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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 32. The Reformation in Basel. Oecolampadius.


I. The sources are chiefly in the Bibliotheca Antistitii and the University Library of Basel, and in the City Library of Zürich; letters of Oecolampadius to Zwingli, in Bibliander’s Epistola Joh. Oecolampadii et Huldr. Zwinglii (Basel, 1536, fol.); in Zwingli’s Opera, vols. VII. and VIII.; and in Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, passim. Several letters of Erasmus, and his Consilium Senatui Basiliensi in negotio Lutherano anno 1525 exhibitum. Antiquitates Gernlerianae, Tom. I. and II. An important collection of letters and documents prepared by direction of Antistes Lukas Gernler of Basel (1625–1676), who took part in the Helvetic Consensus Formula. The Athenae Rauricae sive Catalogus Professorum Academics Basiliensis, by Herzog, Basel, 1778. The Basler Chroniken, publ. by the Hist. Soc. of Basel, ed. with comments by W. Vischer (son), Leipz. 1872.

II. Pet. Ochs: Geschichte der Stadt und Landschaft Basel. Berlin and Leipzig, 1786–1822. 8 vols. The Reformation is treated in vols. V. and VI., but without sympathy. Jak. Burckhardt: Kurze Geschichte der Reformation in Basel. Basel, 1819. R. R. Hagenbach: Kirchliche Denkwürdigkeiten zur Geschichte Basels seit der Reformation. Basel, 1827 (pp. 268). The first part also under the special title: Kritische Geschichte und Schicksale der ersten Basler Confession. By the same: Die Theologische Schule Basels und ihrer Lehrer von Stiftung der Hochschule 1460 bis zu De Wette’s Tod 1849 (pp. 75). Jarke (R. Cath.): Studien und Skizzen zur Geschichte der Reformation. Schaffhausen (Hurter), 1846 (pp. 576). Fried. Fischer: Der Bildersturm in der Schweiz und in Basel insbesondere. In the "Basler Jahrbuch "for 1850. W. Vischer: Actenstücke zur Geschichte der Reformation in Basel. In the "Basler Beiträge zur vaterländischen Geschichte," for 1854. By the same: Geschichte der Universität Basel von der Gründung 1460 bis zur Reformation 1529. Basel, 1860. Boos: Geschichte der Stadt Basel. Basel, 1877 sqq. The first volume goes to 1501; the second has not yet appeared.

III. Biographical. S. Hess: Lebensgeschichte Joh. Oekolampads. Zürich, 1798 (chiefly from Zürich sources, contained in the Simler collection). J. J. Herzog (editor of the well-known "Encyclopaedia" d. 1882): Das Leben Joh. Oekolampads und die Reformation der Kirche zu Basel. Basel, 1843. 2 vols. Comp. his article in Herzog2, Vol. X. 708–724. K. R. Hagenbach: Johann Oekolampad und Oswald Myconius, die Reformatoren Basels. Leben und ausgewählte Schriften. Elberfeld, 1859. His Reformationsgesch., 5th ed., by Nippold, Leipzig, 1887, p. 386 sqq. On Oecolampadius’ connection with the Eucharistic Controversy and part in the Marburg Colloquy, see Schaff, vol. VI. 620, 637, and 642.


The example of Berne was followed by Basel, the wealthiest and most literary city in Switzerland, an episcopal see since the middle of the eighth century, the scene of the reformatory Council of 1430–1448, the seat of a University since 1460, the centre of the Swiss book trade, favorably situated for commerce on the banks of the Rhine and on the borders of Germany and France. The soil was prepared for the Reformation by scholars like Wyttenbach and Erasmus, and by evangelical preachers like Capito and Hedio. Had Erasmus been as zealous for religion as he was for letters, he would have taken the lead, but he withdrew more and more from the Reformation, although he continued to reside in Basel till 1529 and returned there to die (1536).169169    On Erasmus and his relation to the Reformation, see above, p. 24 sq., and especially vol. VI. 399-434.

The chief share in the work fell to the lot of Oecolampadius (1482–1531). He is the second in rank and importance among the Reformers in German Switzerland. His relation to Zwingli is similar to that sustained by Melanchthon to Luther, and by Beza to Calvin,—a relation in part subordinate, in part supplemental. He was inferior to Zwingli in originality, force, and popular talent, but surpassed him in scholastic erudition and had a more gentle disposition. He was, like Melanchthon, a man of thought rather than of action, but circumstances forced him out of his quiet study to the public arena.

Johann Oecolampadius170170    A Greek name given him for Hausschein or Husschyn (Houselamp); but in:he university register of Heidelberg he is entered under the family name of Hussgen or Heussgen, i.e. Little House. His mother was descended of the old Basel family of Pfister. Hence he says in the Preface to his Commentary on Isaiah: "Basilea mihi ab avo patria." See Hagenbach, Oekol., p. 3 sq. was born at Weinsberg in the present kingdom of Würtemberg in 1482, studied law in Bologna, philology, scholastic philosophy, and theology in Heidelberg and Tübingen with unusual success. He was a precocious genius, like Melanchthon. In his twelfth year he composed (according to Capito) Latin poems. In 1501 he became Baccalaureus, and soon afterwards Master of Arts. He devoted himself chiefly to the study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. Erasmus gave him the testimony of being the best Hebraist (after Reuchlin). At Tübingen he formed a friendship with Melanchthon, his junior by fifteen years, and continued on good terms with him notwithstanding their difference of opinion on the Eucharist. He delivered at Weinsberg a series of sermons on the Seven Words of Christ on the Cross, which were published by Zasius in 1512, and gained for him the reputation of an eminent preacher of the gospel.

In 1515 he received a call, at Capito’s suggestion, from Christoph von Utenheim, bishop of Basel (since 1502), to the pulpit of the cathedral in that city. In the year following he acquired the degree of licentiate, and later that of doctor of divinity. Christoph von Utenheim belonged to the better class of prelates, who desired a reformation within the Church, but drew back after the Diet of Worms, and died at Delsberg in 1522. His motto was: "The cross of Christ is my hope; I seek mercy, not works."171171    "Spes mea crux Christi; gratiam, non opera quaero." The motto of Gerson and many mystics.

Oecolampadius entered into intimate relations with Erasmus, who at that time took up his permanent abode in Basel. He rendered him important service in his Annotations to the New Testament, and in the second edition of the Greek Testament (concerning the quotations from the Septuagint and Hebrew). The friendship afterwards cooled down in consequence of their different attitude to the question of reform.

In 1518 Oecolampadius showed his moral severity and zeal for a reform of the pulpit by an attack on the prevailing custom of entertaining the people in the Easter season with all kinds of jokes. "What has," he asks, "a preacher of repentance to do with fun and laughter? Is it necessary for us to yield to the impulse of nature ? If we can crush our sins by laughter, what is the use of repenting in sackcloth and ashes? What is the use of tears and cries of sorrow? … No one knows that Jesus laughed, but every one knows that he wept. The Apostles sowed the seed weeping. Many as are the symbolic acts of the prophets, no one of them lowers himself to become an actor. Laughter and song were repugnant to them. They lived righteously before the Lord, rejoicing and yet trembling, and saw as clear as the sun at noonday that all is vanity under the sun. They saw the net being drawn everywhere and the near approach of the judge of the world."172172    De Risu Paschali, printed by Frobenius at Basel, 1518

After a short residence at Weinsberg and Augsburg, Oecolampadius surprised his friends by entering a convent in 1520, but left it in 1522 and acted a short time as chaplain for Franz von Sickingen at Ebernburg, near Creuznach, where he introduced the use of the German language in the mass.

By the reading of Luther’s writings, he became more and more fixed in evangelical convictions. He cautiously attacked transubstantiation, Mariolatry, and the abuses of the confessional, and thereby attracted the favorable attention of Luther, who wrote to Spalatin (June 10, 1521): "I am surprised at his spirit, not because he fell upon the same theme as I, but because he has shown himself so liberal, prudent, and Christian. God grant him growth." In June, 1523, Luther expressed to Oecolampadius much satisfaction at his lectures on Isaiah, notwithstanding the displeasure of Erasmus, who would probably, like Moses, die in the land of Moab. "He has done his part," he says, "by exposing the bad; to show the good and to lead into the land of promise, is beyond his power." Luther and Oecolampadius met personally at Marburg in 1529, but as antagonists on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, in which the latter stood on the side of Zwingli.

In Nov. 17, 1522, Oecolampadius settled permanently in Basel and labored there as preacher of the Church of St. Martin and professor of theology in the University till his death. Now began his work as reformer of the church of Basel, which followed the model of Zürich. He sought the friendship of Zwingli in a letter full of admiration, dated Dec. 10, 1522.173173    Opera Zwinglii, VII. 251, and Zwingli’s reply, p. 261. Hagenbach gives a German translation of the letters, p. 26 sq. and 38. They continued to co-operate in fraternal harmony to the close of their lives.

Oecolampadius preached on Sundays and week days, explaining whole books of the Bible after the example of Zwingli, and attracted crowds of people. With the consent of the Council, he gradually abolished crying abuses, distributed the Lord’s Supper under both kinds, and published in 1526 a German liturgy, which retained in the first editions several distinctively Catholic features such as priestly absolution and the use of lights on the altar.

In 1525 he began to take an active part in the unfortunate Eucharistic controversy by defending the figurative interpretation of the words of institution: "This is (the figure of) my body," chiefly from the writings of the fathers, with which he was very familiar.174174    De genuina verborum Domini, "hoc est corpus meum" juxta vetustissimos auctores expositione. (Strassburg), September, 1525. Comp. vol. VI. 612 sqq. He agreed in substance with Zwingli, but differed from him by placing the metaphor in the predicate rather than the verb, which simply denotes a connection of the subject with the predicate whether real or figurative, and which was not even used by our Lord in Aramaic. He found the key for the interpretation in John 6:63, and held fast to the truth that Christ himself is and remains the true bread of the soul to be partaken of by faith. At the conference in Marburg (1529) he was, next to Zwingli, the chief debater on the Reformed side. By this course he alienated his old friends, Brentius, Pirkheimer, Billican, and Luther. Even Melanchthon, in a letter to him (1529), regretted that the "horribilis dissensio de Coena Domini" interfered with the enjoyment of their friendship, though it did not shake his good will towards him ("benevolentiam erga te meam"). He concluded to be hereafter, a spectator rather than an actor in this tragedy."

Oecolampadius had also much trouble with the Anabaptists, and took the same conservative and intolerant stand against them as Luther at Wittenberg, and Zwingli at Zürich. He made several fruitless attempts in public disputations to convince them of their error.175175    See above, p. 69 sqq., and the extracts of his disputations with the Anabaptists in Hagenbach, p. 108 sqq.; Herzog, I. 299 sqq., and II. 75 sqq.

The civil government of Basel occupied for a while middle ground, but the disputation of Baden, at which Oecolampadius was the champion of the Reformed doctrines,176176    See above, p. 100. brought on the crisis. He now took stronger ground against Rome and attacked what he regarded as the idolatry of the mass. The triumph of the Reformation in Berne in 1528 gave the final impetus.

On the 9th of February, 1529, an unbloody revolution broke out. Aroused by the intrigues of the Roman party, the Protestant citizens to the number of two thousand came together, broke to pieces the images still left, and compelled the reactionary Council to introduce everywhere the form of religious service practised in Zürich.

Erasmus, who had advised moderation and quiet waiting for a general Council, was disgusted with these violent, measures, which he describes in a letter to Pirkheimer of Nürnberg, May 9, 1529. "The smiths and workmen," he says, "removed the pictures from the churches, and heaped such insults on the images of the saints and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle, seeing how many there always used to occur whenever the saints were even slightly offended. Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime; whatever would bum was thrown into the fire, and the rest pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for either love or money. Before long the mass was totally abolished, so that it was forbidden either to celebrate it in one’s own house or to attend it in the neighboring villages."177177    The modern revival of archaeological and artistic taste in Switzerland has brought about a restoration of the old frescoes and sculptures of the beautiful Minster and Cloister of Basel, and of the chamber where the great Council was held.

The great scholar who had done so much preparatory work for the Reformation, stopped half-way and refused to identify himself with either party. He reluctantly left Basel (April 13, 1529) with the best wishes for her prosperity, and resided six years at Freiburg in Baden, a sickly, sensitive, and discontented old man. He was enrolled among the professors of the University, but did not lecture. He returned to Basel in August, 1535, and died in his seventieth year, July 12, 1536, without priest or sacrament, but invoking the mercy of Christ, repeating again and again, "O Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!" He was buried in the Minster of Basel.

Glareanus and Beatus Rhenanus, humanists, and friends of Zwingli and Erasmus, likewise withdrew from Basel at this critical moment. Nearly all the professors of the University emigrated. They feared that science and learning would suffer from theological quarrels and a rupture with the hierarchy.

The abolition of the mass and the breaking of images, the destruction of the papal authority and monastic institutions, would have been a great calamity had they not been followed by the constructive work of the evangelical faith which was the moving power, and which alone could build up a new Church on the ruins of the old. The Word of God was preached from the fountain. Christ and the Gospel were put in the place of the Church and tradition. German service with congregational singing and communion was substituted for the Latin mass. The theological faculty was renewed by the appointment of Simon Grynäus, Sebastian Münster, Oswald Myconius, and other able and pious scholars to professorships.

Oecolampadius became the chief preacher of the Minster and Antistes, or superintendent, of the clergy of Basel.

On the 1st of April, 1529, an order of liturgical service and church discipline was published by the Council, which gave a solid foundation to the Reformed Church of the city of Basel and the surrounding villages.178178    In Ochs, l.c. V. 686 sq.; Bullinger, II. 82 sqq. This document breathes the spirit of enthusiasm for the revival of apostolic Christianity, and aims at a reformation of faith and morals. It contains the chief articles which were afterwards formulated in the Confession of Basel (1534), and rules for a corresponding discipline. It retains a number of Catholic customs such as daily morning and evening worship, weekly communion in one of the city churches, the observance of the great festivals, including those of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and the Saints.

To give force to these institutions, the ban was introduced in 1530, and confided to a council of three pious, honest, and brave laymen for each of the four parishes of the city; two to be selected by the Council, and one by the congregation, who, in connection with the clergy, were to watch over the morals, and to discipline the offenders, if necessary, by excommunication.—In accordance with the theocratic idea of the relation of Church and State, dangerous heresies which denied any of the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed, and blasphemy of God and the sacrament, were made punishable with civil penalties such as confiscation of property, banishment, and even death. Those, it is said, "shall be punished according to the measure of their guilt in body, life, and property, who despise, spurn, or contemn the eternal, pure, elect queen, the blessed Virgin Mary, or other beloved saints of God who now live with Christ in eternal blessedness, so as to say that the mother of God is only a woman like other women, that she had more children than Christ, the Son of God, that she was not a virgin before or after his birth," etc. Such severe measures have long since passed away. The mixing of civil and ecclesiastical punishments caused a good deal of trouble. Oecolampadius opposed the supremacy of the State over the Church. He presided over the first synods.

After the victory of the Reformation, Oecolampadius continued unto the end of his life to be indefatigable in preaching, teaching, and editing valuable commentaries (chiefly on the Prophets). He took a lively interest in French Protestant refugees, and brought the Waldenses, who sent a deputation to him, into closer affinity with the Reformed churches.179179    See Herzog, II. 239 sqq.; Hagenbach, 150 sqq. He was a modest and humble man, of a delicate constitution and ascetic habits, and looked like a church father. He lived with his mother; but after her death, in 1528, he married, at the age of forty-five, Wilibrandis Rosenblatt, the widow of Cellarius (Keller), who afterwards married in succession two other Reformers (Capito and Bucer), and survived four husbands. This tempted Erasmus to make the frivolous joke (in a letter of March 21, 1528), that his friend had lately married a good-looking girl to crucify his flesh, and that the Lutheran Reformation was a comedy rather than a tragedy, since the tumult always ended in a wedding. He afterwards apologized to him, and disclaimed any motive of unkindness. Oecolam-padius had three children, whom he named Eusebius, Alitheia, and Irene (Godliness, Truth, Peace), to indicate what were the pillars of his theology and his household. His last days were made sad by the news of Zwingli’s death, and the conclusion of a peace unfavorable to the Reformed churches. The call from Zürich to become Zwingli’s successor he declined. A few weeks later, on the 24th of November, 1531, he passed away in peace and full of faith, after having partaken of the holy communion with his family, and admonished his colleagues to continue faithful to the cause of the Reformation. He was buried behind the Minster.180180    Malignant enemies spread the rumor that he committed suicide or was fetched by the devil. See Hagenbach, p. 181. A similar rumor was started about Luther’s death, and revived in our days by Majunke in Luther’s Lebensende, 4th ed. Mainz, 1890, but refuted by Kolde and Kawerau.

His works have never been collected, and have only historical interest. They consist of commentaries, sermons, exegetical and polemical tracts, letters, and translations from Chrysostom, Theodoret, and Cyril of Alexandria.181181    Hess (pp. 413-430) gives a chronological list of his works, which is supplemented by Herzog (II. 255 sqq.). Hagenbach’s biography, p. 191 sqq., gives extracts from his sermons and catechetical writings.

Basel became one of the strongholds of the Reformed Church of Switzerland, together with Zürich, Geneva, and Berne. The Church passed through the changes of German Protestantism, and the revival of the nineteenth century. She educates evangelical ministers, contributes liberally from her great wealth to institutions of Christian benevolence and the spread of the Gospel, and is (since 1816) the seat of the largest Protestant missionary institute on the Continent, which at the annual festivals forms a centre for the friends of missions in Switzerland, Würtemberg, and Baden. The neighboring Chrischona is a training school of German ministers for emigrants to America.



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