War Breaks Out

No doubt someone less spiritual than Luther would have linked their interests with the cause that was now forming a tempest to throw its energies against that system of tyranny that he had come to view as the fountainhead of all the oppression and misery that now filled Christendom. However, Luther knew that to borrow the sword of man in its behalf, would profane the holy cause of the Reformation and thus forfeit the help of a mightier sword which alone could prevail in such a contest, and he shrank from such a course. The Reformation had the ability to reform all wrongs and to settle all disputes, but it could only accomplish this by the dissemination of its principles into the hearts of men. Luther, therefore, refused to become involved in the contest.

By following such a course, Luther was able to effectively come between both the oppressed and the oppressor, pointing out to each the truth. The princes he reminded of the long course of tyranny which they and their fathers had exercised over the poor people. The bishops he spoke to even more plainly, rebuking them for hiding the light of the gospel from the people, substituting in its place fables and false burdens with which they had robbed the people.

Turning to the people, he next addressed the insurgents. Acknowledging their complaints to be with good cause, he faithfully told them that they had taken the wrong course to remedy them. They would never improve their lot by rebellion; they must exercise Christian submission, waiting for the rectification of their individual wrongs and those of society as a whole, to be brought about by the healing power of the gospel. Pointing to his own example, he showed that he had not taken the sword. Relying solely on the instrumentality of the gospel, he had in a few years done much to shake the oppressive power of the hierarchy, accomplishing more than an army could possibly have done in a much longer period of time. He begged them to permit the process to continue and allow the gospel to accomplish the righting of wrongs. He pointed out that is in the name of the gospel, they opposed the work of the gospel, they would but more surely make certain the continuation of their deplorable state.

Luther, however, received no gratitude for his course from either the princes who accused him of throwing a shield over the rebellion, nor from the peasantry who blamed him for being a tool of the aristocracy and currying favor of the princes.  

To be fair, we must not overlook the indirect influence of the Reformation on troubles that now broke out in the kingdom. The fire had been kindled in Germany by religious discussions. The violence of Luther’s writings, the intrepidity of his accusations and the language, the harsh truths he had spoken, not only to the pope and the prelates, but also to the princes themselves, had all contributed to inflame the minds that were already in a state of excitement. The claims of a few fanatics to Divine inspiration only increased the evil.

“ ‘To them the Holy Scriptures were but a dead letter,’ said Luther, ‘and they all began to cry, The Spirit! The Spirit! But most assuredly I will not follow where their spirit leads them. May God of his mercy preserve me from a church than which there is none but such saints.’ ” D’Aubgine, History of the Reformation, book 10, chapter 10

The insurrection first appeared in the Black Forest near the source of the Danube. It first made its appearance in the summer of 1524, spreading like wildfire. By the spring of 1525, the conflagration spread to include much of Saxony. The twelve articles mentioned earlier, had become the standard around which the insurgents rallied. The peasant army that formed was continually being enlarged by new accessions. Towns too feeble to resist opened their gates at their approach and not a few barons and knights impelled by terror joined their ranks.

As the excitement of the insurgents increased their march was no longer just tumultuous, but became destructive and desolating in its fury. Not only were fields trampled but castles of the nobility were demolished and convents burned to the ground. Soon they began to dye their path with the blood of their victims as they slaughtered mercilessly those who came under their power.

It seemed for a time that the conflagration would increase until it devoured all Christendom. It extended on the west to the Rhine. It extended from Saxony to the Alps. The princes taken by surprise were initially without spirit or alliance. Soon, however, they recovered from their stupor.

Had it been left to the Catholic princes, the rebellion would have raged without resistance. Philip of Hesse, was the first of the princes to take up arms. His knights and soldiers swore to live and die with him. Having pacified his own states he next directed his march toward Saxony. He was joined by Duke John, the elector’s brother, Duke George of Saxony, and Duke Henry of Brunswick. At the sight of the united army’s approach, the terrified peasants were soon surrounded. The princes, taking pity on them sent a messenger with the offer of pardon, upon condition of laying down arms. However, acting on the advice of Munzer, they put the messenger to death. Both sides now prepared for battle.

“The landgrave, having assembled his horsemen, said to them: ‘I well know that we princes are often in fault, for we are but men; but God commands all men to honour the powers that be. Let us save our wives and children from the fury of these murderers. The Lord will give us the victory, for he as said: Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. Philip then gave the signal for attack.’ ” Ibid., chapter 11.  The artillery of the combined forces soon broke up the rude rampart the rebels had erected and their fanaticism and courage at once forsook them. As they fled in terror 5,000 perished in the flight.

In the war that followed, the nobles were everywhere triumphant. Ruthless in putting down the insurgency, the nobles exacted a terrible vengeance and by the time that hostilities ended it is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 perished. Ghastly memorials marked the provinces where the tempest had passed. Fields were laid waste, cities and castles in ruins while corpses dangled from trees or were lying in heaps in the fields. The gain remained on the part of Rome. In some places the old form of worship was restored and the yoke of feudal bondage was only the more firmly attached. The people everywhere lost even the little liberty that had hitherto enjoyed.

The outbreak taught the world a great lesson with regard to the Protestant movement by showing that it was quite different from Romanism in both its origin and issues. The insurrection did not manifest itself, or when it did, in only the mildest of form in places such as Wittenberg and those areas permeated by the influence of Wittenberg. When it entered upon ground where the Reformation had occupied, it lost its power, revealing that the gospel was the effective remedy for the great ills that racked society.

“This outbreak taught the age, moreover, that Protestantism could no more be advanced by popular violence than it could be suppressed by aristocratic tyranny. It was independent of both; it must advance by its own inherent might along its own path. In fine, this terrible outbreak gave timely warning to the world of what the consequences would be of suppressing the Reformation. It showed that underneath the surface of Christendom there was an abyss of evil principles and fiendish passions, which would one day break through and rend society in pieces, unless they were extinguished by a Divine influence. Munzer and his ‘inward light’ was but the precursor of Voltaire and the ‘illuminati’ of his school. The peasants’ war of 1525 was the first opening of ‘the fountains of the great deep.’ The ‘Terror’ was first seen stalking through Germany. It slumbered for two centuries while the religious and political power of Europe was undergoing a process of slow emasculation. Then the ‘Terror’ again awoke, and the blasphemies, massacres, and wars of the French Revolution overwhelmed Europe.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 9, chapter 8

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