The Gathering Storm


While its enemies were forming leagues against the Reformation, new friends were stepping out of the ranks of the Romanists to place themselves on its side. No sooner had the members of the league left Ratisbon, than the deputies of the towns, whose bishops had taken part in the alliance, in surprise and indignation, met at Spires, declaring that their ministers, in spite of the prohibition of the bishops, should preach the gospel. Before the end of the year, the deputies of these cities, with many nobles, met and swore a mutual defense pact.

While the cities were aligning themselves with the Reformation, many princes were also joining the cause.

In early June of 1924, as Melancthon was returning from a visit to his mother, he met a brilliant train near Frankfort. It was Philip, the landgrave of Hesse, who three years earlier had met Luther at Worms. Philip was on his way to Heidelberg, where all the princes of Germany were to be present at a tournament. Being informed by one of his attendants that it was Melancthon approaching, the young prince quickly rode up to the doctor and asked, “Is your name Philip?” “It is,” replied the surprised scholar. Somewhat intimidated, Melancthon prepared to dismount. “Keep your seat,” said the prince; “turn around, and come and pass the night with me; there are some matters on which I desire to have a little talk with you.” D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, book 10, chap. 8

The two Philips rode side by side, the prince asking questions, and the doctor answering them. The landgrave was impressed by the clear answers he received. Upon parting, the landgrave asked that Melancthon, upon further study, send him a replay to his questions in writing.

Philip of Hesse

Shortly after returning from the tournament at Heidelberg, the prince published an edict, in opposition to the league of Ratisbon, allowing the free preaching of the gospel in his territory. Other princes, including the King of Denmark soon followed in the same direction, lending their influence to the Reformation.

Charles V and the pope had opposed a national assembly at Spires for fear that it would release the Word of God, but, like the dawn spreading across the land, it made itself manifested in every part of the empire, attesting to the truth that the Word of God cannot be bound. However, just as the light of the Reformation was rising, promising to spread its light over all Germany, a cloud arose to obscure its light which not even Luther had suspected.

The oppression of the Germany peasantry had been growing over the centuries. Not only had they been robbed of their ancient rights but new and galling restrictions were continually being added. Not only were they no longer permitted to roam their forests and hunt game as they pleased, but they were required to spill their blood in maintaining the quarrels of their masters. To this temporal oppression had been added ecclesiastical bondage. The small portion of earthly goods that remained after the barons had robbed them of their share, was now wrung from them by the priests by way of spiritual threats. While the greater part of Germany was sinking in poverty and despair, the minority was rising in wealth and power and the contrast was not lost on the peasants, making their lot even more bitter. The free towns were making rapid strides in the acquisition of liberty and their example taught the peasants that the way to achieve independence was by combinations and collective effort. Letters and arts were progressing at the same time, awakening thought. Lastly, the Reformation was came teaching the equality of all men, greatly weakening the central authority of Europe, that being the papacy.

In the minds of the poor downtrodden peasants, it now seemed evident that the time had arrived to right the great wrongs they were subjected to, some of which dated from early times. The patience of the suffering peasantry was exhausted and if their masters would not loosen their fetters, they had begun to feel that they had the power to do so themselves. Their blind rage was in direct proportion to the ignorance and degradation into which they had sunk.

Mutterings of the gathering storm had already been heard in insurrections and tumults which had broken out in the preceding century in various parts of Germany, as well as in Holland, and had been followed in the sixteenth century by similar disturbances which had broken out every few years. Had these indications been correctly interpreted by the princes both civil and spiritual, they would have realized that they had no alternative in the future but to deal with reformation or revolution. These revolts all sprang from the same cause—oppressive labor and insupportable burdens that were being continually added. The poor, dehumanized by ignorance and oppression, knew of but one way to right themselves—demolishing the castles and wasting the lands and in some cases, slaying their oppressors.

It was at the point that these outbreaks were becoming common that the Reformation entered upon the scene. The true gospel contained in itself the healing virtue to change the hearts and passions of men, turning the hearts of the princes to their people, and to an extent it had succeeded in arresting the unrest when it was forcibly met and stopped.

No sooner was the onward progress of reform stopped when the unrest broke out again with unrestrained furry. The evil which it was not permitted to heal, it was now accused of causing. “See,” said Duke George of Saxony, “what an abyss Luther has opened. He has reviled the pope; he has spoken evil of dignities; he has filled the heads of the people with lofty notions of their own importance; and by his doctrines he has sown the seeds of universal disorder and anarchy. Luther and his Reformation are the cause of the Peasant war. Many besides Duke George found it convenient to shut their eyes to their own misdeeds, and to make the Gospel the scapegoat of calamities of which they themselves were the authors. Even Erasmus upbraided Luther thus—“We are now reaping the fruits that you have sown.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 9, 513

Thomas Munzer

There was a degree of plausibility to this argument as Thomas Munzer, a professed disciple of the Reformation had become a leader in the revolt. Munzer, however, unlike the true disciples of the Reformed movement, had held that it was unworthy of a Christian to be guided by any objective authority, even the Word of God. He spoke of liberty, but the only limit of this liberty was his own inward light. Munzer disliked, as he likened it, the Popedom of Wittenberg even more than he did the Popedom of Rome. His political views were closely aligned with his religious ones. The fact that the gospel teaches the equality of all mankind, he took to mean that we have no superior but God. This he interpreted to mean an equality of rank, and community of goods. Such was the man who, girding on the sword of Gideon, placed himself at the head of the revolting peasantry, inspiring them with his own fanatical sense of liberty in which their own passions and judgment were to rule.

The peasants put their demands into twelve articles and considering the nature and mind set of those who penned them, they were actually quite moderate and reasonable. An enlightened policy would have conceded to these demands in the main. However, neither reason nor enlightenment bore sway. Those upon whom the demands were placed refused to give them consideration as they prepared for war.

At this moment, the vessel of the Reformation is in the difficult position of finding itself between the two great contesting forces of established despotism and popular lawlessness. It required rare skill to keep it from being cast up on either the one or the other. Would Luther ally himself and the movement at the head of which he now stood with the element which was directing its fury at the overthrow of a system he regarded as the parent of all the oppressions and misery that then filled Christendom? 

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