastrous peasant’s uprising of 1525. In this letter he exhorted Müntzer to follow the pattern of Matthew 18 in dealing with those whose life-style was contrary to the Gospel. He stressed that the ‘ban’ from the fellowship of the saints was the only recourse of action that the church had. His message was that a heathen man was not to be put to death but must be left alone, and that the believers should not protect the Gospel with the sword. (Source of original German text: Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, edited by Leonard von Muralt and Walter Schmid. Volume 1. Zurich: S. Hirzel Verlag, 1952, pp.13-19.)

Pacifism was the trait of the genuine Anabaptist. Such Anabaptists had nothing to do with violent attacks on others or of using the sword to defend themselves. We also saw that in the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession their teaching was that the church does not use the ‘sword’; it does not use physical force or violence against anyone. This is what distinguished the mainstream Anabaptists. However, there were others who did not follow the Anabaptist Confession but were radical and demonstrated their radicalism with outlandish teachings and violent methods. These radicals were easily given the name of ‘Anabaptists’ by the reformers and others.

The term ‘Anabaptist’ was used of all and sundry at this time so that the errors of the worst (the ‘lunatic fringe’, as we may call them) were applied and imputed to all. Indeed, in the turbulence of this period, it may not have been easy to distinguish between radical groups, but it was a great convenience to the reformers not to distinguish between them so that they could banish and exterminate all those who they chose to call Anabaptist.

The idea that some hold that the severe reaction against the Anabaptists was to do with the Münster incident (1535) is not supported by the historical facts. We have clearly seen that already earlier on, in the 1520s, the reformers were writing against Anabaptist ‘heresies’ and to the German Princes, urging them to persecute, punish and execute Anabaptists.

The Reformers’ Religious Worldview.

The following important point needs to be understood regarding the mindset of ‘intolerance’ of the Protestant Reformers towards the Anabaptists:

The intolerance of the Reformation towards dissenters was nothing new at all. It was simply a continuation of the system set up from the time of Constantine and Theodosius I. Freedom of conscience and toleration of dissenting religious views were regarded as a betrayal of the proper social and spiritual oversight and duty of both Church and State. We have already seen how the Church and State acted in tandem, regarding themselves as custodians of their form of religion. The State acknowledged, and supervised over the one religion. This was integral to the nature and cohesion of this beast, called ‘Christendom’. Plurality of religions was equated with division and threatened the overthrow of both the State and the Church. It was regarded as an unacceptable threat to the very existence of both. It was simply taken for granted by those that ruled during that time that the extermination of ‘heretical’ teaching was the proper and responsible course of action. It was the mindset of Christendom that had existed for centuries, and the reformers belonged to this tradition and outlook.

In this context, one thing the reformers were not unaware of was the accusation from the Catholic Church that the Reformation allowed and harboured heretics in their regions. The Catholics seized on any such opportunity to brand the reformers themselves as heretics who threatened Christendom by allowing religious anarchy that undermined the Christian religion itself. The reformers were sensitive to this charge and did not want to show themselves negligent in upholding religion through a ‘soft’ treatment of ‘heretics’. This was another factor in the scenario of persecution that we have been considering – but hardly a justification for killing dissenters. The reformers were sensitive to this charge exactly because they came from, and were of the same mindset as the Catholics.

The reformers of the 16th century – and beyond – were ‘born into’ this mindset, or to put it in another way, they just naturally and easily ‘bought into it’. No spiritual experience, no biblical understanding was theirs that delivered them from such delusions. They, like the reformers that would follow them in the next century, believed it was their solemn religious duty to act thus. This helps to put things into context, but it does not mean it was right! It simply confirms that unlike many Anabaptists, the reformers were ‘men of their times’, they were of this world.

The point of these studies is to show exactly that, namely, that the Reformation leaders continued in the mindset of their times and of the previous centuries. In the quotes from Beza above, he declares that heretics should be punished and killed in order to preserve the flock of Christ. And this is the mindset we come up against in these men – a mindset that had prevailed for more than a thousand years.

Nothing had happened to the reformers, nothing had happened in the reformers that changed this darkened mindset. There was a thick dark veil over their eyes blinding them from knowing the truth.

Striking Parallels between the Pharisees and the Reformers.

  1. Zeal. The apostle Paul says of the Jews, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2-3). Here Paul is talking about Jews generally but we can easily see how these verses are particularly true of the Pharisees. The Pharisees certainly had a zeal for God, and in their eyes, it was very much based on the holy Scriptures. This was likewise true of the Protestant Reformers. Both believed correctly in certain passages of Scripture, but were utterly blind to other truths clearly stated there – or even to the truth of the scriptures they were quoting – which led them into conduct and actions that manifestly contradicted the religion they claimed to believe in. The blindness of their spiritual condition led them to misunderstand and oppose the essence of the Gospel. Both had, in fact, developed their own brand of religion, which they claimed to be God’s. And like the Pharisees, the reformers had a fanatical zeal for their brand of true religion. This hardened fanaticism made them cruelly intolerant of any deviation from what they regarded as orthodox faith.

Both believed they were doing God a service by persecuting and putting to death those that they regarded as heretics.

The irony of this comparison though, is that despite the reformers’ emphasis on justification by faith, they had, in fact, set up a religion of their own that opposed the righteousness of God, in that they cruelly sought to eliminate all their religious opponents. If love is the fulfilling of the Law (Romans 13:10), and therefore of righteousness, then the reformers seemed to be ignorant of this love and this righteousness.

  1. Position and Power: We read in John 11:48 these words spoken by the Pharisees concerning Jesus: “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.”

This clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees were concerned about their position and authority, and how letting another brand of religion thrive would threaten their position. So we see that at least part of their motivation in opposing Jesus and his followers was the desire to maintain the position they had with respect to the secular power. This was undeniably true of the Protestant Reformers. They understood very well that the unity and peace of the state – as well as their own position – depended on not tolerating any other form of religion. If the reformers allowed divergence from the doctrine and practice of the state religion, the state would regard that as a threat to its well-being and the reformers themselves would be in danger of being ousted and be regarded as a threat. This most likely explains why Zwingli changed his views on infant baptism and sided with the councils against the radical reformers – and turned into their persecuting opponent.  Of course, with the Pharisees, the Romans were the occupying force, but during the Reformation, the reformers were incorporated into the state church system – but the principle of persecuting others so that they could hang onto power remains the same.

  1. Persecuting the Threat: We read this in John 19:12, “And when pilot wanted to release Jesus the Jews cried out these words, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend: whosoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.

This is exactly the charge that the Protestant Reformers used against the Anabaptists – they declared that teaching a different doctrine to the state-recognised religion is heresy, and heresy represents rebellion and insurrection against the state. This is precisely the argument the reformers would use to incite the civil authorities to mercilessly persecute and kill Anabaptists. Just as Pharisees made reference to the secular Roman power where they could to put down what they considered to be the new religion – represented by Jesus – so too the Protestant Reformers used their association with the state to put down any dissent.

Just as the Pharisees persecuted, imprisoned, beat and even killed the disciples of the Lord to maintain the ‘purity’ of their teaching, so the reformers likewise persecuted, imprisoned, beat and killed the Anabaptists – and who can deny that many of the Anabaptists were disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ?

As were the Pharisees, so were the reformers. In these matters there was no difference. Am I comparing the spiritual condition of the Pharisees to that of the Protestant Reformers? I cannot see how we can avoid the comparison or fail to raise the question. The Pharisees were filled with murderous intent towards dissenting believers – and so were the reformers. We have seen it in the accounts above.

Jesus said, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

How blind the reformers were to the simplest and most basic teachings of Scripture.

The greatest judgement against the reformers.

The greatest judgement against the reformers comes from their own modern-day supporters or sympathetic historians and biographers. The common explanation for the monstrous persecution and murder of many Anabaptists and others by the reformers is this statement: “They were men of their times.” With this I whole-heartedly agree. They were of ‘their times’, they ‘belonged’ to their time; they were part of that generation; as that generation was, so were they. They were of this world. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from here.” (John 18:36). Jesus said His servants would not fight to maintain their cause. The Protestant Reformers called upon the use of the sword to kill others – in particular on other believers! Had the reformers not read the words of Jesus? Had they not read that ‘all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword?’ (Mtt. 26:52). Had they not read that it is the godly who would suffer persecution, and not that the godly would persecute and kill? (2 Tim. 3:12).

How could the Protestant Reformers be so blind to the most basic truths of the word of God? What good is there in proclaiming ‘justification by faith’ when you go around killing people and teaching the flocks under you that such persecution and killing of religious dissenters is not only justified, but also demanded by the word of God? What kind of spiritual state were they in? Do today’s Calvinists who seek in some way to explain this murderous conduct of the reformers by the statement that they were ‘men of their times’, do they believe that the Gospel and new birth cannot change a man, raise a man out of the murderous intent and butchery of his times? What do they believe about the new birth? We will see what they believe about that in the next series of studies, where will consider the doctrines of the reformers.

But against this ‘sympathetic’ concession to the reformers there are many witnesses.

Firstly, there is the testimony of the New Testament itself, which witness to the truth and against the actions of the reformers. But as we have seen, the reformers were as blind men when reading an interpreting the many Scriptures they used to justify the persecution of dissenters. However, in addition to the Scriptures, there were the writings of others of their time that clearly expressed the biblical truths on these matters. The Anabaptists had referred the reformers to passages of scripture, and Hübmaier, in particular, had written clearly against the use of force by religious leaders.

Thirdly, there was the witness of the lives of the Anabaptists – they were a living testimony to what God could do in a man to make him altogether different from the times he lived in! The Anabaptists put into practice what they preached. The genuine Anabaptists were not violent and didn’t use violence. They accepted persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the reformers. There was tangible evidence before the reformers’ eyes that there was a faith that could change a life completely and make it totally different to the spirit of the age that they lived in. The reformers were not left in ignorance concerning a different WAY, and a different LIFE.

Fourthly, there is the superlative example in the New Testament of Saul of Tarsus. He had been like the Protestant Reformers – in his zeal to maintain and protect the purity of his religion, he persecuted the saints and was an accomplice to their executions, just like the Protestant Reformers were. However, Saul had an encounter with Jesus Christ that totally changed his life and his outlook. He was born from above. He was made a new man in Christ. Whereas before he wanted to terrorise people and dominate their faith, he now tells them that he has ‘no dominion’ over their faith, but is ‘helper of their joy!’ (2 Cor. 1:24). He who had been a persecutor of the believers was now, by God’s wonderful grace, made to be an example of ‘all longsuffering’ to all future generations of believers’. (1 Tim. 1:12-16). Why did the reformers fail to learn from his example? Why did they choose to remain in the category of the Pharisees who set up a kingdom of an outward religion, and persecuted those who testified to a religion of the heart, indeed, that changed a person’s heart.

The reformers may have been able to intellectually discern some of the teachings of the apostle Paul, and even try and put it in wonderful religious language, but did they know Christ as Paul did, or even as the Anabaptists did? Did they show signs and demonstrate conduct that an inward rebirth had taken place in them?

Yes, the reformers were men of their times, and they stood in stark contrast to men who were not of their times, who were not of this world, men of whom the world was not worthy; men whose conduct acted as a judgement upon the conduct of the Protestant Reformers themselves. For these reasons noted above, I suggest there is no greater condemnation of the Protestant Reformers than to say that they were ‘men of their times.’

Concluding Remarks to Chapter 3.

If the conduct, mentality and writings of the reformers were such as we have seen and read up to now, how can their overall theology represent pure or true Christian doctrine upon which the faith of many should depend? If they were so blinded to the obvious meaning of important scriptures, if their conduct and actions were so contrary to the teaching of scripture and the Spirit and nature of Christ, how can they suddenly be enlightened regarding the meaning of the fundamental passages of scripture that relate to our great salvation and develop a theology that is supposed to be a foundation for all believers?

Our conduct and thoughts arise and flow out of the nature we have. As Jesus said, “out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts…murders…” (Mark 7:21). That men of murderous intent should be endued with a spiritual insight and understanding to teach multitudes of others down the centuries what to believe and how to live, seems a contradiction. Can you walk in darkness and give light to others? The Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, Jesus said, and they taught many things correctly from the scriptures, but because of their conduct, Jesus called them blind leaders of the blind.


(N1) The statements made by Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut, and Hans Peissker during this investigation have been published from the court records in Corpus Reformatorum II (995, 999, and 1000)

(N2) References for the above: Wappler, Paul. Die Täuferbewegung in Thüringen von 1526-1584; 109, 127, 404-414, 423. Jena: Gustav Fisher, 1913. & Neff, Christian. “Melanchthon, Philipp (1497-1560).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 3 Jan 2022.,_Philipp_(1497-1560)&oldid=145860 / Hege, Christian. “Möller, Jobst (d. 1536).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 3 Jan 2022.,_Jobst_(d._1536)&oldid=172018%5D

(N3) Quoted in Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 74. Quellen Hesse, p. 108. Italics mine. Quellen Hesse = Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951)

(N4) Concerning the Rights of Rulers over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects towards Their Rulers [1574]; cited in Lecler 1960, 1:348. Italics mine.

(N5) Beza, Epistolarum theologicarum liber unus (Geneva 1573), pp. 216ff; quoted in Lecler 1960, Vol. 1, p. 349. Italics mine.


Recommended Reading:

The Reformers and their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.

The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

The Great Reformation by R. Tudur Jones

Lutheran Reformers against Anabaptists by John S. Oyer



  1. The Reformers’ false notion of the Church.
  2. The Reformers’ false notion of Infant Baptism.
  3. The Reformers’ false notion of Conversion. The Reformers deny Conversion Experience. 

The idea of the church as a ‘mixed multitude’ of wheat and tares – ‘Christendom’.

We have looked at the views of the reformers regarding the relationship between the church and state, and how they firmly believed that the authority and force of the government should act as a divine arm of the church in suppressing and eliminating heresy from its regions. We will now consider in more detail what has been mentioned before, namely, what the reformers’ view was on the nature of the church, and in this matter, the reformers’ view of infant baptism certainly played a central role.

I have already mentioned that believer’s baptism was vigorously and hotly opposed by the reformers because this one teaching directly struck at the heart and foundation of a system that had lasted for over 1000 years – it impinged on the concept of Christendom, on the nature of the relationship between Church and State, indeed, on the nature of the Church itself. The reformers were entrenched in the view that the Church consisted of all those within the territory of the governing ‘Christian’ government – and this was underpinned and secured by infant baptism. Whereas the Anabaptists were clear in their understanding that the Church was made up of members who could testify to a personal repentance and faith – a personal conversion – followed by baptism, and leading to a changed life. Who can doubt that this latter view was the scriptural one?

This inevitably represented a clash of two mutually exclusive views.

We will start our survey of this debate by looking at some of the statements of Luther, who, in what he says, also misrepresents the Anabaptists. He wrote:

“From the beginning of the church, heretics have maintained that the church must be holy and without sin. Because they saw that some in the church were the servants of sin, they denied forthwith that the church was the church, and organised sects…This is the origin of the Donatists…and of the Anabaptists in our times…It is the part of wisdom not to be offended when evil men go in and out of the church…The greatest comfort of all is the knowledge that they do no harm but that we must allow the tares to be mixed in…By this zeal for only wheat, and a pure church, they bring about, by this too great holiness, that they are not even a church, just a sect of the devil.” (Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. VII. P. 200. Quoted in The Reformers And Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p. 107.)

‘Holy and without sin’ is not what the Anabaptists taught. ‘Holy’, yes, but ‘without sin’ is a teaching he wrongly imputes to them. Luther’s remarks raise the question again regarding what kind of ‘conversion’ the reformers had experienced in their lives when they could not conceive of a church made of ‘committed’ members whose lives had been radically changed by the power of the Gospel. They could only perpetuate this nebulous, indistinct mixture of the ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’. The pursuit of holiness among the flock is simply dangerous, Luther claims. Those who oppose his doctrine, Luther calls a ‘sect of the devil’.

In this writing, Luther picks up on Augustine’s persecution of the Donatists. Luther claims that the ungodly within the church do no harm, that the godly and ungodly are meant to live side by side without really being able to tell who the godly ones are! However, Luther’s statement stands in direct contradiction to what Paul writes to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:6, 7, 9-13; 2 Cor. 6:14). In this passage, Paul also clearly writes about those who are ‘outside’ the church and those ‘within’. The ability of the reformers, who trumpeted the phrase, ‘the Scriptures alone’, to ignore and contradict the clear meaning of biblical passages is amazing. Calvin does actually mention the Corinthian church in this context, but the point he makes is that the passage in the Corinthian letter proves that the Church is made up of sinners and saints! (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book. 4, Ch.1, P. 14.) Calvin ignores the context of the letter, which simply confirms that Paul was dealing with the sins of some of the believers who were part of a church, but a church that was distinct and separate from the world.

The Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession declares: “For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters.”

It seems obvious that the Anabaptists had a far better understanding of the nature of the church than the reformers. However, to this the Protestant pastors in northern Germany objected and wrote the following:

“When men talk about the marks of the Christian church, the characteristics by which men may find it, so as to be joined to it, then we call the church, that mass of people among which the word of God is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ. Where these two marks are in evidence, then we are not to question it, but that God has more certainly, among this unwieldy mass of called ones, his own little group of true believers, let them be few or many… The kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field but….” (Italics mine. Quellen Hesse, p. 444) (N1)

Here is the religious ‘worldview’ of the reformers. It is significant. It is what I have been highlighting throughout this study. The reformers now found a view that enables them to contradict the Scriptures – not by appealing to the word of God, but by an argument outside of it. The mass of people who have in their midst a church building, where the Bible is taught and the sacraments administered, are now all considered as incorporated into ‘the church’, and are part of it. The church encompasses all those in the given locality. Both Calvin and Luther held exactly the same view. This is one of the foundational teachings of the Reformation.

The Anabaptists sought a church of committed members, and the reformers wanted to maintain the status quo of the ‘Christianised’ community.

John Calvin takes the same view as Luther and asserts that, “…because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd…But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 2. Italics mine). Calvin proceeds to assert that, “we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate (this belongs not to us, but to God only…”). (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 3. Italics mine). Calvin then goes on to agree with Luther and the German pastors quoted above that, “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence…”. (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 9).

In other words, the presence of a state-recognised Church building in a location defines the locality and its citizens as ‘Christian’, and Calvin bizarrely asserts that we cannot know, and it is not our place to know who God’s children are in the church community, and that you cannot generally pick them out anyway, but he admits that “in this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men…”. (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 7). To validate the existence of such a ‘Church’, Calvin defines this mixture, where the ungodly outnumber the godly, and the latter can scarcely be identified, if at all, as the ‘visible church’. The ‘invisible’ Church is that group of believers from all ages who are known only to God. Thus, the reformers’ doctrine of the Church was constructed to be ‘inclusive’ of all infant-baptised citizens in the community, city or country.

What kind of religion were the reformers in? They show no understanding of the Scriptures or scriptural truths regarding the nature of the Church.

If Calvin is saying that the number of true godly believers is very few in the midst of the so-called ‘visible’ Church, one wonders that this didn’t cause a problem for the reformed ministers in deciding what to preach and teach in churches! If you genuinely believe that the Church is a mixed multitude where the false or ungodly believers predominate, should not the thrust of the preaching be evangelistic? Should your preaching not be adapted and targeted to cater for both? Should you not labour for the conversion of souls? But then you come up against another issue, namely, that the reformers believed that their listeners, having been baptised as infants, were already Christians, or at least on the Christian path. It would seem to me that this kind of outlook and approach would neither build up any true Christians nor convert the sham ones – it just perpetuates the process of Christianisation that had begun under Constantine – it results in dead religion and nominal Christians, however much they may assent to the dogma of the church and to justification by faith.

Justus Menius, was one of Luther’s trusted associates and was ardent in his persecution of Anabaptists. He wrote at length against them, declaring:

“This is an intolerable blasphemy that they reject the public ministry of the word, and teach that one can be saved without the sermon and the ministry of the Church. From this would ensue the destruction of the churches and rebellion against the ecclesiastical order, for which they should be punished just like for any other insurrection.  And it is these two reasons that were brought against the Donatists by the old Emperors in inflicting painful punishments on them. The first, that the Donatists tore the churches apart and condemned the sacraments and the churches in every place, because they [ed. the established churches] tolerate the evil ones in them and they [ed. the Donatists] want a pure church, just like the Anabaptists…in this world a pure church is not possible, even as Christ often warned and taught us, so we should just tolerate them [i.e., the evil ones].” (Schmidt, Gustav, Justus Menius, der Reformator Thüringens, Band I, p.163, 164. Translated from the German by me. Italics mine.)

All the leading Reformers sing from the same song sheet, either quoting Augustine’s or the Roman Emperors’ persecution and punishment of the Donatists to justify their actions against the Anabaptists. It is obvious that the Anabaptists did believe in the ministry of the word, but did not believe that the state-sponsored Church had a Gospel that could change peoples’ lives! On the other hand, Menius could not conceive of anyone obtaining salvation through the preaching of a layman in a home rather than in a state-designated church building.  In this quote we see clearly what I have mentioned a number of times, namely, that the reformers saw believer’s baptism and the creation of a Church of committed believers as a threat that would overthrow the existing order of things. To the reformers, not allowing ‘evil men’ into the Church was an evil approach to take! The impenetrable citadel of ‘Christendom’, which represented their worldview, would not, could not tolerate Anabaptist teaching. Scripture had nothing to do with it, except to be misused and abused by their interpretations of it.

Calvin expresses all these points in his Institutes:

Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress…Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly. They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Saviour that parable in which he compares the Churchto a field which, planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares...” (Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 13. Italics mine.)

“…the Donatists…separated themselves from the flock of Christ. Similar, in the present day, is the conduct of the Anabaptists, who, acknowledging no assembly of Christ unless conspicuous in all respects for angelic perfection, under pretence of zeal overthrow everything which tends to edification…ensnaring the weakattempt to draw them entirely away, or at least to separate them; swollen with pride…turbulent in sedition.” (Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

It was wholly unjust of Calvin to completely distort the teaching of the Anabaptists by claiming they sought or required an ‘angelic perfection’ and thus to accuse them of claiming a ‘superior progress’. He is creating false alternatives. This is simply a strategy to easily dismiss what they actually did teach in order to justify his idea of Christendom. To justify the latter, reference is made again to the parable of the tares and wheat.            The Anabaptists in their writings did not lay claim to angelic perfection but testified to a repentance and faith that brought them into the salvation offered by Christ. We notice again that Calvin too takes the (Catholic) view that the state-sponsored church with its Bible teaching and sacraments represents the ‘flock of Christ’, the true and only Church.

Like Menius, Calvin accuses the Anabaptists not only of separating themselves and others from the ‘true’ Church, but also of threatening it with division and sedition, and labels them as agents of Satan. He complains that the Anabaptists separation from worldly and ungodly people is excessive and contrary to Scripture:

“…the correction of a brother’s fault, which in Scripture is enjoined to be done with moderation, without impairing the sincerity of love or breaking the bond of peace, they pervert to sacrilegious schism and purposes of excision. Thus Satan transforms himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) when, under pretext of a just severity, he persuades to savage cruelty, desiring nothing more than to violate and burst the bond of unity and peace…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

The reformers repeatedly accused the Anabaptists of blasphemy and sedition, the overthrow of the established order – both of which were punishable by death. In what esteem the State-sponsored Church was held by the reformers is expressed by Calvin in the following words:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the bosom of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P 4. Italics mine.)   

According to the reformers, the established state-sponsored Reformed Church is the one true Church, and forgiveness and salvation is not to be found outside of this ‘Mother’ Church. One is (generally) ‘born’ into it through infant baptism and one is nurtured by it until one dies. Holding this view, just as the Catholics did, the reformers were viciously intolerant of all religious dissent. There is nothing evangelical in this outlook.

Moreover, how do these arguments hold water when the Reformed Church separated itself from the Catholic Church and created its own Communion and Church? Which one is the ‘Mother Church’ now? Were they not castigating the Anabaptists for doing exactly what they had done, and for the same given reason, namely, the claim that they were only being true to scriptural teaching?

Despite the claims that the Church consists of ‘wheat and tares’, Calvin did concede the woeful spiritual condition of the established Church when writing against the Anabaptists. He states:

“Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishness, which the Lord will not leave unpunished, as he is already beginning sharply to chastise us. Woe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!” (Bk 4 Ch 1, P. 13. Italics mine.)

And again,

“because pastors are not always sedulously vigilant, are sometimes also more indulgent than they ought, or are prevented from acting so strictly as they could wish; the consequence is, that even the openly wicked are not always excluded from the fellowship of the saints. This I admit to be a vice, and I have no wish to extenuate it…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 15. Italics mine.)

This assessment is true and will also be illustrated shortly below and later when we look at Calvin’s time in Geneva. However, Calvin inevitably tries to justify the unjustifiable. He holds on to this idea that the ‘mixed multitude’ of largely nominal believers does still represent the ‘Church’ and that one should not separate from it:

“But although the Church fail in her duty, it does not therefore follow that every private individual is to decide the question of separation for himself…it is one thing to shun the society of the wicked, and another to renounce the communion of the Church….For when he exhorts us to pure and holy communion, he does not require that we should examine others, or that everyone should examine the whole church, but that each should examine himself…the correction of a brother’s fault, which in Scripture is enjoined to be done with moderation, without impairing the sincerity of love or breaking the bond of peace…”  (Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 15 & Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

Calvin has already admitted to the woeful spiritual and moral condition of many, and now seeks to put a ‘plaster’ on this mortal wound of a ‘Christianised’ Church of largely nominal believers by advocating that discipline is to be exercised with ‘moderation’ so as not to ‘break the bond of peace’ – and this is exactly what Calvin accuses the Anabaptists of doing, namely, they were breaking the ‘bonds of peace’ by their self-exclusion from the State Church. The nature of this Church will become more apparent when we look at Calvin’s attempts ‘Christianise’ Geneva.

Calvin has no biblical understanding of the Church, which is Christ’s. His understanding is Catholic and darkened by a ‘Christendom’ that he is part of and promotes.

Although Calvin realised that not everyone was godly who came to church, he nevertheless treated the community as those who are incorporated within the Church. The Protestant Reformers did not recognise, would not acknowledge that the territory over which they ruled together with the secular authorities was divided between two classes of people, namely, Christians and unbelievers, converted and unconverted. This was not their worldview. The reformers took their cue from the Old Testament and the idea of imposing a ‘theocratic’ rule over the whole community or nation. We will now consider this aspect of their teaching.


Fundamental to this issue, and closely related to the above, was how the reformers made use of the Old Testament (OT) to build their notion of the Church. The reformers had an OT view of the church – they viewed the church not as a gathering of called-out ones from every kindred tribe and nation, but that the church now takes on a national character, incorporating everyone who finds themselves under the territorial jurisdiction of the state church.

The reformers regarded their own city, territory or nation as representing God’s people, as God’s domain, as Israel had been in the OT. The whole community or nation, this mixed multitude, was now basically ‘Christian’, and represented God’s people, where God’s rule was to be imposed as it had been in the Old Testament. Thus, even as there had been many rebellious and idolatrous Jews within the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, even so now there would be many whose behaviour would be bad and ungodly within Christendom so-called, within the national state church. Yes, as we have seen, the reformers understood that there were many that were evil who went to church, but such people were not to be viewed as being unconverted, but rather they were to be admonished, rebuked and even punished within  context that equated to the nation of Israel. In Israel all the nation were God’s people, who were to be taught, admonished, rebuked and even punished for their idolatry and sins. This is how the reformers viewed their communities and lands.

The Anabaptists did not for a moment go along with this, believing that God had done something new and had changed things completely through Jesus Christ. They believed in a New Covenant that was essentially and substantially different to the Old Covenant. On the other hand, the reformers saw in Israel of the OT a model of how the Church should be under the New Covenant. Previously, we saw that Augustine invented the fantasy that like the ‘turnaround’ that happened under Nebuchadnezzar – from forcing people into idolatry to forcing them to honour the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – so too God had turned things around (from the time of Constantine) so that the ‘Church’ instead of being persecuted, was the one with power and authority, ruling over a nation of ‘God’s people’.

What darkness and blindness must have possessed the hearts and minds of the Protestant Reformers to think like this! They were no different to the Catholics in this – and in many other matters also.

Martin Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82.

I have already reviewed Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 when referring to his exhortations to the authorities to persecute heretics, but it also contains material relevant to this topic. In his interpretation of Psalm 82, Luther provides the rationale for the perpetuation of the concept of ‘Christendom’ and the religious intolerance that belongs to it. He fully supports and justifies the religious dictatorship that had been ongoing since the time of Constantine. (I have gone through the whole exposition in German, and the translations below from the German are my own.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular ‘authority’ (German: Obrigkeit.) have been placed there by God and that they equate to the ‘gods’ (whether they be Princes, Noblemen or Knights) mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, to highlight the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden)..

Luther states that there are two authorities, the spiritual and the secular, and uses this Psalm to emphasise the point that the worldly authority of the secular powers has a divine origin: “…that the worldly authority is of divine arrangement that everyone should obey and honour.”

This may seem fair enough in the light of Romans 13:1-4. However, like Calving in his Institutes, Luther goes much further than this, much further than the apostle Paul. He applies the term ‘gods’ in Psalm 82 to the secular authorities, to the German Princes and Noblemen / Lords (Fürsten und Herren), and that it is God that reigns and judges over and through them. In talking about the Emperor’s or Prince’s duty of protecting society from evil and violence, he says of the secular Rulers that “they have golden crowns in order that they should recognise that they have been made gods by God, and that they have not come to this status of themselves, and so should be His helpers.”

So, like Calvin, he claims that since the secular power is ‘from’ God, they are therefore to be subject to God’s rule of righteousness and to the instruction of the Church, and to administer righteousness through supporting the ministry of the Church and promoting the word of God. Among the three ‘virtues’ that secular rulers should possess, the first he mentions and emphasises is the responsibility to promote and to protect the ministry of the word of God and to look after the pastors. In his introduction (Vorrede) to Psalm 82, he freely criticises the Princes and noblemen for not heeding their responsibilities and exhorts them to a proper use of their power, but he also castigates the immoral and self-indulgent clerics.

Luther exhorts rulers that they should keep the first three verses of Psalm 82 with them at all times to remind them of their responsibilities under God: “Because in these (three verses) is found how the high princely and noble virtue can find its place, so that truly the worldly authority – after the ministry of the Word – is the highest form of Godly service and the most useful ministry on earth.” (Italics mine.)

Writing of the greatest virtues that a ruler can exercise, Luther says, “what greater treasure can be in the land than when God’s word is protected and administered…and false teachings are given no room. That is the place where God indeed must be dwelling as in His own temple.” (Italics mine.)

He continues by claiming that a pious Prince or Lord can “partake (of this virtue), by feeding or protecting the pastor. Indeed, this whole work and all its fruit are his (the Prince’s), as if he had done it himself, because the pastor could not remain / survive without his protection and provision. (“…weil der Pfarrherr ohne seinen Schutz und seine Kost nicht bleiben kann.”)

This is not the teaching of Romans 13! This is not what the apostle Paul was saying. By his teaching, Luther continues to prop up the system that had begun more than 1000 years earlier. The State and Church working as one, where the State supports the Church and is informed by the Church concerning what teachings and religious practices are to be allowed in the land. Did Paul have this in mind? Did Jesus have this in mind, namely, that the secular government should protect God’s Church and provide for it financially? Did Jesus teach that the church and its ministry could not continue and survive without the protection of the State? In Luther’s teaching there is no difference between the outlook that the Roman Catholics had had for centuries and the Protestants of the 16th century. They are one and the same. There is nothing evangelical about it.

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ is one of not only surviving but, at times, thriving under the persecution of the State. Luther and Calvin, blind to obvious truths of the Scripture, chose to place themselves among the many down the centuries that used the notion of Christendom to persecute Christian believers and any who dared to hold different views to the reigning State Church.

Luther sees the secular power as divinely appointed, not just as security against criminal activity (Romans 13:1-6), but as a divinely appointed agent to promote and secure the ministry of the word of God in the land! Luther picks up on the phrase ‘God stands in the congregation’ in verse one and declares, “Take note, that he calls every congregation (Gemeinen = ‘community’) or orderly gathering ‘God’s community’, because they are His own and he considers them as His own work, just as He calls Nineveh a city of God when speaking to Jonah (3:3). Because God has created all communities…”

The point that Luther is making is that a well-ordered community – or nation – is God’s community, where the people of that community represents God’s people, and where God makes the secular authorities to be ‘gods’ to order everything properly by exercising the necessary virtues and administering His righteousness  – just like the kings in Israel of old. From this, we see that verses are corrupted at will to fit in with the concept of Christendom. The reformers had little or no biblical, spiritual understanding of ‘the Church’ of the New Testament.

In Romans 13, the apostle Paul did not make the false quantum leap in logic that the reformers made. The latter started with the idea that the civil powers are ‘of God’ and ‘ordained of God’ (be it from Psalm 82 or Romans 13), but then took up these words to incorporate the State power as a divine agent in promoting and safeguarding religion in the land, making it responsible for protecting the ‘State Religion’ and forbidding teaching that is contrary to it, as well as punishing and banishing those that do. The worldview of Christendom was as a citadel in the minds of the reformers that did not let the light of the Gospel shine into their hearts. It imprisoned them in its darkness. It also imprisoned any Christian believer who had views that significantly differed from those of the State Religion!

Luther goes on to berate the secular authority for failing in their exercise of the first ‘virtue’. In what way are they failing? Luther explains that the Princes and Lords “instead of promoting the word of God as they should, they are promoting the false harmful teachers, which is what we read regarding the Kings of Israel and Judah. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel nourished the eight hundred prophets of Baal and banished instead the prophets of God…”

We notice again how the reformers carried on the delusion that the nation in which there is a recognised State Church with pious Rulers now represents not only a Christian nation, but that the nation (das Volk) itself represents the people of God (das Volk Gottes), just as the nation of Israel did, where the pious secular rulers act like the Kings in Israel, to persecute and punish blasphemers and idol worshippers, and the Lutheran Church with its clerics are the priests who inform the King of his divine duties. Having created this illusion, the reformers (as the religious priests in God’s nation) do not hesitate to tell the secular authorities (as the Kings in God’s nation) how they should treat religious dissenters and with what punishment these dissenters should be punished!

Luther vigorously stresses the prohibition that no one should preach or hold meetings who has not been officially commissioned and sent by the Church, and he makes it clear that the Anabaptists have no such commission. He then proceeds in his exposition to inveigh against them for ‘sneaking’ around and ‘creeping’ into people’s houses secretly without being ‘sent’. This leads him on to make these extraordinary observations about preaching and teaching from house to house.

“True it is that the apostles at first went to people’s homes and preached, for they had the commission and were ordained, called and sent to that work, that they should preach in every place, as Christ had told them…(Mark 16:15). But thereafter no one has such a common apostolic commission any longer. Instead, every Bishop and pastor has his diocese or parish, which Saint Peter also in 1 Peter 5:3 calls ‘kleros’ (kleros is the Greek for heritage, lot, part), that is, ‘Part’ / ‘Lot’, because to each one  (bishops and pastors) is assigned his ‘part’ of the people, as Saint Paul writes (1 Tim. 1:5), so that no one else or a stranger can undermine him [i.e. the bishop or pastor] without his knowledge or teach his parish children, whether secretly or openly. And no one should in any wise listen to such a one but inform and notify his pastor or the authority.” (Luther, Sämmtliche Werke: Band 39, 1846; Erlangen, Heyder. P. 225f.)

This again is remarkable. Yes, says Luther, in the apostolic times of the New Testament, the apostles were commissioned to preach from house to house, but now dioceses and parishes have been established – as witnessed in the NT, Luther claims – and it is the bishops and pastors who now preach and teach their flocks from the pulpit. There is now no need and no commission to preach from house to house – the flock is safeguarded against false teaching by the oversight and supervision of the only delegated authority, which is represented by the bishops and pastors of the State Church. Christendom is safe and secure in the hands of Luther!

This again highlights an aspect which I keep mentioning. Insofar as the reformers regarded their communities as essentially a ‘Christian nation’, there is no need for evangelism; no need to go from door to door or house to house, preaching the Gospel, let alone preach in a market place or field. The bishops and pastors work from their pulpits to instruct the people in the ways of righteousness, rebuking those that err.

Other Quotes.

Zwingli in arguing against the Anabaptists wrote: “It is apparent to all who believe that the Christian Covenant of the New Testament is the Old Covenant of Abraham, save only for the fact that Christ, who was only promised to them, has been made manifest to us…The intention of this is that the heathen ‘people’ (German: Volk) should after the rejection of the Jews come in their place as the ‘people of God.’” (Corpus Reformatorum.  Vol. 91 p. 635. Italics mine. Quoted, Verduin, p. 214,215.) As the Jews had been a nation of God’s people, now the Gentiles were to be a nation of God’s people. It is not that the Church is the congregation of the called-out ones from among the Jews and Gentiles and distinct from them, but the church has taken on a national dimension; this whole mixed multitude in a given area now represents a nation of God’s people. From every point of view, the idea of Christendom is maintained by the reformers.

Melanchthon is in full agreement with this worldview when writing against the Anabaptists:

“Now let every devout man consider what disruption would ensue if there should develop among us two categories, the baptized and the unbaptized! If baptism were to be discontinued for the greater part, then an openly heathen mode of existence would come about – a thing for which the devil would like very much to have the way opened.” (N2)

This is an utterly extraordinary statement. He believed that the baptised community is already a Christian community. Did he not realise that the ‘ex-Catholics’ who were now under his teaching and care were largely themselves not very different to heathens; that they were, by and large, unconverted people, just nominal Christians? Also important to note here is the assumption that infant baptism by itself makes people Christians.

These comments clearly and beyond any shadow of a doubt reveal that the reformers viewed their infant-baptised communities en masse as Christian believers, without any need of any conversion experience. Moreover, the vast majority of the people they were now teaching in their churches had been baptised as infants within the Catholic Church! To suggest that there should be a later experience (i.e., after infant baptism) that would lead a person to want to be baptised ‘again’ is, according to Melanchthon, only something the devil would advocate! The Reformed outlook was a horror house of heresies. According to his words, Melanchthon could not remotely conceive of how people who were not baptised as infants could then claim to have become Christians later, as a result of a personal conversion!

It seems that Melanchthon has no idea what it means to preach the Gospel to people, to evangelise the unconverted. For him, apparently, to do away with infant baptism would simply leave society with a vast number of heathen people, without him knowing what to do with them! Apart from baptism, he shows no indication of knowing how to bring people to Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. But given the Protestant reformers’ abhorrence and rejection of personal conversion as something deceptively subjective and arrogant, it is quite consistent that someone like Melanchthon would be at a loss to know what to do in a community of unconverted people. In contrast, we have seen that the Anabaptists knew what to do, and did it with great success and effectiveness. From this, as I have said, the question naturally arises whether the Protestant reformers ever experienced conversion in their lives; whether they ever knew that inward change, that regeneration, which is the result of responding to the evangelical Gospel.

The irony is, if not the tragedy, that the outcome of such a ‘Christianising’ of people, of perpetuating Christendom, could and did only result in and perpetuate a nominal Christianity, where many of the citizens were just as much in their sins as any heathen. Moreover, ‘justification by faith’, which was now preached to them, only helped to serve as an antidote to any doubts they might have that their conduct stood in the way of them being Christians, and where it was, the non-evangelical reformed preachers would harangue them with the Law. We will look at this aspect a bit further on.

This brings us suitably to the next topic of infant baptism.



So now we come on to consider what the reformers taught about infant baptism, and what we shall discover here is as startling as what we have already reviewed. This issue was central to the debate between the reformers and the Anabaptists.

As we have already seen, the Protestant Reformers were convinced that God ordained the ritual of infant baptism as the means of imparting grace and making them members of His church. Because they believed that infant baptism itself was of divine origin, the reformers believed that it was a valid ritual if conducted properly – irrespective of who does it or to whom it was done! It did not matter if the pastor was living immorally or if the recipient had no faith, the procedure itself was an effective means of imparting divine grace and had the ability to make the infant a child of God. This was the argument that Augustine used against the Donatists and it was the one the reformers used against the Anabaptists.

The reformers complained that believer’s baptism represents a rejection of God’s way of incorporating someone into the Church and making them a child of God. The fact that Anabaptists were baptised on the basis of a personal repentance and faith was also for the reformers far too ‘subjective’ a basis for baptism. They objected that the Anabaptists were supplanting God’s gracious means of infant baptism with their own subjective experience, which the reformers deemed to be an utterly fallible basis for baptism. You can preach ‘justification by faith’ – and we most certainly ought to – but this in itself does not make you an evangelical!

Zwingli accused the Anabaptists of a double baptism, which of course they denied, stating that the only valid baptism is the one based on a person’s repentance and faith. However, Zwingli now had to defend his stance because he had received his infant baptism at the hands of the Catholic Church. He does this in the following extraordinary way:

“If baptism were of the pope alone, I would not object to their calling the pope’s baptism either ‘not Christ’s’ or a demon’s. But the baptism of Christ is not the pope’s, even though the pope were the archdemon himself and used Christ’s baptism…so when the pope baptized not in his own name, but in that of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost, it could in no way be vitiated so as not to be the baptism of Christ’s church. In the second place Christ himself said: “He that is not against us is with us.” The pope therefore has this much of good, that he baptizes in no other name than that in which we were baptized.” (Selected Works Of Huldreich Zwingli, 1484-1531, The Reformer Of German Switzerland, Ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901. Pp. 184,185. Italics mine.)

It is the ritual itself, which the reformers claim is graciously God-given, that validates infant baptism when performed in the correct way – irrespective of who performs it. When performed using the correct phraseology, it is effective in incorporating the child into the Church. Both Luther and Zwingli argued that the rite of infant baptism is valid, not because of the character of the priest, but because it is ordained of God, and it is therefore the surest foundation for our faith. Such infant-baptised communities had no need for evangelism, or to be evangelised, since they now ‘belonged’ to the Church. They just needed instruction and teaching regarding how to live as Christians. How could these Reformers believe and say such things? It is not enough to say that they were ‘men of their times’, but rather that their minds were blinded to the nature of Salvation because their hearts had not been changed by the light of the Gospel. Not understanding these things, Zwingli castigates the Anabaptists by accusing them of requiring a ‘second baptism’ from people before they can partake of the Lord’s Supper with them. For Zwingli, any infant-baptised person had a right to the Lord’s Supper since that baptism had made them a child of God. He clearly did not understand what the Anabaptists were talking about when witnessing to a personal conversion.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, when writing on ‘Holy Baptism’, states: “For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work. From this fact every one may himself readily infer that it is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work greater than the work of God can we do? (Large Catechism, IV, 10. Italics mine.)

Again, in the Large Catechism, commenting on Infant Baptism, Martin Luther states: “Further, we say that we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid… Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting…For even though a Jew should today come dishonestly and with evil purpose, and we should baptize him in all good faith, we must say that his baptism is nevertheless genuine. For here is the water together with the Word of God. Thus you see that the objection of the sectarians is vain. For (as we have said) even though infants did not believe, which however, is not the case, yet their baptism is now shown to be valid, and no one should rebaptise them… How dare we think that God’s Word and ordinance should be wrong and invalid because we make a wrong use of it?…” (LC, IV, 52, 54, 55. Italics mine.)

Luther and Zwingli find themselves in full agreement in this matter. Here again we meet the concept that the presence of ‘the word of God’ together with the ‘sacrament’ in a church building represents the authority of God and validates the divine nature of the ministry of the church in the locality, and defines the community around it as Christian. As long as the right phrases are used, the child is incorporated into the Church even if the rite of baptism were performed by the ‘archdemon’ pope, even if the person on whom the rite was performed had no faith!

Let us also take note that Luther says “no one should rebaptise them”. Thus he confirms that infant baptism ‘makes the Christian’, and that nothing that happens later should require them, or could possibly or legitimately induce them to renegade on that by a ‘second’ baptism. Luther shows no comprehension of a personal conversion, which the Scriptures clearly witness to.

All this was foundational to the reformers’ teaching, and Calvin agrees. He follows in the same superstitious vein,

“Moreover, if we have rightly determined that a sacrament [of baptism] is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains nor loses by the administrator….so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognise the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may. This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister. Such in the present day are our Catabaptists (Anabaptists), who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism. Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that by baptism we were initiated not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 15, P. 16.)

Here we see that Calvin takes the same view as Luther and Zwingli. Calvin claims that the baptism that he – and that everyone else – received at the hands of the Catholic Church is valid in initiating them into the body of Christ and making them God’s children. It doesn’t matter who performs the baptism – as long as it is done in the proper way, it is effective in its purpose because it is divinely appointed. The reformers were still steeped in a Catholic mindset that not only blinded them to the truth, but made them oppose the truth of the Gospel. Calvin calls the Anabaptist arguments against his teaching ‘absurdities’. There is nothing evangelical in the approach of the reformers here. Their minds are indeed fortified, but with the darkness of a thousand years of Christendom.

Luther raged against the Anabaptists as he defended infant baptism:

“How can baptism be more grievously reviled and disgraced than when we say that baptism given to an unbelieving man is not good and genuine baptism… What, baptism rendered ineffective because I don’t believe?… What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach? And yet the Anabaptists… are full up to their ears with this teaching. I put forth the following: here is a Jew that accepts baptism, as happens often enough, but does not believe, would you then say that this was not real baptism, because he does not believe? That would not only be to think as a fool thinks, but to blaspheme and disgrace God moreover.” (Werke, Vol. VII, p. 990, Louis Ed. Italics mine.)

Luther calls all those who would disagree with his view on infant baptism blasphemers and inspired by the devil. This gives us a clear insight into the nature of the reformation. How could it have been evangelical or evangelistic in changing the spiritual state of their listeners and congregations when they already regarded them as having been incorporated into the church as God’s children by the baptism that they had received in the Catholic Church? I shall keep making the point suggested and implied by the teachings and outlook of the reformers, namely, that the reformation movement was more of a human endeavour in trying to ‘re-educate’ an audience that was generally Catholic in its religion and nominal in its Christianity. The Reformation was not evangelistic in its nature or in its outlook. How could it be, given the words of Calvin and of the other reformers above?

Essentially, neither was it evangelical. Presented with congregations of largely nominal Christians whom they considered already ‘converted’ and within the community of God’s Church because of their Catholic infant baptisms, they necessarily had to resort to moralising from the Law of Moses in order to try and ‘elevate’ the outward moral conduct – and to rebuke the immoral conduct – of their congregations. We shall see this very clearly when considering Calvin’s time in Geneva.

The reformers had no insight into the spiritual condition of the congregations they were taking over from the Catholic Church – they could only recognise that they had been taught doctrine wrongly by the Catholic priests, and so addressed themselves to the matter of correcting the religious thinking of their parishioners together with their superstitious and idolatrous practices. This failure in the thinking and insight of the reformers inevitably led to an ‘elevation’ of the Law of Moses in their teachings. Of the many quotes that reveal this are the following by Calvin:

“By the word Law, we understand what peculiarly belonged to Moses; for the Law contains the rule of life, and the gratuitous covenant of life; and in it we find everywhere many remarkable sentences by which we are instructed as to faith, and as to the fear of God. None of these were abolished by Christ, but only that part which regarded the ancient priesthood.” (Calvin on Heb.7:12) 

“The substance is, that we are freed from the rigour of the law in order that we may adhere to Christ, and that the office of the law is to convince us of our depravity, and make us confess our impotence and wretchedness. (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch.15, P.12. Italics mine.)

According to Calvin the application of the Law of Moses to our lives was not abolished by Christ. It is the Law that convinces us (Christian believers) of our depravity and wretchedness. This is the teaching of the Reformation. The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577), states:

“We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified through faith…they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night.” (Article VI, Concerning the Third Use of the Law, paragraphs 1, 2.)

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is equally clear in this erroneous belief:

“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (Chpt. 19, V)

John Owen, the English puritan, regarded as the Prince of Puritans, was also very clear in his view:

“Christ not only obeyed all the commandments on behalf of man, but he also bore the penalty of death. But though we are freed from the penalty of death, we are still bound to obey the law. Yet that obedience is not to gain acceptance with God, but rather it is an expression of gratitude to God for our deliverance from death. (Communion with God, p. 120)

All these statements show no understanding of the Gospel, nor of what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished, nor of the meaning of Romans 8:2-4. The quotes above directly contradict the teaching of the New Testament, epitomised by Owen’s phrase that ‘we are still bound to obey the law’. They evidently did not understand Paul’s teaching regarding the Law.


Here we have the inevitable tension or contradiction of the reformers’ teaching. Their lack of an understanding of the Gospel and its transforming power leads them into a legalistic approach. Yes, ‘free justification’ they preach, but the absence of an inward transformation by the power of the Gospel leaves the moral and spiritual condition of people unchanged. Thus, the reformers are forced to apply the Law to convince them continually of their immorality and to keep their sins in check. All the above quotes make it clear that the comments apply to believers.

The reformers believed in a gospel that saved from the guilt of sin, but not the Gospel that also saves from the power of sin and radically transforms lives so that they do not ‘serve sin’ any longer. (I shall be looking into this in the next study, which addresses the doctrines of the reformers in detail.) To keep the sins and immoral conduct of their essentially unconverted congregations in check, the reformers preached the Law from their pulpits and drummed it into their listeners as a moralising influence. The Ten Commandments and the use of the Law was an integral part of Protestant teaching. Both Luther and Calvin devote significant space in their teachings and Catechism to the exposition of the Law, and its application to the life of the believer.

This all ties in with the fact that we read of no spiritual awakenings, let alone of revivals, or of people turning to Christ, of being converted and finding salvation through the labours of the reformers. They were not engaged in evangelistic endeavours. The reformers were continually engaged in trying to reform the behaviour of a largely nominal Christian community; to do this, they inevitably resorted to preaching the commandments of the Old Testament. As I have said, this becomes abundantly clear when one reads of Calvin’s endeavours in Geneva.

We need to note again that the congregations that the reformers were now pastors of were ‘made reformed’ by a vote of the city councils in Switzerland and by the patronage of the Princes in Germany. This could impossibly result in a spiritual awakening among the people. All this simply confirmed and sealed them in a religion that was dead – be it called Catholic or Reformed.


Calvin, like other reformers, identified baptism very closely with circumcision, and he asserted infants could be regenerated. Referring to the Anabaptists, Calvin writes:

“But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null and void. Moreover, infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be previously regenerated by the Lord …what I have said again and again I now repeat, that, for regenerating us, doctrine is an incorruptible seed, if indeed we are fit to perceive it; but when, from nonage (infancy), we are incapable of being taught, God takes his own methods of regenerating.” (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 16, P. 16, 31. Italics mine.)

In his Institutes, Calvin argues that infants are regenerated and made partakers of Christ and incorporated into his body by baptism. Calvin in refuting the arguments of a certain person in his writings continues to emphasize this point:

“Who can infer from this that baptism is to be denied to infants, whom, when begotten of the flesh, the Lord consecrates to himself by gratuitous adoption? His objection, that if they are new men, they must be fed with spiritual food, is easily answered. By baptism they (the infants) are admitted into the fold of Christ, and the symbol of adoption is sufficient for them, until they grow up and become fit to bear solid food When he objects, that it is strange why the infant does not partake of the Supper, I answer, that souls are fed by other food than the external eating of the Supper, and that accordingly Christ is the food of infants, though they partake not of the symbol…” (Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 16, P. 31. Italics mine.)

Calvin claims that to attack their teaching on infant baptism is a device of the devil because it deprives the baptised person of the assurance that they are God’s:

“Doubtless the design of Satan in assaulting pædobaptism with all his forces is to keep out of view, and gradually efface, that attestation of divine grace which the promise itself presents to our eyes…For it is no slight stimulus to us to bring them up in the fear of God, and the observance of his law, when we reflect, that from their birth they have been considered and acknowledged by him as his children.” (Bk 4, Ch. 16, P. 32. Italics mine.)

Calvin is here teaching that infant baptism is actually the beginning of Christian life. It is their spiritual birth into the body of Christ, and by it, they are born and fed mysteriously until they are old enough to understand solid teaching. Here again we can clearly see how the foundation of Christendom depends upon the continuation of infant baptism. It is infant baptism that Christianises a whole nation, or in the eyes of the reformers, safeguards Christianity within its territory.

Martin Luther teaches along the same lines in his Large Catechism. He says that what takes place at baptism, at infant baptism, is the putting to death of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man. Then he states, “Where this (infant baptism), therefore, is not practised, but the old man is left unbridled, so as to continually become stronger…Therefore the old man goes unrestrained in his nature if he is not checked and suppressed by the power of Baptism…For those who are without Christ cannot but daily become worse” (LC, IV, 68).

A remarkable statement which suggests that if infant baptism is lacking, then the truth and power of Romans 6 will be absent from the person’s life and they will grow up to experience greater temptations of the flesh and more prone to sin! He also clearly states that those who have not been baptised as infants are ‘without Christ’, meaning that those who have been baptised, have Christ.

In Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) in answer to the question, “What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow?”, the answer given is that “it effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.”

So Luther believes that it is baptism that effects salvation in a person’s life. Needless to say, the Anabaptists dismissed these arguments of the reformers as having no foundation in the Scriptures.



For both Calvin and Luther, infant baptism is a great source of comfort and encouragement when facing trials and difficulties as a Christian.

When writing on ‘Holy Baptism’ in his Large Catechism, Luther states:

“Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body…’ No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire.” (LC, IV, 44‒45. Italics mine.)

CALVIN echoes this bizarre thought as well. He writes:

“We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered it seems to have passed (Ed. He is talking about infant baptism), it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements. Nor must we hence assume a licence of sinning for the future…”. (Bk. 4, Ch.15, P. 3.)

Firstly, we notice that Calvin believes that infant baptism purifies for the whole life. The forgiveness of sins imparted at baptism is an effective foundation for all sins committed later on in life. Moreover, it is a strange if not superstitious concept of these Reformers to teach that our present comfort and encouragement should be based on an outward act, a procedure, that was performed long ago in the past when we were but infants. We are to cling on to that for comfort and assurance rather than on Christ Himself, rather from a present ongoing relationship with God, on a present faith in God and His word, and to be comforted by the consequent witness that is brought to us by the Holy Spirit. This latter context of a present faith in God rather than in a rite in the past indicates that we have a living relationship with God, where His word and Spirit are the source of our comfort and joy. Although reformers might indeed agree with this latter idea, their emphasis, and even just the notion, that infant baptism is of supreme value in bringing present comfort in trials, very much indicates a lack of personal relationship to God, and an almost superstitious belief in a religious rite. It is not some previous religious act which I was unaware of as an infant, but my present response to God that should form the basis of my comfort in trials.

If Calvin and Luther could write the statements above, how much of the witness of the Holy Spirit within their hearts did they really know? All these things impinge on the very nature of the Gospel and of Salvation in Christ. Were the reformers bringing people to the Gospel and to Christ, or barring people from knowing God and the power of His salvation in their lives because of their religious traditions. It couldn’t be more serious. And we are about to look at how serious things become regarding the nature of the Gospel.

After having read Reformed teaching, it came as no surprise to me that one of the perennial topics among reformed churches and conferences today is the question of the assurance of salvation. This lack of assurance is the inevitable result where reformed doctrine takes root in the heart and blinds the person from knowing the power and witness of the Spirit that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings.

So, all this brings us to the debate on the nature of conversion between the Anabaptists and the Protestant Reformers.


Some background.

The Protestant Reformers wrongly attributed to infant baptism a divine agency of regeneration and incorporation into the church. We have also seen that they believed that baptism was the main God-ordained vehicle to make a person a Christian and thus perpetuate Christendom. Added to this is the reformers’ view that man’s nature is so bound and corrupted by sin that not only he is totally incapable of anything good, but that this inability extends to him being utterly unable to personally repent and believe the Gospel when he hears it.  To say that a sinner can hear the Gospel and respond in repentance and faith by his own choice, is regarded by the reformers as the utmost pride and self-delusion, and it is to be rejected as a work of self-righteousness. The reformers maintained that man is so sinful that it is God who has to start the work of faith and repentance in man. And how does God do that, according to the reformers? It is by firstly regenerating that person by His Spirit, without that person’s will or choice being involved in any way. Then, once a person is born again by the sovereign act of God, to which the person has contributed nothing, it is then that the person finds the ability to respond to the Gospel and to begin to believe and repent. This is standard reformed teaching to this present day. I shall be reviewing this teaching in the next series when we will look at the doctrines of the reformers.

Zwingli highlights this point in his writing, ‘Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists.’ Zwingli argues against the First Article of the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, which Zwingli quotes:

“Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death that they may rise again with Him…By this all baptism of infants is excluded.” (Italics mine.) To this Zwingli strongly objects. He labels this justification by works (just as Luther does). Zwingli says, “For if it is in our own choice or power to walk in the resurrection of Christ, or to be buried with him in death, it is open to anyone to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence. Then Christ spoke falsely the word, ‘no one can come to me except the Father who sent me draw him.’” (Huldreich Zwingli, Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901; p. 178,179 Italics mine.)

Zwingli protests at the idea that anyone can just ‘choose’ to repent and become a Christian! He accuses the Anabaptists of imputing free will to man, as if a person by their own free choice can believe and be converted. He and other reformers viewed this as ‘justification by works’, since it implies that God would then be ‘honouring’ my choice to believe in Him. Reformed theology denies this ability. Luther wrote a work entitled ‘Bondage of the Will’ to defend this view of our total inability as sinners to respond to God – and it is a view that Erasmus then wrote against. If we are saved solely by God’s grace through no effort or choice of our own, Zwingli argues, why shouldn’t we baptise infants just as circumcision was performed on infants as a sign of their participation in the first Covenant of God? Zwingli continues by saying,

“But since infants are of the people of God, they are not excluded because they cannot hear or understand. For that they are members of one and the same body of God’s people is clear from this, that circumcision, the sign of the covenant, is given them, so ought baptism to be administered to infants.” (Ibid, p. 222. Italics mine.)

It is clear that the reformers believed baptism incorporated infants into the Church.

The Anabaptists would say that it was a person’s faith and repentance that brings about their conversion, which is then confirmed by the person’s commitment to baptism. The reformers found all this too subjective and too dependent on ‘fickle’ man. They claimed such an ‘experience’ could not be trusted and was no basis for faith; God had already provided infant baptism as an ‘objective’ source for our faith and therefore a sure means of incorporating us into His Church and making us His children. Luther would go on to say that yes, we should have faith, but faith in God-ordained infant baptism, not faith in our own experience.

It becomes clear that the argument revolves around the very nature of conversion and salvation. It could not be more crucial. The reformers imputed to the religious ceremony of infant baptism God’s grace and saving power, thus excluding the need, or even the existence of a need, for that person to be baptised ‘again’ later in their life; it also then renders any ‘further’ experience of salvation not only completely redundant, but judges a claim to such an experience to be a denial of faith and of their original baptism!  By their false teaching, the reformers were thus depriving people of ever knowing God’s work of salvation in their lives through a personal experience of salvation, since the reformers claimed that infant baptism, not personal experience – which is far too subjective and unreliable – is the sufficient foundation of our faith and salvation.

Thus Martin Luther attacks what he regards as the purely subjective and insubstantial nature of repentance and conversion as advocated by the Anabaptists. Writing concerning the person who wants to be baptised on the confession of their faith, Luther writes:

“You may indeed have his confession [of faith], but you still do not know his faithbecause all men are liars and only God knows the hearts. So, he who wants to base baptism on the faith of the candidate will never be able to baptise anyone at all, because even if you baptise a person a hundred times in one day, you will never know if he believes.” (Von der Wiedertaufe, an zwei Pfarrherrn. Luthers Volksbibliothek, Band 2. Italics mine. Translated from the German by me.)

Luther simply could not comprehend the notion or truth of a personal conversion! He cannot identify with this experience in any way!  He cannot conceive of an experience that results in an assurance of faith and of forgiveness of sins that does not evaporate with hours or days! Moreover, he says, you cannot trust such a person’s testimony since all men are liars. It is amazing stuff. He continues,

“Yes, it is true that one is to have faith in baptism, but one is not to base baptism on one’s faith…He who allows himself to be baptised on the basis of his faith, he is not only ignorant, but also a godless denier of Christ, because he trusts and builds on that which is his…” (Ibid, Italics and translation mine.)

A person’s confession of faith is of no value whatsoever, according to Luther. One is not to be baptised on the basis of one’s faith but to have faith in the rite of infant baptism, or at least in the baptism conducted in church according to the rubric of the church! What a baptism into darkness and superstition this teaching is. Those who are baptised on the basis of their faith are now condemned by Luther as being ‘godless deniers of Christ’. Those who profess a conversion through repentance and faith, Luther decries for being arrogant and superior, as if they had been given some special gift which puts them above others! In other words, Luther doesn’t believe in a personal experience of salvation to which the Anabaptists gave witness to.

We can see how the reformers’ views made them deadly opponents to the Anabaptists. They regarded Anabaptist teaching and practice as something that deprived people of God’s gracious means of salvation and that threatened to overturn Christendom. Luther is adamant in his defence of infant baptism:

“So I let those rave who want to. I hold that the absolutely surest baptism is child baptism. Since an older person can deceive…but a child cannot deceive…But he who is baptised according to God’s word and command, even if there were no faith, nevertheless the baptism would be true and sure because it is done as God has commanded…So the basis of our baptism is now the strongest and surest, as God has made a covenant with all the world, to be the God of the Heathens in all the world.” (Ibid, Italics and translation mine).

Personal testimonies of conversion are to be discounted, as people simply cannot be trusted! We have the thought clearly expressed again that even if the person being baptised has no faith, yet if it is done as God has ordained, the baptism is valid and effective. And the last sentence represents one of the foundations of Christendom – it is through infant baptism that God makes the heathen to be His own people. Just keep baptising the infants born in the parish and you create your own little Christian nation!

So, Luther rejects totally the idea of a personal conversion outside of baptism – he certainly rejected all the testimonies that the Anabaptists gave of their repentance and faith. In other words, no one can be saved based on their personal testimony of what God has done in their lives. Therefore, our trust needs to be in our baptism, not in any personal feelings or experiences. We see that it was not just the Catholic Church, but that the Protestant Reformers too had their teachings that kept people out of the Kingdom of God, that deprived them of knowing God’s salvation. For Luther, you are just a godless denier of Christ if you claim to have been converted through your own faith and repentance! The institutional church, with its infant-baptised community represented the Christian church, represented Christendom. To seek salvation outside of her and her procedures, even if it’s through personal conversion, was simply blasphemy and rendered you outside of the church and outside of salvation.

John Calvin writes of the Anabaptists the following: “I allude to great numbers of Anabaptists… Such are the fruits which their giddy spirit produces, that repentance, which in every Christian man lasts as long as life, is with them completed in a few short days.”  (Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 3, P. 2)

It is clear from the statement above that neither could Calvin personally relate to the idea or experience of a personal repentance that leads to an assurance of sins forgiven through the witness of the indwelling Spirit of God. (Hebrews 10:1-3; 15-17). The Anabaptists were not claiming sinlessness or sinless perfection – they were just giving witness to what the Scriptures themselves declare and to their experience of it. It is also completely false to impute to the Anabaptists the belief that one only needed to repent once in one’s life; this completely untrue. There is simply a distinction between a repentance that leads to salvation and a repentance that relates to the specific sins of a believer in his daily walk. Calvin’s misrepresentation of the Anabaptists issues out of his failure to understand personal conversion.

Calvin’s theology keeps a person perpetually repenting because it is a theology which results in that kind of experience because it lacks the power and the sense of assurance that the Gospel brings into a person’s life. We will look at that when we come to review the doctrines of the reformers.       

What is noteworthy is that there was nothing in Calvin’s life – or in any of the other reformers’ lives – that in any way could help him identify or have sympathy with the kind of experience that the Anabaptists were testifying to. It is a remarkable revelation of the state of his own heart, of his own spiritual condition. The conclusion that must be drawn is that Calvin had never had an experience anything like it. The reformers could not even reply with a “Yes, I know what you mean, but….” Calvin could only testify to a continual sense of sin which needed continual repentance. Calvin, together with Reformed teaching in general, believed that every word, thought and deed of the Christian believer was, without exception, at least to some extent polluted and corrupted by remaining sin, and would be worthy of eternal judgement but for the Atonement in Christ. The reformers teach that yes, the Holy Spirit inspires, stirs and motivates us unto good works and we make progress in sanctification, but nevertheless remaining sin renders every work imperfect and requiring the forgiveness of Christ. Nothing we do as Christians can please God (fully) because it is always polluted or corrupted by us in some measure, so requiring unceasing repentance from us.  It is no wonder that Calvin speaks of a relentless, perpetual repentance in the whole of the believer’s life. (Others have called this ‘the miserable sinner syndrome’.) It seems he had never known a ‘happy day’ when he knew that Jesus had washed his sins away. If he had, he would have at least to some extent been sympathetic to, or shown some understanding of the experience of the Anabaptists. 

To put it another way, the reformers give no indication that they had an ‘evangelical’ experience of the Gospel – anything like compared to what the Anabaptists had, or that are recorded in the New Testament, as with the apostle Paul, for example. Their outlook and the views they express here are not ‘evangelical’ at all. They may correct Catholic teaching and seek to clarify certain biblical truths, such as justification by faith, but insofar as this remains in the realm of the ‘doctrinal’ and the ‘intellect’, it does not make them ‘evangelical’. An evangelical conversion changes your heart – being intellectually convinced about certain biblical truths does not constitute conversion or new birth. Writers make reference to, and seek to explain the little that Luther and Calvin wrote about the turning points in their lives. However, these turning points do little to clarify their nature of such turning points and simply beg further questions – that I hope are here being addressed!

The reformers rejected and condemned the experience of the Anabaptists as arrogant pride and deception; they accused the Anabaptists of making themselves out to be super-spiritual Christians and as having some exclusive access to God. To speak of knowing one’s sins forgiven was virtually blasphemous to the reformers. They could only imagine that the Anabaptists were claiming to be sinless, which was very far from the truth; indeed, it was not true at all of ‘mainstream’ Anabaptist teaching.

How can I say that these reformers had never seemed to experience this kind of life-transforming personal salvation? Well, by the words – and actions – of the reformers themselves. Had they known something of it, anything of it, they would have recognised it in the Anabaptists and rejoiced with them. Had they known such a deliverance from the spiritual darkness that Catholicism had brought them into, they would have preached about it. However, as we proceed to look at the spread of the Reformation in Europe, we will see that the reformers brought about a change in the religious culture and thinking of the people, but not a spiritual awakening or a revival that resulted in the actual conversion of the many people under their ‘care’ – as one can read of the times of Whitefield and Wesley, or any other revival.

There was little or nothing evangelistic about the Protestant Reformers. You don’t see them going from house to house, or in the marketplaces or fields, preaching the Gospel of salvation from sin to those that they considered lost. How could they possibly do this without denying the validity of the infant baptism of everyone in the empire? To deny the validity of infant baptism would be to render nearly everyone, if not everyone, in the whole community as spiritually-dead heathen. But such thoughts had no room in their thinking. They regarded their communities not as Christianised, but as Christian. For them, this society of religious people still represented Christendom. Yes, many were bad and many had been deceived by the false teaching of the Catholics, but nevertheless they were the people of God, and to be instructed as the people of God – just like the people of God in the OT had to be instructed and turned back to God by the kings, judges and prophets.

The Anabaptists had no such difficulty in distinguishing between a Christianisation that does not and cannot convert and change people, and the preaching of the Gospel which leads people to a genuine repentance and a true conversion, which changes the life of that person.

What real spiritual change could this bring about in the people they were now preaching to? We will have a look at this in the next part.


(N1) Quellen Hesse =  Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951). Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p.116.

(N2)  (Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. XX  col. 1718. Quoted, Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 209.)



  1. The condition of reformed churches.
  2. The conduct of the Anabaptists.
  3. Iconoclasm: The vandalism and violence of the Reformtion.


In Chapter 4, I indicated that what was happening under the Reformation was not a spiritual renewal or awakening, but represented more of an ardent religious re-education and moralising venture. As such, it lacked the power of the Gospel in transforming lives, and left multitudes in a ‘Christianised’ state (i.e., as nominal Christians), leading lives that were far from Christian. This latter aspect is what we shall now consider in Chapter 5.

To help us understand what contributed to this terrible state of affairs, it is helpful to be aware of one of the foundational doctrines of the Reformation. The idea is this: before you can show any positive interest for, or inclination towards the Gospel, God must first sovereignly regenerate you, and this occurs without any participation or knowledge on your part. It is only after you are born again that you are enabled to respond to God and to His Gospel. Luther and Calvin were adamant about this.

The consequence of this is that when the reformers convinced the local secular power or authority – which itself was religious in nature – to adopt the Reformation, the reformers found themselves among a host of churchgoers who ‘believed’ in God, showed a kind of ‘devotion’ to God and would ‘assent’ to certain truths of the Bible, etc. According to Reformed doctrine, anyone who had such traits, must, by definition, be born again, as such traits necessarily imply new birth.

So the reformers could not dismiss their Catholic congregations as being unconverted, as those who did not belong to Christ. We will see this when considering how Luther exhorted his fellow believers to have patience with their ‘brethren’ among the Lutheran churches who could not and would not abandon certain Catholic practices and beliefs. Luther deemed all those who had been ‘made’ reformed by decree of the German Princes as brothers and sisters in Christ, in effect, as born again. Luther believed that these ‘weaker’ brethren could gradually be educated out of their Catholicism through a period Bible instruction. However, this did not work too well, as we shall see.

Secondly, how could the reformers truly evangelise people that they regarded as already being Christians by virtue of the infant baptism they had received at the hands of the Catholic Church? If they evangelised or sought to convert the people who had now come under their care, this would have been a denial of the effectiveness of the infant baptism in making them part of the Church – and as we have seen, to deny the effectiveness of infant baptism in this respect was anathema to the Protestant Reformers. The reformers certainly viewed the people who had been deceived through Catholic teachings as Christians; deceived and led astray by Catholicism, yes, but Christians nevertheless. This was a fundamental problem in the Reformation. There was a total lack of spiritual understanding and insight. If the reformers lacked a radical inward spiritual change in their lives (a lack, witnessed, not least, by their murderous intent and hounding of all religious dissenters), it would be no great wonder if their preaching lacked the power to radically change the lives of others. And this is what we shall look at now.


As has been noted earlier, initially, Erasmus had had some sympathy for the Protestant movement under Luther. In fact, Erasmus was initially being attacked from both sides – by Luther, for not being ‘true to his convictions’ and joining the Lutheran cause; and by the Catholics, who were accusing him of being a secret Lutheran! However, the doctrines that Luther then shortly afterwards openly espoused and the manner in which Lutheranism was propagated turned Erasmus against the movement. He was also appalled at the iconoclasm that was a feature of the Reformation.

In 1524 Erasmus wrote to Philip Melanchthon:

“I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike. The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives, and they speak quite another language. (Letter of 6 September 1524. Collected Works of Erasmus, 10. p. 380. University of Toronto Press. 1992. Italics mine.)

In this passage, Erasmus makes reference to two things; namely, the violent measures that the reformation were adopting or the violence it was resulting in, on the one hand, and the disparity between the preaching and the lives of the propagators of the reformation, on the other. Erasmus elaborates on these two points when writing to Melanchthon:

“They have always in their mouths ‘The Gospel, the Word of God, faith, Christ, and the Spirit’; if you look to their manners, these speak a very different thing…I have known certain very excellent men who through this affair have deteriorated in character…Here (Basle), especially, I see many to be such, that even if I approved all that Luther writes, I should be unwilling to give my name to this faction…How can I persuade myself that those men are led by the Spirit of Christ, whose manners are so much at variance with the teaching of Christ? Formerly the Gospel made those that were fierce become gentle; those that were rapacious, benignant; those that were turbulent, peaceful; those that were abusive, affable: but these men are rendered furious; they snatch by fraud what belongs to others – they everywhere excite tumults, and speak evil even of those who deserve well of them. I behold new hypocrites, new tyrants, but not a particle of the true spirit of the Gospel.” (Epist., lib. xix. ep. 113, ed. Lond. 1642, col. 950-952. / Quoted in The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881. p.10.)

In this passage, Erasmus indicates that the Reformation message is not really changing people but rather making some worse. He touches on the tendency of the Reformation movement to make men ‘furious’ and to ‘excite tumults’. He is here undoubtedly speaking of the iconoclasm that was a feature of the Reformation in Europe. This refers to the vandalism and violent destruction – often spontaneous – of churches and the symbols of Catholic worship and idolatry, such as statues, images, relics, etc. Usually this would happen after the sermon of a Protestant Reformer, in which he would inveigh against Catholic superstitious traditions and castigate Catholic clerics, thus whipping up anti-Catholic feelings, if not hatred. This would not infrequently result in a large crowd or mob violently descending on a church and violently destroying any symbols of Catholic tradition, sometimes leaving the place in ruins. We shall be looking at this aspect of things shortly. It was because of the violent nature of the Reformation movement that Erasmus left Basle in 1529.  

In that year he wrote ‘An epistle against those who falsely boast they are Evangelicals’ (Epistola contra quosdam qui se falso iactant evangelicos). He also wrote a letter to Vulturius Neocomus, wherein he states:

“Look around on this ‘Evangelical’ generation, and observe whether amongst them less indulgence is given to luxury, lust, or avarice, than amongst those whom you so detest. Show me any one person who by that Gospel has been reclaimed from drunkenness to sobriety, from fury and passion to meekness, from avarice to liberality, from reviling to well-speaking, from wantonness to modesty. I will show you a great many who have become worse through following it. …The solemn prayers of the Church are abolished, but now there are very many who never pray at all. …I have never entered their conventicles [assemblies], but I have sometimes seen them returning from their sermons, the countenances of all of them displaying rage, and wonderful ferocity, as though they were animated by the evil spirit…Whoever beheld in their meetings any one of them shedding tears, smiting his breast, or grieving for his sins? …Confession to the priest is abolished, but very few now confess to God. …They have fled from Judaism that they may become Epicureans.” [The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881, pp. 13–14. See also Erasmus, Preserved Smith, 1923, Harper & Brothers, pp. 391–92.]

Even if Erasmus is biased in his views, there does seem to be some solid evidence for such comments. Moreover, Erasmus was not the only one who pointed out the discrepancy between the teaching of the reformers and the moral state of the Reformed churches. This was a constant theme in the complaints of the Anabaptists against the Reformed Churches. The Anabaptists claimed that the teaching of the reformers did nothing to change the immoral lives of their churchgoers. The Anabaptists considered the vast mass of churchgoers to be just ‘nominal’ Christians, and they complained that the Reformation simply gave these nominal Christians an excuse to be carefree in their sins, since they were now ‘justified by faith alone’. (See, Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 222, 223).

Let us look at some of the quotes of the reformers themselves.

Luther wrote the following, years after the start of the Reformation in Germany:

“Our Germany, after so great light of the Gospel, seems to be all but possessed by the devil. Our youths are impudent and unruly, and will no longer submit to education; the old men are loaded with sins of avarice, usury, and many others that may not be told.” (Comment, in Gen. xxiii. 9, Op., ed. Wittemb., 1580, tom. vi. / Quoted in, The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), p. 3.)

Calvin wrote: “But a few years had elapsed since the glorious beginnings of our renascent Church displayed themselves, when straightway we see them reduced to a heap of ruins. When so many thousands of men, having thrown off the Papal authority, eagerly, as it seemed, enrolled themselves under the Gospel, how few, think you, have repented of their vices? Nay, what have the majority shown to have been their desire, than that, having shaken off the yoke of superstitions, they might launch out the more freely into every kind of lasciviousness?” (De Scandalis, Opera, ed. Amstelod., 1677, tom. viii. p. 71. / Quoted in Ibid. p. 4.)

The leading Reformer, Martin Bucer, laments: “The greater part of them (the Reformed) seem only to have sought from the Gospel of Christ the following advantages, to wit: first, that they might free themselves from the tyranny of the Roman Antichrist and his bishops \ next, that they might cast off the yoke of every kind of discipline and penance, and of all that religion which remained under the Papacy, and might live and do all things according to the dictates of their carnal lusts and appetites; and lastly, it was by no means displeasing to them to hear that we are justified by faith in Christ, and not by good works, for which latter they had no relish…Not a few of them only received the preaching of the Gospel – of whatsoever kind it might be – in order that they might plunder the goods of the Churches.” (De Regno Christie lib. i. c. 4, Op., ed. Basil, 1577, p. 24. / Quoted in Ibid pp. 4,5.)

It is interesting how this agrees with the statements of Erasmus and others.

Again, Martin Bucer, in a letter to Calvin in 1549, says: “Our followers preferred appearing to be Christians to being so in truth…What pleased them was their liberation from the superstitions and tyranny of the Pope, and the license to live according to their own will.” (Ap. Calv. Epist, Op., tom. ix. p. 232, ed. Amstelod. / Quoted in Ibid p. 5.)

As we review the spread of the Reformation in Switzerland, it will confirm the views stated above. The Reformation did little, if anything, to change the moral or spiritual condition of all the churchgoers who had been Catholic before the town council decided by a vote to ‘convert’ their region to the Reformed religion. Many – but not all – were happy to throw off Catholic traditions and to rid themselves of Catholic abuses and their licentious clerics, but were resistant to having their personal life-style changed. Calvin was to discover this to his great grief.

Melanchthon visited churches in Thuringia (central Germany) with Luther ten years after the posting of the 95 Theses.  It was a visit that left him deeply distressed at the condition of things. (N1)

In his Life of Philip Melanchthon, the biographer Joseph Stump writes:In the year 1527, Melanchthon took part with Luther in the visitation of the schools and churches of Saxony. It was high time for such a step. Affairs were in a wretched condition. In many places no religious instruction was given at all, because there were either no pastors and teachers stationed there, or those who were stationed there were grossly ignorant themselves. The greatest disorder imaginable reigned nearly everywhere. In one instance, it was found that in one congregation the pastor preached the Gospel, but that in another part of his parish he read the Romish mass…It was the object of the visitation to bring order out of this chaos. Melanchthon was charged with making a beginning in Thuringia. The spiritual distress which he discovered rent his heart, and he often went aside and wept over what he saw.” (Stump, Joseph The Life of Philip Melanchthon, p. 78. Pilger Publishing House, 1897.)

Ambrosius Blaurer (an influential Protestant reformer in southern German) reported similar conditions, and blamed the reformers themsleves for them. Blaurer wrote, “We ourselves carry a great part of the blame. There is so little appetite among us to hear of true repentance that our teaching itself is becoming suspect because of it. I get tired of work and life itself when I observe the condition of many weak evangelical cities, in which hardly a trace of true conversion makes itself known. ‘Christian freedom’, through a godless interpretation, is made into freedom to sin.” (Printed by K. Rembert, op. cit., p. 554, n. I. / Translated from the German by me.)

All these comments underline the same things – little change among the Reformed congregations; and in some cases things are worse, since ‘Christian freedom, through a godless interpretation, is made into freedom to sin’. In the course of these studies this is what I endeavour to show: The inevitable result of preaching ‘justification by faith’ to a largely nominally Christian congregation with a Catholic background will result in the churchgoers rejoicing in being liberated from ‘religious observances’ so that they can more freely and easily give themselves to their pleasures.

The Anabaptists certainly confirmed the assessments above.

The Anabaptist Conrad Grebel wrote to Thomas  Müntzer in September 1524, concerning what was happening under the Reformation: “Just as our forefathers had fallen away from the true God and knowledge of Jesus Christ and true faith in him…and from the godly practices of the Christian love and way, and lived without God’s law and gospel in human, useless, unchristian practices and ceremonies and supposed they would find salvation in them but fell far short of it, as the evangelical preachers have shown and are still in part showing, so even today everyone wants to be saved by hypocritical faith, without fruits of faith, without the baptism of trial and testing, without hope and love, without true Christian practices, and wants to remain in all the old ways of personal vices and common anti-christian ceremonial rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, dishonoring the divine Word, but honoring the papal word and the antipapal preachers, which is not like or in accord with the divine Word.” [C. A. Cornelius, Geschichte des Munsterischen Aufruhrs, Book II, p. 240 (Appendix I), 1860.]

Grebel indicates that both the ‘papal’ and ‘anitpapal’ preachers fail to preach the Gospel of salvation, and leave people with false hopes and unchanged lives.

Balthasar Hübmaier accused the reformers of stopping short of the true Gospel. He says they teach only two parts of the Gospel – ‘salvation by faith alone’, and that ‘of ourselves we cannot do any good’. Hübmaier totally agrees with these two statements but says the reformers stopped there, without truly addressing the fruits of righteousness that should be the result of such faith. (By the way, this accusation and complaint has remained the same down the centuries to this present day against reformed teaching, and the reformed tradition repeatedly finds itself having to defend itself against this valid judgement.) Hübmaier goes on to say, “Under cover of these two half-truths all evil, unfaithfulness and unrighteousness have gained the upper hand completely…Everybody wishes to pass for a Christian and a good evangelical as far as taking a wife is concerned, eating meat [in Lent], making no further sacrifice, fasting not, saying no prayers any more….” Hübmaier complains that all one sees is immoral and licentious living and accuses the reformers of failing to understand that “faith without works is dead.” (N2)

It is striking and unmistakable how all the above quotes, whichever source they come from, give witness to the same things, namely, that a change of religious confession occurred, but no radical change of heart or lifestyle. What churchgoers were before the Reformation came to their region by vote of the council or decree of the Prince, that is what they essentially were after the vote – except ‘justification by faith’ suggested to them that there was no need for moral rigour; though this was not the intention of the reformed preachers. That things were equally bad everywhere was probably not the case, but the general picture seems to be the same.

Moreover, these comments of Hubmaier’s seem to be justified, since Luther dubbed the letter of James as an “epistle of straw” in his preface to his German translation of the New Testament, first published in 1522. (This designation of James’s epistle though, was removed from editions after 1537). One of the reasons that Luther was rather dismissive of the letter of James was that he considered it contradicted Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. This reaction highlights the danger of Lutheran theology – his view of justification by faith was not balanced and biblical. Luther was very wary of any emphasis on ‘works’, lest it bring people back, as he thought, into the bondage of thinking that they are in any way justified by their works. Luther may have been dismissive of the Anabaptists’ emphasis on righteous behaviour as a reaction to the Catholic focus on earning merit through different observances. However, his emphasis created and still creates its own difficulties.

Indeed, it seems to me that Hübmaier puts his finger on one of the fundamental problems that runs through Reformed theology. The over-emphasis and false interpretation of ‘justification by faith’ focusses on what Christ has done (‘forensically’) for us, to the great neglect, if not denial, of what Christ does in us by His death on the cross. But the consideration of this will have to be left till the next study, which will deal with the doctrines of the Reformers.

So, the reformers may indeed have preached justification by faith in Christ, and that Christ alone is the object of our faith, but to teach this as a doctrine to a people who were essentially nominally religious and not spiritually alive would generally only result in a mental affirmation of the truth without it affecting their lives, except that it leads such people into believing in ‘easy’ grace – ‘it does not matter how we live now, because Christ has done it all for us.’ All these testimonies seem to bear out the truth of this appraisal.

This is an account of one of the Anabaptists of 1538: “While we were still in the national church we obtained much instruction from the writings of Luther, Zwingli and others… Yet we were aware of a great lack in regard to repentance, conversion, and the true Christian life. It was on these things that my heart was set. I waited and hoped for a year or two, since the minister had much to say about amendment of life…But I could not close my eyes to the fact that doctrine which was preached…was not carried out; no beginning was made towards true Christian conduct…True repentance and Christian love were not in evidence…Then God sent his messengers, Conrad Grebel and others, who have surrendered themselves in the doctrine of Christ by conversion. With their assistance a congregation was formed in which repentance was in evidence by newness of life in Christ.” (N3)

All the above quotes seem to be in agreement about the state of things among the Reformed churches. Of course, the Protestant reformers sought to defend themselves against these accusations, and how widespread and common such ‘unchristian’ behaviour was in the Protestant world would be difficult to gauge, but it seems such conduct was not too difficult to find among the Reformed communities. And as we saw in Chapter 4, the reformers always fell back on the parable of the wheat and the tares to confirm and justify the predominating presence of the ungodly in their congregations.

Thus, Calvin wrote: “…because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd…But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation…in this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men…”. (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 2. & P. 7.) So, Calvin’s doctrine of the ‘visible’ church allows for the presence of many ungodly people in the church. Nevertheless, even Calvin was forced to lament the state of things:

“Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasionWoe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 13. Italics mine.)

Another line of defence that Luther took up was the following:

“Doctrine and life are to be distinguished, the one from the other. With us conduct is as bad as it is with the papists. We don’t oppose them on account of conduct. Hus and Wyclif, who made an issue of conduct, were not aware of this . . . but to treat of doctrine, that is to really come to grips with things.” (Werke, St. Louis Ed, Vol., I, p.296. / Quoted, Verduin, p.108. Italics mine.)

By these words it seems Luther concedes they will not win the argument by debating conduct, but by focussing on doctrine. However, the Scriptures are very clear on this point: “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16).

In 1538 Martin Bucer wrote:

“They are forever accusing us that things are getting worse instead of better. Now is this our teaching: “Repent and improve your way of life.” It is not the doctrine’s fault that nothing happens. In the Old Testament as well as in the New, God’s Word has always had this quality that it makes worse those who do not embrace it…They who do not accept the doctrine after they have been sufficiently taught, these fall daily deeper; and these give occasion for the saying that ‘Since the new doctrine has been preached, many people have gotten progressively worse.’ (N4) (Italics mine).

These comments are revealing and significant. Bucer is saying that it’s not the reformers’ fault that the people do not follow their exhortations to live righteously. However, as I mentioned earlier, to treat an essentially ‘Christianised’ population, however religious they were, as if they were genuine believers is bound to backfire. The Protestant reformers did not challenge the fundamental spiritual state of their listeners, of their congregations, so inevitably there was little or no transformation of lives, or widespread conversions. And to preach justification by faith and not by works would simply lead a religious people into what is called ‘easy grace’. To an unregenerate audience ‘justification by faith in Christ’ is just a notion of the mind which they feel delivers them from Catholic restrictions and burdens regarding penance, indulgences, fastings, prayers and pilgrimages.

As a consequence of all this, much of the preaching of the reformers was moralistic or legalistic – it was not Gospel based; it sought to apply an outward code represented by the Mosaic Law to force people into conformity. The reformers preached and made laws against dancing, partying, swearing, drunkenness, etc., and regulated people’s lives accordingly by issuing regulations to prohibit them. Those who broke the rules found themselves in court, and could be fined or sent to prison – or worse, depending on the nature of the misconduct. The immoral behaviour of unchanged lives needed to be restrained and legislated against by the reformers.

The message that the reformers were bringing was not like refreshing living waters to people who had been deeply convicted of their sin and who felt that they needed salvation from it! The preaching of the Protestant Reformers did not induce this kind of conviction in its listeners. The result of such spiritual confusion and blindness resulted in the quotes we have just looked at above. For many of the churchgoers, liberation from Catholic ritual and religious requirements seemed to represent the new religion of the reformers.


Regarding the conduct of the lives of the Anabaptists, I would like to refer the reader to Leonard Verduin’s Book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964) and particularly Chapter three, ‘Catharer’, where he deals with this topic. I will just make references to two sources that he quotes.

A letter was written to the city Council of Bern by the Reformed preachers, wherein they stated:

“The Anabaptists have the semblance of outward piety to a far greater degree than we, and all the churches which in union with us confess Christ; and they avoid the offensive sins that are very common among us.”  (William Joseph McGlothlin, Die Bernr Tauefer bis 1532, p. 36 – Berlin 1902. / Quoted, Verduin, p. 109.)

“Because their children are being so carefully and devoutly reared and because they do not have the practice of cursing and swearing, therefore they are suspected of being Anabaptists.” (Quellen IV, p.379 / Verduin p. 108).

It is beyond doubt that the Anabaptists believed and taught that becoming a Christian is not to do with following rituals and church traditions, or mentally assenting to the doctrine of whatever happens to be the State Religion at the time. It all starts with a personal response of faith and repentance to the Gospel message of salvation in Christ. Such a response is then to be followed by believer’s baptism and to be demonstrated through a changed life.

As I have said before, my main aim is not to write in defence of all the Anabaptists did and taught – however, certain facts speak for themselves – but to highlight the nature of the Protestant Reformation, particularly with reference to how they responded to and treated the Anabaptists.


We have seen that a not infrequent complaint against the Reformation was that it did not change the lives of its adherents. It further confirms that what was happening under the Protestant Reformers was not a spiritual awakening, but a kind of religious re-educating of Christianised communities. That this was so is highlighted by another phenomenon that accompanied the preaching of the Protestant Reformers – and that is, iconoclasm, which I have already alluded to above. Iconoclasm generally occurred across the cities and villages of Europe, wherever the Reformation reached. ‘Iconoclasm’ is a term that refers to the violent destruction, vandalism and burning of church images, statues, altars, crucifixes, religious ornamentation and vestments, which is the result of a mob or horde of people attacking a Catholic church or monastery, usually in a state of great agitation or frenzy.

This kind of violent attack upon Catholic churches often followed upon the heels of the preaching of the Protestant Reformers against Catholic traditions and clerical abuses. It is not a characteristic of people who have been dramatically converted by the Gospel to spontaneously go out as a violent mob smashing up the inside of churches with clubs, knives and torches. But this was not an uncommon characteristic and reaction of the listeners upon the introduction of Reformed preaching in a community. We have already seen above that Erasmus was appalled at the ‘tumult’ that the Reformation movement was causing, and that he left Basle because of it.

It is interesting and revealing to see how Martin Luther handled the progress of the German Reformation in its birthplace of Wittenberg. And that’s what we shall have a look at now.

Luther was teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. In October 1517 he put out his 95 Theses, which basically argue against the abuses of Indulgences, which are payments made for getting out of purgatory early. Luther conceded that the Pope had the right to issue indulgences, but argued extensively against their abuse. In his Theses, Luther made clear his belief in purgatory (but he did later teach against it). His Theses did not represent a very severe attack on Catholic teaching, but it spread like wildfire and caused a sensation and a stir across Europe.

This led to Luther being called by the Catholic authorities a number of times to be investigated for his teachings. However, during this period he increased his attacks both verbally and in written form against the Catholic Church and the papacy. These proceedings led to Luther being ex-communicated by the Pope in January 1521. Luther had now to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor and others at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. However, Prince Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who was now a protector and sponsor of Lutheranism, obtained a safe conduct for Luther to and from the meeting. Luther did not recant his views, and it is here that he is supposed to have said, “Here I stand. I can do no other”. (That he actually said that at the time is now doubted.) Before any final pronouncements were made, Luther hurriedly left Worms on 26th April. On his journey back to Wittenberg, Luther was “kidnapped” by soldiers of Frederick who secretly took him to Wartburg Castle, for his own safe keeping, and where he remained in hiding for the rest of the year. 

Emperor Charles V presented the Edict of Worms on 25 May 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his literature, and requiring his arrest. It also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter.

However, Luther was safe, and so was the budding Reformation, under the care and protection of the Elector Frederick the Wise. As I stated much earlier, the Reformation in Germany would have been snuffed out completely at a very early stage if it had not been for the sympathy and protection of German Princes. It was the German Princes that secured the establishment of the Reformation in Saxony; it was not the result of a widespread preaching of the Gospel, or of a spiritual awakening among the people.

During this period of about four years, from 1517 (when Luther published his 95 Theses) to the spring of 1521, Luther had been writing and teaching in Wittenberg, but after the Diet of Worms, he had to be kept hidden in Wartburg Castle, where he continued writing.

So what changes had the Reformation under Luther brought about in Wittenberg during these 4 years? Philip Schaff writes the following:

“The Reformation during its first five years was a battle of words, not of deeds. It scattered the seeds of new institutions all over Germany, but the old forms and usages still remained. …The Protestant soul dwelt in the Catholic body. So the Protestants remained in external communion with the mother Church, attending Latin mass, bowing before the transubstantiated elements on the altar, praying the Ave Maria, worshiping saints, pictures, and crucifixes, making pilgrimages to holy shrines…etc. The outside looked just as before, while the inside had undergone a radical change. This was the case even in Saxony and at Wittenberg, the nursery of the new state of things. Luther himself did not at first contemplate any outward change. He laboured and hoped for a reformation of faith and doctrine within the Catholic Church under the lead of the bishops, without a division, but he was now cast out by the highest authorities, and came gradually to see that he must build a new structure on the new foundation which he had laid by his writings and by the translation of the New Testament.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, p. 249. Italics mine.)

In other words, there was little, if any real change in Wittenberg to the Catholic traditions and superstitions, which Luther had preached against. Luther had made his doctrinal and theological views known, but apparently things carried on much as before in the congregations. This seems to be a strange anomaly if it is claimed that Luther brought the life-changing Gospel to Wittenberg. Where was the evangelistic activity of an evangelical preacher in all this? It was nowhere to be seen. Not now, not later on.

The Beginning of Iconoclasm.

This brings us to the element of violence and iconoclasm that accompanied Reformation teaching. Philip Schaff writes:

“The first disturbances broke out at Erfurt in June, 1521, shortly after Luther’s triumphant passage through the town on his way to Worms. Two young priests were excommunicated for taking part in the enthusiastic demonstrations. This created the greatest indignation. Twelve hundred students, workmen, and ruffians attacked and demolished in a few days sixty houses of the priests, who escaped violence only by flight. Similar scenes of violence were repeated during the summer.” (Ibid, p. 255).

As the initial, if not main thrust of Reformed teaching was against Catholic rituals and superstitions – rather than an emphasis on a life-changing Gospel message – it often resulted in anti-Catholic campaigns and violence against the symbols of Catholic superstition and abuse. It simply stirred up the latent anti-Catholic feeling in communities, rather than bringing spiritual awakening and salvation to souls. Here we have a huge number of Luther-supporting students reacting violently to the ex-communication of two priests, who had shown support for Luther. To go about demolishing the houses of Catholic priests is not a witness to spiritual awakening, but rather religious fanaticism.

But now Luther was absent from Wittenberg and hiding some distance away in Wartburg Castle, so his close associate Andreas Karlstadt took it upon himself to set the wheels in motion of bringing about those changes in the churches which Luther himself had advocated.

Again to quote Schaff; he states:

“Carlstadt preached and wrote against celibacy, monastic vows, and the mass. At Christmas, 1521, he omitted in the service the most objectionable parts of the Canon of the mass, and the elevation of the host, and distributed both wine and bread to a large congregation. He also denounced pictures and images as dumb idols. He induced the town council to remove them from the parish church; but the populace anticipated the orderly removal, tore them down, hewed them to pieces, and burnt them. He encouraged theology students to give up their studies and work on the land.” (Ibid, p. 251. Italics mine.)

What Schaff writes about Wittenberg is the kind of thing that would happen in many cities and towns as a result of Reformed preaching. As has been pointed out, resentment against the opulence, exploitation and immoral living of the Catholic Church and its clerics was already simmering under the surface, and the reformed preachers gave seemingly legitimate ground for this resentment to express itself in violent backlashes against the Catholic churches.

In response to Karlstadt’s preaching, monks began to leave monasteries by the hundreds. Priests and monks were starting to marry. However, many of these changes were what Luther had also promoted or preached against, so many believed that Karlstadt’s preaching was a continuation of the reform started by Luther. But all this resulted in confusion and pandemonium, as some people were exultant, others hesitant and confused, and others very upset. In January 1522, under mounting pressure, the council and university of Wittenberg changed the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in accordance with the new Reformed teaching.

Without Luther there, neither the town authorities nor even the Prince Elector felt they could intervene against these rapid changes being brought in by Karlstadt, lest they be regarded as opposing the Protestant Reformation. So, Karlstadt gained influence over both the university and the town. Wittenberg was in a very critical condition and near anarchy reigned.

The church historian D’Aubigne writes,

“To judge by the language of these enthusiasts, there were no true Christians in Wittenberg save those who went not to confession, who attacked the priests, and who ate meat on fast days. If anyone was suspected of not rejecting all the rites of the Church as an invention of the devil, he was set down as a worshipper of Baal…The citizens of Wittenberg laid before the council certain articles which it was forced to accept. Many of the articles were conformable to evangelical morals. They required more particularly that all houses of public amusement should be closed.” (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the 16th Century, p. 815. Italics mine.)

Significantly, we notice here how ‘converts’ to the new Religion of the Reformation liked to identify themselves by their zealous rejection of Catholic traditions, not by a radically changed life, as required by the Anabaptists. Secondly, we observe how this zealous throng of people forced the council to impose legislation that would seek to control public behaviour. This would be another feature of the Reformation, as we shall see, particularly in Switzerland. However, people are not ‘sanctified’, let alone converted by closing houses of public amusement.

This again illustrates how the reformers saw ‘the Gospel’ as delivering people from Catholic superstitions rather than delivering them from sin and darkness by the preaching of a life-changing Gospel. Abandoning Catholicism seems to have been the marker of a true Christian – not conversion. We see that the fruit of this was violent antagonism towards the old religion and vigilantism. It seemed it was not too difficult for Reformed ministers to whip people up into a frenzy of anti-Catholic destruction. 

A chameleon can change its colour, but it remains very much a chameleon. The Christianised heathen remained Christianised heathen – before they were called Catholics, but now they call themselves ‘Reformed’ or ‘Protestant’.

Karlstadt went beyond Luther’s compass in the things that he instituted and taught. Moreover, he was joined by two other unusual and extreme characters, called the ‘Zwickau Prophets’, who certainly did not help matters.

Luther’s Compromise.

Luther secretly returned to Wittenberg on 6th March 1522. He wrote to the Prince Elector: “During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.” (See his letters to Melanchthon and Spalatin, in De Wette, Briefe Luthers, II. 7sq., 31. / Schaff, p. 260.)

Luther then preaches eight days against all of Karlstadt’s ‘excesses’ and teaches patience and forbearance. Luther believed one must wait for people to understand why some things needed to change, otherwise they might ‘lose their faith’ or be incited to violence. In the meantime, he claimed that those who do not believe in the mass will not be harmed by it! One must not use force but preach the word of God, he insisted. Luther taught that folk must exercise patience and moderation towards the people who were finding the change from Catholic ways too fast – this is after four years of Reformed teaching. Luther stated:

“It is with the Word that we must fight…by the Word must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by violence…What does a mother do to her infant? At first she gives it milk, then, some very light food. If she were to begin by giving it meat and wine, what would be the consequence?…So should we act towards our brethren. My friend, have you been long enough at the breast? It is well! But permit your brother to drink as long as yourself.” (Quoted in D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 3, p. 828. Italics mine.)

Here we clearly see that Luther regarded those still steeped in Catholicism as his brethren, as Christians, with whom others needed to be patient till they could ‘understand’, till they could bear ‘strong food’. He believed that going ‘too fast’ might cause some of them to ‘lose their faith’, or even lead them to violence. It is a tragedy of the time that Luther and other Reformers did not realise that their audiences generally did not have true faith at all, but needed converting. From all that I have read, they did not need ‘strong meat’; they needed to be confronted with the Gospel, which would expose them not as ‘weak brethren’ but as those who needed salvation.

In his sermons over those eight days, Luther continued by saying, “The mass is a bad thing; God is opposed to it; it ought to be abolished; and I would that throughout the whole world it were replaced by the Supper of the Gospel. But let no one be torn from it by force. We must leave the matter in God’s hands. His Word must act, not we… We have a right to speak; we have not the right to act. Let us preach: the rest belongs unto God. Were I to employ force, what should I gain? Grimace, formality…human ordinances, and hypocrisy…But there would be no sincerity of heart, nor faith, nor charity. Our first object must be to win men’s hearts; and for that purpose we must preach the Gospel. Today the Word will fall in one heart, tomorrow in another, and it will operate in such a manner that each one will withdraw from the mass and abandon it.” (D’ Aubigne, Vol. 3, p. 830.)

Although Luther here acknowledges that the Mass is a bad thing, he believes, one by one, slowly, people will abandon Catholic rituals and beliefs by the preaching of the word. But what word? Among the Anabaptists there was no need for a long period of several years of ‘religious education’ to ‘wean them away’ from the love of Catholic traditions. Luther was overestimating both the spiritual condition of his community and the effect that his message was having on them.

Luther realised that some of his fellow Reformers would say he was compromising the Reformation with these steps, but he did not want to coerce anyone. He was right not to coerce anyone, but his preaching seems to have changed things very little in Wittenberg. As far as not using force is concerned, Luther would soon not only support, but exhort others to violent persecution and execution of those who he did not deem to be his brethren or believers, namely, the Anabaptists. It is a glaring contradiction. Luther could bear with brethren who were still stuck in Catholicism, but he could not bear the Anabaptists, who he incited the authorities to persecute and even execute.

In what I have said, I am not supporting what Karlstadt did against Luther. In my view, both were still very much steeped in that mindset and culture called ‘Christendom’, the State Church ruling over a ‘Christianised’ community, an entity created at the time of Constantine and that represented a form of religion but denied the power thereof.

Karlstadt thought he could bring the Reformation to Wittenberg, bring the Gospel to that community by eradicating the outward superstitious elements of Catholicism and introducing new simpler forms which he regarded consistent with the Bible. We saw that instead of bringing a spiritual awakening, he simply awakened and stirred people into anti-Catholic acts of violence. People may have followed his radical reformed teaching in an outward way – they demolished symbols of Catholicism, monks left monasteries and married, and Bible students left the university and started to till the soil like Adam according to the teaching of Karlstadt – but again, all this seemed a million miles away from a spiritual awakening or revival among the people.

Those biographers or historians with a reformed background, talk about Luther and the other reformers of the 1500s bringing the Gospel to their communities. This is wishful thinking; it represents a romanticised interpretation. The Pharisees believed in angels; they believed in the resurrection of the body; they believed the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and they were ‘waiting’ for Him – none of these beliefs made them true believers in Christ. Just because someone believes in and teaches justification by faith, this does not mean he is bringing the Gospel to people, or that people are being converted. It is an error to retrospectively apply to the men of the 1500s what you understand to be the Gospel today. It is not only a romantic view of the Reformation, but a false one. The historical details that we have looked at so far in this study, I believe, underline this perspective and view of things.

Iconoclasm in Basle.

I would recommend the reader follow the whole story below of how the Reformation came to Basle, since it encapsulates in graphic detail the main points of these studies. It shows that the Reformation was a movement of outward religious reform, not of spiritual renewal or awakening.

In our final example of iconoclasm in this chapter – though other examples will follow later – we look at what happened in Basle, an important city north of Bern, which is the city Erasmus felt he had to flee from.

The Reformation had been progressing by slow degrees in Basle in the 1520s. Zwingli’s friend, John Oecolampadius, was leading the cause of the Reformation in Basle, where he was having significant influence. However, the town council avoided taking sides in the growing conflict between the reformers and the Catholic Church. Philip Schaff writes:

“The civil government of Basle occupied for a while middle ground, but the disputation of Baden, at which Oecolampadius was the champion of the Reformed doctrines, brought on the crisis. He now took stronger ground against Rome and attacked what he regarded as the idolatry of the mass. The triumph of the Reformation in Berne in 1528 gave the final impetus.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation, § 32 The Reformation in Basel. Oecolampadius. Italics mine.)

The changes in Bern were giving impetus to the Reformation movement in Basle. What is mentioned in the above quote is something that we will see wherever the Reformation spread in Switzerland. As we have amply already seen, a central feature of the preaching of the reformers was its focus on the false teachings, idolatry and abuses of the Catholic Church – it was bitterly anti-Catholic, rather than being positively a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those that needed salvation. It inevitably stirred up hostility towards the Catholic Church instead of leading people to genuine repentance. This hostility was such that the Reformed camp would now in no way tolerate having the Catholic mass performed in their midst, and they would take measures that would ensure that the city council listened to them.

In the short passage above, Schaff puts his finger on another important feature of the Reformation. As just stated, the reformers did not engage in evangelism. Where and when opportunity afforded, they taught and preached their doctrines in churches until there was a groundswell of anti-Catholic feeling among a sufficient number of the citizens. They would then call for a public disputation, at which they would seek to change the minds of the council members to reject Catholicism and impose the Reformed teaching and practice on the whole region. This feature was consistent throughout Switzerland, as we shall see. It could be, and has been characterised as a ‘top-down’ Reformation.

That is, The Reformation did not emerge from evangelistic preaching that turned many to Christ. Particularly in Switzerland, it focussed on calling for and using official public disputations to persuade the civil government to reject Catholicism and instead make the region under their control ‘Reformed’, which actually meant imposing the Reformation on the city and surrounding villages. The reformers worked within the confines of ‘Christendom’ to perpetuate ‘Christendom’. If you can convince the religious civil government that Catholicism is contrary to Scripture, then they will accept your Reformed religion and impose it on the citizens of its territory, just like it had imposed Catholicism. Essentially, this is the story of the Reformation and how it spread. The Reformation was a tremendously significant event in Europe because it changed the religious and political landscape of the continent, not because it brought spiritual awakening to the many who were in sin and darkness. We will see these things unfold as we follow the story in Basle.

D’Aubigne relates about the groundswell of support for the Reformation in Basle:

“The return of Oecolampadius [from Bern] had still more important consequences for Basle than it had for himself. The discussion at Berne caused a great sensation there. ‘Berne, the powerful Berne, is reforming!’ was passed from mouth to mouth. ‘How, then!’ said the people one to another, ‘the fierce Bear has come out of his den…he is groping about for the rays of the sun…and Basle, the city of learning – Basle, the adopted city of Erasmus and of Oecolampadius, remains in darkness!’”

A stir had been created.

“On Good Friday (10th April 1528), without the knowledge of the council and Oecolampadius, five workmen of the Spinner’s Company entered the church of St. Martin, which was that of the reformer, and where the mass was already abolished, and carried away all the idols. On Easter Monday, after the evening sermon, thirty-four citizens removed all the images from the church of the Augustines…The council met hastily on Tuesday morning, and sent the five men to prison; but, on the intercession of the burghers, they were released, and the images suppressed in five other churches. These half measures sufficed for a time…On a sudden the flame burst out anew with greater violence. Sermons were preached at St. Martin’s and St. Leonard’s against the abominations of the cathedral; and at the cathedral the reformers were called “heretics, knaves, and profligates…‘The fatal hour approaches,’ says Oecolampadius, ‘terrible for the enemies of God!’” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV. P. 314, 315. Italics mine.)

This is not spiritual revival! People were being worked up into an anti-Catholic frenzy, with the reformer Oecolampadius railing against the ‘abominations’ of the Catholic Church. He did not incite violence, but as we can see, this anti-Catholic rhetoric simply bore fruit that expressed itself in (violent) vandalism. The other thing to notice is that people were not responding individually and personally to a Gospel message that that resulted in them turning to Christ and having their lives changed through conversion – they were reacting corporately, as a mass of people who wanted to enforce their brand of ‘new-found’ religion on the whole city. However, the city council continued to seek a compromise where no compromise is now possible.

D’Aubigne continues by relating how the Catholic contingent felt they were being outmaneuvered: “Filled with terror on learning that mediators were expected from Zurich and Berne, they ran into the city, crying that an Austrian army was coming to their aid, and collected stones in their houses. The reformed did the same. The disturbance increased hourly, and in the night of the 25th December the Papists met under arms: priests with arquebuse in hand were numbered among their ranks. Scarcely had the reformed learned this, when some of them running hastily from house to house, knocked at the doors and awoke their friends, who, starting out of bed, seized their muskets and repaired to the Gardeners’ Hall, to rendezvous of their party. They soon amounted to three thousand.” (Ibid, p. 316. Italics mine.)

Both sides were ready to use (lethal) force – the Catholic camp and the Reformed camp. There was no difference between them. Both grabbed their guns. As I say elsewhere, a chameleon remains a chameleon whatever colour it adopts. Many hundreds had gone over to the Reformed cause, but they were no different to the Catholics they were confronting – both took up arms against the other. This is a manifestation of intolerant religious fanaticism which leads no one to Christ and is certainly not the fruit of His life in us. The council, however, still tried to steer a middle course.  D’Aubigne continues his narration:

“It was necessary to put an end to so violent a crisis. The senate, faithful to its ideas of half-measures, decreed that the priests should continue to celebrate the mass; but that all, priests and ministers, should preach the Word of God, and for this purpose should meet once a week to confer upon the Holy Scriptures. They then called the Lutherans together in the Franciscan church, and the Papists in that belonging to the Dominicans.” (Italics mine.)

But what was the reaction of the Reformed camp to this compromise?

“The senate first repaired to the former church, where they found two thousand five hundred citizens assembled. The secretary had hardly read the ordinance before a great agitation arose. ‘That shall not be,’ cried one of the people. ‘We will not put up with the mass, not even a single one!’ exclaimed another; and all repeated, ‘No mass, – no mass, – we will die sooner!’” (Italics mine.)

And the Catholic response to this: 

“‘We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the mass. We swear it, we swear it!’ repeated they with uplifted hands. ‘If they reject the mass – to arms! to arms!’ The senate withdrew more embarrassed than ever.” (Ibid, p. 317).

Christendom continued unchanged – whether led by a despotic Catholic authority or a despotic Reformed authority. Large crowds now demanded the dismissal of all Catholic members of the city council, but again the civil government procrastinated. The Reformed camp grew anxious and restless:

“At six o’clock in the evening, twelve hundred citizens were assembled in the corn-market. They began to fear that the delay required by the senate concealed some evil design. ‘We must have a reply this very night,’ they said. The senate was convoked in great haste. From that period affairs assumed a more threatening attitude in Basle. Strong guards were posted by the burghers in the halls of the different guilds; armed men patrolled the city, and bivouacked in the public places, to anticipate the machinations of their adversaries; the chains were stretched across the streets; torches were lighted, and resinous trees, whose flickering light scattered the darkness, were placed at intervals through the town; six pieces of artillery were planted before the town-hall; and the gates of the city, as well as the arsenal and the ramparts, were occupied. Basle was in a state of siege…This gave rise to new alarms. ‘Let us beware of their secret manoeuvres’, said the people. ‘Perhaps they are gone to fetch the Austrians, with whom they have so often threatened us!’ The affrighted citizens collected arms from every quarter, and at break of day they had two thousand men on foot…” (Ibid, p. 319, 320. Italics mine.)

Basle was almost in a state of civil war, with both sides arming themselves, and the government calling a state of emergency. In the absence of a final decision from the council, a group from the Reformed camp went into the Cathedral and started smashing Catholic images to pieces. But this was just the beginning of their violence:

“A rumor, however, having spread that a disturbance had taken place in this church, three hundred men came to the support of the forty. ‘Why,’ said they, ‘should we spare the idols that light up the flames of discord?’ The priests in alarm had closed the gates of the sanctuary, drawn the bolts, raised barricades, and prepared everything for maintaining a siege. But the townspeople, whose patience had been exhausted by the delays of the council, dashed against one of the doors of the church: it yielded to their blows, and they rushed into the cathedral. The hour of madness had arrived. These men were no longer recognizable, as they brandished their swords, rattled their pikes, and uttered formidable cries: were they Goths, or fervent worshippers of God, animated by the zeal which in times of yore inflamed the prophets and the kings of Israel? However that may have been, these proceedings were disorderly, since public authority alone can interfere in public reforms. Images, altars, pictures — all were thrown down and destroyed. The priests who had fled into the vestry, and there concealed themselves, trembled in every limb at the terrible noise made by the fall of their holy decorations…The people next piled up the fragments in the squares and set fire to them; and during the chilly night the armed burghers stood round and warmed themselves at the crackling flame. The senate collected in amazement, and desired to interpose their authority and appease the tumult; but they might as well have striven to command the winds. The enthusiastic citizens replied to their magistrates in these haughty words: “What you have not been able to effect in three years, we will complete in one hour.” In truth the anger of the people was no longer confined to the cathedral. They respected all kinds of private property; but they attacked the Churches of St. Peter, St. Ulric, St. Alban, and of the Dominicans; and in all these temples ‘the idols’ fell under the blows of these good citizens of Basle, who were inflamed by an extraordinary zeal.” (Ibid, p. 320, 321. Italics mine.)

Anti-Catholic hostility had reached such a fever pitch in the Reformed camp that nothing could now stop it; not even the civil government! Even D’Aubigne, with his Protestant background, called it ‘an hour of madness, when men were no longer recognisable’ when referring to the mood and actions of the Reformed camp. They were a wild, angry mob, brandishing their weapons and destroying every last vestige of Catholic worship in the city. This was the fruit of Reformed teaching. Their preaching and teaching of ‘justification by faith alone’ was leading no one to Christ or to being converted.  D’Aubigne’s own religious sympathies are revealed when he dares, at one point, to liken this wilful religious destruction and violence to the destruction inflicted on the idols of Israel by the kings and prophets of the Old Testament! I suggest that this violent vandalism is no parallel to what happened in Israel of old, and it certainly has nothing to do with the Gospel or the church of the New Testament; it is not the mark of spiritual revival or the fruit of a people who have just been converted by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But D’Aubigne’s analogy with the kings of Israel destroying idolatry in Israel is exactly what the reformers would invoke to justify their oppressive measures when imposing the Reformation in a region.

Now the civil government had no choice. D’Aubigne writes:

“The senators now perceived the necessity of giving a legal character to this popular movement, and of thus changing a tumultuous revolution into a durable reformation. Democracy and the Gospel were thus established simultaneously in Basle. The senate, after an hour’s deliberation, granted that in future the burghers should participate in the election of the two councils; that from this day the mass and images should be abolished throughout all the canton, and that in every deliberation which concerned the glory of God or the good of the state the opinion of the guilds should be taken. The people, delighted at having obtained these conditions, which secured their political and religious liberty, returned joyful to their houses.” (Ibid, p. 322. Italics mine.)

By mid-February 1529, Basle had become Reformed, and the council removed all its Catholic members from the seat of power. It is extraordinary that D’Aubigne should sum up these events by saying that both ‘democracy and the Gospel’ had now been established by such actions. It represented nothing of the sort. Once the council had declared Basle for the Reformation, the effect of this reached to the furthest village of the canton. Citizens and farmers in outlying villages, who for centuries had been steeped in Catholicism, were now abruptly told that everyone in the canton would worship according to the dictates of the Reformation. It was neither democratic nor the Gospel. One form of religious dictatorship had supplanted another – that was the reality for anyone who wanted the freedom to worship God according to their own belief and conscience. It was a top-down revolution – the Christendom of Constantine simply continued. But now there were two Christendoms. One Catholic and one Protestant. The inevitable result of having two mutually exclusive Christendoms was, of course, centuries of the most terrible and cruel religious wars in Europe. 

Above is the historical account of a Protestant historian, and to finish this part I will leave you with the account that Erasmus wrote of these same events to his friend Bilibald Pirckheimer. As with the above, it gives a flavour of what the Reformation was about.

“While the rabble were in arms in the market-place, where they had their guns regularly arranged, everybody who had anything to lose at home, was in terror. For some time it looked as if there would be an armed encounter. The better part supported the cause of the Church [Catholic], but they were numerically weaker, for the others [the Reformed camp] had many strangers among them, besides a number of acknowledged ruffians whose only object was destruction. They began this tragedy close upon winter, when it was not easy either to take flight or to send for assistance. The Church party, finding that conventicles were held contrary to the order of the Council and the prescribed oath, took up arms, and soon the others followed their example, even bringing guns and other engines into the market. By the authority of the Council the Church party were made to lay down their arms, which the others also did reluctantly, but time enough; for on the order being issued for the destruction of the images, they assembled in the market, got their engines into order, built an immense pyre, and passed some nights there in the open air, amid the universal alarm of the citizens; however, they broke into no house, nor did they attack any person, though the chief magistrate, my next-door neighbour, a good speaker, and, as was proved on many occasions, an excellent public servant, was obliged to fly by night in a boat, and would have been killed had he not done so.

Many others also fled through fear, who, however, were recalled by the Council if they wished to enjoy their rights as citizens, but all who favoured the old religion were removed from the Council, so as to put an end to all disunion there. So far the Council had kept the mob under control, and everything that was allowed to be removed from the churches was removed by smiths and workmen employed for the purpose; but they heaped such insults on the images of the saints, and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle, seeing how many there always used to be whenever the saints were even slightly offended. Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime; whatever would burn was thrown into the fire, and the rest pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for either love or money. Before long the mass was totally abolished, so that it was forbidden either to celebrate it in one’s own house or to attend it in the neighbouring villages... 

I was rather afraid too that they would try to stop me on my departure, and accordingly I had procured from King Ferdinand two certificates, one inviting me to his court, and the other securing my safe passage through his own and the Emperor’s entire dominions…I loaded two waggons with my books and papers, quite openly, and on this account Oecolampadius and the preachers are said to be incensed against me.” (Erasmus His Life and Character, Robert Blackley Drummond, Vol. II, 1873, London Smith, Elder, & Co. p. 314-316. Italics mine.)


(N1) Melanchthon report to Elector John, August 13, 1527, Clemen, Supplemented Melanchthoniana, I, Abt. 6, p. 369; also letter to Camerarius, August 11 or 12, 1527, ibid., p. 368.

(N2) Quellen zur Geschichte der Taufer, IX Band, Balthasar Hubmaiers Schriften, von Westin-Bergsten (Gutersloch, 1962) p. 340. / Verduin. Reformers And Their Stepchidlren, p. 105.

(N3) Acta des Gespraechs zwischenn predicanten Und Tauffbruederen Ergangen Inn der Statt Bern … (In Vol. 80 of certain Unnutze Papiere reposing in the Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern; the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, Goshen Indiana, has a copy of this manuscript.)  / Quoted, Verduin, p.106.

(N4) Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band, p.224. (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951) / Quoted, Verduin, p. 112.




  1. The Peasants’ Revolt. 
  1. Luther: ‘On the Jews and their lies.’ 
  1. Colluding in the bigamy of Philip of Hesse.

In the last chapter, we looked at the development of the Reformation in Germany under Martin Luther. We will now continue to review the Reformation in Germany under Luther.

The Peasants’ Revolt

The next major event that appeared on the scene in Germany was a revolt by the peasants, known as the Peasants’ War. And they certainly had cause to complain. Not only was the degree of exploitation and oppression of the peasants extreme, but it was increasingly getting worse, grinding them into ever deeper poverty and making their lives virtually intolerable with the loss of all freedoms. There had been peasant uprisings before this in other parts of Europe, and now the oppressive situation in Germany was leading the peasants there to revolt.

The uprising in Germany was by no means a co-ordinated affair with some kind of central organising body directing matters. Protests by peasants had begun in 1524 but were very local affairs.

One catalyst or encouragement for this uprising seems to have been Martin Luther’s own reform proposals. Certainly, this seems to have been the view of some of the Princes in Germany, to whom Luther writes at this time, saying, “It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself…To make your sin still greater, and ensure your merciless destruction, some of you are beginning to blame this affair on the Gospel and say it is the fruit of my teaching… You did not want to know what I taught, and what the Gospel is; now there is one at the door who will soon teach you, unless you amend your ways.” (An Admonition to Peace, 1525. Italics mine.) If the Princes could interpret Luther’s previous writings in this way, then it would be no surprise if the peasants took his writings as an encouragement to press for changes in their intolerable situation. As early as 1520, Luther had written a number of works, such as On the Freedom of a Christian, sometimes also called A Treatise on Christian Liberty, and another called, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. He had also written other pamphlets and treatises. 

In one of these he states, “I believe that in this community or Christendom, all things are common, and all the goods of one belong to the other and that no one owns anything entirely of his own.” (1520; Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger, 22, p. 20). It is this kind of statement that may have given hope to the downtrodden peasants, and it is this kind of outlook that they drew on in writing up their own demands, as we shall shortly see.

Luther’s language was also at times carelessly inflammatory and full of invective, and could be seen as inciting people to violence. Early on, when the Catholic Church was seeking to silence Luther, he wrote:

“It were better that every bishop were murdered, every foundation or cloister rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost for the sake of their worthless trumpery and idolatry. Of what use are they who thus live in lust who are nourished by the sweat and labour of others…what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth. And we would smile did it happen.” (N1)

In 1520, in a letter to his friend, George Spalatin, Luther wrote: “If you understand the Gospel rightly, I beseech you not to believe that it can be carried on without tumult, scandal, sedition …The word of God is a sword, is war, is ruin, is scandal, is perdition, is poison….” (N2)

Another German reformer, Wolfgang Capito, who was also Luther’s friend, warned him in December 1520 about his inflammatory language, saying, “You are frightening away from you your supporters by your constant reference to troops and arms. We can easily enough throw everything into confusion, but it will not be in our power, believe me, to restore things to peace and order.” (Janssen, History of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages, Vol. III, 1900, 136). These words contained a prophetic element in them.

Indeed, the Catholic Church was an integral part of this problem regarding the hardship of the peasants, as it owned land and exacted its own tithes, taxes and other financial burdens on its citizens. Others realised that Luther’s words could be incendiary and did not hold back from warning him.

So, as the peasants started to take up their cause, they issued a document in March 1525, called the Twelve Articles, in which they noted their requests and demands. This was issued in southern Germany, where the movement was strong and the most cohesive. In this declaration the peasants make a strong appeal to the Bible as the foundation for their demands, taking up Luther’s point that in all things it is the word of God that should decide matters of social justice. Insofar as this is true, it shows that the peasants were aligning themselves with the Reformation movement itself and making use of it as a springboard to express their grievances and ask for change.

And for the purposes of this study, it is this religious element in the document that I want us to take note of. This whole affair simply highlights that the Reformation movement continued in the culture and mindset of Christendom, where are all those under the government of the religious state – the Reformed state, in this case – are by definition regarded as true believers, as one Christian community, where the Bible is referenced in appeals for justice. We will see how they were all deluding themselves.

In the introduction of The Twelve Articles the peasants state, “all who believe in Christ should learn to be loving, peaceful, long-suffering and harmonious. This is the foundation of all the articles of the peasants (as will be seen) who accept the Gospel and live according to it….the peasants demand that this Gospel be taught them as a guide in life.”

The peasants felt their cause was just by referencing the Old Testament saying, “Did He (God) not hear the children of Israel when they called upon Him and saved them out of the hands of Pharaoh?” The first article is a demand for freedom to choose their own pastors. And in the third article they state that, “It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all….” Here is a clear example of how people continued to believe in the idea of the state church, of Christendom, where everyone in the state is considered to be a Christian and should act in Christian brotherly love! However, they were simply Christianised heathen – as were the princes – and they were in for a shock. The other articles represented what could be considered reasonable requests from those who are being so pitiably oppressed; and the articles continue to make reference to the Bible and to God.

It is clear from this that the peasants regarded themselves, and those that they were appealing to, as true Christians. However, this illusion was soon to be exposed.

Luther replied to this document with the writing of his own, entitled, Admonition to Peace. In it, he castigates the German princes and the ecclesiastical leaders for their oppression of the peasants. He writes, “We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion except you princes and lords…as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer…Since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, unless you mend your ways in time…The sword is at your throats, but you think yourselves so firm in the saddle that no one can unhorse you. This false security and stubborn perversity will break your necks, as you will discover.” (Italics mine.)

Luther does not mince his words and claims that the uprising was not the result of his teaching, but the result of their refusal to embrace his exhortations contained in his earlier writings that I mentioned above.

One can perhaps see that the peasants would take encouragement from some of Luther’s statements, concerning the ‘false security’ of the princes and how the sword is already ‘at their throats’. However, he also addresses himself to the peasants, exhorting them in the clearest terms not to use violence. He challenges them that if they want to follow the word of God, they will in no way rebel or fight.

However, his support for the peasants comes with strong qualifications and limitations. On the one hand he says to the princes, “The peasants have put forth twelve articles, some of which are so fair and just as to take away your reputation in the eyes of God.” But in the next breath he states, “Nevertheless, almost all of them (the articles) are framed in their own interest and for their own good, though not for their best good…now you must listen to and put up with these selfish articles.” (Italics mine.) Considering the extreme oppression and heartless exploitation the peasants were under, this was an extraordinary and unbalanced generalisation to make, if not rather heartless, and could certainly give an excuse to the princes not to meet the demands of the peasants.

Luther goes on to make what could be considered to be some very one-sided statements against the peasants. He writes, addressing them, saying, “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse tumult and rebellion. For no matter how right you are, it is not for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil; and there is no other way ( 1 Corinthians 6:5).” (Italics mine.) In response to the peasants’ third article, Luther summarises their argument with the words, “There shall be no serfs, for Christ has made all men free,” and then he goes on to state, “that is making Christian liberty an utterly carnal thing. Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” (Italics mine.)

This is astonishing. As a spiritual and moral leader in the German regions, who is already getting involved in these matters, he is telling the downtrodden peasants that not only should they not rebel, but that they have no right to appeal to the law of the land, and must simply suffer their lot! Slavery is biblical and they have no right of legal appeal or to rebel. That is his argument. To say do not use arms is one thing. To deny them formal representation concerning their grievances is incomprehensible, I would say.

I would have thought that such advice would destroy all hope of change in the peasants’ eyes. The princes reading this would feel under no compulsion to change the status quo if Luther was saying that the requests and demands of the peasants were essentially ‘selfish’, and that they should not fight in any way to change things – not even by legal representation – because it is wrong for slaves to do so!  Although he does appeal to the authorities that they ease the burden on the peasants,  nevertheless, as a ‘spiritual’ and moral leader who was already intervening in these matters, it is amazing that Luther could not have represented their grievances more clearly and directly to the princes and advocated for appropriate changes to the system. However, he backs out of doing so by saying that he cannot comment on most of the articles of the peasants because, “The other articles, about freedom of game, birds, fish, wood, forests; about services, tithe, imposts, excises, Todfall, etc., – these I leave to the lawyers, for it is not fitting that I, an evangelist, should judge or decide them. It is for me to instruct and teach men’s consciences in things that concern divine and Christian matters.”

This lack of direct support for the peasants’ cause would significantly dent Martin Luther’s influence and popularity in Germany. He says he is not fit, as an evangelist, to judge in such matters, but, as we shall see in a moment, when the peasants did cause an uprising, this ‘evangelist’ exhorted the authorities to murder.

Some writers have maintained that this writing of Luther’s Admonition to Peace represented support for the peasants and a springboard for them to take action. The reading of his document gives a different, if not confusing picture. But as we have seen, much of what was written made reference to Biblical truths and Christian values – as if one was addressing, exhorting and rebuking true believers. The unfolding events would show that neither side, neither the Princess nor the peasants – nor Luther, for that matter – reflected anything of true Christian character. This is not said as a rebuke of the peasants but to highlight the illusion that they all continued to live under – addressing and appealing to each other as if they were Christians in a land they called ‘Christendom’!

However, in his Admonition to Peace Luther does strongly and vigorously urge both sides to refrain from violence, and tells them that they are far from being Christian if they employ the sword.

Nevertheless, by this time – early Spring, 1525 – the uprising had built up its own momentum, with considerable initial successes as thousands of peasants everywhere attacked monasteries and ecclesiastical authorities, since they also represented the cause of much oppression, and were the easiest targets. (See R. Friedenthal, Luther, p. 413). Even some landowners and knights initially had sympathy for the peasants, as they themselves were under financial burdens from the authorities above them. It seemed at one stage that this uprising might be successful, but a lack of coordination and leadership caused the rebellion to stumble and stall, and it was during this time that the onslaught against them was made.

Luther was furious that the peasants had risen in rebellion, and pens a document against them, addressed to the Princes, entitled, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it, he called for the slaughter and annihilation of the rebelling peasants. Luther writes,

“With threefold horrible sins against God and men have these peasants loaded themselves, for which they have deserved a manifold death of body and soul…they cause uproar and sacrilegiously rob and pillage monasteries and castles that do not belong to them, for which, like public highwaymen and murderers, they deserve the twofold death of body and soul. It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, who is known as such, for he is already under God’s and the emperor’s ban. Every man is at once judge and executioner of a public rebel; just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow…Therefore, whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog…For we are come upon such strange times that a prince may more easily win heaven by the shedding of blood than others by prayers.”

These are the statements and exhortations to slay and murder made by the religious leader, Martin Luther, who calls himself an evangelist. He had previously said that he was not qualified to interfere in, or comment on social matters, but here he is exhorting every citizen to become an executioner by openly or secretly slaying any rebellious peasant he comes across. More than this, a prince may gain easier access to heaven by shedding the blood of peasants than others by praying. Whatever happened to ‘justification by faith’? There is no moderation or balance in these statements. They breathe out murder.

I said above that it was not only the princes and peasants that totally failed to display any Christian character in what they did, but this applied to Martin Luther as well, and I think his statements above clearly confirm this. It was an astonishing outburst on his part. This is not Luther at the end of his life – this is just 8 years after he had posted his 95 Theses.

Once the German princes had got their act together, the peasants stood no chance – they were simply mowed down and ruthlessly slaughtered. Luther did not pour oil on troubled water – in his fury, he resorted to the most vitriolic and inflammatory language and took just one side. The uprising of the peasants he mercilessly condemned as being of the devil, but the wholesale slaughter of these peasants he not only justified as being supremely Christian, but goaded the princes on to such action.

By the summer of the same year, 1525, the rebellion was cruelly put down. It was comprehensively crushed. Over one hundred thousand peasants were slaughtered in cold blood by the ruling authorities. It is possible that Luther’s public condemnation of the revolt was, in part, an attempt to save the Reformation from the accusation of leading peasants into revolt. And of course, anything that threatened his Reformation, was always of the devil and needed to be exterminated – whether Anabaptists, peasants or Jews.

However, Luther’s ferocious and murderous intervention did not serve him or his purpose well. Erasmus, who had predicted bloodshed because of the manner in which the reformers were propagating their religion, put some of the blame for this slaughter on Luther:

“Erasmus…made it clear to Luther that the bloody outcome of the revolt was caused by the books he published against the monks and bishops in favour of evangelical freedom, especially those books written in German.” (N3)

Luther later wrote the following, “Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfill their duty and punish the wicked. I, Martin Luther slew all the peasants in the rebellion, for I said that they should be slain; all their blood is upon my head. But I cast it on the Lord God, who commanded me to speak in this way.” (Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger LIX, p. 284 ‘Table Talk’; see also Grisar, Vol. III, p. 213. Italics mine.)

Some defenders of Luther today say that it is unfair of his critics to focus on one or two ‘blots’ of Luther’s character, likening these criticisms to a deliberate character assassination. But these were not ‘blots’, they were symptomatic, they were characteristic of Luther’s nature throughout his life. A fountain does not bring forth waters sweet and bitter at the same time, neither ‘do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles.’ His language of murderous intent, which Luther also justified years later, is not some unfortunate ‘slip’ of character, some innocent idiosyncrasy; it was a revelation of the nature of the man, which would also later in his life express itself in the most vile anti-Semitic language.

In the quote above, we find another instance which confirms what I have been drawing attention to in these studies. In the Reformation there was no true separation between church and state. The reformers regarded the ‘religious’ political authorities as subject to the rule of God and therefore subject to the direction of the Church – ‘Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfill their duty and punish the wicked.’

As I mentioned, all this had a negative effect on Luther’s standing within the Reformation. From this time on, things were different. Luther was no longer the hero figure that he had been. The hopes of many had been dashed.

An article in Encyclopedia Britannica sums things up like this, “Luther’s role in the Reformation after 1525 was that of theologian, adviser, and facilitator but not that of a man of action. Biographies of Luther accordingly have a tendency to end their story with his marriage in 1525. Such accounts gallantly omit the last 20 years of his life, during which much happened. The problem is not just that the cause of the new Protestant churches that Luther had helped to establish was essentially pursued without his direct involvement, but also that the Luther of these later years appears less attractive, less winsome, less appealing than the earlier Luther who defiantly faced emperor and empire at Worms. Repeatedly drawn into fierce controversies during the last decade of his life, Luther emerges as a different figure – irascible, dogmatic, and insecure. His tone became strident and shrill, whether in comments about the Anabaptists, the pope, or the Jews. In each instance his pronouncements were virulent: the Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists, the pope was the Antichrist, the Jews should be expelled and their synagogues burned. Such were hardly irenic (peaceful) words from a minister of the gospel, and none of the explanations that have been offered – his deteriorating health and chronic pain, his expectation of the imminent end of the world, his deep disappointment over the failure of true religious reform – seem satisfactory.” (N4)

From what I have read, I do not find Luther a more attractive character before 1525 than after this date. And I think there is an explanation that does make sense of his behaviour.

A central part of what I am doing in these talks is to offer such an explanation. As I have said, I agree with the defenders of Luther and his contemporary reformers, namely, that they were men of their time, men of their age; they belonged to a kingdom that was of this world, a state-church kingdom. Apart from improving some of their doctrinal views, no great spiritual change had taken place in the Protestant Reformers that displayed itself in their words and actions against those whom they opposed. Also, in his writings throughout his life, Luther used language that was coarse, vulgar and crude – and not infrequently full of invective and hatred and murderous intent, from the beginning of his ministry to the end. It was certainly language that was unbefitting for a spiritual leader, for a Christian minister.

One would have expected that had he, as well as the other reformers, known a life-transforming inward regeneration, that they would have spoken and acted entirely differently. To suppose that the reformers were just religious men who had only been changed in their doctrinal outlook and nothing more – from catholic to reformed – makes all their violent and hate-filled words and murderous actions totally consistent with men who had never actually undergone or experienced that spiritual new birth that the Gospel brings us into. The reformers had clearly undergone a doctrinal conversion, a conversion of outlook, but showed no signs of a spiritual conversion.

This is an explanation that would make complete sense of their behaviour, and it also avoids bringing the Gospel into disrepute by claiming such words and actions are consistent with true repentance and conversion. I actually think that it is also the kindest interpretation, as it leaves room for the cry that says, “but I did it ignorantly in unbelief!”


This brings us to a work written by Luther in 1543, which was nearly 20 years after the Peasant’s revolt. It was called, On the Jews and Their Lies. It has been suggested by some that this evil book was just a manifestation of Luther’s old age. However, as I indicate above, that suggestion is far too simplistic – actually, it is wide of the mark.

At the beginning, Luther did show sympathy towards the Jews. In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews and treating them “as if they were dogs,” thus making it difficult for Jews to convert. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews],” he wrote. “…If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”

Treating people by the law of Christian love is commendable indeed. However, when the Jews did not convert to his version of Christianity, and when rumours about Jewish efforts to convert Christians emerged, Luther soon changed his tune, and he changed it completely. It was characteristic of Luther that those who in the end were not for him, he consistently regarded as enemies that needed to be defeated and eliminated.

He wrote, “I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews…I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself.”

In an attempt to stir up antipathy and even hatred for all Jews, Luther quotes from the Bible, calling them a ‘ brood of vipers’. He goes on to say, “It was intolerable to them to hear that they were not Abraham’s but the devil’s children, nor can they bear to hear this today…Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” (Italics mine.)

Luther gives his counsel:

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming…Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burnThis is to be done in honour of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country…

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.

Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside…Let them stay at home.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…

Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an axe, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.”

Later in the book, Luther repeats and summarises some of these exhortations:

“First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country…If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.”

Towards the end of his book, he writes the following:

“There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses, namely, that God has struck them with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians…We are at fault in not slaying them.

From saying that they ‘must not avenge themsleves’, Luther finishes by declaring they would be at fault for not avenging the innocent blood of Christ and of Christians and for not slaying the Jews.

Luther’s writing against the Jews is unbelievably murderous, evil and hate-filled. It is extreme by any standards. It is difficult to read. This is no ‘hiccup’ in his character. It was not just a ‘bad’ day he was having. Given the right circumstances, this is the man. Nothing in scripture justifies this. Nothing of Christ’s Spirit is exemplified in this – quite the contrary. Whether it was the Jews, the peasants or the Anabaptists, all would be pursued to death if they threatened his Reformation.

The advice Luther gives has terrible parallels to the actions of the Nazis against the Jews. During World War II, copies of Luther’s book, On the Jews and Their Lies, were held up by Nazis at rallies, and the prevailing scholarly consensus is that it had a significant impact on the Holocaust. Hitler himself named Luther as one of history’s greatest reformers in his novel, Mein Kampf. This is part of the legacy of Martin Luther.

Luther colludes in Philip of Hesse’s Bigamy.

Another matter that historians and biographers of Martin Luther refer to as representing ‘a blot’ on his moral character is the issue of his involvement in the bigamous marriage of the Langrave (Count) Philip of Hesse, who was a supporter of Luther and the Reformation. Why some writers give particular focus to this rather than the two previous matters that we have just looked at, I find rather surprising.

Anyway, the story in short is this. Philip got married in 1523, but he was not very enamoured with his wife, and within weeks fell into adultery. However, according to him, his conscience suffered terribly, but on the other hand, he was insistent that there was no way he could restrain himself and live being faithful to his wife. Philip wondered whether Old Testament examples of bigamous marriages could provide a basis for him having a second wife. Luther was clear that the New Testament makes no such provision, and that one cannot construct a rule that allows a second marriage. For this to become publicly known would be a great scandal. However, Luther left the door slightly ajar by indicating that in very special circumstances, a unique dispensation could be granted, but that it would not represent a rule that others could follow, and would therefore be best kept secret.

However, there was an incident that gave Philip ammunition in his discussions with the reformers. It related to advice given by Melanchthon and Luther regarding the situation with Henry VIII:

“Both Melanchthon and Luther in 1531 gave to the Englishman Robert Barnes…their written statement that rather than see Henry VIII put away his wife Catherine, whose marriage they looked upon as valid, they would see him take another wife. For the sake of the bodily issue and lawful succession, Melanchthon thought such a thing would be allowed for the good of England, as polygamy was not absolutely forbidden by divine law; while Luther’s impression of the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine was so strong that rather than permit divorce, ‘I would allow the king to take another queen, according to the examples of the ancient patriarchs and kings who had two wives at the same time.’” (N5)

The reformers would be reminded of this later on! As time went on, Philip continued to suffer terrible pangs of conscience, and felt he could not take the sacrament. Philip did not want to live in a state of adultery, but neither could, nor would he give it up. So Philip was desperate for a  second (bigamous) marriage to appear legitimate. However, a second marriage was regarded as a capital crime in the reign of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. So, unfortunately for the reformers, Philip, for ‘conscience sake’, was unwilling to keep a mistress just like other princes did, and pressurised the reformers to sanction a second marriage. In 1539, Philip sent the reformer Bucer to Wittenberg with a letter, reminding them also of their advice to King Henry VIII (see above), and also informing them that his wife had agreed to his second marriage. However, Luther restated the case that if an exception were made and it became known, it would be a scandal and cause uproar. Luther also strongly warned him concerning the sin of adultery.

Nevertheless, in view of Philip’s insistence on legitimising a second marriage, the reformers Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer, gave in and agreed to a bigamous marriage. However, Luther said this must be done in the greatest secrecy and that no one was to know, lest there be a terrible scandal. Luther also felt justified in this secrecy, as he maintained it belonged to ‘confessional’ counsel given by the priest to the individual. (This excuse was, of course, stretching things beyond credibility.) So a secret marriage was conducted on 4th March 1540 in the presence of Melanchthon and Bucer. Some writers have ascribed political motives as well to the reformers, in that they feared Philip could desert the reformed cause, and it was Luther himself who later claimed this was a factor in their decision.

However, rumours about marriage soon leaked out, which caused great stress and panic among the reformers, with Melanchthon falling badly ill as a result! The reformers consulted together and agreed to quell the rumours by simply denying them; that is, by lying. They believed that this was by far the more preferable option, and indeed a justifiable one, since there was no way they could publicly defend their position.

 In a letter to Antony Lauterbach, dated 2 June 1540, in which Luther replies to his question whether a second marriage had taken place, Luther writes, “In answer to your question about the Landgrave’s second marriage, dear Antony, I can say nothing…I only know that no public proofs of the marriage have been shown me…One must not pronounce rashly on insufficient evidence about the doings princes.” (P. Smith, The life and letters of Martin Luther, p. 376)

Luther was being evasive, to say the least! But only about a week later (10th June 1540), Luther had to write an explanation to the Prince Elector, John Frederick of Saxony, who was furious about what had happened and that he had been kept in the dark. The rumours about the second marriage had spread far and wide and was causing upset. The court in Dresden was now saying that bigamy is part of Luther’s teaching, and had approached the Prince Elector about the matter.

In his letter to the Elector, Luther tries to defend himself by saying that as the advice to Philip had been ‘confessional advice’, it ought not to be shared with anyone outside, not even with the Elector. Luther complains that if Philip had kept quiet, there would not have been all this fuss:

“Most serene, highborn Elector, most gracious Lord! I am sorry to learn that your Grace is importuned by the court of Dresden about the Landgrave’s business. Your Grace asks what answer to give the men of Meissen. As the affair was one of the confessional, both Melanchthon and I were unwilling to communicate it even to your Grace, for it is right to keep confessional matters secret, both the sin confessed and the counsel given, and had the Landgrave not revealed the matter and the confessional counsel, there would never need have been all this nauseating unpleasantness.” (N6)

Luther then also confirms that Philip threatened to ‘turn to the Emperor and Pope’, if he could not obtain what he wanted from them, and Luther states his actions were taken to prevent this. So Luther clearly confesses that political reasons were behind his advice. Basically, what Luther says in the letter, is that under the circumstances, he did the best he could do. His hand was forced. In other words, political expediency takes priority over truth and honesty. The reformers did seem indeed to be men of the world.

Despite all this, Luther defended his actions with these words: “I still say that if the matter was brought before me today, I should not be able to give counsel different from what I did…I am not ashamed of my counsel, even if it should be published in all the world, but for the sake of the unpleasantness which would then follow, I should prefer, if possible, to have it kept secret.” (N6)

So, even in retrospect, Luther did not regret or see as wrong his counsel, his actions or his lying in this matter.

The 19th century Swiss Protestant theologian and church historian Philip Schaff comments, “The most unfortunate matrimonial incident in the Reformation is the consent of Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer to the disgraceful bigamy of Landgrave Philip of Hesse. It is a blot on their character, and admits of no justification. When the secret came out (1540), Melanchthon was so overwhelmed with the reproaches of conscience and a sense of shame that he fell dangerously ill at Weimar.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, § 79, p. 318.)

I am puzzled by this comment. As an historian, he has recounted all the atrocities of the reformers against the Anabaptists and against the Jews. Why should he be startled by this event as being some kind of exceptional blot on Luther’s life. How is it any more reprehensible to lie about and sanction bigamy than to murder other Christians and Jews? He that is able to twist the Scriptures to justify murdering others is certainly very capable of lying. The Protestant Reformers simply conducted themselves according to their nature – all their life long. Some have suggested that sanctioning bigamy and lying about it indicated some kind of moral collapse at the end of Luther’s life. The words and actions of his whole life argue against such an interpretation.

The Christianised religious clerics remained Christianised religious clerics – before they were called Catholics, but now they called themselves Reformed. There was no radical change in their lives – at least, there’s nothing in their actual conduct as reformers that reflects and demonstrates that they had known an inward transformation of life that follows genuine repentance and true conversion. They were men of their times, as their sympathisers and defenders are fond of saying. They were of this world, and they behaved like men of this world – they bent the Scriptures to suit their own religious views, and they cruelly hounded, persecuted and sentenced to death the innocent. What would you expect of such men? Why talk of this ‘blot’ or that ‘blot’. Their whole lives speak the one and self-same thing.

The 20ty century Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman, points out this anomaly in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. He refers to the fact that Protestant writers refer to the incident of the bigamous marriage as a “black day” in the history of the German Reformation. But then goes on to make this point, “In comparison, Luther’s writings against the Jews, which in turn cannot be isolated from his writings against the papists and peasants, evidently seemed far less offensive. But Luther assailed all three groups with deadly ferocity, urging the authorities to take decisive action.” (P. 289).

Perhaps Protestant writers feel they are more vulnerable to attack from Catholic historians on this point than on the others, since both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists and Jews.

Historically, the Reformation was extremely significant because it altered the political and religious landscape of Europe; it affected the power balance on the continent, particularly with respect to the Catholic Church. However, it brought no spiritual awakening or a movement of repentance and conversions in communities, such as we read in the histories of revivals. On the contrary, where there were signs of repentance and conversions among the citizens, the Protestant Reformers urged the authorities to persecute and liquidate them. The Reformation did not bring toleration of other Christian outlooks or freedom of conscience. It carried on the merciless persecution and execution of all those that disagreed with their form of religion, exactly like the Catholics had done and were doing. Their rule was dictatorial and tyrannical to all those of a different opinion. This was the nature of the Reformation and of the men who led it.


(N1) Werke, Weimar, v.28, pp.142-201 / Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops (July, 1522)

(N2) Luther’s Own Statements, Henry O’connor, Cornell University Library 1884, Letter to Spalatin, February, 1520.

(N3) Robert Henry Murray, Erasmus & Luther: their Attitude to Toleration (Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1920), 245.

(N4) Hillerbrand, H. J. (2021, November 6). Martin Luther. Encyclopedia Britannica.

(N5) In De Wette, Briefe Luthers, IV, 295, and for Melanchthon see Corpus Reform., II, 52o, especially 527. & Luther and the Bigamous Marriage of Philip Of Hesse, John Alfred Faulkner, Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, New Jersey, p. 209.

(N6) Letter published, Seidemann: Lauterbach’s Tagebuch auf das Jahr 1588, p. 196 ff. / Also, P. Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, p. 377f. / On dating see W. W. Rockwell, Die Doppelehe Des Landgrafen Philipp Von Hessen , p. 137, note 3.



  1. Farel and The Reformation is western Switzerland: Bern, Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva.
  2. The imposition of a religion on a reluctant people.

Having looked at the Reformation in Germany under Luther, we are now going to return to follow the progress of the Reformation in Switzerland. We had previously looked at the birth of the Reformation in the city of Zürich under Zwingli, and how Basle also became Reformed. Now we are going to see how it spread to other major cities and regions in the west of Switzerland, which will include the city of Geneva, where the reformer John Calvin was to lead the church.

It would be good to remind ourselves that at this time the Swiss regions, or Cantons, had formed themselves into a confederation which had its own independence within the Holy Roman Empire. This was a crucial factor, in that it gave the Swiss regions the freedom to choose which religion to follow without the threat of military action from the Pope or the Emperor.


The next significant city to adopt the Reformation was Bern, which is the capital city of Switzerland today, and which was a major centre of influence at the time of the Reformation.

As in Zürich, in the early 1520s, the Reformation had its followers in Bern who applied pressure for change. However, it would take a number of years for the city council to turn Bern completely to the Reformed faith.

In Chapter 5, we considered the role that iconoclasm – and the violence that attended it – played in securing the Reformation in Basle. Although Basle went over to the Reformed faith after Bern, I indicated that what happened there represented a pattern that was followed in all the cities of Switzerland that made this switch to the Reformed religion.

In the history of the Reformation, we are not following the growth and spread of a movement that gained influence through the evangelistic preaching of the Gospel that saw of multiple thousands of people turning to the Lord in life-changing repentance, as, for example, was the case through the labours of George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers. There are no historical accounts or records that I have come across that give witness to any such evangelistic activities among the Protestant Reformers. The reformers did not engage in what we would call evangelism, since essentially they viewed their cities and communities as a part of Christendom. It was far more a matter of the zealous dedication of a group of well-educated humanist reformers, who by stirring up the latent anti-Catholic feelings of many in their communities, managed to persuade the civic authorities to adopt and impose the Reformed religion on all the citizens in those communities. So, their endeavours were geared to get a change of religion – from Catholic to Reformed – by a decision of the civil government. (See Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, p. 348.)

So, their method of turning a city and its surrounding territory to the Reformed faith was to target the city councils, that is, the power brokers. This was achieved by gaining positions in churches, and then through their preaching they would stir up anti-Catholic feeling in the community by inveighing against Catholic superstitious practices and teachings. Capitalising on the ensuing groundswell of public opinion against Catholicism, the reformers would then request a ‘public disputation’ overseen by the city council. In the debate, they would seek – in most cases effectively – to reveal that any number of Catholic teachings were not biblical. Once enough members on the council were persuaded, their vote imposed the new faith on every citizen, whether they lived in the city or the countryside.

In Bern, there were three ministers who were propagating Reformed teaching, and in addition to them, there was also a gifted layman, Nicholas Manuel, who created anti-Catholic satirical dramas. In his outdoor plays he mercilessly mocked the papacy and the immoral and self-indulgent life-styles of the Catholic clergy. His plays were very popular and drew large crowds. So, by this very public exposure of Catholic abuses, a foundation of anti-Catholic feeling was being laid among the citizens of Bern, as well as from the teaching of the reformers.

As a consequence of the growing voice in favour of the Reformation, the city council of Bern made some changes to religious practices as a concession to the reformers. In 1525, Bern abolished indulgences, seized some land from the Catholic Church and removed certain clerical privileges. Moreover, no one was any longer forced to go on pilgrimages, confess, or believe in purgatory.

However, it was not all plain sailing for the reformers. They had to deal with backlashes, not only against their teachings, but against themselves as well, with one of the three reformers, called Haller, wanting to quit at one stage because of the pressure he was under.

Moreover, due to the peasants’ war in Germany, which caused some alarm throughout Europe, the Reformed movement stalled for a while and even suffered a reversal in Bern, with the council reversing earlier decisions it had made in favour of the Protestant Reformers. Now, we can see from this that the so-called success of the Reformation in Bern would not depend on multitudes being converted through Gospel preaching, but by winning the religious seesaw debates that were going on in the city councils of Bern – and this happened in 1528.

The Reformed group steadily gained strength again, and by 1527 it had a majority in the two governing councils of the city, and, as was the custom, this led to a demand for a ‘Public Disputation’ to decide which form of religion Bern should follow. So a Disputation was held in January 1528 (between 6th and 26th). 250 theologians gathered, with Zurich sending about one hundred ministers and laymen. The reformers were far better prepared than the Catholics, and had some notable figures, such as Zwingli himself, as well as others (Oecolampadius, Bucer, Capito and William Farel). Thus, by a majority vote in its favour, the civic authorities ruled that the Reformation Faith would be adopted – not to say, imposed – on all churches in Bern.

So the new Reformed order of service was imposed on all pastors, and the Bernese Council ordered the abolition of the mass, and declared that Catholic bishops no longer had authority in Bern. Following these decisions, anti-Catholic feeling led to violent mob-led iconoclasm. Paintings and statues representing the Catholic faith were thrown out and destroyed. The Catholic clerics and their flocks could not practice or give expression to their religion any longer in Bern. We must also realise that political considerations play a part in the council’s decision as well as religious ones. A vote for the Reformation was, for many, simply a vote against Catholic rule.

As it had been from the days of the Emperor Constantine, so it is here – the secular power oversees a so-called disputation between Christian factions. However, in Switzerland it was not an emperor, or a prince, or Catholic clerics that held the power, but the city councils, the magistrates – and it is they who needed persuading – because it is they who would decide which form of religion would be imposed on all its citizens. And it was by this process of persuading the city and town councils that the Reformation took hold in Switzerland. Other writers on the Swiss Reformation have called this process a ‘top-down’ Reformation. It is an apt and accurate description of what happened. It was the imposition of one religious dogma on all the citizens from the ‘top’ – from the government of the respective region.

The reformers had the same mindset and outlook as the Roman Catholics had had for over a thousand years, that is, they allowed no toleration of any other form of Christianity in their regions, but imposed their own dogma and persecuted, mostly mercilessly, all religious non-conformists.

Bern then applied these decisions to the regions under its jurisdiction, with the council turning its attention to enforcing the Reformation in the rural parishes, many of which were located close to Catholic territory and which were reluctant to adopt the changes. Bern allowed the men of each parish to vote for the creed that they wished to prevail in their village or local church. However, once the vote went in favour of the Reformed camp, the churches would immediately be purged of Catholic symbols and the Mass banned completely in that area. Again, it was a change by vote, not through conversions among the citizens. But changing people’s religion by a vote in the council was not going to carry everyone with it, to say the least!

In the autumn of 1528, war broke out between Bern and some of the villages in the Bernese Highlands (Oberland), where people were protesting against the enforced changes. Nearly one thousand peasants from the highlands massed together to march on the capital Bern. However, by military force and the use of firearms Reformed Bern put down the rebellion of the Catholic villagers, thus imposing the Protestant religion on the rural and alpine villages under its jurisdiction. And ultimately, it would do this right across the French-speaking regions of western Switzerland.

Protestant historians describe such ‘victories’ as ‘the success of the Gospel’ in a region, and hail it as ‘light’ shining, where ‘darkness’ had previously reigned. This is a myth, a delusion. You cannot convert people with firearms and swords.

At this stage, it would be good to remind ourselves of one of the main factors that helped bring in the Reformation, and that was the state of the Catholic Church and its clerics. They imposed financial burdens on people, abused their power, exploited people’s ignorance, lived in luxury while people suffered, and many of the clerics lived totally immoral and self-indulgent lives whereby they also manifestly neglected to care for their flocks.

So, the Catholic Church was an easy target for the mockery of satirical dramas in the streets of Bern, and the anti-Catholic campaign of the reformers found a ready audience among its listeners. Quite a number of people found it convenient just to be freed from Catholic superstitions and abuses, and were thus ready to receive the Reformation message – but we must not confuse this adoption of the Reformed religion with personal conversion brought about by the Gospel. If I may state it again, in all the biographies and histories of the Reformation that I have read, it is nowhere recorded that through the teaching of the reformers communities were changed by a conviction of personal sin and the consequent personal repentance of the citizens leading to radically changed lives. The only records of this type of repentance and conversion are to be found among the Anabaptists.

As we have seen, the mandate requiring Bern to adopt the Reformation led to the violent destruction of images and statues in the Catholic churches. This is hardly a sign of people being freshly and genuinely converted and rejoicing in Christ their Saviour! It is more akin to religious fanaticism of the unchanged Christianised community. This is the kind of thing one sees in populist political or revolutionary movements, not in revivals.

We have already seen how Bern’s adoption of the Reformation provided significant impetus to its introduction to Basle. However, the events in Bern had a decisive effect on the spread of the Reformation, not to say the imposition of the Reformation, on the French-speaking regions of Switzerland to the south-west of Bern. This area encompasses the region known as the Vaud (Pays de Vaud) and the cities of Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva. Geneva is, of course, the city where John Calvin served as chief pastor, and it is enlightening to see in what context Geneva adopted the Reformed faith.

The history of this French-speaking region is somewhat complex, so I will try to keep to the basics that are relevant to this study. The first thing to say is that this region was generally strongly and deeply Catholic, particularly in the more rural and mountainous regions. However, it was also an area that had sought independence from the neighbouring Catholic Duchy of Savoy. This was a crucial factor in this region going over to the Reformed religion. There was mounting tension and conflict over a number of years between the Duchy of Savoy and the French-speaking region of western Switzerland, the Pays de Vaud.

As a result of this, and to guard against domination by the Duchy of Savoy, in 1519 Geneva and Lausanne signed treaties of mutual assistance with Bern, along with the city of Fribourg. The treaties and this link to Bern preceded the tensions that arose later regarding the Reformation, and did not have a religious aspect to them. The treaties stipulated that Bern and Fribourg would protect Lausanne and Geneva from outside attack. In 1526 Bern, Fribourg and Geneva renewed their alliance, which was entirely political in nature and made to secure Geneva’s independence. The neighbouring Duke of Savoy – against whom these treaties were targeted – did not take kindly to this alliance and created an economic blockade of Geneva. Eventually, this brought Bern – which by then had become ‘Reformed’ – into the conflict, and Bern’s army marched across the Vaud region and ‘liberated’ Geneva in 1530, in which year another treaty of alliance was signed, called the Treaty of Saint Julien.

What is of importance here to emphasise is that this French-speaking region was deeply Catholic – in the 1520s it actually passed measures to outlaw Reformed and Lutheran teachings in its regions. However, it was also jealous of its own independence from the Duchy of Savoy and from the associated Catholic bishops. But the French-speaking regions were now reliant on Protestant Bern for their independence, and Bern over-rode its attempts to ban Protestant teaching in its cities and regions.  So what was happening is that religion got enmeshed with the geo-politics of the situation. Bern’s guarantee of security, in effect, started to become conditional on the French-speaking territories allowing Reformed preaching within its areas, including Geneva and Lausanne. Eventually, Bern went further by applying huge pressure on the Vaud to ensure that the Reformed doctrine would be accepted as the religion in these territories. (See in particular, Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, University of Arizona.

Moreover, as we have previously seen, the other factor that allowed the Reformation inroads into this region was the conduct and lifestyle of the Catholic clerics. This disaffection for the worldly ways of the Catholic clerics could be, and was exploited by the reformers to bring people over to Protestant teaching. And as I have just noted, the security that Bern provided to these French-speaking regions gave Bern decisive authority over them. This would be a crucial element in the ‘success’ of the Reformation in these areas. In fact, as Bern fully turned to the Reformed faith, Geneva broke of its alliance with Catholic Fribourg (which was part of the alliance with Bern) in order to maintain support from Bern and its army.


So, how did the Reformation spread in the Pays de Vaud, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland?

The person we now have to introduce is a person called Guillaume or William Farel. He is well known as the Reformer who introduced Calvin to Geneva, but he was also an extremely significant figure in spreading the Reformation in these regions. Farel had been engaged by the Bernese authorities to spread the Reformed faith in the French-speaking territories of the Vaud under their control. Like so many other Reformers, he was a student of the famous Jacques le Fèvre d’Étaples, the Catholic Renaissance humanist.

How was Farel able to teach the Reformed faith in these deeply Catholic regions of western Switzerland? The one factor that stopped him being thrown out of the French-speaking Vaud region very early on was the fact that Bern had over-ruling authority in these regions as defender of their independence. Bern had issued mandates in favour of the Reformation to dampen unrest in Bern itself between the Protestants and Catholics, but they were also applied within the French-speaking regions, and they enabled reformed preachers like Farel to preach legally in Catholic pulpits, despite the violent protests against him.

Farel was a fiery, confrontational and charismatic figure, who was advised and warned by his own co-reformers to moderate both his language and behaviour. In the town of Montbeliard, Farel came across a procession on the day of the feast of Saint Anthony. Angered by this superstition, he boldly advanced and rebuked the people for their idolatry. Then he suddenly seized the image of their Saint from the arms of the priest, and tossed it over the bridge into the river. While the procession stood stunned and horrified at such ‘sacrilege’, he made his quick escape before they could grab him and throw him into the river! (Willian Maxwell Blackburn, William Farel And The  Story Of The Swiss Reform, p. 104). This incident highlights how the focus of the reformers’ preaching and actions were anti-Catholic rather than evangelical.

Farel had quite a turbulent time in these French-speaking regions. He went to towns and villages where he would preach, either in the open air or in churches, but always pouring out invective against the Catholic mass, idolatry and the priests. He would even interrupt Catholic Church services, climb the pulpit, take over the service and start preaching against Catholic abuses, idolatry and superstitions.

He would spend longer or shorter times in an area, depending on his reception! He was often met with violent reactions from among the Catholics, who would rush upon him, beat and club him. He suffered quite a few bad injuries during these years, and at times his life was in danger. The local Catholic authorities would complain to Bern about Farel’s activities. But each time the citizens of these regions were reminded that the area was under Bern’s supervision and mandates, and that Farel was not to be hindered in his preaching. In other words, to a very great extent, Farel had been foisted on Catholic communities by the authority of Bern. In some cases, the locals refused to attend the Protestant preaching or went to Mass in nearby Catholic villages. Those who opposed the Bernese mandates, could find themselves before the court. When Farel met with resistance, Bern would send officials to ensure that he was listened to in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, when they could, parts of the Catholic community would cause him to abandon his preaching in churches by shouting and yelling him down, by ringing the bells or by beating drums – all of which they did! It was confusion and chaos.

One of the towns Farel visited was Morat. He managed to get a following there in the wake of his preaching, but initially the official public vote favoured Catholicism. This was regarded as a ‘defeat’. Nevertheless, he made repeated visits there, and in the end, the vote went his way and Morat converted to the Reformed faith. At every step, we see that the reformers’ aim and primary interest was to change the official religion of an area – this was regarded as a ‘success’ and represented ‘bringing the Gospel’ to the area. The setting up of groups of churches who met in homes, and which consisted of converts who had recently turned to Christ for salvation, was something that did not happen, nor did it belong to their world view, nor their religious understanding, which was deeply entrenched in the notion of Christendom.

During this time (1529) Farel made a foray into Lausanne, inveighing against Catholicism, but he was driven out by the clerics. However, he soon afterwards returned, bearing a letter from the Bernese authorities:

“He was at first driven away by the bishop and the clergy, but soon reappeared provided with a letter from the lords of Berne. ‘We send him to you,’ said their excellencies to the authorities of the city, ‘to defend his own cause and ours. Allow him to preach the Word of God, and beware that you touch not a hair of his head.’” (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV, Ch. 6)

Thus were the Lausanne authorities forced to allow Farel the freedom to preach and to stir up people against the Catholic faith.


In Neuchatel, Farel used a different strategy to provoke direct confrontation and to stir things up. He and his associates posted placards in the streets that read, “All those who say mass are robbers, murderers, and seducers of the people.” Again, this does not represent evangelism, nor is it evangelical in its approach. This is just religious sectarianism that engenders animosity and hostility, and it had its desired effect:

“The canons summoned their people, called together the clerks, and marching at the head of a large troop, armed with swords and clubs, descended into the town, tore down the sacrilegious placards.” (Ibid.)

Farel was hauled before the authorities there, but again, no measures were taken against him, since behind him lay the forces of Bern. On a subsequent visit to Neuchatel, he was preaching outside when the crowd shouted out that he should be allowed to preach in church. D’Aubigne relates:

“‘Why, should not the Word of God be proclaimed in a church?’ The company of people then bore him along and ushered him into the Hospital Chapel, and placed him in the pulpit. However, seeing the symbols of Catholic superstition all over the Chapel proved too much for Farel, and he ‘laid his hands on these objects of idolatry, removed them, and broke them in pieces.’” (Ibid. Italics mine.)

In my reading of the Acts of the Apostles, I do not come across such violent actions by those sent by the Lord Jesus to preach the Gospel.

Exasperated, the Catholic authorities requested that Bern send deputies to oversee and resolve matters. However, as was to be expected, the Bernese delegation supported the Reformed faction in Neuchatel, who then demanded that the Catholic mass be abolished, but the Catholics would neither give in nor discuss the matter. There was an uneasy stalemate at this time. However, Farel was again preaching at the hospital chapel and declared to the people listening:

“‘What then, will you not pay as much honor to the Gospel as the other party does to the mass?…And if this superstitious act is celebrated in the high church, shall not the Gospel be proclaimed there also?’ At these words all his hearers arose. ‘To the church!’ cried they; ‘to the church!’” (Ibid, Ch. 7)

The people needed little encouragement. With these words, they bore Farel along and forced their way into the Cathedral itself. The Catholic contingent tried physically to prevent Farel from entering the pulpit, but they are overwhelmed by the Reformed faction, who placed Farel in the pulpit unharmed.

D’Aubigne writes: “Immediately all is calm within the church and without; even the adversaries are silent, and Farel delivers ‘one of the most effective sermons he had hitherto preached.’ Their eyes are opened; their emotion increases; their hearts are melted; the most obstinate appear converted; and from every part of the old church these cries resound: ‘We will follow the evangelical religion, both we and our children, and in it will we live and die.’” (Ibid.)

D’Aubigne states that Farel delivered one of his ‘most effective sermons’ on this occasion, and that even the most hardened were ‘converted’, or better said, appeared converted. But what was the result of such a ‘melting of hearts’; what change of heart did it actually create in them? D’Aubigne continues with the narrative:

“Suddenly a whirlwind, as it were, sweeps over this multitude, and stirs it up like a vast sea. Farel’s hearers desire to imitate the pious King Josiah.” (Ibid.)

We see the same features throughout this study; the same religious worldview. It is Christendom from beginning to end. These stirred-up people, these enraged people, now set about like a violent mob to destroy the images and statues inside the church, believing they are acting as God’s people did in the Old Covenant by physically destroying the idols of Catholic superstitions. However, this does not represent ‘holy zeal’, but religious sectarianism.

The narration continues with the people declaring: “‘If we take away these idols from before our eyes, will it not be aiding us,’ said they, ‘in taking them from our own hearts? Once these idols are broken, how many souls among our fellow-citizens, now disturbed and hesitating, will be decided by this striking manifestation of the truth! We must save them as it were by fire.’” (Ibid.)

The people believe that doing away with the outward symbols of superstition will remove the superstition itself from their hearts.  

“This latter motive decided them, and then began a scene that filled the Romanists with horror, and which must, according to them, bring down the terrible judgment of God on the city…the people of Neufchatel were in commotion. The governor, whose castle adjoined the church, was compelled to remain an idle spectator of the excesses that he could not prevent; he was content to leave us a description of them. ‘These daring fellows,’ says he, ‘seize mattocks, hatchets, and hammers, and thus march against the images of the saints.’ They advance – they strike the statues and the altars — they dash them to pieces. The figures carved in the fourteenth century by the ‘imagers’ of Count Louis are not spared; The townspeople collect all these fragments of an idolatrous worship; they carry them out of the church, and throw them from the top of the rock… They tear out the eyes in the pictures of the saints, and cut off their noses. The crucifix itself is thrown down….’” (Ibid.)

But things do not end there: “The reformed went still further: they seized the patens in which lay the corpus Domini, and flung them from the top of the rock into the torrent; after which, being desirous of showing that the consecrated wafers are mere bread, and not God himself, they distributed them one to another and ate them…At this sight the canons and chaplains could no longer remain quiet. A cry of horror was heard; they ran up with their adherents, and opposed force to force. At length began the struggle that had been so much dreaded.” (Ibid.)

The two opposing camps then came to blows, and leading council members called on the Reformed camp to appear before the governor, but this was rejected out of hand, and things only settled down after the people had seen their destructive desire fulfilled on the images in the church. After this, the Catholics pressed for an official vote of its citizens on the issue of the Catholic mass, but this was resisted by the Reformed camp, who wanted the presence of Bernese officials to oversee such a vote. As this stalemate risked to erupt in more violence, the Catholic authorities called for the presence of Bernese officials.

But of course, as the Reformed camp anticipated, the presence of these officials worked in their favour. The Bernese warned the governor of Neuchatel with the following words:

“‘Their Excellencies of Berne,’ said they to the governor, ‘are much astonished that you should oppose the true and pure Word of God. Desist immediately, or else your state and lordship may suffer for it.’”  (Ibid, Ch. 8)

The Catholic authorities were then, against their wishes, compelled to hold a vote. They had wanted the vote to be held without duress and without this haste. They felt that if there had been time to address the community without this outside presence, they could have swayed the people in their favour. As it was, the result was a vote in favour of the Reformed religion, with a majority of 18 votes.

This is how the Reformation spread and won its ‘victories’ in the West of Switzerland. This is supposed to represent the triumph of the Gospel in these lands. It was nothing of the sort. Given the nature of this ‘conversion’ to the Protestant faith, it is no wonder that stiff resistance continued to be given by the Catholic faithful in these regions, particularly in the more rural and mountainous areas.

The historian Bruce Gordon sums things up with the following words, “Farel’s activities enjoyed the protection of Bern and its considerable military force. The Bernese encouraged his campaign of violence by turning a blind eye to destructive and illegal acts…Farel and his fellow ministers engaged in covert acts of iconoclasm in which Catholic churches were attacked, often in the dead of night, and images desecrated…In the French-speaking lands it was a pitched battle between a small but fanatical number of reformers and a resolutely Catholic population largely resistant to their charms.” (Gordan, Bruce, Calvin, Yale University Press, 2009. p. 66).

This is the kind of hatred-inducing religious sectarianism and factionalism that has lasted down today in certain places, where Protestant is pitched against Catholic. This is part of the fruit of the Reformation. But to continue with our story.

Farel was experiencing some limited success, but things changed when Bern was given the opportunity to invade the French-speaking regions of the Pays de Vaud in western Switzerland. Despite the peace treaty that had been agreed, the Duke of Savoy was now troubling Geneva again. After the Duke refused to negotiate peacefully, Bern’s armies invaded the Pays de Vaud in January 1536 to secure this region from the Duke, and easily overcame the little resistance that his troops offered. The political allegiance of this region with its cities, towns and villages had now to switch to Bern, which meant that the French-speaking region of the Pays de Vaud came under the jurisdiction of Protestant Bern. To all intents and purposes, these regions of western Switzerland had become the possession of Bern. Although Bern promised that no locality would be forced to adopt the Reformed faith, the reluctance and resistance of the people to the new religion was such that eventually Bern twisted their arm to make them accept the Protestant faith in their towns and cities.


After its military conquest of the Vaud in 1536, the Bernese focussed their attention on winning over the city of Lausanne to the Reformation. Lausanne was an important administrative centre in the region and would be useful in imposing the Reformed religion on the surrounding areas if it could be won over.

Bruce Gordon writes: “The imposition of the reformed faith began in the summer of 1536…To provide a sense of legitimacy, the Bernese magistrates employed a tactic often used in the Swiss reformation: they summoned a disputation…It was to be held in Lausanne in October and 10 points of reformed teaching provided the basis of the debate. This was not an open exchange of views: the outcome was already determined as the Bernese authorities intended to persuade the reluctant Vaudois to accept the new faith…The foregone conclusion was declared: the mass was to be abolished in the Vaud and by 19th October a first Reformation edict required the removal of altars, images and liturgical instruments. (Ibid, p. 67).

Gordon is among several historians of the Swiss Reformation who make the same point, namely, that the Disputations were simply a strategy, a vehicle that was employed which would ensure the ‘acceptance’, or better said, the imposition of the Reformed religion in a given city or territory.

James Blakeley, in his dissertation on the Reformation in the west of Switzerland (the Vaud), makes the same point: “Cities commonly held disputations before enacting the Reformation. This device was a ritual of persuasion. We can also see in retrospect that it was a rite of self-justification for those who favored the Reformation. There was no doubt that the reformed side would win; but the process of arguing and debating in front of an audience of Catholics and Evangelicals gave the procedure the appearance of fairness. It was no different in Lausanne.” (N1)

It is generally recognised that the towns and villages of the Pays de Vaud were made to accept the Reformation under duress from Protestant Bern. However, despite the official imposition of the Reformed religion, in many places people still continued with Catholic services and traditions. In general, the French-speaking regions valued being independent of the Duke of Savoy, but they were not keen on having a new religion being imposed on them. Thus, resentment, resistance and tensions remained throughout the French-speaking regions.

To finish this section and to prepare us for our consideration of Calvin’s activity and rule in Geneva, we need to look at the background of how Reformed teaching gained its foothold in the city of Geneva.


In October 1532, Farel called in at Geneva, where a reform-minded associate named Olivetan was there to receive them.

Farel found a few sympathizers in Geneva (including Ami Perrin, who was an ardent supporter of the reformers at that time, but later became an active opponent of Calvin), but the presence of the reformers caused such a commotion among the population that Farel was ordered to leave by the city authorities. However, when he showed his credentials from Bern, the council had second thoughts about how they should treat him. In the event, Farel was hauled before the Catholic episcopal council in Geneva where he was verbally abused and insulted by the Catholic clerics. His reaction was interesting. In his reply to the Catholic clerics, he said, Elijah said to King Ahab, ‘It is thou, and not I, who disturbest Israel.’ So I say, it is you and yours, who trouble the world by your traditions, your human inventions and your dissolute lives.” (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 61)

In these words, we again detect that Farel does not view the Genevan citizens as those who need salvation through the preaching of the Gospel. For him, the Christianised community of Geneva are viewed as God’s people who were being deceived by the idolatrous Catholics. Farel saw himself more in the role of an Old Testament prophet inveighing against the sins of God’s people, not as a New Testament evangelist. As we have seen, it was a fundamental flaw in the thinking of virtually all the reformers; and it was a reflection on their own spiritual condition, which could not discern that a Christianised ‘heathen’ was still a ‘heathen’ who needed to be converted by the Gospel.

The Catholic clerics, however, created such a tumult against Farel that he was physically jostled, beaten and bruised, and ordered to leave Geneva within 3 hours. Farel hurriedly got to a boat and crossed the lake to escape their fury.

The next year, in 1533, the Bernese authorities sent an official letter to Geneva:

“We are surprised that in your city the faith in Jesus Christ, and those who seek it, are so greatly molested…You will not suffer the word of God to be freely proclaimed, and you banish those who preach it.” (N2)

Here the political and military muscle of Bern was being flexed to put religious pressure on Geneva. This put the Genevan civil authorities in a quandary as they are caught between the protests of the Catholic camp together with the threatenings of the Duke of Savoy on the one hand, and on the other, by pressure from Protestant Bern, who were the guardians of their independence. 

Nevertheless, the Catholics continued to preach against the Reformed faith in Geneva. A Dominican scholar called, Guy Furbity, lead the attack with some vehemence against the reformers and their teachings, and on Jan. 1, 1534, the bishop forbade all preaching without his permission. So a deputation then came from Bern, which included Farel and two other reformers (Viret and Froment). Bern demanded  – no surprises here – that a disputation be held where the reformers were to be heard and where Furbity was called to defend his attacks on Farel and his preaching of the ‘Gospel’, otherwise Furbity would face imprisonment. Huge political pressure, not to say, blackmail, was exerted on Geneva by Protestant Bern. The latter were going to ensure the spread of the Reformed religion, no matter what.

Blackburn continues the story:

“‘You must arrest Furbity and bring him to trial for insulting us,’ said the Bernese, ‘and he must prove from Scripture what he has declared, or recant.” The Genevans hesitated. It would offend Freiburg.”

Freiburg was part of that original alliance to safeguard Geneva, but Freiburg was Catholic. While Geneva hesitated, Bern plied on the pressure:

“If you prefer Freiburg to us,’ replied Bern, ‘then choose her. But what about those large sums of money which you owe us for defending your city? What about the articles of alliance? Refuse our request, and we must have a settlement. We will remove the seal from the articles, and you will look no more to us for help.’ The Senate of Geneva could afford to give up the alliance with Papal Freiburg, rather than that with Protestant Bern. They therefore let the Bernese summon Furbity to a discussion with Farel.” (Ibid, p. 273).

It was a real dilemma for the Genevans, who were not keen to change the status quo, but for the sake of their political independence, they submitted to the greater power, which was Bern, and the alliance with Freiburg was broken off; a public disputation was arranged where Farel would debate with Furbity. The public disputation was held on Jan. 29, 1534, in the presence of the Great and Small Councils and the delegates of Bern. The disputation ended in a partial victory for Farel. Furbity was ordered to publicly apologise and recant, which he refused to do and was imprisoned for 2 years. (Ibid, p. 277 / Schaff, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation § 61.)

Here we can see that the so-called ‘progress’ or ‘success’ of the Reformation in Geneva was determined by the power politics of Bern. It had nothing to do with large numbers, or even any number of citizens being converted by the preaching of the Gospel and their personal lives being changed. It was all to do with persuading or forcing the civil authorities to impose the new religion on its citizens. Nevertheless, none of these events meant that the Reformation had taken hold in Geneva. Catholic resistance in the city continued. It was a slow, tense, uphill process. Schaff continues the story:

“Farel continued to preach in private houses. On March 1, when a monk, Francis Coutelier, attacked the Reformation, he ascended the pulpit to refute him. This was his first public sermon in Geneva. The Freiburgers protested against these proceedings, and withdrew from the coburghery (April 12). The bishop pronounced the ban over the city (April 30); the Duke of Savoy threatened war. But Bern stood by Geneva, and under her powerful protection, Farel, Viret, and Froment vigorously pushed the Reformation, though not without much violence. The priests, monks, and nuns gradually left the city, and the bishop transferred his see to Annecy, an asylum prepared by the Duke of Savoy.” (Schaff, Ibid. Italics mine.)

It was under the ‘powerful protection of Bern’ that the Reformation ‘made strides’ in Geneva; and under such protection the Reformed camp felt at liberty to intimidate the Catholic citizens of Geneva and to commit acts of Iconoclasm. As elsewhere in Switzerland and beyond, so here to the Reformed party barged their way into churches and smashed up and destroyed images and statues. In May 1535, the mass was provisionally suspended in Geneva. And as we had noted, Bern invaded this region with its military forces and took possession of it in January 1536, and it was only in the spring of that same year that the Reformed faith was officially adopted by edict in Geneva. Schaff writes,

“In Aug. 27, 1535, the Great Council of Two Hundred issued an edict of the Reformation, which was followed by another, May 21, 1536. The mass was abolished and forbidden, images and relics were removed from the churches. The citizens pledged themselves by an oath to live according to the precepts of the Gospel…All shops were to be closed on Sunday. A strict discipline, which extended even to the headdress of brides, began to be introduced.” (Ibid)

So again, by the vote of the city Council, the Reformed religion was imposed on an entire city. In the quote above there is also a tension or contradiction in the understanding of ‘Gospel’. Apparently, living by the ‘precepts’ of the Gospel includes legislation against certain types of headdress at weddings. Moreover, the citizens’ pledge to ‘live by the Gospel’ would be revealed as meaningless. This was all outward, dead religion. In Chapter 8, we will look at this aspect of ‘legislating morality’ in order to improve the conduct of citizens. 

Jeanne de Jussie, from the Convent of Saint Claire in Geneva, gives her account of the events of 1535 in her Short Chronicle, which offers us an insight into the nature of the Reformation in Geneva:

“On the feast of the Madeleine, 22 July, when they were ringing solemnly for mass in her church and the whole parish and other good Christians in the town were gathered there to hear the holy Mass in great piety, that miserable preacher Farel brought his whole congregation. They came in…to the church of the blessed Madeline to obstruct her feast, and when they got inside it, they closed the church and stood at the door and forced people to hear that sermon. This greatly distressed and troubled everyone, the women cried out loudly and the men made such a raucous that they (the reformed part) left the church despite their plans. All divine service was stopped. But after those dogs left, the Christian people came back to the church, and the priest said the mass even more solemnly than ever and in great piety. Those dogs did the same thing at vespers, and they took possession of that holy church and preached there every day afterwards, and then in the church of Saint-Gervais. They did the same in the Dominican monastery on the feast of their father St Dominic, and they obstructed divine services in all the churches.” (N3)

What happened in Geneva was the imposition of an outward religion (the Reformed one) on a largely Catholic city by an outside force, namely, the Bernese government. It was essentially the result of political expediency on the part of the Genevan councils to safeguard their geo-political independence. From all the historical accounts that we have, it is abundantly clear that the Genevans did not turn to the Reformed faith as a result of evangelistic preaching that led to citizens being genuinely and spiritually converted. It was not a matter of people finding salvation in Christ and having their lives changed inwardly – and outwardly. It was just a switch from one religion to another.

Philip Schaff sums up the state of things like this:

“The people were anxious to get rid of the rule of [the Duke of] Savoy and the bishop, but had no conception of evangelical religion, and would not submit to discipline. They mistook freedom for license. They were in danger of falling into the opposite extreme of disorder and confusion. This was the state of things when Calvin arrived at Geneva in the summer of 1536.” (Ibid. Italics mine.)

This is an interesting comment – as well as a fairly accurate one – from a historian with deep Protestant sympathies. I would agree with this. It is clear that the cities, regions and countries of Europe that adopted the Reformed faith could only do so because of the support of the civic or princely powers. It was those powers – aided and abetted by the reformers – that imposed the new religion on its people. It would be no wonder that the citizens of these cities and regions ‘had no conception of evangelical religion’. And this was so for the simple reason that the Gospel of salvation from personal sin was not preached by the reformers, whatever their written theology may have contained. The reformers preached a ‘gospel’ of freedom from Catholic superstitions, not a life-changing Gospel of freedom from sin.

It was on the heels of these events, which had freshly taken place, that Calvin appeared on the scene in Geneva. Unfortunately, Calvin did not recognise that the citizens of Geneva had no concept of the Gospel. There could only be trouble, as this man, Calvin, tried to impose – outwardly – a religion on a people whose hearts were antagonistic to it – that is, his own brand of religion.

The historian Bruce Gordon goes some way in confirming the above point. He writes: “The Bernese were left in the awkward position of governing a region that had adopted the Reformation in name alone. The Reformed party was a tiny faction facing a hostile population determined to maintain its Catholic faith…Their hopes, clearly, lay in the eventual restoration of the Catholic faith…If ever Calvin needed to be taught a lesson about the implications of a semi-Reformed church full of people who conformed to religious practices in which they did not believe, the Vaud provided it.” (Bruce Gordon, Calvin, p. 67. Yale University Press, 2011).

And it is in Chapter 8, where we will look at Calvin’s time in Geneva, that I want to continue to consider this aspect of the Reformation. It was far more, if not exclusively, an attempt to reform people’s indulgent and licentious behaviour than seeking their conversion through the Gospel. The reformers sought to legislate morality upon a community of sinners in order to make them more holy – something which is impossible. Through the laws of the civic authorities as well as through ecclesiastical measures, the reformers endeavoured to suppress, curtail and punish drunkenness, bawdy songs, dancing, blasphemy, sexual immorality. It is strange that it never occurred to them that those in their parish were as yet still unconverted! But since they failed to convert citizens by the preaching of the Gospel, the reformers could only impose an external and disciplined religion on them.


(N1) Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, 2006, The University of Arizona. P. 157 / Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern, AII, Bd 256, fol. 165.

(N2) W. M. Blackburn, William Farel and the Story of the Swiss Reform, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board Of Publication, 1865. pp. 271, 272. 

(N3) Jeanne de Jussie, The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare’s Account of the Reformation in Geneva, ed. and trans. Carrie F. Klaus, p. 128. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.



  1. The imposition of an ‘external and disciplined religion’.
  2. The arrival and ejection of Calvin and Farel from Geneva.

If the reader has not read Chapter 7, I would recommend doing so, as it gives important background to how the Reformation was ‘introduced’ into the region of French-speaking Switzerland.

In the previous Chapter, we saw how the Protestant city of Bern used political leverage to pressurise and intimidate the French-speaking Catholic cities of western Switzerland (the Pays de Vaud) to ‘convert’ to the Reformed faith. The historian D’Aubigne says the following regarding the city of Bern before the introduction of the Reformation there:

“Of all the Swiss cantons, Bern appeared the least disposed to the Reformation. A military state may be zealous for religion, but it will be for an external and a disciplined religion: it requires an ecclesiastical organization that it can see, and touch, and manage at its will. It fears the innovations and the free movements of the Word of God: it loves the form and not the life.” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV, Ch. 2. Italics mine.)

This statement is double-edged, though D’Aubigne seemingly was not aware of it! Here, D’Aubigne is speaking of the nature of a State Church and its domineering control over religious affairs, and that such control can only result in an ‘an external and a disciplined religion’. He is speaking of Catholic Bern. However, history shows that nothing changed in this respect in Bern. Reformed Bern was as controlling and dictatorial as over its citizens as Catholic Bern had been – and we saw exactly this in the last chapter! The religion of the State Church had changed but it was the same beast as before.

So, the expression ‘an external and a disciplined religion’ is an apt summing up of the nature of the Protestant Reformation. They were certainly ‘zealous for religion’, just as the Catholics had been; and history shows that the reformers carried on the same religious intolerance and dictatorial rule as the Catholic Church had done, imposing their dogma on all the citizens of its cities, and allowing no dissent. The result in such Reformed cities could only be ‘an external and disciplined religion’. Geneva had ‘voted in’ the Reformed religion under some duress from Bern just before Calvin’s arrival, but the historian Philip Schaff, commenting on the spiritual condition of its people at that time, maintained that they had ‘no conception of evangelical religion’. Essentially, Calvin could not, and did not change this state of things. After many years, he eventually did manage to impose his form of external and disciplined religion on the people. This occurred chiefly for two main reasons. One was that his political opponents on the city council were eventually vanquished, and secondly, there was an influx of Protestant believers from other parts of Europe, particularly from France, that were sympathetic to the Reformed faith, who could then also eventually be voted onto the councils.

There is a Calvinist preacher today who is not appreciated by all Calvinists. His name is Paul Washer. Talking about the nature of salvation, he said this: “If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.” In essence, this comment would also be an accurate summary on the nature of the Protestant Reformation. From all the historical accounts we have looked at, this aspect stands out. The Reformation was not an occurrence where through the preaching of the Gospel people were converted to Jesus Christ, witnessed to by transformed lives and communities, as seen in the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example.

The peoples of Europe had been Christianised since the time of Constantine. They were baptised into a cultural Christianity; essentially, they were not  people who had been converted by the Gospel. The Anabaptists recognised this, but the Protestant reformers were very much part of this tradition, illusion and self-deception. They moved and worked within this mindset and context, and simply persuaded and/or cajoled people to exchange one form of cultural Christianity for another. Christendom remained Christendom, whether Catholic or Reformed. There was no spiritual renewal, revival or public preaching among the reformers that led to multitudes or any significant number of people turning to Christ. The result of this was, as Paul Washer had said, ‘without regeneration, you go into legalism’ – though he, of course, was not commenting on the Reformation! And this aspect of ‘religion without regeneration’ is what we shall see more clearly as we consider the Reformation in Geneva under Calvin.

Catholic clerics threatened with ‘conversion’ or banishment.

We saw how in the years 1535 and 1536, the city of Geneva took its final steps in declaring itself for the Reformed faith, imposing it on its clergy and citizens. Similar edicts were given by the Bernese authorities in other regions of French-speaking Switzerland at the end of 1536 – the Catholic clergy had either to convert and thus continue to receive their income, or they must leave the region. Inevitably, many who stayed on such a basis did not turn out to be the best proponents for the Reformation! One thorn in Calvin’s side for quite a few years in Geneva was the ministers he had to work with.

In March 1542, six years after Geneva had declared itself for the Reformed faith, and when Calvin had already served in Geneva for several years (but with a break of three years), Calvin complained that he had only one colleague, named Viret, who was of great benefit to him. Concerning the other ministers, Calvin wrote the following to a fellow reformer in Basle:

“Our other colleagues are rather a hindrance than a help to us; they are rude and self-conceited, have no zeal and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even although I very much wish I could; for by many evidences they show their estrangement from us, and give scarcely any indication of a sincere and trustworthy disposition.” (Letter to Myconius, March 14, 1542).

This was the quality of ministers and preachers that Calvin had to work with to reform Geneva. But it should have come as no surprise, given the background of how the Reformation had been imposed on the citizens of Geneva, as well as on the rest of western Switzerland.

Legislating Morality versus the preaching of the Gospel.

The modern historian Bernard Cottret, in his biography of Calvin, states that on March 10, 1536, (that is, just before Calvin’s arrival) the city authorities of Geneva agreed with Farel that what was decreed in Geneva should be extended to all its parishes. The council decreed: “It was decided and resolved that the subjects should be exhorted and that everywhere proclamations should be made similar to those in the city concerning obedience and abstinence from fornication and blasphemy.” (N1)

What is noteworthy here is that the decree highlights personal behaviour (abstinence from fornication and blasphemy) rather than the message of the Gospel. The biographer Cottret continues by making this point: “The proclamation of the word and the struggle against dissolute morals – these two objectives would be constants in the time of Calvin.” (Cottret, Bernard, Calvin, A Biography, p. 116. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000)

And this was absolutely true for Calvin in Geneva. Calvin would preach in Geneva, but his preaching would address the worldly and immoral conduct of the citizens. Controlling bad and immoral behaviour; suppressing it, banning it, legislating against it and punishing it became a never-ending fight for Calvin – ‘If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.’

But this should come as no surprise at all to us. Calvin was not engaged in ‘building up the saints in their most holy faith’, but in trying to ‘sanctify’ a worldly and ungodly crowd of people. It cannot be done; and it seems Calvin could not really tell the difference between the two; between worldly nominal Christians and a gathering of converted, committed believers – but this has been the story of the whole Protestant Reformation. The reformers took the former as real Christians, and persecuted the latter for claiming to be converted (i.e., the Anabaptists)! The reformers attempted to ‘reform’ people outwardly by legislation, but they utterly failed to ‘transform’ people inwardly by the preaching and power of the Gospel. And as we shall shortly see, this endeavour to impose religion on people and legislate morality got Calvin thrown out of Geneva within two years.

This aspect of a ‘moralising campaign’ as a feature of the Reformation in the Vaud (French-speaking Western Switzerland) is clearly brought to light in a dissertation by James Blakely, whose dissertation was mentioned earlier. Blakeley, among other writers, notes that dancing was a favourite pastime among the people – at festive religious occasions, weddings or at any event that gave opportunity for dancing and singing. However, as this was often associated with other less pleasant behaviour, it was cracked down on by the authorities.

Blakeley writes, “Beginning with the mandate of December 1536, the Bernese banned dancing, although for a time they permitted three ‘honest’ dances at weddings. Men and women were punished continually for dancing in connection with holy days and festivities…Small groups and families were punished by the authorities for dancing alone…Singing went along with dancing. The Bernese tried to put an end to lewd and bawdy songs.” (Blakeley, p. 289)

Confronting the ‘crime’ of dancing would turn into a major incident in Geneva when Calvin sought to punish some leading citizens for indulging therein!

Blakely goes on to state that “the Bernese authorities punished the Vaudois far more often for playing cards, dancing, drinking, and sexual debauchery than they did for religious violations. The morals legislation that comprises the December 24 mandate was important for the Bernese and their vision of reform.  Good subjects and members of the body of Christ were to act in an upright, pious, and self-restrained manner. Dancing, loud singing, and drinking in the local tavern displeased God and endangered the whole community. Both improper moral and religious behavior provoked the wrath of God.” [Ibid, p. 287. Refers to: Archives Cantonales Vaudoises, Ba 21/1, fol. 1.]

Insofar as this was true, it is clear that the Bernese authorities were seeking to impose an outward morality on its citizens, in the name of God and the Gospel; but they had no idea what the Gospel really was and how it ought to be preached. Lives that had not been changed by the Gospel were now subjected to legislation that sought to curb self-indulgent and licentious behaviour.

The state church system – that ‘cultural’ or ‘nominal’ Christianity developed under Constantine in the 4th century, and which I call ‘Christendom’ in these studies, was alive and well. The secular and religious authorities of the Reformation, acting as one, sought to control and suppress the indulgent behaviour and immoral conduct of these Christianised communities, mistakenly thinking that what they were doing was applying the Gospel to the community.

We will continue to look at this aspect of superimposing an outward morality on people, but first, it is time to introduce Calvin to the scene.

  1. The Arrival and Ejection of Calvin from Geneva

Calvin was born in France in 1509. He received a humanist education and studied law. Like the other reformers we have looked at, he was very much influenced by the Catholic humanists and greatly admired Lefevre, who was called ‘The Pioneer of the Reformation in France’, although Lefevre stayed within the Catholic Church and wanted to reform it from within.

Calvin was forced to flee France because of the anti-Protestant measures in France, and in 1534 went to visit the ageing Lefevre. He then lived in various places outside of France under different names for the next couple of years, spending some of his time in Basle as well.

In 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his theological work on Christianity. This brought him great acclaim within the reformed movement, but opposition from the Catholic side. He was 26 years of age at the time.

In the summer of the same year, 1536, Calvin made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, conflict had broken out between Francis I and Charles V, hindering his way, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva. However, hearing that John Calvin was in Geneva, William Farel, who was residing there, lost no time in visiting him and threatened to bring down the curse of God on Calvin’s life and ministry if he did not stay to help with the work of Reformation in Geneva. Calvin, who at first was reluctant because he believed his ministry lay in a different direction, eventually succumbed, not so much to the pleadings of Farel, but to his threats. Calvin writes later of this encounter: “…Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken…”. (Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 1-35, Vol. 1, Preface.) Thus was the 26-year-old Calvin persuaded, if not browbeaten into throwing his lot in with Farel, who was about 20 years his senior, for the furtherance of the Reformation in Geneva.

Calvin began modestly in Geneva by doing some Bible teaching but was eventually elected as a pastor, though he was never to be ordained as a pastor.

Anabaptist refugees were already in Geneva at this time and within a few months of arriving in Geneva (Nov. 1536), they confronted the reformers’ teaching. Calvin later wrote about this, saying,

“The Anabaptists began to attack us from one side; from the other side, it was the malicious apostate [Pierre Caroli].” (Calvini Opera 31:26)

Later, in March 1537, two Anabaptists (Herman de Gerbihan and Andry Benoit) sought a public disputation with Farel (Calvin being away at this time), and the city council allowed this to go ahead. However, after the disputation the council decreed that the two Anabaptists should cease from spreading their views, and as they would not submit to this instruction, they were banned from Geneva under penalty of death. (Calvini Opera, 21:209f., 2010)

Nevertheless, towards the end of March, the council allowed another disputation to take place with two other Anabaptists – Johannes Bomeromenus and Jehan Tordeur. These two wanted to show from Scripture that one should not baptise infants. Although the council found against them and compelled them to leave Geneva, Calvin was nevertheless angered by the goodwill shown to them by the council. In 1555 he wrote:

“Eighteen years ago, when the Anabaptist came here to infect everyone with their teachings, they were cordially welcomed to the courthouse. To be sure, we were ordered to refute their teachings in public; but at the same time [the council] was flattering them. Instead of decisively resisting the Anabaptists, they offered them a banquet.” (Calvini Opera, 27:237f.)

But, in the tensions and conflicts that developed between them, this may just have been another indication of the council’s desire to show the reformers who was in charge. Despite the council’s vote against these further two Anabaptists and their banishment from Geneva, Anabaptists apparently (clandestinely) survived in Geneva until the time of the reformers’ ejection from the city in 1538 (See quote at end of this Chapter). However, after this initial period, Calvin would spend significant time writing against the Anabaptists, whom he considered to be the greatest of heretics and their teachings to be from the devil. (See N2 for above details regarding the Anabaptists.)

The confession of faith.

We have already noted that the roots of the Reformation in Geneva were shallow. Political expediency played as great a role, if not greater, than religious conviction in turning Geneva to the Reformation. So, how did Farel and Calvin go about remedying the situation of bringing on board a very large number of reluctant people to the reformed faith? Basically, they literally tried to force everyone to sign up to the reformed faith by taking a compulsory oath, and by legislating against worldly and immoral behaviour.

Philip Schaff says much the same things as Blakeley above when writing about the condition of Reformed Geneva at the time of Calvin’s arrival. He writes:

“The Genovese were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Reckless gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State…The people were ignorant. The priests had taken no pains to instruct them and had set them a bad example. To remedy these evils, a Confession of Faith and Discipline, and a…Catechism were prepared” by Farel and Calvin. (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 83.)

So when it is stated that Genevans had accepted by public declaration to follow the precepts of the Gospel just a few months previously, we must take this with a huge pinch of salt!

Confronted with this situation, Farel and Calvin did not go into the marketplace or even stand in the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in order to deliver the people from the power of darkness and of Satan, so that their lives might be changed by the saving grace of God. Such scenes and such preaching we do read about in histories of revivals, such as happened during the lives of George Whitefield and John Wesley. But there are no records at all that I have come across that bear witness to anything like this happening in the Reformation of the 16th century. As I have said, the reformers’ view was that, generally, they were not dealing with Christianised ‘heathen’, but with worldly Christians, whose lives needed reforming and delivering from Catholic false teachings.

So, in 1536 what Farel and Calvin did was to draw up a Confession of Faith and rules of discipline, which they officially presented to the council in November. This was within four months of Calvin having arrived in Geneva. Its formal title was: Confession of Faith, which all citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and subjects in its territories must swear to keep and to hold. The idea was that the members of the council should subscribe to it first, followed by the citizens. Those who refused to take the oath were to be excommunicated and banished.

Since the little republic of Geneva had now ‘adopted’ the Reformed religion, it seems that Calvin viewed the city as God’s domain, God’s city, God’s kingdom, equating it to Israel of old. The council, as it were, represented the King of Israel, who was responsible for ensuring the purity of religious worship, and punishing and eliminating all idolaters. Calvin and Farel were as the priests and prophets of old, inveighing against the sins of the people, teaching the righteous commands of the Lord, and informing and directing the King how to perform his duties. No one who openly and grossly sinned against the Lord’s commands would be tolerated with in the walls of the city of Geneva. Such sinners were to be ‘cut off’, just as God had commanded in the Old Testament. These reformers showed no understanding of spiritual conversion, of the Gospel, or of the Church.

How can you force people to make an oath to hold to a confession of faith? It is a bizarre concept. Why seek to banish sinners who are in desperate need of having the Gospel preached to them? But Calvin and Farel wanted people either to conform, or to be thrown out of this ‘kingdom’ that were trying to set up

William Blackburn in his life of Farel writes:

“It was not easy to break up the old customs of the people, and many of Farel’s new measures [ed. though Calvin was certainly involved] were not to their taste. They were lively and fond of excitement, and had been used to an almost unbounded license. In clear weather they loved music and dancing in the open air. On rainy days they had their cups and cards at the wine shops. Among all, their holidays, Sunday was quite as gay as any, when masquerades and other mummeries were their delight. But, as all this was connected with the baser forms of profligacy, Farel [ed. and Calvin] attempted to suppress these amusementsGambling, swearing, slandering, dancing, the singing of idle songs in the streets, Sabbath-breaking, and absence from church without good reasons were forbidden. The people must be at home by nine o’clock in the evening.” (WM. M. Blackburn, William Farel, And The Story Of The Swiss Reform, 1865; p. 151,152. Italics mine.)

By legislating morality the two reformers sought to force people into conformity to a mode of outward religious conduct. This is not the Gospel – it is Christendom. This is not the Church of Jesus Christ – it is a stricter form of Christianisation being imposed on people. If anything was geared to make people misunderstand what the Gospel is, it is the measures that Farel and Calvin undertook. Where there is no regeneration, there must be legalism.

The council passed these laws in November 1536, but not to the delight of its citizens.

Out of this Confession also came the Catechism, or Instruction of the Christian Religion of the Church in Geneva (1537). This was used to teach the citizens the essentials of the faith, and it was to be read at St. Peter’s every Sunday, until the people understood it. It was a re-education programme – it was not an evangelistic movement to bring people to the salvation that is in Christ.

The Genevan authorities approved (in principle) the confession of faith. In the following month, February, civic elections were held in Geneva, and some supporters of the reformers were elected to important positions. This was a help to their endeavours. Nevertheless, there was definite opposition to Calvin’s and Farel’s demand that all citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the new faith as laid out in the Confession.

Who has the right to excommunicate – priest of politician?

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, from the time of Constantine, when ‘Christianity’ became the religion of the State, there would be an inevitable tension and conflict between Church and State. The Church looked to the State for support and protection, as well as defending religious orthodoxy; but, of course, the State would want a say in Church matters and not just be a ‘passive’ member in this alliance; in other words, just doing what the Church told it to do. The State had its own ideas about what was best for the peace and security of its domains. So, here in Geneva, more than a thousand years later, we see this tension and conflict playing out in microcosm.

The Small Council, which was the most important council in Geneva, was willing to accept the minister’s demands, except that excommunication was not to be used against those who refused to take the oath. There was also the factor that many Genevan citizens resented being ordered to take an oath by French clergy, namely, Calvin and Farel. They had only just been liberated from the Duke of Savoy, and they did not take kindly to again being told what to do by foreign clerics. In particular, the well-to-do merchants opposed the obligatory oath, as well as many of the leading families. Moreover, the authorities in Bern also disapproved of this move, as excommunication, in their view, was the prerogative of the civic authorities, not of the church, and they had no wish for Calvin to change this system. This would become a long, hot, contentious issue between Calvin and the council – and even with Bern.

With regard to people taking the oath, things did not go very smoothly. The council kept stalling the process, and tensions developed between the two reformers and the city council. In October, the reformers sought to compel a profession of faith from those who were showing resistance to the oath, and in November an order was made that those who refused the oath should be banished from the city.

However, this process then hit the buffers as it touched on the sensitive issue of excommunication. Calvin was overseeing the adoption of the Confession of Faith, and he expected, and even insisted, that as the minister, he should have full control over the excommunication of those who refused to sign. The council authorities balked at what they saw as a usurping of the council’s privilege and power in the matter of excommunication. To give Calvin the exclusive right to excommunicate important and respectable Genevan citizens was going a step too far – particularly as he was a foreigner, a Frenchman. The council saw Calvin’s demands as high-handed and as intruding on their civil powers. There was no way that the council could enforce such a scenario on its citizens.

At this time, there was a revealing statement made by Calvin when disputing obligatory oath-taking with the council. A councillor reported that accusations had been made that people were perjuring themselves for swearing an oath to a mere written confession – in other words, that people were being forced to take the oath without their hearts or faith being in it! The reformers replied that it should be viewed differently, namely, as a solemn renewing of the covenant, as had been done in Nehemiah and Jeremiah. However, the council countered by saying that the Bernese authorities also considered it to be a case of perjury.

It is amazing that these councillors had more common sense and moral integrity in judging this matter than Calvin did. They pointed out the obvious truth that you cannot make people Christian, that you cannot force them to adopt religion by oath-taking! This clearly reveals again how Calvin viewed the Genevans as essentially Christian people that had lapsed somewhat and just needed to ‘renew’ their covenant with God. He did not regard them as ‘lost sinners’ but as ‘wayward’ Christians.

This battle between Calvin and the Councils of Geneva regarding who had the power to do what in ecclesiastical and even civil matters was to dog Calvin and cause him a lot of grief and pain for the next 20 years. At times it became unedifying political infighting. The council began asserting its authority over Farel’s and Calvin’s demands. In January 1538, the council declared that no one should be refused access to the Lord’s Supper. In effect, this meant that Calvin was deprived of the right and authority to excommunicate anyone, since banishment from the Lord’s Supper was an integral part of excommunication. Calvin lamented this in a letter to his co-reformer, Bullinger, in Zurich, saying that he feared that the holy practice of excommunication would fall into oblivion. At this time, things got immeasurably more serious for Farel and Calvin, but we need to backtrack a little because this matter was enmeshed with others.

The other problematic issue had to do with the Bernese liturgical rites.

As well as presenting the Confession of Faith, a couple of months later, in January 1537, Farel and Calvin had also put before the council their Articles on the Organisation of Church and its Worship in Geneva. Among other things, Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated at least every Sunday, but in view of the people’s background he deemed that it should be celebrated monthly. However, he insisted that the Lord’s Supper must be protected from pollution by the attendance of ungodly participants. Calvin urged that overseers should be appointed in the various districts of the city to report any serious faults to the ministers, so that the offender may be urged to repentance and amendment of life. A kind of religious ‘big brother is watching you’ – the big brothers being Calvin and Farel. Now, if the person remained obstinate, then the final step of excommunication was to be applied. However, the wording of this last point was ambiguous in the document as to who had the power to excommunicate. The councils in Geneva, with their understanding of the Articles, passed them, but with one exception, and that was the celebration of the Eucharist. It would be celebrated once a quarter, according to the practice in Bern, and not once a month as Calvin had wanted. The significant point here is that the councils overrode Calvin in this matter. It was a continual battle between the council and the two reformers.

As mentioned above, it was the Bernese liturgical rites that were to be Calvin’s undoing. These rights included the use of unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, cups made of stone, and the celebration of Christmas, New Year, the Annunciation and Ascension. Farel and Calvin were not in favour of these measures because of their close association with Catholicism. However, having ‘liberated’ Geneva, Bern felt that it should have a say in these matters and expected Geneva to follow its lead. The councils of Geneva now strengthened their position against Calvin by siding with Bern on these matters, which included the use of unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin balked at this intrusion into church affairs by the civil authorities and refused to comply.

Blackburn, in his life of Farel, writes of the groundswell of support for Bern in Geneva against the new reformers:

“The Genevan senate followed in the same decision, and the Bernese began to have more and noisier friends than ever before in the city. This party now made use of the awful name of My Lords of Bern, in order to threaten and insult the ministers [Farel and Calvin] whom Bern had such trouble in keeping in Geneva. Troops of them went about parading the streets by night, insulting the ministers at their homes, and threatening to throw them into the Rhone. Bern had preserved the stone fonts, the unleavened bread, and the four festivals, and they would hold fast to them, for they were not able to see the principle which Farel thought was involved in them. He regarded them as relics of Popery, and feared these relics would lead back the people into the old reality…Councils and synods failed to restore peace. A plot was suspected against the preachers.” (Blackburn, Ibid, p.296)

It was a turbulent, unpleasant time for the reformers. And for all the trumpeting about ‘Reformation’, Bern still clung on to vestiges of Catholicism. Calvin was more advanced in his reformed ideas than Bern, and he did not like the Bernese authorities, or any civic authority, having control over church matters. He was not willing to submit to Bern’s instructions in this matter. Calvin believed he had rightly understood the word of God in the scriptures and that therefore, in a way, his teachings represented God, so when he was opposed, he considered that God’s truth was being opposed, and he became quite indignant at such opposition. This tended to be a feature of how he dealt with ‘heretics’ – to oppose his teachings, was to oppose the word of God and God Himself.

There was another factor which added to the woes of Farel and Calvin, and that was the suspicion that they were working for France to bring Geneva under France’s control, and some of Calvin’s supporters were in favour of such a move. France had begun to take an interest in Geneva, and Calvin and Farel were both Frenchmen! Suspicions began to be aroused. In February 1538; a French agent actually did pay a secret visit to the city, and eventually made overtures for a French alliance through two of the leading supporters of the reformers, which seemed to confirm people’s suspicions. Mobs protested outside their houses at night, firing off guns and threatening to throw them into the river. For those who already opposed Calvin’s stringent measures, this added fuel to the flames of opposition.

Things continued to work against the two reformers. In February 1538, there were new elections to important executive posts (the ‘Syndics’, or magistrates) within the council, and all these were taken by men hostile to Calvin. But in these complicated issues, it needs to be noted that to be anti-Calvin did not mean you were anti-Reformation – you were just anti-Calvin, and the things he stood for! However, Calvin now starts to preach against the council publicly, and ends up being censured by them for calling them ‘a council of the devil’ in one of his sermons. One of his co-reformers, the blind Frenchman, Courauld, called the Genevan state ‘a kingdom of frogs’ and the magistrates ‘drunkards’. He soon found himself in prison. The situation was getting venomous and embittered.

The battle lines were now being drawn. Good Friday was now approaching, at which the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated, using, of course, unleavened bread, by the stipulation of both the Genevan council and the authorities in Bern. Nevertheless, Calvin and Farel refused to follow this practice, which they felt was being imposed on them, and gave the authorities to understand that they would withhold the Lord’s Supper from the whole city on that day, rather than use unleavened bread according to the Bernese practice. The council responded by telling them that either they comply, or they would be forbidden from preaching in the city.

Again, Calvin and Farel brazenly ignored this injunction against them, and on the following Sunday (April 21) they both spoke publicly in different churches and refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to the people. They also made sure that no one else would be able to celebrate the Eucharist. One minister, Henri de la Mare, reported to the council that he had been prevented from preaching and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the threat of excommunication from the two zealous reformers. At that time, this also resulted in mob riots and violence by supporters of Farel.

Things had now gone too far for the councils of Geneva. The city authorities declared that the Bernese rites were to be adopted. The councils issued orders of expulsion against Calvin and Farel (on April 22 and 23), and they were given three days to depart. Without delay, the two men left Geneva and headed first for Bern and then to Zurich, where they attempted to explain their actions to the authorities and the reformers there. However, in neither city did they escape a certain amount of censure from the authorities, who warned them against their overzealousness and lack of discretion and wisdom in how they had handled matters. Various attempts were made to affect a reconciliation at that time, but Geneva would have none of it, and refused to have Calvin and Farel back.

Calvin’s and Farel’s attempt to impose the Reformation ‘more fully’ in Geneva had failed miserably. They had to make an ignominious, hasty departure. Calvin and Farel were not being metaphorically ‘stoned’ for pleading with the people to turn to Christ and be converted, but for trying to impose legislation that outwardly controlled people’s everyday lives, and for seeking to overrule the council. The citizens of Geneva did not mind the Reformation, as long as it did not interfere too much with their lives and pleasures!

After these events, Calvin went to the German Protestant city of Strasbourg, where he pastored a church for French-speaking refugees, and also continued his writings. Farel went to serve in Neuchâtel and remained there till the end of his life. From there, he wrote to Calvin in September 1538 about the desolate circumstances in Geneva:

“They have created a whorehouse there. The Anabaptists hold their gatherings daily, and everywhere the Mass is heard. Everything is going topsy-turvy and things could not be any worse.” (Herminjard, Correspondance, 4: nr. 745.)

In Chapter 9, we will look at Calvin’s return to Geneva and his remaining years there.


(N1) Annales Calviniani, Calvini Opera 21, col. 197, Registres du Conseil de Geneve 29, fol. 43. Quoted in Cottret, Bernard, Calvin a Biogrpahy, p. 116.

(N2) Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists:  On the Origins of the Briève Instruction of 1544, Hans Rudolf Lavater; Trans. by John D. Roth; pp. 328,329



  1. Calvin’s return to Geneva
  2. The difficulty of imposing religion on an unwilling population
  3. Calvin almost gives up

In the last chapter, Calvin and Farel had just been ignominiously ejected from Geneva. From there, they travelled on to Basle, but then Farel was called away to serve the church in Neuchatel, and Calvin was invited to Strasbourg to serve as a minister in a French church which catered for refugees from France. During his stay in Strasbourg, which lasted about three years, he wrote a new edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and a Commentary on the book of Romans.

However, during this time another issue came back to haunt him. In 1537, when he had been labouring in Geneva, he had been accused of heresy; more precisely, of having a false view of the Trinity. The person who brought this accusation was a rather erratic figure called, Pierre Caroli. He had been vacillating between the Catholic Church and the reformers, but now professed to be on the side of the Reformed faith. Caroli had been installed by the Bernese authorities as the main minister in Lausanne. After reports by Caroli regarding Calvin’s teachings, Berne was very concerned that it might be associated with heresy, so Calvin and Farel had to make a defence of their beliefs before them. They were vindicated in the matter, and Caroli returned to the Catholic Church after being deposed by Berne. However, the problem for Calvin and Farel was that the rumours of heresy would not go away, and time and energy was taken up in trying to squash the rumours. It was a stressful, exhausting and exasperating time for Calvin, Farel and their close friend, Pierre Viret, who was the other minister at Lausanne.


That was in 1537. But only two years later, in 1539, when Calvin was now in Strasbourg, Caroli reappeared, seeking reconciliation. He claimed that he had only gone back to the Catholic Church because of what he had thought were the false teachings of Calvin and Farel. Caroli went to Neuchatel, where Farel was, and managed to convince him of his desire to return to the Reformed fold. Farel was glad to receive him back, believing that Caroli was genuine in seeking reconciliation. Caroli then went to Strasbourg, where Calvin was, in order to put things right with the leading reformers there, which included Martin Bucer. The reformers he spoke to made it clear that they disapproved of his actions, but again, were happy to receive him back. Calvin, on the other hand, was incandescent with rage.

I mentioned in the last talk how Calvin could take things very personally, and this certainly would be an example of that. Calvin declared that he would under no circumstances receive Caroli unless he fully retracted the accusations of heresy against him. Martin Bucer and the other reformers endeavoured to mediate in the matter. Calvin was invited to give his version of things and to enumerate Caroli’s faults. Calvin refused, very much doubting Caroli’s sincerity, and believing it would be a never-ending battle of words. The next day, Calvin had to meet with the leading reformers again for him to look at some statements (‘articles’) that Caroli had agreed to. But this time Calvin blew up in a rage. Calvin accused his colleagues of working behind his back, of prejudging the issue, and put the blame on Farel for having been so naïve in the beginning. Calvin was so distraught that he could not comply with their request that evening. Calvin later wrote about the incident in a letter to Farel:

“There I sinned grievously in not being able to keep within bounds, for bile had taken possession of my mind to the extent that I poured out bitterness on all sides…I complained that they had presented these articles to me for the purpose of exonerating Caroli, and that it was their opinion that these articles were good. While I was unheard, and judgement had already been pronounced, they required me to subscribe [to the articles], which if I refused, would turn them into my adversaries…At last, I forced myself out of the dining room…Bucer followed, and when he had soothed me by his gentle words he brought me back to the company. I said that I wished to consider the matter more fully before making any more distinct reply. When I got home I was seized with an extraordinary paroxysm, nor did I find any other solace than in sighs and tears, and I was the more deeply afflicted because you [Farel] had occasioned those evils for me. Again and again they reminded me of your leniency, who had mercifully embraced Caroli upon the spot, saying that I was too headstrong and could not be moved one inch from my judgement. Bucer, indeed, has tried every mode of representation that he might soothe my mind on the subject. Meanwhile, he invidiously uses your example against me.” (N1)

Calvin could, and would react to with force, in writing and in preaching, to opposition from enemies. As we shall see, he seemed to need public vindication and triumph. However, emotionally and mentally, Calvin could not cope with a situation where it was now his colleagues who were finding fault with him. It was completely unbearable and intolerable to him that there was no prospect of changing his friends’ minds concerning him, and about the duplicity of Caroli. His frustration knew no bounds, and he exploded with bitter accusations against his friends. Upon arriving home, he fell victim to a kind of emotional breakdown of frustration. It seems Calvin needed to feel vindicated and be seen to be vindicated, and even to triumph over his perceived enemies, and this trait emerges later on in his dealings with his opponents.


In the meantime, things were not working out well in Geneva. The church, in particular, was very much lacking leadership and competent ministers, and now the Catholic Church, through a particular Cardinal (Jacopo Sadoleto) was making overtures to the city of Geneva about returning to the fold. Sadoleto wrote so convincingly that neither Geneva nor Bern had anyone capable of replying in kind. Calvin was approached to compose a reply, and he agreed to do so. This was at the end of 1539. In September 1540, the Council of Geneva instructed one of its members, Ami Perrin, to oversee the recall of Calvin. However, this first request was refused. Calvin wrote to Farel saying: “whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life, how can it not be but that my very soul must shudder at any proposal for my return?…When I remember by what torture my conscience was wracked at that time, and with how much anxiety it was continually boiling over, forgive me if I dread the place as having about it something of a fatality in my case.” (Opera Calvini 11, 91; Herminjard 6, 325-6; ET 1, 187 / Quoted Parker, p. 106).

Evidently, Calvin found his first stay in Geneva gruelling. However, Calvin also expressed himself in terms of being open to God’s will, should He make that clear. Initially, Strasbourg also did not want to lose Calvin, but as the overtures from Geneva continued, in the end, Calvin agreed to return. But he imposed conditions – he gave the Genevan Council to understand that he would only return on his terms, as had been expressed during his first stay. To this they agreed, and he was warmly received back in Geneva in September 1541. He had been away for three years.

Upon arrival, Calvin immediately set about drafting Ordinances for the ordering of the Christian religion in Geneva. These ordinances related to the government, administration and life of the church. It seems that Calvin had learnt nothing from his first attempt at trying to outwardly impose religion on people. No doubt, he must have felt encouraged to pursue his aims, since it was intimated by the council that he would have more of a free hand this time. However, 14 years of struggle lay ahead of him.

In November, the Ordinances were passed by the Genevan councils, but the councils made some significant changes to them. For example, a pastor could be installed only with the final approval of the council. Likewise, a pastor could only be deposed by a decision of the council and not by a decision of the clerics. In the amendments made to the ordinances, it stated clearly that ministers were subject to civil law and that the final sentence of punishment was the prerogative of the council.

A Consistory court, called the Consistoire, was set up, and it was responsible for church discipline, but it consisted of the ministers and 12 laymen, who were all chosen from the councils, and this meant that in the Consistory the council members outnumbered the ministers, which again gave the council control – at least, potentially, anyway. Moreover, the president of this body was to be the executive magistrate of the council. The amended Ordinances made it clear that the ministers (the clerics) had no civil jurisdiction, and the consistory court was not to usurp the authority of the councils.

I am surprised that Calvin did not kick up a fuss about the amendments, as they seemed to land him in a similar, if not identical situation as before, and indeed, the amendments did lay the ground for future tensions and conflicts between the religious ministers and the councils.

In the new instructions, church attendance was made mandatory for all citizens. This all seems far removed and foreign to what we read in the New Testament concerning the church.

It is no great surprise that embittered opposition started growing against Calvin. This is the natural result when you start legislating morality and imposing religious observance in the name of God’s law, to a large community of unwilling people. Opposition and defiance were an inevitable result of such efforts. It was like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. There was bound to be conflict.

None of the reformers understood that the Kingdom of God could not be brought about or established by legislation, by imposing God’s law on people. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom that you can only be born into. But, as we have seen, the reformers Luther and Calvin believed and taught that infant baptism is the medium through which we become God’s children. This falsehood, this deception, robbed them of the understanding and perception that people needed to be converted by the evangelistic preaching of the Gospel.

It was not so much that the people were against the Reformation itself, but against Calvin’s imposition of rules and regulations that deprived the citizens of the personal liberties and pleasures that they had been used to. Parker seems to confirm this assessment with the following words:

“The troubles were caused by two factors. The one, the undisciplined wilfulness and fear of a strong section of the community. The other, that blend of determination, excitability and intelligence that constituted Calvin’s character.” (Parker, p. 124).

In fact, it was about 10 years later, when Calvin felt he had been defeated in these struggles, that he handed in a letter of resignation to the city authorities, which, nevertheless, was refused by them. However, Calvin gained some respite and help when in 1546 new ministers from France arrived, who came to replace others who had left. They were well-educated and sympathetic to Calvin’s work of reformation, but one of them, Michel Cop, would soon be embroiled in a tumult of his own making.

Opposition Grows Against Calvin

Having extra clergy from France, on the other hand, only increased the anti-French feeling that was growing because of Calvin’s dominating style. This could only result in ongoing tensions and conflicts between the councils and Calvin, and that is exactly what happened. It was a recipe for trouble, if not disaster.

Gradually an opposition group developed against Calvin. These included respectable and notable families in Geneva and important council members, including Ami Perrin. (If you remember, Perrin had initially warmly welcomed Calvin to Geneva.) This opposition group was given the name ‘Libertines’, for obvious reasons, or ‘Perrinists’, after Ami Perrin.

In the same year, 1546, and in the years that followed, there were grumblings and complaints from various citizens against the increase in French clergy. In 1547, it is recorded that the watchman Francois Mestrat wanted the Frenchmen to be thrown into the Rhone River. (Annales Calviniani, Opera Calvini 21, col. 407).

In Geneva, it was not only dangerous, but also a criminal offence to speak against Calvin and his teaching. At the beginning of 1546, one of the Libertine group, Cartelier by name, spoke against Calvin in no uncertain terms at supper in his own home. He was imprisoned, and Calvin comments:

“I testified to the judge that it would be agreeable to me were he proceeded against with the utmost rigour of the law.” (Letter to Farel, Feb. 1546).

Can we imagine the apostle Paul – had he had the opportunity to do so – demanding the secular authorities punish someone who had criticised him? Had Calvin read and understood the scriptures about forgiveness, and rejoicing when someone reviles you, and says all manner of evil against you falsely; about blessing those that curse you and doing good to them that hate you (Mtt. 5:11, 44)?

In March 1548, one citizen (Millon, from Auvergne) was banished from Geneva because he had written ballads against Calvin. I suppose it is no wonder that some people have called Calvin ‘the Pope of Geneva’. In February, in the same letter as above, Calvin wrote to Farel saying, “With regard to those who gave out that we were establishing here a permanent seat of despotism, under colour of defence, let us suffer this rumour to spread on both sides. Their impudence has been met with civility and mildness, so that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. I trust that they will keep quiet. I seek, as far as I am able, to persuade our friends to remain unconcerned.” Calvin certainly felt he had ‘right’, if not God, on his side, and seemed unperturbed by accusations of being a despot. But it is clear that there was the feeling among some that he was acting like a pope.

Ami Perrin’s mother was bold enough to criticize Calvin before the Consistory. The following is recorded: “She continued to create insults at the said M. Calvin, among which are those that follow: that he came to Geneva to throw us into debates and wars, and that since he has been here there has been neither profit nor peace…Moreover, she reproached him that he did not live as he preached, and that she never found love in him…” (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 423.)

Pierre Ameaux

Apart from Ami Perrin’s mother, quite a number of people, including other important citizens of Geneva, were feeling the reformer’s style of imposing religion on them was creating strife and upset in the community. In January 1546, tensions rose between Calvin and the councils about the conduct of one Pierre Ameaux, who accused Calvin of being a mere ‘Picard’ (i.e., a Frenchman), who preached false doctrine. Being a maker of playing cards, perhaps he had a particular reason to grumble about Calvin. But to accuse Calvin of preaching false doctrine was considered a crime in Geneva; so Ameaux was arrested. He was tried by the Small Council and ordered to pay a fine of 60 crowns and to publicly acknowledge his fault. However, the Council of the Two Hundred reduced the sentence, only requiring Ameaux to make an apology to Calvin before them. Calvin flatly refused to accept the latter as a suitable punishment for the slander against him. Ameaux had impugned the name of God, claiming that the word of God was false doctrine!

As I mentioned earlier, Calvin, believing that he truly represented God’s truth in his teaching, perceived any opposition to himself or his teaching as opposition to God and to His truth. Others might say that he was a man too easily offended and who could not tolerate any personal criticism of himself.  Whatever the case, Calvin threatened not to preach again unless the sentence was made more severe. (It is no wonder that some people thought that Calvin’s behaviour did not always live up to his preaching.) This caused some tumult in the city. The council of the Two Hundred gave in, and ordered that Ameaux be publicly paraded and humiliated. He had to make a circuit of the city in his shirt, and carrying a torch and kneeling at certain places, asking God’s forgiveness. This seemed to satisfy Calvin’s sense of justice (if not revenge) in suitably vindicating and restoring his reputation. Was Calvin any more Christian than the people he wanted punished?

Even ministers got into hot water if they impugned the character of Calvin. Henri de La Mare, who was pastor in the village of Jussy, privately criticised Calvin for his bad temper and inflexibility. He was hauled before the Consistory, where he also, to some extent, defended Ameaux, and repeated his view that Calvin was “a bit subject to his tempers…impatient man, hateful, and vindictive.” Well, de La Mare might have felt his opinion substantiated when Calvin ensured that he was ousted from ministry within the Genevan territory. (N2)

Dancing Forbidden

In April 1546, another crime was committed. Ami Perrin had held some of the most important positions on the Genevan Small Council. But, by all accounts, he was a worldly man, and dubbed by Calvin as ‘our comic Caesar’. Perrin took a leading part in the opposition that was growing against Calvin. A problem arose because it was reported that Perrin’s wife, along with others, had danced at a wedding party, which was attended by other important citizens of Geneva. Among those who had danced were Ami Perrin himself and the president of the Consistory Court, Amblard Corne. So they were imprisoned for the crime of having danced at a party, and made to confess their crimes and apologize before being released.

This is the Reformation in Switzerland. Neither priest nor politician understood the Gospel, or preached the Gospel. Neither priest nor politician understood what constituted the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. By means of the civic law, they tried to make people righteous and upright, and to cajole them with threats and imprisonment in order to persuade them to be good Christians – and being a good Christian meant you could not dance at weddings. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, on the part of both pastor and politician. Where there is no regeneration, there will be legalism – and that of the pharisaic sort, in other words, with an emphasis on the outward observance of rules and laws. By enforcing an outward conformity to certain rules of conduct, Calvin and the state sought to ‘sanctify’, or Christianize the worldly and the ungodly.

With regard to the case of dancing, some denied any wrongdoing, which infuriated Calvin. He relates his part in being able to force a confession from the wrongdoers by letting them know, in no uncertain terms the consequences of their dishonesty. Moreover, Calvin used his pulpit to publicly inveigh against dancing and other ‘loose’ behaviour of the Genevans. Calvin writes about this to Farel:

“After your departure the dances caused us more trouble than I had supposed. All those present were summoned to the Consistory, with the two exceptions of Corne and Perrin, [where they] shamelessly lied to God and us. I was incensed, as the vileness of the thing demanded, and I strongly inveighed against the contempt of God in that they thought nothing of making a mockery of the sacred admonitions we had used…When I was finally informed of their state of ease, I could do nothing but call God to witness that they would pay the penalty for such perfidy. I at the same time announced my resolution to uncover the truth even though it should be at the cost of my own life lest they should imagine that any advantage should come of lying.” (Calvin to Farel, Apr.1546).

With extreme diligence, if not ruthlessness, Calvin sought to put out the fires of ‘carnal and worldly’ conduct wherever and whenever they appeared in Geneva.

The Taverns And Dramas

The year 1546 was also the year that attempts were made to change the nature of the taverns, that is, the drinking houses in Geneva. So, the taverns were closed. In their place, five religious public houses were opened. Here there would be food and drink, as well as a French Bible available. There was to be no swearing or dancing. It was to be a place of edification, with the singing of hymns and the reading of Scripture. It should be no surprise to us that these ‘religious’ public houses did not last long, and the taverns were soon back in business!

As an illustration of a failed enterprise, the attempted ‘conversion’ of the taverns reflects the nature and the failure of the Protestant Reformation, in that it fails to truly change people’s lives spiritually and inwardly first. It is through the preaching of the evangelical Gospel that leads people to repentance and changed lives, where they themselves then choose not to go to pubs to get drunk. Of such things we do read in revivals of the past (for example, in the revival of 1859 in Belfast, or the 1904/05 revival in Wales, not to mention the changes in communities that happened during the Wesleyan revival), where pubs were closed, either through the conversion of the pub owner, or through lack of trade. There are no historical records that bear witness to anything even vaguely approaching these kinds of spiritual revivals under the leadership of the Protestant Reformers.

In the same year, 1546, a tumult arose because of a play called Acts of the Apostles. Calvin had read the text of this play and approved that the play could be performed for the edification of the people. Otherwise, worldly plays were forbidden by the council. However, a fellow minister, Michel Cop (who I mentioned earlier), stepped outside the agreed line and fiercely denounced it from his pulpit. This resulted in a riot in the streets by the Genevans, who were infuriated that they were being deprived of this entertainment. We are given to understand from the history books that such riots were not infrequent in Geneva. Calvin relates the following in his letter to Farel:

“At dawn, Michel, instead of preaching, inveighed against the actors. But so vehement was the second invective that a gang of people made straight for me with loud shouts, threats and what not. And had I not by a strong effort restrained the fury of some of them, they would have come to blows. I endeavoured in the second debate to appease their anger, acting moderately, for I judged that he had acted imprudently in having at such an unseasonable time chosen such a theme for preaching. But his extravagance was the more displeasing as I could not approve of what he had said.” (Calvin to Farel, 4 July 1546).

During the tumult, the council had ordered everyone to go home, but crowds of people remained in the streets, angrily demonstrating. According to Calvin, on the next day the instigators of the violence said they would have killed Cop, had not Calvin intervened. Cop was severely reprimanded not only by the council but also by Calvin. Cop’s attempt to keep the people on ‘the straight and narrow’ by angrily denouncing drama plays – including religious ones – failed spectacularly. In one sense, one could say that Ami Perrin’s mother was largely right. Calvin could only bring ‘debates and ‘wars’ without ‘profit and ‘peace’ because the reformers were engaged in rebuking the sins of a religious, but worldly community instead of preaching the Gospel to them and changing their hearts and lives.

In other matters, Calvin and his colleagues did not spare the council itself, accusing it of ‘moral laxity’ for not dealing properly with sexual immorality in the community. It is through many instances like these, that it becomes clear that Calvin did not believe in the separation of Church and State. He, as a minister of the church, wanted the secular authority to punish the sins of the people in order to promote righteousness in the city. The council retorted that if there be such persons, then the preachers should use discretion and inform the council of it instead of using the pulpit to publicly harangue the council about it. The inevitable tensions between state and church continued in Geneva as they had done since the time of Constantine.

Calvin did not view the Church as a separate body of believers in an otherwise godless community. The church was a mixed multitude of a godless majority and a godly minority, who could hardly be distinguished. The church was imperfect and its adherents still sinners, needing the rigours of the Law, by edict and by preaching, to keep sin in check. He regarded the city of Geneva as the Church, where righteousness was to be imposed on the citizens, and punishment or banishment inflicted on the openly sinful and rebellious ones.

Jacques Gruet And Riots

In 1547, new elections for important posts in the council executive changed things in favour of the anti-Calvin party. On 27th June a threatening letter was found in the pulpit of Saint Pierre. It was a coarse letter with implicit, if not clear death threats, telling the reformers to keep quiet and to stop blaming people and ruining their lives. (Opera Calvini 12, 545). Calvin brought the letter before the council, and in the event, one Jacques Gruet was arrested – he belonged to the anti-Calvin group. His house was searched and a number of writings and letters were found which were critical of Calvin and very anti-religious. In particular, a letter addressed to the magistrates was found. It highlighted the sentiments of not a few in Geneva. It said that they should ‘not be ruled by the voice or will of one man.’ It argued that all men are different with their different natures, opinions, and likes and dislikes. It goes on to say:

“Therefore, it seems to me that a magistrate should establish a state in which there is no discord of making a people subject to something against their nature.”

Now, leaving aside the nature and beliefs of this man Gruet, he is here making the point very clearly that you cannot make a leopard change its spots; you cannot force people into something that is fundamentally contrary to their nature. Or, if I may interpret it further, you should not Christianize people. The legal, outward imposition of modes of behaviour could not work when it is contrary to the person’s nature. I find here that what an atheist sees clearly, Calvin was blind to. Gruet’s letter continues by acknowledging that “everyone who maliciously and voluntarily hurts another deserves to be punished.” But then he concludes with: “But suppose I am a man who wants to eat his meals as he pleases, what is that to do with the law? Nothing.” (Opera Calvini 12, 564-5 / Quoted Parker, p. 137).

It is undoubtedly true that Gruet wanted to have the liberty to enjoy more than just eating and drinking; but there was a logic to his argument. However, Gruet was subjected to prolonged torture, which extracted from him a number of confessions, as a result of which he was beheaded in July 1547. In 1550, when workmen were doing renovations on what had been his house, they discovered all manner of shocking blasphemous material. This gave a sense of justice to the citizens of Geneva for the sentence inflicted on Gruet. Calvin inveighed against his writings, which were also publicly burned at that time.

Also in 1547, Ami Perrin was arrested and eventually released, but stripped of his honours. This happened because of his behaviour towards the council over a certain matter and for suspected intrigue with a foreign country, namely, France. However, all this caused another one of those terrible Genevan riots. The issue did not involve Calvin, but in the commotion, he made his way to the council chamber, and he relates the following about the event: “Much confused shouting was heard…Things got so loud that there was surely a riot…I at once run up to the place. Everything looks terrible. I throw myself into the thickest of the crowds, to the amazement of everyone. The whole mob makes a rush towards me; they seize me and drag me hither and thither – no doubt lest I should be injured! I called God and men to witness that…if they wanted to shed blood, to start with me. Even the worthless, but especially the more respectable, at once cooled down. I was at length dragged through the midst of them to the council. There new fights started, and I threw myself between them… I succeeded in getting everyone to sit down quietly, and then delivered a long and vehement speech, which they say moved all them.” (Opera Calvini 12, 632-3; ET 2, 134-5).

As we learned, one of the factors which led Geneva to recall Calvin was that they needed someone with strong leadership qualities. Moreover, Calvin’s integrity and uprightness, which was appreciated by at least some, gave his leadership the respect needed in decisive moments. There seems no doubt that Calvin was faithful in what he did, and he gave himself to the work tirelessly.

However, things were getting on top of Calvin. At about this time (1547), he wrote, “I have not yet decided what I am going to do, except that I can no longer tolerate the ways of this people, even though they may bear with mine.” (Opera Calvini 12, 639; ET 2, 137). But Calvin managed to revive from this mood and struggled on.

The Libertines, however, continued in their opposition to Calvin, undermining him and stirring up trouble wherever they could. When there was a significant number of opponents to Calvin on the councils, these would make a decision perhaps not so much on the merits of the case as they might have done, but in order to snub Calvin and to demonstrate their authority over him and the pastors.

Where Calvin did suffer a defeat to the council was in church appointments. Without going into details, one pastor (De Ecclesia, by name) had behaved badly and also taught error, and the ministers referred the matter to the council. The council responded by saying that the ministers should forgive and reinstate him. However, the full meeting of the company of pastors decided that he should not be restored, and they informed the council of this. The chief magistrate (syndic) at that time (1549) was none other than Ami Perrin, and he informed the pastors that De Ecclesia had been issued a final warning by the council, and he was to continue in the pastorate. The Company of pastors were forced into submission on the matter. This was just one case among others, where the council overruled the Company of pastors on appointments and demotions of ministers. This issued caused Calvin great frustration.

Jerome Bolsec

What turned out to be a very significant event and a blow to Calvin was the arrival of a French refugee who was forced to leave France because of his evangelical preaching. His name was Jerome Bolsec. He was a monk who had also ventured into practising medicine. He arrived in 1550 and settled just outside Geneva. Early on he was reprimanded in Geneva for challenging the doctrine of election. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1551 (October 16th) he attended a Friday Bible study (Congrégation) where various pastors were present. Bolsec started speaking against Calvin’s teaching on predestination, among other things, saying it made God a tyrant and the author of evil. He accused Calvin’s teaching of making an idol of God. However, he did not notice Calvin come in and sit down. When Bolsec had finished, Calvin stood up and spent one hour refuting Bolsec’s claims. At the end of the meeting, Bolsec was arrested and taken to prison. It was very dangerous to oppose Calvin’s teaching.

Bolsec was interrogated by the civil court, but it was too difficult for them to pronounce on matters so theologically complex. As a result, Calvin and the other ministers had to form the questions to be put to the prisoner. So it became a theological examination in front of the council. Bolsec did not show himself to be a competent theologian, but he stood firm in the debate but remained in prison during this time. He also claimed that ministers from the churches of other cities sided with him. They could not let this go unchallenged. So Geneva sent a letter to other Swiss churches asking for their opinion before making a decision on the matter. No doubt Geneva expected a suitable judgement to be made against Bolsec by the Swiss churches.

However, things did not turn out to Calvin’s satisfaction, or even in his favour. What made this a troublesome affair for him was the fact that Bolsec had expressed views about Calvin’s teaching that others also shared, even among his friends and co-reformers. In the end, the replies from the Swiss churches were a weak mixture of suggestions. Basle’s response was ambiguous with regard to any punishment, and Clavin complained about their response in a letter to Farel, calling it ‘cold and empty’. (Letter to Farel, Jan. 1552). However, that was nothing compared to reply from Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich. Bullinger had taken over from Zwingli and was an important figure in the Reformed movement in Switzerland. The church in Zürich expressed surprise that it was being asked for its opinion on an issue that had already been settled in an official document of doctrinal agreement made between Zurich and Berne (the Consensus Tigurinus). They did not understand why such a fuss was being made about this, and added that they felt Bolsec had been treated too severely by the Genevans. They advised that a reconciliation be made with Bolsec. This caused no end of annoyance and frustration to Calvin, who felt he was being treated like an enemy, and complained bitterly to Farel about Zurich’s and Bullinger’s response. (Letter to Farel, 8 Dec. 1551). In the same letter, he also complained about the lack of communication from the Senate (the Small Council) in Geneva, stating:

“The Senate did not consider the pastors worthy of being written to, but to heighten the insult, they limited their communication to the magistrates.”

Calvin was feeling sidelined by the authorities in Geneva. Another snub.

He also privately corresponded with Bullinger at this time, but Bullinger warned him that Bolsec was only saying what others had been saying about his views on predestination. More than that, there was explicit criticism from Bullinger that Calvin had overstepped the mark regarding predestination and gone beyond scripture. He told Calvin, “Now, believe me, many are offended by your statements on predestination in your Institutes, and Bolsec has drawn from them the same conclusions….” (Bullinger to Calvin, 1 Dec. 1551). Calvin could not let that go unanswered and defended his stance in no uncertain terms to Bullinger. The Bolsec affair ended up straining relations between Calvin and the Swiss churches.

At every turn, Calvin could not tolerate any challenge to his teaching, believing as he did, it was God’s truth.

After receiving the replies, the Genevan authorities banned Bolsec from Geneva at the end of December. However, things were far from over. Bolsec went to the Bernese lands, where he was allowed to voice his criticisms of Calvin and his doctrines, and soon drew in others who already were not enamoured with Calvin. Bolsec was a rather eccentric figure and eventually returned to the Catholic Church, but he found those who were ready and willing to listen to his criticisms of Calvin in the Bernese regions.

Calvin, in the end, went to Bern to clarify things regarding what he taught, and to secure peace. Although he was well-received, reservations still remained, and those who had criticisms of Calvin were still allowed to voice them openly and freely. This reached such a pitch that the Genevan council had to write a letter in protest to Bern.

The background to this is that Calvin had disaffected the Bernese because of his opposition to their liturgical rites and his criticism of their ministers, as well as Calvin wanting the clerics to be in charge of the sanction of excommunication instead of the councils having this power. They were also worried that Calvin was a maverick in their midst, who was unduly influencing the whole of the French-speaking region with his own doctrinal views. Relations between Calvin and Bern were as strained as ever.

The event with Bolsec is important for another reason. We have already seen how Calvin argued with the councils over the punishment that should be inflicted on Ameaux, Calvin wanting a much more public and severe one than the councils were disposed to impose. Also in the case with Bolsec, not only did the act of consulting the other Reformed cities turn out to Calvin’s great disadvantage, but it highlighted the tension between the council and Calvin. This will be an important factor when we come to look at Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus, when I shall be referring back to this event.

The 1550s

In the first half of the 1550s things were not going well for Calvin. There were continuing tensions with Bern, who in 1554 actually banned those writings of Calvin that they believed did not follow their own teachings. Resentment towards the preaching of the pastors in Geneva also carried on unabated. Then the elections in February 1553, gave the Libertines – the anti-Calvin faction – a majority on the chief seats within the council, with Ami Perrin as first syndic (executive magistrate). The Perrinists then took up positions on the Consistory, thus again threatening and limiting Calvin’s position and authority in matters of church discipline.

Tensions and conflict between Calvin and the councils emerged again over the issue of banning people from the Lord’s Supper. Calvin claimed that this was the prerogative of the Consistory, but was overruled at this time by the magistrates, who claimed this authority for themselves. The council took less and less notice of the ministers in matters relating to church discipline and appointments, and even banned the ministers, who were citizens of Geneva, from sitting on the General Council which was open to all citizens. It was a stressful time for Calvin, to say the least. In April, there were complaints from a number of citizens that they found the reprimands of the consistory oppressive, so the council called on the ministers to explain themselves.

In 1553 Calvin wrote, “they have never shown a more unbridled licence…The entire republic is now in disorder and they are striving to uproot the established order.” (Opera Calvini 14, 509; ET 2, 377-8).

After 12 years of political and religious infighting, and of opposition from the citizens of Geneva, in July (1553), Calvin had had enough and asked permission to resign. Thus it is recorded: “M. Calvin has remonstrated and asked that the council will not be displeased if, since he sees that some wish him ill, and many grumble and turn away from the Word, he goes into retirement and serves no longer.” (Opera Calvini 21, 547. Italics mine.) His request was denied. It seemed that the Perrinists wanted Calvin under their control, rather than let him loose as a free agent.

There are those who claim that Calvin believed in the separation between the Church and the State. As I have already stated elsewhere, this, at best, is only half true. In essence, it is not true at all. All the Protestant Reformers continued the state church system that evolved from the time of Constantine. They believed in Christendom. The state and church are really one entity with two parts. According to this view, the Church wields the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and the State wields the sword of physical punishment (Romans 13:1-6), and it is the States’ duty before God to purge the community of ungodliness, idolatry and heresy. Both are called of God to make and keep the community ‘godly’ and ‘Christian’. These ideas are clearly expressed in Calvin’s and other reformers’ writings.

Calvin certainly wanted the authority for the clerics to oversee and run church matters, but it is clear that all the reformers regarded the secular authorities, who themselves were religious, as a servant of God – and therefore in some respects a servant of the Church. The Church saw it as the duty of the civil powers to secure the purity of the Church from heresies, and to punish religious dissenters, and even to control the everyday conduct of its citizens. As I have pointed out from the beginning, in this kind of alliance between Church and State set up from the time of Constantine, the ‘Church’ was going to have to accept having its wings clipped – to a greater or lesser extent – by the power that had not only given it the privileged position it enjoyed, but also ensured that no other dissenting voice or teaching would be allowed to exist or survive in its regions. We have seen how the reformers exhorted princes and magistrates to persecute, imprison and kill dissenters to the Reformed religion. They believed the civil authority was ordained of God for this purpose. This does not represent a separation of Church and State.

What is true is that although Calvin expected the State to fulfil its divine duty in punishing the immoral and the heretic in society, he believed these civic powers should not interfere in the running of the church. That was his idea of a so-called ‘separation’ between the two. He wanted this concept to work ‘one way’, that is, in his favour. But it is naïve to think that those who hold the keys of power, that is, the State, will end up being so subservient to those who actually depend on them for their existence, that is, the Church! Calvin would have been horrified at the notion that the state had nothing to do with upholding and imposing the ‘one true religion’ in its domains.

In Chapter 10, we will look at an event that gives us an illustration of exactly this – the Church and State acting as one to bring a heretic to his death.


(N1) Opera Calvini, 10b, 396ff.; Herminjard 6, 52ff.; ET 1, 127ff  / Quoted in, T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin, Lion Hudson plc., 2006, p. 96.

(N2) Cited in Watt, Jeffrey R., “The Consistory and Social Discipline in Calvin’s Geneva”; 2020. Liberal Arts Faculty Books. 225; p. 19.



  1. The Execution of Servetus
  2. Reaction to the Execution
  3. Victory over Political Opponents
  4. Summary and Conclusion

In the midst of the controversy between Calvin and the magistrates regarding who had the right to decide on the issue of excommunication, an unexpected and significant event occurred. It was the affair relating to Michael Servetus. I wrote about the execution of Servetus in Chapter 3, but now we will look at this matter in greater detail.

Servetus had written works challenging the doctrine of the Trinity, which were considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants. Servetus tried to influence the reformers in both Basle and Strasbourg, but was met with opposition to his views, and the Catholic Church had actually issued orders for his arrest. He therefore changed his name (to Michael Villeneuve) to avoid detection, and went to study medicine in Paris, where he excelled as a student of medicine. Servetus then entered into correspondence with Calvin, which bore no fruit at all. In fact, he had earlier invited Calvin to Paris for them to meet there, but then he himself did not show up. Calvin wrote to Farel about this character on 13th February 1546, stating: “Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)

As early as 1546, Calvin had already had enough of Servetus and his false teachings, and he plainly says he would be willing to ensure his death were he to venture into Geneva. This was written to his close friend Farel, with whom he could be honest and open. There’s nothing here to suggest he was using the language of exaggeration, although others have offered that interpretation, but the events that follow give us no reason to believe that he did not mean what he said to Farel in that letter.

What is certain, is that it was Calvin who had him immediately arrested upon his arrival; it was Calvin’s friend and brother who both represented surety at the initial stages of the trial; it was Calvin who drew up the theological case against him; Calvin did nothing to try and prevent his execution, except to have it changed from burning to beheading; and it was Calvin who after Servetus’ death wrote a book defending the execution of heretics. All these facts show that his words to Farel about Servetus were no idle threat or innocent exaggeration on Calvin’s part.

But let us continue with the story. Servetus had to keep his true identity hidden and was working as a medical doctor in the French city of Vienne, which was under Catholic control. While in Vienne, he again sent correspondence to Calvin, troubling him with his teachings regarding the Trinity. This was in 1553. However, at that time it was made known to the Catholic authorities that they had a heretic in their midst, but they needed evidence to that effect. As it turned out, Calvin was one of the people who could verify that the man going under a different name was actually the heretic, Servetus. Calvin was approached, and he let himself be persuaded to give such evidence and thus expose Servetus to the Catholic authorities and to the certain punishment of death by being burnt at the stake. Upon receiving the evidence from Calvin, the Catholic authorities immediately arrested Servetus, but he managed to escape from prison while still under investigation. In his absence, the Catholics sentenced him to be burned alive in a slow fire. This was in June 1553. Some have argued that this incident, in which Calvin exposed Servetus to the Catholic authorities, also showed that Calvin did not mind seeing Servetus killed for his continual heresies.

After his escape, Servetus was on his route to Italy when he decided to visit Geneva. Why did he stop over in Geneva when it was not the most direct route? He claimed that he was only going to stay for one night and had already booked his transport by boat to leave the next day. Perhaps his curiosity and desire to meet and spar with the great Calvin had got the better of him.

In Geneva, Servetus attended the church where Calvin was preaching. Calvin recognised him, and it was Calvin who then had him immediately arrested; and it was Calvin’s secretary, Nicolas la Fontaine, and his brother Antoine, who were, in turn, placed in prison in the initial stages of the trial as surety in case the charges should prove false. This was the requirement of the legal procedure in Geneva. It was also Calvin who drew up a list of accusations on theological points for the case against Servetus. The trial proper began in the middle of August.

The prosecutor for the council was Pierre Tissot, but after two days, a substitute, Philibert Berthelier, stood in for him. However, Berthelier was among those who opposed Calvin’s austere measures in Geneva. The next day Calvin complained to the council that Berthelier was being too lenient on Servetus, and so Tissot resumed as prosecutor. This was politics at play. The uncle of Calvin’s secretary acted as prosecuting counsel against Servetus. At every stage, we see that Calvin was the instigator and a prime mover in this process to incriminate Servetus with the charge of heresy. Without Calvin’s intervention, Servetus could have left Geneva unharmed – if had genuinely intended on leaving the next day.

The thrust of the argument of the prosecution was to show that the teachings of Servetus were heretical. This was a critical point, as according to Roman Law contained in the Justinian Code, to teach rebaptism, or against the Trinity, the punishment was death – heresy was a capital crime. (The Justinian Code was formulated in the 6th century AD during Emperor Justinian’s rule.) It was the Justinian Code that the leading Protestant reformer in Germany, Melanchton, made reference to (as well as Leviticus 24:16) to press his case for the execution of heretics. (Corpus Reformatorum, pp.198,199).

Servetus himself had complained to the council (September 15) that Calvin was using the Justinian code against him. He complained: “You see that Calvin is at the end of his rope, not knowing what to say and for his pleasure wishes to make me rot in prison. The lice eat me alive, my clothes are all torn, and I have nothing for change, neither jacket or shirt, but a bad one. I have addressed you another petition which was according to God, and to impede it Calvin sites Justinian. He is in a bad way to quote against me what he does not himself credit…” (Cited Bainton, Hunted Heretics, p. 197.) There could be only one reason for citing the Justinian Code – and that was to secure a death penalty.

This is part of Calvin’s letter to Farel, written on 20th August: “…We have now new business in hand with Servetus. He intended perhaps passing through this city; for it is not yet known with what design he came. But after he had been recognized, I thought that he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, offering himself as security according to the lex talionis. On the following day he adduced against him forty written charges. He at first sought to evade them. Accordingly we were summoned…At length the Senate pronounced all the charges proven. Nicolas was released from prison on the third day, having given up my brother as his surety…I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine).

Calvin again expresses his hope that Servetus will be put to death. He even admits that it was a capital charge that was brought against Servetus, that is, one that incurred the death penalty. In practice, the last words of Calvin in the quote meant that Calvin would request that Severtus was beheaded instead of being burnt – and that was exactly what Calvin did petition for before the execution. Calvin at no time asked the council to commute the death penalty. Farel, in replying to this letter, took the last sentence to mean that Calvin wanted to spare Servetus the death penalty, and rebuked Calvin for suggesting anything less than death for Servetus. (8th Sept. 1553. Calvin Opera, tom. ix. p. 71. ) As we have already seen, all the well-known leading Protestant reformers of the 16th Century were men of murderous intent.  

The trial proved to be long and wearisome. Part of the problem for it dragging on was the political tensions and infighting that was going on between Calvin and the civic authorities, the latter always seeking to assert their authority over Calvin, and to his disadvantage.

Regarding the actual legal proceedings against Servetus, Calvin took no part. But as we have seen, his interventions and involvement played a crucial and integral part in Servetus’s arrest and the charges brought against him. Politics and the continuing power struggle between the councils and Calving were at play in these matters. According to T. H. L. Parker, the Libertines were wanting to keep Calvin at arm’s length concerning the proceedings to minimize his say; and they also encouraged Servetus to stand up to Calvin, which Servetus gladly did, taking advantage of the rivalry between the council and Calvin. (Parker, John Calvin, p. 151, 152).

As the case of Servetus as a heretic was well-known to the Catholics, there was no way the council wanted to see Servetus let off the hook, for this would have made them subject to the accusation that the Protestants habour heretics. But neither was the council keen to let Calvin have his way in the matter. They realised that Calvin was out to brand Servetus as a heretic and that he would seek a severe punishment.

Calvin was involved in exchanges and discussions with Servetus while in prison, as a result of which Calvin and the ministers submitted articles accusing Servetus of heresy. It is clear that Calvin was playing a definite and determined part in the conviction of Servetus as a heretic. Servetus then made accusations against Calvin, to which Calvin made a vehement defence. As the case dragged on, a certain impasse was reached. The council was not going to depend on Calvin’s direction in making a decision about any appropriate punishment. As they had done in the case of Bolsec, so now the council decided to seek the advice of other Reformed Swiss cities. One reason for this was that Servetus had claimed that reformers in those cities agreed with him.

The Council made the following statement on the 21st of August: “Inasmuch as the case of heresy of M. Servetus vitally affects the welfare of Christendom, it is resolved to proceed with his trial; and also to write to Vienne to know why he was imprisoned, and how he escaped; and after that, when all is ascertained, to write to the magistrates of Berne, of Basle, of Zurich, of Schaffhausen, and other Churches of the Swiss, to acquaint them with the whole.” (Rilliet, Albert, Calvin and Servetus, 1846; pp. 122,133)

As in the case with Bolsec, the Genevan council was side-stepping Calvin and requesting the advice of other leading reformers. We saw how this resulted in a judgement that was very mild for Bolsec but that was to Calvin’s great disadvantage. Calvin could only be frustrated by another such move on the part of the Genevan council.

Indeed, Calvin was fiercely against this decision, and complained to Bullinger in Zurich, saying: “Our Council will, on an early day, send the opinions of Servetus to your city, to obtain your judgment regarding them. Indeed they cause you this trouble, despite our remonstrances; but they have reached such a pitch of folly and madness, that they regard with suspicion whatever we say to them. So much so, that were I to allege that it is clear at mid-day, they would forthwith begin to doubt of it.” (Calvin to Bullinger, 7 Sept. 1553. Italics mine)

Calvin reveals a number of very significant things in this letter. He clearly says that he actually protested to the council about seeking outside advice regarding the guilt of Servetus and an appropriate punishment. He states that this step of asking advice from the Swiss cities is simply to do with the council’s ongoing animosity to him personally. Calvin was highly annoyed at this decision and took it as an action of defiance against him. One thing this clearly shows is that Calvin was not some kind of neutral, passive bystander in the Servetus affair, as some would mistakenly suggest. He had a particular interest in an outcome that vindicated him against Servetus, and that suitably punished the latter. But the crucial question is, why should Calvin balk and feel thwarted by this action of the council? The answer is that he realised that the council, in using this strategy, may be seeking an outcome that did not align itself with his wishes or expectations.

We need to recall the case of Bolsec to understand this. Bolsec had attacked Calvin’s teaching on predestination in no uncertain terms, and was immediately arrested. During the investigation of Bolsec, Geneva consulted the other Swiss cities – just as it was now doing in the case of Servetus – and this had brought an answer from them that was not particularly condemning of Bolsec. Calvin was annoyed and exasperated at the leniency of the Swiss cities towards Bolsec; he was simply ousted from Geneva, but could carry on criticising Calvin from Bern! This caused Calvin a great deal of frustration and also tension between him and Bullinger at that time.

Now, in this situation with Servetus, Calvin’s feared a similar scenario, where there would be a ‘soft’ response to Geneva’s request from the other Swiss cities. At every stage, we see Calvin intervening and exhorting others so that Servetus did not get let off except with a severe, if not the severest of penalties.

The next day after writing to Bullinger complaining about the council’s request for advice, Calvin writes to Simon Sulzer, the leading reformer in Basle to try to influence him as to the guilt of Servetus. He writes:

“It was he whom that faithful minister of Christ, Master Bucer of holy memory, in other respects of a mild disposition, declared from the pulpit to be worthy of having his bowels pulled out, and torn to pieces…”. (Italics mine.)

Calvin is at pains to highlight what a heretical scoundrel Servetus is by stating that even the mild-mannered reformer, Bucer, wanted Servetus ripped apart – and he even said so publicly from the pulpit! Calvin continues:

“He at length, in an evil hour, came to this place, when, at my instigation, one of the Syndics ordered him to be conducted to prison…we see how very inactive those are whom God has armed with the sword, for the vindication of the glory of his name.” (Italics mine.)

Again, Calvin is here remonstrating to the reformer in Basle that Christian magistrates are not being vigorous enough in punishing heresy – all this in the context of complaining about Servetus. He goes on to say:

“Seeing that the defenders of the Papacy are so bitter and bold on behalf of their superstitions, that in their atrocious fury they shed the blood of the innocent, it should shame Christian magistrates, that in the protection of certain truth, they are entirely destitute of spirit. I certainly confess that nothing would be less becoming, than for us to imitate their furious intemperance. But there is some ground for restraining the impious from uttering whatever blasphemies they please with impunity.” (Calvin to Sulzer, 8th September 1553. Italics mine.)

Geneva had sought advice from the Swiss cities, and Calvin followed this up by writing to them himself as well, in an attempt to prevent an insipid response from them and to stir them and push for a severe sentence against Servetus. In fact, Calvin sets out very clearly in the letter what an evil influence Servetus has had on others, and uses scripture to virtually implore Sulzer to advocate strong action against Servetus. Calvin is zealously attempting to influence the ‘jury’! There is no language of mitigation or moderation here. Servetus is to be condemned as a heretic – and punished accordingly.

Some have suggested that Calvin really took no part in the process and that things were decided by the council of Geneva and the other Swiss cities; they maintain that Calvin essentially had no influence on the proceedings against Servetus. However, given his writings and actions related above, it is certainly untrue that Calvin just sat back and passively let things take their course. By his participation and actions in a number of different ways, Calvin sought to keep up the momentum for a severe punishment against Servetus; and in the end, we have Calvin’s own statements of murderous intent. The idea that Calvin was outside the process and detached is belied by the facts. The fact that the council continued to try and thwart Calvin, as it had been doing for years, does not alter the fact that Calvin was pursuing the severest of punishments for Servetus, and we see him in a state of almost desperation and frustration when he felt the council was trying to side-step him.

When the responses came back to the Genevan council, the verdict was clear. Servetus was guilty of heresy. And the punishment? The Swiss cities would not commit themselves to specifying the kind of punishment Servetus should receive, and left that decision to Geneva. However, Bern suggested that if things could not be resolved with Servetus, then he should be put in prison so that his influence could be neutralised. Why did Calvin not pick up on this and request that the death penalty be commuted to indefinite imprisonment? But there is no record of him having done so. On the other hand, the condemnation of the Swiss churches against Servetus as a heretic was very emphatic, saying that it was an opportunity to give a blow against heresy, and to rid the church of such a rogue. 

Calvin expressed his satisfaction about the verdict of the Swiss cities to Farel: “The messenger has returned from the Swiss Churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the Church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel were judicious. The Zurichers were the most vehement of all; for they not only censure in severe terms on the atrocity of his impieties, but also exhorted our Senate to severity. They of Schaffhausen will agree…Caesar the comedian [Ami Perrin]…went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that inquiry might be made at the [Council of the] Two Hundred. However, he was without doubt condemned. He will be led forth to punishment tomorrow. We endeavoured to alter the mode of his death, but in vain.” (Calvin to Farel 26th Oct. 1553. Italics mine.)

Let us first notice that Calvin states that he and the clerics endeavoured to change only the ‘mode of death’ for Servetus – not to have it commuted to something less. The outcome of the death penalty for Servetus is consistent with all that Calvin wrote and did during this whole process. It is also clear that in this letter there is an element of glee and delight at the response of the Swiss churches in that they advised a severe punishment. Similarly, there is a note of triumph as he relates how Ami Perrin’s attempt to commute the death penalty and even ‘free the wretch from punishment’ was totally thwarted. Calvin would have been furious if that ‘wretch’ had been freed. Like the Catholics of his time, Calvin did not understand the scripture that says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). Calvin believed it was right and just that the ‘Church’ punish heretics and put them to death.

Perrin had tried to intervene to stop the case or thwart the process, and asked the matter be referred to the Council of the Two Hundred for a decision, but his attempt failed, much to the obvious satisfaction of Calvin. However, Perrin might have also been motivated by a desire to spite Calvin in his attempts to free Servetus. The council gave its verdict that Servetus was to be burnt at the stake, stating that the strong responses from the Swiss churches really left no other option in view of Servetus’s heretical teachings. Calvin and the ministers asked that this should be changed to death by beheading, but the request was refused. Perhaps this is another instance of the council asserting its authority over Calvin. But at no stage did Calvin make an intervention that Servetus should not be punished with death. And whether the reason Calvin wanted the penalty changed to beheading was one of compassion, or whether it was because of an instinct that the actual burning of person might not be good PR for the Reformation, is a matter of debate.

Upon Servetus’s request, Calvin went to visit him in prison before the execution. But the encounter proved fruitless. Calvin gave his version of the visit, and it ends with these words: “So, following the rule of Paul, I withdrew from the heretic who was self-condemned.” (Cited Roland Bainton, Hunted Hertics, p. 210). Calvin was quoting from Titus 3:9,10, and shows the spiritual condition of his own heart when he misuses the Scriptures that speak about a man being self-condemned, while he knows that Servetus is going to be condemned to death as the result of a process that Calvin himself had started. Like a Spanish inquisitor, Calvin left a man to be condemned to death because he refused to recant his beliefs. But the apostle Paul did not envisage that believers would put heretics to death when he was writing to Titus.


The burning of Servetus caused an immediate backlash against Calvin, particularly in Basle. Humanist and Christian voices were raised against him and books written, saying that no one should be punished for their beliefs, and that Calvin was returning to the atrocities of the Catholics. Calvin wrote to Bullinger at that time: “You at least… judge me with equity. Others attack me savagely, reproaching me with (professing) cruelty, with pursuing with my pen a man who died at my hands.” (OC 15, col. 124, to Bullinger, Feb. 1554).

In response to these attacks on him, Calvin hastily wrote a work entitled, Defence of the Orthodox Faith against the Errors of Michel Servetus. In this book he defended the death penalty for heresy in no uncertain terms. With all the records available, it is clear that the idea, voiced by Calvin’s apologists, that he was not directly responsible or even wished the death of Severtus, is shown to be completely untrue. Their attempted defence of Calvin becomes redundant in view of the fact that Calvin staunchly and even fanatically defended the death penalty for heretics in this work.  It is a strange logic to say that Calvin did not wish the death of Servetus when he writes a book defending his execution and justifying the death of heretics.

Let us remind ourselves of what Calvin wrote in his Defence of the Orthodox faith.

That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep. I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?” And again, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.”(Italics mine)

It is chilling stuff. Calvin uses the same arguments as were used by Augustine and others down the centuries. Calvin also sought to justify the killing of heretics by making reference to the death of Ananias and Saphira for lying (Acts chapter 5) and Jesus using force to cleanse the temple of greedy traders. How can you trust the theology of someone who can so abuse and corrupt the meaning of the Scriptures? There must have been a solid veil over his spiritual eyes and understanding to be so blind to the obvious. This also holds true for the other leading Protestant reformers, Bullinger, Melanchthon and Beza, who wrote in defence Servetus’s death penalty, and variously congratulated and encouraged Calvin on securing his death, and for his book defending the death penalty for heretics. You can read what these reformers wrote in praise of Calvin’s book in Chapter 3 of these studies.

Philip Schaff, commenting on Calvin’s Defence of the Orthodox Faith, states:

“Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel. But his arguments from the New Testament are failures. (Schaff, p. 546)

There is no escaping the clear impression that Calvin wanted to set up a kind of ‘theocracy’, where God’s law was imposed on all who lived within the jurisdiction of the republic of Geneva. And this was chiefly based on the model of Israel in the Old Testament, on which the execution of heretics was also to be based, as well as the punishment of all evil doers. Priest and magistrate were to work together in establishing God’s Kingdom on earth. In their outlook, and in the language used by the Protestant Reformers, there is nothing to separate them from those of the Catholic inquisition. They are all of one kind.

Philip Schaff maintains that “Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus.” Even nine years after the execution of Servetus, Calvin defended his actions against him, when replying to one of his critics, named, Baudouin:

“Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster.” (Cited in Schaff, Ch. 16, § 137, Calvin and Servetus. Italics mine. Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, Opera, IX. 575)

In his commentary writings also, Calvin continues to uphold the notion that it is right and proper for the secular authority to use the ‘sword’ to punish heretics. Commenting on Matthew 13:39, Calvin states:

“This passage has been most improperly abused by the Anabaptists, and by others like them, to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men?”

Calvin argues that only banishing a wicked person from the company of believers (as the Anabaptists taught), and taking no punitive and physical action against them, deprives the Church of its use of the sword through the magistrates. As noted elsewhere, if is a fundamental aspect of Calvin’s teaching that the magistrates represent an arm of the Church in the use of the sword. Again he writes:

“Christ, indeed as He is meek, would also, I confess, have us to be imitators of His gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquillity and safety of the Church by their defense of godliness; since to neglect this part of their duty, would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty…But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men…the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God. (Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2, Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5; written in 1563. Italics mine)

Calvin is not here just talking about the right of the magistrates to punish criminals. He is specifically writing about the secular authority defending godliness, securing the peace and safety of the Church, and inflicting physical punishment on ‘false teachers’. He claims that the ‘meekness of Christ’ does not forbid any of these things. Furthermore, he also uses the same argument as Luther, namely, that just because the Catholic Church wrongly uses these draconian powers to kill the innocent, this does not invalidate the proper use of such powers in punishing heretics, which Calvin claims, is well pleasing to God.

Concerning Calvin’s attitude and actions, Schaff maintains,

“Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.” (Schaff, Ibid, Ch. 16, § 137)

What I can say about Schaff’s comment is that I agree with the part of it that says that Calvin was of the spirit of his age. The kingdom that Calvin was in was of this world. He certainly did not exemplify the Spirit of Christ, or the character of a Christian in this matter, or in many other matters. Furthermore, are we to say that the crimes and sins we commit are to be excused because of the spirit of the age we live in? This is a strange theology indeed. Paul did things in ignorance, but he repented and was saved by the mercy of God. That salvation changed his heart and turned his life around completely (1 Timothy 1:13-16).

Schaff says that it was ‘an error of judgment, but not of the heart’. It is far more the truth that because his heart was wrong and unchanged, he would necessarily make errors of judgement. He acted according to nature. By their arguments in defence of him, the apologists of Calvin only tend to confirm the point I am making. By the way they conducted themselves in these matters, Calvin and the other leading reformers of the 16th century did not seem to know or experience a Gospel that changed them, that changed their hearts. Yes, they had a change of doctrinal convictions, intellectual enlightenment even, but manifestly not an inward change that took them ‘out’ of the ‘spirit of their age’, and ‘translated’ them into a totally new Kingdom (Colossians 1:13), with a totally new way of thinking. They still behaved like Catholic despots – they live according to the spirit of their age.

Another writer stated that what Calvin did, he did with a clear conscience. I do not disagree. Calvin believed that it is better for the sake of the whole flock that individual heretics should be put to death, rather than let them infect others with their teachings and cause them to depart from the faith and perish eternally. The reformers believed this was their sacred duty and responsibility before God – just like the Catholics had for centuries. Yes, their conscience certainly did not seem to trouble them at all from the quotes that we have seen.

But again, this is precisely my point. Nothing in the scriptures justifies this kind of outlook, or these kinds of actions. What applies in this context to the reformers is what Jesus said in John 16:2, “…yea, the time comes, that whosoever kills you will think that he does God service.” This aptly fits the reformers and their actions. In all good conscience towards God, the sect of the Pharisees had Jesus crucified and persecuted His followers. Likewise, the reformers promoted and oversaw the persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution of Anabaptists, when the latter simply testified to a conversion experience and to a baptism on the basis of that change-around in their lives. Yes, the reformers thought they were doing God a service by persecuting and executing them, but ‘a good conscience’ in itself does not justify us or our actions (1 Cor. 4:4)

A Reversal Of Fortunes

Although Calvin faced a backlash from certain quarters because of what was done to Servetus, his standing grew within the Reformation movement as a defender of the truth. It was now apparent, particularly to the Catholics, that the Reformation would not tolerate heretics in its midst, and this was a consideration that was very important to the reformers, namely, that they should not be seen to harbour, or be soft on heretics. Bullinger wrote to Calvin at the time expressing his delight that, “God has given you an opportunity to wash us all clean from the suspicion of being heretics or of favouring heresy if you show yourselves vigilant and ready to prevent this poison from spreading further.” (Opera Calvini, 8, col. 558).

However, during the trial of Servetus, the war of words was continuing between Calvin and the council concerning who had the authority to determine things regarding the Lord’s Supper and excommunication. A huge wrangle developed around the person of one Philibert Bethelier, who was a notable citizen of Geneva and a Perrinist, whom the clerics refused to admit to the Lord’s Supper despite the council pronouncing that he could (summer 1553). It ended up being a bitter tug of war that went on until a special commission that was set up ruled in favour of Calvin and the ministers in January 1555. However, the council still kept up its harassment of Calvin in other ways so that he wrote to Farel the following words:

“Here at home everything is in fearful confusion… On the inner discords our city I am afraid that you will soon be getting bad news.” (Opera Calvini, 15, 617-18; ET 3, 182.)  

Among the youth of Geneva, there was also animosity against the imposition of religion. Farel had spoken against the youth, and was forced to apologize. In January, a group of youths marched through the streets with torches and deriding religion. The following Sunday, Calvin lamented and complained about the Genevan youth in his sermon: “Alas Our Lord has indeed given occasion to weep and moan, both to you, children of Geneva, and to me with you, for it is needful that a pastor, when there is some scandal in the church, should be the first to cry out to ask pardon of God, so that all the people may follow Him.” (Opera Calvini, 53, col. 405. 33rd sermon on 1 Timothy).  

In this sermon again we see clearly that Calvin views the whole community of the city as being encompassed by the church – even the worldly anti-religious youth! This is Christendom at work.

Calvin’s exasperation and frustration is vented in another sermon on the next Sunday, when he stated: “I would like to be far from Geneva. And might it please God that I should never have to approach within a hundred leagues to please them, provided there were people who desired their salvation.” (Opera Calvini, 53, col. 36th sermon on 1 Timothy).

However, it was then that things changed dramatically – politically, at least, if not in other respects. Geneva had been attracting a large number of Protestant refugees, particularly from France. The February (1555) elections returned supporters of Calvin to the most important positions on the council, and the Perrinists were ousted. Following this, the council now decreed that a large number of French refugees could be given citizenship, which meant they could be voted onto the council in elections, and of course, these would naturally be in favour of Calvin. The political tide was moving in Calvin’s favour, which eventually would give him unprecedented influence and authority in Geneva.

This move to strengthen the position of the French refugees caused discontent among some of the citizens of Geneva, and resulted in a kind of confused demonstration or riot in May (1555), which was interpreted as a revolt or insurrection. During this incident Ami Perrin had taken the baton, which was the symbol of authority of the chief magistrate (syndic) out of the magistrate’s hand, thus giving the impression of an insurrection – and that is how it was interpreted. Ami Perrin had to flee for his life along with Philibert Berthelier because of their involvement in the ‘riot’. Calvin demanded justice after this incident, proclaiming in one of his sermons:

“There are those who will complain, as soon as one talks of doing justice, that one is bloodthirsty, that there is nothing but cruelty…And not only will the birds of the gallows talk – I speak of those who sins and crimes are manifest – but their henchmen in the taverns, who imitate the preachers. Oh, they know how to invoke humanity and mercy, and it seems to them that I spare blood no more than they do wine….” (Opera Calvini, 26, col. 501, 51st sermon on Deut.)

From these words we see that Calvin was well aware that he was being accused of vengeful brutality, and mocked in the drinking houses. He had called for justice, that is, punishment, related to those who had been among his chief opponents. Calvin was getting involved in politics here and stirring up a backlash against those who had opposed and thwarted him for years. But, of course, for him, the little republic of Geneva was the Lord’s Church, God’s domain, and he viewed it at his spiritual duty to safeguard the community from political insurrection. However, none of this accords with anything in the New Testament.

Well, punishment was handed out. Those who were involved in the riot were tortured and executed for their involvement. They were beheaded and quartered, and their body parts were hung up in the four quarters of Geneva. (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 608.)

Calvin was not backward in supporting the severity of the punishment imposed by the council, stating:

“Those who do not correct evil when they can do so and their office requires it, are guilty of it. Just as, if a preacher conceals the reigning vices, it is certain that he is a traitor and disloyal… If I then support evil…by indifference, I shall be the first to be condemned. Similarly, if those who have the sword of justice do not employ the severity they should to correct faults, it is certain that the anger of God fall on them forever.” (Opera Calvini, 27, col. 271.)

There is something unpleasantly ruthless about Calvin’s words.

Victory over political opponents. Calvin now has a free hand in imposing religion.

These events of 1555 brought to an end the concerted and organised opposition to Calvin in Geneva on the political front, and the emergence of councils that were favourable to (his version of) the Reformation. So, how did things proceed in Geneva after this? Well, we do not really know much. What I found significant, as well as very surprising, was that in reading several modern biographies on Calvin (two written in the 20th century and one in the 21st century), they all fall virtually silent regarding the activities of Calvin in the city of Geneva after his political opponents were vanquished. It is quite remarkable. Parker states in his biography of John Calvin (p. 124) that it would not be right to see Calvin’s career in Geneva mainly in the context of the opposition to him. However, as soon as the political opposition to Calvin has been overcome, Parker falls almost silent on the activities of Calvin in the remaining nine years that Calvin had in Geneva before his death in 1564. After the events of 1555, he and other biographers (Bruce Gordon and Bernard Cottret), just focus on the writings of Calvin, on his international correspondence and influence, on the type of man he was, as well as mentioning the setting up of a college in Geneva. Concerning his activities in Geneva over this nine-year period they say very little.

This seems to be because there is nothing much to relate. Having gained this freedom from political opposition, Calvin just carried on in fulfilling his aim to regulate the conduct of the Genevan citizens. Magistrates, with together with religious ministers, could now supervise and control every facet of life. With the backing of a supportive council, Calvin could now advance his version of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Calvin did not use this new-found liberty to start a programme of evangelisation in the city in order to convert sinners to the Lord, because, as we have already seen, he did not view the people in the city like that. They were already regarded as a community of God’s people whose worldly ways and godless behaviour needed to be held in check by legal restrictions and punishments, and by enforcing morality from the pulpit; those who opposed, faced various kinds of punishments, including imprisonment and banishment, or for more serious offences, execution.

One biographer (B. Cottret, Calvin, A Biography) does pick up a little on how things progressed immediately after the fall of the Perrinists. Measures had to be taken against people practising the crossbow and children playing in the street during the preaching; and skittles on the Sabbath was to be banned as it would give the Protestants a bad name among the Catholics. Advice was also given concerning the need for men and women to avoid mixing in certain public places for appearance sake, and to limit temptation. Some people complained about the extreme punishments for sexual immorality. One person objected that people were being condemned to death for adultery when, on the other hand, they were being taught they were a Christian society under the law of grace. He complained that this amounted to judaizing the people. He was imprisoned for daring to make such a judgement. (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 657).

However, from what we have read above, this man’s perception that the reformers were involved in nothing but ‘judaizing’ the community would seem to hit the nail on the head. The reformers were ignorant as to the true nature of the Lord’s church, and believed in following the Old Testament by legalistically imposing morality on the community and by punishing sinners and heretics.

What is lacking from Calvin’s time in Geneva, whether before or after the fall of the political opposition to him, is the following:

There is no narration about people in Geneva being ‘convicted of sin’ through the preaching, and ‘turning to the Lord’ for salvation as a result of such preaching; or of testimonies of those who had been ‘converted’ and their lives being changed in a way that made them leave their sinful ways, and abandon drunkenness, swearing and the like. These are the kind of testimonies and records we have from among the Anabaptists. But it was because of this kind of testimony that the reformers banished the Anabaptists from their lands and even had them executed. The reformers in Geneva may have ticked the box regarding ‘justification by faith’, but what it actually meant to them, and how they conveyed this truth in their preaching did not seem to result in the in type of conversions that we read about in the New Testament or in spiritual awakenings and revivals.

What we do read is that, during this period, thousands of refugees who were already of a reformed persuasion came to Geneva – particularly from France – and found it a haven from persecution. These also expressed their gratefulness and even joy at finding a place where what they already believed was freely being preached and applied. 

The nature of the Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was historically of monumental significance – because it changed the balance of power in Europe, both in the political and the religious sphere. This does not mean that the Magisterial Reformation was a spiritual phenomenon or movement. It showed no signs of being such. It was certainly religious in nature, and it was very human, but it showed no signs of that divine element that have characterised the revivals and ‘awakenings’ of past centuries, such as in the 18th and 19th centuries – or even of the conversion of many thousands of ordinary folk who turned to Jesus Christ for salvation through the ministry of Anabaptist preachers.

The importance of the Reformation relates to how it changed the political and religious landscape of Europe, not how it changed and transformed the lives of people spiritually. The idea that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th started to bring in a time of religious freedom and toleration is a myth. It did not do so to any extent – except for those who agreed with, or just accepted and submitted to its regime and dogma.

There are no records that I have come across that show that the Protestant Reformers led a spiritual awakening in their communities. Being of Christendom, they continued to perpetuate all the horrors and falsehoods of Christendom. They were part of that same collusion with the secular authorities as the Catholic Church had been for over a thousand years, and engaged in the persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution of religious dissenters. They adopted the nature of a cruel, intolerant religious dictatorship. It matters little what doctrines they taught. Their doctrines did not seem to change their lives inwardly, nor bring about the conversion of their listeners. They might have spoken with the ‘tongues of angels’; they might have been able to expound ‘all mysteries’ and displayed ‘all knowledge’ through their doctrinal system. It makes no difference. If we do not have love – His love – it does not profit us anything. If He says on that day, “I never knew you; I never saw My nature in you;” What use then saying, “But we taught justification by faith”?

A romantic, or fabled notion of the Reformation has come down to us. We hear of a man that stood up to the Catholic Church, who preached justification by faith, and immediately and unwittingly we impute to that person and his movement our present understanding of Christian behaviour and teaching, without really knowing what kind of man he was or what he really taught. I can no more praise the work of the reformers than I could the religious zeal of the Pharisees who persecuted the disciples of the Lord.

Had you lived in the territory of a Protestant state at that time; and if you had heard the message of the Gospel preached to you by someone that led you to repentance and faith in Christ; and if as a result of that experience you believed you should be baptised, and indeed, were therefore baptised; then you would have been in great danger! If any of the Protestant Reformers heard you testify to these things, you would have been arrested, and perhaps tortured to get information out of you about other of your fellow believers, or to get you to recant. If you were an ardent believer, then execution would have been your fate. If you had been banished or managed to escape, the Catholic authorities in neighbouring countries would have persecuted you with even greater rigour. It would not matter at all what you called yourself – Anabaptist, Swiss Brethren or just a Christian. If you testified to a personal conversion and to a believer’s baptism, each and every one of these Protestant Reformers – be it in Germany or Switzerland – would have hounded, imprisoned, and perhaps tortured you, before either banishing you or executing you. This is the nature of the Protestant Reformation.

On the ‘Library of Congress’ website, it states the following concerning religious persecution in Europe:

“The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept…meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.” (Italics mine.) (


For over a thousand years, there had been one Christendom. But now there were two! The Magisterial Reformers were responsible for the creation of a ‘second Christendom’. The result would inevitably have to be wars and conflict!

The reformers had bought into the state church system. As such, regions and countries became ‘Protestant’. Now you had two separate entities – the Catholic and the Protestant – who not only persecuted dissenters within them, but also were at loggerheads with each other. The division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant heralded a period of atrocious religious wars in Europe that lasted from about 1550 to 1650. These wars may indeed have been linked to the ongoing power struggles within Europe, but there is no getting away from the fact that it was the state church system that provided the context for new alliances and the pretexts for wars. It was the Protestant Kindgom against the Catholic Kingdom. The nature of these two Kingdoms was the same. In one sense, what they taught mattered little. To the genuine believer, they both represented persecution.

The thirty years’ war, from 1618 to 1648, fought between Catholic and Protestant regions, was considered to be one of the most destructive wars in European history. Between four to eight million people were said to have died and it utterly devastated areas of Germany, where it is estimated that at least one third of the population may have died.

What is clearly shown from history is that the Protestant Reformation continued the same dictatorial, repressive and oppressive system that had been the feature of Roman Catholic reign down the centuries, which had its beginning under the rule of the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius 1 in the 4th century and carried on by the Holy Roman Empire. They held fast to the marriage of state and church, where the church expected and exhorted the state to punish and even kill religious dissenters. The Church and State worked in tandem to impose on all of society under their control the ‘law of God’, or the ‘law of the Gospel’. There was no religious toleration.

The Protestant Reformation did not bring any relief to dissenters or to genuine evangelical believers. Quite the contrary.

The Protestant Reformers showed no understanding of what the Church of Jesus Christ is. Their hearts and minds were blinded and hardened to the truth and nature of the Gospel and of the Church. You can preach justification by faith, but Jesus said that it is by their fruit that you shall know them (Mtt. 7:16), not by their doctrines. We saw how even Martin Luther thought the reformers were on shaky ground when it came to conduct, and he advised his fellow reformers to attack the Anabaptists not on their conduct, but on their teachings.

And what were the teachings of the Anabaptists that the reformers objected to and rejected? Among them were these: that the church and state are separate entities, which, by nature, do not belong together; that the church should not use secular power to punish and persecute those who hold different religious views; that the church consisted of converted, committed believers and as such should meet in gatherings that distinguished them from the rest of the worldly and godless community; that a person could personally respond to the Gospel message and know personal repentance and conversion; that a person should then be baptised on the basis of his or her faith. The Protestant Reformers vehemently taught against all of these truths and tried to hound the Anabaptists out of existence because of them.

It is not only that the reformers had no understanding of the church as a company of converted people, but they showed no understanding that a person could know a personal conversion that, among other things, gave them an assurance of sins forgiven. If the reformers themselves had experienced a true conversion, they would, at least to some extent, have been able to understand and sympathise with the experience of the Anabaptists. But the testimony of many Anabaptists was simply mind-boggling to the reformers. They could not identify with it, they could not understand it. From the testimonies that we have, it seems clear that many Anabaptists did know God’s salvation, and they were persecuted and killed because of it.

This is what Jesus forecast, “…yea, the time is coming, that whosoever kills you will think that he is doing God a service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:2-3). Do these words apply to the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century? I would say, how can you argue otherwise? Putting someone to death simply because he wanted to be baptised following his conversion is an example of the ‘the ones born of the flesh persecuting those born of the Spirit’ (Galatians 4:29). In this verse, the apostle Paul is talking about the Judaizers who were trying to enforce an outward observance of the Law. He makes plain that such Judaizers preached something that was not the Gospel and that only brought people into bondage. This is a fitting example for the Protestant Reformation. It was a judaizing endeavour that imposed an outward morality on society and that persecuted and killed those who had had a genuine conversion experience and wanted to live accordingly. It was an instance of the flesh persecuting the Spirit.

Did the Reformation bring some kind of ‘light’ to the scene of 16th century Europe? Hardly. The reformers continued the process of the Christianisation of society. They perpetuated cultural or nominal Christianity. Just because they emphasized ‘justification by faith’ does not mean that multitudes or many were brought into the Kingdom of God by them or their teaching. And that is what we have seen in these studies. The Pharisees also believed the scriptures were the word of God, and believed many things contained therein, but their heart was so far from living in the truth of it, that they had no true understanding of it, and were simply blind leaders of the blind. This is the story of the 16th century Reformation.

The illusion, or delusion of the Reformation was that it purported to be the breaking out or breaking forth of the true Gospel, and many looking back in retrospect today and fixing on the fact that the reformers preached justification by faith, have a romantic but wholly false idea of what it was like. Spiritual darkness continued under the reformers of the 16th century just as it had done under the Catholics.

That the Reformation was not a movement of spiritual awakening and conversions seems to be confirmed by the writer Bruce Gordon in his book, The Swiss Reformation, where he writes:

“The Swiss Reformation did not operate by mass movement or through political alliance. Its success was first and foremost due to a network of churchmen, scholars, and laity who passionately shared their evangelical ideas. These networks were always a minority in their communities, but through the sharing of information, talents, and writings they emerged as a formidable force for change.” (Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, p. 348).

I would have to disagree with Gordon about the word ‘evangelical’ that he uses regarding the reformers, but nevertheless his comments are supported by the historical accounts, namely, that the Reformation was in that sense not a ‘mass movement’, but rather the reformers played the state church system to their own advantage.  Exploiting the complaints and disgruntlements of people against the abuses, exploitation and corruption of the Catholic Church, the leading reformers managed to get the princes and magistrates on their side and then to impose their own religious dogma on people.

In his book called, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the historian, Benjamin Kaplan, argues that religious intolerance continued well into the 1700s. Religious toleration slowly came about as society and Western Culture itself made religious intolerance unfashionable.

The apostle Paul had been a Pharisee. In his zeal for God, he thought it was right to persecute and kill heretics. He believed he was doing God a service. The Protestant reformers were no different. They killed believers in Christ, thinking they were pleasing God by ridding Christendom of heretics.

As I have said, the greatest judgement or condemnation of the Protestant Reformers comes from those Protestant apologists who say that they were men of their times, and suggest that it might not be quite fair to judge them according to the standards of modern times. Do such apologists not believe in the life-transforming power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Do they not believe that regeneration from above can lift you out of, and deliver you from the murderous disposition of the generation and times you were born in? And not only that, but it makes you a totally new and different person. Have they not read about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus? He testified to the following change in his life:

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has enabled me… putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and insolent…This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. But for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for an example to them who should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

Paul, who had been a persecutor, was now transformed by the mercy and grace of God, and he became an example of longsuffering to all other believers who after him should believe – this ought to have included the reformers, but it seems they missed it. Paul, who had once tried to dominate the faith of others by force – as the reformers continued to do – now writes to the Corinthians that he and the other apostles have no dominion over their faith ( 2 Cor. 1:24). Apart from teaching and persuasion, as well as necessary admonition, the apostles did not impose themselves on believers by force; they did not persecute, torture or kill the disobedient or false teachers. With all their scriptural knowledge and learning, how did the Protestant reformers of the 16th century miss this? As a Christian, Paul’s actions and outlook were not determined by the religious culture of his times. His conversion had utterly changed him. With the reformers it was different; it was not so. They were men of their times, they were of this world, and their kingdom was of this world. Their actions and outlooks were determined by the culture they had grown up in and which they had never left. That is the nature of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

There are indeed many aspects to the history of the Reformation, and it has not been the purpose of this study to pursue all of these in detail. As I stated at the beginning, this overview has focussed on those things that relate to, and reveal the nature of the Protestant Reformation, and I would ask the reader to bear this in mind if they feel I have not sufficiently pursued a particular topic that was touched upon in this study.

One of the main reasons for giving a historical overview of the Reformation in the 16th century is to provide a background to their teaching. The lives of the reformers, I believe, give us a clue regarding the nature of their theology, which I hope to show, lacked an understanding of the Gospel, of why Jesus died on the cross.

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021


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