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From that time the popes of Rome, as the pretended vicars of Christ, assumed a power little short of Omnipotence itself; and showed their despotick and domineering spirit in political as well as ecclesiastical concerns; presuming to have the sovereignty over men upon earth, over the angels in heaven, and over the devils in hell. They dictated to the world a system of doctrine and morality suitable to their selfish views, but contrary to the word of God, which was forgotten, and forbidden to be read by laymen.
The authority and infallibility of the pope was the first article of the christian belief; and the false opinions of indulgences, purgatory, relicks, pilgrimages, celibacy, &c. were more respected than the essential doctrines of the gospel. The bible was not read by the laity, nor understood by the clergy. The people were imposed upon by the fictitious relicks of persons and things which never had existed: viz. a piece of earth from which the first man was made; bones of the calf from which a meal was made at the joyful reception of the prodigal son; a step of the ladder which Jacob saw in a dream; a lamp of one of the foolish virgins; the skeleton of a child killed at Bethlehem, &c. and many instruments used at the crucifixion of Christ.
The history of the popes and clergy in those times, is a history of the most horrid crimes: Rome was the school of political intrigue, and the seat of falsehood, adultery, avarice, lewdness, and homicide. There was nothing which could not be bought for ready money at the court of Rome: even the gifts of the Holy Ghost were sold to the highest bidder; and it was as customary to buy, sell, or exchange prebendaries and livings as any other estate. The lower clergy being forbidden to marry, were, however, allowed to violate their vows of celibacy by paying a certain sum, which was called the milk tax. These,
and many other errors and abuses were brought into the church by the papal system or hierarchy, which Roman writers do not deny.
The necessity of a reformation of the church, of the pope, and of the clergy, was acknowledged and wished for on every side; and four general convocations and diets of the empire were held for that purpose the first at Pisa, in Italy, 1409; the second at Constance, in Switzerland, from 14141418, where John Huss, that celebrated martyr, was burnt alive in the most unjust and cruel manner; the third at Siena, 1423; and the fourth at Basil, 1431.
The popes, however, always found means to elude that salutary design: and though in all the national assemblies the necessity of a reformation was proved and felt, the work itself, and the manner in which it was to be begun or effected, was a task too difficult for the wisest and best men of that age; till God, in mercy to his church, sent Luther to deliver the world from a darkness and bondage more oppressive than that of Egypt, and no less detrimental to society than destructive to religion.
Some steps indeed had been taken before, preparatory to it. The simplicity and purity of the evangelical doctrine had been preserved by few, in the midst of horrid persecutions, and the blood of martyrs was a seed from which more professors sprung. When Constantinople, the residence of the christian emperors, was taken by the Turks in the year 1453, many learned men were driven to the western parts of Europe; where, particularly in Italy and Germany, they found an asylum for the study of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages, so necessary and useful in translating and explaining the literal sense of the sacred writings.
About the year 1440, the important art of printing was invented, to which the work of the reforma
tion owes its more rapid progress; for by these means, printed bibles, the writings of Luther and other eminent reformers, were dispersed among thousands. The foundation being laid, the great work itself begun, it was carried on with such evident marks of a divine interposition, that we have reason to give thanks unto the Father, who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.
What so many powerful and wise men, during centuries before, had tried in vain to accomplish, was suddenly effected by an Augustinian Friar, MARTIN LUTHER; whose great work, from an inconsiderable beginning, spread to an immense extent. The more enemies he had to oppose, the more he was encouraged to go on, till the good cause was victorious, and true religion restored to, and established in, the visible church of Christ.
Luther's birth and education.
LUTHER was born Nov. 10, 1483, at Eisleben, a town formerly belonging to the county of Mansfield in Thuringia, but at present subject to the elector of Saxony. His father, who was a miner, took particular care of the education of his son during the progress of his study, he gave many indications of uncommon vigour and acuteness of genius.
While attending school at Magdeburg, the attention of an elderly rich lady, of the family of Cotta, was directed to him; who, his parents being poor, supported him in his literary pursuits. In the eighteenth year of his age, he was sent to the university at Erford to finish his education. His father had designed him for the law; but God directed it otherwise. His mind being naturally susceptible of serious impressions, and somewhat tinctured with that religious turn which delights in the solitude and
devotion of a monastick life, he resolved to retire to the convent of Augustinian Friars. Mathesius, Luther's intimate friend, informs us of two awful accidents which he thinks confirmed him in taking that resolution the first was, that Alexius, an acquaintance of Luther, was stabbed; and the second, that he was struck down by lightning in a thunder storm. Be this as it will, Luther assumed the habit of that monastick order, without suffering the entreaties of his parents to divert him from what he thought his duty to God.
Luther soon acquired great reputation; not only for piety, but for his love of knowledge, and his unwearied application to study. He had been taught the scholastick philosophy and theology, but having found a copy of the Latin bible, which lay neglected in the library of his monastery, he abandoned all other pursuits, and devoted himself to the study of it with such eagerness and assiduity, as astonished the monks, who were little accustomed to derive their theological notions from that source.
To detain him from that uncommon course of study, they employed him in the meanest services of the convent; from which he was released by the intercession of Staupitz, who recommended him to Frederick, the elector of Saxony, to teach philosophy, and afterwards theology, at the university of Wittemberg, on the Elbe; in which place he was much admired, and made doctor and professor of divinity. This was of great comfort to him in many storms which gathered round him at the progress of his undertaking; and when his enemies disputed his right to reform the church, and asked who had given him that authority, his answer was, that he was lawfully called, and in taking his degree had sworn, not only to teach the sound doctrine of the gospel, and of the prophets and apostles, but to defend its purity against vain and heretical tenets.
It was by the bible his eyes were opened; and men of experience and foresight prophesied that he would effect a revolution in the church, because he studied the sacred records which had been so long neglected. It was one of the first principles of the reformation on which Luther acted. The bible was the source of his doctrine, the foundation of his faith, and the bulwark of his safety. With this sword of the spirit in his heart and hand, he defied the fierce attacks of his innumerable enemies. Having spent many a night in reading its holy contents in his solitary cell at the monastery, in the character of a publick teacher, he began to explain it to the students at Wittemberg.
The first book which he expounded was Paul's epistle to the Romans; in which the words, The just shall live by faith, chap. i. 17, made a deep and lasting impression on his mind; and by writing his comment on the epistle to the Galatians, his knowledge and sense of justification by faith was augmented. In 1510 he went a journey to Rome, as commissioner of his order, to settle some affairs there, where he had an opportunity of being an eye witness to the degenerate state and ignorance of the clergy. After he returned to Wittemberg, he continued to preach the gospel with uncommon eloquence and power, to listening multitudes. Being commissioned by Staupitz, in the year 1516, to hold visitations in the monasteries of the Augustine order, as an under vicar, he recommended to the friars the reading of the bible; and the seed thus scattered in different places, by his good advice and counsel, did not fail to produce the most salutary fruits.
The beginning of the reformation, by Luther's opposing the sale of Indulgences; A. D. 1517.
LEO X., who filled at that time the papal throne,