"From the time of the formation of the Protestant League, Luther retired gradually from the forefront of the reformation movement. His last years were by no means happy. The Protestant princes confiscated the wealthiest bishoprics and monasteries for their own use, whilst the preachers often suffered the direst want. Irreligion and immorality and vices of all sorts flourished wherever the new gospel gained the ascendancy. "We experience it daily," he says in a sermon, "that the people are seven times worse today than ever before under the Papacy; they are more avaricious, more unchaste, more envious, more intemperate, more dishonest..." He was especially dissatisfied with the state of things in his own Wittenberg. "Let us get out of this Sodom," he wrote to his wife in 1545. "I prefer to wander about homeless, and to beg my bread from door to door than to poison my poor last days by the spectacle of all these disorders."
"Against the Pope, Luther vented his rage to the last. In 1545 he wrote the coarsest of his pamphlets, Against the Papacy Founded by the Devil, in order to hinder his followers from attending the Council of Trent."(Fr John Laux, Church History, pp. 431-432)
It doesn't look like reformation was the goal after all, but revolution.
The basic gist is that Luther's Reformation career was ultimately a failure. The proof? His later years were wasted away in utter despondency. His alleged "reformation" of the church didn't produce any real fruit, and his own words and the sinful state of Protestantism at that time proves it. For Rome's defenders, Protestantism isn't a movement of the church. Protestantism is the result of heresy, and heresy never leads anyone to true holiness, nor the church collectively to "reformation." Statements like those above are typically brought forth from late in Luther's career, indicting him of regret for the mess he made. Rome's defender seals the quoted argumentation by declaring, "It doesn't look like reformation was the goal after all, but revolution."
I've gone through a number of these quotes already (see my series, Did Luther Regret the Reformation?). The argumentation for Reformation "failure" is typically the product of pre-1930 Roman Catholic scholarship. Let's take a fresh look at this paragraph, examine its nuts and bolts, and see what's going on.
The source provided is "Fr John Laux, Church History, pp. 431-432." According to the Roman Catholic publisher Tan Books, "Father John Laux, M.A., was a high school religion teacher who wrote his own Catholic curricular books after spending a large number of years teaching and researching. His works were first published in 1928...Though Father Laux originally wrote his books for high school students, they remain very informative for those in college and even adulthood as well."
Fr. Laux's book went through a few different editions. The earliest edition is from 1930, entitled, Church History, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day The title was revised to Church History, a History of the Catholic Church to 1940, For Upper High School and College Courses and Adult Reading. The quote cited above was taken from the 1980's TAN reprint. The paragraph being cited falls particularly under the heading, "Luther's Last Years."
The author does not cite precise sources for his historical information or his Luther quotes, but in his "Hints for Study" at the end of the same chapter he states,
O'Hare, Facts About Luther (N.Y., 1916) gives a very readable account of Luther, the man and his teachings. See also article on Luther in the Cath. Encyclopedia. Janssen, History of the German People, Vol. II, should be consulted for the historical background of the Protestant Reformation. H Belloc, How the Reformation Happened, should be in every library. It contains an admirable exposition of the remote and proximate causes of the reformation. MacCaffrey, The Church from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, 2 vols., is the best general history of the Church in modern times available in English.Patrick O,Hare (1916), The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), Johannes Jannssen (1896), Hilarie Belloc (1928), James MacCaffrey (1915)... all these sources are Roman Catholic, and all had editions of the books recommenced prior to 1930, thus all date from the period of destructive Roman Catholic criticism of Luther.
Luther's last years were by no means happy?
There are a number of historical assertions made by Fr. Laux (none of them documented). He states Luther's "last years were by no means happy." It's true that Luther had aging and health issues, as well as apocalyptic driven concerns about the state of the world. His later years saw many "petty disputes" and all the pressures of church and state did lead to pessimism fueled by "apocalyptic hopes and fears" (source).
Despite this, these elements should not be used to paint a picture of total despair. Roland Bainton refers to the last years of Luther as the period between 1530 and 1546 (sixteen years). Bainton gives an overview of some of the controversies Luther was involved with in this period and also gives an overview of his impact after his death, beginning by saying, "Luther's later years are, however, by no means to be written off as the sputterings of a dying flame." Mark U. Edwards did an entire book dedicated to this period. Looking at the wealth of data from this period, Edwards states, "From these [Table Talk] remarks and from his voluminous correspondence and the observations of friends and guests, there emerges a picture of Luther as a devoted, often tender-hearted father, a loving, teasing, and sometimes irritable husband, a man of strong friendships, and a compassionate pastor and counselor."
Confiscated Bishoprics and Impoverished Protestant Clergy?
The Protestant princes confiscated the wealthiest bishoprics and monasteries for their own use, whilst the preachers often suffered the direst want.This is a one-sided Roman Catholic criticism that appears to assume the situation before the Reformation was ideal. Edwards explains,
On the eve of the Reformation the medieval church was failing especially on the lower level. Rome's extensive ecclesiastical bureaucracy, which had been the unity of Europe during the Middle Ages, was disintegrating in many areas... This well-entrenched benefice system of the church, the muscle of patronage, which had permitted important ecclesiastical offices to be sold the highest bidders and residency requirements either to go unenforced or to be fulfilled by poorly qualified substitutes, revealed its deleterious effect especially on the local level. Bishops were traditionally appointed from the nobility and not always known to have either a shepherd's heart or a theologians mind.Edwards goes on to describe quite a number of moral and fiscal complaints against the church prior to the Reformation. Wasn't the Reformation fueled by the indulgence controversy? In order to pay to keep the papal machine operating, Rome had devised quite a number of methods to extract money from the masses to help them through purgatory unto eternal salvation.
It's true that the early Protestant preachers lacked funds. Luther complained that when people thought giving money to the church would help secure a right standing with God, funds flowed more freely. He came to realize that often the masses were not interested in supporting a local church for the right reasons. On the other hand, the early Reformation churches were connected to the state, so they did go on to survive and thrive,of course, not to the fiscal excesses Rome did, but they did grow.
The Immorality of the Reformation?
Irreligion and immorality and vices of all sorts flourished wherever the new gospel gained the ascendancy.
Once again this is a one-sided Roman Catholic criticism that appears to assume the situation before the Reformation was ideal. It was not! This criticism is also reminiscent of the conclusions of an old small anthology of Luther quotes peppered with vilifying commentary from Roman Catholic polemicist Henry O’Connor (see my review here). O'Connor argued, "Every reasonable person will agree with me, that Luther can only have been a Reformer chosen by Almighty God, if his teaching caused an increase of virtue and a decrease of vice." Is O'Connor's argument biblically true? Were those chosen by God in the role of prophets, teachers, or preachers guaranteed the results of "an increase of virtue and a decrease of vice"? Think of the Old Testament prophets. They typically came with messages that the people did not heed, nor want to hear- and this provoked God's judgment. If one were to evaluate their calling and ministry based on O'Connor's paradigm, we could throw out more than a few prophets. Consider some of the early churches in the New Testament as well. Corinth was given a rather pure dose of apostolic teaching, was it not? When one reads 1 and 2 Corinthians, the moral state of the church described by Paul is less than stellar. Latter on in an an early post-biblical document, 1 Clement, we find the Corinthian church still in disarray. Or, take the argument and apply it to Rome's infallible magisterium and pick a century or a recent decade.
The Luther Quotes Used by Fr. Laux
"We experience it daily," he says in a sermon, "that the people are seven times worse today than ever before under the Papacy; they are more avaricious, more unchaste, more envious, more intemperate, more dishonest..."The interesting thing about this first Luther quote given by Fr. Laux is the English wording. It appears his English translation may be unique to him. Maybe he did his own translation from the original languages? Did he simply reword someone else's English translation? I don't know
There are a few of these "seven times worse" Luther quotes, as well as a few of these Luther-bemoaning-vices quotes. In Laux's version, Luther complains of excessive greed, sexual misconduct, envy, lack of control, and dishonesty. Laux also says it was taken from a sermon. No reference is given. I suspect the sermon Laux is referring to is from 1533, First Sunday in Advent, Matthew 21:1-9. I've gone into detail on this context here. In context, Luther doesn't blame his teaching for the current state of affairs, but rather the people and ultimately Satan. One version of the context shows Luther also states those who accept the Gospel will have fruit follow and "will daily become more humble, obedient, gentle, chaste and pious. For this doctrine is of a character to make godly, chaste, obedient, pious people." Those who do not receive it are those who become seven times worse.
“Away from such a Sodom! I would sooner wander about and beg my bread than vex my last days with the irregular proceedings at Wittenberg.”This quote is easier to determine. The English version used by Laux was not his own. It can be found as early as 1888. I've gone in to great detail of this quote here. Luther's comment is from a letter he wrote to his wife late in his life. It appears that which finally provoked the comparison of Wittenberg to "Sodom" was women's fashion! Luther states, "...they have started to bare women and maidens in front and back, and there is no one who punishes or objects." According to LW 50, Luther did return to Wittenberg and "(upon the Elector’s orders) ordinances directed against the poor public behavior" were put in place.
Luther Wrote a Pamphlet to Hinder Protestants from Attending the Council of Trent?
"Against the Pope, Luther vented his rage to the last. In 1545 he wrote the coarsest of his pamphlets, Against the Papacy Founded by the Devil, in order to hinder his followers from attending the Council of Trent.Actually, Luther wrote at the prodding of secular authorities against two papal letters sent to the Emperor. The Emperor sought to have a church council held and had suspended the attacks against Protestantism. The Papacy was upset by both of these things and wrote to the Emperor expressing their disapproval. The Papacy argued it was only they who were able to call a council of the church. In one version of the papal letter, the "heretics" were not to be invited! A good overview of the historical background can be found here.
Fr. Laux sought to paint a picture of Luther dying in depression and misery with a failed attempt at church reform. This is the typical methodology of earlier Roman Catholic Reformation criticism. There is though another way to look at the facts of Luther being pessimistic at the end of his life and that the world by the Reformation did not turn into a Shangri-La of purity and virtue. Luther saw the world becoming worse because of the preaching of the Gospel. In his writings there is a reoccurring theme that he viewed his time period on the cusp of the return of Christ. In my explorations into Luther's writings, I've never come across him stating the opposite- that because of the preaching of the Gospel, the world would become more holy and pious. For Luther, mankind has and will always oppose God's truth en masse and rebel against it, for that's what Satan and sin have always done in battle against God's word. Luther consistently held that the Gospel would find great opposition, and would be attacked from all sides. The Gospel would be used by the world as a licence to sin and all sorts of evil because of Satan. The Gospel would indeed make those of the world worse. But on the flip-side, the Gospel would also transform those whom God intended to redeem, and they are those who comprise the church, however few in number they may be.