Church History 1517-1799
Reformation and Martin Luther
intoxicating excesses of the Italian Renaissance were totally alien to the
conservative national culture emerging in northern Europe. In Germany,
Wittenberg’s nobility still took medieval pride in their collection of relics
of the saints. Fittingly, the relics were set off in gold and silver artwork
and—to maintain the mystery—were only brought out for the great feast day of
“All Saints.” Within the castle church, carvings of the Virgin Mary and the
saints looked down from their perches approvingly. It was said that they stood
ever ready as heavenly intercessors if entreated in prayer and remembered by
burning a candle in their honor.
Midday on October 31, 1517, the day preceding “All Saints,” an Augustinian
monk who served as the theology professor at the local university made his way
to the church door of Wittenberg castle. There he hammered up a handwritten
document in Latin entitled a “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of
Indulgences.” The “disputation” set forth ninety-five theses challenging
the theology of selling deliverance from sin. Martin Luther was certain this was
bad Catholic theology. If a person was literate, as many of the town people
were, he was literate in Latin, so Luther’s challenge was read and devoured
with great interest. The literate then translated it for the benefit of
Soon the wheels of ecclesiastical discipline began their slow inexorable
movement to grind up this most recent challenger. But the world was changing.
Seventy years earlier Johannes Guttenberg had built the first printing press
using movable type, and the era of mass communication had begun. For the Papacy,
the time-tested methods for dealing with dissent were to prove unworkable.
Within two weeks, printed copies of the ninety-five theses were posted all over
Germany; within five weeks they arrived at the Vatican. An emerging literate
middle class could no longer be controlled by superstition and ignorance.
As events would unfold, compromise with Rome would prove to be impossible. The
scriptural testimony that “the just shall live by faith” was to make a
deeper and deeper impact on Luther’s belief. Luther was remarkable for his
morally courageous, articulate, energetic, and unwavering stand for principle in
opposition to Rome. At his trial in Worms on April 17, 1521, Luther, speaking in
German, rather than Latin, stunned the audience by his closing statement:
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the
authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my
conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant
anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.
God help me. Amen.”
Noblemen, risking their titles, lands, and lives would soon protect, hide, and
actively aid Luther in advancing the cause of “Protestantism.” What began
with an obscure professor’s challenge to indulgences ended with the changing
of the face of Europe.
blood was everywhere. Warfare, pestilence, and poverty became the rule of life.
Fearsome executions awaited any—Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, and
frequently Jew—who would not conform to the convictions of the local majority.
Starting from that fateful day in Wittenberg, 150 years of unrelieved misery
reigned in Europe. At long last the Peace of Westphalia (1648) set the modern
map of Europe with Catholics and Protestants agreeing to an uneasy truce. But
with the ending of broader warfare, a full generation of fighting continued
within national borders to establish conformity to state worship, be it
Protestant or Catholic.
The Reformation led to church ransacking and the burning of images and
reliquaries. Church lands were confiscated. Monasteries and convents were
emptied. Like Luther himself, many of the former celibate inmates were now
married and raising families. In Luther’s case, his marriage to a former nun
left pious adherents of Catholicism completely mortified.
Though Protestant churches now stood with stark interiors, they were more alive
than ever. Christ was now considered the one mediator between God and man. The
sermon, rather than the mass, now served as the focal point for the church
service. Luther believed that “the Devil, the originator of sorrowful
anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much
as before the word of God.” In unison, it was the congregation that now sang
the modern and soul-inspiring hymns including Luther’s chorale, “A Mighty
Fortress Is Our God.”
The presses continued their labors. Soon tracts and Bible texts were placed
directly into the hands of a thoughtful and increasingly literate citizenry.
Wherever Protestantism went, groups emerged, earnest to learn only from
Scripture, without appealing to church authority. This “grass roots”
religious movement soon proved unwilling to stop the reforming where Luther did.
Anabaptists were wide-ranging in doctrine, but three issues characterized them.
They took strong exception to any church-state union, maintaining that this was
whoredom. They took exception with Luther and the leading Swiss reformer, Ulrich
Zwingli, on the propriety of baptizing infants. Because they baptized adults,
they were called “Anabaptists” or “those baptizing again.” They believed
that baptism was only for those who had “received Jesus Christ and wished to
have him for Lord, King, and Bridegroom, and bind themselves also publicly to
him, and in truth submit themselves to him and betroth themselves to him through
the covenant of baptism and also give themselves over to him dead and crucified
and hence to be at all times subject, in utter zeal, to his will and
pleasure.”—The Ordinance of God, Melchior Hofmann (1530).
A third point of contention was Luther’s support for the mass (embracing
consubstantiation rather than the Catholic transubstantiation). Here the
Anabaptists, Zwingli, and other reformers argued that Christ intended the bread
and the wine at the last supper as a remembrance, or memorial, not as a
sacrifice. Meeting with Zwingli to discuss the mass, Luther moved to the
chalkboard writing only, “This is my body.” In his passionate and irascible
manner the force of this effort broke the chalk he was holding. For Luther the
discussion was ended.
The Anabaptists focused on Bible study and prophecy, and studied the tabernacle
recognizing that its ordinances foreshadowed Christ. Some Anabaptist fellowships
in northern Italy, Poland, and Romania also denied that God is triune. Nearly
one hundred years later, writing on the eve of the thirty years war, one of
their highest tributes comes from an implacable enemy:
“Among all the heretical sects which have their origin from Luther … not a
one has a better appearance and greater external holiness than the Anabaptists.
Other sects are for the most part riotous, bloodthirsty and given over to carnal
lusts; not so the Anabaptists. They call each other brothers and sisters; they
use neither profanity nor unkind language; they use no weapons of defense …
they own nothing in private but have everything in common. They do not go to law
before judicial courts but bear everything patiently, as they say, in the Holy
Spirit. Who should suppose that under this sheep’s clothing only ravening
wolves are hidden?”—Of the Cursed Beginnings of the Anabaptists, Christoph
Fischer, Roman Catholic, (1615).
and Huguenot Testimony
the cross, and stand faithful to God, then he will give thee an everlasting
crown of glory, that shall not be taken from thee. There is no other way that
shall prosper than that which holy men of old have walked.”—Thomas Loe,
Loe’s preaching in Oxford moved young William Penn to openly criticize the
Church of England, leading to Penn’s expulsion from Oxford University. Penn,
the son of a British Admiral, left for France and soon found his way to
L’Academie Protestante de Saumur, then a flourishing center for Huguenot
Protestant learning. It may be surprising to know that such a center briefly
prospered in France. This was a consequence of the liberal policies in 1598
instituted by the Protestant-born and raised Henry IV. Henry desired to make
amends for the horrors his predecessor Charles IX had perpetrated in the St.
Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Conditions in the world were changing, and
while horrors were yet to come, a new consciousness was slowly emerging.
Although the Huguenots later would be expelled from France (1685), the tearing
out of heretic’s tongues, nailing them to carts, burning them, or drowning
them, and the horrors of massacres similar to that occurring on St.
Bartholomew’s Day, were losing favor as accepted instruments of statecraft.
The air at Saumur was filled with discussion of the prophecies in Daniel and
Revelation. Collective opinion held that the churches of Revelation were
progressive and that the church was in the sixth, or Philadelphia stage. This
point was not lost on Penn later in his life. Huguenot scholar Pierre de Launay
(1573-1661) sought to determine when, during the Gothic and Vandal ravages of
Rome, it was proper to begin counting the 1,260 days of Daniel using the
day-for-a-year formula. By far, the most significant scholar of this period was
Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713), then a young man himself. Writing after the Huguenot
expulsion from France in 1686, Jurieu would extend de Launay’s methods
concluding that the Lord’s special judgment would fall on France—the tenth
part of the city—in the decade of 1780-90, and certainly by 1796.
Returning to England, Penn found himself among the Quakers and soon he was
arrested for running afoul of the religious laws. The seriousness of the charges
kept escalating, and eventually his treatise The Sandy Foundation Shaken put him
in the Tower of London with the bishop charging blasphemy. Penn had criticized
Trinitarian belief as unscriptural and illogical: “[For] what can any man of
sense conclude but that here be three distinct infinites” and, “It is
manifest then, though I deny the Trinity of Separate Persons in one Godhead, yet
consequentially, I do not deny the deity of Jesus Christ.”
seven months in the tower were spent writing No Cross—No Crown, a widely
disseminated treatise that fixed the image of the Cross and Crown in the hearts
and minds of the Lord’s people from that time forward. Penn’s words are
simple, sincere, and scriptural: “What is our cup and cross that we should
drink and suffer? They are the denial and offering up of ourselves, by the same
spirit, to do or suffer the will of God for his service and glory, which is the
true obedience of the cross of Jesus.”
Penn reexamined scriptural promises passed over since St. Augustine. Theologians
had minimized the importance of the church’s life experiences with Augustine,
considering these but memories “dissipated like clouds.” Penn recognized
that these life experiences acquired under unfavorable conditions would be an
eternal benefit; the consciousness of the church’s suffering with Christ was
The death of Sir William Penn in 1670 left young Penn in control of the family
fortune, including a massive debt owed to Sir William Penn by the crown. With
this financial support, Penn now had the means to pursue his pilgrim ministry
nearly full time, and he traveled throughout England, Ireland, and along the
Rhine River preaching the Quaker doctrine. Recognizing that the crown could
never remit the growing debt to his late father, he fixed upon asking the king
for a colony in America in payment. His focus on this “holy experiment” of
founding Pennsylvania, and planning and building its principle city of
Philadelphia, would become his best-remembered legacy. Echoes of Saumur ring in
the name Philadelphia.
In practical politics William Penn proved highly capable as a lawgiver,
mediator, and practical pacifist. His bold unarmed approach to the Indian chiefs
at the great elm of Shakamaxon had caused them to set down their bows and
arrows. Penn’s governance was becoming legendary. Long after his passing there
still was talk of the Indians’ deep mourning over the death of their dear
brother to whom they had bound themselves “to live in love.” Voltaire, who
usually could manage only derisive comments about religion, praised Penn as the
greatest lawgiver since antiquity. Although the revolution to follow was not to
be accomplished by pacifist means, Penn’s hopes were that God would make his
colony “the seed of the nation.” And so it would prove.
With the religious wars of Europe ended, the following century was one of
explosive growth on every front of human inquiry. Modern medicine and science
began. The earth was known to revolve around the sun, the orbit of the moon was
explained, light was understood, and mechanical engines were developed to
replace the muscle-power of draught animals. Math problems unsolved for
thousands of years were solved. New musical forms opened unexplored realms of
experience for the human spirit. The social well-being of common people became
the focus of interest for new sciences seeking to understand social, political,
and economic theory. All of this fed the minds of those who thought about a
revolution in the social and political order. Most importantly, this all
impacted religion. With an eye to the recent past, there was a suspicion of all
things religious among the elite. Agnosticism, deism, and Unitarianism became
the preferred expressions of spirituality among society’s leaders.
France was the focal point for much of this effort, it would be pamphlets in
English and distributed overseas that were to fan the embers of revolution in
the American colonies. Following a declaration of independence originating from
Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, the American colonies successfully broke from
England after five years of fighting. Seizing on this example, the revolution
came home to France. Heeding cries of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,”
it was the common citizens who led an exceptionally bloody revolution, serving
notice to monarchs everywhere that their days were numbered. The French
revolution also led to the rise of Napoleon.
Napoleon represents a decisive watershed in world history, for the world had
never seen anyone quite like him before nor has it since. Like Alexander the
Great, Napoleon had a vision not only for conquest but for remaking the culture
of Europe. The pope’s co-operation with the Allies against the French
Republic, and the murder of the French attaché, Basseville, at Rome, led to
Napoleon’s attack on the Papal States, concluding in the Truce of Bologna
(June 25, 1796). But in an attempt to revolutionize Rome, the French General
Duphot was shot and killed; whereupon the French took Rome on February 10, 1798,
and proclaimed the Roman Republic on February 15. Because the pope refused to
submit, he was forcibly taken from Rome on the night of February 20 and brought
first to Siena and then to Florence. At the end of March 1799 though seriously
ill, he was hurried to Parma, Piacenza, Turin, then over the Alps to Briançon
and Grenoble, and finally to Valence where he succumbed to his sufferings before
he could be brought further.
Entering into a concordant with Pius VII, the successor of Pius VI crowned on
March 1800, Napoleon tersely laid out his terms. The refusal of Pius VII to
acquiesce sufficiently resulted in fourteen years of house arrest and his
removal from Italy to Fontainebleau. Although Pius would return in triumph to
Rome in 1814 after Napoleon’s fall, for the rest of the century the Papacy
would see only an unremitting loss of prestige, power, and property.
None of these epoch-defining events was lost on John Lathrop (1731-1820), a
Yale-educated divinity scholar. Lathrop was particularly active in drawing
attention to the prophetic studies of Jurieu, who had predicted the French
revolution nearly one hundred years earlier. Lathrop’s work recognized the
critical importance of biblical chronology. Soon William Miller (1782-1849) and
others would bring out additional pearls long hidden.
the same time, U.S. president John Adams’ prudence alone prevented a war in
1799 that would have placed the young republic into combat against Napoleon.
From Adams’ office in Philadelphia, the first seat of government, it was
possible to look out on the streets and witness the great changes wrought by
acting on religious vision. He knew that the power of religion could be
exercised for good or ill. In general, Adams’ belief was that it had been
exercised for ill and he strongly supported the separation of church and state.
In this he played a critical role. As soon as the constitution for the new
nation was ratified, he immediately criticized it as incomplete because it had
failed to define the protection of human rights. Jefferson and Madison agreed to
draft a “Bill of Rights” to correct this oversight. The opening phrase of
the first of ten amendments to the constitution ratified December 15, 1791,
marks a turning point for church and state. For the first time in any nation’s
history freedom of worship was official state policy: “Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
It had been 265 years since Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr, perished in
the “third baptism” under the freezing waters of the Limmat River near
Wellenberg, Switzerland. At last the Anabaptist entreaty for the separation of
church and state was law. As the nineteenth century dawned, a culture in Europe
and North America holding religious, social, political, and scientific
world-views unimagined by Luther held world stage. This fulfils Christ’s
promise to the church of Philadelphia, “Behold, I have set before thee an open
door, and no man can shut it” (Revelation 3:8). In the next century, economic
upheaval from a movement soon to be called the “industrial revolution,” and
scientific advances, would provide Christianity with its greatest challenges,
and its greatest triumphs.