The Protestant Inquisition ("Reformation" Intolerance and Persecution)

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Disclaimer and statement of intent: Unfortunately, the religious "scandal score" needs to be evened up now and then, and the lesser-known "skeletons in the closet" need to be rescued from obscurity, surveyed, and exposed. I take no pleasure in "dredging up" these unsavory occurrences, but it is necessary for honest, fair historical appraisal. Nor does this at all mean that I have forsaken ecumenism, nor that I wish to bash Protestants, nor that I deny corresponding Catholic shortcomings. Historical fact is historical fact, and most Protestants (and Catholics) are unaware of the following historical events and beliefs (while, on the other hand, one always hears about the embarrassing and scandalous Catholic stuff - and not often very accurately or fairly at that). If (as I suspect might often be the case) you the reader were shocked or surprised by the very title of this paper, this would be a case in point, and justification enough for my purposes of education. With that end and stated outlook in mind, I humbly offer this copiously-researched treatise, yet not without some remaining trepidation.

C O N T E N T S (Hyper-linked)

Example No. 1: (3:156)

Number of book in Bibliography (#3) followed by the page number of the citation.

Example No. 2: (18)

Number of reference not found in Bibliography. Information on source and page number in Footnotes (number 18 in the Footnotes).

Example No. 3: (50:100/4)

Number of book in Bibliography followed by the page number, plus an additional source (usually primary), listed in the Footnotes. The Footnotes (#4) will give the specific section and page numbers from the second source. This format is usually used when directly quoting Protestants such as Luther or Calvin, or the Church Fathers.

Example No. 4: (51:v.4;458)

Number of book in Bibliography followed by the volume number (when the work is more than one volume), and the page number. An additional source may also be cited after a slash, as in Example No. 3.

Example No. 5: (170:vs)

Used only when a passage from a Bible translation other than KJV is cited. The "vs" stands for verse, (which can be found, of course, without a page number), in order to distinguish the reference number from a plain footnote citation (as in Example No. 2).

{ "(P)" after author's name indicates that the writer is a Protestant }


1. Views of Catholic and Protestant Historians

A. Johann von Dollinger

B. Preserved Smith (Secularist) C. Hartmann Grisar D. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (P)
2. The Double Standard of Protestant "Inquisition Polemics" (John Stoddard)
3. Martin Luther

A. Hartmann Grisar

B. Walther Kohler (P) C. Karl Wappler (P) D. Johann Neander (P) E. Adolf von Harnack (P) F. Dean William Inge (P)
4. John Calvin

A. Will Durant (Secularist)

B. Georgia Harkness (P)
5. Heinrich Bullinger: Most Tolerant of the Intolerant (Will Durant)

Bullinger was undoubtedly the most tolerant Protestant Founder:

But even Bullinger favored Calvin's execution of Servetus and the burning of witches, as we shall see later.

6. The 17th Century: Rutherford, Milton, Locke

The tradition of intolerance among Protestants did not soon die out. According to Protestant historian Owen Chadwick:

John Milton and John Locke, otherwise relatively "enlightened" Protestants, argued for tolerance, but excluded Catholics - the former in his Areopagitica (1644), and the latter in his first Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). (78:1384)

7. The Persecuted Become the Persecutors!

One of the many tragi-comic ironies of the Protestant Revolution is the fact that even persecuted Protestants failed to see the light:

In Massachusetts, for successive convictions, a Quaker would suffer the loss of one ear and then the other, the boring of the tongue with a hot iron, and sometimes eventually death. In Boston three Quaker men and one woman were hanged. Baptist Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts in 1635 and founded tolerant Rhode Island (92:208). To his credit, he remained tolerant, an exception to the rule, as was William Penn, who was persecuted by Protestants in England and founded the tolerant colony of Pennsylvania. Quakerism (Penn's faith) has an honorable record of tolerance since, like its predecessor Anabaptism, it is one of the most subjective and individualistic of Protestant sects, and eschews association with the "world" (governments, the military, etc.), whence lies the power necessary to persecute. Thus, Quakers were in the forefront of the abolition movement in America in the first half of the 19th century.

8. Catholic Maryland: The First Tolerant American Colony

A. Martin Marty (P)

B. John Tracy Ellis C. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (P) Stories of Protestant intolerance in America prior to 1789 could be multiplied indefinitely. Jefferson and Madison, in pushing for complete religious freedom, were reacting primarily to these inter-Protestant wars for dominance, not the squabbles of post-Reformation Europe. Here we are concerned with the immediate era of the Protestant Revolution -- roughly 1517 to 1600, so the above anecdotes will have to suffice as altogether typical examples.

9. Conclusion (Will Durant)


1. General Observations

Dissensions plagued Protestantism from the start, even though one would think that a religion stressing individualism and conscience would be free from such shortcomings and would promote mutual respect. The myth of Protestant magnanimity and peaceful coexistence (especially in its infancy) dies an unequivocal death as the facts are brought out.

2. Luther and Lutherans on Zwingli and His Followers

Luther rejoiced at the news of Zwingli's death on the battlefield in 1531, and said that he had met "an assassin's end" (46:86). And when Zwingli's associate Oecolampadius shortly followed him to the grave, Luther concluded that "the devil's blows have killed him." (46:86) The Lutherans proclaimed in full synod: The Zwinglians believed that the Eucharist was wholly symbolic (probably the majority position of Protestants today). Hence, whoever believes the same would have had the foregoing said about them by Dr. Luther, who firmly held to Consubstantiation, i.e., the actual Body and Blood of Christ is present in the communion along with the bread and wine.

3. Zwingli and His Cohorts on Luther

Zwingli, not to be outdone, returned the compliment:

Oecolampadius was also not without a retort: Zwingli's Church of Zurich wrote of Luther: At least the insults exhibit some vehemence, perhaps revealing the felt importance of their object. Today, on the other hand, many Protestants are utterly indifferent towards Luther, as if their faith was a product solely of their own invention and ingenuity; oftentimes, such self-professed generic "Christians" eschew even the title of "Protestant."

4. Luther on Bucer

5. Luther on Calvin and Oecolampadius
6. Calvin on Luther and Lutherans
7. Calvin on Zwingli
8. Calvin on Melanchthon

Calvin had some sort of friendship with Melanchthon (rare among differing Protestant leaders), but wrote harshly of him in letters to others:

9. Melanchthon on Zwingli

The timid Melanchthon was "manly" enough, however, to launch at least one salvo against Zwingli:

10. Bucer on Calvin

Despite theological affinities, Bucer had quite a low opinion of Calvin:

11. Luther on Protestant "Heretics"
Grisar adds:

1. General Observations

A. Hilaire Belloc

B. Will Durant C. Henri Daniel-Rops
2. Melanchthon on the Princes
3. A Precedent: The "Hussites" (Will Durant)

The Protestants had learned from the "Hussites", Bohemians who claimed to follow the heretic John Hus, whom Luther hailed as one of his forerunners. After Hus's execution in 1415, zealous ragtag armies:

4. Sweden: Gustavus Vasa (A.G. Dickens {P})
5. Scotland and England (Hilaire Belloc)
Likewise, the English "Reformation" was perpetrated primarily by means of plunder at the highest levels of government.

6. Erasmus' Disdain of Protestant Plunder

The greatest scholar and man of letters in Europe at this time, Erasmus, who looked with some favor upon the "Reformation" initially, but came to despise it as he saw its fruits, wrote on May 10, 1521, just a few weeks after the Diet of Worms, about those who "covet the wealth of the churchmen." He goes on to say:


1. General Observations

Janssen tells us the views of some leading "reformers" on this score:

2. Zwingli (Zurich)

Zwingli's Zurich was definitely not a haven of Christian freedom:

The Mass was abolished in Zurich in 1525 (121:117). How did Zwingli's ideas spread?:
3. Farel (Geneva)

William Farel, who preceded Calvin in Geneva, helped to abolish the Mass in August,1535, seize all the churches, and close its four monasteries and nunnery. (123:8)

4. Bucer (Augsburg / Ulm / Strassburg)
5. Various Protestant Cities and Areas

In 1529 the Council of Strassburg also ordered the breaking in pieces of all remaining altars, images and crosses, and several churches and convents were destroyed (111;v.5:143-144). Similar events transpired also in Frankfurt-am-Main (122:424). 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 (111;v.5:481). Luther's home territory of Saxony had instituted banishment for Catholics in 1527 (51;v.6:241-242).

6. Scotland: John Knox

In Scotland, John Knox and his ilk passed legislation in which:

Knox, like virtually all the Protestant Founders, was persuaded "that all which our adversaries do is diabolical." He rejoiced in that "perfect hatred which the Holy Ghost engenders in the hearts of God's elect against the condemners of His holy statutes" (28). In conflict with these damned opponents (i.e., Catholics) all means were justified - lies, treachery (29), flexible contradictions of policy. (122:610/30)

7. Luther

Luther was at the forefront of this remarkable inquisition against Catholic practice:

In his self-proclaimed righteous infallibility, Luther had decided by 1527 that: If I may be excused an irresistible pun at this point: "The Catholic Masses were forced out, while the Catholic masses were forced in" (to Protestant services)!

8. Melanchthon and Calvin

Melanchthon asked the state to compel the people to attend Protestant services (122:424). Later on, in Saxony (1623), even auricular confession and the Eucharist were made strictly obligatory by law, punishable by banishment. (51;v.6:264) Calvin, in Geneva, also pushed religious compulsion to an absurd degree.

9. Conclusion (Owen Chadwick {P})


1. Luther: Revolutionary Invective / The Peasants' Revolt

Will Durant asserts:

"Luther . . . emitted an angry roar that was almost a tocsin of revolution" (122:377). These roars were numerous:

Jesuit Luther scholar Hartmann Grisar, exercising all charity and any benefit of the doubt possible in interpreting such statements as these, writes: Let's hope Grisar is right, for Luther's sake. On the other hand, the rhetoric is very explicit and was circulated widely in all of Germany and elsewhere. At any rate, Luther should have known how people would react to such wild, reckless statements, and therefore largely bears responsibility for the Peasants' Revolt that broke out in Germany, not coincidentally, in 1525. This is frankly admitted by virtually all historians of the period, including fervent Protestants. Grisar agrees: Luther's friend, the minor "reformer" Wolfgang Capito, warned Luther on December 4, 1520 about his bone-chilling invective: Capito was in this instance wise, almost a prophet, but unsuccessful at persuasion. After the Peasants' Revolt broke out, Luther advised the princes to kill the peasants in any fashion necessary, en masse, and many historians estimate that 100,000 deaths resulted. This episode is widely acknowledged as a blot on Luther's career. Durant maintains:
2. Zwingli

Zwingli, too, had marked militaristic tendencies:

Zwingli was killed, along with 24 Zwinglian preachers, at the battle of Kappel, a few miles south of Zurich, on October 11, 1531, at which news Luther reacted with glee. This event, no doubt, helped to make Zwingli's successor, Bullinger, the most mild and moderate of all the founders of Protestantism.

3. Luther and Melanchthon Condone Slavery

Luther, hardened by the bitter pill of the Peasants' Revolt and his hand in it, sanctioned slavery, quoting the Old Testament:

Luther's successor Melanchthon followed him in upholding serfdom (122:457/47).


1. Luther

Bullinger saw the contradiction in Luther's appeal to tradition for punishment of heretics, and thought it was "truly laughable" that he should suddenly appeal to the fact, Logical consistency was never one of Luther's strong points.

Grisar states:

2. Melanchthon
At the end of 1530, Melanchthon drafted a memorandum in which he defended a regular system of coercion by the sword (i.e., death for Anabaptists). Luther signed it with the words, "It pleases me," and added: Protestant theologian Hunzinger concludes that: In 1530 Melanchthon recommended death for rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but changed his mind on this very doctrine later in his life! (122:424)

3. Zwingli

Zwingli's Zurich mercilessly persecuted the Anabaptists:
4. Bucer

In his Dialogues of 1535, Bucer called on governments to exterminate by fire and sword all professing a false religion, and even their wives, children and cattle. (111;v.5:367-368,290-291)

5. Knox

6. England
Six Carthusian monks, a Bridgettine monk, and the Bishop of Rochester, St. John Fisher, were hanged or beheaded (the Bishop), some being disemboweled and drawn and quartered, in May and June, 1535, all for denying that Henry VIII was the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England. (45:181-182)

Hugh Latimer, an English "reformer", had, remarks Will Durant, "tarnished his eloquent career by approving the burning of Anabaptists and obstinate Franciscans under Henry VIII." (122:597)

Queen Elizabeth, writes Philip Hughes:

It wasn't until 1679 that capital punishment for heresy was abolished in England, by an act of Parliament of Charles II. (45:274)

John Stoddard gives an account of Henry VIII, who founded Anglicanism:

Stoddard chronicles further persecution in England - of the Dissenters. Under Elizabeth, Presbyterians, for example, were "branded, . . . imprisoned, banished, mutilated and even put to death. A few Anabaptists and Unitarians were burned alive." (92:205)

Anglican Bishops were silent accomplices and witnesses of much torture. (92:205-206)

In Ireland, Bishops were executed by the English in 1578 (two), 1585 and 1611. In 1652 "an attempt was made to exterminate the entire Irish Catholic priesthood . . .
7. Calvin

A. General

During Calvin's reign in Geneva, between 1542 and 1546, "58 persons were put to death for heresy." (122:473) In defense of stoning false prophets, Calvin observes: He talks of the execution of Catholics, but, like Luther, did not readily attempt to act on his rhetoric: B. James Gruet

In January, 1547 in Calvin's Geneva, one James Gruet, a kind of free-thinker of dubious morals, was alleged to have posted a note which implied that Calvin should leave the city:

Durant gives further detail: C. Comparet Brothers

In May 1555, a drunken riot occurred, precipitated by a group which objected to the excess of foreign refugees in Geneva. Dissidents of Calvin were termed "Libertines."

D. Michael Servetus

The most infamous execution in Geneva was that of Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician who denied the Trinity, and was a sort of Gnostic pantheist. He had met Calvin, and the latter declared on February 13, 1547 in a letter to Farel:

Daniel-Rops says of this episode, that "Protestant historians refer to it with embarrassment." (46:187) This is the most that can be said about Calvin's "mercy" in this case. Henry Hallam, the Protestant historian, gave the following opinion: This stigma, however, is shared by many other "reformers", who commended this atrocious vendetta: In 1554 Calvin wrote the treatise Against the Errors of Servetus, in which he tried to justify his cruel action: This was Calvin's attitude towards the punishment and execution of heretics. In what way, I submit, is he morally any better than those who committed atrocities by means of the Inquisition?

8. Protestant Torture

As to the myth that torture was a tactic solely of Catholics, Janssen quotes a Protestant eyewitness to the contrary:

He gives also another typical instance of the treatment of Anabaptists:
9. Conclusion

Persecution, including death penalties for heresy, is not just a Catholic failing. It is clearly also a Protestant one, and a general "blind spot" of the Middle Ages, much like abortion is in our own supposedly "enlightened" age. Furthermore, it is an outright lie to assert that Protestantism in its initial appearance, advocated tolerance. The evidence thus far presented refutes this notion beyond any reasonable doubt.


1. Overview

The early Protestants were not the champions of free speech and freedom of the press, either, as we are led to believe, any more than they were for freedom of religion or assembly - not by a long shot. Suppression of the Mass and forced Church attendance by civil law are examples of this intolerance of freedom of thought and action, which we previously examined. Neither was Catholic and sectarian literature to be suffered:

2. Luther Suppresses Catholic Bibles (!)

Janssen writes of a hypocritical instance of Luther's censorship (1529):

3. Luther and Melanchthon Suppress Swiss and Anabaptist Books
4. Protestant Universities
5. Various Protestant Cities and Areas
Instances could, of course, be multiplied, but the above examples suffice to illustrate the general Protestant hostility to a free press.


{* = non-Catholic work}

4. Keating, Karl, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988.
45. Hughes, Philip, A Popular History of the Reformation, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1957.
46. Daniel-Rops, Henri, The Protestant Reformation, vol.2, tr. Audrey Butler, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961.
51. Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917.
78. Cross, F.L. & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1983. *
84. Rumble, Leslie & Charles M. Carty, That Catholic Church, St. Paul, MN: Radio Replies Press, 1954.
85. Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929.
92. Stoddard, John L., Rebuilding a Lost Faith, NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922.
107. Belloc, Hilaire, Characters of the Reformation, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1958.
109. O'Connor, Henry, Luther's Own Statements, NY: Benziger Bros., 3rd ed., 1884.
111. Janssen, Johannes, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891).
113. Spalding, Martin J. {Archbishop of Baltimore}, The History of the Protestant Reformation, 2 vols., Baltimore: John Murphy, 1876.
114. Huizinga, Johan, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, tr. F. Hopman, NY: Harper & Bros., 1957 (orig. 1924).*
115. Smith, Preserved, The Social Background of the Reformation, NY: Collier Books, 1962 {2nd part of author's The Age of the Reformation, NY: 1920}. *
117. Erasmus, Desiderius, Christian Humanism and the Reformation, {selections from Erasmus}, ed. & tr. John C. Olin, NY: Harper & Row, 1965 (orig. 1515-34).
120. Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation, NY: Penguin, rev. ed., 1972. *
121. Dickens, A.G., Reformation and Society in 16th-Century Europe, London: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. *
122. Durant, Will, The Reformation, {vol. 6 of 10-vol. The Story of Civilization, 1967}, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1957. *
123. Harkness, Georgia, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics, NY: Abingdon Press, NY, 1931. *
126. Dillenberger, John, ed., John Calvin: Selections From His Writings, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1971.*
1. Dollinger, Johann von, Kirche und Kirchen, 1861, 68.
5. Kohler, Walther, Reformation und Ketzerprozess, 1901, 29 ff.
6. Wappler, Karl, Die Inquisition, 1908, 69 ff.
7. Rumscheidt, Martin, ed., Adolf von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height, London: Collins, 1989, 251 (from History of Dogma, 1890).
8. E.g., he allowed several hundred Puritans, unwelcome in Episcopalian Virginia, to enter Maryland in 1648 (see Ellis, #10 below, 37).
9. Marty, Martin, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, NY: Penguin, 1984, 83,85-86.
10. Ellis, John Tracy, American Catholicism, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1956, 36,38-39.
11. Durant is referring here to the year 1555, the time of the Diet of Augsburg.
12. Melanchthon, Philip, Epistles, Book 4, Ep. 100.
13. Arius: a 4th century heretic who denied that Christ was fully God, saying He was created.
14. In Table Talk (1540).
15. De Wette, M., Luther's Letters, Berlin: 1828, v.3, 454-456.
17. Werke (Luther's Works), Weimar ed., 1883, v.38, 177f.
18. Titus 3:10.
19. Luther, Martin, Table Talk, ed. Mathesius / Kroker, 154, 253.
20. Werke, Halle ed., 1753 (ed. J.G. Walch), v.20, 223.
21. Letter to Martin Bucer, January 12, 1538.
22. Letter to Heinrich Bullinger, July 2, 1563.
23. Letters to John Sleidan, August 27, 1554, and to Bullinger, February 23, 1558.
24. Werke, Weimar, 19, 609 ff.
25. Ibid., 7, 394.
26. Werke, Erlangen ed., 1868, 61, 8 ff.
27. "Sacramentarians": Those who deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist (e.g., Zwingli).
28. Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland, NY: 1950, Introduction, 73.
29. Ibid., v.1, 194 and note 2.
30. Ibid., Introduction, 44. See also Edwin Muir, John Knox, London: 1920, 67,300.
31. Werke, Erl., v.3, 39 / Letter to Georg Spalatin.
32. In 1529.
33. Werke, Weimar, 30, 1, 349 / Preface to Smaller Catechism (1531).
34. Enders, L. Briefwechsel (Luther's Correspondence), Frankfurt, 9, 365 / Letter to Leonard Beyer (1533).
35. Against the Papacy of Rome, Founded by the Devil (1545). One of Luther's most vile and colorful tracts.
36. Werke, Weimar, v.28, pp.142-201 / Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops (July, 1522). Luther at the height of his revolutionary invective.
37. De Wette, Ibid., (#15), v.1, 417 / Letter to Spalatin, February, 1520.
38. Werke, Erl., v.2, 107 / On the Pope as an Infallible Teacher (1520).
39. Luther, Table Talk, (Mathesius, ed.), 180 / Summer, 1540.
40. Ibid., v.3, 46.
41. Ibid.
42. Enders, Ibid., (#34), v.4, 298.
43. In 1522.
44. Letter to the Elector of Saxony, 1522.
45. Zwingli's Works, v.7, 174-184.
46. Werke, Weimar, v.15, 276 / Belfort Bax, The Peasants' War in Germany, London: 1899, p.352.
47. See Janssen (111;v.4:362-363) / J.W. Allen, History of Political Thought in the 16th Century, London: 1951, 33 (a Protestant work).
48. Werke, Erl. Ausgabe, Bd. 39, 250-258 / Commentary on 82nd Psalm (1530) / cf. Durant (122:423), Grisar (51;v.6: 26-27).
49. Pamphlet of 1536.
50. Letter to Albert Margrave of Brandenburg.
51. Bretschneider, ed., Corpus Reformation, Halle: 1846, 2, 17 ff. / February, 1530.
52. Hunzinger, August W., Die Theol. der Gegenwart, 1909, 3,3, 49.
53. Ruth, John L., "America's Anabaptists: Who They Are," Christianity Today, October 22, 1990, 26 / cf. Dickens (121:117); Lucas (118:511).
54. In Muir, Ibid., (#30), 142.
55. In roughly the last half of the 16th century.
56. Hallam, Henry, Constitutional History of England, v.1, p.146.
57. James II, King of England from 1685-88 (a Catholic).
58. Buckle, Henry T., History of Civilization in England, NY: 1913, v.1, 308.
59. Calvin, John, Opera (Works), v.27, p.251 / Sermon on Deuteronomy 13:6-11.
60. Letter to Duke of Somerset, October 22, 1548.
61. Cf. Daniel-Rops (46:82-83) and Spalding (113;v.1:384).
62. Hallam, Ibid., (#2), v.1, 280.
63. ---------
64. Dollinger, Ibid., (#1), 52 ff.
65. Bretschneider, Ibid., (#51), v.4, 549.
66. See also Durant (122:424).

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Originally written in 1991 by Dave Armstrong. Sixth revision: 11 November 2002.