The Shocking Violence of the Reformers

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Our series on the Reformation comes to a climactic review of the surprising, and often unreported, violent tactics of the reformers.


The Truth Behind

The Protestant Reformation

Part 8

The Shocking Violence of the Reformers

Did the Protestant reformers lead their followers back to the “faith once delivered”? Read the shocking methods of the reformers in this installment based on Dr. Roderick C. Meredith’s forthcoming book.

Startling though it seems, most of us have never really proved why we believe the things we do—especially those things about God and eternity!

Why is this so?

It is because of a quirk of human nature that makes us tend to assume that whatever our parents, friends, and associates tell us is completely true. And, once we have carelessly accepted from them various ideas and beliefs, we hate to change or to consider that we may be wrong!

Thus, the plain facts of history brought out in this series seem shocking to many who have previously assumed that what is called “Christianity” today is in truth the religion taught by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. But this is decidedly not the case! We can now say that the Biblical and historical proof of this statement has been abundantly demonstrated in this series of articles. It is something every sincere person must face squarely!

Let us not blind our eyes to the meaning of truth!

In this series, we have seen from authentic history that pagan ceremonies and traditions were introduced wholesale into the professing Christian church soon after the death of the original Apostles. It has been demonstrated that heathen philosophies and beliefs came in also at this time.

 We have discussed the spiritual corruption and depravity of the visible church during the “Dark Ages.” Examining Luther’s rebellion against this system, we found that at the same time he rebelled against all the authoritative commands of God and His Word. Having an aversion to the stress James puts on the need to obey God’s law, Luther called this inspired book “an epistle of straw.”

We have seen how Luther relied on the political power of the German princes to see him through, and how this caused him to condone bigamy and counsel “a good strong lie” in order to keep in their political favor.

John Calvin’s dictatorial methods and involvement in politics have proved shocking to many. His willingness to burn alive a religious opponent will be discussed in this installment.

Last issue, we saw how sexual lust and greed for power caused Henry VIII to bring about the English Revolt—a movement that cannot honestly be styled a religious movement at all in the true sense of the word.

Often, we have asked the sobering question: Was the Reformation inspired and guided by God’s Holy Spirit? Did it actually lead men to return to the belief and practice of Jesus and the Apostles?

Remember Jesus’ warning: “Beware of false prophets” (Matthew 7:15). He said: “You will know them by their fruits (v. 16). Surely the “fruits” of the Protestant reformers contain a tremendous lot which is not good. Their motives, methods, and results were not by any measure those of Jesus and His Apostles!

After having given the facts from authentic history throughout this series, let us now probe the motives and methods of the Protestant reformers in the light of the book they profess to believe, the Holy Bible.

The Bible and the Reformation

We have examined the basic foundations of the Protestant churches today. We have gone to the source of the “divided Christendom” of our time.

If there is any one thing that all religionists agree upon, it is in lamenting the fact that the Protestant reformers have bequeathed to us a religious “Babylon” of monstrous proportions. For, as we have seen, nearly every major Protestant denomination must trace its history—directly or indirectly—from the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Until that time, their religious ancestors were all within the pale of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jesus Christ said: “I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:18). We can only imagine His reaction at seeing hundreds of differing churches all laying claim to His name and approbation.

 We wonder what might be the judgment of Christ’s faithful apostle Paul, who urged us “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and was inspired to state: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:3–6).

Needless to say, this unity is not to be found in the Protestant world today. There are many faiths, and many bodies, or churches. All too often, they express the antagonism that Luther felt toward the Swiss reformers: “Yours is a different spirit … We cannot acknowledge you as brethren” (Schaff, Philip P., History of the Christian Church, vol. VII. Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing company, 1950. p. 645).

Jesus said: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). It is an undeniable fact that the “fruit” of the Protestant Reformation is the divided “churchianity” of our day. We must say at the outset that this is bad fruit.

Paul tells us that the Spirit of God produces unity—not division. Therefore, we should examine in retrospect to see what the spirit was, and what the motivating factors were, that produced the religious confusion resulting from the Reformation.

Nationalism and Lust

We have seen how the spirit of nationalism was growing throughout Europe just prior to the Reform movement. The people of Europe were tired of the religious and financial oppressions of Rome.

Therefore, Luther immediately gained a large following among the German nobles and middle class when he cried, “We were born to be masters.… It is time the glorious, Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff” (Bettenson, Henry, Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947. p. 278). And we have seen how the English nobility were wedded to Henry VIII’s “reformation” because they had been allowed to seize the wealth of the monastic lands and establishments. But in the latter case, as we have noted, their Parliamentary representatives changed their “religion” three times and “would have voted the establishment of the Mohametan religion” at the monarch’s bidding.

And it was the sexual lust of Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn that very clearly marks the starting point of the English revolt against Rome.

Of course, there is no doubt that many thousands of the common people in all of these countries sincerely desired not only a release from the tyranny of Rome, but also a restoration of religious truth and religious freedom. But people follow their leaders.

So, the real question is not what might have happened, but what did happen, and what motivated the political and religious leaders of the Reformation.

“In the end, it was a national system of Reformation that was carried out.… In those countries in which the national and political stimulus was absent or was weak, the religious movement failed” (Plummer, Alfred. The Continental Reformation, London: Robert Scott, 1912. p. 16).

So, we see that the spirit of nationalism was a major factor in helping the Reformation to succeed. It is important to realize that this very exaltation of nations has now resulted in the threat of human annihilation in our time!

For political, financial, and nationalistic reasons, men revolted against the Church of Rome. They exalted private judgment and reason. And in place of the Roman authority, which was supposed to represent God, they have placed nationalistic authority—and the gods of war!

It is true that Luther and Calvin had personal religious motivations. As we have described, Luther’s mind was tortured with a perpetual sense of guilt. In his extreme emphasis on salvation by faith alone, he was trying desperately to devise some system where the law of God and the justice of God would have no place.

But Luther’s personal spiritual upheaval would have had little effect on Germany or the world had he not appealed to the political and financial instincts of the German princes. And “it is true to say that the motives which led to the Lutheran revolt were to a large extent secular rather than spiritual” (Plummer, p. 9).

And while the reforms under Luther and Calvin contained an element of religious conviction in the spiritual leaders, they primarily employed the materialistic grievances of the princes and the people as a stimulus to rebel against Rome. It was a spirit of nationalism, which assured the widespread success of these movements.

Violent Methods of the Reformers

When it came to a showdown, the Protestant reformers were as ready to resort to violence, bloodshed, and persecution as their Roman Catholic adversaries. In any discussion of the methods by which the Reformation triumphed, this fact must be acknowledged.

We have already seen how Luther won the German princes to his cause. How he used them to fight Catholicism and to persecute those who disagreed with him, is another matter. And the same principle may apply to Zwingli and Calvin, and the political councils under their sway, and to King Henry VIII and his subservient Parliament and nobility.

Do we remember Luther’s raving appeal to the German princes to “smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly” those peasants who had applied the principle of his teachings to their own circumstances? Do we remember that he reversed himself in 1529, and said that Christians were “bound” to resort to arms to defend their Protestant beliefs?

It is also a fact that Luther approved the persecution and martyrdom of the Anabaptists and other sects who rejected his teachings. Commenting on the beheading of Anabaptists in Saxony, he said that “their courage showed that they were possessed by the devil” (Plummer, p. 174).

The same treatment was given those who did not go along with the national church system, which was forced upon the English people. Besides the several hundred nobles and commoners who lost their lives through the personal and religious bigotry of Henry VIII, many hundreds of others lost their lives under the reign of his Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I.

Those who refused to acknowledge the religious supremacy of the English monarch were dealt with as if they were guilty of high treason. “Before 1588, twelve hundred Catholics had already fallen victims to the persecution. In England alone, during the last twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, one hundred and forty-two priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered, for their faith. Ninety priests and religious [persons] died in prison, one hundred and five were banished for life, and sixty-two laymen of consideration suffered martyrdom” (Deharbe, Joseph, A History of Religion. London: Burns and Cates, 1880. p. 484).

And it was not just the monarchs who practiced intolerance in England, but the Protestant religious leaders as well. During the reign of young King Edward VI, Archbishop Cranmer persuaded him to sign the death warrant of two Anabaptists, one of them a woman. They were burned at the stake. In relating this, Schaff tells us: “The English Reformers were not behind those of the Continent in the matter of intolerance” (Schaff,  p. 711).

After Calvinism was introduced into Scotland, those who professed the Catholic religion were subject to the death penalty, and many paid with their lives for their religious beliefs (Deharbe, p. 485).

Remember that these people were victims of Protestant persecution!

By appealing to financial or nationalistic motives, and by getting into and dominating the political power, the leading Protestant reformers were able to force their doctrines on the common people. Before gaining political power, the reformers all insisted upon the inalienable right of every Christian to search the Bible for himself, and to judge its teachings independently (Deharbe, p. 620). But once they were in power, woe be to the Catholic, the Anabaptist, or to any other who continued to insist upon this “inalienable right”!

As we have seen, it was the same picture under John Calvin’s “theocracy” in Geneva, Switzerland. Fisher states: “Not only profaneness and drunkenness, but innocent amusements and the teaching of divergent theological doctrines, were severely punished” (Fisher, George P., History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897. p. 325). We have already catalogued some of the many hundreds of instances where people were subjected to imprisonment, to public whipping, or to the death penalty because of some innocent amusement, or because they disagreed with John Calvin’s religious ideas.

But one instance stands out, which was defended by almost all the reformers of that day. It is one that we should especially remember, as an outstanding example of the reasoning of the early reformers, on the subject of religious toleration. It is the martyrdom of Michael Servetus.

The Burning of Michael Servetus

Servetus was a man about the same age as Calvin. Although he was born in Spain, he practiced medicine in France and is said to have anticipated Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. When still a young man, he published a book on the “errors of the Trinity.” In it, he disagreed with the common doctrine of God as a Trinity held by Catholics and Protestants alike. His position was similar to that held by those of the Unitarian belief today (Plummer, p. 170).

For teaching and writing about this doctrine, and also for holding a divergent view on the exact nature of Christ’s divinity, he was hated and persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Fleeing from the Catholic Inquisition at Vienna, France, he foolishly passed through Protestant Geneva. Someone recognized him and reported his presence to Calvin, who had him arrested and imprisoned (Plummer, p. 172).

As Servetus’ trial began before the Calvin-dominated Council, John Calvin wrote to a fellow reformer: “I hope that the judgment will be sentence of death...” (Plummer, p. 172).

Plummer continues:

At the trial Calvin acted as prosecutor and had no trouble in causing Servetus to incriminate himself hopelessly.… It is one of the many painful features in the case that it was distinctly to Calvin’s interest to get Servetus condemned, for such a triumph would greatly strengthen his position in Geneva. The case dragged on, and, as in the case of Bolsec, there was much correspondence with other authorities, both ecclesiastical and civil, in Switzerland. In the end it seemed to be clear that Calvin’s enemies had failed, and that Protestant feeling was in favor of removing such a pest as Servetus from the earth. On October 26, he was sentenced, to be burned alive the next day. Calvin asked for a milder form of death, but his request was refused. Through the clumsiness of the executioner, the agonies of Servetus were prolonged. His last cry was “Jesus, Thou Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me,” and it has been noticed that “eternal” is the epithet, not of the Son, but of God. The book for which Servetus was condemned was tied to his neck to be burned with him. It fell off, and was rescued from the flames. It may still be seen, a ghastly memorial of Reformation “ethics,” in the National Library at Paris.

We have always to remember that in putting Servetus to death, neither Calvin nor the Council nor the Swiss Governments whom they consulted, had any jurisdiction whatever. Their action was lynch law of the most revolting kind (Plummer, pp. 172–173).

We notice that even the Protestant historian is forced to acknowledge that one of the two greatest of the Protestant reformers resorted to an illegal “lynch law” procedure in order to destroy a religious antagonist!

The blunt truth is that this was nothing but “respectablemurder!

Jesus Christ said to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

The Apostle Paul was inspired to write: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’” (Romans 12:19–20).

In very clearly indicating that the right of civil judging or condemning to death of others in spiritual matters was not given to fallible human beings, Jesus freed the woman taken in adultery (John 8:11). He commanded: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Did John Calvin know these scriptures? Did he understand these principles, which nearly all civilized men have since come to acknowledge?

How Could Calvin Make Such a Choice?

The Protestant historians answer: “He easily takes the lead among the systematic expounders of the Reformed system of Christian doctrine.… Calvin’s theology is based upon a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (Schaff, Philip P., History of the Christian Church, vol. VIII. Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing company, 1950., pp. 260–261).

Here was a man who really knew the Bible. He wrote learned commentaries upon it and was thoroughly familiar with the teaching and example of Christ and the inspired New Testament Church.

Yet he was willing not only to condone, but to directly cause a man to be burned to death for disagreeing with his religious doctrines. In the absolute sense of everything that Jesus Christ taught, stood for, and lived for, John Calvin stands condemned as a murderer! But did he mean to be? Was he sincere? Or was it a rash act carried out in the heat of passion?

To the last question we may answer in the negative. For after plenty of time for mature consideration, John Calvin sought to defend this vile act and justify himself. And, remarkable as it may seem, so did many of the other leading reformers!

In the year after the burning of Servetus, Calvin dogmatically asserts: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church” (Schaff, p. 791).

It is a sobering truth that if John Calvin’s kind of “perpetual rule” against heretics were carried out today, very few of us would long remain alive!

Fortunately for his name, Luther was not living to pronounce a judgment in favor of Servetus’ burning. Knowing his past record, however, it is almost certain that he would have agreed with Calvin in putting Servetus to death.

However, Luther’s closest associate and advisor, Philip Melanchthon, was quick to express his agreement with Calvin. He later wrote Bullinger, another of the Swiss reformers: “I judge also that the Genevese senate did perfectly right, to put an end to this obstinate man, who could never cease blaspheming. And I wonder at those who disapprove of this severity” (Schaff, p. 707).

Thus, we see that the German reformers agreed with the Swiss in burning to death a man simply because he disagreed with their theological opinions!

We have asked if Calvin could be sincere in all of this. It is a difficult question, the complete answer to which only God knows. The human mind sometimes plays tricks on us. We often willfully overlook those things we don’t wish to acknowledge. As we shall soon see, it is evident that both Luther and Calvin did this in the development of their doctrines and in some of their actions as well.

However, judging from the facts at our disposal, and from contemporary testimony, it appears that Calvin meant to be sincere. Within his own sphere of thinking, Calvin was somehow sincere in feeling that it was right to burn Servetus for religious disagreement, even though he and the other reformers claimed the freedom of the individual conscience in their struggle with Rome.

The Reason for Protestant Violence and Persecutions

The answer to the killing of Servetus, then, does not lie in rashness later repented of, nor does it lie in a complete lack of sincerity on Calvin’s part. But what is the answer?

The same answer is given, in essence, by many Protestant historians. It is one that every honest student of the Bible and history must acknowledge.

The answer is that, even long after their separation from Rome and their “conversion” to Protestantism, the early reformers and their followers were still literally saturated with the doctrines, the concepts, and the practices of their “motherchurch at Rome. “The reformers inherited the doctrine of persecution from their mother church, and practiced it as far as they had the power. They fought intolerance with intolerance. They differed favorably from their opponents in the degree and extent, but not in the principle, of intolerance” (Schaff, Vol. VIII, p. 700).

As we shall see, this frank admission by Schaff reveals why so many of the Protestant doctrines and actions seem so totally inconsistent with their avowed intention of basing everything on “the Bible only.”

We have seen that Martin Luther played politics, condoned bigamy, counseled a lie, and encouraged the slaughter of peasants and execution of Anabaptists (which included drowning many of them).

It has been shown that the English revolt began with the lust of Henry VIII, and that he and Queen Elizabeth and their Protestant theologians all had a part in slaughtering hundreds of Catholic, Anabaptist and, later, Puritan dissenters.

Now we have reviewed the part that John Calvin and the Swiss reformers played in the persecution of Anabaptists and in the cruel punishment and execution of their own Genevese citizens for failing to conform in all respects to Calvin’s doctrine. Finally, we have described the agreement of nearly all the early Protestant leaders in the “lynch law” of execution by burning at the stake, which Calvin inflicted upon Michael Servetus for purely religious reasons.

We have proved that these were “cold-blooded” killings. They were not the result of the passion of the moment. Nor were those responsible afflicted by temporary insanity.

These crimes in the name of religion were calculated beforehand, and they were still defended by theological argument long after they had occurred!

We have seen that the real explanation lies in the fact that the early reformers “inherited” much of the doctrine and spirit of their “mother” church. They were as men spiritually drunk—unable to see clearly the real meaning and outcome of their teachings and actions!

Editor’s Note: It has been a privilege for us to publish this series by Roderick C. Meredith, Editor-in-Chief of Tomorrow’s World until his death in May 2017. He considered the work we’ve serialized here one of the most important he had ever researched and written, and the truth it diligently explains about the beginning of the Protestant movement and about its leaders is just as riveting and explosive today as it was when he first published his research more than 60 years ago.

There is one final chapter remaining, but it is far too large for us to include as a magazine installment here in the pages of Tomorrow’s World magazine. However, we are delighted to announce that we plan to make the entire collection of these articles—including the last chapter—available as a single collection, free for all who request it! The work is titled The Plain Truth About the Protestant Reformation,to be published October 1, 2018!

Concerning the last chapter, Dr. Meredith wrote that “we propose to reveal the actual purpose behind the Protestant movement—and the startling reason behind the religious confusion and spiritual drunkenness bequeathed to our generation. The facts contained in this series have a direct bearing on your life and your future! Ask God for an open mind. Don’t miss reading and studying the final installment of this vital series!”

If you would like to pre-order your own free copy of The Plain Truth About the Protestant Reformation—including Dr. Meredith’s final chapter—you can contact us at any of our Regional Offices listed on page 4 of this magazine. The book will be published on October 1, and those who pre-order will be among the first to receive a free copy!

Until then, we hope you will read another article in this issue: Is Traditional Christianity Biblical? It is written by Richard F. Ames, Dr. Meredith’s fellow evangelist and long-time colleague, and can help you in your goal to seek true Christianity—the Christianity of Jesus Christ and the Bible.


To read the previous installments of this series, please follow these links:

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