That these strange tales were sent by some secret friend to Rulman Merswin appears to be certain. But whether he had several of these friends, and amongst them those who shared his love of dreams and visions, we cannot tell. "None of these writings," says Dr. Keller, "have come to us directly from the hand of the author, and bearing his name. On the contrary, we possess them only through a threefold medium, namely, through the Friend of God,' Merswin, and the copyist. Now it is proved in several cases, that individual writings, which are attributed by those from whom we derive them, to the authorship of the Friend of God,' are decidedly not from his pen; and further it is proved, that other writings which were given forth as his, have been flagrantly interpolated and altered by Merswin, and perhaps also by the copyist.
"The difficult question therefore arises, which are the books, or portions of books, really written by the Friend of God;' and on the other hand, which are the writings to which the editors attached his name, perhaps with a view of gaining a greater respect for their own personal opinions.
"A further question arises; certain as it is that the Friend of God' was a more or less voluminous author, it is equally certain that some at least of the writings attributed to him were ancient relics of the literature of the old evangelical communities, which he either copied or touched up. And these again, before they passed out of the hands of Merswin, were again touched up; and finally the copyist added his own elaborations to all that went before.
"And again, we have the yet further difficulty to encounter, that under the pressure of those dangerous times, when the author, the receiver, and the copyist were alike writing for the uninitiated (outside of the circle of the friends of God), they considered it necessary to disguise as much as possible the true origin and character of these writings, and to produce them at last in an unsuspicious form.
"This motive had its due weight with the Friend of God, with Merswin, and with Nicholas von Laufen, and neither of them allowed a writing to pass from his hand, without effacing from it as far as possible all conspicuous marks of heresy. In the only one of these writings which appears to be an autograph, the author says emphatically, Know, that if you knew who I am, I would not write to you,' which is as much as to say, Know, that if you knew who I am, you would not be willing to receive anything written by me.'
"Considering all these circumstances, I do not so much wonder at finding in these writings several expressions which accord with orthodox Catholic belief, as I wonder at the circumstance, that in spite of such mutilations, the Waldensian character of the authorship is so plainly manifest." This part of the history must remain, to a certain extent, a mystery.
But we must bear in mind the above-mentioned facts that the name of Nicholas was attached to none of these writings, and that it was Nicholas von Laufen who collected and copied them, calling them all alike the tracts of "the Friend of God from the Oberland."
It seems to be certain that Nicholas made occasional journeys to Metz, Strasburg, and other places, during the time that the five friends were awaiting the call of God to go forth on their separate missions. At one time he proposed to Rulman Merswin to prepare him a little room in the Green Meadow, but apart from the House of God, where he might live alone, and only receive visits from the knights on stated days. This, however, seems never to have come to pass.
Rulman Merswin died in the House of the Green Meadow in the summer of 1382. Before his death, the knights entreated him to tell them the name of the messenger, who had been in the habit of bringing him letters from his secret friend. They wished by this means to carry on communication with Nicholas, when their founder was dead. But Merswin told them that the messenger, who was none other than the worthy Rupert, had died a short time since.
Some "Friends of God" from Strasburg, then set forth on a journey of discovery, determined to find out the secret home on the mountain. But they came home, having failed, they said, to find it. But Merswin, when he heard the exact route they had taken, said that they had spent a night under the same roof with the five friends, without having found them out.
When Merswin was dead, the knights sent a knight and a young citizen to make one more attempt to find the mysterious dwelling. For many weeks they roamed about the Oberland, but could find no trace of the mountain home. They could not have known that some, at least, of the inhabitants of Lucerne (if that were indeed the neighbouring town) were acquainted with the spot.
Seven years later, in the summer of 1389, it was rumoured at Strasburg that the Prior of Engelberg, John von Bolsenheim, was "well acquainted with the five friends of God, that he often visited them, and read mass in their church."
Nicholas von Laufen was now despatched on this third expedition, to Engelberg, but found that the Prior knew nothing about them. He promised, however, to make every research, and should he discover their dwelling he would send word immediately to the Green Meadow. But no message from him was ever sent. In 1390 Henry von Wolfach, the knight commander of the House of the Green Meadow, set out himself to another part of the Oberland. But his journey, like the former ones, was fruitless. The five friends were heard of no more. But they were remembered by the knights, as Nicholas had been remembered by Tauler, with the greatest reverence and gratitude.
In Rulman Merswin's room was found a sealed chest, containing his own writings, copies in his own hand of writings which professed to be those of his friend from the Oberland, and one paper which appeared to be an original, of the same secret friend. These papers were all placed amongst the archives of the House of the Green Meadow, under the charge of Nicholas von Laufen. How he copied and embellished them has been previously related.
We must bear in mind that the name of "the Friend of God" was unknown to the knights, and therefore they may never have been aware of the glorious end which fulfilled to Nicholas the promise of the sweet still voice, "When thy soul shall pass from the earthly house, it shall be to dwell with Me, where the martyrs have gone before."
Towards the end of the century, a heretic, called Nicholas of Basle, was seized with two friends, at Vienna, and delivered up to the Inquisition. The two friends were called James and John. (James appears to have been the former lawyer, John, no doubt, was the Jew.)
Nicholas, now an old man of nearly ninety years, was required to renounce his friends, and declare them heretics. But he said he would only be separated from them by death, and that such a separation would only be for a moment, for that they should thenceforth be for ever with the Lord.
The three "Friends of God" were then sentenced to be burnt alive, on the ground of their being Beghards and heretics.
"There lived," says the chronicler, "a short time ago, a man named Nicholas, a simple layman. This person went about first as a Beghard in the district of the Rhine near Basle, and lower down, and was strongly suspected by many of those who persecuted heretics, of being one of the heretics afore-mentioned. For he was very subtle, and knew how to conceal errors under language the most specious. For this reason he had already escaped the hands of the inquisitors, and that for a long while. In consequence he brought together a certain number of disciples, so as to form a sect around him. For he was by profession and manner of life, one of the damnable Beghards, and had many visions and revelations, after the aforesaid damnable manner, the which visions he believed to be infallible. He boldly affirmed that he knew Christ to be really in him, and himself in Christ, and said other things also, all of which he publicly confessed on being examined after his capture at Vienna, in the diocese of Passau. But when he chose rather to be burnt than to dismiss at the command of the Church, two men named James and John, who were suspected of heresy and admitted themselves to be his particular disciples, and when, moreover, he was found to have erred in many respects from the true faith, and to be incapable of persuasion, he was justly given over to the secular authority, and reduced to ashes." Thus did the three friends bear their last witness for the Saviour they loved. And again did Nicholas hear the beloved Voice, "the gladdest and the sweetest that ears have ever heard," and again did there shine around him "the fair, and blessed light, the light that is love;" and into that light and glory he entered, to go out no more for ever.
One more gleam of light is thrown upon the teaching of Nicholas by the sentence passed against a "Friend of God," Martin of Mayence, who was burnt at Cologne, July 19, 1393. Martin was chiefly accused of having submitted himself wholly in all things to Nicholas of Basle. In consequence he had not observed the stated days and hours of prayer and worship commanded by the Church. He had regarded himself as freed from obedience to the Church, overlooking the distinction between priests and laymen, regarding all Christians as priests. He had maintained that outward works had no merit before God. He had preached that the Lord Jesus suffered more in bearing the judgment of God, than in enduring the pain of the cross. He had regarded the Lord's Prayer as a form not be repeated. He had spoken of some "heretics," who had been recently burnt at Heidelberg, as "Friends of God."
And far and wide, from north to south, from east, to west, arose, during the years that followed, the flames that were kindled to rid the world of the Waldenses and the "Friends of God." "With systematic and relentless energy," writes one of the latest German historians, "did the detectives of heretical crimes devote themselves in the fourteenth century to the task of persecution, directed against the Waldensian heretics.
"And speedily from Lombardy to the Baltic, from the Raab to the Rhine, the burning piles flared aloft," and told the tale how widespread was the testimony of the hated and despised "Brethren."
In the year 1395, the inquisitor, Peter Pilichdorf, declared with triumphant scorn that he had at last mastered the heretics! But Jerome of Prague, and John Huss, and John Wyclif were the answer to his boast -- and a hundred years after the scornful words had passed his lips, the boy was sent to school at Magdeburg, who was to learn later on "in the school of which the Holy Ghost is the schoolmaster," and to call all Europe to listen to the same truths which the Lord had taught to John Tauler and to Nicholas of Basle.