Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter IX. The Rise of the National Churches

In the year 1517 Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was filled with shame and indignation as he saw his people flocking to buy indulgences of one Tetzel, the agent of Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, who in turn was the agent of Pope Leo X. Albert, himself, an elector of the Empire, and a brother of the Elector of Brandenburg, had contracted to pay 30,000 gulden into the papal treasury as the price of his Archbishopric. This prelate, a young voluptuary of extravagant habits, had no intention of paying the 30,000 gulden out of his own purse. This sum of money must in some way be filched from the people. There was in those days a method of robbery which was both safe and sacred; it was robbery authorized by the state and blessed by the church. The robbers were Popes and Archbishops, who, by threats and persuasion, caused the people to exchange their gold and their silver, the wages of their toil, for pieces of paper called indulgences. These indulgences had [214/215] no value whatever in this world, but they were supposed to be cashed in the world to come. A man, having purchased this indulgence, might dismiss the thought of his sin from his mind. He had condoned for his guilt by money payment, and he was promised a speedy deliverance from the pains of purgatory. The traffic in indulgences was based upon the superstitious fears of men, and was an unfailing source of revenue to the church.

The anger of the Elector of Saxony was kindled against this practice because he saw it was enriching his rival, the Archbishop of Mainz. It was his people who were paying the price of the Archbishopric into the coffers of the Pope. But, fret and fume as he might, the Elector Frederick saw no means of redress. He could not appeal to the Emperor, because the Empire was without a head, and the vacant throne was the prize, for which three Kings of Europe were contending,--each of whom was anxious for the favor of the Pope and the vote of the Archbishop of Mainz. If the Elector had appealed to Rome, the Pope and the Cardinals would have laughed in his face, for it was the Pope who furnished the indulgences which Tetzel had for sale. For the Elector of Saxony there was no [215/216] relief, and he had to stand by and bite his nails as he saw the good money of his people flowing a steady stream of gold and silver into the pockets of his hated rival. [L. Ranke, History of Reformation in Germany, bk. 2, chap. vii.]

Just when matters were at their worst relief came from an unexpected quarter. Frederick, who was a lover of learning, had founded a university in his city of Wittenberg. In that university was a young Augustinian monk, who was renowned as a scholar and a saint. This monk, the son of a miner of Eisleben, was a man of the people, who all his life long had stood in the presence of God, and in that presence had learned the true value of indulgences, as of all other priestly wares which were sold to the people. He pronounced the indulgences worthless because they had not the Divine indorsement. And this monk, having the courage of his convictions, proclaimed the fraudulent character of the papal wares to all the world. No sooner had the Wittenberg professor spoken out than he found an immediate response in the hearts of all the people. The word of Luther not only hindered the [216/217] sale of indulgences in Saxony, and so saved the money of the Elector, but it released forces that brought about the destruction of the whole ecclesiastical system of which the sale of indulgences was a part. Beginning with a denial of the right of the Pope to authorize the sale of indulgences, the German reformer went on by logical necessity to deny to the Pope any right at all over the heart and mind of man. God in Christ was the only power to whom the conscience of man owed allegiance, and God's mind and will were expressed in the Holy Scriptures. The movement which Luther inaugurated was not so much a reformation as it was a revolution, and a revolution far more radical than the reformer himself had any notion of bringing about. Luther was a churchman and a schoolman, and what he desired was a reformation of the church and an enlightenment of the school. What he really did was to deliver man from bondage both to church and school, and set him free to work out his own intellectual and spiritual salvation with fear and trembling.

Luther, in making his appeal to scripture simply substituted authority for authority,--the authority of the written tradition for the authority of the oral [217/218] tradition of the church. He made the Apostolic age the infallible rule of truth.

This position of Luther was without any basis in pure reason. If we can ascribe infallibility to the first age of Christianity, then we can with equal justice predicate infallibility of all ages. But, while the position of Luther was untenable in the light of pure reason, it was impregnable as against his adversaries at the time. The church proclaimed the Old and New Testament Scriptures to be the Word of God, and to the judgment of that Word the church was bound to submit its actions and its claims.

Because the life of humanity is progressive, therefore it is that mankind advances step by step. It was not possible for the reformers of the sixteenth century to see the full consequences of their own contention, and to grant to men at once that perfect freedom of thought, and that comparative freedom of action, which after four centuries we see to be the natural outcome of their teaching. The first result of the action of Luther was not to produce a higher order, but to bring about a greater confusion. When that strong man, the Papacy, was bound, [218/219] then the whole world flocked about him to spoil his goods, and the lion's share of the spoil was appropriated by the Kings and princes. As after the fall the Pope there was no earthly divinity from which kings could derive their title, they claimed to have it direct from God. It is in the centuries immediately succeeding the Reformation that we hear of the divine right of Kings, and in which Europe falls a prey to that system of absolute monarchy which ended in the horrors of the French Revolution.

Luther was a powerful factor, both in casting down the Papacy, and in setting up the Kings. In fighting the Pope, the reformer was fighting the battle of the Kings. Because of the Reformation, religion was in a manner localized and nationalized. Each ruler became the head of a religion within his own dominions. No one at the Reformation period dreamed of permitting the people to think ana choose for themselves. Luther, who exercised the right of private judgment himself, refused that right to all others. By virtue of his genius and of his political alliance with the princes of North Germany he aspired, himself, to the office of infallible teacher of mankind. He thundered against the [219/220] Swiss reformer, Zwingli, with the same violence that he thundered against the Pope. Luther was not the champion of free thought; he was, as I have said, the champion of the written as against the oral tradition of Christianity, of the local, against the universal, church.

The immediate result of the Reformation was the establishment of the national churches of northern Europe, in which the Kings and the theological faculties were the Popes and the Cardinals. It was expected that the people at large would meekly follow their rulers in every change of religion. The Protestant Reformation was not so much the work of the preachers as it was the work of the princes. It was the German princes who entered their solemn protest against the action of the Diet of Speyer and thus gave name to the new religion that had entered the world. And at the Diet of Augsburg, in 1555, it was decided by way of compromise that the head of each separate state of Germany be permitted to adopt either the Catholic or the Protestant creed and that the subjects of each state must conform to the religion of the ruler. This decision not [220/221] only divided Germany into Protestant and Catholic, but it made the head of the state also the head of the church. Even in Catholic countries it was Catholicism, and not Papacy, which survived the Reformation. The power of the popes was everywhere subject to the power of kings. The days of excommunication and interdict were over, and the spiritual was everywhere, except in the states of the church, subject to the temporal authority.

The division of Europe into Protestant and Catholic countries gave rise in the sixteenth century to the religious wars which wasted western Christendom for a hundred years. Freedom of thought was not dreamed of, and prosecution for opinion's sake was considered the bounden duty of princes. Not only did Catholics persecute Protestants, and Protestants, Catholics, but Protestants raged against Protestants, and put them to death. Luther rejoiced when Zwingli was killed in battle, and Calvin burned Servetus in the market place of Geneva. It was this division of Protestantism against itself that arrested the progress of the movement, lost France to the Reformation, and brought about the Catholic reaction.

When we calmly consider the history of the [221/222] Reformation we see that it was not the people at large who profited by that movement, but it was in the main the upper classes, the princes and the nobility, who reaped the benefit. The princes succeeded to the power of the Pope, and the nobility to the wealth of the clergy. After his condemnation by the Pope Luther made his appeal, not to the people at large, but to the Christian nobility of the German Empire, and he professed to place his faith in the newly elected Emperor and in the princes of the Empire. In the peasants' war Luther was strongly on the side of the rulers as against the people, and to this day the national establishments which are the product of the Reformation movement are the churches of the so called higher classes; the churches in which the rulers, political and mercantile, of the Protestant world find themselves at home.

This relation of church and state, which followed upon the preaching of Luther, had its most perfect example in England. There was in England at the time no spiritual genius like Luther, or Zwingli, or Calvin, but there was a King of indomitable will and unscrupulous ambition, who took advantage of the religious ferment to establish his absolute authority [222/223] over both church and state. When Henry determined to cast off the authority of the see of Rome, he found his willing instruments among the higher dignitaries of the church. The Bishops and the Deans and the heads of colleges were for the most part ready to follow the King in his work of revolution. The people on the whole were passive. The English people had not the same reason to hate the Roman see which moved the people of Germany; and would have been satisfied with a reasonable redress of grievances and a reform of the more flagrant abuses. That England is to-day the most Protestant of nations, is owing not to the preaching of Luther, but to the influence of Calvin, and more especially to the blunders of the see of Rome. Henry was not a follower of Luther. He earned his title of Defender of the Faith by writing a treatise against the heresies of the German agitator. Henry remained in all essentials a Catholic to the day of his death. His quarrel was not with the church, but with the Pope. Had the Pope yielded in the matter of the divorce of Catherine, the King might have remained all his life a faithful son of the church, and the Reformation in England had a different history. But the Pope could not, and the [223/224] King would not, yield. So Henry, by an act of royal power, separated the Church of England from the communion of the Church of Rome. This act of the King saved the Church of England from that loss of historical continuity which was the great misfortune of the reformed churches on the continent. The ancient liturgies of the church were preserved intact, and were translated into English, and in the prayer book of the English Church have become the priceless heritage of the English people. The ancient ministry of Christendom in its threefold form of bishops, priests, and deacons, was left in possession of the offices of the church, and, more important than all, the buildings themselves, the cathedrals and the parish churches, were, under the King as under the Pope, the houses of prayer and praise for the English people. Whether this preservation of the liturgy, the ministry, and the churches in England was good or evil will depend upon the value which we give to historical continuity. If we prize things that are ancient; if we believe that the evolutionary process is better than the revolutionary,--then we will look upon the reformation in England, despite the crimes of its authors, as being upon the whole beneficial to the spiritual interests [224/225] of mankind. But that it was an unmixed good will be maintained by no one, except by such as see in themselves and in the ecclesiastical body to which they belong, the last and final work of God.

The English church was at the reformation, localized and nationalized, as was no other church in western Christendom. The great Catholic churches of France, Spain, Italy, and Austria had free communion among themselves, and so had the Protestant churches of North Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia; but the English church was isolated from all Christendom by her denial of the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome on the one hand and her refusal to admit the validity of the ministry of the Protestant churches on the other; and in this position of proud isolation the Church of England has remained to this present. She is the most purely national of all the churches.

Henry, with a brutality that marked all his actions, subjected the spiritual to the temporal power. The King, by royal decree and act of Parliament, became supreme head of the Church in England. He appointed her officers and prescribed her doctrine. He burned men at the stake, or beheaded them, on Tower Hill, if they refused to [225/226] accept the royal supremacy, or presumed to reject the dogma of the real presence of the Eucharist. The flower of English manhood and womanhood, in the persons of Sir Thomas More and Ann Askew, perished by ax and fire, the one because his Catholic and the other because her Puritan principles did not follow the exact line laid down by this supreme head of the English church. When Henry died the head of the English church was a precocious boy of sixteen. The brief life of Edward VI. was the critical period of the Church of England. A Protestant by conviction, he carried the church far enough along the way of reform to save the old establishment from destruction. The movement of the English people toward Protestantism was not arrested, it was accelerated, by the brief, violent, and ill-advised reign of Mary, the Catholic. The fires of Smithfield did more to make the people of England Protestant than the preaching of Latimer and Ridley. When Mary died the religious fate of England was settled for all time. England then took her place among the Protestant nations, if not among the Protestant churches; and there she has remained until this present day.

I think the fair-minded student of history will say [226/227] that the greatest evil connected with the reformation in England was the suppression of the monasteries and the distribution of their properties among the favorites of the court. No matter how corrupt these institutions might be, there was no excuse for the wholesale robbery which followed their dissolution. The property of the monasteries did not belong to the King or the courtiers; it was property held in trust for pious and charitable uses, for the benefit, not of a class, but of the whole people of England, and England paid the penalty of this gross injustice by the pauperizing of a large portion of her population.

It was Queen Elizabeth who gave to the Church of England that constitution of compromise and comprehension which has made this church exceptional among the churches of Christendom. Queen Elizabeth was a Catholic at heart, and would have been content to acknowledge the Pope as the spiritual head of the church if she could have done so with safety to her throne and her life. She was forced by the logic of her position into the championship of European Protestantism. But it was her wish to retain within the national establishment men of the old, as well as of the new faith. She [227/228] preserved the Catholic creeds and the Catholic offices of worship. She made bishops and archbishops to fill the ancient sees. She retained the ornaments of the church as they had been in the reign of Edward. She organized the church so that there would be room in it for all her subjects, except the extreme Catholic and the extreme Puritan, and for these she wished to have no place either in her church or in her Kingdom. This handiwork of Elizabeth has stood the test of time. It was threatened with destruction by the extreme Catholic in the days of Elizabeth herself and in the days of King James II. It was temporarily overthrown by the extreme Puritan in the time of Cromwell. But it has survived all disasters, and seems to-day secure in the affection of the majority of the English people.

Its relation to the state is the relation of subjection. The Crown now acts through the Prime Minister who represents the people. The Crown appoints the Bishops of the church, and the Parliament makes its laws. That such a situation is endurable is owing to the character of the English people and to the peculiar constitution of both church and state. The English are [228/229] at once the most progressive and most conservative of people. The most progressive when it is a matter of principle; the most conservative when it is a matter of form. The English church will freely allow every clergyman to deny the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian creed in his sermon, but will compel him to say them in the service. Canon Henson, the radical, and Canon Newboldt, the ritualist, are equally devoted to the liturgical worship of the church. It is the strength of the Church of England that men of widely different opinions are of one mind in worship and in work.

It is the weakness of this establishment that its higher officials are more apt to reflect the mind of the powers that be, than they are to reflect the mind of Christ. The ecclesiastic rises in his calling from a town or country curacy to the Episcopal throne through the favor of the civil power. He must, in order to succeed, combine the qualities of the saint with the character of the courtier; he must at the same time be able to please God and the King; and of the two it is more necessary to his worldly promotion that he please the King. England has produced the finest examples of these courtier-prelates,--men who were both pious and politic. Such men [229/230] make excellent officials, but are not great leaders. Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, said that the English church was rebuked daily by the 46th verse of the 119th Psalm, which reads: "I will speak of thy testimonies also, even before Kings, and will not be ashamed." It is the constant temptation of the King-made bishop to attune his message to the Kingly ear. When the King is to be rebuked you must not ask that task of the courtier prelate, but must call in some rough, rude man of the people, some man like Elijah the Tishbite, or John the Baptist, or Jesus of Nazareth.

Because of this tendency to subserviency the established churches have long since ceased to be the conscience keepers of the people of Europe. The nonconformist bodies in England are a protest against the too great conformity of the English establishment, to the world of royalty and nobility.

This evil of excessive conformity is constitutional with all state establishments. When the church is the mouthpiece of the state it can only speak the words which the state puts in its mouth. When the state approves of slavery the clergy of the state church will have no difficulty in rinding that slavery is a divine institution; if the state is militant the [230/231] priesthood will bless the banners, and pray for the victory of the national arms. The state church of Russia is a perfect example of the complete subservience of an established church to the government which sustains it. It has always been so, and as long as human nature is human nature it always will be so. The hope of Russia is not in the Archbishop of Moscow, but in priests like Agathon, and in prophets like Tolstoy and Kropatkin; and what is true of the Russian church is true of all churches. The English church owes whatever greatness it may have to-day, not to its long line of archbishops, but to preachers like Wickliff and Wesley; to such parish priests and poets as George Herbert and John Keble; to such earnest souls as Simeon the Evangelical, and Newman the Catholic. High office and high character are seldom found together in this world, for too commonly high character is the price of high office.

Another evil which is the outcome of the civil establishment of religion is the false estimate which is put upon, not only official position, but upon the accidents of official life. Its salaries, its clothing, its palaces, are considered as marks of divine grace and favor, and as a necessary means of holding the [231/232] world in awe. Men are judged by these outward accidents of their career, rather than by their intrinsic character. In our modern capitalistic churches clergymen are rated as $3,000, $5,000, or $10,000 men. The successful clergyman, the man whose pictures are in the church papers, is the man who goes from the $3,000 to the $5,000, and from the $5,000, to the $10,000 church. It is the belief of many in England that, if the bishops were to lose their palaces, they would lose their power. Sometimes they have a bishop, like the present Bishop of London, who does not care to live in a palace, but the church says to him: You must live in a palace, because in the nature of things, bishops and palaces always go together. There is grim humor in the financial statement recently put forth by this same Bishop of London. His income is $30,000 a year. It takes it all to keep up his two palaces, and the poor man is in danger of being bankrupt.

I fear that the visit of the Archbishop to this country will have a tendency to promote this confusion of values in the mind of the American Episcopal church. This conception of the Episcopal office as depending for its efficacy upon the earthly accidents that attach to it is already rife among us. [232/233] In the opinion of many of the leading members of our communion the dignity of the Episcopal office depends upon the extent of territory over which the bishop presides, and upon the wealth of the church as expressed in property and contributions. The American, and indeed the modern, is prone to confound greatness with bigness. Measured by this standard the life of Jesus was most insignificant, the country through which He preached was no larger than Monroe and Ontario counties combined, and the town that he made his home not so large as Canandaigua.

It will be a blessed day for Christianity when this materialistic conception of greatness perishes from out the thought of the Christian world; when it will be allowable for the Bishop of Rome to leave his palace of many thousand rooms, to disband his guards, and disperse his retinue, and live as Peter lived in the humble quarter of the Trastevere under the Janiculum. The cause of the Gospel will not be hindered when a man like the Bishop of London can dispense with mansions of state and live as Paul lived, in his own hired house; the ministry will not be depressed; it will be exalted,--when men are valued for their salt more than for their salary.

[234] The established churches of the world are everywhere in decay, and must soon pass away, and their disappearance will not be an unmixed evil if with them goes that worldliness, which more even than grosser sin is the enemy of the religion of Jesus.

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