Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of the Reformation

Everything in the Renaissance did not make for good. It led towards freedom, but it also led towards godlessness and licence. But born of the same desire for truth, led by the same spirit of liberty, helped by the printing-press, even as the new learning was helped, another movement grew and spread. This was the Reformation.

The Reformation was not a revolt against the Renaissance but its natural accompaniment. They acted and re-acted upon each other. In everything men had begun to think for themselves. By new discoveries on the earth and in the heavens old beliefs had been shaken. It was not wonderful then that men should claim the right of freedom in religious thought as in all others.

Early Reformers

As the Renaissance had its forerunners, so also had the Reformation. At the beginning of the thirteenth century the Albigenses in the south of France had been crushed out of existence because they dared to worship God in their own way. In the middle of the fourteenth century in England John Wycliffe had preached against the doctrines of the Church, and had made the first translation of the Bible into English. He was persecuted but not silenced, and after his death his followers, the Lollards, continued to teach and preach until they were suppressed by force.

Wycliffe's teaching, however, was not killed, and it spread over Europe even as far as Bohemia. Here in the beginning of the fifteenth century John Huss began to preach his doctrines. He was burned at the stake, a crusade was declared against his followers, and for fifteen years they were hunted and persecuted.

But in the end these and other movements like them had all been crushed. None of them had the aid of the printing-press, therefore they remained more or less local, and left little impression on the world as a whole.

In spite of these occasional risings against its authority, the pretension of the Church increased as time went on, until the pope claimed absolute authority over every country and every king, in secular as well as in spiritual matters. Kings, said the pope, in effect, could reign only by his will and favour. And if any displeased him he claimed the right of deposing him, and of giving his lands to another.

But as in each country the sense of nationality and the royal power grew greater, both kings and people began to chafe at this foreign interference. As the papacy became less spiritual and more and more secular, as the pope himself became less and less a pastor and more and more a ruling prince and warrior, this dissatisfaction increased. Kings grudged more and more the constant stream of gold which, flowing from their countries in the shape of tithes and other ecclesiastical fees, went, not to spread the Gospel of Christ, but to swell the exchequer of the pope as a temporal prince and possible political enemy.

On the political side, then, the world was ready to break with the pope. On the religious side it was also ready. For there came the new learning and the printing-press. Bibles were soon sown broadcast in the tongues of every nation in Europe. Men were no longer content to be told that such and such a doctrine was taught by the Church; they wanted to know why and upon what grounds the Church taught its doctrines. The Reformation was thus both a political and a religious movement. For in the Middle Ages Church and state had become so bound together that it could not be otherwise.

More than any other land Germany had felt the power of the pope. Because of the fatal connection between the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy See it had been kept from nationality, and had remained a collection of states great and small, held together by the slightest of bonds. Now, more than any other land, it was ready for revolt. The gunpowder was ready, the train was laid; it needed but a spark to fire it. The spark which caused the explosion was the sale of Indulgences.

The Sale of Indulgences

An Indulgence meant that by paying a sum of money a man could buy forgiveness of any sin he had committed. The selling of them was no new thing. It was closely connected with the practice of doing penance, many people preferring to pay money than do penance in other ways. But in early days no Indulgence had been given except upon the promise of repentance. By the end of the fifteenth century the sale of them had become a scandal. The most vile and wicked, who had neither the desire nor the intention of repentance, could buy them freely.

When an Indulgence seller set forth upon his rounds he did so in splendour, with a gay train of followers. Coming to a city he entered it with pomp. The Bull declaring the Indulgence was carried on a cushion of cloth of gold or of crimson velvet. Priests swinging censers and carrying lighted candles and banners followed after, and thus to the sound of chants and songs, and the ringing of joy bells, the procession passed along the streets to the church.

Here, before the altar, the vendor spread forth his wares, and declaring that the gates of heaven were open, invited the people to come and buy. When Leo X became pope he found his exchequer almost empty. He needed money sorely for his many projects, among them the building of St. Peter's at Rome. To get the money he fell back upon the fruitful expedient of selling Indulgences.

Martin Luther

The man who had charge of their sale in Germany was a Dominican monk named John Tetzel. He was vulgar and blasphemous. He cried his wares in the church like a cheap-jack in the market-place, making unseemly jokes by the way. This manner of selling Indulgences shocked many people who before had found no harm in the custom. Among these was the monk Martin Luther.

Luther was the son of a poor miner, and his childhood had been one of bitter poverty. But poor although he was, Hans Luther had managed to send his son to school and afterwards to the university of Erfurt, at that time the most famous in Germany.

His son repaid him by working hard, and it seemed as if he had a great career before him, when suddenly he threw all his brilliant prospects to the winds and became a monk. Martin took this step, he said, to save his soul. For he was one of those who had begun to think for themselves on matters of religion, and his thoughts had thrown him into an anguish of doubt. In time, however, he found some sort of peace, and when Tetzel came to Germany he was teacher of theology in the university of Wittenberg.

For various reasons many of the rulers in Germany disliked the selling of Indulgences, and the Elector of Saxony had forbidden Tetzel to enter his dominions. But Tetzel would not willingly forgo the harvest of gold which might be gleaned from Saxony. So, without actually entering its borders he came as near to them as he could, and set up his booth in Magdeburg. And as he had foreseen, many people crossed the frontiers to buy Indulgences.

At this Luther's heart was filled with sorrow and indignation. He could not but feel that these poor people were being deceived and exploited. At length he wrote out, in Latin, ninety-five theses, or articles, against the sale of Indulgences, and on November 1, 1517, he nailed them to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. The chief idea in these theses was "that by true sorrow and repentance only, and not by payment of money, forgiveness of sins can be won."