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How Martin Luther Met Fanaticism at Wittenburg

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This is the third article on Martin Luther I have written, taking from D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation with the purpose of sharing lessons from the great events of that era.:

  1. The first article was on Luther's disputes with Dr. Eck in 1519.
  2. The second article was on Luther's stand for freedom of conscience and justification by faith at the Diet of Wurms in 1521. This was the high point of his life and one of the most important moments in history, launching the modern era of freedom of thought.

After that courageous stand for the word of God at Wurms, Luther was taken to the Wartburg and removed from the directly influencing the progress of the Reformation. Events began to speed up, and actually practical changes were made beyond just intellectual arguments. Monks began to marry, Mass was attacked, images torn down, the Lord's Supper given for the first time in German (this last brave act was done by Carlstadt). Men claimed to be prophets and said that they were led directly by the Holy Spirit, deemphasizing the word of God. The people were becoming agitated. All this worried Luther, who saw that the Reformation could be driven to extremes and be destroyed by the very people who were supposed to have received freedom, thus bringing shame to God and His word. Luther needed to act.

But how was it that Melancthon and other scholars were confused by the prophets? One was that they preached adult baptism, a correct doctrinal insight. This made Melancthon wonder if they were right and actually were led by God, and he felt he needed to study more. There was confusion about how the gifts of God were to be given back to His church. But there was one insight that Luther had that Melanchthon, being a younger man, had yet to comprehend: what we in our movement call the ministration of death. Let us look as D'Aubigne paints a picture of this scene, the coming of the prophets of Zwickau, and we also notice the fascinating character of Carlstadt:

Prejudiced men might have seen nothing in the work that was going on but the effects of an empty enthusiasm. The very facts were to prove the contrary, and demonstrate that there is a wide gulf between a Reformation based on the Word of God and a fanatical excitement.

Whenever a great religious ferment takes place in the Church, some impure elements always appear with the manifestations of truth. We see the rise of one or more false reforms proceeding from man, and which serve as a testimony or countersign to the real reform. Thus many false messiahs in the time of Christ testified that the real Messiah had appeared. The Reformation of the sixteenth century could not be accomplished without presenting a similar phenomenon. In the small town of Zwickau it was first manifested.

In that place there lived a few men who, agitated by the great events that were then stirring all Christendom, aspired at direct revelations from the Deity, instead of meekly desiring sanctification of heart, and who asserted that they were called to complete the Reformation so feebly sketched out by Luther. “What is the use,” said they, “of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible! always the Bible! Can the Bible preach to us? Is it sufficient for our instruction? If God had designed to instruct us by a book, would he not have sent us a Bible from heaven? It is by the Spirit alone that we can be enlightened. God himself speaks to us. God himself reveals to us what we should do, and what we should preach.” Thus did these fanatics, like the adherents of Rome, attack the fundamental principle on which the entire Reformation is founded — the all-sufficiency of the Word of God...

The new prophets, pretending to walk in the footsteps of those of old, began to proclaim their mission: “Woe! woe!” said they; “a Church governed by men so corrupt as the bishops cannot be the Church of Christ. The impious rulers of Christendom will be overthrown. In five, six, or seven years, a universal desolation will come upon the world. The Turk will seize upon Germany; all the priests will be put to death, even those who are married. No ungodly man, no sinner will remain alive; and after the earth has been purified by blood, God will then set up a kingdom... The day of the Lord is at hand, and the end of the world draweth nigh. Woe! woe! woe!” Then declaring that infant baptism was valueless, the new prophets called upon all men to come and receive from their hands the true baptism, as a sign of their introduction into the new Church of God.

This language made a deep impression on the people. Many pious souls were stirred by the thought that prophets were again restored to the Church, and all those who were fond of the marvelous threw themselves into the arms of the extravagants of Zwickau...

They arrived there on the 27th of December 1521. Storch led the way with the gait and bearing of a trooper. f1702 Mark Thomas and Stubner followed him. The disorder then prevailing in Wittenberg was favorable to their designs. The youths of the academy and the citizens, already profoundly agitated and in a state of excitement, were a soil well fitted to receive these new prophets.

Thinking themselves sure of support, they immediately called on the professors of the university, in order to obtain their sanction. “We are sent by God to instruct the people,” said they. “We have held familiar conversations with the Lord; we know what will happen; in a word, we are apostles and prophets, and appeal to Dr. Luther.” This strange language astonished the professors.

“Who has commissioned you to preach?” asked Melancthon of his old pupil Stubner, whom he received into his house, “The Lord our God.” — “Have you written any books?” — “The Lord our God has forbidden me to do so.” Melancthon was agitated: he grew alarmed and astonished.

“There are, indeed, extraordinary spirits in these men,” said he; “but what spirits?......Luther alone can decide. On the one hand, let us beware of quenching the Spirit of God, and, on the other, of being led astray by the spirit of Satan.”


Melancthon now became still more perplexed and uneasy. It was not so much the visions of the Zwickau prophets that disturbed him, as their new doctrine on baptism. It seemed to him conformable with reason, and he thought that it was deserving examination; “for,” said he, “we must neither admit nor reject any thing lightly.”

Such is the spirit of the Reformation. Melancthon’s hesitation and anxiety are a proof of the uprightness of his heart, more honorable to him, perhaps, than any systematic opposition would have been.

The elector himself, whom Melancthon styled “the lamp of Israel,” hesitated. Prophets and apostles in the electorate of Saxony as in Jerusalem of old! “This is a great matter,” said he; “and as a layman, I cannot understand it. But rather than fight against God, I would take a staff in my hand, a descend from my throne.”

At length he informed the professors, by his councillors, that they had sufficient trouble in hand at Wittenberg; that in all probability these pretensions of the Zwickau prophets were only a temptation of the devil; and that the wisest course, in his opinion, would be to let the matter drop of itself; nevertheless that, under all circumstances, whenever his highness should clearly perceive God’s will, he would take counsel of neither brother nor mother, and that he was ready to suffer everything in the cause of truth.

I want to pause here and acknowledge the great nobility and leadership of the "elector", Frederick the Wise of Saxony, the protector of the Reformation. His level-headedness, his commitment to good rule over his people, and his love for God are why Melanchthon called him "the lamp of Israel." One of Luther's greatest insights was his respect for the "powers that be", and his willing submission to Frederick on all issues except those of conscience as related to God. Frederick brought out the best in Luther by appealing to Luther to see the big picture of where truth fit in with law and order, and this pulled Luther away from extremism, and Luther brought out the best in Frederick by appealing to his sense of truth and justice and clutivating his spirituality and his confidence in God.

So how will Luther respond to this?

Luther in the Wartburg was apprized of the agitation prevailing in the court and at Wittenberg. Strange men had appeared, and the source whence their mission proceeded was unknown. He saw immediately that God had permitted these afflicting events to humble his servants, and to excite them by trials to strive more earnestly after sanctification.

Luther writes a letter to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick:

“Your electoral grace,” wrote he to Frederick, “has for many years been collecting relics from every country. God has satisfied your desire, and has sent you, without cost of trouble, a whole cross, with nails, spears, and scourges......Health and prosperity to the new relic!......Only let your highness fearlessly stretch out your arm, and suffer the nails to enter your flesh!......I always expected that Satan would send us this plague.”

It is in words such as these that we can see Luther's hold on the imagination, how he fascinated human minds. Such deep thoughts, yet also the humor there! Playful, yet with gentle rebuke! Frederick, in the old medieval manner, had searched for relics of Jesus and the disciples and the saints to help give him a more deeper religious experience. Now Luther says God has sent/allowed you a whole cross of troubles to deal with, a real relic; "that God had permitted these afflicting events to humble his servants, and to excite them by trials to strive more earnestly after sanctification."

Then we see his great commitment to religious liberty:

But at the same time nothing appeared to him more urgent than to secure for others the liberty that he claimed for himself. He had not two weights and two measures. “Beware of throwing them into prison,” wrote he to Spalatin. “Let not the prince dip his hand in the blood of these new prophets.” Luther went far beyond his age, and even beyond many other reformers, on the subject of religious liberty.

Luther had asked for the right to freedom to think, worship, and preach, and was he now to deny to others? No. Let us continue:

Circumstances were becoming every day more serious in Wittenberg.

Carlstadt rejected many of the doctrines of the new prophets, and particularly their sentiments on baptism; but here is a contagion in religious enthusiasm that a head like his could not easily resist. From the arrival of the men of Zwickau in Wittenberg, Carlstadt accelerated his movements in the direction of violent reforms. “We must fall upon every ungodly practice, and overthrow them all in a day,” said he. He brought together all the passages of Scripture against images, and inveighed with increasing energy against the idolatry of Rome. “They fall down — they crawl before these idols,” exclaimed he; “they burn tapers before them, and make them offerings......Let us arise and tear them from the altars!”

These words were not uttered in vain before the people. They entered the churches, carried away the images, broke them in pieces, and burnt them. It would have been better to wait until their abolition had been legally proclaimed; but some thought that the caution of the chiefs would compromise the Reformation itself.

To judge by the language of these enthusiasts, there were no true Christians in Wittenberg save those who went not to confession, who attacked the priests, and who ate meat on fast days. If any one was suspected of not rejecting all the rites of the Church as an invention of the devil, he was set down as a worshipper of Baal. “We must form a Church,” cried they, “composed of saints only!”

The citizens of Wittenberg laid before the council certain articles which it was forced to accept. Many of the articles were conformable to evangelical morals. They required more particularly that all houses of public amusement should be closed.

But Carlstadt soon went still farther: he began to despise learning; and the old professor was heard from his chair advising his pupils to return home, to take up the spade, to guide the plough, and quietly cultivate the earth, because man was to eat bread in the sweat of his brow. George Mohr, the master of the boys’ school at Wittenberg, led away by the same fanaticism, called to the assembled citizens from the window of the schoolroom to come and take away their children. Why should they study, since Storch and Stubner (prophets of Zwickau) had never been at the university, and yet they were prophets?......A mechanic, therefore, was as good as all the doctors in the world; and perhaps better, to preach the Gospel.

Thus arose doctrines in direct opposition to the Reformation, which had been prepared by the revival of letters. It was with the weapon of theological learning that Luther had attacked Rome; and the enthusiasts of Wittenberg like the fanatical monks with whom Erasmus and Reuchlin had contended, presumed to trample all human learning under foot. If this vandalism succeeded in holding its ground, the hopes of the world were lost; and another eruption of barbarians would extinguish the light that God had kindled in Christendom.

Is this not fascinating? And can we see that there is a temptation for this to happen in our day? "Too much complicated theology!" is the cry of many, not realizing that we owe our freedom from doctrinal error from the light of Bible study. It is because of the "revival of letters" that the Reformation happened, and it is our job to "teach all nations" (Matthew 28:19), not merely tell them to distrust the false theologians and go back to manual labor (though of course manual labor and country living is good and has an important place in our movement).

The results of these strange discourses soon showed themselves. Men’s minds were prejudiced, agitated, diverted from the Gospel; the university became disorganized; the demoralized students broke the bonds of discipline and dispersed; and the governments of Germany recalled their subjects. Thus the men who desired to reform and vivify everything, were on the point of ruining all. One struggle more (exclaimed the friends of Rome, who on all sides were regaining their confidence), — one last struggle, and all will be ours!

Promptly to check the excesses of these fanatics was the only means of saving the Reformation. But who could do it? Melancthon? He was too young, too weak, too much agitated himself by these strange apparitions. The elector? He was the most pacific man of his age. To build castles at Altenburg, Weimar, Lochau, and Coburg; to adorn churches with the beautiful pictures of Lucas Cranach; to improve the singing in the chapels; to advance the prosperity of his university; to promote the happiness of his subjects; to stop in the midst of the children whom he met playing in the streets, and give them little presents: — such were the gentle occupations of his life. And now in his advanced age, would he contend with fanatics — would he oppose violence to violence? How could the good and pious Frederick make up his mind to this?

The disease continued to spread, and no one stood forward to check it. Luther was far from Wittenberg. Confusion and ruin had taken hold of the city. The Reformation had seen an enemy spring from its own bosom more formidable than popes and emperors. It was on the very verge of the abyss.

Luther! Luther! was the general and unanimous cry at Wittenberg. The citizens called for him earnestly; the professors desired his advice; the prophets themselves appealed to him. All entreated him to return.

We may imagine what was passing in the reformer’s mind. All the terrors of Rome were nothing in comparison with what now wrung his heart. It is from the very midst of the Reformation that its enemies have gone forth. It is preying upon its own vitals; and that doctrine which alone brought peace to his troubled heart becomes the occasion of fatal disturbances to the Church.

Let us hear from Luther himself how troubled he was by this:

“If I knew,” he had once said, “that my doctrine injured one man, one single man, however lowly and obscure (which it cannot, for it is the Gospel itself), I would rather die ten times than not retract it.” And now a whole city, and that city of Wittenberg, is falling into disorder! True, his doctrine has no share in this; but from every quarter of Germany voices are heard accusing him of it. Pains more keen than he had every felt before assail him now, and new temptations agitate him. “Can such then be the end of this great work of the Reformation?” said he to himself. Impossible! — he rejects these doubts. God has begun,......God will perfect the work. “I creep in deep humility to the grace of the Lord,” exclaimed he, “and beseech him that his name may remain attached to this work; and that if anything impure be mixed up with it, he will remember that I am a sinful man.”

What faith Luther had! He held onto God at this dark moment for the Reformation, and instead of being judgmental about what was happening and being angry at God for allowing it, he "crept in deep humility to the grace of God," pleading that God's glory "remain attached to this work."

So how would Luther know if these prophets of Zwickau were legitimate or not? Here comes his profound insight. He would ask them if they knew of the "ministration of death", or “whether they [the prophets] have felt those spiritual torments, those creations of God, that death and hell which accompany a real regeneration..."

The news communicated to Luther of the inspiration of these new prophets, and of their sublime interviews with God did not stagger him one moment. He knew the depth, the anguish, the humiliation of the spiritual life: at Erfurth and Wittenberg he had made trial of the power of God, which did not so easily permit him to believe that God appeared to his creatures and conversed with them. “Ask these prophets,” wrote he to Melancthon, “whether they have felt those spiritual torments, those creations of God, that death and hell which accompany a real regeneration...... And they speak to you only of agreeable things, of tranquil impressions, of devotion and piety, as they say, do not believe them, although they should pretend to have been transported to the third heaven. Before Christ could attain his glory, he was compelled to suffer death; and in like manner the believer must go through the bitterness of sin before he can obtain peace. Do you desire to know the time, place, and manner in which God talks with men? Listen: as a lion so hath he broken all my bones: I am cast out from before his face, and my soul is abased even to the gates of hell......No! The Divine Majesty (as they pretend) does not speak directly, so that men may see it; for no man can see my face and live.”

But his firm conviction of the delusion under which the prophets were laboring, served but to augment Luther’s grief. Has the great truth of salvation by grace so quickly lost its charms that men turn aside from it to follow fables? He begins to feel that the work is not so easy as he has thought at first. He stumbles at the first stone that the deceitfulness of the human heart had placed in his path; he is bowed down by grief and anxiety. He resolves, at the hazard of his life, to remove it out of the way of his people, and decides on returning to Wittenberg.

Notice how those neutral interpret the events. Because of the rudeness of the new preachers, grand truths associated with them are also made to seem ridiculous... in this case, the non-immortality of the soul:

At that time he was threatened by imminent dangers. The enemies of the Reformation fancied themselves on the very eve of destroying it. George of Saxony, equally indisposed towards Rome and Wittenberg, had written, as early as the 16th of October 1521, to Duke John, the elector’s brother, to draw him over to the side of the enemies of the Reformation. “Some,” said he, “deny that the soul is immortal. Others (and these are monks!) attach bells to swine and set them to drag the relics of St. Anthony through the streets, and then throw them into the mire. All this is the fruit of Luther’s teaching! Entreat your brother the elector either to punish the ungodly authors of these innovations, or at least publicly to declare his opinion of them. Our changing beard and hair remind us that we have reached the latter portion of our course, and urge us to put an end to such great evils.”

After this George departed to take his seat in the imperial government at Nuremberg. He had scarcely arrived when he made every exertion to urge it to adopt measures of severity. In effect, on the 21st of January, this body passed an edict, in which it complained bitterly that the priests said mass without being robed in their sacerdotal garments, consecrated the sacrament in German, administered it without having received the requisite confession from the communicants, placed it in the hands of laymen, f1718 and were not even careful to ascertain that those who stood forward to receive it were fasting.

Accordingly the imperial government desired the bishops to seek out and punish severely all the innovators within their respective dioceses. The latter hastened to comply with these orders.

Such was the moment selected by Luther for his reappearance on the stage. He saw the danger; he foreboded incalculable disasters. “Erelong,” said he, “there will be a disturbance in the empire, carrying princes, magistrates, and bishops before it. The people have eyes: they will not, they cannot be led by force. All Germany will run blood. Let us stand up as a wall to preserve our nation in this dreadful day of God’s anger.

Surely such fanaticism will arise again and run alongside our movement. It may even be one of you reading this that instigates it, just like this fanaticism came from amidst the reformation, not from its enemies. "Lord, is it I?" God has given us this history for us to learn from it. Satan delights in fanaticism and disorder, so that he can bring in extreme repression and take away civil liberties, rights, and freedoms. Luther's prediction came true later on, for all Germany did "run bood". But before that he did his best to stand as a wall. Luther returns to Wittenburg and miraculously repairs the breach made by the fanaticism. It is another great moment in his life, and we owe much to it. Let us see what happened:

Time had moved on. Luther was quitting the Wartburg for a cause very different from that for which he had entered it. He had gone thither as the assailant of the old tradition and of the ancient doctors; he left it as the defender of the doctrine of the apostles against new adversaries. He had entered it as an innovator, and as an impugner of the ancient hierarchy; he left it as a conservative and champion of the faith of Christians. Hitherto Luther had seen but one thing in his work, — the triumph of justification by faith; and with this weapon he had thrown down mighty superstitions.

But if there was a time for destroying, there was also a time for building up. Beneath those ruins with which his strong arm had strewn the plain, — beneath those crumpled letters of indulgence, those broken tiaras and tattered cowls, — beneath so many Roman abuses and errors that lay in confusion upon the field of battle, he discerned and discovered the primitive Catholic Church, reappearing still the same, and coming forth as from a long period of trial, with its unchangeable doctrines and heavenly accents. He could distinguish it from Rome, welcoming and embracing it with joy. Luther effected nothing new in the world, as he has been falsely charged; he did not raise a building for the future that had no connection with the past; he uncovered, he opened to the light of day the ancient foundations, on which thorns and thistles had sprung up, and continuing the construction of the temple, he built simply on the foundations laid by the apostles.

Luther perceived that the ancient and primitive Church of the apostles must, on the one hand, be restored in opposition to the Papacy, by which it had been so long oppressed; and on the other, he defended against enthusiasts and unbelievers, who pretended to disown it, and who, regardless of all that God had done in times past, were desirous of beginning an entirely new work. Luther was no longer exclusively the man of one doctrine, — that of justification, — although he always assigned it the highest place; he became the man of the whole Christian theology; and while he still believed that the Church was essentially the congregation of saints, he was careful not to despise the visible Church, and acknowledged the assembly of the elect as the kingdom of God. Thus was a great change effected, at this time, in Luther’s heart, in his theology, and in the work of renovation that God was carrying on in the world. The Roman hierarchy might perhaps have driven the reformer to extremes; the sects which then so boldly raised their heads brought him back to the true path of moderation. The sojourn in the Wartburg divides the history of the Reformation into two periods.

At this point D'Aubigne tells a great story of two Swiss youths going to Wittenburg to study who meet Luther in disguise as a knight. They wonder at this man who is reading the Psalms in Hebrew. Later the innkeeper tells them that the man you spoke to is Luther! It is a great image that seems almost out of a fantasy novel, showing once again that the force and power of most of those fantasy novels that so attracted me in my youth comes from their drawing upon images and events of real life drama.

Luther also tells the elector he is returning, and the elector says he cannot protect him if he leaves the Wartburg. At this point anyone could legally kill Luther, but he trusts God would protect him. Let us continue to the main part of how he addresses the discord at Wittenburg.

One great thought absorbed the reformer’s mind, and checked the joy he felt at meeting his friends once more. Unquestionably the character in which he was now to appear was obscure; he was about to raise his voice in a small town of Saxony, and yet his undertaking had all the importance of an event which was to influence the destinies of the world. Many nations and many ages were to feel its effects. It was a question whether that doctrine which he had derived from the Word of God, and which was ordained to exert so mighty an influence on the future development of the human race, would be stronger than the destructive principles that threatened its existence. It was a question whether it were possible to reform without destroying, and clear the way to new developments without annihilating the old. To silence fanatical men inspired by the energy of a first enthusiasm; to master an unbridled multitude, to calm it down, to lead it back to order, peace, and truth; to break the course of the impetuous torrent which threatened to overthrow the rising edifice of the Reformation, and to scatter it ruins far and wide: — such was the task for which Luther had returned to Wittenberg. But would his influence be sufficient for this? The event alone can show.

The reformer’s heart shuddered at the thought of the struggle that awaited him. He raised his head as a lion provoked to fight shakes his long mane. “We must now trample Satan under foot, and contend against the angel of darkness,” said he. “If our adversaries do not retire of their own accord, Christ will know how to compel them. We who trust in the Lord of life and of death are ourselves lords of life and of death.”

But at the same time the impetuous reformer, as if constrained by a superior power, refused to employ the anathemas and thunders of the Word, and became an humble pastor, a gentle shepherd of souls. “It is with the Word that we must fight,” said he; “by the Word must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by violence. I will not make use of force against the superstitions and unbelieving. Let him who believeth draw nigh! let him who believeth not keep afar off! no one must be constrained. Liberty is the very essence of faith.”

The next day was Sunday. On that day the doctor, whom for nearly a year the lofty ramparts of the Warburg have concealed from every eye, will reappear before the people in the pulpit of the church. It was rumored in Wittenberg that Luther was come back, that he was going to preach. This news alone, passing from mouth to mouth, had already given a powerful diversion to the ideas by which the people were misled. They are going to see the hero of Worms. The people crowded together, and were affected by various emotions. On Sunday morning the church was filled with an attentive and excited crown.

Luther divines all the sentiments of his congregation; he goes up into the pulpit; there he stands in the presence of the flock that he had once led as a docile sheep, but which had broken from him like an untamed bull. His language was simple, noble, yet full of strength and gentleness: one might have supposed him to be a tender father returning to his children, inquiring into their conduct, and kindly telling them what report he had heard about them. He candidly acknowledged the progress they had made in faith; and by this means prepared and captivated their minds. He then continued in these words: —

But we need something more than faith; we need charity. If a man who bears a sword in his hand be alone, it is of little consequence whether it be sheathed or not; but if he is in the midst of a crowd, he should act so as to wound nobody.

“What does a mother do to her infant? At first she gives it milk, then some very light food. If she were to begin by giving it meat and wine, what would be the consequence?......

“So should we act towards our brethren. My friend, have you been long enough at the breast? It is well! but permit your brother to drink as long as yourself.

“Observe the sun! He dispenses two things, light and heat. There is no king so powerful as to bend aside his rays; they come straight to us; but heat is radiated and communicated in every direction. Thus faith, like light, should always be straight and inflexible; but charity, like heat, should radiate on every side, and bend to all the wants of our brethren.”

Luther having thus prepared his hearers, began to press them more closely:

The abolition of the mass, say you, is in conformity with Scripture: Agreed! But what order, what decency have you observed? It behoved you to offer up fervent prayers to the Lord, and apply to the public authority; then might every man have acknowledged that the thing was of God.”

Thus spake Luther. This dauntless man, who at Worms had withstood the princes of the earth, produced a deep impression on the minds of his hearers by these words of wisdom and of peace. Carlstadt and the prophets of Zwickau, so great and powerful for a few weeks, and who had tyrannized over and agitated Wittenberg, had shrunk into pigmies beside the captive of Warburg.

“The mass,” continued he, “is a bad thing; God is opposed to it; it ought to be abolished; and I would that throughout the whole world it were replaced by the Supper of the Gospel. But let no one be torn from it by force. We must leave the matter in God’s hands. His Word must act, and not we. And why so, you will ask? Because I do not hold men’s hearts in my hand, as the potter holds the clay. We have a right to speak; we have not the right to act. Let us preach: the rest belongs unto God. Were I to employ force, what should I gain? Grimace, formality, apelings, human ordinances, and hypocrisy...... But there would be no sincerity of heart, nor faith, nor charity. Where these three are wanting, all is wanting, and I would not give a pear-stalk for such a result.

“Our first object must be to win men’s hearts; and for that purpose we must preach the Gospel. Today the Word will fall in one heart, tomorrow in another, and it will operate in such a manner that each one will withdraw from the mass and abandon it. God does more by his Word alone than you and I and all the world by our united strength. God lays hold upon the heart; and when the heart is taken, all is won.

“I do not say this for the restoration of the mass. Since it is down, in God’s name there let it lie! But should you have gone to work as you did? Paul, arriving one day in the powerful city of Athens, found there altars raised to false gods. He went from one to the other, and observed them without touching one. But he walked peaceably to the middle of the market-place, and declared to the people that all their gods were idols. His language took possession of their hearts, and the idols fell without Paul’s having touched them.

“I will preach, discuss, and write; but I will constrain none, for faith is a voluntary act. See what I have done! I stood up against the pope, indulgences, and papists, but without violence or tumult. I put forward God’s Word; I preached and wrote — this was all i did. And yet while I was asleep, or seated familiarly at table with Amsdorff and Melancthon, drinking and gossiping over our Wittenberg beer, the Word that I had preached overthrew popery, so that neither prince nor emperor has done it so much harm. And yet I did nothing: the Word alone did all. If I had wished to appeal to force, the whole of Germany would perhaps have been deluged with blood. But what would have been the result? Ruin and desolation both to body and soul! I therefore kept quiet, and left the Word to run through the world alone. Do you know what the devil thinks when he sees men resort to violence to propagate the Gospel through the world? Seated with folded arms behind the fire of hell, Satan says, with malignant looks and frightful grin: Ah! how wise these madmen are to play my game!’ But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the field of battle, then he is troubled, and his knees knock together; he shudders and faints with fear.” ....

The crowd ceased not to fill the temple; people flocked from the neighboring towns to hear the new Elijah. Among others, Capito spent two days at Wittenberg, and heard two of the doctor’s sermons. Never had Luther and Cardinal Albert’s chaplain been so well agreed. Melancthon, the magistrates, the professors, and all the inhabitants, were delighted. Schurff, charmed at the result of so gloomy an affair, hastened to communicate it to the elector. On Friday the 15th March, the day on which Luther delivered his sixth sermon, he wrote: “Oh, what joy has Dr. Martins’s return diffused among us! His words, through Divine mercy, every day are bringing back our poor misguided people into the way of truth. It is clear as the sun that the Spirit of God is in him, and that by His special providence he returned to Wittenberg.”

And thus calm and order is restored to the Reformation, and the new covenant allowed to work while (for now) the old covenant was banished.

In truth, these sermons are models of popular eloquence, but not of that which in the times of Demosthenes, or even of Savonarola, fired men’s hearts. The task of the Wittenberg orator was more difficult. It is easier to rouse the fury of a wild beast that to allay it. Luther had to soothe a fanaticized multitude, to tame its unbridled passions; and in this he succeeded. In his eight discourses, the reformer did not allow one offensive word to escape him against the originators of these disorders, — not one unpleasant allusion. But the greater his moderation, the greater also was his strength; the more caution he used towards these deluded men, the more powerful was his vindication of offended truth. How could the people of Wittenberg resist his powerful eloquence? Men usually ascribe to timidity, fear, and compromise, those speeches that advocate moderation. Here there was nothing of the sort. Luther appeared before the inhabitants of Wittenberg, braving the excommunication of the pope and the proscription of the emperor. He had returned in despite of the prohibition of the elector, who had declared his inability to defend him. Even at Worms, Luther had not shown so much courage. He confronted the most imminent dangers; and accordingly his words were not disregarded: the man who braved the scaffold had a right to exhort to submission. That man may boldly speak of obedience to God, who, to do so, defies all the persecution of man. At Luther’s voice all objections vanished, the tumult subsided, seditious cries were heard no longer, and the citizens of Wittenberg returned quietly to their dwellings.

And how was this message taken by the extreme enthusiasts who had preached aggressive action?

Gabriel Didymus, who had shown himself the most enthusiastic of all the Augustine Friars, did not lose one of the reformer’s words. “Do you not think Luther a wonderful teacher?” asked a hearer in great emotion. “Ah!” replied he, “I seem to listen to the voice, not of a man, but of an angel.” Erelong Didymus openly acknowledged that he had been deceived. “He is quite another man,” said Luther.

It was not so at first with Carlstadt. Despising learning, pretending to frequent the workshops of the Wittenberg mechanics to receive understanding of the Holy Scriptures, he was mortified at seeing his work crumble away at Luther’s appearance. In his eyes this was checking the reform itself. Hence his air was always dejected, gloomy, and dissatisfied. Yet he sacrificed his self-love for the sake of peace; he restrained his desires of vengeance, and became reconciled, outwardly at least, with his colleague, and shortly after resumed his lectures in the university.

A moment of sympathy here with Carlstadt. He is portrayed as a unwise and fanatical by many historians, and J.N. Andrews argues in his article Luther and Carlstadt that this is unfair: "Carlstadt's error in the removal of the images, the suppression of masses, the abolition of monastic vows, or vows of celibacy, and in giving the wine as well as the bread in the supper, and in performing the service in German, instead of Latin, if it was an error, was one of time rather than doctrine. Had Luther been with him, probably all would have been deferred for some months, or perhaps some years." Of course, Carlstadt defends Saturday as Sabbath in 1524 and that is why he is of interest to J.N. Andrews. 

Here is another article on Carlstadt's Forgotten Book on the Sabbath.

Personally, I think that while Carlstadt was unfairly treated, especially in later years, he did act rashly in dismissing the students from the school. J.N. Andrews tries to minimize this point, but I think it is one of the key sources for the discontent at Wittenburg, as well as giving undue authority to the prophets of Zwickau. J.N. Andrews wrote: "There were present at this time in Wittenberg certain fanatical teachers, who, from the town whence they came, were called "the prophets of Zwickau." They brought Carlstadt for a time so far under their influence, that he concluded academical degrees to be sinful, and that, as the inspiration of the Spirit was sufficient, there was no need of human learning. He therefore advised the students of the university to return to their homes. That institution was in danger of dissolution. Such was Carlstadt's course in Luther's absence. With the exception of this last movement, his acts were in themselves right." Dissolving the university was a huge move, and one that should have been done with much consulting with others.

But I do think that in later years it is clear that Luther is wrong on the Eucharist. Luther felt compelled to defend himself against the extremism of the anabaptists. I think Carlstadt also learns from his lessons and is unfairly treated later on. But let us continue with how Luther deals with the prophets of Zwickau:

The chief prophets were not at Wittenberg when Luther returned. Nicholas Storch was wandering through the country; Mark Stubner had quitted Melancthon’s hospitable roof. Perhaps their prophetic spirit had disappeared, and they had had neither voice nor answer, so soon as they learnt that Elijah was directing his steps towards this new Carmel. The old schoolmaster Cellarius alone had remained. Stubner, however, being informed that the sheep of his fold were scattered, hastily returned. Those who were still faithful to “the heavenly prophecy” gathered round their master, reported Luther’s speeches to him, and asked him anxiously what they were to think and do. f1739 Stubner exhorted them to remain firm in their faith. “Let him appear,” cried Cellarius, “let him grant us a conference, — let him only permit us to set forth our doctrine, and then we shall see......”

Luther cared little to meet such men as these; he knew them to be of violent, impatient, and haughty disposition, who could not endure even kind admonition, and who required that everyone should submit at the first word, as to a supreme authority. Such are the enthusiasts in every age. And yet, as they desired an interview, the doctor could not refuse it. Besides, it might be of use to the weak ones of the flock were he to unmask the imposture of the prophets. The conference took place. Stubner opened the proceedings, explaining in what manner he desired to regenerate the Church and transform the world. Luther listened to him with great calmness. “Nothing that you have advanced,” replied he at last gravely, “is based upon Holy Scripture. — It is all a mere fable.”

At these words Cellarius could contain himself no longer; he raised his voice, gesticulated like a madman, stamped, and struck the table with his fist, and exclaimed, in a passion, that it was an insult to speak thus to a man of God. Upon this Luther observed: “St. Paul declares that the proofs of apostleship were made known by miracles; prove yours in like manner.” — “We will do so,” answered the prophets. “The God whom I worship,” said Luther, “will know how to bridle your gods.” Stubner, who had preserved his tranquillity, then fixed his eyes on the reformer, and said to him with an air of inspiration, “Martin Luther! I will declare what is now passing in thy soul......Thou art beginning to believe that my doctrine is true.” Luther, after a brief pause, exclaimed: “God chastise thee, Satan!” At these words all the prophets were as if distracted. “The Spirit, the Spirit!” cried they. Luther, adopting that cool tone of contempt and cutting and homely language so familiar to him, said, “I slap your spirit on the snout.”  Their clamors now increased; Cellarius, in particular, distinguished himself by his violence. He foamed and trembled with anger. They could not hear one another in the room where they met in conference. At length the three prophets abandoned the field and left Wittenberg the same day.

Thus had Luther accomplished the work for which he had left his retreat. He had made a stand against fanaticism, and expelled from the bosom of the renovated Church the enthusiasm and disorder by which it had been invaded. If with one hand the Reformation threw down the dusty decretals of Rome, with the other it rejected the assumptions of the mystics, and established, on the ground it had won, the living and unchangeable Word of God. The character of the Reformation was thus firmly settled. It was destined to walk for every between these two extremes, equally remote from the convulsions of the fanatics and the death-like torpor of the papacy.

A whole population excited, deluded, and unrestrained, had at once become tranquil, calm, and submissive; and the most perfect quiet again reigned in that city which a few days before had been like the troubled sea. Perfect liberty was immediately established at Wittenberg. Luther still continued to reside in the convent and wear his monastic dress; but every one was free to do otherwise. In communicating at the Lord’s table, a general absolution was sufficient, or a particular one might be obtained. It was laid down as a principle to reject nothing but what was opposed to a clear and formal declaration of Holy Scripture. This was not indifference; on the contrary, religion was thus restored to what constitutes its very essence; the sentiment of religion withdrew from the accessory forms in which it had well nigh perished, and transferred itself to its true basis. Thus the Reformation was saved, and its teaching enabled to continue its development in the bosom of the Church in charity and truth.

I hope that we can see that our modern movement rests on the word of God, while being respectful of both authorities and of history. May we all learn from this when we have to deal with similar situations. Amen.

More books on the Reformation here: