This episode is titled “Cracks.”
One of the great concerns of the Roman Church at the outset of the Reformation was just how far it would go, not so much in terms of variance in Doctrines, although that also was a concern. What Rome worried over was just how many different groups the Faith would split into. After all, division wasn’t new. There’d already been a major break between East and West a half century before. In the East, the Church was already fragmented into dozens of groups across Central Asia.
But up till the Reformation, the Western Church had managed to keep new and reform movements from splitting off. Most had eventually been subsumed back into the larger reach of the Church structure.
The Reformation brought an end to that as now there were groups that defined themselves, not by the Roman Church, but by more local and national churches and movements. It didn’t take long till even some of the early Reformers began to worry about how far the break from Rome would go. The cracks that formed in the Church kept spreading, like a nick on a car windshield sends out just a tiny crack at first, but keeps spreading.
The Reformation ended up spinning out dozens of groups; some big, many small.
There were Lutherans, Presbyterians, Huguenots, Swiss Brethren, dozens of Anabaptist groups, Mennonites, Hutterites, etc. etc. etc..
In Episode 90, we touched briefly on the tragedy that struck at Munster when the Anabaptist movement strayed from its moorings in God’s Word and replaced it with the lunacy of a couple of its leaders who went way off the rails in an apocalyptic frenzy that ended up destroying the town.
Munster became a cautionary tale for other Anabaptists and Reformers. The explanation given for the tragedy was Munster’s abandonment of the pacifism preached and practiced by other Anabaptists. Anabaptists regarded the Sermon on the Mount as their guiding ethic and said it could only be followed by a Faith that was committed to the practice of a love that resigned consequences to God’s hands.
A leading figure among the Anabaptists was Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest.
Simons was moved to reconsider the rightness of infant baptism when he witnessed the martyrdom of an Anabaptist in 1531. Five years later, the same year the leaders of Munster were executed, Simons left his position as a parish priest and embraced Anabaptism. He joined a Dutch fellowship, where his followers came to be known as Mennonites.
Although persecution was fierce, Menno survived and spent his time traveling through Northern German and Holland, preaching and encouraging his followers. He also wrote a large number of essays of which Foundations of the Christian Doctrine in 1539, became the most important.
Menno was convinced pacifism was an essential part of true Christianity, and refused to have anything to do with Anabaptists of a revolutionary flavor. He also held that Christians ought not offer any oaths, and shouldn’t take occupations requiring them. But he maintained Christians should obey civil authorities, as long as they weren’t required to disobey the Lord.
Menno preferred to baptize by pouring water over the head of adults who confessed their faith publicly. He said neither baptism nor communion confer grace, but rather are outward signs of what takes place inwardly between God and the believer. Mennonites also practiced foot-washing as a reminder of their call to humility and a life of service.
Even though the Mennonites were so manifestly harmless, they were classed as subversive by many governments simply because they wouldn’t take oaths and as pacifists refused to join the military. Persecution scattered them throughout Eastern Europe and Western Russia.
Many Mennonites eventually left for the New World where they were offered religious tolerance. In both Russia and North America they ran into trouble when the authorities expected them to serve in the military and they declined yet again. Though the US and several other countries eventually granted Mennonites an exemption from military service, before that exemption came, many Mennonites moved to South America where there were still places they could live in isolation. By the 20th C, Mennonites were the main branch of the old Anabaptist movement of the 16th C, and now they are highly-regarded for their determined pacifist stance and on-going acts of social service for the public good.
As the Reformation carved up Europe into a seemingly hopeless hodge-podge of political and religious factions, different attempts were made to resolve the tensions, either by war, by treaty, or alliance.
I have to say, the history of 16th C Europe is a tangled mess. If we dive into the details, what you’ll hear are a lot of names and dates that’s the very kind of history reporting we want to avoid here. A part of me feels like we’re leaving out important information. Another part gives an anticipatory yawn at all the historical minutiae we’d have to cover. Things like The Peace of Nuremberg, The League and War of Schmalkalden, Philip of Hesse, Duke George of Saxony, Henry of Brunswick, Emperor Charles V staunchest ally in northern Germany.
Hey, I can already hear the yawns out there.
But there’s some interesting tidbits and moments scattered all through this that move me to say maybe we should dive into it.
Like the fact that Philip of Hesse, leader of the League of Schmalkalden, got permission from Martin Luther, his protégé Philip Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg to commit polygamy! Yes, you heard me right.
Philip of Hesse’s marriage was a mess. He and his wife had not been together for years, but were still married. Philip wanted companionship and asked these three Reformation giants if he could quietly take another wife. They agreed, saying the Bible didn’t forbid polygamy, and that Philip could take a second wife without setting the first aside. But, they said, he needed to do it in secret, because while polygamy wasn’t a sin in the eyes of God, it was a crime in the eyes of man. So Philip married another woman, but was unable to keep it secret. When it became public, the scandal toppled Philip from his place at the head of the League of Schmalkalden and put the three Reformers in hot water.
And that’s just one little vignette from this time. è Fun stuff.
While the Lutherans and Catholics wrestled over the territories of Germany, further North in neighboring Scandinavia, Lutheranism was making inroads. In Germany, it was the nobility that embraced Protestantism as a lever to use against the predominantly Catholic monarch. In Scandinavia it was the opposite. There, monarchs took up the Reformation cause. Its triumph was theirs.
At that time, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were technically a united kingdom. I say technically, because the king ruled only where he resided, in Denmark. His power in Norway was limited, and Sweden was virtually independent due to the powerful house of Sture who acted as regents. But even in Denmark, royal authority was limited by the fact the king was appointed by electors who managed to gain ever more power by cutting deals with the next would-be monarch.
When the Reformation began in Germany, the Scandinavian throne was held by Christian II, who was married to Isabella, Emperor Charles V’s sister. The Swedes refused King Christian’s control of their land, so he appealed to his brother-in-law and to other European princes for support. Time for a royal smack-down of those uppity Swedish Stures!
With a sizeable foreign force, Christian II moved into Sweden and had himself crowned at Stockholm. Although he’d vowed to spare the lives of his Swedish opponents, a few days after his coronation he ordered what’s known now as The Massacre of Stockholm, in which Sweden’s leading nobles and clerics were murdered.
This engendered deep resentment in Sweden, Norway; even back home in Denmark. Lesser rulers feared that after destroying the Swedish nobility, Christian would turn on them. He claimed he only sought to free the people of Sweden from oppression by its aristocracy. But the treacherous means by which he’d done it and the now intense religious propaganda against him, quickly lost him any support he might have won.
King Christian then tried to use the Reformation as a tool to advance his own political ends. The first Lutheran preachers had already made their way into Denmark, and people gave them a ready ear. People were savvy enough to recognize the King’s embrace of Lutheranism as merely a political ploy and reacted strongly against him.
Rebellion broke out, and Christian was forced to flee. He returned eight years later with the support of several Catholic rulers from other parts of Europe. He landed in Norway and declared himself the champion of Catholicism. But his uncle and successor, Frederick I, defeated and imprisoned him. He remained in prison for the rest of his 27 years.
Frederick I was a Protestant and ruled over a people and nobility which had become largely Protestant. At the time of his election, Frederick promised he’d not attack Catholicism nor use his authority to favor Lutheranism. He knew it was better to be the de-facto king of a small kingdom than the wanna-be ruler of a large one. So he gave up all claim to the Swedish crown, and allowed Norway to elect its own king.
The Norwegians promptly turned around and elected him. Frederick consolidated the power of the crown in the two kingdoms in a peaceful manner. He kept his promises regarding religious matters and refused to interfere in Church matters. Protestantism made rapid gains. In 1527, it was officially recognized and granted toleration, and by the time of Frederick’s death in 1533 most of his subjects were Protestants.
Then came a plot to impose a Catholic king by means of foreign intervention. The pretender was defeated, and the new ruler was Christian III, a committed Lutheran who’d been present at the Diet of Worms and greatly admired Luther both for his doctrines and courage. He took quick measures in support of Protestantism and in limiting the power of bishops. He requested teachers from Luther to help him in the work of reformation. Eventually, the entire Danish church subscribed to the Confession of Augsburg.
Events in Sweden followed a similar course. When Christian II imposed his authority, among his prisoners was a young Swede by the name of Gustavus Erikson, better known as Vasa. He escaped and, from an overseas refuge, resisted Christian II’s power grab. When he learned of the Massacre of Stockholm, in which several of his relatives were executed, he secretly returned. Working as a common laborer, living among the people, he recognized their hostility toward the Danish occupation and organized a resistance. Deeming the time had come to up the ante, he proclaimed a national rebellion, took up arms with a band of followers, and managed to secure one victory after another. In 1521, the rebels named him the new regent of the kingdom, and, two years later, crowned him king. A few months later, he entered Stockholm in triumph.
But Vasa’s title carried little authority since the nobility and clergy demanded their ancient rights be recognized. Vasa wisely embarked on a subtle policy of dividing his enemies. He began by placing limits on corrupt bishops no one had sympathy for. Then, he began to carve off the support of the common people for nobles who resisted him. This was easy to do since he’d adopted the life of a commoner for some time,. He was a man of the people and they knew it. Vasa drove an effective wedge between the nobility and the people. Then he called a National Assembly and shocked everyone by inviting not just the usual nobles and clergy, but some of the merchant-class and peasantry. When the clergy and nobility banded together to thwart Vasa’s reforms, he resigned, declaring Sweden wasn’t ready for a true king. Three days later, threatened by chaos, the Assembly agreed to recall him and give assent to his program.
The higher clergy lost its political power and from then on, Lutheranism was on the rise. Gustavus Vasa was not himself a man of deep religious conviction. But by the time he died in 1560, Sweden was a thoroughly Protestant realm.
One of the lessons this period of history in Europe makes clear is how influential even the nominal faith of a ruler has on the political and religious environment of a nation.