Martin Luther’s Great Work
and Last Home
Wittenberg contains two churches connected with the history of the great Saxon Reformer–the Stadt Kirche and the Schloss Kirche.
The Stadt Kirche stands in the middle of the town; and its double tower, surmounted by two smaller ones, resembling a couple of pepper-boxes, is welcomed by every one travelling in the neighbourhood as a conspicuous landmark; and to a visitor threading the thoroughfares of what has been called our Protestant Mecca, it becomes a sign pointing out the spot where the prophet of the Reformation fulfilled some of his most memorable ministries. The edifice is large and massive, of the Gothic type, externally very plain, and without any striking architectural pretensions. The interior, commodious indeed, and in Luther’s time adapted to Protestant worship, as it still remains, affords to the tourist little of interest beyond its associations, and certain pictures belonging to it, attributed to Cranach, which we have noticed already in this series of papers.
Luther had no pastoral charge in Wittenberg, his regular official duties being confined to the University. But he was an orator by nature, and a Christian preacher by force of conviction; and therefore he was drawn to the pulpit as a sphere of effective spiritual activity. Not a mere rhetorician was Dr. Martin, but a deep, earnest, religious thinker, feeling in his heart of hearts the thoughts which rushed through his capacious mind. It was natural to him to utter in unstudied words the sentiments which moved his soul, even as the bird on the branches pours out its melodies by an instinctive, irresistible impulse. He could not be silent: he could not but speak the things he felt. Nor did his constitution and habits fit him so much for the daily and commonplace details of ministerial work in a parish or a congregation, as for the special and eminently exceptional mission of a Reformer of ancient abuses, and a Revivalist amid more than ordinary formalism and spiritual death. Providence raised him up to overthrow accumulated superstitions; to rouse the slumbering population of Germany with appeals which were echoes of a voice from heaven; to rouse the dead in trespasses and sins to a life of faith in the Divine Redeemer; and to build up a reformed Church, which proved a blessed power in the land of its location, and a glory and joy for renovated Christendom to the ends of the earth. Luther was great as a university professor; great as an ecclesiastical administrator; great as a translator, commentator, and author; but, perhaps greatest of all, at least for contemporary effects, as a preacher of God’s holy Word.
As an occasional preacher his labours covered a wide and varied field, and many an old German church may be pointed out as having echoed with the sound of his voice; but some of the most remarkable memories of his oratory clust5er round the pulpit of the Stadt Kirche–not the pulpit which stands there now, but one which occupied its place. Bugenhagen was pastor of this church in Luther’s time; and in the years 1528 and 1529, when the pastor was performing missionary work in Brunswick and Hamburg, Luther preached, Sunday after Sunday, in his room. In 1530 and 1532, when Bugenhagen was similarly employed at Lubeck, Luther discharged homiletic duties three days a week–on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Again, between 1537 and 1540, when Bugenhagen was at work in Denmark, Luther acted as his locus tenens at Wittenberg. The sermons preached at this period, we are informed by Dr. Sears, were not committed to paper by the preacher himself, but were written down by reporters; and these in part, after the lapse of three centuries, have been committed to the press. We may add, that what are called his “Domestic Postils” were preached at home to his own household, when he was so ill as to be unable to go to church–a circumstance which invests them with touching interest. We think of them in connection withe the old room at the Augustine monestary; and can imagine the preacher enfeebled by infirmity, yet with eyes fyull of the light and fervour of a God’moved soul, with a voice rising out of husky tones into clear, sonorous utterances, and with an animated manner which reminded his hearers of earlier days, pouring out the gospel of justification into the ears and hearts of his listening auditory–that auditory composed of wife, children and servants, of neighbours and friends–includingperhaps, Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas. The scene reminds us of another–like it in spirit and manner–when the hly Adolphe Monod, in Paris, just before his death, supported by pillows, had, gathered round the foot of his bed, a little domestic congregation, to which he addressed his sweet, loving, inspired Adieus. Further, we may remark that Luther’s “Church Postils” were prepared by him at the Wartburg for the use of the clergy, somewhat after the manner of the Homilies of the English Church; so that from him on his castle height, amidst the woods of Thuringia, there sounded out the Word of the Lord, which floated from town to town, from village to village, from church to church, making glad the heart of many a man, woman, and child.
The Stadt Kirche is especially associated with a remarkable period in Luther’s life. Whilst he was at the Wartburg, sad disturbances broke out at Wittenberg. Carlstadt–a frioend of Luther, but without the strong sense and the wise prudence of Luther–rushed into violent excesses during the Reformer’s absence. For, after stimulating the people by fanatical discourses, he entered, at the head of a mob, into All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg, and there began hewing down statues and pictures, with an iconoclastic fury perhaps rarely equalled, and never exceeded. Carlstadt incited to this destructive havoc, by repeating the second commandment. As in other instances of popular riot, the magistrates were panic-struck, and the work of demolition went on in one church after another. Claus Storch, in the dress of a “lanz-knecht” or free-lance trooper, and another man attired in a long civic robe, were conspicuous leaders of the rabble; and when the news of these terrible proceedings reached Luther in his retreat, he was at last induced to return to Wittenberg to appease the storm.
“Satan, during my absence,” he writes to the Elector, “has penetrated into my fold, and committed ravages there which my presence alone can repair. A letter would answer no purpose. I must make use of my own eyes and my own mouthe to see and speak.
“My conscience will permit me to make no longer delay; and rather than act against that I would incur the anger of your Electoral Grace and of the whole world. The Wittenbergers are my sheep, whom God has intrusted to my care. They are my children in the Lord. For them I am ready to suffer martyrdom. I go, therefore, to accomplish by God’s grace that which Christ demands of them who own Him.”
Luther, at the Warburg, had allowed his beard to grow, and had laid aside his staff for a riding whip. His moastic dress he exchanged for a steel cuirass, and a plumed casque, and the spurred boots of a man-at-arms. Thus accoutred, he travelled homewards; and in a cloud of dust, amidst a crowd of varlets, made his entry into Wittenberg, as represented in one of Cranach’s pictures.
On the Sunday after his arrival, march 8, 1522, he appeared in the pulpit–in his ecclesiastical, not his military attire, we presume–and commenced a course of eight sermons on Charity, Christian Freedom (in use and abuses), Image-worship, Fasting, the Holy Communion and Confession.
“Dear friends,” he said (to adopt the translation by Miss Winkworth), “the kingdom of God standeth not in speech or words, but in power and in deed. For God will not have mere hearers and repeaters of the Word, but followers and doers of it, who exercise themselves in that faith which worketh by love. For faith without love is nothing worth; yea, it is not faith, but only the semblance thereof. Just as a countenance seen in a mirror is not a real countenance, but only a semblance thereof.” No clearer testimony could be borne to the necessity of personal holiness; and, therefore, whatever rash things Luther might at times utter with the view of glorifying Diving grace, he cannot be fairly charged with adopting Antinomian principles. He proceeded to urge prudence and caution upon his hearers in carrying out the work of Reformation, assuring them that with violence and uproar they would never do God’s work. Not without effect did he appeal to the leaders of the outbreak. One of them exclaimed, on hearing him, “It is as though I heard the voice of an angel, not of a man.” Never, perhaps, was Virgil’s description more signally verified, if we may take a liberty with the last line:
“As when in tumults the ignoble
Mad are their motions, and their tongues are
And stones and brands in rattling volleys
And all the rustic arms that fury can
If then some grave and pious man
They hush their noise, and lend a listening
He soothes with sober words their angry
And turns their evil passions into
We have said that there was an irresistable impulse moving Martin Luther to preach; and so, no doubt, there was. Yet at times to preach was a burden. It was a necessity from which he shrank. One can understand this. The old Hebrew prophets felt it. So did St. Paul. The confession of it occurs in the writings and sayings of many a great preacher. Tauler, an object of admiration and a model of study for Luther, though a man of extraordinary eloquence, and making a mark in the history of mediaeval preaching broader than that of any other divine, imposed on himself a season of silence, because of mental depression, and a mistaken consciousness of incompetency for the lofty work to which he was called. It is the self-sufficient pedant, or the ignorant fanatic, who rushes into the pulpit without warrant or preparation. The true God-called preacher will often tremble at the sight of the sacred desk where he is to deliver his message, crying out, with apostolic humility, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
Accordingly, we find Luther saying, “Oh, how I trembled when I was ascending the pulpit for the first time! I would fain have excused myself, but they made me preach.” “Here, under this very pear-tree”–a pear-tree, we suppose, in the monastery garden–“I have, over and over again, argued with Dr. Staupitz as to whether it was my vocation to preach. he said it was. I had fifteen reasons against it, and fifteen more when they were done. ‘Doctor,’ I used to say, ‘you want to kill me. I shall not live three months if you compel me to go on.’ “
Fear in the pulpit, at the presence of certain men in the congregation, is no uncommon thing, and Luther felt it at Wittenberg. “I don’t at all like Philip to be present when I preach or lecture; but I make the best I can of it. I put the cross before me, and say to myself, Philip, Jonas, Pomer, and the rest of them have nothing to do with the question in hand; and I try to persuade myself that I am a competent to fill the pulpit as they.” Sometimes Luther, though a master of logic, was unmethodical in his mode of handling a subject; and became diffuse and unconnected, to the discomfort of the learned who listened to his effusions. Jonas Justus sometimes could not follow his friend’s ramblings, and told him so; when Luther replied, he could not always follow himself, regretting that he did not make his sermons shorter, and confessing that he thought he was sometimes too wordy.
No man better knew himself, and few but will recognise the portrait which he thus draws of his own ministry, though they may not appreciate the force of the comaprison which he makes of another preacher with himself. Addressing Brentius, on of the Reformers, in the year 1530, he observes: “I, whose style is impracticable, harsh, rough, pour forth a deluge, a chaos of words. My manner is turbulent, impetuous, fierce, as that of a gladiator contending with a thousand monsters who assail him in uninterrupted succession. If I might compare small things with great, I should say that I had given me somewhat of the quadruple spirit of Elias the prophet, who was rapid as the wind, whose word burnt like a lamp, who overthrew mountains and burst asunder rocks. You, on the contrary, breathe forth the gentle murmur of the light, refreshing breeze. One thing, however, consoles me, namely, that the Divine Father of the human race has need, for the instruction of that immense family, of both the one servant and the other–of the rugged, for the conquering of the rugged; the harsh, for the conquering of the harsh. To clear the air, and to render the earth more fertile, it is not enought that the rain should water and penetrate its surface: there needs also the thunder and the lightning.”
The vigour of his imagination, the power of his feelings, his strong, masculine sense, his affluence of his speech, and his nationality of character, which touched and won the German heart, do not, however, fully account for the effect of his ministry. he experienced the influence of the truth he proclaimed. Saved by the gospel, he preached it as the means by which others were to be saved. And, with the spirit and style of the Holy Scriptures, his mind and heart were so saturated, that his sermons were often translations and expansions of what he had read in his Bible before ascending the pulpit. he had, as he said, “shaken every tree in this forest, and never without gathering some fruit.”
All the men of the age, friends and foes, pronounced him the prince of preachers. “It was the preaching of Luther that endeared him to Frederick the Wise, even when he saw his own superstitions unsparingly exposed. It was his preaching that made him as absolute a ruler over the people at Wittenberg as Chrysostom was at Antioch and Constantinople, or Calvin at Geneva”–or, we may add, Knox at Edinburgh. “It was his preaching tat so often stilled the tumult in the many towns and cities he visited during the first five years after his return from the Wartburg.”
Near the Stadt Kirche, and close to the Rathhaus, is a Gothic canopy, of cast-iron, covering a bronze statue of the Reformer, executed by Schadow, and erected in the year 1822. On one side is written, in German, “If it be the work of God, it will endure; if of man, it will perish:” and on the other side, “A strong tower is our God.” This structure, embodying the sentiment of veneration for Luther cultivated throughout Germany, as well as in the town of Wittenberg, occupies the site of a modern chapel, which was not removed until the walls became too decayed to stand any longer. This chapel contained a pulpit made of planks, about a yard high, claiming an equal antiquity with the rude edifice in which it was placed. Here, according to tradition, the Reformer sometimes preached; and therefore here another point of interest occurs to attract the notice and excite the recollections of intelligent pilgrims to his home and haunts.
But we must hasten on to the Scholls Kirche, or Castle Church, at the end of the town, opposite to the Elster Gate and the Augustinian Monastery. It is much smaller than the church we have just left; but, on approaching it, the doors arrest our attention from the circumstance of their being connected with one of the boldest acts of Luther’s life.
To be continued.