Page images

forebodings, that the tenets of Luther, breaking loose from authority, must lead to civil tumults! The Peasant wars had not ended, or hardly ended, when the Anabaptists, the first Anabaptists, arose, threw off at once all civil and religious obedience, with a fanaticism which had all the excesses, the follies, the cruelties, the tyranny of popular insurrection, without any of the grandeur, the noble self-sacrifice, the patriotic heroism of a strife for freedom. The voice of Luther was heard louder and louder, protesting, denouncing the monstrous wickedness, the monstrous impiety, the monstrous madness of these wild zealots; he repudiated them in the name of Christian faith and Christian morals, and called on all rulers and magistrates to put down with the severest measures, as they did without remorse, those common enemies of Christ and of mankind. Still these frantic excesses, notwithstanding this just and iterated disclaimer, could not but have some baneful effect on the progress of religious freedom; they affrighted the frightened, raised a howl of triumph from the extreme bigots, and, on those who, like Erasmus, loved peace above all things, seemed to enforce the wisdom of their cautious and prophetic timidity.

During all this time every influence, every kind of persuasion, was used to induce Erasmus to take the part of the established order of things-flatteries, promises, splendid offers, gifts; prelates, princes, kings, the Pope himself condescended to urge, to excite, almost to implore. Would the most learned man in Christendom stand aloof in sullen dignity? Would he whose voice alone could allay the tumult, maintain a cold and suspicious silence? Would he who had received such homage, such favours, such presents, persist in ungrateful disregard for the cause of order? Would the lover of peace do nothing to promote peace ? His silence would be more than suspicious ; it would justify the worst charges that could be made against him; irrefragably prove his latent heresies, and show the just sagacity of his most violent adversaries, according to

? The great outburst of Anabaptism under John of Leyden was later, 1529.

whom Luther had but hatched the egg which Erasmus had laid. Erasmus protested, but protested in vain, that he might have laid an egg, but that Luther had hatched a very different brood. From both sides came at once the most adulatory invitations and the most bitter reproaches. The extreme Reformers taunted him as a cowardly apostate, the Romanists as a cowardly hypocrite. Neither party would believe that a man might with reason condemn both. There was no longer an inch of ground on which the moderate could be permitted to take his stand. Even now it is thought almost impossible that a wise, sincere, and devout Christian may deprecate the excesses of both parties in this great controversy, and strive to render impartial justice to the virtues as well of Luther as of some of his adversaries ; still less of those who hovered, in their time, in the midway over the terrible conflict. Erasmus, too, suffered one of the inevitable penalties of wit ; his sharp sayings were caught up, and ran like wildfire through the world—such sayings as are not only galling for the time, but are ineffaceable, and rankle unforgotten and unforgiven in the depth of the heart. In his interview with the Elector of Saxony he threw out carelessly the fatal truth: after all, Luther's worst crime is, that he attacked the crown of the Pope and the belly of the Monks. At a later period, after Luther's marriage, he gave as deep offence to the Reformers : so the Tragedy has ended like a Comedy, in a wedding.

It is doubtless right, it is noble, it is Christian to lay down life for faith; but it was hard upon Erasmus to be called upon to hazard his comfort, his peace, even his life, for what he did not believe. That the Monks would have burned him, who doubts? He expresses once and again fear of the more fanatic Lutherans. Is it absolutely necessary, is it the undeniable

Romæ quidem me faciunt Lutheranum, in Germaniâ sum Anti-Lutheranissimus, nec in quenquam magis fremunt quam in me, cui uni improbant, quod non triumphant.'—Epist. 667. See, among many other passages, Epist. 824, 6.

• Erasmus was on the whole favourable to the marriage of the clergy.Epist. 725.

5 Epist. 586, 657. In 660, 715, 718, he says no printer dares to print a word against Luther.

duty of every Christian man, not only to have made up his mind on the essential truths of the faith, but on all the lesser and subsidiary truths, especially in a period of transition ? That religious truths are revealed with different degrees of clearness, revealed differently perhaps to different minds, who can question ? The theory of Erasmus (and who shall persuade us that Erasmus was not a sincere Christian ?) rested in a simpler faith (he would have been contented, as Jeremy Taylor after him, with the Apostles' Creed), observances far less onerous and Judaical, superstitions cast aside, the Scriptures opened to the people, above all, more pure, more peaceful lives, which would have given time and tranquillity for the cultivation of letters. Some subjects, as the Eucharist, he had not profoundly investigated. On the supremacy of the Pope, on what is called the Consent of the Church, he acquiesced in the common opinions : how long was it that Luther had emancipated himself from the universal creed? But on this point all were agreed, who were agreed on nothing else, that Erasmus must take his line; set his hand to the plough in one furrow or the other, and never look back. He was playing a fearful penalty for his fame.

Slowly, with much hesitation, Erasmus screwed up his courage to the point of entering the arena. He was himself conscious of his own unfitness for such a conflict, embarrassed by his own former career, even by his hard-won fame. He had managed the defensive arms of controversy with skill; resentment at personal injuries had given dexterity to his hand; nor was he sparing, as his strife with Lee, with Stunica, with Egmont, and with Hutten will show, in merciless recrimination. So important a resolution could not but transpire. Luther addressed a letter to him, a noble letter, with too much of that supercilious assumption of the exclusive and incontestable possession of Christian truth-without which he had not been Luther, nor had the Reformation changed the world--but in all other respects calm, dignified, Christian, not deigning to avert his assault, nor defying it with disdainful indifference :

Grace and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ. I have been long silent, most excellent Erasmus, and although I expected that you would first have broken silence, as I have expected so long, charity itself impels me to begin. I shall not complain of you for having behaved yourself as a man estranged from us, to keep fair with the Papists, my enemies. Nor did I take it very ill that, in your printed books, to gain their favour or mitigate their fury, you censured us with too much acrimony. We saw that the Lord had not bestowed on you the courage and the resolution to join with us freely and confidently in opposing those monsters, nor would we exact from you that which surpasses your strength and your capacity. We have even borne with your weakness, and honoured the measure which God has given you; for the whole world cannot deny the magnificent and noble gifts of God in you, for which we should all give thanks, that through you letters flourish and reign, and we are enabled to read the Holy Scriptures in their purity. I never wished that, forsaking or neglecting your own measure of grace, you should enter into our camp. You might have aided us much by your wit and by your eloquence, but since you have not the disposition and courage for this, we would have you serve God in your own way. Only we feared lest our adversaries should entice you to write against us, and that necessity should compel us to oppose you to the face. We have held back some amongst us, who were disposed and prepared to attack you; and I could have wished that the Complaint' of Hutten had never been published, and still more that your “Sponge' in answer to it had never appeared, from which you may see and feel at present, if I mistake not, how easy it is to say fine things about the duty of modesty and moderation, and to accuse Luther of wanting them, and how difficult and even impossible it is to be really modest and moderate, without a special gift of the Holy Spirit. Believe me, or believe me not, Christ is my witness, that from my very heart I condole with you, that the hatred and the zeal of so many eminent persons has been excited against you, a trial too great for mere human virtue like yours. To speak freely, there are amongst us who, having this weakness about them, cannot endure your bitterness and dissimulation, which you wish should pass for prudence and moderation. They have just cause for resentment, and yet would not feel resentment if they had more greatness of mind. I also am irascible, and when irritated have written with bitterness, yet never but against the obstinate and hardened. My conscience bears me witness, the experience of many bears witness, I believe, to my clemency and mildness towards many sinners and many impious men, however frantic and iniquitous. So far have I restrained myself towards you, though you have provoked me, and I promised, in letters to my friends, still to restrain myself, unless you should come forward openly against us.

For although you

think not with us, and many pious doctrines are condemned by you
through irreligion or dissimulation, or from a sceptical turn, yet I
neither can nor will ascribe stubborn perverseness to you. What can I
do now? Things are exasperated on both sides : I could wish if it were
possible to act as mediator between you, and that they would cease to
you with such animosity, and suffer your


to sleep in peace in the Lord; and thus they would act according to my judgement, if they either considered your weakness or the greatness of the cause, which has so long been beyond your capacity; more especially, since our affairs are so advanced, that our cause is in no peril, even should Erasmus attack it with all his might, with all his acute points and strictures. On the other hand, my dear Erasmus, you should think of their weakness, and abstain from those sharp and bitter figures of rhetoric; and if you cannot, and dare not assert our opinions, let them alone and treat on subjects more suited to you. Our friends, yourself being judge, do not easily bear your biting words, because human infirmity thinks of and dreads the authority and the reputation of Erasmus; and it is a very different thing to be attacked by Erasmus than by all the Papists in the world.

He further urges him to be only a spectator of the tragedy, not to write books against him and his friends, to think of the Lutherans as of brethren, who should bear,' according to St. Paul, each other's burthens. It would be a miserable spectacle if both should be eaten up by their common foes. It is certain that neither party wishes anything but well to true religion. Pardon my childishness (infantiam), and farewell in the Lord.'7

But Erasmus was either too deeply committed, or too far advanced in his work, to be deterred from the fatal step. He chose what might seem an abstract question of high theology, or of abstruse philosophy; that question which philosophy had in vain attempted to solve, and on which revelation maintains an inscrutable mystery, the Freedom of the Will; that question not set at rest, we say it with due respect, by Sir W. Hamilton and Mr. Mansel. Later Romish controversialists, as Möhler in his able Symbolik,' have, in like manner, endeavoured to represent the controversy of the Reformed Churches with Rome, as

* This is mainly Jortin's version, slightly altered.

The letter is most correct in De Wette, ii. p. 498.

« PreviousContinue »