In this paper attached to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg Luther had struck at more than the abuses of indulgences.
Underneath was a principle subversive of the whole Papal system. In the midst of some remaining darkness - for he still reverences the Pope, believes in purgatory, and speaks of the merits of the saints - Luther preaches the Gospel of a free salvation.
The "Theses" put God's gift in sharp antagonism to the Pope's gift. The one is free, the other has to be bought. God's pardon does not need the Pope's endorsement, but the Pope's forgiveness, unless followed by God's, is of no avail; it is a cheat, a delusion. Such is the doctrine of the "Theses". That mightiest of all prerogatives, the power of pardoning sins and so of saving men's souls, is taken from the "Church" and given back to God.
The movement is fairly launched. It is speeding on; it grows not by weeks only, but by hours and moments; but no one has yet estimated aright its power, or guessed where only it can find its goal. The hand that posted up these propositions cannot take them down. They are no longer Luther's, they are mankind's.
The news travels
The news travelled rapidly. The feelings awakened were, of course, mixed, but in the main joyful. Men felt a relief - they were conscious of a burden taken from their hearts; and, though they could scarce say why, they were sure that a new day had dawned. In the homes of the people, and even in the cell of many a monk, there was joy. "While those," says Mathesius, "who had entered the convents to seek a good table, a lazy life, or consideration and honour, heaped Luther's name with reviling, those monks who lived in prayer, fasting, and mortification, gave thanks to God as soon as they heard the cry of that eagle which John Hus had foretold a century before."
The appearance of Luther gladdened the evening of the aged Reuchlin. He had had his own battles with the monks, and he was overjoyed when he saw an abler champion enter the lists to maintain the truth. The verdict of Erasmus on the affair is very characteristic. The Elector of Saxony having asked him what he thought of it, the great scholar replied with his usual shrewdness, "Luther has committed two unpardonable crimes - he has attacked the Pope's tiara, and the bellies of the monks." There were others whose fears predominated over their hopes, probably from permitting their eyes to rest almost exclusively upon the difficulties.
Thou art right, Bro. Martin
The historian Kranz, of Hamburg, was on his death-bed when Luther's "Theses" were brought to him. "Thou art right, brother Martin," exclaimed he on reading them, "but thou wilt not succeed. Poor monk. Away thee to thy cell, and cry, "O God, have pity on me". An old priest of Hexter, in Westphalia, shook his head and exclaimed, "Dear brother Martin, if thou succeed in overthrowing this purgatory, and all these paper-dealers, truly thou art a very great gentleman." But others, lifting their eyes higher, saw the hand of God in the affair. "At last," said Dr. Fleck, prior of the monastery of Steinlausitz, who had for some time ceased to celebrate mass, "At last we have found the man we have waited for so long;" and, playing on the meaning of the word Wittenberg, he added, "All the world will go and seek wisdom on that (white) mountain, and will find it."
The Elector's dream
We step a moment out of the domain of history, to narrate a dream which the Elector Frederick of Saxony had on the night preceding the memorable day on which Luther affixed his "Theses" to the door of the castle-church.
The elector told it the next morning to his brother, Duke John, who was then residing with him at his palace of Schweinitz, six leagues from Wittenberg. The dream is recorded by all the chroniclers of the time. Of its truth there is no doubt, however we may interpret it. We cite it here as a compendious and dramatic epitome of the affair of the "Theses" , and the movement which grew out of them.
On the morning of the 31st October, 1517, the elector said to Duke John, "Brother, I must tell you a dream which I had last night, and the meaning of which I should like much to know. It is so deeply impressed on my mind, that I will never forget it, were I to live a thousand years. For I dreamed it thrice, and each time with new circumstances."
Duke John: "Is it a good or a bad dream?"
The Elector: "I know not; God knows."
Duke John: "Don't be uneasy at it; but be so good as tell it to me."
The Elector: "Having gone to bed last night, fatigued and out of spirits, I fell asleep shortly after my prayer, and slept calmly for about two hours and a half; I then awoke, and continued awake to midnight, all sorts of thoughts passing through my mind. Among other things, I thought how I was to observe the Feast of All Saints. I prayed for the poor souls in purgatory; and supplicated God to guide me, my counsels, and my people according to truth.
"I again fell asleep, and then dreamed that Almighty God sent me a monk, who was a true son of the Apostle Paul. All the saints accompanied him by order of God, in order to bear testimony before me, and to declare that he did not come to contrive any plot, but that all that he did was according to the will of God. They asked me to have the goodness graciously to permit him to write something on the door of the church of the Castle of Wittenberg. This I granted through my chancellor.
"Thereupon the monk went to the church, and began to write in such large characters that I could read the writing at Schweinitz. The pen which he used was so large that its end reached as far as Rome, where it pierced the ears of a lion that was crouching there, and caused the triple crown upon the head of the Pope to shake. All the cardinals and princes, running hastily up, tried to prevent it from falling. You and I, brother, wished also to assist, and I stretched out my arm; - but at this moment I awoke, with my arm in the air, quite amazed, and very much enraged at the monk for not managing his pen better. I recollected myself a little; it was only a dream."
"I was still half asleep, and once more closed my eyes. The dream returned. The lion, still annoyed by the pen, began to roar with all his might, so much so that the whole city of Rome, and all the States of the Holy Empire, ran to see what the matter was. The Pope requested them to oppose this monk, and applied particularly to me, on account of his being in my country. I again awoke, repeated the Lord's prayer, entreated God to preserve his Holiness, and once more fell asleep."
"Then I dreamed that all the princes of the Empire, and we among them, hastened to Rome, and strove, one after another, to break the pen; but the more we tried the stiffer it became, sounding as if it had been made of iron. We at length desisted. I then asked the monk (for I was sometimes at Rome, and sometimes at Wittenberg) where he got this pen, and why it was so strong. ‘The pen," replied he, "belonged to an old goose of Bohemia, a hundred years old. I got it from one of my old schoolmasters. As to its strength, it is owing to the impossibility of depriving it of its pith or marrow; and I am quite astonished at it myself.' Suddenly I heard a loud noise - a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk. I awoke a third time: it was daylight."
Duke John: "Chancellor, what is your opinion? Would we had a Joseph, or a Daniel, enlightened by God!"
Chancellor: "Your highness knows the common proverb, that the dreams of young girls, learned men, and great lords have usually some hidden meaning. The meaning of this dream, however, we shall not be able to know for some time - not till the things to which it relates have taken place. Wherefore, leave the accomplishment to God, and place it fully in his hand."
Duke John: "I am of your opinion, Chancellor; 'tis not fit for us to annoy ourselves in attempting to discover the meaning. God will overrule all for his glory."
Elector: "May our faithful God do so; yet I shall never forget, this dream. I have, indeed, thought of an interpretation, but I keep it to myself. Time, perhaps, will show if I have been a good diviner."
So passed the morning of the 31st October, 1517, in the royal castle of Schweinitz. The elector has hardly made an end of telling his dream when the monk comes with his hammer to interpret it.