Visitations begin in Saxony

The first parish visitations in Electoral Saxony proceeded in fits and stops from 1526 through 1528. In 1526, the recess of the Diet of Speyer suspended the Edict of Worms, which had proscribed Luther’s teachings in the empire, and this enabled the respective territories to pursue reform on their own. The idea of a general visitation was first broached by Landgrave Philip of Hesse, but Luther rejected its rationale as the imposition of reform by the government. Instead, he favored a slower, more cautious approach built on the secular ruler overseeing visitation as a fellow Christian acting in brother love rather than a government official wielding final authority over the church. Luther at first appealed for a governmental visitation to insure that parish pastors were receiving sufficient remuneration, though this was not to be confused with an ecclesiastical visitation concerned with examining the faith and morals of both pastor and laity. John of Saxony, who replaced his brother Frederick as elector of Saxony, was eventually persuaded in 1527 to support the visitations. The elector oversaw the publication of the Instructions, or regulations for visitors, in June of 1527 prior the early visitations in July.

What the early visitors found was a poorly educated clergy lacking in theological competence and financial support. This led Philipp Melanchthon to provide a more extensive theological rationale and practical guidelines for the visitation than those produced by the elector. The Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony was published in March 1528 with a preface from Luther emphasizing that such a visitation carried out under the auspices of the secular ruler was an emergency measured necessitated by the lack of quality bishops to fulfill their tasks of oversight. The list of regulations Melanchthon originally penned was the result of concerns expressed after the first visitations of 1527. He emphasized the role of order and law in the church, imposed behavioral expectations on clergy and laity alike, and demanded obedience to authority and the preaching of repentance. The 1528 Instructions caused some controversy with John Agricola in Eisleben, a colleague of Luther and Melanchthon, who opposed the use of law in regulating religious life, but it subsided for the time being after mediation by Luther.

The actual visitation resumed again in July 1528. Saxony was divided into four districts and Luther himself joined the cohort that visited Wittenberg and its surrounding parishes. What he and the other visitors found there shocked them. Most preachers were sound doctrinally, but others were not, nor were all provided for sufficiently. They found a laity that was lacking in strong moral conviction. But what bothered them the most was the absence of basic doctrinal knowledge, such the ability to recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. This gave impetus to Luther’s drafting of the catechisms, modeled largely after a series of sermons delivered in May 1528 and published in 1529.

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