The effect of Luther upon the Order of St Augustine
Martin Luther was officially no longer a member of the Order by the year 1524.
Many Augustinians preached and taught against him. Others sympathised; for example, Wenzel Link, the vicar-general of the Augustinian congregation in Saxony, resigned from the Order in 1523 and became a Lutheran preacher. Two others, Hendrik Vos and Johann van den Esschen from the Augustinian observant community in Antwerp, became the first martyrs of the Reformation period when they were burnt as heretics in Brussels for refusing to recant their Lutheran views.
An account of their execution was printed in sixteen different editions in seven different German towns in the same year. Luther himself praised them in a hymn. The Augustinian Order had many houses in Germany, distributed among four separate Augustinian provinces. They were affected by his teachings, as were Augustinian provinces elsewhere in Europe. In these four Provinces, a small number of Augustinian houses closed as their members left the Catholic Church. Other priories were forcibly closed and confiscated by local princes who followed Martin Luther. Some priories that survived the initial Reformation shock wave later closed for shortage of members or because of the lack of strong leadership in what was a destabilising period for both church and state. The priory at Erfurt, where Luther had joined the Order, remained operating, but under difficulty, until the friars were finally expelled in 1561 - thirty years after Luther had been resident there.
The Augustinian Province of Thuringia-Saxony, to which the Augustinian priories of Erfurt and Wittenberg were proximate, lost all but three of its twenty-four monasteries by 1550. Although the Protestant Reformation was the initial impetus for this, poor leadership in its aftermath was another factor. One Provincial defected to Lutheranism in 1521, and his successor did likewise in 1523. Whether he had any successor was uncertain. The Augustinian Rhenish-Swabian Province had fourteen houses taken by the Lutherans, and by 1543 had only fifty friars remaining. At this critical time, this province had two strong and outstanding Provincials, especially Johannes Hoffmeister from 1518 to 1542. He took strong measures against any member who wavered from Catholic doctrine, fought local councils who attempted to confiscate Augustinian monasteries and took great care in the preparation and theological education of the reduced number of new members to the Order.
His writings not only inspired some adjacent Augustinian Provincials but also are attributed to the adherence of southern Germany to Catholicism. He died before his fortieth birthday in 1547. Even with all his effort, by 1543 the Rhenish-Swabian Province was reduced to only forty members. The Province of Cologne lost four houses, largely through the advent of Calvinism in the Netherlands. It too enjoyed the benefit of strong and outstanding leadership. Slightly further away in southern Germany, the Augustinian Province of Bavaria lost nine of its fifty houses. The remaining houses experienced a serious decline in membership, and this led to a laxity of discipline and a lowering of morale in many instances. The houses in Poland of the Province of Bavaria were untouched by the ideas of Luther, and went on to become a separate Province of Poland in 1547.
Of the 160 Augustinian monasteries under German Augustinian control on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, sixty-nine (i.e., two-thirds of them) were lost in the following decade because of theological and/or political turmoil. Of the thirty-six Augustinian houses in the observant congregation, twenty-three (i.e., two-thirds) were lost. Most of these monasteries ceased contrary to the will of the occupant Augustinians, i.e., as instances of forced eviction much more than because of voluntary flight. Almost without exception, the Augustinians did not as a group walk out and leave the Church, but in most cases were expelled by authorities or forces that wished their absence or wanted to confiscate their buildings - or both.
Outside of Germany, Augustinian Provinces elsewhere in Europe were also affected by the Protestant Reformation - but less so. In Italy, a relatively small number of Augustinians left the Church and Order for Lutheranism, and the same happened in Holland and France. Harsh measures were sometimes applied by Church authorities when individual Augustinians were challenged as to the orthodoxy of their doctrine in a number of cases.
For example, four suffered death at the stake for refusing to recant: and on 1st July 1523 two Augustinians in Brussels (about whom Martin Luther composed a hymn to praise them as martyrs), and in 1524 Heinrich von Zurphen in northern Germany and Jean Chatelain in Metz. In these countries the Order survived generally because of strong leadership and through the renewing of religious life - in effect bringing about some of the reforms that Martin Luther had called for.
Photos (at right):The former Augustinian priory (convento) at Wittenberg, which the prince elector granted to Martin Luther as his residence in 1524. It was here that Robert Barnes, an ex-Augustinian from England, met Luther.
The addition of the onset of Lutheranism became one more challenge for the Augustinian Province of Hungary, which already was beset with the invasion of the Turks and by civil war. The priory at Bartfa was taken over by the Lutherans in 1528, the Turks closed the houses at Ilkok, Buda, Papocz and Szekesfehervar, and the civil war destroyed the houses at Szepesvar and Szepesvaralja. The Augustinian Church at Eger persisted until 1596, when the Turks gave it to the Serbian Orthodox. Founded in the middle of the thirteenth century, by 1599 the Augustinian Province of Hungary no longer existed.
The small number of English Augustinians affected by the influence of Martin Luther was due in part to the decisive action of the English King, Henry VIII in initially protecting his nation against Lutheranism. After his Act of Supremacy was passed through the English Parliament on 3 November 1534, however, his dissolution n of all English monasteries was more thorough and universal that the effect of Lutheranism had been on the Augustinian monasteries in Continental Europe during the previous twenty years.
The English Augustinian Province was destroyed by King Henry VIII, who suppressed the last remaining Augustinian community in England at Hull on 10 March 1539. Twenty Augustinian communities in Ireland also belonged to the Augustinian Province of England. Although officially suppressed as well, as many as ten that were beyond the effective reach of the forces of the king continued, at least for a while.
For example, by a decree of 7 July 1542 parliament permitted that the priory at Dunmore, Ireland continue because Lord Birmingham, a descendant of the founder of that community, requested its preservation. For that reason Dunmore priory became the mother house of the new Augustinian Province of Ireland.
The Provinces of the Order in Spain were largely untouched by the Protestant Reformation, where the Spanish Inquisition enforced an unwavering orthodoxy. The Augustinian houses in Poland, which previously had been part of the German Province of Bavaria, were re-constituted as a new Province of Poland in 1547. In summary, the members of the Order of Saint Augustine who became Lutheran was numerically a fraction rather than even anywhere near a significant minority of the estimated 22,000 members of that period.
Image (above): The Lutherstube ("living room") of the Luther House. It was here that the conversations recorded by students in "Table Talk" (starting in 1531) took place. The only woman allowed here was Luther's wife, Katherine von Bora. It was not until around 1535 that Luther could afford to decorate the living room with the painted walls and stove. When Luther's house was sold to the university in 1564, all the rooms were renovated except this one. It has been shown to visitors as a museum ever since. The stove was restored and the ceiling was painted in 1602.Unlike some other religious orders, the Order of Saint Augustine survived the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation. It was boosted by the reforms of the Council of Trent, which began in 1546, the year of Luther's death. In comparison with the relatively small number of Augustinians who shifted to Lutheranism or to other forms of Protestantism, numbers in the Order dropped far more because of the enforced closure of Augustinian houses by governments, and the resulting expulsion of the occupants. In spite of deep wounds, the Order of Saint Augustine survived perhaps its greatest - and worst - challenge in what is now its 750 years of history.
This was thanks to a number of superiors at the General and Provincial (i.e., international and regional) levels, who adhered tenaciously to their task of leadership and stayed focused on the goal of reform of the Order. Their efforts were blessed with considerable success because a large majority of the members of the Order maintained their religious beliefs and monastic ideals in the face of external conflict, danger and privation. The Augustinian Order, whose member Martin Luther gave great distress to the Church, also providentially gave the Church Girolamo Seripando, who as a theologian and ecclesiastical reformer at the Council of Trent helped to set in place the foundations of the Catholic Reformation which followed.
It is regrettable that it took the cataclysm prompted by Martin Luther to bring about the reform of the Roman church from which Luther initially had neither desired nor intended to depart. Although fewer in numbers, the Order of Saint Augustine in 1575 was in a better condition than it had been at the outset of the Protestant Reformation in 1518. Reform had taken place, but in a way and at a cost that no one would have fully anticipated.
(Continued on the next page.)
Further Augnet resources
Click here for the page in Augnet on Martin Luther as an Augustinian in Rome.
Click here for Augnet's eight biographical pages on Martin Luther.