At the outset of the American war for independence, Benjamin Franklin satirized a contemporary species of strange, fence-sitting bird which he dubbed a Mugwump. This bird had its mug on one side of the fence and its wump on the other. This reference was, of course, to the large number of colonists who, although they desired freedom, could not find the moral or intestinal fortitude to take up arms against the crown. This scenario has found numerous repeat performances throughout the history of the church, but few more vivid than the strange compromising middle ground of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, born in 1466. He received his early education in a cathedral school. Orphaned at age eighteen, his guardians robbed him of his inheritance and sent him, against his will, to a monastery where discovered and studied the Greek and Latin classics. His scholastic abilities were recognized by a prominent Bishop, thus facilitating his release form monastic seclusion and his subsequent ordination into the priesthood. Never having been assigned a parish, he devoted himself entirely to study, supported by wealth benefactors. His book, The Praise of Folly, gained him such wide acclaim that very journey became a triumphal procession, with larger towns receiving him with addresses of welcome. Erasmus carved for himself a substantial platform and base of support from which he could have radically reshaped the religious life of Europe. From Erasmus’ five ears of monastic seclusion, he left the monastery with a loathing for the anti-classicism, bigotry and vices of the monks. His writing caused him to be accused of “turning sacred things to ridicule.” His barbed response was, “You will much more readily find scoffers of sacred things in Italy among men of your own rank, ay, and in your much-lauded Rome, than with us. I could not endure to sit down at table with such men.” Erasmus revered the Bible a divine revelation and preceded Luther in declaring it as the primary source of faith and practice. His Greek New Testament, published one year before the reformation began, was so improved compared to the official Greek text of the church, that it laid the wrecking ball to the concept of the church being infallible, at least in the eyes of many scholars. From Erasmus’ Greek text Luther made his famous German translation of the scriptures. The Romanist enemies of Erasmus aid, “He laid the egg which Luther hatched.” During a jot and tittle age, when the slightest doctrinal deviation would bring censure from the mother church (sometimes even excommunication and death), Erasmus dared to suggest that the Apostle’s Creed was ample enough dogma. “On other points,” he said, “leave everyone free to believe what he pleases, then religion will take hold on life, and you can correct the abuses of which the world justly complains.” Some segments of the church condemned him; his books were burned in Spain and, long after his death, placed on the index of forbidden books in Rome. Thus was the outcome of the first fifty-eight years of his life. Then came the reformation. So long as it moved within the church, Erasmus sympathized with it. But, when Luther first hinted at leaving the Catholic Church by burning the Pope’s demands, he also “burnt the bridge behind him.” Erasmus shrank back and feared that the remedy was worse than the evil. His narrow-mindedness and irresolution was his greatest weakness; Luther’s narrowness and determination were his strength. Erasmus was for unity and peace and dreaded a split in the church as the greatest of evils. In his own words, he confessed to be wiling to”sacrifice a part of the truth for the peace of the church.” From all appearance, he desired to maintain the comfort provided by the support of ecclesiastical and royal patrons, which could not be done should he join the reformation. “He wished to be a spectator, but not an actor in the Lutheran tragedy.” In the remaining twelve years of his life, he became progressively embittered at Luther. Luther summarized his observations about Erasmus by saying, “I found in his writings more refutation of error than demonstration of truth, more love of peace than love of the cross…He has done enough to uncover the evil; but to reveal the good and to lead into the land of promise is not his business, in my opinion.” Luther appeared to be correct. Erasmus made plenty of critical observations, yet lacked the courage to act. Today, men face truth square in the face yet fail to act, holding onto their secure ecclesiastical seas of tranquility. Viewing truth as if it were optional, the Mugwumps remain among us.
All quotes from Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII, EERDMANS. Grand Rapids, MI.