Diebold Schwarz: German Mass (1524)

No one remembers to have seen the benches of our churches filled by a people so zealous, resourceful, and eager for instruction. Before the minister has gone into the pulpit, one sees innumerable crowds discussing the Word of God, or listening to the reading of the passage that is to be expounded. The buzzing of the crowd as it arrives is such that one would have said a bishop was to be consecrated.’

The above account of church life in the free imperial city of Strasbourg reflects the impact of the liturgical reforms spearheaded by Diebold Schwarz in 1524.  Although Schwarz is a largely forgotten figure today, the course of his evangelical ministry – which ranged from assisting Matthew Zell through to helping the Marian exiles – provided the backbone for the reformation of the city of Strasbourg.

Schwarz was born in Hagenau in 1484/5.  His father Hans (a citizen of Strasbourg) was an iron worker who could afford to send Diebold to study at the University of Vienna in 1501, where he entered the Dominican order and proceeded MA in 1508.  He became a member of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit at Bern in 1516, and was afterwards put in charge of the order in Stefansfeld in 1520.  Some years later he returned to Strasbourg, a convinced evangelical, and served as assistant to Matthew Zell at the Cathedral of our Lady.  In 1524 he became the pastor to the Strasbourg parish of Old St. Peter and remained in that role for over 25 years – excepting a year with Wolfgang Musculus in Augsburg (1531-2), and a visit to Martin Luther in Wittenburg (1538).  In 1554 he became the pastor of the poor parish church of St. Aurelia (where Martin Bucer ministered upon his arrival to Strasbourg), located on the opposite side of the river Ill that encircles the city.  The prebendaries of Old St. Peter’s let him a house (called ‘Zum Holderstock’ located on the nearby Weinmarkt) which he generously passed on to Bishop John Ponet, the most senior English reformer among the Marian exiles.[1]  He retired of old age in 1558, but this did not put an end to ministerial zeal: he was carried into the pulpit to preach the first sermon of the newly reopened church of Old St. Peter in 1560.  The following year he went to be with the Lord.

However, Schwarz is best remembered for leading the first entirely German mass – earlier than Zwingli or Luther – for the congregation of St. Lawrence in the north transept of Strasbourg Cathedral on 16 February 1524.[2]   This German Mass (Deutsche Messe) has been described as ‘much less radical yet essentially more creative than any revision Luther either suggested or achieved.’[3]

(further details of the liturgical reforms will be included the historical introduction to this section, but to get a feel for the changes, here is an account given by an enthusiastic French student who wrote to his friend and patron, the reformist Bishop of Meaux):

‘On the Lord’s day, which is the only day they keep as a festival, . . . they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in this manner: The Table is set well forward, in a place in full view of the church, so that it may be seen by all.  They do not call it an altar, in order that they may not be thought to be in any way like those who make a sacrifice out of Christ’s Supper, but the Table does not differ in any way from ordinary altars. To this Table the minister comes, but in such a manner that he faces the people and does not turn his back upon them. . . . Standing at the Table, with his face towards the people, and while the eyes of all the people are upon him, he says first certain brief prayers . . ., and then psalms are sung by all. When this has been done and the minister has prayed again, he goes up to the pulpit and reads the Scripture which he wishes to expound, in such a way that it may be understood by all The sermon finished, he returns to the Table, and the Creed is sung by all. After this, he explains to the people why Christ left us His Supper, . . . then relates the words of Christ as they are written by the Evangelists or Paul. Thereupon, he gives bread and wine to those who wish to come forward (for no one is compelled, but all are bidden), true symbols of the body and blood of Christ, sealed in His death and left by Him to His apostles. While they are communicating and each one receives his portion of the Supper, Kyrie eleison is sung by all, that by this hymn they may render thanks for the benefit received. And communion is so ordered that the minister may partake last, in order that he may consume all that remains.  When this is finished, each one returns to his home.’

[1] A devastating fire burned the house down and much of its contents in 1556, and both Diebold Schwarz and Stadtmeiester Sturm pleaded the case of Bishop Ponet before the city Council of XXI.

[2] Most of the Strasbourg parishes had their own churches, however St. Lawrence used the north transept of the Cathedral and St. Stephen’s shared a church with a nunnery.

[3] Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship, 88.

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