Who is John the Steadfast?

By Martin R. Noland

John the Steadfast
John the Steadfast

Who was the first Protestant? If you guessed Martin Luther, you would be close, but not right. The word “Protestant” was first applied to the German rulers who opposed the imperial laws adopted at the second Diet of Speyer in 1529. Chief among the protesters was John “the Steadfast,” Elector of Saxony, who thereby gained a reputation as the first and foremost Protestant.

Although John the Steadfast is not well-known outside of Lutheran circles, he should be. Without his steadfast conviction that Luther’s teaching was true, and his steadfast actions in defense of the Reformation, there would no Protestant church today. Without John’s protection, Luther would have experienced the same fate as Jan Huss, who was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Without John’s wisdom in political affairs, the Lutherans in Germany would have been murdered like the 20,000 French Calvinists on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.

German Lutherans still remember the role that John the Steadfast played in defending their religion. The Wittenberg Castle Church has two prominent tombs today. These are not the graves of Luther and Melanchthon, who are buried in front of the pulpit, but the graves of John and Elector Frederick “the Wise” (his older brother). The electors are buried in front of the altar under huge bronze memorial slabs. They are flanked by alabaster statues, depicting them kneeling in prayer, and by magnificent bronze sculptures of the two electors in ceremonial garb and sword.

John the Steadfast was born in 1468 at Meissen, known today for its famous porcelain. He received a scholarly education, was trained in the arts of the knight, and gained prestige in battles against the Ottoman Turks. John became an enthusiastic reader of Martin Luther’s writings. When the papal bull was published against Luther in 1520, John was responsible for making sure it was not enacted in Electoral Saxony. Through correspondence, he convinced his brother Frederick at Worms to be more bold in his defense of Luther, resulting in Luther’s protection at the Wartburg. In October 1522, John heard Luther preach sermons at the court of Weimar on the powers and limits of secular authority (German: Von weltlicher Obrigkeit). These sermons became John’s personal political philosophy.

Upon the death of Frederick in May 1525, John the Steadfast became the Elector of Saxony. In those days, the Saxon Elector was second only to the emperor in power and influence in the Holy Roman Empire. Upon his accession, John announced to the clergy of Saxony that, in the future, the pure Word of God should be preached without human addition and that all useless ceremonies were to be abolished. In February 1526, John ratified a treaty with the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, which was soon joined by other Lutheran states. This was the beginning of political organization in defense of the Lutheran church.

John the Steadfast also defended the Lutheran church from economic disaster. The Saxon aristocracy had been appropriating church lands, which had previously been used as capital assets to pay the salaries of clergy, teachers, janitors, maintenance, and capital improvements. John put a stop to this appropriation, ensuring that the church was properly endowed for the present and future. John also assisted Luther and Melanchthon in the reform of the University of Wittenberg, which became the pattern for Lutheran universities until the present day!

The imperial laws adopted at the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, if enacted, would have resulted in the eradication of the Lutheran religion in the Holy Roman Empire. Along with his allies, John the Steadfast protested these laws. Emperor Charles the Fifth then challenged the Protestants to defend their new religion and its practices, which they did at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Their defense is known as the Augsburg Confession, with its first signature being that of Elector John the Steadfast.

From this history, we learn that the first “confessors” and defenders of the Lutheran church were laymen. Their spiritual heirs should remember that the Lutheran church cannot survive without laymen who also confess and defend this faith. John the Steadfast met his Savior on August 10, 1532.

Rev. Dr. Martin Noland