« VorigeDoorgaan »
PHASES OF FAITH.
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION.
mation, with the Religious Wars that followed close upon it, shows us at first sight one of the great, unaccountable, awful calamities of human history, an era of anger and hatred, of wreck and change. It came not to bring peace, but a sword. So far from gladness and triumph, it would seem that we could think of it only with horror and lamentation.
And none the less, because it was an unavoidable calamity. We cannot explain to ourselves why a single incompleted step in spiritual progress must be taken at so frightful a cost of human suffering and guilt. We are apt to think of it simply as an historical event: of its incidents, as scenes in a drama; of its results, only as they have affected us, - in the main so largely for our benefit; of its principles, as we applaud or sympathize with the leading actors in it, on one side or the other. But we look at it again, or from another point of view, and it is all alive with passion and with pain. "If I had known what was
before me," said Luther, “ten horses would not have drawn me to it!”
The deepest tragedy of the thing was, that, as in all great conflicts of history, there was equal sincerity and equal passion on both sides. It was the sincere devotion of both parties that made the conflict obstinate and bitter. If we ask why it must be so, perhaps our only answer is, that it always is so, - in Puritan England, as in America twenty years ago, and in all Europe then. It is part of the universal struggle for existence, in which the fittest survive only in virtue of the courage, cunning, and strength by which they prove their fitness.
It is not easy to see at this distance why the ascetic fervor of Savonarola ; the intellectual honesty of the early German scholars ; the group of earnest and cultivated reformers at Oxford ; the keen satire and common-sense ethics of Erasmus ; the rude wit of Hutten; the humble, patient, faithful piety of at any rate a very large part of the Catholic priests and people, along with the anxious efforts of all the better class of ecclesiastics in every age, — why all these should have failed to bring about reform within the Church; why what we call “The Reformation” bad to come about through a century of bloodshed and horror. The wisest men of that day did not see the need. Erasmus and Sir Thomas More (perhaps the two wisest men of their time) alike deplored the struggle as a mere calamity. Most likely we should have deplored it too. But it was as in the Apostles' time; and none were more ready than Luther to be amazed, with Paul, that “God had chosen the foolish
AN IRREPRESSIBLE CONFLICT.
things of the world to confound the wise, and weak things to confound the mighty.”
All the great revolutions of history seem to show that certain necessary changes which the wise and good have looked forward to longingly and helplessly, and tried ineffectually to bring about, have come at length in some flame or tornado of popular passion; have become the watchword of fanaticism; have been carried forward to victory under the banner of hosts who were very much in earnest, but mostly neither very wise nor very good. It was so with the French Revolution, and with our Civil War. And so it was with the Reformation. All that was really good in it had been longed for, demanded, attempted, a hundred times, in a hundred ways; but it had to wait for a crisis and a storm, which swept away, along with the evil that had grown intolerable, the peace, prosperity, and joy which seem in our ordinary mood the things best worth having in this human life.
Two things made that storm inevitable.
The first was the determination of the Catholic Church, at every cost, not to let go anything of its pretensions, its power, or its sources of wealth. It had come, frankly, from being a purely spiritual force, an organizer and guide of the higher civilization, to include everything that we mean under the name of secular government. Its head was Sovereign as well as Pontiff. Like Alexander Borgia, he might spend his revenues to build up the fortunes of a family infamous for the variety and atrocity of its crimes. Like Julius II., he might stake all his desires and ambitions on military conquest and the