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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 88. Church Visitation in Saxony.


Melanchthon: Articuli de quibus egerunt per visitatores in regione Saxoniae. Wittenb., 1527. Reprinted in the Corpus Reform., vol. XXVI. (1858), 9–28. The same in German with preface by Luther: Unterricht der Visitatoren an die Pfarrherrn im Kurfürstenthum zu Sachsen. Wittenb., 1628. In Walch, X. 1902, and in Corp. Reform., XXVI. 29–40. Also Luther’s Letters to Elector John, from the years 1525 to 1527, in De Wette, vol. III. 38 sqq.

Burkhardt: Gesch. der sächsischen Kirchen- und Schulvisitationen von 1524–45. Leipzig, 1879. Köstlin: M. L., II. 23–49.


In order to abolish ecclesiastical abuses, to introduce reforms in doctrine, worship, and discipline, and to establish Christian schools throughout the electorate of Saxony, Luther proposed a general visitation of all the churches. This was properly the work of bishops. But, as there were none in Saxony who favored the Reformation, he repeatedly urged the Elector John, soon after he succeeded his brother Frederick, to institute an episcopal visitation of the churches in his territory, and to divide it into three or four districts, each to be visited by two noblemen or magistrates.724724    See his letters of Oct. 31, 1525, Nov. 30, 1525, Nov. 22, 1526, Feb. 5, 1527, Oct. 12, 1527. He presented to him, in his strong way, the deplorable condition of the church: the fear of God, and discipline are gone; the common people have lost all respect for the preachers, pay no more offerings, and let them starve; since the Pope’s tyranny is abolished, everybody does as he pleases. We shall soon have no churches, no schools, no pupils, unless the magistrates restore order, and take care at least of the youth, whatever may become of the old people.725725    "Wollen die Alten ja nicht, mögen sie immer zum Teufel hinfahren. Aber wo die Jugend versäumet und unerzogen bleibt, da ist die Schuld der Obrigkeit" (De Wette, III. 136). In the same letter he says that the people live "wie die Säue: da ist keine Furcht Gottes, noch Zucht mehr, weit des Papstes Bann ist abgegangen, und thut jedermann was er nur will."

It was a dangerous step, and the entering wedge of a new caesaropapacy,—the rule of statecraft over priestcraft. But it seemed to be the only available help under the circumstances, and certainly served a very useful purpose. Luther had full confidence in the God-fearing Elector, that he would not abuse the authority thus temporarily conferred on him.

The Elector, after considerable delay, resolved upon the visitation in July, 1527, on the quasi-legal basis of the Diet of Speier, which a year before had temporarily suspended, but by no means abolished, the Edict of Worms. He directed Melanchthon to prepare a "formula of doctrine and rites" for the instruction of the visitors. Melanchthon elaborated in Latin, and more fully in German, a summary of the evangelical doctrines of faith and duty, which may be regarded as the first basis of the Augsburg Confession. He treats, in seventeen articles, of faith, the cross (affliction), prayer, the fruits of the Spirit, the magistrate, the fear of God, righteousness, judgment, the sacraments (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Confession), the sign of the eucharist, penitence, marriage, prohibited cases, human traditions, Christian liberty, free-will, and the law. The order is not very logical, and differs somewhat in the German edition. The work was finished in December, 1527.

Luther wrote a popular preface and notes to the German edition, and explained the object. He shows the importance of church visitation, from the example of the apostles and the primary aim of the episcopal office; for a bishop, as the term indicates, is an overseer of the churches, and an archbishop is an overseer of the bishops. But the bishops have become worldly lords, and neglect their spiritual duties. Now, as the pure gospel has returned, or first begun, we need a true episcopacy; and, as nobody has a proper authority or divine command, we asked the Elector, as our divinely appointed ruler (Rom. 13), to exercise his authority for the protection and promotion of the gospel. Although he is not called to teach, he may restore peace and order, as the Emperor Constantine did when he called the Council of Nicaea for the settlement of the Arian controversy.726726    "Denn obwol S. K. F. Gnaden zu lehren und geistlich regieren nicht befohlen ist, so sind sie doch schuldig, als weltliche Obrigkeit, darob zu halten, dass nicht Zwietracht, Rotten und Aufruhr sich unter den Unterthanen erheben, wie auch der Kaiser Constantinus die Bischöfe gen Nicaea fordert," etc. Corp. Ref., XXVI. fol. 46.

Melanchthon wisely abstained from polemics, and advised the preachers to attack sin and vice, but to let the pope and the bishops alone. Luther was not pleased with this moderation, and added the margin: "But they shall violently condemn popery with its devotees, since it is condemned by God; for popery is the reign of Antichrist, and, by instigation of the Devil, it terribly persecutes the Christian church and God’s Word."727727    See the note in full, l.c., fol. 85.

The Elector appointed Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, Spalatin, and Myconius, besides some prominent laymen, among the visitors. They carried on their work in 1528 and 1529. They found the churches in a most deplorable condition, which was inherited from the times of the papacy, and aggravated by the abuse of the liberty of the Reformation. Pastors and people had broken loose from all restraint, churches and schools were in ruins, the ministers without income, ignorant, indifferent, and demoralized. Some kept taverns, were themselves drunkards, and led a scandalous life. The people, of course, were no better. "The peasants," wrote Luther to Spalatin, "learn nothing, know nothing, and abuse all their liberty. They have ceased to pray, to confess, to commune, as if they were bare of all religion. As they despised popery, so they now despise us. It is horrible to behold the administration of the popish bishops."728728    Letter of February, 1529, in De Wette, 1II. 424. Comp. also the prefaces to his Catechisms. It is characteristic of the Ultramontane history of Janssen, that, while he dwells largely on the lamentations of Luther over the wretched condition of the churches in Saxony, and derives them from his doctrine of justification by faith alone (vol. III. 67-69), he completely ignores Luther’s Catechisms which were to cure these evils.

The strong arm of the law was necessary. Order was measurably restored. The property of churches and convents was devoted to the endowment of parishes and schools, and stipends for theological students (1531). The appointment of ministers passed into the hands of the Elector. The visitations were repeated from time to time under the care of regular superintendents and consistories which formed the highest ecclesiastical Councils, under the sovereign as the supreme bishop.

In this way, the territorial state-church government was established and order restored in Saxony, Hesse, Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Mecklenburg, East Friesland, Silesia, and other Protestant sovereignties of Germany.



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