Political Factors in the Spread of Lutheranism in Germany Between 1517 and 1555

The political situation in Central Europe was of crucial importance for the survival and spread of Lutheranism during the first half of the sixteenth century. It is very doubtful whether the religious beliefs and fervour of Luther and his followers could have made the permanent impression they did without the assistance of three factors. The first was the surprisingly muted reaction of the Pope and the Emperor Maximilian I to Luther's initial outbursts between 1517 and 1519, attributable to their preoccupation with German issues and the problem of the imperial succession. The second was the adoption of Lutheranism as the official state religion by a large number of German princes and Free Cities during the 1520s and 1530s, the motive for which was sometimes strongly secular. The third was the inability of the forces of orthodoxy to crush Lutheranism and its political protectors, largely because of the enormous range of internal and external problems confronting the Emperor Charles V between 1519 and 1556.

Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg in December 1517. For the next two years very little action was taken, and neither the Pope nor the Emperor immediately attempted to eradicate the new dissent. Indeed, Luther was not excommunicated until 1520, nor outlawed until 1521.

Pope Leo X did, it is true, set in motion the usual procedure for dealing with heresy by summoning Luther to Rome in July 1518. But instant complications saved Lutheranism at its inception. For reasons which will be explained in the next section, Luther was afforded full protection by the Elector Frederick of Saxony, who openly objected to papal attempts to extradite and try one of his most illustrious subjects. Leo had to tread warily to avoid needlessly antagonizing Frederick and stirring up the latent hostility of the German political authorities, for he had higher objectives in 1518 than the cross-examination of Luther. He hoped to persuade the German princes to agree to an extra tax, on secular and ecclesiastical property, to finance a crusade against the Turks in an effort to win back the eastern Mediterranean to Christendom. Compared with this magnificent design, the silencing of one dissident academic must have appeared a relatively trivial matter, and there is no reason why Leo should have suspected, in Luther, a new threat to the Catholic Church at least as dangerous as Islam.

Meanwhile, the Emperor Maximilian I had, since 1517, been preoccupied with his own objective: to ensure the succession of his grandson Charles to the imperial throne. Although he had no sympathy with religious dissent of any kind, Maximilian did not intend to create difficulties for himself by putting pressure on one of the key Electors to surrender Luther for examination in Rome; Frederick might well retaliate by withholding crucial support for Charles's candidature. Indeed, Maximilian did what he could to avert any confrontation over Luther, advising the Pope to act with leniency and great caution. As a result, Leo withdrew his summons and agreed to allow Luther to appear instead before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg. When Luther refused to recant at this meeting, Leo dispatched a special envoy, Miltitz, to persuade the Elector of Saxony to put a little more pressure on his protégé to moderate his views. The Pope was eminently tactful, going so far as to confer on Frederick the Golden Rose, a signal papal favour. Luther, therefore, had little to fear, especially as events in 1519 pushed him even further into the background.

Maximilian's death in January 1519 was followed by an intensive campaign to elect a successor. The most prestigious title in Europe was contested by Charles (King of Spain, Archduke of Austria and Duke of Burgundy), Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. The attitude of the papacy to these candidates was of vital importance and accounts for the continued leniency shown towards Luther. Leo X wanted to prevent the election of Charles, for he feared that the combination of Charles's enormous inheritance and the imperial title would create a formidable political power in Europe and thereby revive the old conflict between Emperors and Popes which had been a common theme in the Middle Ages. He therefore backed Francis I, but then swiftly changed his mind in favour of a candidate who would be politically weaker and more susceptible to papal influence in the future. Thus the Pope tried to persuade Frederick of Saxony to stand, knowing that Frederick had a reasonable chance of securing the support of some of the other Electors and thereby depriving Charles of their vote. Naturally, Leo had to suspend any proceedings against Luther in deference to Frederick's views. The result was that Luther's ideas spread with impunity through Saxony during the course of 1519, receiving considerable publicity between 27 June and 8 July in the disputation with Eck at Leipzig. Eventually papal diplomacy collapsed; Frederick wisely refused to stand for the title and Charles was elected Emperor on 28 June. Although this was a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome as far as Leo was concerned, it did mean that he was no longer so dependent on Frederick's good will, and that he could now re–examine the problem posed by the professor at Wittenberg. Unfortunately for Leo, Luther's reputation had grown rapidly during the two year respite—so much so that several political authorities were prepared to throw in their lot with Lutheranism and to risk the censure and counter–measures which would inevitably follow.

Frederick of Saxony, the first of Luther's supporters was a leading sponsor of German humanism and the founder of Wittenberg University in 1502. He had no intention of allowing any external interference in the academic or religious life of Saxony and, although he did not agree with all of Luther's opinions, he firmly upheld his right to express them. Between 1517 and 1519 Frederick's task was simplified by the predicament in which the Emperor and the Pope found themselves. But even when Leo X assumed a tougher policy in 1520, Frederick continued to support Luther, despite the latter's excommunication. More important still was Frederick's decisive intervention immediately after the Diet of Worms in 1521; by arranging to have Luther secretly taken to Wartburg Castle he saved him from being hunted down as an outlaw, and enabled him to concentrate for the next few years on his writing. During the decade after the Diet of Worms Lutheranism gained extensive support beyond the borders of Saxony. It was adopted as the state religion by Philip of Hesse, the rulers of Brunswick, Wurttemberg, Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Pomerania, and the Imperial Cities of Strasbourg, Ulm, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck. Many of these authorities were not merely toying with the new religion. They were prepared to commit themselves to alliances like the Leagues of Torgau (1525 and 1551) and the Schmalkaldic League (1531). Although these were intended primarily to exert diplomatic pressure on Charles V to accept Lutheranism, the princes were prepared to resort to active military resistance against heavy odds, as they showed in the Schmalkaldic War.

In addition to having a genuine religious commitment to Lutheranism, the princes were heavily influenced by political considerations. They seized upon the new religion as an ideological justification for separatism and for their defiance of imperial authority; they could always argue that the Emperor had no legitimate claim of sovereignty as long as he remained a Catholic. At the same time, Luther showed that he was firmly behind the political authority of the individual princes, and that his demands for religious reform would not degenerate into a socio–political movement aimed at overthrowing rulers. During the Peasants’ War (1524–5) he condemned the use of rebellion as a means of settling grievances, and told the rebels, in his Friendly Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants: ‘.no matter how right you are, it is not for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil’.1 This was an argument which the authorities naturally found very attractive. Also, in many cases, the conversion of rulers to Lutheranism was followed by a scramble to secularize Church property, and Melancthon complained: ‘Under cover of the Gospel, the princess were only intent on the plunder of the Churches.’2 There certainly seems to have been a strong element of opportunism in the attacks made on the Church for its wealth, and much of the proceeds went into the state coffers. Philip of Hesse, for example, allocated 59 per cent of the confiscated property and revenues to charity and education, but kept 41 per cent for himself.3

What was Luther's reaction to the political connections developed by his movement? At first he expressed himself very cautiously on the subject of political authority. In an ideal world, composed entirely of devout Christians, ‘no prince, King, lord, sword or law would be needed’. Unfortunately: ‘This you will never accomplish: for the world and masses are and always will be unchristian.’4 On the whole the Christian was, in Luther's view, obliged to submit to the sovereign power, and was not entitled to rebel. During the 1520s Luther experienced a crisis of conscience. He clearly did not wish to become the focal point of a wide–scale rebellion against the Emperor's authority; this is why he refused to be associated in any way with the Knights’ War in 1522. He avoided using the powers which he realized he possessed, observing of the 1521 Diet: ‘Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany. Yea, I could have started such a little game at Worms that the Emperor would not have been safe.’4 Nor did he entirely approve of those Princes who were beginning to question imperial authority. In his opinion, some of them were self–seeking and unscrupulous, apparently justifying his maxim that ‘He who wants to be a ruler must have the Devil for his godfather.’4 Yet, by 1530, Luther had responded to the support of the princes and had come to realize that a conflict with the Emperor was inevitable: ‘Thus one of two things must happen, war or revolt; maybe both together.’5 Before long he had lost his remaining misgivings and at last gave his open approval of princely separatism.

Three reasons can be advanced for this gradual change in attitude. First, Lutheranism never possessed an inherent capacity for organization, and it came to depend upon the state rulers to provide a workable structure and to exercise control in the form of the Visitation, or inspection. It therefore became more and more involved in the power struggles within the Empire, being aligned with the aspirations of the princes. Second, Luther could not appeal for the support of the masses, and cut through this dependence on aristocratic patronage, because he had alienated huge sections of the peasantry by his advice to the authorities in 1525: ‘Therefore strike, throttle, stab, secretly or openly, whoever can, and remember that there is nothing more poisonous, more hurtful, more devilish than a rebellious man.’6 Indeed, many peasants returned to Catholicism or joined more extreme movements like Anabaptism. Finally, of course, Luther continued to depend on the princes for his protection. When Charles V rejected Luther's Augsburg Confession in 1530, Luther realized that the prospects for future compromise were so remote that he could no longer express unqualified opposition to rebellion without also depriving himself of the means of survival.

At the Diet of Worms Charles V declared his policy towards Luther. ‘I am’, he said, ‘descended from a long line of Catholic emperors of this noble German nation, of the Catholic kings of Spain, the archdukes of Austria, and the dukes of Burgundy. They were all faithful to the death to the Church of Rome, and they defended the Catholic faith and the honour of God. I have resolved to follow in their steps. A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul … ’2 The Edict of Worms, which declared Luther an outlaw, followed the Papal Bull of Excommunication (1520) in reversing the previous cautious measures. The future of Lutheranism looked bleak, for Charles V had access to more resources than any of his predecessors. Yet the nature of his dominions and the problems associated with them absorbed much of his attention, preventing him from keeping his counter–attack at full strength.

As ruler of the largest Christian empire in Europe since that of Charlemagne, Charles was inevitably confronted by extensive administrative and economic problems. He had no overall capital, no central executive, and no common budget or treasury. He had to make separate arrangements for each of his dominions, and spent much time visiting them individually as the need arose. Internal dissent was a constant threat and a major source of distraction; Castile, for example, revolted in 1520, Ghent in the late 1530s, and many of the German princes and cities systematically undermined imperial authority throughout the period. Charles was even forced to deal with a bitter family dispute over the succession to the Habsburg dominions, involving his brother, Ferdinand, and his son, Philip.

External difficulties were even more serious. The Habsburg dominions were threatened from the west by France and from the east by the Ottoman Empire; these peripheral powers, in fact, formed the most significant alliance of the century. Charles V was obliged, on many occasions, to abandon his schemes to eradicate Lutheranism and turn, instead, to face the latest invasion. While Charles was thus preoccupied, Lutheranism was able to consolidate its position or to recover from a previous reverse. Three examples illustrate this. During the 1520s the Habsburgs were continually at war, Charles V with France (1521–9), and Ferdinand with the Turks. As a result, Charles V could not attend the crucial Diet of Speyer in 1526, at which it was conceded that each German prince should decide his own policy towards Lutheranism. This encouraged more rulers to take the plunge and adopt Lutheranism as their state religion. Then, during the 1530s, Charles had to deal with a concerted Franco-Turkish offensive in the western Mediterranean, which kept Habsburg resources fully stretched. Finally, Lutheranism was threatened with extinction after the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547, only to be reprieved by the French invasion of the Empire in 1552.

Even the Emperor's relations with the Pope were strained. The papal fear of Charles's power, so evident in the imperial election campaign of 1519, re-emerged at times, to prevent a united Catholic offensive against Luther. Pope Clement VII, for example, drew up a treaty with France in 1524 and joined the League of Cognac against Charles V in 1526, only to see Rome captured and sacked by the Emperor's troops in 1527. Pope Paul IV, as a Neapolitan, opposed the Habsburg domination of southern Italy and therefore formed an alliance with France against Charles in 1556. The Counter Reformation might have been expected to effect a reconciliation between Emperor and Pope, but unfortunately there were disagreements between Charles V and Paul III over the precise purpose of the General Council of the Church. By the time that the Catholic Church was sufficiently revived to take active measures against Protestantism, Charles V had abdicated and Lutheranism had been given legal status within the Empire by the Religious Peace of Augsburg.

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