The Reformation During Luther's Imprisonment
While Luther was safely hidden in the fortress of Wartburg, how did his strange absence affect the world? All Germany was thrown into consternation. Inquiries concerning him were heard everywhere. Even his enemies were more agitated by his absence than they could have been by his presence. The wildest rumors were circulated. Many believed that he had been murdered. There was great lamentation, not only by his avowed friends, but by thousands who had not openly taken their stand with the Reformation. Said the people, "Never more shall we behold him. Never again shall we hear that bold man whose voice stirred the depths of our hearts." Many bound themselves by a solemn oath to avenge his death.
The Romanists saw with terror to what a pitch had risen the feeling against them. Though at first exultant at the supposed death of Luther, they now desired to hide from the wrath of the people. Those who were enraged against him when he was at large, were filled with fear now that he was in captivity. "The only way of extricating ourselves," said a Roman Catholic, "is to light our torches, and go searching through the earth for Luther, till we can restore him to a nation that will have him."
The edict of the emperor seemed to fall powerless. The papal legates were filled with indignation as they saw that it commanded far less attention than did the fate of Luther. "The ink of the signature," said they, "has scarcely had time to dry, when, behold, on all sides the imperial decree is torn to pieces."
The Reformation was constantly gaining in strength. Increasing numbers joined the cause of the heroic man who had, at such fearful odds, defended the word of God. The people said, "Has he not offered to retract if refuted? and no one has had the hardihood to undertake to refute him. Does not show that he has spoken the truth?"
The seed which he had sown was springing up everywhere. Luther's absence accomplished a work which his presence would have failed to do. Other laborers felt a new responsibility, now that their great leader was removed. With new faith and earnestness they pressed forward to do all in their power, that the work so nobly begun might not be hindered.
But while the Reformation was progressing steadily and surely, Satan was not idle. Baffled in all his previous efforts to destroy the work, he adopted another plan of operation. He now attempted what he has attempted in every other reformatory movement,--to deceive and destroy the people by palming off upon them a counterfeit in place of the true work. As there were false christs in the first century of the Christian Church, so there arose false prophets in the sixteenth century.
A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven. Refusing to be guided by the word of God, they gave themselves up to be controlled by feelings and impressions. Instead of heeding the apostle's injunction to walk by the same rule, and mind the same things, seeking to be in harmony with those whom God was leading, they determined to move out independently. They claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished. Luther had presented to the people the word of God as the rule by which their character and faith should be tested. These men substituted for that unerring guide the changeable and uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions.
"What is the use," asked they, "of such close application to the Scriptures? Nothing is heard of but the Bible. Can the Bible preach to us? Can it suffice for our instruction? If God had intended to instruct us by a book, would he not have sent us a Bible direct from Heaven? It is by the Spirit only that we can be enlightened. God himself speaks to us, and shows us what to do and what to say." Thus did these men seek to overthrow the fundamental principle on which the Reformation was based,--the word of God as an all-sufficient standard of faith and practice. By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and falsehood, the way was opened for Satan to control minds as best pleased himself.
In the town of Zwickan arose one claiming to have been visited by the angel Gabriel, and instructed concerning matters which he was forbidden to reveal. A former student of Wittenberg joined this fanatic, and at once abandoned his studies, declaring that he had received from God himself the ability to explain the Scriptures. Several other persons who were naturally inclined to fanaticism, united with these men; and as their adherents increased, the leaders effected an organization, being desirous, they said, to follow the example of Christ, and claiming that in them prophets and apostles were restored to the church.
The proceedings of these enthusiasts created no little excitement. The preaching of Luther had aroused the people everywhere to feel the necessity of reform, and now some really honest persons were mislead by the pretensions of the new prophets. Those especially who had a love for the marvelous, united with the fanatical party. But the heresy was promptly met by workers in the cause of the Reformation. The pastor of the church of Zwickan was man who exemplified in his own life the truths preached by Luther. He tested all things by the word of God, and therefore was not deceived by these pretenders. He resolutely resisted the delusions which they were seeking to introduce, and his deacons supported him in the work.
The fanatics, opposed by the officers of the church, set themselves against all the established forms of order and organization. Their passionate appeals aroused and excited the people, who, in their zeal against the Romanists, proceeded to violence. A priest bearing the host was pelted with stones, and the civil authorities, being called upon to interfere, committed the assailants to prison.
Intent upon justifying their course, and obtaining redress, the leaders of the movement proceeded to Wittenberg, and presented their case before the professors of the University. Said they, "We are sent by God to teach the people . We have received special revelations from God himself, and therefore know what is coming to pass. We are apostles and prophets, and appeal to Dr. Luther as to the truth of what we say."
The professors were astonished and perplexed. This was such an element as they had never before encountered, and they knew not what course to pursue. Said Melancthon, "There are indeed spirits of no ordinary kind in these men; but what spirits? None but Luther can decide. On the one hand, let us beware of quenching the Spirit of God, and on the other, of being seduced by the spirit of Satan."
Doctrines that were in direct opposition to the Reformation were put forth by these men, and the fruit of the new teaching soon became apparent. The minds of the people were diverted from the words of God, or decidedly prejudiced by against it. Both the University and the lower schools were thrown into confusion. The students, spurning all restraint, abandoned their studies, and the States of Germany recalled all that belonged to their jurisdiction. Thus the men who thought themselves competent to revive and control the work of the Reformation, succeeded only in bringing it to the very brink of ruin.
Luther at the Wartburg, hearing of what had transpired, said with deep concern, "I always expected that Satan would send us this plaque." The Romanists now regained their confidence, and exclaimed exultantly, "One more effort, and all will be ours." A prompt and determined effort to check the fanaticism was the only hope of the Reformation.
And now there rose throughout all Wittenberg a cry for Luther. Never were his sound judgment and inflexible firmness more greatly needed. Neither the mild and peace-loving elector nor the timid and youthful Melancthon were prepared to cope with such an enemy. Professors and citizens alike felt that Luther alone could guide them safely at this important crisis. Even the fanatics appealed to his decision.
Luther received numberless letters describing the different phases of this new evil, and its baleful results, and earnestly entreating his presence. He perceived the true character of those pretended prophets, and saw the danger that threatened the church. All that he had endured from the opposition of both the pope and the emperor had not caused him such perplexity of mind or anguish of soul as did this deceptive work now linking itself with the Reformation. From the cause itself had arisen its worst enemies. Pretended friends were tearing down what he had labored at tremendous odds to build up. The very truths which had brought peace to his troubled heart had been made the cause of dissension in the church.
In the work of reform, Luther had been urged forward by the Spirit of God, and had been carried beyond himself. He had not purposed to take such positions as he did, or to make so radical changes. He had been but the instrument in the hands of infinite power. Yet he often trembled for the result of his work. He had once said, "If I knew that my doctrine had injured one human being, however poor and unknown,--which it could not, for it is the very gospel,--I would rather face death ten times over than not retract it."
And now a whole city, and that city Wittenberg itself, is fast sinking into confusion. The doctrine taught by Luther had not caused this evil; but throughout Germany his enemies were eagerly charging it upon him. In bitterness of soul he sometimes asked "Is this to be the result of the great work of the Reformation?" Again, as he wrestled with God in prayer, peace flowed into his mind. "The work is not mine, but thine own," he said; "thou wilt not suffer it to be corrupted by superstition or fanaticism." But the thought of remaining longer from the conflict in such a crisis, became insupportable. He determined to go forth and meet the disturbing element that threatened so great damage to the cause of truth and righteousness.