« Agricola Agricola, Johann Agricola, Stephan »

Agricola, Johann

AGRICOLA, JOHANN: An associate of Luther, and the originator of the antinomian controversy of the German Reformation; b. at Eisleben Apr. 20, 1494 (according to his own account; others give 1492 or 1496); d. at Berlin Sept. 22, 1566. His real name was Schneider, first Latinized into “Sartor,” then, from a corruption of “Schneider (Snider)” to “Schnitter,” into “Agricola.” He entered the University of Leipsic in the winter of 1509-10, with the intention of studying medicine, but Luther attracted him to theology. After taking his bachelor’s degree, he went, in the winter of 1515-16, to Wittenberg, where he came wholly under Luther’s influence. He witnessed the famous promulgation of the theses; and at the Leipsic disputation (1519) he acted as Luther’s secretary. He soon became friendly with Melanchthon also, and an influential member of the little group of Wittenberg theologians. A modest income was provided for him by the position of teacher of grammar and the Latin classics in the Pædagogium; and before long he lectured on dialectics and rhetoric, and later on the New Testament.

Schoolmaster in Eisleben.

On the outbreak of the Peasants’ War (1525), Agricola accompanied Luther to the Hartz Mountains, and gained from Count Albert of Mansfeld the nomination as head of the Latin school to be opened at Eisleben. This work, after a visit to Frankfort, as Luther’s deputy, to help settle the ecclesiastical affairs of that place, he took up in Aug., 1525; and two catechetical books grew out of it, the second of which (1528) already exhibits the opposition between the Law and the Gospel which was to develop into his antinomian convictions. A commentary on the Epistle to Titus (1530) and a translation of Terence’s Andria, with notes (1544), are doubtless other results of his school work. At Eisleben also he began his three collections of German proverbs, with explanations, which have ever since been popular. Certain critical remarks about Ulrich of Württemberg in the first of these collections involved Agricola in difficulties both with Ulrich and with his protector, Philip of Hesse, which were ended only by two successive apologies, prevented Luther from taking him to the Marburg conference, and influenced his bearing in the Schmalkald struggle. He had opportunities of preaching at St. Nicholas’s church in Eisleben, and acquired the reputation of being one of the strongest pulpit orators of the Wittenberg circle, so that he was asked to attend the Diet of Speyer in 1526 and 1529 and preach before the court. At this period also he made himself useful as a translator from the Latin, rendering among other things Melanchthon’s commentary on several Pauline epistles.


His relations with Melanchthon were seriously disturbed in 1526. Soon after his departure from Wittenberg a new theological professorship was founded there, on which, with Melanchthon’s encouragement, he set his heart. When it was conferred on the latter, Agricola’s vanity received a wound which put an end to the cordiality of their friendship; and it is easy to understand why he began the antinomian controversy in 1527 with an attack, not on Luther, but on Melanchthon. Luther, however, whose relations with Agricola were still friendly, succeeded in effecting an apparent agreement. Agricola now fell out with Albert of Mansfeld. Differences arose over the measures to be taken for defense against the emperor and with regard to the treatment of matrimonial questions; and in 1536 Agricola was treating with Luther to secure a recall to Wittenberg. The elector promised him a speedy appointment to a university position, and meantime invited him to come to Wittenberg to give his counsel on the question of the Schmalkald articles. Agricola removed thither at Christmas, 1536. Albert, annoyed at the manner of his departure from Eisleben, accused him to the Wittenberg group as the founder of a new sect antagonistic to Luther, and to the elector as a turbulent fellow of the Münzer type. Luther stood by him, however, and even gave him and his family shelter in his own house; and when Luther went to Schmalkald in 1537, Agricola took his place both at the university and in the pulpit. Expressions used in some of his sermons, and the rumor that he was privately circulating antinomian theses containing attacks on Luther and Melanchthon, made him an object of suspicion. His antinomian disputes with Luther himself began; and after each apparent settlement they broke out with fresh violence (for details of the controversies see Antinomianism, Antinomian Controversies, II.). He found employment in the newly founded Wittenberg consistory until Feb., 1539, when he formally accused Luther before the elector, who practically put him under arrest. Before the matter was settled he escaped to Berlin (Aug., 1540). At Melanchthon’s suggestion and through Bugenhagen’s mediation, he was allowed to retract his accusation and to return to Saxony. Cordial relations between the two men could, however, no longer exist: Luther never trusted Agricola again; and the latter, on his side, held that he remained true to the original cause, from which Luther had fallen away.

Later Life.

Joachim II. of Brandenburg gave Agricola a position as court preacher, and took him to the Conference of Regensburg (1541), the interim drawn up at which he considered a useful basis of unity. He followed his prince in the inglorious campaign against the Turks in 1542, and gained more and 92 more influence over him, in spite of the efforts of Joachim’s mother. He became general superintendent and visitor of Brandenburg, administering confirmation and ordination, though he himself had never received any kind of ordination. When the Schmalkald League took up arms against the emperor, Agricola attacked them in his sermons as disturbers of the peace, and gave thanks for the emperor’s victory at Mühlberg, utterly failing to see the danger to the evangelical cause. It flattered his vanity when he was chosen as the Protestant theologian on the commission appointed at the Diet of Augsburg (1547-48) to draw up an interim; and he had the thankless task of endeavoring to persuade his fellow Protestants to accept it. The more strongly and increasingly they rejected it, the more animosity was concentrated on Agricola, who attempted to vindicate his Lutheran standing by the part which he took in the controversy with Osiander; and the common cause brought him once more closer to Melanchthon. It fell to him to give judgment between Stancaro and Andreas Musculus; and he pronounced in favor of the latter. The controversy on the necessity of good works raged for years in Brandenburg, and Agricola stoutly opposed the Philippists. For a while they seemed to prevail with Joachim, but the court swung round again to Agricola’s side; and in 1563 he was able to hold a thanksgiving service in Berlin for the final victory over his opponents—a victory for strict Lutheranism won mainly by the man whom Luther had despised. He died three years later, during an epidemic of the plague. He was undoubtedly a gifted man, though his rightful development was hindered by his vanity, which brought about the breach with Luther, and by the temptations of court life, which, as he himself recognized when too late, he had not sufficient strength of mind to resist.

(G. Kawerau.)

Bibliography: G. Kawerau, Johann Agricola won Eisleben, Berlin, 1881.

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