16th c. Calvinists vs. Lutherans: Who Suppressed Catholics

16th c. Calvinists vs. Lutherans: Who Suppressed Catholics November 8, 2018

Lutheran pastor and blogger Paul T. McCain has written a post decrying historic Calvinist iconoclasm and intolerance against Lutherans (citing in turn a reader’s translation of a German website about Lutheran history [link now defunct] ):

All those Lutherans out there pining about what’s so “wrong” about orthodox Lutheranism’s supposed stubborn and unloving attitude toward non-Lutheran churches need to keep in mind that finally there is no possibility of agreement between those who deny the chief parts of the Small Catechism and those who confess them. . . . Will we ignore the lessons that history teach us? Thanks to Michael Zamzow for these comments and his translation.

. . . The Calvinists at that time behaved toward Lutherans with the same arrogance with which the representatives of “modern”, so-called historical-critical Biblical interpretation behave toward those Christians who “still” consider the Bible to be God’s Word. Calvin had asserted for himself the claim that he actually understood Luther better than Luther understood himself. In the catechism of the Calvinists (Heidelberg Catechism) the question (78) is posed: “Do bread and wine become the real Body and the Blood of Christ?” The answer is a clear “no” with the additional comment: “so the holy bread in the supper does not become the Body of Christ itself, even if the sacrament is traditionally called the body of Christ.” And the Holy Mass is shortly thereafter termed “blasted idolatry.” With these statements the Calvinists targeted not just the Roman, but equally the Lutheran Mass.

For decades Calvinist minded preachers tried to gain influence in Berlin. In 1613 Elector John Sigismund fell away from the Lutheran confession and converted to the Reformed faith. There was an uproar in Berlin in 1615. The trigger was iconoclasm which took place in the Berlin cathedral. The year before the church had been confiscated from the Lutherans and turned over to the Calvinists even though there was only a handful of them in Berlin. They consisted for the most part of courtiers and the court preacher who were of Reformed background.

The Calvinists removed all the precious art from the ancient cathedral. They tore the crucifixes out and shattered the pictures whose rubble they threw in the river. They smashed the baptismal font and eliminated the altars. The left the house of God barren and empty except for a simple table in the chancel. After that the majority of Berliners, who were of a Lutheran persuasion, — the Berliners were still pious back then! — defended themselves with public uproar.

Over the years the Calvinists tried again and again to assert themselves and were supported in their efforts by the Elector. Thus the conflicts escalated –exacerbated by the Great Elector abolishing the subscription of pastors to the Formula of Concord. With the renewal of an edict from 1614 he forbade clergy to speak about the matter from the pulpit. He forbade his subjects to study theology and philosophy in Wittenberg.

Having written three papers about Calvinist iconoclasm in the past (one / two / three), I have no doubt that this is a substantially accurate account. But it is (as so often) only half of the story. The implication is that the Calvinists were the intolerant folks, while the Lutherans were simply carrying on ancient Christian tradition. I will be happy to provide readers with the service of balancing out this account a bit, and also highlighting some of the “warts” in the history of early Lutheran religious “toleration.”

The truth of the matter is, of course, far more complex. It is true that Lutherans (because of their significantly more “catholic” theology) were not prone to iconoclasm, but they were just as intolerant of non-Lutherans in many other ways. They expected to be allowed to conduct their services in peace, but did not extend this same consideration to Catholics or Anabaptists. Luther and Melanchthon sanctioned the death penalty for Anabaptists. Lutherans plundered or confiscated wholesale many thousands of Catholic churches and monasteries. In Sweden, for example, the proportion of land owned by the Catholic Church went from 21% to zero.

And, of course, they usually (if not virtually always) forbade and suppressed the Catholic Mass in their territories. They hypocritically objected to Calvinist denial of (hence, suppression of) the eucharistic real presence in their own services, while acting precisely the same towards Catholics for the crime of believing in a different version of the real presence. Examples are legion. At Augsburg, on 18 January 1537:

. . . the town council issued a decree forbidding the Catholic worship, and banishing, after eight days, all who would not accept the new faith. At the expiration of the period of grace the council sent soldiers to take possession of all churches and monasteries; altars and statues were removed, and priests, monks, and nuns were banished. Frankfurt-am-Main [in 1533] promulgated a similar ordinance; and the seizure of Catholic church properties, and the suppression of Catholic services, spread through the states controlled by the Protestants. (Will Durant, The Reformation, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, 424)

At a religious convention at Hamburg in April, 1535 the Lutheran towns of Lubeck, Bremen, Hamburg, Luneburg, Stralsund, Rostock and Wismar all voted to hang Anabaptists and flog Catholics and Zwinglians before banishing them. Luther’s home territory of Saxony had instituted banishment for Catholics in 1527. For further documentation and much more related information, see my paper, Protestant Inquisitions: “Reformation” Intolerance & Persecution. I made up a pun about these scandalous procedures: “The Catholic Masses were forced out, while the Catholic masses were forced in” (to Protestant services) . . .

Catholic historian Warren Carroll described the proceedings and the lack of tolerance in the Lutheran party, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530:

Early in July the bishops presented their complaints to the Diet of the plundering and destruction of churches, seizure of monasteries and hospitals, prohibition of Masses, and attacks on religious processions by the Protestants. When Charles called upon the Protestants to restore the property they had seized, they said that to do so would be against their consciences. Charles responded crushingly: ‘The Word of God, the Gospel, and every law civil and canonical, forbid a man to appropriate to himself the property of another.’ He said that as Emperor he had the duty of guarding the rights of all, especially those Catholics unwilling to accept Protestantism or go into exile, who should at least be allowed to remain in their homes and practice their ancestral faith, specifically the Mass; the Protestants replied that they would not tolerate the Mass . . . (The Cleaving of Christendom; from the series, A History of Christendom, Volume 4, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 2000, 103-104)

Nor was “tolerance” very prevalent in Augsburg itself, in matters religious, following the Diet. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, at which the so-called Augsburg Confession was delivered to Emperor V in the chapel of the episcopal palace, the emperor issued an edict according to which all innovations were to be abolished, and Catholics reinstated in their rights and property. The city council, however, set itself up in opposition, recalled (1531) the Protestant preachers who had been expatriated, suppressed Catholic services in all churches except the cathedral (1534), and in 1537 joined the League of Smalkald. At the beginning of this year a decree of the council was made, forbidding everywhere the celebration of Mass, preaching, and all ecclesiastical ceremonies, and giving to the Catholic clergy the alternative of enrolling themselves anew as citizens or leaving the city. An overwhelming majority of both secular and regular clergy chose banishment; the bishop withdrew with the cathedral chapter to Dillingen, whence he addressed to the pope and the emperor an appeal for the redress of his grievances. In the city of Augsburg the Catholic churches were seized by Lutheran and Zwinglian preachers; at the command of the council pictures were removed, and at the instigation of Bucer and others a disgraceful storm of popular iconoclasm followed, resulting in the destruction of many splendid monuments of art and antiquity. The greatest intolerance was exercised towards the Catholics who had remained in the city; their schools were dissolved; parents were compelled to send their children to Lutheran institutions; it was even forbidden to hear Mass outside the city under severe penalties. . . . Altogether during these years of religious warfare the Diocese of Augsburg lost to the Reformation about 250 parishes, 24 monasteries, and over 500 benefices.

For more, see my paper: The Real Diet of Augsburg (1530) vs. the Protestant Myth. Lutheran and Zwinglian absolute intolerance of Catholicism were displayed in 1540 in an even more striking way:

In January 1540 Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli’s successor Bugenhagen signed a statement declaring that religious peace could be established simply by the Emperor and the German bishops renouncing “their idolatry and error,” and that “even if the Pope were to concede to us our doctrines and ceremonies, we should still be obliged to treat him as a persecutor and an outcast, since in other kingdoms he would not renounce his errors.” It was the first explicit public announcement that the ultimate goal of the Protestants was the total destruction of the Catholic Church throughout the world. The German religious conference finally opened June 12 in the little town of Hagenau . . . (Warren Carroll, The Cleaving of Christendom, ibid., 2000, 176)

See also my paper: Regensburg (1541) & Poissy (1561): Protestant “Ecumenism”?

Lutherans have no grounds for acting as if they had a better record of tolerance than the Calvinists in those dreadful times. For what is worse?: destroying art and statuary in a church or stealing the entire church property and forbidding the Catholic Mass and banishing all Catholics in one’s territory? Calvinists certainly stole Catholic properties too, but it is foolish to insinuate (by deliberate omission and selective presentation) that Lutherans did not also do so.


(originally 3-21-07)

Photo credit: Arktos (2003). Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht (Netherlands) — evidence of former iconoclasm (probably from 1566) still in evidence [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license]


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