Reasons for the Success of Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire

Pre 1517 Social, Economic and Political Conditions

Heavy taxes from Papacy caused resentment from Princes and ruling class who thought the taxes should be theirs. This was closely associated with an increase in German nationalism.

Anticlericalism was a feature in all levels of society. The clergy were exempt from taxes and had many legal and social privileges over other citizens. These privileges led to anticlericalism being bundled with antipapal and nationalist feelings.

For peasants it was not just the church who were imposing heavy taxes on them. Their Princes were exploiting them also and a growing trend of peasant unrest was evident even before 1517.

Humanism and humanist scholars were already well established in some parts of Germany and their ideas were popular. It was in humanism that the groundings of the reformation were situated.

The Princes

As I have said the Princes were unhappy with Papal interference in their states. They viewed the Papacy as a foreign power rather that a holy centre of Christendom. This meant they felt they were paying taxes to a state that was a competitor in Europe which, with the trend of warring expansionist Popes, it had indeed become.

The Princes were also keen to continue to exert their power as autonomous rulers over their individual states. They wanted to keep Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, from gaining more power over them and their lands. This meant they were often willing to support causes just to spite Charles or to make a point of the autonomy.

Two clear power blocks emerged, one of Catholic Princes supported by Charles V and one of Protestant Princes with Electoral Saxony at the centre. However even then the Catholic princes were not always willing to fully support Charles for fear of him gaining to much power so Charles was forced to make concessions to even his allies to gain their support.

Elector Frederick of Saxony

Undeniably the most important prince of the Lutheran reformation was Frederick the Wise, ruler of Electoral Saxony. He was well respected and had recruited Luther to his university in Wittenberg in 1511. He protected Luther fiercely until his death in 1525.

He believed firmly in both his rights as the ruler of electoral Saxony and in the right for an argument to be heard in full before any rash judgement was made. It was these beliefs that drove him in his protection of Luther.

He remained a Catholic all his life but equally he felt that Luther could not be condemned until his argument had been properly assessed and analysed. It was this belief that led him to persuade Charles V to hear Luther present his ideas at the Diet of Worms in 1521 before he enforced the Papal bull, Decet Romanum, excommunicating Luther.

Luther went along to Worms and gave a stirring speech finishing with the famous words "Here stand I. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.". However this did not persuade Charles and the bull was enforced. Luther had been promised safe conduct to and from the Diet but to ensure his safety Frederick kidnapped him on his return journey and hid him away at Wartburg castle for over a year.

Post 1517 Social, Economic and Political Conditions

Upon the death of the Holy Roman Emperor a new Emperor was elected by the seven Electoral rulers in the Empire. In January 1519 Emperor Maximillian died and so the seven electors became essentially the most powerful men in the Empire. Frederick the Wise, rule of electoral Saxony, was one of these men. For some reason the Papacy decided to back an attempt by the King of France to put himself forward for Election and become Emperor. This meant that the Pope, Leo X, called off attacks on Luther so as not to anger Elector Frederick. This gave Luther vital time to develop and propagate his ideas.

Reaction from Roman Catholic Church

The Church very slow to react to Luther. A timeline of the Church's early reactions to Luther and Lutheranism:
  • 1517
    • Luther published his 95 theses. Tetzel replies with his 156 propositions.
    • The German Dominicans set out to destroy Luther, an Augustinian and natural rival of the Dominicans. They described Luther as the "New child of Satan".
    • Luther questioned the authority of the Pope to grant indulgences.
  • 1518
    • Luther summoned to Rome. Elector Frederick tells him not to go.
    • Luther has an interview with Cardinal Cajetan, the Papal legate in Germany. However Cajetan is a Dominican and nothing is resolved.
  • 1519
    • The death of Emperor Maximillian and the process of election halts opposition to Luther. The Papacy reigns in the Dominicans to avoid angering Frederick.
    • After Charles is elected the Dominicans challenge Luther to a debate. The result is the Leipzig disputation (June/July 1519). Luther sends Carlstadt to represent him at first but Dr Johannes Eck, the Dominican scholar, destroys him. Luther travels to Leipzig himself. Eck was extremely skilful and he manoeuvred Luther into agreeing with Jan Hus, a early 15th century heretic who was burnt at the stake.
    • Luther had denied the Pope was head of the Church and the Dominicans believed they had enough evidence to put him before a Papal court. Nothing happened however.
  • 1520
    • In January the case was reopened but the judges were Eck and Cajetan so Luther does not attend.
    • On the 15th June the bull Exsurge Domine is issued. It condemns 41 of Luther's ideas as heresy. He is given 60 days to take everything back.
    • Luther's books are burnt. Luther responds by burning some of Eck's writings, the bull and every single book on Papal law he could find.
  • 1521
    • In January the bull Decet Romanum is issued excommunicating Luther. The church asks Charles to enforce the bull and he does at the Diet of Worms but it is too late and Luther survives.
In all it took four years for the church to condemn Luther, whose writings were clearly heretical. This early leeway gave Luther time to establish his ideas firmly in a sufficient number of states for it to be safe for him to re-emerge in 1522.

Much as the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s failed to address the problem when decisive action would have done the church failed to realise the threat posed by Luther, Leo X branded it as "a mere monkish quarrel".

Reaction from Charles V

Charles was the most powerful man in Europe during his life. He was ruler of Spain, the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire. He was fiercely Catholic. How did he allow the Lutheranism to become firmly established in his Empire?

Part of Charles' problem was that since his Empire was so large he found it almost impossible to deal with the different problems arising in his different lands. He had problems in Spain since he didn't even speak Spanish and was widely mistrusted by the nobles there. He had to deal with repeated Turk attacks on the Hapsburg family lands. These and other problems meant that he was either unable to address Protestantism in Germany or was forced to make compromises to gain the support of the Princes in other matters.

1522-29 - Preoccupied in Spain with Italian Wars.

1526 - (1st) Diet of Speyer. Charles's brother Ferdinand attended but was preoccupied with Turks threatening Hapsburg lands. Lutherans agreed to provide troops in return for a decree of religious toleration.

1529 - Peace of Cambrai in Italy and Turks failure in siege of Vienna. Charles due to return and likely to deal with Protestantism.

1530-31 - Attempts at unification of Protestants and Catholics failed. Charles unable to take offensive action due to Turk menace.

1532 - Charles called a diet to gain help against the advancing Turks. The Roman Catholic princes refused so he turned to the Lutherans. This gave rise to the Religious Truce of Nuremberg. Lutherans promised help in return for toleration.

1335-39 - Distracted by Hapsburg/Valois rivalry (35-38), Turks in the Mediterranean (35-38) and revolt of Ghent (39).

1546-47 - Charles was now in a stronger position and using Spanish troops he advanced into central Germany. In 1547 he defeated the Lutherans at the Battle of Muhlberg.

1547-48 - Charles attempted to impose a religious settlement following his victory. However Lutheranism was too deeply entrenched and this failed. In addition the Roman Catholic Princes were alarmed at Charles' potential power.

1548-1552 - Charles' position deteriorated again. Family dispute between Philip and Ferdinand (48-52) and no progress at the Council of Trent (51-52).

1553 - Accepted defeat with the Religious Peace of Augsburg. This officially recognised the existence of Lutheranism. The ruler of each state was able to chose Roman Catholicism of Lutheranism - "cuius regio, eius religio".

The Peasants

Peasants consisted of 80% of the population of the Holy Roman Empire. There had been growing discontent among rural communities. Many peasants misunderstood Luther's ideas and thought that he was calling for social as well as religious reformation. This lead to the Peasants Revolt, 1524-26.

However Luther was essentially very conservative and believed in the natural order of society. He was shocked by the actions of Müntzer. This lead him to write his pamphlet "Against the thieving and murdering Hordes of Peasants" in 1525.

This condemnation lost the support of many peasants for Luther and drove many towards Anabaptism and the radical reformation. The importance of the Peasants in the success of Lutheranism declined and if anything their importance lay in Luther's rejection of them and their goals for social reform. Luther's clear condemnation ensured that he did not lose the Princes support which he would have done had he appeared to want to reform social structure.

Imperial Cities

The Imperial cities were self governing autonomous units with the Holy Roman Empire. They flocked to Lutheranism in large numbers. 65 cities were won over to Lutheranism.

The cities' strong fortifications made it impossible to storm them with the military technology of the day. This was a factor in Charles' early reluctance to use force.

However the cities played a minor part in the overall success of Lutheranism although they did foster much of the academic reform within the movement.

Luther Himself

The huge role that Martin Luther played himself is key to understanding the success of Lutheranism. He was a fierce preacher and spoke regularly in German, unusual for that time. He used violent language and would viciously verbally assault his opponents. This one him much support from the peasants and normal German people as he was able to communicate with them on a level they understood.

He also wrote huge numbers of leaflets and documents. Between 1527 and 1520 alone he wrote 30 different texts. These varied from elegant theological arguments to pages of insults about his enemies. The circulation of these writings was large and they were mostly written in German, a change from the traditional usage of Latin in all written tracts.

Luther worked tirelessly towards the furthering of his faith. He had never intended to break away from the Catholic church but equally he was so firm in his beliefs that he would not compromise to re-unite. He would not even compromise with fellow reformers as was seen at the Marlburg Colloquy, 1529.

His views of the social system were also extremely important. In Germany the only route open for reform was with the support of the Princes. They were too powerful for a peasant revolt to gain power and so Luther had to win them over. He did this through his firm belief in the order of society. He wrote that even if a lord was evil and tyrannical he should be obeyed as he had been given the power to rule by God. He would receive his punishment on Judgement day.

After his marriage to an ex-nun, Catherine von Bora, in 1525 he settled down. He stopped producing as many writings and he essentially lived a more normal life. After this point his main contribution to the reformation had passed. He lived out his life peacefully.

Lu"ther*an*ism, Lu"ther*ism (?), n.

The doctrines taught by Luther or held by the Lutheran Church.


© Webster 1913.

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