As any student of the Reformation knows, this powerful gale of spiritual life that blew across western Europe had a major impact on the political realm. In the Scandinavian kingdom of Sweden and its dependency, Finland, for instance, the Reformation occurred against a background of considerable political and social upheaval. It was really not until the 1590s that the Reformation there was securely established. Though Gustavus Vasa (1496-1560), the ruler of Sweden from 1523 till his death, was committed to making Sweden a Protestant nation, the Reformation lacked widespread popular support until well after Gustavus Vasa’s death. Finally in 1593 the Swedish Church adopted the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) as its statement of faith. In fact, so deeply rooted was the Swedish Reformation in the first decades of the seventeenth century that the key champion of Protestant Europe was none other than Gustavus Adolphus, the grandson of Gustavus Vasa.
Gustavus Adolphus (1595-1632)
Gustavus Adolphus was schooled in the classics and various European languages. By the age of sixteen he was not only conversant in Swedish and German, his native languages, but he had also mastered Latin, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Russian and Polish! Due to the fact that he was expected to inherit the throne, his father, Charles IX (r.1604-1611), also introduced him at an early age to the realms of politics and warfare. His reign, which commenced in 1611, dramatically transformed Sweden from a position of political and military insecurity into one of the most powerful nations in Europe. The Swedish king became known as one of the greatest men of his age, a skilled diplomat and a brilliant military commander. Gustavus Adolphus’ personal appearance gave further lustre to his political savvy and martial know-how, for he was a tall, muscular man with blond hair. The Italians called him Il Re d’Oro—the Golden King.
However, Gustvaus Adolphus had inherited an extremely difficult political situation. Sweden was involved in two separate struggles in the Baltic when his father died. A fratricidal war with the Danish was brought to an end in 1613 and one with the Russians was concluded very advantageously for the Swedes in 1617. A series of wars with Poland, though, which began in 1621 dragged on for most of that decade. With the final conclusion of the Polish Wars in 1629, the Swedish King could turn his attention to what was a pressing concern for all Protestants in Europe, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
The Thirty Years’ War
This war—really a succession of armed conflicts—was essentially religious in nature. It began in May, 1618, when Calvinists in Bohemia revolted against their king, the Jesuit-trained Ferdinand II (1578-1637), by tossing two of his officials out of a palace window in Prague. The two men apparently survived a seventy-foot fall because, some claimed, they landed in a pile of manure! Ferdinand, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Austria, was determined to subdue Bohemia since it supplied a significant amount of his wealth. Moreover, the monarch had dedicated himself to the restoration of Roman Catholic power in central Europe. Ferdinand thus sought to roll back the religious gains of the Reformation in his lands with the power of the sword. He was counting on the support of such Catholic allies as Spain to achieve these goals. The revolt in Bohemia plunged Europe into a series of wars that lasted for thirty years.
The high point of this struggle for the Roman Catholics was the forcible expulsion by Austrian arms of some 30,000 Protestant families from Bohemia—long a bastion of the Hussite Church and Protestantism. In the words of one historian, Owen Chadwick, this was “the most signal and permanent triumph of the Counter-Reformation.” An edict passed in the same year as this Roman Catholic victory, 1629, stripped all Calvinists in the various German states comprising the Holy Roman Empire of their civil rights. Moreover, the edict required all lands acquired by German Protestants since 1552 to be restored to Roman Catholic powers. All would have been lost for German-speaking Protestantism if had not been for the providential intervention of Gustavus Adolphus and his army.
It is important to note that while political reasons were not absent from Sweden’s entry into this war, Gustavus’ religious convictions were a central motivation in his decision to lead an army into the heart of Europe. He rightly believed that he could not sit idly by and watch fellow believers suffer to such a degree and in such large numbers.
The success that attended his campaign in the Thirty Years’ War and other military ventures is usually completely ascribed to his genius as a tactician. He realized, for example, that mobility was critical in battle, and accordingly he had the equipment of his soldiers lightened as well as the artillery pieces. Furthermore, due to the fact that Sweden at this point in history had a population of only 850,000 (with Finland having another 350,000), it was impossible for Gustavus to field a completely Swedish army capable of waging war on the European continent. He thus made skilful use of well-trained soldiers from other nations, of which those from Scotland were the most notable.
The loyalty he inspired among his soldiers was also a key factor in his success as a general. One Scottish officer who served under him wrote: “Such a General [as Gustavus] would I gladly serve; but such a General I shall hardly see, whose custom was to be the first and last in danger in himself, gaining his officers’ love, in being the companion both of their labours and dangers.” Even his enemies recognized the love his army had for him. An Italian by the name of Gualdo Priorato, who had actually fought against Gustavus, stated: “No prince was ever so beloved as he was…no general was obeyed with greater affection and readiness.”
Gustavus would die on the field of battle on November 6, 1632, at the Battle of Lützen.
Finally, and most importantly, the fact of Gustavus Adolphus’ deep-seated Christian piety as a factor in the success of his army should not be ignored. Like the piety of another great Christian soldier of the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Gustavus’ evangelical faith shaped his army and gave it purpose and resolve.
No Christian worthy of the name likes war, and in this Gustavus is no exception. There is no evidence that the Swedish monarch engaged in the wars that he did for military glory. The glory, though, that Gustavus Adolphus longed for was the glory of God. This is quite different from many warriors of the early modern era. Lord Nelson, about whom we have been blogging recently, actually sought for glory in war.
Yet, Gustavus also knew himself to be a man called to a huge responsibility: securing the welfare of his nation and succouring the Protestant cause in Europe. He was convinced that God had called him for the hour in which he lived. And if he had not had acted, German Protestantism would have been well nigh annihilated. There is little doubt that Gustavus Adolphus helped change the course of European history.
The kingdom of God is not ushered in through force of military arms, but such wars as Gustavus fought—wars essentially for self-defence—are not ruled out by the Word of God, as a careful reading of passage like Romans 13 shows. The name of Gustavus Adolphus belongs with those of other military commanders like Oliver Cromwell, James Gardiner (1688-1745), Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), and T.J. Jackson (1824-1863)—men who loved the Lord Jesus and who did not feel their calling conflicted with their Christian faith.