Page images

overthrown, and new forms of religion, government, and opinion are established among men. We are very apt, in contemplating one of these changes, to ascribe it all to an individual, or to point out the day and hour when the great work was done; whereas their true history extends far upward and downward. It is as difficult to trace the beginning as to show the precise point above the cataract where the waters first accelerate their flow; and as to their dependence on a single life, we often see an enterprise more indebted to the martyr than the champion, and actually gaining more by the loss, than by all the living labors, of those who seemed essential to its successful prosecution. It is difficult to understand that events and persons, which seem to concentrate all attendant circumstances into a point, are themselves parts of a whole; for example, when the Roman emperor nominates his horse for consul, it seems to us a sudden and startling insult to a people who had at least the memory of having been free. But as De Retz remarks, “had we lived at the time, we should not have been surprised,” because it was of a piece with other things ; so many far inferior bipeds had been exalted to high stations, that the appointment of a respectable animal took its easy and natural place among the events of the day.

So the resistance of Luther to the power of Rome, daring as it was, probably seemed less strange and unexpected than we are in the babit of believing; for there is no doubt, that, while kings and nations submitted to the pretensions of the church, it was with that sort of resignation which arises from the feeling that they could not help themselves. A deep distrust of its claims must have spread silently from heart to heart, which everywhere made itself felt, though not manisest in living action till the hour was come. Such a change as the Reformation could not be sudden in its origin or its results ; the elements were slowly and surely preparing the way for ages ; there was no single year to which it could be assigned, there was no individual on whom it depended. The reforming process, of which Luther's resistance was one of the stages, began before he existed, it survived when his wars were over, and will keep on long after our generation is in the dust.

These great changes in human opinion are of so large extent and so long duration, that no single human shadow, though great as that of Luther unquestionably was, can throw itself over the whole. There is no short and sharp encounter ; there is no Waterloo battle, which brings sudden death to existing ideas and systems, and sets up others at once in their stead. The Reformation presented its first visible manifestation two centuries before him. Far back in the dim twilight of its history we see the upright and manly form of Wickliffe, speaking with brave determination of the corruptions of the church, and listened to by thousands who believed all he could say of its unsoundness ; thus showing that a prevailing sentiment had anticipated his disclosures, and discovered long before him all that he was able to tell. So, too, when Huss the Bohemian, having caught the spirit of this great master, bore the same strong testimony against the church, the people who had already, they knew not how, arrived at the same conclusions, stood ready to arrange themselves in his party. Savonarola, in Florence, also found himself expressing what the multitudes felt and understood, but wanted words to say. The reformer in these cases was but a living presentment of the active intellect and conscience of his time ; when he felt as if he had gone on in lonely solitude far before them, he was amazed to find that thousands were pressing on at his side.

If things are so, and it is not easy to deny the existence of this kind of prophetic anticipation in the people, though they would be quite unable to explain the manner in which they reach it, the office of the reformer is not so much to make discoveries, to suggest new ideas, and to put the minds of men in living action, as to unfold their thoughts to themselves, to change their impressions into well defined ideas, and to set the example of following their convictions wherever they urge them to go. The qualifications most essential for the discharge of this duty are a clear head and a strong heart. It is not necessary to have every graceful accomplishment, to possess a philosophical habit of mind, nor to abound in various learning. But it is indispensable that the reformer should have warm and living sympathies, since no one can carry away the hearts of the multitude unless he has one of his own. He must have a firm and steady spirit, that his views may not change with his anxieties and elevations, his hopes and fears; he must be fearless of what man can do to him, otherwise he will soon be frightened from his station ; and, what is more than all, an enlightened conscience, not subject to darkening changes, but shining with uniform brightness, must be the guide of his pilgrimage and lord of all within the breast.


This we believe to be a true description of the great man whose life is before us; and we have little sympathy with those who would give prominence to his faults on the one hand, or invest him with airy graces, making him a sort of Chesterfield, on the other. In the present condition of our existence, there are certain virtues which are almost invariably accompanied by certain failings. No one expects to find the elegant scholar, like Erasmus, abounding in active energy; and when overwhelming energy is the prevailing character of the man, we have no reason to look for those tender and amiable traits which we are most disposed to love. The garden cannot have the dreamy boundlessness of the prairie, nor can the bold mountain ridge be smooth and easy to the feet. It is true, there was one character, and only one, in which active and resistless power was blended with the gentlest humanity; but it is equally certain that among all who have made it their example, there are none who have nearly resembled it ; so that such a union of opposite and apparently inconsistent affections is still the great iniracle of Christian history, standing alone in the unapproachable solitude of more than human greatness, filling with admiration and almost with despair those who earnestly attempt to imitate this wonderful association of mighty power with tender lowliness and love. In Luther there certainly was no such perfection; he might as well be represented with the face and form of the Apollo ; but he was a man of a warm and generous, as well as brave and determined spirit, always inspiring confidence and securing attachment, which a man of narrow mind and cold affections was never yet able to do.

It is in vain to deny that Luther was at times somewhat coarse in his communications with others; and to ascribe it, after the usual fashion, to the spirit of the age, though it shows that he was not alone in that sort of indulgence, does not make such language refined, nor reconcile it with the purest taste. But it should be observed, that he dealt out these sweetmeats chiefly in his intercourse with Satan, and Henry the Eighth, and other potentates of the same description, where he was wholly exempt from apprehension, as indeed there was no call for any, lest he should treat such people worse than they deserved. But he is not by any means to be classed with those worthies of whom Erasmus says, that " they break in upon one's feelings like hogs into a flowergarden,” trampling with grunting satisfaction on treasures which they cannot understand.

Since we have mentioned this great man, who, by his attacks on the vices of the church, did so much to prepare the way for the Reformation, it is but just to say that the manner in which he is brought into contrast with Luther is not just to either ; each had his separate office to fulfil, and in each case it was successfully done. But they were wholly unlike in temperament; neither had any thing in himself which enabled him to understand the other. Erasmus could not have handled Luther's war-club to more advantage than Luther could his classical pen. Though the former saw much to censure and deplore in the church, it is not probable that he wished to overthrow it, and with all his tendencies to rationalism, he would naturally be distrustful of the sort of theology which might be set up in its stead. In all this Luther could see nothing better than timeserving; accordingly he treated Erasmus as he treated others, in a way which savored more of strength and plainness than of Christian and courtly grace.

But in domestic life Luther appears to have been affectionate and kind; in his social intercourse with others, open-hearted, generous, and free from all selfishness and suspicion ; while, in his regard for the other creatures of God, he sets an example which others would do well to follow, and which those who think it needless and excessive must allow to have been an indication of manly tenderness of heart. When, by his sedentary life and labor, he had brought upon himself a visitation of dyspepsia, the disorder that makes wise men mad, he was advised to take vigorous exercise, and after the usual fashion was encouraged to believe that a sudden transition from a feather-bed to a steeple-chase would be eminently beneficial to him. So far from finding relief in the sport, it continually reminded him of the manner in which souls are hunted by the great enemy of man; and so little did he enter into the spirit of the chase, that he caught one poor little hare, and hid it in the sleeve of his coat, to save it from the fate which his friends were so greatly enjoying ; which was perhaps as serviceable to his complaint as if VOL. LX111. — No. 133.


he had killed and eaten it, and which we cannot but regard as creditable to his sense and feeling.

Some injury has been done to the memory of Luther by those who plead in excuse for violence and denunciation that Luther did the same thing. Though they have no idea of disparaging him by the comparison, but only of exalting themselves, the effect is not so much to raise such poor mortals in the public estimation as to bring the angel down. It is well to remember, that there was something in the great Reformer besides hard thoughts and hard words; these were his failings, not his virtues, and he would have remained as obscure and inefficient as his ambitious imitators are now, if there had been nothing else to recommend him to the admiration of men. The imitator does not often understand the original which he intends to follow ; he mistakes the points in which his power resides ; he supposes that Samson's might consists in the length of his hair, when this is but a sign of faithfulness to his Nazarite vow; and thus, as when some men repeat a jest, all the humor is sure to slip through their fingers, do all who justify their abuse and excess by Luther's example contrive unconsciously to omit all the particulars of character which made him transcendently great, and, entirely unaware what a length of ear has found its way through their lion vesture, they wonder why they are not hailed with the universal reverence of mankind. It is to be hoped that such persons will make the discovery, that, however loudly they storm and threaten those who oppose them, men do not mistake them for Luthers, and that the effects which they produce by their vociferation, in comparison with his, will be few and exceedingly small.

The chief recommendation of this life of Luther is, that the author allows the great Reformer to tell his own story, taking his own words, particularly his letters, as the best expressions of his character and feeling. In almost all cases, where they are not merely formal, a man puts his heart, or at least a portion of it, into such writings. There are a few examples in which, as in that of Cromwell, the letter is entirely impersonal, and might as well have been written by any body else, for all the light it throws upon his feelings. But this is a remarkable exception. It is as if there should be do more expression in the face than in the back of the head, which indeed does sometimes happen, though not often in

« PreviousContinue »