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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Would condemn and burn the papal Decretal Laws


would condemn and burn the

papal Decretal Laws. On December 10th (1520) he posted a notice inviting the Wittenberg students to witness the burning of the papal Constitutions and the books of Scholastic Theology at nine o'clock in the morning.(174) A multitude of students, burghers, and professors met in the open space outside the Elster Gate between the walls and the river Elbe. A great bonfire had been built. An oak tree planted long ago still marks the spot. One of the professors kindled the pile; Luther laid the books of the Decretals on the glowing mass, and they caught the flames; then amid solemn silence he placed a copy of the Bull on the fire, saying in Latin: _As thou hast wasted with anxiety the Holy One of God, so may the eternal flames waste thee_ (_Quia tu conturbasti Sanctum Domini, ideoque te conturbet ignis eternus_). He waited till the paper was consumed, and then with his friends and fellow-professors he went back to the town. Some hundreds of students remained standing round the fire. For a while they were sobered by the solemnity of the occasion and sang the _Te Deum_. Then a spirit of mischief seized them, and they began singing funeral dirges in honour of the burnt Decretals. They got a peasant's cart, fixed in it a pole on which they hung a six-foot-long banner emblazoned with the Bull, piled the small cart with the books of Eck, Emser, and other Romish controversialists, hauled it along the streets and out through the Elster Gate, and, throwing books and Bull on the glowing embers
of the bonfire, they burnt them. Sobered again, they sang the _Te Deum_ and finally dispersed.

It is scarcely possible for us in the twentieth century to imagine the thrill that went through Germany, and indeed through all Europe, when the news sped that a poor monk had burnt the Pope's Bull. Papal Bulls had been burnt before Luther's days, but the burners had been for the most part powerful monarchs. This tune it was done by a monk, with nothing but his courageous faith to back him. It meant that the individual soul had discovered its true value. If eras can be dated, modern history began on December 10th, 1520.

? 6. Luther the Representative of Germany.

Hitherto we have followed Luther's personal career exclusively. It may be well to turn aside for a little to see how the sympathy of many classes of the people was gathering round him.

The representatives of foreign States who were present at the Diet of Worms, of England, Spain, and Venice, all wrote home to their respective governments about the extraordinary popularity which Luther enjoyed among almost every class of his fellow-countrymen; and, as we shall see, the despatches of Aleander, the papal nuncio at the Diet, are full of statements and complaints which confirm these reports. This popularity had been growing since 1517, and there are traces that many thoughtful men had been attracted to Luther some years earlier. The accounts of Luther's interview with Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg, and his attitude at the Leipzig Disputation, had given a great impulse to the veneration with which people regarded him; but the veneration itself had been quietly growing, apart from any striking incidents in his career. The evidence for what follows has been collected chiefly from such private correspondence as has descended to us; and most stress has been laid on letters which were not addressed to Luther, and which were never meant to be seen by him. Men wrote to each other about him, and described the impression he was making on themselves and on the immediate circle of their acquaintances. We learn from such letters not merely the fact of the esteem, but what were the characteristics in the man which called it forth.(175)


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