Wherever the Bible went, civil and religious liberty followed.
by Hal Mayer
The 16th century was a time of sweeping changes as civil and ecclesiastical structures convulsed and new social systems were envisioned. What was behind these dramatic movements? Was it a lone monk named Martin Luther? Or were there forces at play that opened the door for the Protestant Reformation and eventually the rise of democratic societies in Western civilization?
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had suppressed the Scriptures and replaced them with the church’s traditions and moral guidelines for society. Rome taught that God was a tyrant, rather than a loving God seeking to save the lost, and that He would endlessly torture in hell those who were disobedient to the church. This removed the true source of light, comfort, and power to the soul and replaced it with unsatisfying forms and ceremonies. Corruption, abuse, and vice abounded, giving rise to a deep need for moral change.
Further, Rome elevated church traditions to equal authority with Scripture, but in reality tradition became the highest authority, further distancing the influence of the Bible from society. People became frustrated that their spiritual longings were unmet by endless, wearisome pilgrimages and penances. The Inquisition, with its emphasis on eradicating “heretical” thought, added to this galling oppression.
Because the populace was kept in ignorance and superstition, they were not only incapable of understanding God for themselves, but they were deprived of personal mental development as well.
Rome also controlled the temporal benefits of society. By stabilizing the feudal system with two classes—the ultra rich and ultra poor—Rome prevented development of an economically influential middle class, and left the vast majority in abject poverty. Lacking an educational system—which provides stimulus for invention and elevation of the mind—trade, commerce, and business were limited and in some places stifled. For centuries, people were kept in a ceaseless round of toil and hopelessness.
God always has His agencies to counteract the evils of oppression. During those spiritually dark ages, the Holy Spirit still worked on people’s hearts. The soul hunger for a personal connection with God could not be suppressed. Scattered about Europe were people, often called “heretics,” who determined to spread the light of God’s Word. Foremost of these were the Waldenses, whose missionary zeal took them far from their quiet, native retreats in the Italian Alps. By carefully copying selected passages and disguising themselves as merchants, they spread portions of Scripture all over Europe, traveling from village to village and selling their wares. As they listened to their customers, they discerned spiritual needs and found opportunities to share God’s truth with them.
The Waldenses used the Scriptures to show that Rome had supplanted God’s message of love with false theories, traditions, and superstitions. These missionaries often left passages of the Bible with their customers so they could read and learn truth for themselves. As these precious portions of Scripture were passed from one family to another, the knowledge of God’s love flowed into stupefied minds and longing hearts.
By leaving passages of Scripture in homes throughout Europe, the Waldenses paved the way for Reformers like Martin Luther. For more than ten centuries they planted seeds of truth that circumstances would germinate into a harvest of souls. Without this sowing, the Reformers could not have succeeded as they did, and the Reformation may never have gained a strong foothold.
Many Waldenses suffered persecution and martyrdom to place the Scriptures in the hands of the people—a capital offense at that time—but their efforts stimulated in people a desire for the Word of God. Rome’s falsehoods were exposed. Many had obeyed the priests but did not believe them. Others saw through the false teachings, but waited for better times when liberty of conscience would arise.
Fire in the Stubble
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Chapel protesting the false theories of Rome, Europe was ready for his compelling message. Like fire in the stubble, word of Luther’s act crisscrossed Europe, and new hope kindled. It was obvious to Luther and other Reformers that the people needed the Scriptures in their own languages if the Reformation was to be sustained.
Using the best Greek manuscripts available, particularly those compiled by Erasmus, Luther and other reformers translated the New Testament into the local languages. In God’s providence, invention of the printing press multiplied copies of these Bibles quite inexpensively, thus more people than ever before obtained their own copies.
With its emphasis on bringing the Bible to people, the Reformation had an enormous effect, stimulating the development of millions of minds. Adults attended children’s schools to learn to read. People compared the teachings of Rome against the unerring Word of God for themselves.
Dissemination of the Bible stimulated new ideas, which led to new inventions and improvements in commerce, transportation, and other social and economic needs. People began to explore new ventures in education, business, agriculture, and family life. Best of all, millions lost their excessive fear of God and of wrong concepts of an eternally burning hell. A new attitude—the spirit of hope—arose in Europe. Through the influence of the Bible on hard hearts and darkened minds, much of Europe revived, strengthened herself, and broke from the oppressive spiritual and social shackles of Rome.
Lessons from France
But in all of Europe one tragic anomaly arose—the Reformation in France. At first it was effective; but later, the new movement was successfully repressed by agents of the Roman Church. Through violent, bloody persecution, Protestants were destroyed or forced into exile. France was stripped of its Reformation Bibles and their elevating influence on society.
The French saw that the ills of their society were due to the influence and control of the Roman Church, but lacking moral insight, they failed to connect society’s ills to the suppression of the Bible. Thus, two centuries later, as the result of exiling the Protestants with their Bibles and the truth, France witnessed another carnage.
The French Revolution abandoned the Roman Church but also rejected the Bible. Thousands of priests were slain, as were many French nobles and leaders. The horrible scenes of carnage from the French Revolution—often too fearful to relate—fill hundreds of books on world history. Details of Hollywood’s most graphic “blood and guts” films pale by comparison.
Conflict over and repression of the Bible, God’s sacred Scriptures, was the underlying cause of the French Revolution. And much of history itself revolves around this principle. Wherever free inquiry and dissemination of the Scriptures have been allowed, freedom has flourished.
Today, this principle is still vital, for it will determine on which side of the climactic issues that nations, and even civilizations, will be found. “The entrance of Thy Word giveth light; it giveth knowledge unto the simple.” Psalm 119:130.
Taken from Last Generation, Vol. 25 No. 4. Last Generation is a vibrant 32-page soul-winning magazine published six times a year. To subscribe, call (540) 672-1996, Ext. 283. Ask about our BOGO free subscription promotion available through January 31, 2017.