It is not a pleasant task to quote Luther's language against the peasants after they were once fairly started on their violent career. It is not the man but the churchman who speaks. His theory was, " Christians must suffer rather than take up arms ;" they must bear the cross, — " that is a Christian's right," he said, "he has no other." He spoke of Christians as flocks of sheep, not to be tended but to be slaughtered, one after the other, — " Nicht Weideschaf — Schlacht-schaf! nur so hin ; eins nach dem anderen!" If they rebelled against the civil power, there was but one fate for them. As to the "murderous and robbing hordes of peasants," as he styled them, he said to the princes, " Let them be destroyed, strangled, stabbed, secretly or publicly, by whomsoever is able to do it, even as a mad dog is killed, right away !" I do not believe that this was all due to cowardice and a desire to side with princely authority, — though these motives may have partly operated with Luther; for as he did not fail to commend clemency at the end of the war, he did not during its continuance cease to speak of the "mad tyranny" of princes and lords. In my judgment, it was not Luther merely that failed at this critical moment; it was not merely Protestantism that failed, — it was Christianity, and its impracticable, unphilosophical, and untrue doctrine of non-resistance. It was the Christian doctrine that we are not to take justice into our own hands, but must leave it to another, that was answerable for the horrors of the Peasant's War. Luther had said this, and quoted Scripture passages to this effect from the very start. There was not so much a change in his view or his sympathies, as in the circumstances to which his view could apply. He said from the beginning such things as these : " To revolt is to act like heathen; the duty of the Christian is to be patient, not to fight; defensive justice is for God alone. No one can be his own judge ; an attempt to be that is something which God cannot endure, — it is against God and God is against it." Such a view is to men to-day mythological; but to Luther, following closely after the teaching of his Master, it was sober truth. But if Luther had been more of a heathen, he would have stood before the world a truer man. Not on the basis of such a view has progress been made in the world. Had Christianity been the rule of life for intelligent Frenchmen a hundred years ago, there would have been no French Revolution; had the thought that paralyzed the arm of Luther been the conviction of our forefathers in 1776, this magnificent republic might still have been a British province. Progress is with those who know that justice is to be done by them, who would not honor themselves did they not defend themselves against those who outrage their rights. I do not answer for all that the peasants did; many of them were as fanatical as Luther, and they were as little disposed to mercy as Luther charged the nobles to be to them. But the question is, were they not right in their claims at the outset ?
How mean an idea of the significance of this whole matter many have! D'Aubigne says that the people were not ripe for the enjoyment of political reform, that many unregenerate souls were not prepared for liberty.1 The cant of it! Fortunately for social order, he says, the gospel preserved Luther; for what would have happened had he carried his extensive influence into the camp of the peasants ? One can conjecture what would have happened ; namely, the victory of the peasants, assisted by the towns and cities, which were almost equally hostile to the no bles, and perhaps a peaceable victory, the horrors of massacre averted, and no two hundred added years (as was actually the case) of miserable serfdom for the peasantry and of pride and power for the lords. Froude can only speak of the Peasants' War as the "first scandal" to the Reformation;1 in truth, had the Reformation possessed the moral fibre which we demand of a religion to-day, it would have been its first golden opportunity. A biographer of Luther speaks in this connection of the " dark clouds " that threatened a new danger to the cause of the Reformation:2 what a cause, I am tempted to say, that did not find a part of its very mission in meeting the danger! Apologists who look at the question with the sympathies of to-day can only say it was a religious reformation that Luther had supremely at heart. But what is religion ? Must not our very concern for truth and justice lead us to disown religion as thus understood ? The only religion a free man could care anything about would involve taking up the cause which Luther practically deserted, and striving to usher in an era of social righteousness on the earth, — doing so, that is, with the feeling that we are bound to do so, that the world and the invisible necessity of things call us to the work.
1 History of the Reformation, iii. 181.
Who are preparing the way for such a religion, as much needed now as ever it was in the days of feudal and ecclesiastical oppression ? If you doubt it, listen to the bitter cry of the outcast poor in Protestant London; listen to the cry of the poor in all our Protestant cities; listen to the cry of the poor in Chicago. Not Protestants as such, not Christians as such, not ministers and. churches as such are preparing the way for such a religion, — but they who anywhere or under any name utter or listen to a call of justice. Now and then a man dares lift up his voice against unprincipled wealth and power; now and then a man utters his belief that unselfishness may be lived and not only dreamed of; now and then a demand is heard that public ends be put above private ends, in politics, business, everywhere ; now and then the community is appealed to, to regard no slightest interest of its humblest member as outside the realm of its rightful concern. Heard now and then are these voices, — heard on the street, heard in the secular newspaper, heard when companies of reformers come together; and though they say not one word of religion, they are the voices in our night that tell of the coming day; they are the witnesses to an unbelieving age of an ideal truth and an ideal authority; and that wherein Luther and Protestantism and Christianity have failed, shall be their success and their triumph.
1 Contemporary Review, August, 1883.
" Dr. William Rein's Life of Luther, p. 124.