The Cambridge Modern History - Vol. 2

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV.
LUTHER.

THE Reformation of the sixteenth century had its birth and growth in a union of spiritual and secular forces such as the world has seldom seen at any other period of its history. On the secular side, the times were full of new movements, intellectual and moral, political, social, and economic; and spiritual forces were everywhere at work, which aimed at making religion the birthright and possession of the common man-- whether king, noble, burgher, artisan, or peasant--as well as of the ecclesiastic, a possession which should directly promote a worthy life within the family and the State. These religious impulses had all a peculiar democratic element and were able to impregnate with passion and, for a time, to fuse together the secular forces of the period. Hence their importance historically. If the main defect in the earlier histories of the Reformation has been to neglect the secular sides of the movement, it is possible that more recent historians have been too apt to ignore the religious element which was a real power.

It may be an exaggeration to say, as is sometimes done, that this religious side of the Reformation began in the inward religious growth of a single personality--the river comes from a thousand nameless rills and not only from one selected fountain-head; yet Luther was so prominent a figure that the impulses in his religious life may be taken as the type of forces which were at work over a wide area, and the history of these forces may be fitly described in tracing the genesis and growth of his religious opinions from his early years to his struggle against Indulgences.

The real roots of the religious life of Luther must be sought for in the family and in the popular religious life of the times. What had Luther and Myconius and hundreds of other boys of the peasant and burgher classes been taught by their parents within the family, and what religious influences met them in high-school and University? Fortunately the writings of the leaders of the new religious movement abound in biographical details; and the recent labours of German historians enable us to form some idea of the discordant elements in the religious life at the close of the fifteenth century.

-104-

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