WHEN Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII., in the eleventh century, the papacy reached a height of pretensions and power of which the earlier pontiffs had scarcely dreamed. His predecessors had claimed supremacy in the church; it remained for him to claim universal supremacy, not merely the guidance of all believers in spiritual affairs, but a moral superintendence of the nations. Temporal interests are confessedly inferior to spiritual; in claiming spiritual supremacy, therefore, Hildebrand held that supremacy in temporal affairs was included. Adopting the principles of feudalism, the papacy henceforth declared that all princes and monarchs held their dominions as feofs of the church. This theory the papacy has never since disclaimed. It is a right in abeyance, and it will be revived and reasserted whenever in the future a pope judges himself to be able to enforce the claim. Claims so extravagant produced revolts, both political and religious; some of these revolts partook of both characters to such an extent that it is difficult to class them. They failed, it is true, for the times were not yet ripe for thorough reformation of the Church or State, but they were foregleams of the dawn that was to break over Europe in the sixteenth century.
About the year 1130 a young priest began to attract much attention by his preaching in Brescia, one of the free cities of Northern Italy, and soon all Lombardy was stirred. He was a native of that city, and we first hear of him as a lector in the church there. Then he studied in Paris under Abelard, who was already more than suspected of heresy, and not without reason. The Roman Church was not unjust, from its own point of view, in its subsequent condemnation of Abelard; for, whether he were himself in strictness a heretic, he was certainly the cause of heresy in others. The most serious revolts of the twelfth century against the church are directly traceable to his lecture room.
Abelard’s instructions had opened Arnold’s eyes, broadened his mind, and sent him to the Scriptures. The result was a deepening of his spiritual life, and disgust with the corrupt state of the church in Italy. He became a reformer, and with fiery eloquence exhorted men to repent and live according to the precepts of Christ. He boldly attacked and unsparingly denounced the vices of the clergy, their luxury and debauchery. From study of the Scriptures he had imbibed the notion of a holy and pure church, and he labored incessantly to restore the church as he found it to the pattern of apostolic times.
This was the foundation of all his teachings—the necessity of a spiritual church, composed of true believers living in daily conformity to the teachings of Christ. This was closely coupled with another principle, which, as we have seen, is a necessary corollary from this fundamental teaching of the Scriptures: the complete separation of church and State. The root of the evils that beset the Church Arnold found in its wealth; and its wealth was the result of an unholy alliance with the civil power. Therefore he demanded that the clergy of his day should imitate the apostles—renounce their worldly possessions and privileges, give up secular business, and set all men an example of holy living and apostolic simplicity. He was himself self-denying to the verge of sceticism, living a life of voluntary poverty and celibacy. The clergy, he taught, should not depend on tithes, but accept for their support the voluntary offerings of their people; and he conformed to his own teaching.
It does not appear that Arnold attacked directly either the organization or the doctrine of the church, at least, during this period of his life. His mind was severely practical. Abclard had given him a strong spiritual impulse, without imparting to his pupil any of his own genius for speculation. Arnold was no theologian, but a man full of zeal for a reformation of the church in its life, rather than in its doctrine and organization. Accordingly he was not charged with heresy, but with being a disturber of the church. His bishop laid the matter before the Second Lateran council in 1139, and he was condemned, banished from Brescia, and forbidden to preach. He is said to have bound himself by an oath to obey, but it seems certain that the terms were limited, for he is not charged with breaking it in what he afterward did.
Banished from Brescia, Arnold went to France and joined his teacher, Abelard, then at the height of his controversy with St. Bernard. He zealously defended Abelard, and shared with him the condemnation of the synod of Sens, in II40. His stay in France was but a few months; he then found refuge in Switzerland, but Bernard pursued him from place to place with the implacable hatred of the religious zealot who is also a good man.
Arnold went to Rome after the death of Pope Innocent II., to whom (according to Bernard) he had sworn submission, and about II45 began to preach there. His views had meanwhile undergone a great alteration. He still preached reform, but now it was a political reform, not a spiritual. This may have been, in part, because he found that the Romans had no affinity for his spiritual teachings; but there was a change in his whole spirit and aim that can only partially be explained in this way. In his view the State should be, not the empire at that time regarded as the ideal earthly government, but a pure republican democracy. Every city, he taught, should constitute an independent State, in whose government no bishop ought to have the right to interfere; the church should not own any secular dominion, and priests should be excluded from every temporal authority. This teaching differed totally from the then prevailing notion of a universal sacerdotiurn and imperium, the one ruling spiritual affairs, the other temporal, the civil ruler receiving his authority from the spiritual, and in turn protecting the latter with his sword and enforcing its decrees.
Under the leadership of Arnold the Roman people denied the pope’s supremacy in temporal affairs, and compelled him to withdraw from the city. The people, and Arnold himself, cherished wild dreams of the restoration of ancient splendor and power, when the Roman Senate and people should again rule the world. Attempts were made to realize this dream of a new republic, but it was soon rudely shattered. Pope Adrian IV., from his exile at Orvieto, aimed a blow at Arnold and his nascent republic that proved fatal—he laid the interdict on the city and put the leader under the ban. The blow was all the more effective in that nobody could charge the pope with exceeding his spiritual functions. It is hard for us to realize in this day what the interdict meant to a people who still believed that salvation was assured only in the church, by means of sacraments administered by a duly qualified priesthood. The doors of all churches were closed; no mass was said; the living could not be joined in marriage or shriven of their sins; the dead could be buried only as one would bury a dog, with no priest to say a prayer for him. In addition, when Arnold was put under the ban, anybody who gave him shelter or food thereby made himself liable to the severest censures of the church. The interdict was too much for human nature to endure. By this terrible weapon, when all other means failed them, the medieval popes again and again brought the proudest monarchs of Europe to their knees, to sue for pardon and absolution.
When the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was persuaded by the pope to undertake his cause and entered Italy, he found it easy to procure Arnold’s expulsion from Rome. The fallen leader received protection for a time among the nobility, but he was finally delivered up to the pope, and the prefect of Rome hanged him, burned his body and scattered the ashes in the Tiber. Thus perished one of Italy’s noblest martyrs, and with his death ended the first struggle for reform of the church.
Arnold has been claimed as a Baptist; but he is also claimed by others as belonging to them—indeed, two of his latest biographers are Roman Catholics, who hold that he taught nothing inconsistent with the Catholic doctrine of his day, and was never condemned as a heretic. His supposed affinity with Baptists has little evidence in its favor save the statement made by Otto of Freisingen, a contemporary historian, “He is said to have had unsound notions (non sane dicitur sensisse) regarding the sacrament of the altar and the baptism of children.” This is given as a report merely; Bishop Otto, who says everything unfavorable about Arnold that he can devise, does not venture to state this positively. The only other scrap of evidence that seems to connect him with Baptists is the statement, apparently handed on from writer to writer without re-investigation, that he was condemned by the Lateran Council for his rejection of infant baptism. The Second Lateran Council (II39) condemned all who rejected “the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord, the baptism of children, priesthood and other ecclesiastical orders, and the bonds of lawful marriage,” but nobody is mentioned by name. Some historians infer that this was a condemnation of Arnold, but that begs the very question at issue, namely, how many and which of these errors lie taught. Nobody has summed up the work of Arnold, and indicated its significance, with more eloquence and insight than Bishop Hurst:
To study the career of Arnold and its unhappy end one would conclude that it was simply a revolutionary episode in the turbulent age in which he lived. But we must take a broader view. He greatly weakened the confidence of the people in the strength of the papacy. He proved that it was possible for one man, endowed with energy, to overthrow, at least for a time, the temporal sovereignty of popes, introduce a new political life in Rome itself, and mass the people to support his views. His most bitter enemies could not find any flaw in his moral character. His purity of life was in perfect harmony with the gospel which he preached. His personal worth, and the temporary changes which he wrought, were the great forces which continued to work long after his martyrdom. In every later effort for reform, and even in the Reformation in Germany and other countries, the name of Arnold of Brescia was a mighty factor in aiding towards the breaking of the old bonds. Even in these latest times it has its historical value, for in the struggle of the Protestantism of New Italy for mastery over the thought of the people, that name is a comfort to all who are endeavoring to bring in the new and better day, from the Alps down to Sicily.1
It was three centuries before Italy saw another serious attempt to purify the church, and in the meantime the papacy had lost much of its political power and descended to the lowest depths of degradation. All that ancient historians have related of the horrible crimes of Nero and other emperors of Rome, and much besides, may be truthfully told of Alexander VI., the father of Cæsar and Lucretia Borgia. His wickedness was colossal, sirnony and murder being the least of his sins, and the worst unnamable. Under him and his immediate predecessors the corruption of the church became frightful; ii there were not the fullest proof of the facts they would be incredible. A man who had murdered his two daughters was duly condemned to death, but on the very morning of his execution was set at liberty for the payment of eight hundred ducats. A high official of the papal court calmly remarked: “God willeth not the death of a sinner, but that he shall pay and live.” In the monasteries, what could be expected but notorious and almost universal un-raithfulness to their VOWS of poverty and chastity? Among the secular clergy the case was little better. Of course there were devout and faithful souls in the midst of all this wickedness, as there have been in every age of the church, but the fifteenth century was a sink of corruption. The moral tone of Christendom was never lower. The rulers were despotic, cruel, oppressive; the people were brutally selfish; both were dissolute and knavish. Such is the picture of the times drawn by contemporary writers, loyal sons of the church. Nothing but a root-and-branch reformation could save church and society from utter dissolution. Was such a reformation—revolution rather—possible? If so, could it proceed from within?
About the time Columbus was setting forth on his first voyage to America the people of Florence discovered that a young Dominican monk in their city was one of the great preachers of the age. Uirolarno Savonarola was born in Ferrara in I452, of noble descent, and was destined by his parents for the profession of medicine. In his twenty-third year, becoming greatly anxious about his soul, he forsook his home and entered a Dominican monastery—an experience almost exactly duplicated by Luther a generation later. He tecame an ardent student of the Scriptures, of which he is said to have committed nearly the whole to memory. He was a man of some-what gloomy, melancholy nature, given to fasts and vigils, ascetic in life, and in manner like one of the old prophets. When he first began to preach his success was meager, but suddenly at Brescia he preached as if a new inspiration had come upon him; and from the time he went to Florence (I490) he attracted multitudes. His favorite theme was the exposition of the apocalypse, and in that book he found ample materials for heart-searching sermons, laden with fierce denunciations of the sins of the age. Savonarola began, as so many had begun before him, as Luther was to begin later, with an idea simply of the moral regeneration of the church. He imagined that the rottenness of the church and society about him could be cured by preaching, that the mere proclamation of the truth was enough. He soon came to see, however, that the evils he denounced were inseparably bound up with the political system of his age, and his efforts at reformation took a political turn.
For a time the eloquence of Savonarola seemed to carry all before it. Lorenzo di Medici died, and his incompetent son, Pietro, was soon driven from the city. The government was reorganized on a theocratic basis, with Savonarola as the vicegerent of God. The golden age appeared to have returned to Florence, and, as a contemporary writer said, “the people seemed to have become fools from mere love of Christ.” Emboldened by his success, Savonarola attacked the papacy, in which he rightly saw the chief source of the evils of the age. Alexander VI. sought to buy his silence with the arch- bishopric of Florence and a cardinal’s hat, and failed, Then the pope accepted the issue Savonarola had forced upon him, and it became a life and death struggle between these two.
Alexander first summoned the daring preacher to Rome to answer for his alleged errors, but he was not silly enough to comply. He was then forbidden to preach for a time, and respected the prohibition until it was removed. The old jealousy between the Franciscans and Dominicans, however, broke out afresh, and this quarrel was skilfully used by the pope to cause Savonarola’s downfall. Alexander excommunicated his antagonist in May, I497, and later threatened to lay the interdict upon the city if it did not surrender its favorite preacher. But Florence stood by him, and might have continued to do so, though it was wavering, had it not been for an error of Savonarola’s that was fatal to his cause. A Franciscan preacher denounced him as a heretic, and challenged the reformer to undergo with him the ordeal by fire. Savonarola did not approve of the ordeal, and refused it for himself, but the pressure of opinion induced him to permit one of his followers to accept the challenge. It was a fatal move. The pyres were lighted, and all Florence had assembled to see the trial. The Franciscans managed to get up a bitter quarrel with the Dominicans over the question whether the cross or the host was to be carried through the flames; and while they contended a rainstorm came on and put out the fires. The people, disappointed of their expected spectacle, with the usual fickleness of the mob, visited all their displeasure upon Savonarola, and from that day his influence declined so rapidly that he soon fell into the power of Alexander’s agents. Under torture he was said to have confessed everything that his enemies desired, but the reports are so garbled as to be utterly unworthy of trust; and it is certain that afterward he retracted all that he had confessed. Not even torture and garbling could make him out a heretic or guilty of any capital offense, and he was finally condemned in defiance of both law and justice. He was first hanged and then burned, with two of his chief adherents, “in order that,” so ran the sentence, “their souls may be entirely separated from their bodies.” The sentence was duly executed, in the presence of a vast multitude. Savonarola bore himself with composure and fortitude, and his last words were, “O Florence, what hast thou done to-day?” What, indeed! Nothing but postpone for almost four centuries Italy’s deliverance from the papal yoke.
Few men have been more variously estimated than Savonarola. By one party he has been represented as an inspired prophet, a saint, a miracle-worker; by another as ambitious, fanatical, even hypocritical. By one he is called a patriot, by another a demagogue. He was not a heretic; to the last he believed in all the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome never condemned his teachings as heresy, and though he has not yet been canonized, there is no obstacle to his canonization at any time, as his admirers in the church, in increasing numbers, demand. He resisted the pope politically, but acknowledged him as the head of the church. Nevertheless, he had adopted principles that, if they had been given an opportunity to work themselves out, would have compelled his separation from Rome. The pope was wiser in his generation than the reformer.
The next serious revolt against the papal supremacy was in Bohemia. Early in the fifteenth century, that kingdom was greatly stirred by the preaching of a Czech scholar. John Hus (so he wrote the name, it being an abbreviation of Hussinetz) was educated at the University of Prag, and after taking his Master’s degree in 1396, began to lecture, with such success that in 1401 he was made dean of the philosophical faculty, and in 1403 rector of the university. In 1402 he was also made pastor of the Bethlehem Chapel, where he preached in the Czech language. He was a diligent student of the Scriptures, but his theology was not mainly derived from that source—or, rather, the writings of another had first opened his eyes to the meaning of Scripture.
In the middle of the fourteenth century a professor at Oxford had attracted much attention by the boldness and novelty of his teaching. John Wiclif was a Protestant before Protestantism, condemning and opposing in his writings nearly every distinctive doctrine of Rome—a man far more radical than Luther, though less violent in his manner of utterance. Among his plain teachings, all of which proceeded from the root-principle of the supreme authority of the Scriptures, were these: No writing, not even papal decree, has any authority, save as it is founded on the Scriptures; transubstantiation is not taught in the Bible, but by the popes; in the primitive church there were but two orders in the ministry, bishops and deacons; there is not good scriptural warrant for confirmation and extreme unction; the clergy should not interfere in civil affairs. In addition to this already long list of heresies, Wiclif opposed the doctrine of indulgences, the mendicant orders and monks of all sorts, the use of images and pictures in churches, canonization, pilgrimages, auricular confession, and celibacy of the clergy! But though he disowned and combated every distinctive feature in the Roman Church of his day, Wiclif was not condemned, and at length died peacefully in his bed. This was due partly to the distance from Rome, and partly to the powerful protection he received from English kings and nobles. His followers (Lollards) were severely persecuted, but not exterminated, and his teachings prepared England for a subsequent reformation. Especially did his translation of the Scriptures, which was widely circulated, leave an indelible impression on the English mind and character.
Hus adopted nearly all of Wiclif’s views, and may fairly be called the disciple and follower of the great English reformer. It need not surprise us that Wiclif’s doctrines thus found an acceptance in Bohemia hardly obtained in England. His writings were chiefly in Latin, then the common language of educated men everywhere; so that ideas then passed from England to Bohemia far more easily than they do in the twentieth century. It was, moreover, the custom of medieval students to migrate from universily to university, in order to hear some renowned lecturer; and students from Oxford brought Wiclif’s writings to Prag and made them known to Hus. But though a disciple, IIus was more than a mere echo of Wiclif. He was content to follow where Wiclif led the way—possibly because Wiclif’s was the stronger, more independent, more original mind—but he had gifts of eloquence that his master seems never to have possessed. Wiclif was the scholar, the teacher, the retiring thinker, while Hus was not merely scholar and teacher, but apostle.
At first Hus undoubtedly believed in the possibility of reforming the church from within. He had apparently the confidence of his ecclesiastical superiors, and hoped to accomplish great things. Not only did he industriously spread abroad the doctrines of Wiclif, but as a synodical preacher he exposed and denounced the sins of the clergy with great faithfulness. Appointed to investigate some of the alleged miracles of the church, he did not hesitate to pronounce them spurious—and he bade all believers cease looking for signs and miracles and search the Scriptures. In I409, the pope forbade the use of Wiclif’s writings, which precipitated a conflict between Hus and his archbishop, the latter burning Wiclif’s books wherever he could find them, and Hus continuing to preach with increasing boldness. In March, I4II, he was excommunicated by the archbishop and Prag was laid under the interdict, but Hus had the university and the city with him so completely that no attention was paid to the sentences. Hus and his sympathizers now went much further; they declared that neither pope nor bishop has the right to draw the sword; that indulgences are worthless, since not money but true repentance is the condition of forgiveness; that the doctrine of the pope’s infallibility is blasphemous.
This was one of the questions that the Council of Constance was expected to decide, and Hus had agreed to submit himself and his teachings to the decision of a general council. When the body met, in November, I4I4, great things in the way of reform were expected from it, and at first it seemed likely to realize at least a part of the expectations. Pope John XXIII., one of the worst scoundrels that ever disgraced the See of Rome—and that is saying much—was deposed, and committees were considering carefully liberal propositions concerning the improvement of the church constitution, the reformation of abuses and extortions, and the eradication of simony. The future of the church turned on one point; whether the reformation or the election of a pope should first be set about. The great mistake was made of electing a pope first, and when Martin V. found himself in the papal chair, he was astute enough to frustrate all attempts at reform and bring the council to a close with nothing accomplished. The abuses for which reform was demanded were the very sources from which pope and cardinals drew the greater part of their revenues; and it was absurd to expect reform under such circumstances if they were able to prevent it. The sequel proved that they were able.
One of the things to which the Council of Constance steadily devoted its attention was the agitation in Bohemia, which had now become a matter of European notoriety. Hus had never denied, but rather affirmed, the authority of an ecumenical council. King Sigismund, of Hungary (who was also the emperor), summoned Hus to appear before the council and gave the reformer a safe conduct. In June, I4I5, he had his first public hearing, and two other hearings followed; in all of theni he stood manfully by his teachings and defended them as in accord with Scripture. During the rest of the month frequent attempts were made to induce him to retract, but he stood firmly by his faith, On July 6th condemnation was finally pronounced, and it is said that, on this occasion, the emperor had the grace actually to blush when reminded of the safe conduct he had given. Hus was then publicly degraded from the priesthood with every mark of ignominy, and delivered, with Rome’s customary hypocrisy, to the civil power for execution. Thus the church could say that she never put heretics to death! When being tied to the stake he preached and exhorted until the fire was kindled, when he began singing with a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.” This he continued until his voice was stifled by smoke and flame, but his lips were seen to move for a long time, as in prayer. When his body was consumed, the ashes were cast into the Rhine, that the earth might no more be polluted by him.
Never was it more clearly demonstrated that the blood of the martyrs is in the seed of the church. The legitimate development of Hus’ teachings was not through the so-called Hussites, but through the Unitas Fratum, anciently known as the Bohemian Brethren, and in later times as Moravians. Their organization began in a secluded nook in Bohemia in I457 The principles of Hus were avowed in their confessions, and their growth was rapid. By the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation they numbered four hundred parishes, with two hundred thousand members, but by persecution and absorption they almost disappeared. A remnant, however, was preserved, a “hidden seed,” and the order of bishops, originally derived from the Waldensians, was continued in secret but regular succession. Finally the survivors settled, in I722, and the following seven years, on the estate of Count Zinzendorf, in Saxony, and there built a town called Herrnhut (“watch of the Lord”). March I3, I735, David Nitschmann was consecrated the first bishop of this revived Moravian Church, and a new era in its history began. Few things in the history of Christianity are more full of romance and of encouragement to faith than this story of the Moravians, their providential preservation for over a century, after their existence was supposed to be ended, and their almost miraculous emergence into a new life, to become the leaders of Christendom in missionary enterprise.
How came it about that not only these attempts at reform, but others that are still to be recounted, failed ?—failed in spite of being founded on the Scriptures and having the favor of the people. To tell that story is the object of the next chapter.
1 “Short History of the Christian Church,” p. 152.
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