WHAT is the significance of Protestantism ? In what respect has it been successful; in what has it failed ?
Protestantism was successful in the first place, in that it was a break with the Catholic Church, and not a mere reform of it. Here Luther himself was great, and not merely the logic of his doctrines. Luther was indeed no violent despiser of tradition and authority. In his very theses, nailed up on the door of the church at Wittenberg, he did not, contrary to the common opinion, attack the Pope nor the Pope's power to pardon sins. He said, " Cursed be he who speaks against the indulgences of the Pope ; but blessed be he who speaks against the foolish and impudent language of the preachers of indulgence ! " To the second ambassador from the Pope Luther even offered to be silent on the matter, and to let it die away of itself, if only his opponents would be silent on their part; though he added, ominously, " if they continue attacking me, a serious struggle will soon arise out of a trifling quarrel." He declared that he had made his protest against indulgences "as a faithful son of the Church," and offered to address the public to that effect. And in this public explanation he said that though everything was in a very wretched state in the Roman Church, "this is not a sufficient reason for separating from it. On the contrary, the worse things are going on within it the more should we cling to it; for it is not by separation that we shall make it better." Luther was not, then, spoiling for a fight ; in truth, he fought only because he had to. And I do not know of a sublimer instance of the courage and the daring and the defiance which a simple inward necessity may put into a man. He took his stand because he must; because, as he said before the assembled princes at Worms, he could not do otherwise.
I need not recount the steps by which Luther was led to break with the Church. I need not recall his lonely spiritual struggles in the monastery at Erfurt, when he came to feel the futility of all mere outward works, and that only by faith can man be justified,— though this was the seed-thought of the Reformation. I need not describe his disputations with Eck at Leipsic, where he realized that his own views were like those of Huss and Wyclif before him, and hence if popes and councils had condemned them, that popes and councils could not be infallible. I need not recount the stages of his rapid intellectual development at about this time ; how his spirit seemed to rise at the rumor of a papal Bull against him; how he saw that his cause was the cause of Germany, and hence issued his address to the German nobility ; how in an almost boyish exuberance of spirits he burned the pope's Bull; and how at last he took his world-historic stand before the imperial diet at Worms, saying he would not recant, knowing that to act against conscience, though, a mighty church and a mighty empire should approve, is neither right nor safe.
But though the man is great, the significance of the scene is greater. That was the first act of the Protestant revolution. Ill would it have fared with the world had Erasmus stood there. He, in common with other scholars of the day, was disaffected; he wrote satires on the monks and schoolmen, and in general sympathized with Luther; but he would stay in the Church, would reform from within, and conciliate and compromise at any cost. He continued his satires and preached tolerance to the last; but he could not endure schism, proclaiming that "peaceful error was better than tempestuous truth." It was as it is today with the Broad Churchmen who stay in the English establishment, or the Liberals in general who feel that they cannot stand on their own feet outside the Church. Above every other fear is that of breaking with the past, of a seeming disloyalty to the institutions in which they have been nurtured. Luther knew but one thing however, — loyalty to the convictions that were in him; if the Church did not give him freedom to hold to and express them, he would do so all the same.
We can hardly imagine to-day what an immense fact resting on the past Luther had to face. To break with orthodoxy or any form of Protestant Christianity is an insignificant thing compared with putting oneself out of the pale of that communion which held the keys of earth almost as truly as it seemed to those of heaven. For if the Catholic Church is comparatively harmless now, then it was an empire that brooked no rival. The State was no more than a body, with the Church for its soul. It was a universal empire, and knew no national distinctions; it had its system of taxation, like any other kingdom, — a tenth part of the produce of the soil of Christendom went to it; it owned almost a third of the land of Europe. The officers of this empire were not amenable to the civil jurisdiction, — they could be tried only in their own courts, and under the cover of this protection to themselves they could fleece their flocks about as they liked; they alone could marry people, and they alone could grant divorces ; they had the disposition of the property of deceased persons, — a will had to be proved in their courts ; they alone buried the dead, and could refuse Christian burial in the churchyards. And this empire touching men in almost every relation in life centred in Rome, and its affairs, it was well known, were administered not for the benefit of its subjects everywhere, but to heighten the influence and pomp and power and to swell the revenues of Roman popes and cardinals, — even as in the old days of the Caesars, the masses of the people scattered through the provinces were ruled by governors, not for their own but for the conqueror's good. It was this empire over the souls and bodies of men; over life and death, and what was believed to come after death; over what men should think, and how they should act, — and not in the name of truth and the progressing knowledge of men, but of a view of the world which almost every scientific discovery and almost every independent philosophical reflection tended to undermine, — it was this old antiquated empire that was broken, smitten on its crown and set to tottering on its feet, when Luther lifted up his voice over three hundred and fifty years ago. All hail, 0 valiant man, for this first and mighty blow! We breathe freer now at the very thought of it. Other blows will follow after; and notwithstanding all the reforms the papal empire may undertake, notwithstanding all the efforts it may make to show its harmony with modern thought and the principles of political freedom, notwithstanding all its councils of Trent, and all its Capels leading captive here and there a weak-minded man or silly woman, it will never again have its old supremacy. It is an outlived institution ; humanity and the spirit of progress have passed it by.