The Magisterial Reformation: Part 5

  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 violenceWhat 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 profligatesThe 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.


Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021