With so much attention on Martin Luther and Wittenberg this year, because of what is being marked as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation*, there is arguably a more important German town for our story. Marburg.
Situated between Dortmund and Frankfurt, and 260 miles west of Luther’s Wittenberg, 300 years earlier Marburg had been the location of the murder of a heretic hunter, Konrad von Marburg (1180–1233) a notorious inquisitor of the Albigenses. Marburg was one of the towns in the independent principality of Hesse-Marburg, ruled by the superbly-named Philip the Magnanimous (1504–1567). In 1517 a Franciscan priest named James Limburg briefly emerged as a voice for Reformation in Marburg, but he was ’disappeared’. In the huge changes brought by the Reformation, a new Lutheran university was founded in Marburg 1527.
In 1527 & 1528, England’s William Tyndale was there. Scotland’s Patrick Hamilton was there. Their mutual friend the printer John Frith was there. And Martin Luther himself was nearby. In October 1529, Marburg would host the discussion meetings between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli which became known as the Marburg Colloquy.
On 8 May 1528, Tyndale published The Parable of Wicked Mammon with the printer ‘Hans Luft of Marburg’ named on the title page. However this, and two other titles from Tyndale, were probably actually printed somewhere else like Antwerp. In Joe Carvalho’s book Patrick Hamilton: The Stephen of Scotland. The First Preacher and Martyr of the Scottish Reformation (2009), he writes this –
“It is curious to note the presence of two English reformers, William Tyndale and John Frith in Marburg in the same year that Patrick Hamilton had gone there. Tyndale and Frith were profoundly engaged in the translation of the Old Testament in the English. Tyndale was also writing some of his famous treaties about the Reformation, in addition to other treaties, with the main intention of benefiting England with the truth of God. The result of this was that Tyndale and Frith could not have had permanent homes because they were always fleeing from one place to another with the aim of finishing the translation. Now they had asked for the help of Philip of Hess to receive and aid them in bringing some peace while they developed their important work. The young Patrick Hamilton, who was then 23 years old, saw the venerated Lambert (then 41 years old) and Tyndale (then 33 years old) as the fathers of the faith. Frith (22 years old), by way of being practically the same age as Patrick became like a beloved brother to the young Scotsman. Patrick saw something promising in the work of Tyndale and Frith, something that would bring great blessing, not only to his beloved Scotland, but also for Tyndale’s England.”
Hamilton’s writings would cause him to be burned alive at St Andrews on 29 February 1528. Frith’s printings made him the next of the three to die, by the same method, on 4 July 1533 at Smithfield in London. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English caused him to be strangled and then burned at Vilvoorde near Brussels, on 6 October 1536.
Regardless, Gospel ideas spread like wildfire across Europe. As was said at the time, “the reek of Master Patrick Hamilton infected as many as it blew upon".
"Works-religion" (where people strive to in some way make themselves right with God) is the mortal enemy of "Grace Alone" (where the believer realises they can never do that, but trust completely in Christ to do so on our behalf).
• Visit Marburg’s official tourism website here
• Swiss minister JH Merle D’Aubigne (1794–1872) compiled meticulous, respected, histories of the Reformation. His works have tonnes of information about Marburg.
* actually, there had been reform-minded people within the churches of Europe for many centuries before. A big story for another post perhaps.