Luther’s mysterious disappearance excited consternation
throughout all Germany. Inquiries concerning him
were heard everywhere. The wildest rumors were circulated,
and many believed that he had been murdered. There was
great lamentation, not only by his avowed friends, but by
thousands who had not openly taken their stand with the
Reformation. Many bound themselves by a solemn oath to
avenge his death.
Progress of Reform in Germany
The Romish leaders saw with terror to what a pitch had
risen the feeling against them. Though at first exultant at
the supposed death of Luther, they soon desired to hide
from the wrath of the people. His enemies had not been so
troubled by his most daring acts while among them as they
were at his removal. Those who in their rage had sought
to destroy the bold Reformer were filled with fear now that
he had become a helpless captive. “The only remaining way
of saving ourselves,” said one, “is to light torches, and hunt
for Luther through the whole world, to restore him to the
nation that is calling for him.” —D’Aubigne, b. 9, ch. 1. The
edict of the emperor seemed to fall powerless. The papal
legates were filled with indignation as they saw that it
commanded far less attention than did the fate of Luther.
The tidings that he was safe, though a prisoner, calmed
the fears of the people, while it still further aroused their
enthusiasm in his favor. His writings were read with greater
eagerness than ever before. Increasing numbers joined the
cause of the heroic man who had, at such fearful odds,
defended the word of God. The Reformation was constantly
gaining in strength. The seed which Luther had sown sprang
up everywhere. His absence accomplished a work which
his presence would have failed to do. Other laborers felt a
new responsibility, now that their great leader was removed.
With new faith and earnestness they pressed forward to do
all in their power, that the work so nobly begun might not
But Satan was not idle. He now attempted what he has
attempted in every other reformatory movement—to deceive
and destroy the people by palming off upon them a counterfeit
in place of the true work. As there were false christs in
the first century of the Christian church, so there arose false
prophets in the sixteenth century.
A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the
religious world, imagined themselves to have received special
revelations from Heaven, and claimed to have been divinely
commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation
which, they declared, had been but feebly begun by
Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which
he had accomplished. They rejected the great principle
which was the very foundation of the Reformation—that
the word of God is the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice;
and for that unerring guide they substituted the changeable,
uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions.
By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and
falsehood the way was opened for Satan to control minds
as best pleased himself.
One of these prophets claimed to have been instructed by
the angel Gabriel. A student who united with him forsook
his studies, declaring that he had been endowed by God
Himself with wisdom to expound His word. Others who
were naturally inclined to fanaticism united with them.
The proceedings of these enthusiasts created no little excitement.
The preaching of Luther had aroused the people
everywhere to feel the necessity of reform, and now some
really honest persons were misled by the pretensions of the
The leaders of the movement proceeded to Wittenberg
and urged their claims upon Melanchthon and his colaborers.
Said they: “We are sent by God to instruct the people. We
have held familiar conversations with the Lord; we know
what will happen; in a word, we are apostles and prophets,
and appeal to Dr. Luther.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 7.
The Reformers were astonished and perplexed. This was
such an element as they had never before encountered, and
they knew not what course to pursue. Said Melanchthon:
“There are indeed extraordinary spirits in these men; but
what spirits? . . . On the one hand, let us beware of quenching
the Spirit of God, and on the other, of being led astray by
the spirit of Satan.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 7.
The fruit of the new teaching soon became apparent. The
people were led to neglect the Bible or to cast it wholly
aside. The schools were thrown into confusion. Students,
spurning all restraint, abandoned their studies and withdrew
from the university. The men who thought themselves
competent to revive and control the work of the Reformation
succeeded only in bringing it to the verge of ruin. The
Romanists now regained their confidence and exclaimed
exultingly: “One last struggle, and all will be ours.” —Ibid.,
b. 9, ch. 7.
Luther at the Wartburg, hearing of what had occurred,
said with deep concern: “I always expected that Satan would
send us this plague.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 7. He perceived the true
character of those pretended prophets and saw the danger
that threatened the cause of truth. The opposition of the
pope and the emperor had not caused him so great perplexity
and distress as he now experienced. From the professed
friends of the Reformation had risen its worst enemies.
The very truths which had brought him so great joy and
consolation were being employed to stir up strife and create
confusion in the church.
In the work of reform, Luther had been urged forward
by the Spirit of God, and had been carried beyond himself.
He had not purposed to take such positions as he did, or to
make so radical changes. He had been but the instrument in
the hand of Infinite Power. Yet he often trembled for the
result of his work. He had once said: “If I knew that my
doctrine injured one man, one single man, however lowly
and obscure, —which it cannot, for it is the gospel itself, —
I would rather die ten times than not retract it.” —Ibid.,
b. 9, ch. 7.
And now Wittenberg itself, the very center of the
Reformation, was fast falling under the power of fanaticism and
lawlessness. This terrible condition had not resulted from
the teachings of Luther; but throughout Germany his enemies
were charging it upon him. In bitterness of soul he
sometimes asked: “Can such, then, be the end of this great
work of the Reformation?” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 7. Again, as he
wrestled with God in prayer, peace flowed into his heart.
“The work is not mine, but Thine own,” he said; “Thou wilt
not suffer it to be corrupted by superstition or fanaticism.”
But the thought of remaining longer from the conflict in
such a crisis, became insupportable. He determined to return
Without delay he set out on his perilous journey. He was
under the ban of the empire. Enemies were at liberty to take
his life; friends were forbidden to aid or shelter him. The
imperial government was adopting the most stringent measures
against his adherents. But he saw that the work of the
gospel was imperiled, and in the name of the Lord he went
out fearlessly to battle for the truth.
In a letter to the elector, after stating his purpose to leave
the Wartburg, Luther said: “Be it known to your highness
that I am going to Wittenberg under a protection far higher
than that of princes and electors. I think not of soliciting
your highness’s support, and far from desiring your protection,
I would rather protect you myself. If I knew that your
highness could or would protect me, I would not go to
Wittenberg at all. There is no sword that can further this
cause. God alone must do everything, without the help or
concurrence of man. He who has the greatest faith is he
who is most able to protect.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 8.
In a second letter, written on the way to Wittenberg,
Luther added: “I am ready to incur the displeasure of your
highness and the anger of the whole world. Are not the
Wittenbergers my sheep? Has not God entrusted them to me? And
ought I not, if necessary, to expose myself to death for their
sakes? Besides, I fear to see a terrible outbreak in Germany,
by which God will punish our nation.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 7.
With great caution and humility, yet with decision and
firmness, he entered upon his work. “By the word,” said he,
“must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by
violence. I will not make use of force against the superstitious
and unbelieving. . . . No one must be constrained.
Liberty is the very essence of faith.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 8.
It was soon noised through Wittenberg that Luther had
returned and that he was to preach. The people flocked from
all directions, and the church was filled to overflowing.
Ascending the pulpit, he with great wisdom and gentleness
instructed, exhorted, and reproved. Touching the course of
some who had resorted to violent measures in abolishing the
mass, he said:
“The mass is a bad thing; God is opposed to it; it ought
to be abolished; and I would that throughout the whole
world it were replaced by the supper of the gospel. But let
no one be torn from it by force. We must leave the matter
in God’s hands. His word must act, and not we. And why
so? you will ask. Because I do not hold men’s hearts in
my hand, as the potter holds the clay. We have a right
to speak: we have not the right to act. Let us preach; the
rest belongs unto God. Were I to employ force, what
should I gain? Grimace, formality, apings, human ordinances,
and hypocrisy. . . . But there would be no sincerity
of heart, nor faith, nor charity. Where these three are wanting,
all is wanting, and I would not give a pear stalk for such
a result. . . . God does more by His word alone than you
and I and all the world by our united strength. God lays hold
upon the heart; and when the heart is taken, all is won. . . .
“I will preach, discuss, and write; but I will constrain
none, for faith is a voluntary act. See what I have done. I
stood up against the pope, indulgences, and papists, but
without violence or tumult. I put forward God’s word; I
preached and wrote—this was all I did. And yet while I was
asleep, . . . the word that I had preached overthrew popery,
so that neither prince nor emperor has done it so much harm.
And yet I did nothing; the word alone did all. If I had
wished to appeal to force, the whole of Germany would
perhaps have been deluged with blood. But what would
have been the result? Ruin and desolation both to body and
soul. I therefore kept quiet, and left the word to run through
the world alone.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 8.
Day after day, for a whole week, Luther continued to
preach to eager crowds. The word of God broke the spell
of fanatical excitement. The power of the gospel brought
back the misguided people into the way of truth.
Luther had no desire to encounter the fanatics whose
course had been productive of so great evil. He knew them
to be men of unsound judgment and undisciplined passions,
who, while claiming to be specially illuminated from heaven,
would not endure the slightest contradiction or even the
kindest reproof or counsel. Arrogating to themselves
supreme authority, they required everyone, without a question,
to acknowledge their claims. But, as they demanded an
interview with him, he consented to meet them; and so
successfully did he expose their pretensions that the
impostors at once departed from Wittenberg.
The fanaticism was checked for a time; but several years
later it broke out with greater violence and more terrible
results. Said Luther, concerning the leaders in this movement:
“To them the Holy Scriptures were but a dead letter,
and they all began to cry, ‘The Spirit! the Spirit!’ But most
assuredly I will not follow where their spirit leads them. May
God of His mercy preserve me from a church in which there
are none but saints. I desire to dwell with the humble, the
feeble, the sick, who know and feel their sins, and who groan
and cry continually to God from the bottom of their hearts
to obtain His consolation and support.” —Ibid., b. 10, ch. 10.
Thomas Munzer, the most active of the fanatics, was a man
of considerable ability, which, rightly directed, would have
enabled him to do good; but he had not learned the first
principles of true religion. “He was possessed with a desire
of reforming the world, and forgot, as all enthusiasts do, that
the reformation should begin with himself.” —Ibid., b.
9, ch. 8. He was ambitious to obtain position and influence, and
was unwilling to be second, even to Luther. He declared that
the Reformers, in substituting the authority of Scripture for
that of the pope, were only establishing a different form of
popery. He himself, he claimed, had been divinely commissioned
to introduce the true reform. “He who possesses this
spirit,” said Munzer, “possesses the true faith, although he
should never see the Scriptures in his life.” —Ibid.,
b. 10, ch. 10.
The fanatical teachers gave themselves up to be governed
by impressions, regarding every thought and impulse as the
voice of God; consequently they went to great extremes.
Some even burned their Bibles, exclaiming: “The letter killeth,
but the Spirit giveth life.” Munzer’s teaching appealed
to men’s desire for the marvelous, while it gratified their
pride by virtually placing human ideas and opinions above
the word of God. His doctrines were received by thousands.
He soon denounced all order in public worship, and declared
that to obey princes was to attempt to serve both God and
The minds of the people, already beginning to throw off
the yoke of the papacy, were also becoming impatient
under the restraints of civil authority. Munzer’s revolutionary
teachings, claiming divine sanction, led them to break away
from all control and give the rein to their prejudices and
passions. The most terrible scenes of sedition and strife
followed, and the fields of Germany were drenched with blood.
The agony of soul which Luther had so long before
experienced at Erfurt now pressed upon him with redoubled
power as he saw the results of fanaticism charged upon the
Reformation. The papist princes declared—and many were
ready to credit the statement—that the rebellion was the
legitimate fruit of Luther’s doctrines. Although this charge
was without the slightest foundation, it could not but cause
the Reformer great distress. That the cause of truth should
be thus disgraced by being ranked with the basest fanaticism,
seemed more than he could endure. On the other hand, the
leaders in the revolt hated Luther because he had not only
opposed their doctrines and denied their claims to divine
inspiration, but had pronounced them rebels against the civil
authority. In retaliation they denounced him as a base
pretender. He seemed to have brought upon himself the enmity
of both princes and people.
The Romanists exulted, expecting to witness the speedy
downfall of the Reformation; and they blamed Luther, even
for the errors which he had been most earnestly endeavoring
to correct. The fanatical party, by falsely claiming to have
been treated with great injustice, succeeded in gaining the
sympathies of a large class of the people, and, as is often the
case with those who take the wrong side, they came to be
regarded as martyrs. Thus the ones who were exerting every
energy in opposition to the Reformation were pitied and
lauded as the victims of cruelty and oppression. This was the
work of Satan, prompted by the same spirit of rebellion
which was first manifested in heaven.
Satan is constantly seeking to deceive men and lead them
to call sin righteousness, and righteousness sin. How
successful has been his work! How often censure and
reproach are cast upon God’s faithful servants because they
will stand fearlessly in defense of the truth! Men who are
but agents of Satan are praised and flattered, and even looked
upon as martyrs, while those who should be respected and
sustained for their fidelity to God, are left to stand alone,
under suspicion and distrust.
Counterfeit holiness, spurious sanctification, is still doing
its work of deception. Under various forms it exhibits the
same spirit as in the days of Luther, diverting minds from the
Scriptures and leading men to follow their own feelings and
impressions rather than to yield obedience to the law of God.
This is one of Satan’s most successful devices to cast reproach
upon purity and truth.
Fearlessly did Luther defend the gospel from the attacks
which came from every quarter. The word of God proved
itself a weapon mighty in every conflict. With that word he
warred against the usurped authority of the pope, and the
rationalistic philosophy of the schoolmen, while he stood
firm as a rock against the fanaticism that sought to ally itself
with the Reformation.
Each of these opposing elements was in its own way
setting aside the Holy Scriptures and exalting human wisdom
as the source of religious truth and knowledge. Rationalism
idolizes reason and makes this the criterion for religion.
Romanism, claiming for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration
descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable
through all time, gives ample opportunity for every
species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under
the sanctity of the apostolic commission. The inspiration
claimed by Munzer and his associates proceeded from no
higher source than the vagaries of the imagination, and its
influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine.
True Christianity receives the word of God as the great
treasure house of inspired truth and the test of all inspiration.
Upon his return from the Wartburg, Luther completed
his translation of the New Testament, and the gospel was
soon after given to the people of Germany in their own
language. This translation was received with great joy by
all who loved the truth; but it was scornfully rejected by
those who chose human traditions and the commandments
The priests were alarmed at the thought that the common
people would now be able to discuss with them the precepts
of God’s word, and that their own ignorance would thus be
exposed. The weapons of their carnal reasoning were powerless
against the sword of the Spirit. Rome summoned all her
authority to prevent the circulation of the Scriptures; but
decrees, anathemas, and tortures were alike in vain. The
more she condemned and prohibited the Bible, the greater
was the anxiety of the people to know what it really taught.
All who could read were eager to study the word of God for
themselves. They carried it about with them, and read and
reread, and could not be satisfied until they had committed
large portions to memory. Seeing the favor with which the
New Testament was received, Luther immediately began the
translation of the Old, and published it in parts as fast as
Luther’s writings were welcomed alike in city and in
hamlet. “What Luther and his friends composed, others
circulated. Monks, convinced of the unlawfulness of monastic
obligations, desirous of exchanging a long life of slothfulness
for one of active exertion, but too ignorant to proclaim the
word of God, traveled through the provinces, visiting hamlets
and cottages, where they sold the books of Luther and his
friends. Germany soon swarmed with these bold colporteurs.”
—Ibid., b. 9, ch. 11.
These writings were studied with deep interest by rich and
poor, the learned and the ignorant. At night the teachers of
the village schools read them aloud to little groups gathered
at the fireside. With every effort some souls would be
convicted of the truth and, receiving the word with gladness,
would in their turn tell the good news to others.
The words of Inspiration were verified: “The entrance of
Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the
Psalm 119:130. The study of the Scriptures was
working a mighty change in the minds and hearts of the
people. The papal rule had placed upon its subjects an
iron yoke which held them in ignorance and degradation.
A superstitious observance of forms had been scrupulously
maintained; but in all their service the heart and intellect
had had little part. The preaching of Luther, setting forth
the plain truths of God’s word, and then the word itself,
placed in the hands of the common people, had aroused
their dormant powers, not only purifying and ennobling the
spiritual nature, but imparting new strength and vigor to
Persons of all ranks were to be seen with the Bible in their
hands, defending the doctrines of the Reformation. The
papists who had left the study of the Scriptures to the priests
and monks now called upon them to come forward and
refute the new teachings. But, ignorant alike of the Scriptures
and of the power of God, priests and friars were totally
defeated by those whom they had denounced as unlearned
and heretical. “Unhappily,” said a Catholic writer, “Luther
had persuaded his followers to put no faith in any other
oracle than the Holy Scriptures.” —D’Aubigne, b. 9, ch. 11.
Crowds would gather to hear the truth advocated by men of
little education, and even discussed by them with learned
and eloquent theologians. The shameful ignorance of these
great men was made apparent as their arguments were met
by the simple teachings of God’s word. Laborers, soldiers,
women, and even children, were better acquainted with the
Bible teachings than were the priests and learned doctors.
The contrast between the disciples of the gospel and the
upholders of popish superstition was no less manifest in the
ranks of scholars than among the common people. “Opposed
to the old champions of the hierarchy, who had neglected
the study of languages and the cultivation of literature, . . .
were generous-minded youth, devoted to study, investigating
Scripture, and familiarizing themselves with the masterpieces
of antiquity. Possessing an active mind, an elevated
soul, and intrepid heart, these young men soon acquired such
knowledge that for a long period none could compete with
them. . . . Accordingly, when these youthful defenders of
the Reformation met the Romish doctors in any assembly,
they attacked them with such ease and confidence that these
ignorant men hesitated, became embarrassed, and fell into a
contempt merited in the eyes of all.” —Ibid., b. 9, ch. 11.
As the Romish clergy saw their congregations diminishing,
they invoked the aid of the magistrates, and by every
means in their power endeavored to bring back their hearers.
But the people had found in the new teachings that which
supplied the wants of their souls, and they turned away from
those who had so long fed them with the worthless husks
of superstitious rites and human traditions.
When persecution was kindled against the teachers of
the truth, they gave heed to the words of Christ: “When
they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another.”
Matthew 10:23. The light penetrated everywhere. The fugitives
would find somewhere a hospitable door opened to them,
and there abiding, they would preach Christ, sometimes in
the church, or, if denied that privilege, in private houses or
in the open air. Wherever they could obtain a hearing was
a consecrated temple. The truth, proclaimed with such
energy and assurance, spread with irresistible power.
In vain both ecclesiastical and civil authorities were
invoked to crush the heresy. In vain they resorted to imprisonment,
torture, fire, and sword. Thousands of believers sealed
their faith with their blood, and yet the work went on.
Persecution served only to extend the truth, and the fanaticism
which Satan endeavored to unite with it resulted in
making more clear the contrast between the work of Satan
and the work of God.