Trouble in Germany: What Exactly Gave Birth to the Reformation?
I often imagine the explosion of excitement --- and danger --- that erupted so suddenly onto the European scene in the early 1500s and beyond. The Protestant Reformation was such a driving force, such a complete deviance from the norm, such a revolution, that it is difficult to imagine how exactly it unfolded. Germany was certainly not high on the list of “countries to make a splash” at the time. So why Germany? Why did Protestant thought flourish here in the Holy Roman Empire when countries such as France and Spain never accepted the “new religion”? I have a few ideas.
I have studied German history back to the Roman era and beyond, and one thing that became crystal clear was that Germans, “barbarians” as their enemies called them, violently resisted any form of Romanization. They had no intentions of accepting Roman rule as the Celts and other native tribes later would. Thus, as Christianity was spread on the tip of a sword via a fellow Germanic tribe known as the Franks, and as Roman church proceedings probably always remained foreign to German-speakers, there must have been a sense of uneasiness with Catholic doctrine that other countries might not have felt. Over time, however, it became so ingrained that the German populace became accustomed to it.
Another issue was the illiteracy of the common medieval German, and the fact that the average man or woman of the 16th century had little access to religious literature. People had no way to distinguish for themselves whether a new “fad” was beneficial or dangerous. They obediently believed whatever was pressed upon them. In Martin Luther’s era, the sale of indulgences skyrocketed, and men such as Johann Tetzel put a new spin on the idea.
Tetzel appealed to German emotions by employing plays and posters that showed their loved ones in torment. He explained that if they did not pay a certain amount of money, their beloved departed friends and relatives would moan and lament that their own children did not desire to save them. Faced with this horror, Germans hurried to empty their pockets, playing right into the manipulation of those trying to raise money for Rome. This particular thought always bothers me, since, having mostly German ancestry, I think of my ancestors being subjected to these “skits” and feeling such great desperation that they needed to do whatever they could to save their loved ones.
The average 16th century German was hard-working and devout, but he began to see that a great amount of his earnings never reached his family. The medieval Catholic Church funneled German coins into the construction of St. Peter’s and other projects. Perhaps without Martin Luther’s teachings ordinary Germans would have rebelled on their own, but Luther’s sudden promise of a Christian life without spending every coin on indulgences came like a godsend. They greedily drank up the idea that would be a Christian without the self-denial and blind obedience to which medieval and Renaissance man was subjected.
When Protestant thought emerged, the German populace moved away from indulgences and began to ponder questions of a more theological nature. The printing press produced various pamphlets explaining the Reform and encouraging Germans to think for themselves instead of taking marching orders from local officials. It is indeed fascinating to ponder why Germany never suffered religious wars as did France, and never became a center for religious bloodshed as did France and Spain. Why, when Italy, Spain, and France remained unfailingly Catholic, did Germany, the “Holy Roman Empire,” cling so faithfully to the five solas of the Reformation?
One might say that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved