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History of Protestantism, vol. 2 - Contents
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    Chapter 2: Fortunes of Protestantism in Italy, Spain, and Britain

    Italy—Shall Italy be a Disciple of the Goth?—Pride in the Past her Stumbling-block—Spain—The Moslem Dominancy—It Intensifies Spanish Bigotry—Protestantism to be Glorified in Spain by Martyrdom—Preparations for ultimate Triumph—England—Wicliffe—Beginsthe New Times—Rapid View of Progress from Wicliffe to Henry VIII—Character of the King—His Quarrel with the Pope—Protestantism Triumphs—Scotland

    Picture: Philip II. of Spain

    Picture: Interior of Seville Cathedral.

    Protestantism crossed the Alps and essayed to gather round its standard the historic nations of Italy and Spain. To the difficulties that met it everywhere, other and peculiar ones were added in this new field. Unstrung by indolence, and enervated by sensuality, the Italians had no ear but for soft cadences, no eye but for aesthetic ceremonies, and no heart but for a sensual and sentimental devotion. Justly had its great poet Tasso, speaking of his native Italy, called it — “this Egyptian land of woe, Teeming with idols, and their monstrous train.” 1Tasso, Sonnets.HOPV2 4.3

    And another of her poets, Guidiccioni, called upon her to shake off her corrupting and shameful languor, but called in vain — “Buried in sleep of indolence profound So many years, at length awake and rise, My native land, enslaved because unwise.” 2Guidiccioni, Sonnets.HOPV2 5.1

    The new faith which demanded the homage of the Italians was but little in harmony with their now strongly formed tastes and dearly cherished predilections. Severe in its morals, abstract in its doctrines, and simple and spiritual in its worship, it appeared cold as the land from which it had come — a root out of a dry ground, without form or comeliness. Her pride took offense. Was Italy to be a disciple of the Goth? Was she to renounce the faith which had been handed down to her from early times, stamped with the approval of so many apostolic names and sealed with the sanction of so many Councils, and in the room of this venerated worship to embrace a religion born but yesterday in the forests of Germany? She must forget all her past before she could become Protestant. That a new day should dawn in the North appeared to her just as unnatural as that the sun, reversing his course, should rise in that quarter of the sky in which it is wont to set.HOPV2 5.2

    Nowhere had Christianity a harder battle to fight in primitive times than at Jerusalem and among the Jews, the descendants of the patriarchs. They had the chair of Moses, and they refused to listen to One greater than Moses; they had the throne of David, to which, though fallen, they continued to cling, and they rejected the scepter of Him who was David’s Son and Lord. In like manner the Italians had two possessions, in which their eyes were of more value than a hundred Reformations. They had the capital of the world, and the chair of St. Peter. These were the precious legacy which the past had bequeathed to them, attesting the apostolicity of their descent, and forming, as they accounted them, the indubitable proofs that Providence had placed amongst them the fountain of the Faith, and the seat of universal spiritual dominion. To become Protestant was to renounce their birth-right. So clinging to these empty signs they missed the great substance. Italy preferred her Pope to the Gospel.HOPV2 5.3

    When we cross the Pyrenees and enter Spain, we find a people who are more likely, so one would judge, to give Protestantism a sympathetic welcome. Grave, earnest, self-respectful, and naturally devotional, the Spaniard possesses many of the best elements of character. The characteristic of the Italy of that day was pleasure, of Spain we should say it was passion and adventure. Love and song filled the one, feats of knight-errantry were the cherished delights of the other. But, unhappily, political events of recent occurrence had indisposed the Spanish mind to listen to the teachings of Protestantism, and had made the maintenance of their old orthodoxy a point of honour with that people. The infidel Saracen had invaded their country, had reft from them Andalusia, the garden of Spain, and in some of their fairest cities the mosque had replaced the cathedral, and the adoration of Mohammed had been substituted for the worship of Christ. These national humiliations had only tended to inflame the religious enthusiasmof the Spaniards. The detestation in which they held the crescent was extended to all alien creeds. All forms of worship, their own excepted, they had come to associate with the occupancy of a foreign race, and the dominancy of a foreign yoke. They had now driven the Saracen out of their country, and torn the standard of the Prophet from the walls of Granada; but they felt that they would be traitors to the sign in which they had conquered, should they renounce the faith for the vindication of which they had expelled the hosts of the infidel, and cleansed their land from the pollution of Islam.HOPV2 5.4

    Another circumstance unfavorable to Spain’s reception of Protestantism was its geographical situation. The Spaniards were more remote from the Papal seat than the Italians, and their veneration for the Roman See was in proportion to their distance from it. They viewed the acts of the Pope through a halo which lent enchantment to them. The irregularities of the Papal lives and the scandals of the Roman court were not by any means so well known to them as to the Romans, and even though they had been so, they did not touch them so immediately as they did the natives of Italy. Besides, the Spaniards of that age were much engrossed in other matters. If Italy doted on her past, Spain was no less carried away with the splendid future that seemed to be opening to her. The discovery of America by Columbus, the scarce less magnificent territories which the enterprise of other navigators and discoverers had subjected to her scepter in the East, the varied riches which flowed in upon her from all these dependencies, the terror of her arms, the luster of her name, all contributed to blind Spain, and to place her in antagonism to the new movement. Why not give her whole strength to the development of those many sources of political power and material prosperity which had just been opened to her? Why distract herself by engaging in theological controversies and barren speculations! Why abandon a faith under which she had become great, and was likely to become greater still. Protestantism might be true, but Spain had no time, and less inclination, to investigate its truth. Appearances were against it; for was it likely that German monks should know better than her own learned priests, or that brilliant thoughts should emanate from the seclusion of Northern cells and the gloom of Northern forests?HOPV2 5.5

    Still the Spanish mind, in the sixteenth century, discovered no small aptitude for the teachings of Protestantism. Despite the adverse circumstances to which we have referred, the Reformation was not without disciples in Spain. If a small, nowhere was there a more brilliant band of converts to Protestantism. The names of men illustrious for their rank, for their scholarship, and for their talents, illustrate the list of Spanish Protestants. Many wealthy burgesses also became converts; and had not the throne and the priesthood — both powerful — combined to keep Spain Roman Catholic, Protestantism would have triumphed. A single decade had almost enabled it to do so. But the Reformation had crossed the Pyrenees to win no triumph of this kind. Spain, like France, was too powerful and wealthy a country to become Protestant with safety to Protestantism. Its conversion at that stage would have led to the corruption of the principle: the triumph of the movement would have been its undoing, for there is no maxim more certain than this, that if a spiritual cause triumphs through material and political means, it triumphs at the cost of its own life. Protestantism had entered Spain to glorify itself by martyrdom.HOPV2 6.1

    It was destined to display its power not at the courts of the Alhambra and Escurial, but on the burning grounds of Madrid and Seville. Thus in Spain, as in many other countries, the great business of Protestantism in the sixteenth century was the origination of moral forces, which, being deathless, would spread and grow from age to age till at length, with silent but irresistible might, the Protestant cause would be borne to sovereignty.HOPV2 8.1

    It remains that we speak of one other country. — “Hedged in with the main,
    That water-walled bulwark, still secure
    And confident from foreign purposes,” 3Shakspere, King John, act 2, scene 1.
    England had it very much in her option, on almost all occasions, to mingle in the movements and strifes that agitated the nations around her, or to separate herself from them and stand aloof. The reception she might give to Protestantism would, it might have been foreseen, be determined to a large extent by considerations and influences of a home kind, more so than in the case of the nations which we have already passed in review. Providence had reserved a great place for Britain in the drama of Protestantism. Long before the sixteenth century it had given significant pledges of the part it would play in the coming movement. In truth the first of all the nations to enter on the path of Reform was England.
    HOPV2 8.2

    When the time drew nigh for the Master, who was gone fourteen hundred years before into a far country, to return, and call His servants to account previously to receiving the kingdom, He sent a messenger before Him to prepare men for the coming of that “great and terrible day.” That messenger was John Wicliffe. In many points Wicliffe bore a striking resemblance to the Elijah of the Old Dispensation, and John the Baptist of the New; and notably in this, that he was the prophet of a new age, which was to be ushered in with terrible shakings and revolutions. In minor points even we trace a resemblance between Wicliffe and the men who filled in early ages a not dissimilar office to that which he was called to discharge when the modern times were about to begin. All three are alike in the startling suddenness of their appearance. Descending from the mountains of Gilead, Elijah presents himself all at once in the midst of Israel, now apostate from Jehovah, and addresses to them the call to “Return.” From the deserts of Judah, where he had made his abode till the day of his “showing unto Israel,” John came to the Jews, now sunk in traditionalism and Pharasaic observances, and said, “Repent.” From the darkness of the Middle Ages, without note of warning, Wicliffe burst upon the men of the fourteenth century, occupied in scholastic subtleties and sunk in ceremonialism, and addressed to them the call to “Reform.” “Repent,” said he, “for the great era of reckoning is come. There cometh one after me, mightier than I. His fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather the wheat into the garner; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”HOPV2 8.3

    Even in his personal appearance Wicliffe recalls the picture which the Bible has left us of his great predecessors. The Tishbite and the Baptist seem again to stand before us. The erect and meager form, with piercing eye and severe brow, clad in a long black mantle, with a girdle round the middle, how like the men whose raiment was of camel’s hair, and who had a leathern girdle upon their loins, and whose meat was locusts and wild honey!HOPV2 8.4

    In the great lineaments of their character how like are all the three! Wicliffe has a marked individuality. No one of the Fathers of the early Church exactly resembles him. We must travel back to the days of the Baptist and of the Tishbite to find his like — austere, incorruptible, inflexible, fearless. His age is inconceivably corrupt, but he is without stain. He appears among men, but he is not seen to mingle with them. Solitary, without companion or yoke-fellow, he does his work alone. In his hand is the axe: sentence has gone forth against every corrupt tree, and he has come to cut it down.HOPV2 8.5

    Beyond all doubt Wicliffe was the beginning of modern times. His appearance marked the close of an age of darkness, and the commencement of one of Reformation. It is not more true that John stood on the dividing line between the Old and New Dispensations, than that the appearance of Wicliffe marked a similar boundary. Behind him were the times of ignorance mid superstition, before him the day of knowledge and truth. Previous to Wicliffe, century succeeded century in unbroken and unvaried stagnancy. The yearn revolved, but the world stood still. The systems that had climbed to power prolonged their reign, and the nations slept in their chains. But since the age of Wicliffe the world has gone onward in the path of progress without stop or pause. His ministry was the fountain-head of a series of grand events, which have followed in rapid succession, and each of which has achieved a great and lasting advance for society. No sooner had Wicliffe uttered the first sentence of living truth than it seemed as if a seed of life, a spark of fire had been thrown into the world, for instantly motion sets in, in every department and the movement of regeneration, to which a the first touch, incessantly works its lofty platform of the sixteenth century. War and 1etters, the ambition of princes and the blood of martyrs, pioneer its way to its grand development under Luther and Calvin.HOPV2 8.6

    When Wicliffe was born the Papacy had just passed its noon. Its meridian glory had lasted all through the two centuries which divided the accession of Gregory VII. (1073) from the death of Boniface VIII. (1303). This period, which includes the halcyon days of Innocent III., marks the epoch of supremest dominancy, the age of uneclipsed splendor, which was meted out to the Popes. But no sooner had Wicliffe begun to preach than a wane set in of the Papal glory, which neither Council nor curia has ever since been able to arrest. And no sooner did the English Reformer stand out in bold relief before the world as the opponent of Rome, than disaster after disaster came hurrying towards the Papacy, as if in haste to weaken and destroy a power which stood between the world entrance of the new age.HOPV2 9.1

    Let us bestow a moment on the consideration of this series of calamities to Rome, but of emancipation to the nations. At the distance of three centuries we see continuous and systematic progress, where the observer in the midst of the events may have failed to discover aught save confusion and turmoil. First came the schism of the Popes. What tremendous loss of both political influence and moral prestige the schism inflicted on the Papacy we need not say. Next came the deposition of several Popes by the Council of Pisa and Constance, on the ground of their being notorious malefactors, leaving the world to wonder at the rashness of men who could thus cast down their own idol, and publicly vilify a sanctity which they professed to regard as not less immaculate than that of God.HOPV2 9.2

    Then followed an outbreak of the wars which have raged so often and so furiously between Councils and the Popes for the exclusive possession of the infallibility. The immediate result of this contest, which was to strip the Popes of this superhuman prerogative and lodge it for a time in a Council, was less important than the inquiries it originated, doubtless, in the minds of reflecting men, how far it was wise to entrust themselves to the guidance of an infallibility which was unable to discover its own seat, or tell through Whose mouth it spoke. After this there came the disastrous campaigns in Bohemia. These fruitless wars gave the German nobility their first taste of how bitter was the service of Rome. That experience much cooled their ardour in her cause, and helped to pave the way for the bloodless entrance of the Lutheran Reformation upon the stage a century afterwards.HOPV2 9.3

    The Bohemian campaigns came to an end, but the series of events pregnant with disaster to Rome still ran on. Now broke out the wars between England and France. These brought new calamities to the Papacy. The flower of the French nobility perished on the battle-field, the throne rose to power, and as a consequence, the hold the priesthood had on France through the barons was loosened. Yet more. Out of the guilty attempt of England to subjugate France, to which Henry V. was instigated, as we have shown, by the Popish primate of the day, came the Wars of the Roses. These dealt another heavy blow to the Papal power in Britain. On the many bloody battle-fields to which they gave rise, the English nobility was all but extinguished, and the throne, now occupied by the House of Tudor, became the power in the country. Again, as in France, the Popish priesthood was largely stripped of the power it had wielded through the weakness of the throne and the factions of the nobility.HOPV2 9.4

    Thus with rapid and ceaseless march did events proceed from the days of Wicliffe. There was not an event that did not help on the end in view, which was to make room in the world for the work of the Reformer. We see the mountains of human dominion leveled that the chariot of Protestantism may go forward. Whereas at the beginning of the era there was but one power paramount in Christendom, the Pope namely, by the end of it three great thrones had arisen, whose combined authority kept the tiara in check, while their own mutual jealousies and ambitions made them a cover to that movement, with which were bound up the religion and liberties of the nations.HOPV2 9.5

    Rome had long exercised her jurisdiction in Britain, but at no time had that jurisdiction been wholly unchallenged. One mean king, it is true, had placed his kingdom in the hands of the Pope, but the transaction did not tend to strengthen the influence of the Papacy in England. It left a ranking sense of shame behind it, which intensified the nation’s resistance to the Papal claims on after occasions. From the days of King John, the opposition to the jurisdiction of Rome steadily increased; the haughty claims of her legates were withstood, and her imposts could only at times be levied. These were hopeful symptoms that at a future day, when greater light should break in, the English people would assert their freedom.HOPV2 9.6

    But when that day came these hopes appeared fated to be dashed by the character of the man who filled the throne. Henry VIII. possessed qualities which made him an able coadjutor, but a most formidable antagonist. Obstinate, tyrannical, impatient of contradiction, and not unfrequently meeting respectful remonstrance with transports of anger, he was as unscrupulous as he was energetic in the support of the cause he had espoused. He plumed himself not less on his theological knowledge than on his state-craft, and thought that when a king, and especially one who was a great doctor as well as a great ruler, had spoken, there ought to be an end of the controversy. Unhappily Henry VIII. had spoken in the great controversy now beginning to agitate Christendom. He had taken the side of the Pope against Luther. The decision of the king appeared to be the death-blow of the Protestant cause in England.HOPV2 9.7

    Yet the causes which threatened its destruction were, in the hand of God, the means of opening its way. Henry quarreled with the Pope, and in his rage against Clement he forgot Luther. A monarch of passions less strong and temper less fiery would have striven to avoid, at that moment, such a breach: but Henry’s pride and headstrongness made him incapable of temporizing. The quarrel came just in time to prevent the union of the throne and the priesthood against the Reformation for the purpose of crushing it. The political arm misgave the Church of Rome, as her hand was about to descend with deadly force on the Protestant converts. While the king and the Pope were quarrelling, the Bible entered, the Gospel that brings “peace on earth” began to be preached, and thus England passed over to the side of the Reformation.HOPV2 10.1

    We must bestow a glance on the northern portion of the island. Scotland in that age was less happily situated, socially and politically, than England. Nowhere was the power of the Roman hierarchy greater. Both the temporal and spiritual jurisdictions were in the hands of the clergy. The powerful barons, like so many kings, had divided the country into satrapies; they made war at their pleasure, they compelled obedience, and they exacted dues, without much regard to the authority of the throne which they despised, or the rights of the people whom they oppressed. Only in the towns of the Lowlands did a feeble independence maintain a precarious footing. The feudal system flourished in Scotland long after its foundations had been shaken, or its fabric wholly demolished, in other countries of Europe. The poverty of the nation was great, for the soil was infertile, and the husbandry wretched. The commerce of a former era had been banished by the distractions of the kingdom; and the letters and arts which had shed a transient gleam over the country some centuries earlier, were extinguished amid the growing rudeness and ignorance of the times. These powerful obstacles threatened effectually to bar the entrance of Protestantism.HOPV2 10.2

    But God opened its way. The newly translated Scriptures, secretly introduced, sowed the seeds of a future harvest. Next, the power of the feudal nobility was weakened by the fatal field of Flodden, and the disastrous rout at the Solway. Then the hierarchy was discredited with the people by the martyrdoms of Mill and Wishart. The minority of Mary Stuart left the kingdom without a head, and when Knox entered there was not a baron or priest in all Scotland that dared imprison or burn him. His voice rang through the land like a trumpet. The Lowland towns and shires responded to his summons; the temporal jurisdiction of the Papacy was abolished by the Parliament; its spiritual power fell before the preaching of the “Evangel,” and thus Scotland placed itself in the foremost rank of Protestant countries.HOPV2 10.3