Becoming Steadfast: Politics and the Lutheran Reformation (Part 2)

For part one of this series, click here.

When Martin Luther departed Worms in May 1521 his earthly future seemed bleak.  According to the edict of Worms Luther was a heretical outlaw.   In order to protect Luther and his own interests, Frederick the Wise famously had Luther taken away to Wartburg Castle near Eisenach until March 1522.  During the early 1520s the establishment of the Lutheran Reformation was not a certainty.  However, the Wittenberg Reformers and the political leaders in Electoral Saxony did gradually implement reforms that culminated in the presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Charles V in 1530.  Theological reform led to social and political transformation in Electoral Saxony, other principalities, and imperial cities that adopted Lutheran teachings.  While most priests and former monks and former nuns married, monasticism ceased to be a significant institution.  City councils and localities enacted reforms related to social welfare and education that more closely reflected Lutheran doctrine and practice.  Additionally, Luther and others reformed the late medieval liturgy to reflect their teachings.  This raises a significant question.  Why did Charles V, who had condemned Luther, allow these events to take place in the Holy Roman Empire?

A number of factors combined to delay any quick solution for Charles.  Luther’s challenge to emperor and pope made him quite popular in much of Europe, particularly in the Empire.  While Luther would have welcomed an episcopal reform of the church, he had called for the German nobles to lead a reform of church and society in 1520.  Through an address to the German nobles Luther encouraged the emerging development of noble power in the Holy Roman Empire.  Most imperial princes, even those who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, jealously guarded their liberties and feared imperial intervention.

Charles’ absence from the Empire allowed the German nobles to increase their independent power.  In addition to his imperial authority, Charles controlled a vast personal empire that included Spain, southern Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands (including modern Belgium), and much of central Europe.  His holdings included the Spanish colonies in the New World too.  His first language was French; he spoke Spanish, and never learned German well.  During most of the 1520s and 1530s Charles’ brother, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, represented imperial authority in Germany.  Additionally, Charles fought four wars, known as the Habsburg-Valois wars, against King Francis I of France from 1521 to 1546.  These wars definitely distracted Charles at key moments to allow the spread of the Lutheran message and the solidification of princely authority in the Empire.  The Ottoman Turks’ military conquests in Eastern Europe also served to delay imperial and Catholic action against the Lutheran princes.

By 1526 Philip of Hesse and Albrecht, duke of Prussia, and some imperial cities had adopted and began to implement the Lutheran Reformation.  These leaders joined John “the Steadfast” of Saxony in a makeshift coalition of Lutheran rulers. John had become the Elector of Saxony after Frederick’s death in 1525.  He clearly agreed with the Reformation and sought to implement it more fully than his older brother, Frederick. (See Noland’s bio of John the Steadfast here   Ferdinand, not Charles, oversaw the diet of Speyer in 1526 because Charles had to deal with an alliance between Francis and Pope Clement VII.  The imperial princes called for an imperial church council to settle the religious issues.  However, Ferdinand postponed the matter and delayed the execution of the edict of Worms.  Meanwhile, the imperial assembly granted each principality the right to enact their own religious reforms until a national council could settle the issue.  This event also allowed princes to gain more control of their territories.

In 1527 Charles’ army sacked Rome and forced Clement VII to make a treaty.  Even Luther noted the irony of his two enemies fighting one another.  The second diet of Speyer met in 1529.  Archduke Ferdinand presided again, however, now he sought to reassert imperial authority over religious matters.  Ferdinand and the Catholic princes called for the enforcement of edict of Worms, ending changes to religious practices, and the restoration of episcopal authority.  Under the leadership of John of Electoral Saxony and Philip of Hesse the Lutheran princes and allied imperial cities issued a formal protestation against these demands.  They insisted that the Word of God bound their consciences against an oppressive majority.  For this reason, the Catholics identified them as “Protestants.”

The diet of Speyer in 1529 convinced Charles that the religious divisions seriously threatened imperial unity.  Following military victories over the French and the Turks, Charles decided to personally attend the diet of Augsburg.  At the beginning of 1530 he requested that the Lutheran princes and cities present a statement of faith to the diet.   John the Steadfast sought a theological statement from the Wittenberg theologians.  In response to Elector John’s request, Dr. Luther and his colleagues, most prominently Philip Melanchthon, wrote the Torgau Articles in March 1530.  The Lutheran princes and theologians attended the diet of Augsburg in the spring and summer of 1530.  Since Luther was an outlaw, he remained at Coburg Castle near the southern border of Electoral Saxony.  Philip Melanchthon led the Lutheran theologians and became the primary author of the Augsburg Confession.  He wrote and re-worked portions of the document until its official presentation to Charles on June 25, 1530.  The individuals who confessed their faith before their emperor that day were all laymen.  The original signers of this document included John the Steadfast and his son John Frederick (later called “the Magnanimous”), Philip of Hesse, George, margrave of Brandenburg, Duke Francis of Lüneburg, Wolfgang of Anhalt, and the leaders of Nuremberg and Reutlingen.  These princes and civic magistrates risked their wealth, power, and lives by signing this document.


Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Eds. Paul T. McCain et al. St Louis 2005.

Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations. Oxford 1996.

Steven Ozment. The Age of Reform: 1250-1550. New Haven 1980.

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