Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Reformation Day, as it is called, was celebrated on October 31 throughout the Protestant part of Germany. Three hundred and seventy-five years have rolled by since Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor William went to Wittenberg, with a great array of Evangelical personages; and, as usual, the Emperor made a speech, which for him was excellent. "There is no coercion," he said, "in matters of religion. Here only free conviction of the heart is decisive, and the perception of this fact is the blissful fruit of the Reformation."

This is a fine-sounding declaration, but it has the misfortune to be untrue. Liberty of conscience is not the fruit of the Reformation, but an indirect and unintended result. Nor is liberty of conscience a reality in any part of the German empire. Christians are allowed to differ among themselves, but Freethinkers are prosecuted for dissenting alike from Catholic and Protestant. Since the present Emperor's accession there have been many blasphemy prosecutions, sometimes for what would be regarded in other countries as very mild expressions of disbelief. Several men and women have been sentenced to severe penalties for exercising the right of free speech, which, in the land of Goethe, Heine, Strauss, and Schopenhauer, is still confined to professed Christians.

The Reformation, in fact, was a superficial movement. Except for its moral revolt against the sale of indulgences, it touched no deep and durable principle. It merely substituted an infallible Bible for an infallible Church. Differences of opinion crept into the Protestant fold, but that was an accident, arising from the varied and discordant nature of the Bible itself. Every new Protestant sect had to fight as strenuously for its right to exist as ever Martin Luther fought against the Catholic Church. Protestantism, in short, was one priesthood saying to another priesthood "We are right and you are wrong." The Catholic Church had an immense advantage in its central organisation; the Protestant Church could only operate from different points; hence it was unable to bring about the same uniformity.

The movement that was not superficial was the scientific and humanist movement, of which the Reformation was in a certain sense an episode. Italy and France did more for the world than Germany. Martin Luther was a great fighter, but not a more heroic one than Giordano Bruno. Melancthon was not so important a man as Galileo. Rabelais even, with all his dirt and jesting, was more in the stream of progress than Luther, and far more than Calvin. In the long run, it is knowledge and idea? that rule the world. Luther was not great in knowledge, and certainly not great in ideas. He was a born fighter and a strong character. His proper place is among the heroic figures of history. He was a man of leading, but scarcely a man of light.

Luther was violently opposed to the scientific movement. He called Copernicus an old fool. He would hear nothing against the accepted Biblical theory of the universe. Genesis was to him, as well as to the Pope, the beginning and the end of sound science. Nor was he more friendly to philosophy. Draper truly asserts that the leaders of the Reformation "were determined to banish philosophy from the Church." Aristotle was villified by Luther as "truly a devil, a horrid calumniator, a wicked sycophant, a prince of darkness, a real Apollyon, a beast, a most horrid impostor on mankind, a public and professed liar, a goat, a complete epicure, this twice execrable Aristotle." Such was Luther's style in controversy. We commend it to the attention of Protestants who rail at the Freethinker.

Liberty of conscience is a principle of which Luther had no conception. He claimed the right to think against the Pope; he denied the right of others to think against himself. His attitude towards the Anabaptists was fiendish. During the Peasants War he urged the authorities to exterminate the rebels, to "stab, kill, and strangle them without mercy." Melancthon taught that heretics "ought to be restrained by the sword." Luther likewise declared that whoever denied even one article of the Protestant faith should be punished severely. Referring to a false teacher, he exclaimed, "Drive him away as an apostle of hell; and if he does not flee, deliver him up as a seditious man to the executioner."

Hallam, Buckle, Lecky, and all reputable historians, agree that the Protestant party held the same principle of persecution as the Catholics. It was not disputed that death was the proper punishment of obstinate heresy. The only dispute was—which were the heretics, and who should die?

Luther's influence was very great in England, as Calvin's was in Scotland, and the leaders of the Reformation in our own country had no doubt as to the justice of killing men for a difference of opinion. Cranmer taught that heretics were first to be excommunicated; if that made no impression on them they were to suffer death. It satisfies one sense of the fitness of things that Cranmer himself perished at the stake. Becon taught that the duty of magistrates with regard to heretics was to punish them—"yea, and also to take them out of this life." This same Becon called upon the temporal rulers to "be no longer the pope's hangmen." He preferred their being the hangmen of Protestantism. Latimer himself said of the Anabaptists who were executed, "Well, let them go!" Bishop Jewel, the great apologist of the Protestant Church of England, in answering Harding the Jesuit, replies in this way to the charge of being of the brotherhood of Servetus, David George, and Joan of Kent: "We detected their heresies, and not you. We arraigned them; we condemned them. We put them to the execution of the laws. It seemeth very much to call them our brothers, because we burnt them."

Calvin held the same persecuting doctrine. All who opposed him were dealt with ruthlessly. He was a veritable Pope of Geneva. His treatment of Servetus was infamous. But so universal was the principle on which Calvin acted, that even the mild Melancthon called the cruel roasting of Servetus at a slow fire "a pious and memorable example for all posterity."

Protestantism boasts of having asserted the right of private judgment. It never did anything of the kind. Not a single leader of the Reformation ever asserted such a principle. Erasmus did, though not in decisive language; but Erasmus never belonged to the Protestant Church, and his humanity, no less than his philosophy, brought upon him the vituperation of Luther. The hero of Protestantism did not intend the consequences of his revolt against Rome. He would have been appalled at the thought of them. He made a breach, for his own purposes, in the great wall of faith. He did not anticipate that others would widen it, or that the forces of reason would march through and occupy post after post. He simply did his own stroke of work, and we do not judge him by later standards. We only object to the extravagance of Protestant laudation.

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