In 1523, Luther published the treatise Jesus-Christ was born Jewish, which accused the papacy of having distanced the Jews from the truth faith. The Church had confined them to [the practice of] usury; it had calumnied them, accused them of “using Christian blood to remove their bad odor,” and “I do not know what [other] nonsense.” “If we would like to help them,” the Reformer wrote, “it is the law of Christian love that we must apply to them, not the law of the Popes.”
What became of such beautiful dispositions, after the “Constantinian” turn of the religion called reformed and after the appeal to a holy war against the peasants? In 1543, two pamphlets were published one after the other by the master of Wittenberg: Against the Jews and their Lies and Vom Schem Hamphoras.
Jean Delumeau judged it useful to yield some extracts from writings that Hitler reprint in millions of copies:
“The Christ, the Reformer [Martin Luther] writes, did not have ‘enemies more venomous, more determined, more bitter than the Jews.’ He ‘who lets himself steal, contaminate and curse for them has only to (...) climb up into their asses to adore this sanctuary (and) then praise himself for having been merciful (...): Christ will compensate him on the day of the Last Judgment with the eternal fire of Hell.’ When Judas was hanged, ‘the Jews sent their servants with platters of money and pitchers of gold to collect his piss along with the other treasures, and then they ate and drank that shit, and had thus acquired eyes so penetrating that they perceived in the Scriptures glosses that were not found in them by either Matthew or Isaiah themselves’ . . . ‘When God and the angels hear a Jew fart, there are such bursts of laughter and gamboling!’
“‘Observe all that the Jews have suffered for fifteen hundred years and there will be much worse for them in Hell (...). They must tell us why (...) they are a people who are rejected by God, are without a king, without prophets, without a temple; they can’t give any other reason than their sins. . . .’ ‘Never has the anger of God manifested itself with more brilliance than on these people.’
“‘To make this blasphemous doctrine disappear, it will be necessary to set fire to all their synagogues and, if anything remains after the fire, to cover it with sand and mud so that one can no longer see the smallest tile or rock from their temples. . . . One must prohibit Jews from being among us and on our soil, and from praising God, praying, teaching or singing, upon pain of death.’”
In that same year, 1523, when Luther had extolled a certain tolerance for the Jews, he had also propagated prudent reservations about the notion of the heresy – reservations that, no doubt, had intimated to him his own destiny:
“‘If you want to extirpate heresy,’ Luther wrote in 1523, ‘above all you must know how to remove it from the heart and lead men to turn away from it through a profound movement of the will. The use of force will not exhaust heresy, but will reinforce it. . . . Because if, using force, one burns all the Jews and the heretics, one will not convince nor convert a single one through such means.’”
“But after the violence of Th. Müntzer and the war of the peasants, and while the princes and towns adhered in great numbers to the Reformation, Luther then changed his tone, by virtue of another logic that was contrary to the first one: Protestantism is the return to Scripture, the removal of the ‘novelties’ – the Roman ‘superstitions’ as well as the ‘sacramentalism’ of [Huldrych] Zwingli. Inversely, ‘the wickedness of the world’ manifests itself as both ‘idolatry and heresy.’ The State could not tolerate these satanic aberrations. The Reformer thus judged as necessary the intervention of civil authority so as to bring an end to ‘abominations’ such as Mass. Under threats, the Chapter of the Collegiate Church of Wittenberg was forced to cease celebrating Mass on Christmas 1524. Two years later, Luther wrote to John, the new Elector of Saxony: ‘There must only be a single kind of preaching in each place.’ In 1527, he demanded that the Elector organize ‘ecclesiastic visits’ to his territory. Thenceforth, in the Lutheran countries, the State would control the organization of the Church, would break up religious deviances, and would oversee the preaching of the Gospels. The ‘German mystical spiritualists,’ disappointed with Luther, had good sport reproaching him, as well as the other reformers of the era, for having substituted ‘a new papacy,’ a ‘paper papacy’ (the Bible), for the Roman papacy. For Schwenckfeld, Luther ‘led us out from Egypt and through the desert, across the Red Sea, but he left us there, wandering aimlessly, and yet strove to persuade us that we were already in the Promised Land.’ A little later, Weigel would reproach the ‘Pope of Wittenberg’ for having organized a new slavery and persecuting visionaries.”
Luther did not disdain from adopting from the popes that he vilified the ordinary hypocrisy that, to serve powerful interests, one had to suffocate with the left hand the morality that one caressed with the right. When Philippe of Hess asked Luther for authorization to marry a second spouse in a just wedding, the spiritual master, after equivocating, accepted on the condition that the affair remained secret. The recognized Landgrave sent a cask of Rhineland wine as the price for the indulgence. At least Pope Julius II paid Michelangelo with the money that he had extorted from the Catholics.
Calvin knew nothing of such weaknesses. He detested pleasure with a visceral hatred and his faith never tolerated the least lapse. Unlike Sebastian Castellion, who protested again the barbarity of the treatment of Michael Servetus and declared in his Treatise of the Heretics, “We see that there is hardly any sect – and today there are so many of them – that does not see the others as heretical, with the result that, if in one city or region you are esteemed to be truly loyal, in the next one you are esteemed to be heretical,” Calvin – just a few month after he assassinated Servetus – published a Declaration to Maintain the True Faith, in which he declared:
“Our merciful [one], who takes such great pleasure in letting the heresies go unpunished (...) would like it – out of fear that the Church of God is not defamed by too much rigor – if we were to make a fashion of all the errors. . . . Therefore God does not want us to spare either the towns or the people, indeed, to the point that we must raze the walls and exterminate the memory of the inhabitants and frustrate everyone as a sign of a much greater hatred, for fear that the infection might spread further.”
Theodore Beza raised the stakes even higher:
“Tyranny is a lesser evil than having license such that each one acts according to his fancy, and it is better to have a tyrant, even a cruel one than not having any prince at all, or having one under whom each person is permitted to do what he wants. . . . Those who do not want the magistrate to mix himself up in religious affairs, and principally to punish heretics, scorn what the Word of God expresses . . . and bring ruin and extreme destruction to the Church.
“The Prince ‘must erect and maintain good edicts against those who by simple stubbornness want to resist the establishment of the true religion, as we see, in our time, is being done with respect to the papacy by the Anabaptists and other heretics in England, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, a good part of Germany and Switzerland.’”
While the shadow of Lutheranism and Calvinism threatened to spread over the world an obscurantism that, compared to Rome, had the false advantages “reason” and “freedom,” Hans Denck – along with Sebastian Castellion – was one of the rare, lucid and sincere men for whom human feelings had the upper hand over beliefs and ideologies that were so quick to suffocate those feelings under their sublime abstractions.
Denck was a member of no party other than his own; he had no ambition to govern others. To him, emancipating himself from all constraints appeared a sufficient task. Lutheran freedom did not accommodate itself to such license – indeed, it was hardly reconcilable with any other Church, it is true.
Born in 1500 in Habach, in Upper Bavaria, Denck entered the University of Ingolstadt at the age of 17. While pursuing his studies at Basle, he worked as a proofreader at a print shop and perfected his Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He read Erasmus, was passionate about medieval mysticism, and adhered to the ideas of Thomas Müntzer. On the insistence of the Lutheran [Johannes] Œcolampadius, he was named Rector of the Saint Sebaldus School at Nuremberg when he was 23. He got married and frequented the milieus that, without anachronism, can be called libertarian.
Like other large preindustrial towns, Nuremberg oscillated in the backwash of the Reformation between Lutheran tyranny, disappointment with imperfect freedoms and the old Catholic current in which the restless and disenchanted ebbed and flowed. Indifference to the [whole] religious thing, which, under the imperative ritual observances, had dominated the absolute reign of Catholicism, changed into cold and willful skepticism.
A number of strong spirits, including the clergy, no doubt shared the atheism of Thomas Scoto or Herman van Rijswijck, but were not bold enough to proclaim it, that is, beyond the people who possessed the means of [protecting] their insolence – such as Frederick II or the condottiere [Federico da] Montefeltro, whose casket bore the inscription that was destined to have a beautiful future: “Neither God nor master.” The contestation of the existence of God now resulted from the multiplication of dogmatic truths and parties of the “true faith.”
The affair of the “three Godless painters” offered to the municipality the occasion to crack down upon the party of the skeptics. The mocking banter that was opposed to religion rather easily found complacent ears among the people. It sharpened the language of the intellectuals and the artists. The three implicated painters (the brothers Behaim [plus Georg Pencz]) enjoyed the friendship of Hans Denck, whose independence of spirit had more than once irritated the Lutheran notables, [Andreas] Osiander in particular.
The council summoned him to appear and demanded of him a confession of faith that would wash away all suspicion. Denck complied and expounded upon his doubts with a provocative sincerity in two successive texts.
Examining the beliefs in which he had been educated, he apparently adopted the position that it was a matter of a purely fictive faith, “because it had not triumphed over my spiritual poverty, my inclination to sin, my weakness and my sick situation (...). I will not venture to claim that I now possess the faith that translates itself into life, although I see clearly that my lack of belief can no longer continue before God.” And he added: “All believers are, at one moment or another, unbelievers. To become believers, they must let their passions and the terrestrial man die in such a fashion that it is no longer they who live, as they do when they lack of belief, but God who lives in them through the mediation of Christ.”
God’s presence acting in man freed him from all constraints and all sin: such was the doctrine of those Calvin called the “Spiritual Libertines.”
On 25 January 1525, Denck was condemned to banishment. Forced to leave his family and stripped of his university position, he took refuge in June 1525 among the Anabaptists of Saint-Gall, who were themselves victims of the hatred of the Lutherans; he would soon shock them with his conceptions of individual freedom. Wandering led him to Augsburg, where he stayed until October 1526, drafting Wer die Wahre warlich lieb hat, a balance sheet of paradoxes, contradictions and absurdities in the Bible, which brought him to this conclusion: the quarrels about interpretation had no shared meaning; only the presence of God in each person, when the Spirit deigned to reveal it, mattered and served as a guide to existence through the spontaneity of the impulses that it engendered.
Hostility from the Lutherans forced Denck into exile again. The same fate awaited him in Strasbourg, where [Martin] Bucer and [Wolfgang] Capito denounced him for subversive activities.
He was already worn out by his solitary combat when he arrived in Basle in September 1527. Œcolampadius was disposed to accord him asylum on the condition that he adjured. Denck wrote a kind of confession, mixing a few concessions (dictated by weariness) with opinions close to those of [Caspar] Schwenckfeld and his notion of the inward man. Œcolampadius became part of the tradition of the inquisitorial lie by publishing it under the title (deceptive at the very least) The Abjuration of Hans Denck.
When Denck died from plague in Basle at the age of 27, he was about to publish Von der Wahren Liebe. In it he insisted on the following theme: he who loves God and has God in his heart need not bother with institutions, which only blind him.
In 1528, two of his texts, which appeared as the preface and the appendix to the Theologia Deutsch, made it clear “that the creature is necessary to God and that the man deified by illumination, as well as Christ, enjoys union with Him,” which was an idea that the philosopher Jakob Böhme – another victim of the New [Protestant] Churches – developed in the Seventeenth Century.
The Nineteenth Century saw in Denck one of the pioneers of free thought. No doubt he influenced the lucid and tormented conscience of Kierkegaard. Nevertheless, it seems that the combined hatred of the Protestants and the Catholics was caused by the impregnation of the free spirit, which was discernible in his thesis: “Where there is faith, there is no sin; where there is no sin, there resides divine virtue.”
A philosopher and historian, Sebastian Franck belonged to the very small number of humanists who allied intelligence with an unfailing passion for tolerance and respect for life.
Born at Donauwörth, in Swabia, in 1499, he enrolled at the University of Heidelberg, where he associated with Martin Bucer, the future master of Strasbourg. Despite his contacts with Luther after 1519, he began his ecclesiastic career in the Catholic Church, which he left around 1525. An evangelic preacher in the region of Nuremburg, he married Ottilie Behaim, sister of the [godless] painters Bartholomew and Sebald, who were disciples of [Albrecht] Dürer and free spirits to whom all forms of religion were repugnant.
Nevertheless, Franck took a position against the justification through faith defended by Hans Denck, who was also a friend of the Behaims, and Franck adopted a position that was in conformity with Christian principles. But in 1529 he resigned from his ecclesiastic position, moved to Strasbourg, associated with Michael Servetus and Caspar Schwenckfeld, and gradually adopted the attitude of Denck, for whom convictions only had meaning due to the coherence between ideas and life experiences that were stripped of artifice and hypocrisy. Such was the spirit that animated his masterpiece, Chronica, Zeytbuch und Geschictbibel (), published in 1531. Erasmus took offense at a quotation and denounced him to the Council of Strasbourg; with the support of Bucer, he got Franck expelled. Exposed to the hatred of Erasmus and the Lutherans, and condemned by [Philippe] Melanchthon, Franck ended up as a printer in Ulm, the council of which rejected several demands for his expulsion, including one made by Philippe of Hess, Luther’s patron. Franck took the time to publish several personal works and a treatise by Cornelius Agrippa before he was banished in 1530. Taking refuge in Basle, where he entered into a second marriage with the heiress from a family of great publishers, Franck did not cease publishing – his collection of proverbs enjoyed a great popularity – and fighting for tolerance and the suppression of the death penalty. (“If the choice was given to me, I would much rather be in the condition of the many whom the world has condemned as heretical than among those whom it has canonized.”) He died in 1542, scarcely 43 years old.
Hostile to all forms of ecclesiastic organization, he rejected the authority of the priests as well as that of the Scriptures. The Gospels, he said, had replaced pontifical authority with a papieren Papst (a paper Pope). That authority was the cause of all evils; he denounced it in a society dominated by the strength and power of the Prince. No war was just because all wars derived from the principle of appropriation. On the other hand, his pessimism hardly accorded any credit to revolt. Closer to the Tao than to La Boétie, he contented himself with identifying God with a feeling of internal plenitude, in which he dreamed that brutality and the misery of an immutable world were annihilated.
In the insurmountable and vain confrontation in which truths fought each other bitterly, tolerance represented the only human virtue. (“Thus take from each sect what is good and leave the rest to the Devil.”) This was enough to bring down upon him the animosity of the majority of the humanists, ideologues and sectarians of his time, from the Catholics to the Anabaptists. On the other hand, Sebastian Castellion did everything he could to distribute his works, to which Valentin Weigel, Jakob Böhme, Dirck Coornhert and the historian Gottfried Arnold paid homage.
The rivalry for power that quickly opposed Luther to Andreas Rudolf Bodenstein, also known as Karlstadt, determined a rivalry of opinions that was even more subject to uncertainty than the dogma of the Protestants, which was uneasily cemented together through various controversies. The Constantinian Catholic Church had hardly proceeded otherwise, but its absolutism dealt with doubts at the point of a sword. The similar operation attempted by Luther, Calvin and Henry VIII of England did not take part in the same historical conditions. Underneath the predominance of the agrarian mode of production, the mole of mercantile expansion was at work. The progress of the values that were open to modernity did not guarantee the stability of the divine order and the immutable power of its ministers.
The defeat of the Roman Church, the power of which was only imperfectly restored by the counter-offensive of the Council of Trento, thus prohibited the despotic pretensions of the popes of the Reformation to go beyond local tyrannies that resisted contestation poorly.
Unlike Denck, Müntzer, Storch, Hoffmann and Schwenckfeld, Karlstadt did not have a doctrine properly speaking. He contented himself with mocking Luther, with dogging that conceited windbag whose shadow extended over Europe.
Born around 1480, Karlstadt studied philosophy and theology in Erfurt (1499), then in Cologne (1500). He became a professor of theology, exegete of the Bible and doctor of law at the University of Sienna. Interested in Luther’s demands, he soon clashed with the man’s intransigence, for which the dogmatic interpretation of sacred texts had the upper hand over the generosity of the heart’s impulses. Was it not precisely the most sensitive part, nay, the most sensual part of man that had most ardently led the combat against the Roman clergy?
Karlstadt’s meeting with Thomas Müntzer, whose revolutionary millenarianism both fascinated and frightened him, hastened this break with Luther, who chased Karlstadt from Wittenberg. Taking refuge in Orlamünde, where he came out against the necessity of baptism and communion, he was expelled on the insistence of his old friend, who pursued him in hatred everywhere he had the support of the princes. Karlstadt only found peace in the company of Zwingli, who founded a rival [Protestant] Church in Zurich and did not follow Luther. Karlstadt defended positions that were close to the ideas of Denck, estimating that the sincerity of faith dispensed with [the need for] all spiritual authority. He was teaching at the University of Zurich when he died from the plague in 1541.
Freedom was the cause of the break between Luther and Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1561), whose sect experienced equal persecution under the Catholics and the Lutherans. In the line of Denck, Schwenckfeld rejected the sacraments and religious rites in favor of faith, in which humanity founded its feeling of being in step with the designs of God. He put the accent on the inward man, whose mystical experiences partook of illumination. Certain Pietists later claimed his teachings.
A physician and humanist, born around 1509 in Villanueva, Spain, Michael Servetus [Miguel Serveto Conesa] owed his dramatic end less to the audacity of his thought – which was more common and less reckless than it might appear – than to a settling of accounts to which the morbid authority of John Calvin lowered itself. His medical studies at the University of Toulouse and the University of Paris induced in him, as was the case with Rabelais, a certain skepticism in theological matters. The man who discovered the mechanisms of the circulation of blood in the lungs experienced some difficulty in finding clarity in the Trinity that was a part of the Constantinian arsenal and had presided over the instauration of Catholicism as the religion of the State.
Anti-trinitarianism, popularized by Socin and his friends, responded less to a theological preoccupation than to the questioning of the Church through the derision of a principle that had never succeeded in getting itself out of trouble and whose mystical character had in fact hidden the political necessity of keeping steady – between God (the Father) and humankind (the Son) – the balancing act of the Spirit that governed the temporal in the name of a heavenly mandate.
Published in 1531, Servetus’ De trinitatis erroribus, supporting Arius and the old Gnosticism, denied the existence of the Spirit – and thus the Church – as a distinct being. According to Servetus, everything took place between the Logos, which was eternal, and the Son, who was not.
In 1553, the anonymous publication of Servetus’ Christianismi restitutio drew down upon him threats from the Inquisition. Arrested in Lyon and imprisoned, he had the good fortune to escape and the misfortune of going to Geneva, that is, nearby Calvin, with whom he had exchanged letters more than once. The Restitutio was an ironic take on Calvin’s Institutio and it alarmed Calvin in that Servetus adopted positions in it that were close to those of Anabaptism. But his freedom of morals and language especially worked upon Calvin like an insult to his majesty as a prophet. An unjust trial, to which no one gave credit (because the complaints offered no common measure with the accusations that had been made against Jacques Gruet), succeeded where the Inquisition had failed and successfully completed Rome’s work. Servetus was burned alive on 27 October 1553.
By the force of things, the Reformation was part of the desacralization inherent in the mercantile expansion that, in the Twentieth Century, reduced the religions of the industrialized nations to supermarket junk. With its multiple sects, Protestantism marked the transition from clerical theocracy – supported by a huge apparatus of popes and monarchs who ruled by virtue of divine right – to the ideologies that were founded on a restrictive ethics and that oscillated between totalitarianisms of the nationalist or collectivist type and the demand for freedom that was in fact authorized by the becoming of the economy.
The importance of morality in the “reformed” religion prolonged the will of the reformers who, starting in the Eleventh Century and in the whirlwind of urban freedoms, had undertaken to make the Church moral. Even if ethical despotism was most often succeeded by the tyranny of dogmatic prescriptions, the absence of a sacred orthodoxy – a rectilinear perspective in which God was the point of flight and arrival – no longer authorized one to speak of heresies from the moment that Protestantism occupied the predominant position in a given country or region.
If Calvin treated Servetus like a heretic, this was because he estimated himself to be equal to the Pope, elected by God, fixing in Geneva the New Jerusalem that did not stop fluctuating geographically. On the other hand, his role as puritan dictator took the upper hand during the polemic between him and Sebastian Castellion. The controversy was no longer theological, but ideological. It put into question the inhumanity of the repressive discourse attributed to God.
Official history makes a lot of Erasmus, the humanist and anti-Semite, intellectual and misogynist, defender of freedom and partisan of the death penalty for heretics, whom he occasionally denounced. He knew nothing of Guillaume Postel, who discerned in the emancipation of women the foundation of a humane society, nor nothing of Castellion, who fought for tolerance.
Born in 1515 in Saint-Martin-du-Frêne, in the Bugey, where the influence of the Waldensinians continued to exist, Sebastian Castellion studied in Lyon and associated with the humanists who were seduced by the new ideas. The spectacle of the persecutions and his reading of Calvin’s The Christian Institution won him over to the Reformation. He left for Strasbourg, then Geneva, where Calvin offered him a professor’s position in 1542. His Sacred Dialogues reflected his first hesitancies concerning Calvin’s growing authoritarianism. In it he celebrated tolerance and remarked, “There is no one who more obstinately resists the truth than the great ones of this world.” He soon left Geneva, having attracted the animosity of the man whom he had the naivety to admonish for his sectarianism.
A reader of Greek at the University of Basle, he provided the first manifesto of free conscience in the preface to his translation of the Bible into Latin. Indignant over the execution of Servetus in 1553, which inspired him to write De haereticis an sint persequendi? (Basle, 1654), he developed a doctrine that was opposed to predestination, which Calvin used to justify his own crimes.
Published in 1562, Castellion’s Advice to Desolate France called for universal tolerance and the refusal to “force consciences.” It opposed the fanaticisms and horrors of the wars undertaken for the greater glory of God. Rarely has a book been welcomed by such unanimous reprobation. Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics and humanists all judged the project to abolish the death penalty for the crime of heresy to be criminal. His nephew and brother-in-law, guilty of having introduced the book into Geneva, had to take flight to save their lives. Until his death on 29 September 1563, Castellion did not cease distributing throughout all of Europe letters that extolled freedom of thought and that were sent to all those whom he estimated capable of sharing his ideas and spreading their effects.
 J. Delumeau, op. cit., p. 371. [Translator: The original German title of Luther’s pamphlet was Das Jesus Christus ein geborener Jude sei. It has been translated into English by Walter I. Brandt as “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962).]
 Translator: the original German title of “Against the Jews and Their Lies” was Von den Juden und ihren Lügen. It has been translated into English by Martin H. Bertram as “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). The full title of Vom Schem Hamphoras was Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (“Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Chris”). An English translation of it appears in Gerhard Falk, The Jew in Christian Theology: Martin Luther’s Anti-Jewish Vom Schem Hamphoras, Previously Unpublished in English, and Other Milestones in Church Doctrine Concerning Judaism (McFarland, 1992).
 J. Delumeau, op. cit., pp. 372 and 373.
 Ibid., p. 518.
 Ibid., p. 519.
 Castellion, Traité des hérétiques, p. 12.
 Calvin, Déclaration pour maintenir la vraie foi, in Opera omnia. [Translator: note that, in the original French, “frustrating” is (mis)spelled fruster, and that Vaneigem placed [sic] after it.]
 Th. De Beze, quoted by Delumaeu, op. cit., p. 520.
 Ibid., p. 521.
 Kolde, Zum Process des Johann Deuck, 1890.
 J. Danck, in Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie écclesiastique, Paris, 1930.
 Translator: German for “Those Who Love the Truth Truly.”
 Translator: German for “From True Love.”
 Translator: written in the Fourteenth Century by an anonymous author, and published by Martin Luther in 1516 and 1518, this mystical work was reprinted in 1528 by Ludwig Haetzer.
 J. Danck, in Dictionnaire d’histoire et de geographie ecclesiastique, Paris, 1930.
 S. Franck, Chroniques, annales et histoire de la Bible.
 Translator: Étienne de La Boétie, a contemporary of this period (1530-1563), was the author of Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un (“Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator”).
 S. Franck, Chroniques, annales et histoire de la Bible, op. cit.
 Translator: Latin for “On the Errors of the Trinity.”
 Translator: Latin for “The Restitution of Christianity.”
 R. Bainton, Hunted Heretics, 1953; G. H. Williams, Radical Reformation, 1962.
 Translator: Latin for “Should Heretics be Persecuted?”
 H. Buisson, Sébastian Castellion, Paris, 1892.
(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)