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§ 65. Protestant Radicalism. Disturbances at Erfurt.


I. Letters of Luther from May, 1521, to March, 1522, to Melanchthon, Link, Lange, Spalatin, etc., in De Wette, vol. II.

II. F. W. Kampschulte: Die Universität Erfurt in ihrem Verh. zu dem Humanismus und der Reformation. Trier, 1858. Second part, chs. III. and IV. pp. 106 sqq.

III. Biographies of Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, by Füsslin (1776), Jäger (Stuttgart, 1856), Erbkam (in Herzogii, VII. 523 sqq.).

IV. Gieseler, IV. 61–65 (Am. ed.). Marheineke, chs. X. and XI. (I. 303 sqq.). Merle D’AuB., bk. IX. chs. 6–8. Köstlin, bk. IV. chs. 3 and 4 (I. 494 sqq.). Ranke, II. 7–26. Janssen, II. 204–227.


While Luther and Melanchthon laid a solid foundation for an evangelical church and evangelical theology, their work was endangered by the destructive zeal of friends who turned the reformation into a revolution. The best thing may be undone by being overdone. Freedom is a two-edged sword, and liable to the worst abuse as well as to the best use. Tares will grow up in every wheat-field, and they sometimes choke the wheat. But the work of destruction was overruled for the consolidation of the Reformation. Old rotten buildings had to be broken down before a new one could be constructed.

The Reformation during its first five years was a battle of words, not of deeds. It scattered the seeds of new institutions all over Germany, but the old forms and usages still remained. The new wine had not yet burst the old skin bottles. The Protestant soul dwelt in the Catholic body. The apostles after the day of Pentecost continued to visit the temple and the synagogue, and to observe circumcision, the sabbath, and other customs of the fathers, hoping for the conversion of all Israel, until they were cast out by the Jewish hierarchy. So the Protestants remained in external communion with the mother Church, attending Latin mass, bowing before the transubstantiated elements on the altar, praying the Ave Maria, worshiping saints, pictures, and crucifixes, making pilgrimages to holy shrines, observing the festivals of the Roman calendar, and conforming to the seven sacraments which accompanied them at every step of life from the cradle to the grave. The bishops were still in charge of their dioceses, and unmarried priests and deacons performed all the ecclesiastical functions. The convents were still occupied by monks and nuns, who went through their daily devotions and ascetic exercises. The outside looked just as before, while the inside had undergone a radical change.

This was the case even in Saxony and at Wittenberg, the nursery of the new state of things. Luther himself did not at first contemplate any outward change. He labored and hoped for a reformation of faith and doctrine within the Catholic Church, under the lead of the bishops, without a division, but he was now cast out by the highest authorities, and came gradually to see that he must build a new structure on the new foundation which he h ad laid by his writings and by the translation of the New Testament.

The negative part of these changes, especially the abolition of the mass and of monasticism, was made by advanced radicals among his disciples, who had more zeal than discretion, and mistook liberty for license.

While Luther was confined on the Wartburg, his followers were like children out of school, like soldiers without a captain. Some of them thought that he had stopped half way, and that they must complete what he had begun. They took the work of destruction and reconstruction into their own inexperienced and unskillful hands. Order gave way to confusion, and the Reformation was threatened with disastrous failure.

The first disturbances broke out at Erfurt in June, 1521, shortly after Luther’s triumphant passage through the town on his way to Worms. Two young priests were excommunicated for taking part in the enthusiastic demonstrations. This created the greatest indignation. Twelve hundred students, workmen, and ruffians attacked and demolished in a few days sixty houses of the priests, who escaped violence only by flight.475475    Kampschulte, l.c., II. 117 sqq., gives a full account of this Pfaffenstum and its consequences.

The magistrate looked quietly on, as if in league with the insurrection. Similar scenes of violence were repeated during the summer. The monks under the lead of the Augustinians, forgetting their vows, left the convents, laid aside the monastic dress, and took up their abode among the people to work for a living, or to become a burden to others, or to preach the new faith.

Luther saw in these proceedings the work of Satan, who was bringing shame and reproach on the gospel.476476    See his letters to Melanchthon and Spalatin, in De Wette, II. 7sq., 31. To the latter he wrote: "Erfordiae Satanas suis studiis nobis insidiatus est, ut nostros mala fama inureret, sed nihil proficiet: non sunt nostri, qui haec faciunt." He feared that many left the cloister for the same reason for which they had entered, namely, from love of the belly and carnal freedom.477477    Letter to Lange, March 28, 1522, in De Wette, II. 175.

During these troubles Crotus, the enthusiastic admirer of Luther, resigned the rectorship of the university, left Erfurt, and afterwards returned to the mother Church. The Peasants’ War of 1525 was another blow. Eobanus, the Latin poet who had greeted Luther on his entry, accepted a call to Nürnberg. The greatest celebrities left the city, or were disheartened, and died in poverty.

From this time dates the decay of the university, once the flourishing seat of humanism and patriotic aspirations. It never recovered its former prosperity.



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