Protestantism Suppressed in Germany

It seemed as if the Lutheran Reformation had run its course and that the emperor’s triumph was complete, leaving it in his power to settle the religious question as he chose. Of the three leading princes of the League, one was the ally of the emperor; the other two were his prisoners. Stripped of their titles and power, their castles demolished, their lands confiscated, Charles was publicly insulting the whole German people by leading them in captivity from town to town.

Events abroad had left Charles yet freer to act the despot in Germany. His two rivals, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France, had both been removed by death, and he now had little cause to fear opposition to his projects from any quarter. Of the four rulers whose greatness and ambition had marked the first half of the sixteenth century, Charles alone remained.

Master of the situation, he proceeded to frame a creed for his northern subjects. It was styled the Interim and was given out as a halfway compromise between Wittenberg and Rome. As finally published, after repeated corrections, this new creed was but the old faith of Rome, lightly retouched by ambiguities of speech and quotations from Scripture. It taught, among other things, the supremacy of the Pope transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the mass, the invocation of the saints, auricular confession, justification by works, and the sole right of the Church to interpret the Scriptures. In reality, not one concession had Rome made. In return for swallowing a creed that was completely popish, the Protestants were to be rewarded with two trivial concessions. Clergymen already married were to be permitted to retain their wives; and where the practice of dispensing the Sacrament in both kinds was already established, the custom was still to be tolerated. This was portrayed as meeting the Protestants half-way.

“Shrewd and farsighted as the emperor was within his own realm, the Interim remains the monument of his short-sightedness in other matters. Great as his experience had been of the world and its affairs, he did not yet know man. He knew the weakness of man, his self-love, his covetousness, and his ambition; but he did not know that in which lies his strength—namely, in conscience. This was the faculty that Protestantism had called into existence, and it was with this new power—which Charles did not understand, or rather did not believe in—that he was now rushing into conflict. He thought he was advancing to victory, when the issue showed that he was marching to destruction.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 12, chapter 6

The emperor now proceeded to enforce the Interim. He was astonished to find that a matter which he had taken to be so simple should be the cause of so many difficulties. The Interim, for which he had anticipated a chorus of welcome on all sides, had hardly a friend in the world. In the view of the Vatican, it was detestable and odious. It was not that its theology could be faulted, for theologically there was little in it that Rome could fault. The issue which Rome could not tolerate was the fact that the emperor by virtue of his own authority presumed to frame and promulgate a creed which was a work to be undertaken by a Council; it was, in fact, to seat himself in the chair of St. Peter and to say, “I am the Church.” Moreover, the cardinals resented even the two pitiful concessions which had been made to the Protestants.

Prince Maurice

In Germany the reception of the Interim varied from province to province. In the more distant Northern Germany, where the emperor’s arm could hardly reach, it was openly resisted. In Central Germany it in a manner fell to the ground. Prince Maurice, in order to please Charles, had it proclaimed in his dominions, while excusing himself from enforcing it. It was quite a different story in Southern Germany. There the Churches were purified from their Protestant defilement and the old rites were restored. Protestant magistrates were replaced by Popish ones, the privileges of the free cities were violated, and the inhabitants were driven to mass by the emperor’s soldiers. The Protestant pastors were forced into exile, or rendered homeless in their native land. Those who were unable to escape fell into the hands of their enemies and were led about in chains.

There was one submission that is more painful to contemplate than all the others and it is that of Melancthon. Melancthon and the Wittenberg divines, decided to adhere to the general principle that where only things of lesser importance are in question, it is prudent to obey the commands of a lawful superior, and assuming that the Interim, which had been slightly manipulated for their special convenience, conflicted with the Augustan Confession in only minor points, that it would be well to preserve the essentials of the Gospel as seed-corn for better times. Thus they denied their Protestantism, and bowed down in submission to the emperor’s religion.

But, though surrounded by weak and submissive men, one man stood nobly erect—John Frederick of Saxony. Despite the suffering and humiliation to which he was subjected, he refused to accept the Interim. It was hinted that by submitting to the emperor’s creed, he might obtain his freedom, but this only drew from him a solemn protestation of his adherence to the Protestant faith. “ ‘God,’ said the fallen prince, ‘has enlightened me with the knowledge of his Word; I cannot forsake the known truth, unless I would purchase to myself eternal damnation; wherefore, if I should admit of that decree which in many and most material points disagrees with the Holy Scriptures, I should condemn the doctrine of Jesus Christ, which I have hitherto professed, and in words and speech approve what I know to be impious and erroneous. That I retain the doctrine of the Augustan Confession, I do it for the salvation of my soul, and, slighting all worldly things, it is now my whole study how, after this painful and miserable life is ended, I may be made partaker of the blessed joys of life everlasting.’ ” Ibid.

Firmly convinced that the Roman Catholic faith was the basis of his power, and that should Germany be divided on the issue of religion, that his Empire would be lost, Charles had, from the very beginning, firmly resolved to suppress Lutheranism, by conciliation if possible; if not, by force of arms. Though time and again, circumstances had been such that he had been forced to postpone the implementation of his purpose, in his mind’s eye, he had ever steadily pursued it through the intrigues and thirty years of warfare. Now that the blow had been struck, and the goal achieved, there seemed to remain nothing more to be accomplished. The League was dissolved; the Protestants were at his feet. Luther, whose word had more power than ten armies, was in his grave. After so many distractions and delays, he would now pause and taste its sweets; or so it seemed. However, it was at this moment, when he was at the pinnacle of success, that the entire landscape suddenly changed. Suddenly, he had not a friend or ally who did not suddenly turn against him.

The gathering storm first appeared at Rome. The attainment of power which his successful conquest of Germany had brought to the emperor alarmed the Pope. The Papacy, he feared, was about to receive a new master and he repented of having contributed to the growth of a power that might one day make Italy its victim.

Paul III, therefore, recalled the troops he had sent to support the imperial army as an aid in punishing the heretics. The next step of the Pope was to order the Council of Trent to remove to Bologna. Though a sudden sickness that had broken out among the Fathers furnished the pretext, the real motive for moving the Council to Italy was a fear that the emperor would interfere with the proceedings and compel it to pass decrees of his choosing. Charles had put down Lutheranism but at the expense of greatly extending his own power. What could not keep him from playing the part of Henry of England?

However, in Germany, even closer to Charles, a yet more terrible tempest was brewing.