Martin Luther Criticism

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Joseph Priestley (essay date 1803)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Progress of the Reformation," in The Theological and Miscellaneous of the Works Joseph Priestley, Vol. X, edited by J. T. Rutt, 1803. Reprint by Kraus Reprint Co.,1972, pp. 112–27.

[In the excerpt below, Priestley traces Luther's increasing conflict with papal authority and the rise of his popularity with the laity.]

It is something remarkable that Luther began his reformation independently of any thing that had been done before him; so that he was truly a great original in that way. He ever dreaded the reproach of heresy, and it was by slow degrees that he was brought to any connexion with those who had been denominated heretics; but the affinity between his doctrines and those of the Hussites in Bohemia could not but soon be perceived, and all his enemies eagerly propagated reports of his connexion with them. Some colour was given to them by the publication of a sermon this year, in which he expressed a wish that the church, assembled in general council, would restore the cup to the laity. The bishop of Misnia censured this piece,1 and forbade the reading of it in his diocese; and the duke of Saxony wrote to the elector to complain of it. But he answered with great prudence, that he did not take upon him the defence of any of the writings of Luther, though there were persons of acknowledged piety and good sense who saw nothing reprehensible in them.

Luther easily defended himself from this accusation, in two publications. The first bore the title of An Apology, in which he shewed that the Bohemians could not be called heretics on account of their receiving the communion in both kinds, because they did it with the consent of the church; nor could he be called a heretic for having expressed a wish that the communion in both kinds might be restored, unless Pius II. was a heretic, for having wished that the priests might be allowed to marry. The second piece contained a refutation of the sentence of the bishop of Misnia, in which he was very severe on two or three ecclesiastics, whom he considered as the authors of it. This publication was disliked by the electoral court, and the impression of it was stopped for fear of provoking the Pope.

This interference of the court displeased Luther; and what he wrote to Spalatin on the occasion, discovers his firmness and the justness of his way of thinking; "You would have me," he says, "continue to teach, but how can this be done without offending the Pope? The Scriptures condemn the abuse of sacred things, and the popes will never bear the condemnation of the abuses of which they are the authors. I have devoted myself to the service of God, and may his will be done. Let us leave this business to him, and make ourselves easy. What can they do? They may take my life, but this I cannot lose more than once. They may defame me as a heretic, but was not Jesus Christ condemned by the wicked? Every time that I meditate on the sufferings of our Saviour, I am concerned to perceive that my trials appear so great to many persons. This comes from our not being used to suffer, that is, to live as the disciples of Christ. Let them do what they please. The more they endeavour to destroy me, the more I deride their efforts. If I did not fear to involve our prince in my destruction, I would write all I think without reserve, in order to provoke them the more."

At this time the new emperor was expected in Germany, and it was thought that he would be favourable to Luther, as it was well known that the Pope had opposed his election. He therefore addressed a respectful letter to the emperor,2 in which, however, he expressed himself with proper firmness, explaining his sentiments, and expressing the hope he had of his protection; concluding with saying, that if there was any thing that would do honour to his memory in future ages, it would be, his not suffering the wicked to trample upon the righteous. But previous to this he had adopted other conciliatory measures. He had made a public protestation of...

(The entire section is 81,420 words.)