The Faiths at War



WHAT combination of forces and circumstances enabled nascent Protestantism to survive the hostility of both papacy and Empire? Mystical piety, Biblical studies, religious reform, intellectual development, Luther’s audacity, were not enough; they might have been diverted or controlled. Probably the economic factors were decisive: the desire to keep German wealth in Germany, to free Germany from papal or Italian domination, to transfer ecclesiastical property to secular uses, to repel Imperial encroachments upon the territorial, judicial, and financial authority of the German princes, cities, and states. Add certain political conditions that permitted the Protestant success. The Ottoman Empire, after conquering Constantinople and Egypt, was expanding dangerously in the Balkans and Africa, absorbing half of Hungary, besieging Vienna, and threatening to close the Mediterranean to Christian trade; Charles V and Archduke Ferdinand required a united Germany and Austria—Protestant as well as Catholic money and men—to resist this Moslem avalanche. The Emperor was usually engrossed in the affairs of Spain or Flanders or Italy, or in mortal conflict with Francis I of France; he had no time or funds for civil war in Germany. He agreed with his pensioner Erasmus that the Church badly needed reform; he was intermittently at odds with Clement VII and Paul III, even to allowing his army to sack Rome; only when Emperor and Pope were friends could they effectually combat the religious revolution.

But by 1527 the Lutheran “heresy” had become orthodoxy in half of Germany. The cities found Protestantism profitable; “they do not care in the least about religion,” mourned Melanchthon; “they are only anxious to get dominion into their hands, to be free from the control of the bishops”;1 for a slight alteration in their theological garb they escaped from episcopal taxes and courts, and could appropriate pleasant parcels of ecclesiastical property.2 Yet an honest desire for a simpler and sincerer religion seems to have moved many citizens. At Magdeburg the members of St. Ulrich’s parish met in the churchyard and chose eight men who were to select the preacher and manage the affairs of the church (1524); soon all churches in the city were administering the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran mode. Augsburg was so fervently Protestant that when Campeggio came there as papal legate the populace dubbed him Antichrist (1524). Most of Strasbourg accepted the new theology from Wolfgang Fabricius Capito (1523), and Martin Bucer, who succeeded him there, also converted Ulm. In Nuremberg great business leaders like Lazarus Spengler and Hieronymus Baumgärtner won the city council to the Lutheran creed (1526); the Sebalduskirche and the Lorenzkirche transformed their ritual accordingly, while keeping their Catholic art. In Brunswick the writings of Luther were widely circulated; his hymns were publicly sung; his version of the New Testament was so earnestly studied that when a priest misquoted it he was corrected by the congregation; finally the city council ordered all clergymen to preach only what could be found in the Scriptures, to baptize in German, and to serve the sacrament in both forms (1528). By 1530 the new faith had won Hamburg, Bremen, Rostock, Lübeck, Stralsund, Danzig, Dorpat, Riga, Reval, and almost all the Imperial cities of Swabia. Iconoclastic riots broke out in Augsburg, Hamburg, Brunswick, Stralsund. Probably some of this violence was a reaction against the ecclesiastical use of statues and paintings to inculcate ridiculous and lucrative legends.

The princes, gladly adopting Roman law—which made the secular ruler omnipotent as delegate of the “sovereign people”—saw in Protestantism a religion that not only exalted the state but obeyed it; now they could be spiritual as well as temporal lords, and all the wealth of the Church could be theirs to administer or enjoy. John the Steadfast, who succeeded Frederick the Wise as Elector of Saxony (1525), definitely accepted the Lutheran faith, which Frederick had never done; and when John died (1532) his son John Frederick kept Electoral Saxony firmly Protestant. Philip the Magnanimous, Landgrave of Hesse, formed with John the League of Gotha and Torgau (1526) to protect and extend Lutheranism. Other princes fell in line: Ernest of Lüneburg, Otto and Francis of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Henry of Mecklenburg, Ulrich of Württemberg. Albert of Prussia, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, following Luther’s advice, abandoned his monastic vows, married, secularized the lands of his order, and made himself Duke of Prussia (1525). Luther saw himself, apparently by the mere force of his personality and eloquence, winning half of Germany.

Since many monks and nuns now left their convents, and the public seemed unwilling to support the remainder, the Lutheran princes suppressed all monasteries in their territory except a few whose inmates had embraced the Protestant faith. The princes agreed to share the confiscated properties and revenues with the nobles, the cities, and some universities, but this pledge was very laxly redeemed. Luther inveighed against the application of ecclesiastical wealth to any but religious or educational purposes, and condemnedthe precipitate seizure of church buildings and lands by the nobility. A modest part of the spoils was yielded to schools and poor relief; the princes and nobles kept the rest. “Under cover of the Gospel,” wrote Melanchthon (1530), “the princes were only intent on the plunder of the churches.” 3

For good or evil, for spiritual or material ends, the great transformation progressed. Whole provinces—East Friesland, Silesia, Schleswig, Holstein—went over almost unanimously to Protestantism; nothing could better show how moribund Catholicism had there become. Where priests survived, they continued their support of concubines,4 and clamored for permission to marry legally as the Lutheran clergy were doing.5 Archduke Ferdinand reported to the Pope that the desire for marriage was almost universal among the Catholic secular clergy, that out of a hundred pastors scarcely one was not openly or secretly married; and Catholic princes pleaded with the papacy that the abolition of celibacy had become a moral necessity.6 A loyal Catholic complained (1524) that the bishops, with revolution on their doorsteps, went on with their Lucullan feasts;7 and a Catholic historian, speaking of Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, describes “the luxuriously furnished apartments which this unholy prince of the Church used for secret intercourse with his mistress.” 8 “Everybody,” says the same historian, “had become so hostile to priests that these were mocked and annoyed wherever they went.” 9 “The people everywhere,” wrote Erasmus (January 31, 1530), “are for the new doctrines.” 10This was true, however, only in northern Germany; and even there Duke George of Saxony and Elector Joachim of Brandenburg were resolutely Catholic. Southern and western Germany—which had been part of the ancient Roman Empire, and had received some Latin culture—remained for the most part loyal to the Church; the gemütlich South preferred the gaily colorful and sexually lenient ways of Catholicism to the predestinarian stoicism of the North. The powerful elector-archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and (till 1543) Cologne kept their regions predominantly Catholic; and Pope Adrian VI saved Bavaria by granting its dukes, for their secular uses, a fifth of ecclesiastical income in their state. A similar grant of Church revenues appeased Ferdinand in Austria.

Hungary entered vitally into the drama. The premature accession of Louis II at the age of ten (1516), and his premature death, were formative elements in the Hungarian tragedy. Even his birth was premature; the medicos of his time barely saved the frail infant by enclosing it in the warm carcasses of animals slaughtered to give it heat. Louis grew into a handsome youth, kindly and generous, but given to extravagance and festivities on meager resources amid a corrupt and incompetent court. When Sultan Suleiman sent an ambassador to Buda the nobles refused to receive him, dragged him around the country, cut off his nose and ears, and turned him back to his master.11 The infuriated Sultan invaded Hungary, and seized two of its most vital strongholds—Szabacs and Belgrade (1521). After long delays, and amid the treason or cowardice of his nobles, Louis raised an army of 25,000 men, and marched out with mad heroism to face 100,000 Turks on a field near Mohács (August 30, 1526). The Hungarians were slaughtered almost to a man, and Louis himself was drowned in stumbling flight. Suleiman entered Buda in triumph; his army sacked and burned the handsome capital, destroyed all its major buildings except the royal palace, and gave to the flames most of Matthias Corvinus’s precious library. The victorious host spread over the eastern half of Hungary, burning and pillaging, and Suleiman drove 100,000 Christian captives before him to Constantinople.

The surviving magnates divided into hostile factions. One group, judging resistance impossible, chose John Zápolya as king, and authorized him to sign a submissive peace; Suleiman allowed him to reign in Buda as his vassal, but the eastern half of Hungary remained in effect under Turkish domination till 1686. Another faction united with the nobles of Bohemia to give the crown of both Hungary and Bohemia to Ferdinand, in the hope of securing the aid of the Holy Roman Empire and the powerful Hapsburg family. When Suleiman returned to the attack (1529), marching 135 miles from Buda along the Danube to the gates of Vienna, Ferdinand successfully defended his capital. But during those critical years Charles V had been forced to humor the Protestants lest all Europe should fall to Islam. The westward advance of the Turks so obviously protected Protestantism that Philip of Hesse rejoiced at Turkish victories. When Suleiman, balked at Vienna, returned to Constantinople, Catholics and Protestants were free to renew their struggle for the soul of Germany.

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