Aleander's Speech Against Luther
With redoubled zeal, Aleander now urged upon the emperor the duty of executing the papal edicts. Overcome at last by this importunity, Charles bade the legate present his case to the diet. This was just what Aleander had secretly desired. With great care he prepared himself to appear before that august assembly. Rome had few advocates better fitted, by nature and education, to defend her cause. Aleander was not only the representative of the sovereign pontiff, invested with all the outward dignity befitting his exalted position, but he was one of the most eloquent men of his age. The friends of the Reformer looked forward to the result of his speech with some anxiety. The elector absented himself from the assembly, but instructed some of his counselors to be present, and to take notes of the legate's discourse.
There was no little excitement when Aleander, with great dignity and pomp, appeared before the diet. Many called to mind the scene of our Saviour's trial, when Annas and Caiaphas in the judgment-hall of Pilate demanded the death of him "who perverteth the nation."
With all the power of learning and eloquence, Aleander set himself to overthrow the truth. Charge after charge he hurled against Luther as an enemy of the church and the State, the living and the dead, clergy and laity, councils and private Christians. "There are people who tell us," he said, "that Luther is a man of piety. I will not impugn his private character. I will only remind this assembly that it is a common thing for the devil to deceive men under the appearance of sanctity."
A little further on, however, he attacks the Reformer, heaping upon him the most bitter invectives. Then turning to the emperor, he solemnly appeals to him to withdraw his protection from the monk of Wittenburg: "I beseech your imperial majesty not to do that which could only reflect dishonor upon your name. Meddle not with an affair in which the laity have no right to interpose. Discharge the duty that properly devolves upon you. Let Luther's doctrines be proscribed by your authority throughout the empire; let his writings be everywhere committed to the flames. Shrink not from the path of justice. There is enough in the errors of Luther to warrant the burning of a hundred thousand heretics."
In closing, he endeavors to cast contempt upon the adherents of the new doctrines: "What are all these Lutherans? A motley rabble of insolent grammarians, licentious priests, disorderly monks, ignorant advocates, degraded nobles, misled and perverted plebeians. How greatly superior is the Catholic party in numbers, in intelligence, in power! A unanimous decree of this illustrious assembly will open the eyes of the simple, show the unwary their danger, determine the wavering, and strengthen the weak-hearted."
The advocates of truth have in every age been attacked with just such weapons. The same arguments that were urged against Luther, are urged by our opponents to-day: "Who are these Sabbatarians? They are unlearned, few in numbers, and of the poorer class. Yet they claim to have the truth, and to be the chosen people of God. They are ignorant and deceived. How greatly superior in numbers and influence are our denominations. How many great and learned men are in our churches. How much more power is on our side." These are the arguments that have a telling influence upon the world. But they are no more conclusive now than in the days of the Reformer.
The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world's history. Luther had a great work to do in reflecting upon others the light which God permitted to shine upon him; yet he was not to receive all the light which was to be given to the word. From that time to this new light has been continually shining upon God's word, new truths have been constantly unfolding. God is light, and he is ever imparting light to his followers.
Those who refuse to advance as the providence of God leads the way, seek to arrest the progress of those who endeavor to walk in the light. The churches of this generation profess to be holy, but they permit the love of the world to control them. They have united in spirit and fellowship with the workers of iniquity. They choose to depart from the divine commandment, rather than to separate themselves from the friendship and customs of the world. They are joined to the idols they have chosen; and because temporal prosperity and the favor of a sin-loving world are granted them, they deem themselves rich and in need of nothing. Pride, luxury, riches, and popularity are their treasures, and in their spiritual blindness they count these an evidence of the love and favor of God. Was the Romish church in great deception in Luther's day? The Protestant churches are in equally great deception to-day. They refuse to receive instruction or reproof. Their ministers cry, Peace, peace, and the people love the soothing message. In their willful blindness they believe only that which will not disturb their carnal security. But in every age of the world, God's true people have learned by experience as well as by the word of inspiration that prosperity and learning and worldly honor are no evidence of the favor of God. The life of Christ, the Captain of our salvation, teaches the lesson that on earth the true church cannot enjoy the favor of a wicked world.
The legate's address was three hours in length, and his impetuous eloquence made a deep impression upon the assembly. There was no Luther present, with the clear and convincing truths of God's word, to vanquish the papal champion. No attempt was made to defend the Reformer. There was manifest in the assembly a general impulse to root out the Lutheran heresy from the empire. Rome had enjoyed the most favorable opportunity to maintain the justice of her cause. Her claims had been presented with the utmost skill. The greatest of her orators had spoken in this assembly of princes. All that Rome could say in her own vindication had been said. Error had presented her strongest arguments. Henceforth the contrast between truth and error would be more clearly seen, as they should take the field in open warfare. The apparent victory was but the signal of defeat. Never from that day would Rome stand as secure as she had stood.
The majority of the assembly were ready to sacrifice Luther to the demands of the pope; but many of them saw and deplored the existing depravity in the church, and desired a suppression of the abuses suffered by the German people in consequence of the extravagances and lies of popery. The legate had presented the papal rule in the light most favorable for Rome. Now the Lord moved upon a member of the diet to give a true delineation of the effects of papal tyranny. With noble firmness Duke George of Saxony stood up in that dignified assembly, and specified with terrible exactness the wrongs, the deceptions, and abominations of Rome, and their dire result. He exposed the utter corruption of her ecclesiastical system and its workings. His speech closed with these words:--
"These are but a few of the abuses which cry out against Rome for redress. All shame is laid aside, and one object alone incessantly pursued: money! evermore money! so that the very men whose duty it is to disseminate the truth, are engaged in nothing but the propagation of falsehood; and yet they are not merely tolerated but rewarded; because the more they lie, the larger are their gains. This is the foul source from which so many corrupted streams flow out on every side. Profligacy and avarice go hand in hand. The officials summon women to their house on various pretenses, and endeavor either by threats or presents, to seduce them; and if the attempt fails, they ruin their reputation. Oh! it is the scandal occasioned by the clergy that plunges so many poor souls into everlasting perdition. A thorough reform must be effected. To accomplish that reform, a General Council must be assembled. Wherefore, most excellent princes and lords, I respectfully beseech you to give this matter your immediate attention."
A more able and forcible denunciation of the abuses of Rome could not have been made by Luther himself; and the fact that the speaker was an opponent of Luther, gave greater influence to his words. The assembly proceeded to constitute a committee for the purpose of drawing up a list of popish grievances. The list, when completed, was found to number one hundred and one. The report was presented to the emperor with the earnest request that he would do what was just in so important a matter. "What a loss of Christian souls," said the committee to the emperor, "what injustice, what extortion, are the daily fruits of those scandalous practices to which the spiritual head of Christendom affords his countenance! The ruin and dishonor of our nation must be averted. We therefore very humbly, but very urgently, beseech you to sanction a general reformation, to undertake the work, and to carry it through."
Had the eyes of the assembly been opened, they would have beheld angels of God in the midst of them, shedding beams of light athwart the darkness of error, and opening minds and hearts to the reception of sacred truths. It was the power of the God of truth and wisdom that controlled even the adversaries of the Reformation, and thus prepared the way for the great work about to be accomplished. Martin Luther was not present; but a Greater than Luther had made his voice heard in that assembly.
Charles could not disregard the appeals of the diet, so utterly unexpected both by the legate and himself. He immediately withdrew the edict for the burning of Luther's writings, and ordered that they be delivered into the hands of the magistrates. The assembly now demanded Luther's appearance before them. "It is unjust," urged his friends, "to condemn Luther without having heard him, and without having ascertained from his own lips that he is the author of those books which it is proposed to burn."
"His doctrine," said his opponents, "has taken so fast hold on men's minds that it is impossible to check its progress, unless we allow him a hearing. There shall be no disputing with him; and in the event of his acknowledging his writings, and refusing to retract them, we will all, with one accord, electors, princes, and states of the holy empire, in firm adherence to the faith of our ancestors, give your majesty our unsparing aid to carry your decrees into full effect."
The legate Aleander is greatly troubled by this proposal. He knows that he has everything to dread from Luther's presence before the diet. He therefore appeals to the princes known to be most favorably disposed toward the pope: "There shall be no disputing with Luther, you say; but how can we be sure that the genius of this audacious man, the fire that flashes from his eyes, the eloquence of his speech, the mysterious spirit that animates him, will not suffice to excite a tumult? Already there are many who revere him as a saint, and his image is everywhere to be seen encircled with rays of glory, like those which surround the heads of the blessed."
And now a Satanic thought enters the mind of this agent of the great adversary, and he adds: "If he must needs be cited to appear, beware, at all events, of pledging the public faith for his safety." Aleander hoped that, should Luther appear at Worms, the Romanists might obtain possession of his person, and silence forever that reproving voice, even before it should utter a word in the assembly.
The priests and Pharisees were actuated by the same spirit in their opposition to Paul. Whenever the apostle's words in vindication of the truth were allowed to influence the people, the cause of the Jewish leaders suffered loss; therefore the same Satanic subtlety was employed to silence Paul's voice. Those Jewish leaders knew, as did Aleander, that if truth were presented before the people, it would appear in so striking contrast to error that none could fail to see the distinction.
The same motive led the Jews to destroy Stephen. It was the words of truth which the priests and elders could not controvert that inspired those wicked judges with such madness against this man of God that even while his countenance was shining with the glory from Heaven, they dragged him from the judgment-hall, and silenced his eloquence, not with arguments from the law and the prophets, but with stones.