The Protestant Reformation: Germany

Figure 1.--Luther married Katherina von Bora (1525). They had six children, but only four survived childhood. Many artists as the Reformation became established depicted the family. Here is one such depiction of the Luther family with the family singing Christmas carols at home. We are not sure who the painter was or when this was painted. Luther had a profound imact on church music which he thought was very important. As other Protestant denominations developed, music was one issue on which they disagreed.

The heart and soul of the Protestant Revolution was in Germany. In began when Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the church door in Witenberg. He was offended by the sale of indulgences which struck at all the major themes of the Reformation. Luther was offened that an agent of the pope was selling indulgences forgiving future sins. Here initially it was a doctrinal matter, but it also it affected the pope's use of German Church income and the naionalistic concerns of foreign control over the German Church. Matters escalated when the Reformation became associated with the struggle between the emperor and German princes over political power. It should be stressed that the German Reformation was not a struugle for religious freedom, but rather a struggle over whose faith would prevail.

Johann Tetzel (1460?-1519)

Johann Tetzel was a Dominican priest who became notorious for selling indulgences. Tetzel and others were selling indulgences to help fund the ongoing construction and decoration of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, a hugely expensive undertaking. Tetzel was a German monk who entered the Dominican order in 1489. He proved to be a gifted preacher. The pope commissioned him to preach the jubilee indulgence (1502), which he did for the rest of his life. The Dominicans were the backbone of the Holy Inquisition and Tetzel was made an inquisitor (1509). Finally Pope Leo X made him commissioner of indulgences for Germany (1517). The impudence which Tetzel sold provided for the full forgiveness of sins, including sins not yet committed. Many Germans considered this a scandolus way to raise money and exmplified Rome's concern with the Church as an institutiin rather than Biblical teaching. Luthir was outraged when he learned of Terzel's indulgences anf definatly preached against him. They are thought to have inspired his "95 Thesis".

Martin Luther (1517)

The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Thesis" on the church door in Wittenberg (1517). Luther was offended by the papal sale of indulgences. As the pope had authoirized the indulgences, the Church could hardly accept Luther's call for reform. The problem was that even though indulgences were not a critical element of Catholic doctrine, papal infalibility was. The Church ordered Luther to retract his statements and to submit to Church authority. Instrad Luther became more intransigent and expanded his call for reform to include central aspects of the Roman Catholic faith, the sacramental system and insisted that salvation was based on on personal religiouds faith based on an understanding of the guidance contained in the Bible. On these issues the Church could not comprimise and Luther faced excomunication. A defiant Luthir burned the papal bull (notice) of excomunication and a volume of cannon law. Luthrer was no longer a reformer, but had broken irrevocably broken with the pope and the Church hierarchy. Luther's theological contentions were soon combined with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take European Church and temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars.

Holy Roman Empire

The reformtion began in Germany. This was no accident. The Reformation was only partially a religious movement. It was also a German nationalist movement, alienated from a foreign-dominated church. The Reformation would have had difficulty arising in othr countries with more centralized regimes. Some German princes, desiring to establish their independemce and soverignity, used the Reformation to weaken the authority of the emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was not a centralized state before the Reformation. After the Reformation it was weakened even further. The irony is that it was the Papacy that played a major role in weaking te imperial regime and preventing the Holy Roman Empire from coalesing into a powerful, centralized state. It was the relatively weak emperor that was unable to prevent the Reformation and the split in Western Christendom.

Charles V (1500-58)

Charles V was born in 1500. He became king of Spain in 1516 and Holy Romam Emperor in 1519. His father was Hapsburg Philip I and Joanna of Castile. He was thus destined to inherit a realm of vast territory and power. Charles was born in Ghent and raised in the Netherlands until 1517. He was tutored by scholar Adrian of Utrecht and later by Pope Adrian VI. Few individuals even monarchs can be said to have been tutored by a pope. Beginning with the death of his father, Charles inherited a vast holdings and territories. Philip I left him the Netherlands and Franche-Comté (1506). Ferdinand his grandfather left him Castile (joint ruler with his insane mother (1516). This also meant he ruled Aragon, Navarre, Granada, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and the growing Spanish empire in America. Emperor Maximillian, his other grandfaher, left him Austria and other Hapsburg lands (1519). He was then elected Holy Roman Emperor. Charles married the infanta (princess) Isabella, sister of John III of Portugal, who had shortly before married Catherine, Charles's sister. Charles at a very young age was immediately confronted with Luther and the growing problem of the Reformation in Germany. His ability to handle the growing pronlem in Germany was complicated by a series of military confrintations with both France and the Turks. There was a campaign in Northern Italy (1521). Another campaign resulted in the sacking of Rome (1527). In command of Rome the Pope was in no position to annull the marriage between Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon who was Charles' aunt. (Henry was furious and the result of course was the English Refotrmaion.) Charles summoned Martin Luther to the Diet of Worms (1521). Luther ereceived safe conduct, but when ordered to recant and he refused, Charles declared Luther and his followers outlaws. He was unable, however, to focus his resources to suppress the growing support for Luther as he was involved in a war supported by Henry VIII of England, against their common enemy--Frnce. Charles' forces captured François I of France and forced him to sign the Treaty of Madrid (1526) in François renounced claims on Northern Italy. As soon as he was released, however, François renounced the treaty. The situation in Germany worsened with the Peasants' Revolt and the growing Reformation, especially the formation of the Schmalkaldic League. Charles faced with problms abroad, delegated considerable responsibility for German domestic problems to his brother Ferdinand. Charles' principal problem was he faced a major military chalenge in the Mediterranean from Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. This was componded by an alliance between Suleiman and François I which made it impossibe for Charles to concentrate his forces to deal with either as well as the Protestants within the Empire. Charles hope to resolve the Reformation with the opening of the Council of Trent (1545). This was in effect thge opening of the Counter Reformation. Charles manage to win the support of some German princes for the Catholic cause. He attacked the Schmalkaldic League and achieved battlefield successes against the protestant princes (1546). He defeated John Frederick I of Saxony and imprisoned Philip of Hesse (1547). Charles at the Diet of Augsburg supported doctrinal compromises that he hoped would bring the Protestants back to the Catholic Church (1547). Charles made the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands a seperate entity from both the Empire and from France which was called the "Pragmatic Sanction" (1548). These efforts, however, did not resolve the Reformation crisis. Charles worn down by constant domestic and international crises abdicated (1556). Most of his possesions and titles went to his son, Philip II of Spain. The Hapsburg territories in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire went to his brother, Ferdinand. Charles retired to the monastery of Yuste in Spain and may have suffered a nervous breakdown before dieing (1558).

Diet of Worms (1521)

Many Germans were sympathetic to Luther. To add authority to the pope's action, Emperor Charles V and the German princes and ecclesiastics asselmled at Worms to consider the issues (1521). The Diet of Worms also ordered Luther to recant. When he refused he was declared an outlaw and went into hiding.

Spread of Luther's Ideas

While in hiding he wrote pamflets with were printed in large numbers for distribution throughout Germany. Luther made the first eidespread use of the printing press to diseminate religious and political ideas. He also translated the Bible into German. Imperial and Church efforts to stop the distribution of these ideas failed. These pamphlets succeeded in turning major German cities into hotbeds of Lutheranism. Luther succeed in convincing large numbers of Germans. When he emerged from hiding in his home town of Wittenberg, Germany was a deeply divided country along both religious and and economic/social lines. The Roman Cathlolic Church was supported by Emperor Charles V, most of the German princes, and the hierarchy of the German Church. Luther on the other hand received support from the north German princes, the lower clergy, the commercail class in German towns, and segments of the peasantry.

German Peasant Wars (1524-25)

The German Peasant War (Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was the rebellion of agrarian peasants including many serfs in the southern and central parts of the German states of the Holy Roman Empireagainst their aristocratic land owners. As the peasants marched on towns and cities, the urban poor often joined the revolution. The feudal system in Western Europevwas in decline. Theoretical the feudal was a system of mutual responsibility and benefits among the populaion from the monarchy down to the peasantry including the serfs. The kings and princes of the Holy Roman Empire were attempting to create nation states and independence from he Holy Roman Emperor. The aristocracy was attempting to gain nmore control over their estates which meant more forcibly binding the peasantry to the land and increasinf labor services (the coevée). The peasants were attempting to maintain some of their feudal protections, but to also increase their ability to tke advantages of the increasing economic opportunities made possible by the economic changes. The Reformation set in motion new ideas including resistance to authority. A substantial segment of the German peasantry was attracted to Luther's idea, but perhaps more for economic than theological reasons. If the authority of the established Roman Catholic Church could be questioned, the logical corollary was that established state power could also be questioned. Actual revolts occured in 1524. Luther was at first sympathetic urging the aristocratic and clerical landlords to meet the peasant demand for emancipation from feudal services. He soon turned against the peasants because he did want his theological issues mixed in with a radical call for social reform. He wrote a classic pamflet, 'Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants'. The peasants failed because of the aristocracy was better armed and more organized. Ultimately some 100,000-300,000 peasants were slaughtered as the rebellion was put down. The peasants were suppressed, in part by the same Imperial forces (1525).

Diets of Speyer (1526-29)

The German princes, wishing to avoid war, agreed at the First Diet of Speyer that German princes wishing to practice Lutheranism should be allowed to do so (1526). The Catholic majority decided 3 years later at the Second Diet of Speyer to abrogate this dispensation (1529). The Lutheran minority protested the descission and thus became known as Protestants. The first Protestants were Lutherans, but other new Chrustian sect separating from the Cathlolic Church also became known as Protestants.

Augsburg Confession (1530)

The German scholar Melanchthon compiled what he hoped was a concilatory statement of Luther's principal points which he provided to Emperor Charles V and the Cathlolic faction in Germany. The effort was unsuccessful in recolcling the opossed religious factuions. It was such a clear, elregant statement, however, that it became the basis for the Lutheran faith.

Schmalkaldic League

It was clear by the late 1520s that there would be an attempt by the Charles V and the Cathlolic faction to supress Luther and his Protestant supporters. As a result, the Protestant princes of northern Germany formed the Schmalkaldic League knowing that it would be suisidal if they allowed the Emperor to attack them individually.

Council of Trent (1545-63)

The Council of Trent was the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church. It was a protracted assessment of the issues raised by the Reformaytion. It was held at Trent during 1545-63. The Concil was a key element in the Counter Revolution and efforts to meet the challenge of the Protestants. Church leaders had propsed a couuncil years earlier. The idea of a Council had a first been opposed by the papacy which feared it might weaken their authority. King Francis I of France opposed it because the Reformation turmoil in Germany weakened his arch opponent Charles V. The council was held in three prolonged sessions (1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63) during the reign of three different popes (Paul III, Julius III, Pius IV). The decrees of the Council were confirmed by Pope Pius IV in 1564. The results were announced in the Netherlands (1565).

German Religious War (1546-55)

The Emperor Charles V was initially unable to deal forcefully with the Protestants. The bulk olf his considerable forces were involved in wars with threTurks in the East and Framce in the West. This delay was crucucial foir Luther and the Protestants. A show of force at an early stahe may have well destroyed the Reformation at an early stage and Luthir may have been burned at the stake like Huss in Bohemia. By the mid-1540s, however, the Lutheran faith was well established in norther Germany and many cities throughout Germany. The Emperor and the Catholic forces thus faced a major military campaign, not against a peasant rable, but professional armies raised by the northern princes. Charles V's forces aided by the Duke Maurice of Saxony and the pope initated their campaign with some success (1546). When Duke Mauruce changed sides, however, Charles was forced to come to terms. The Religious Peace of Augsburg ended the fighting (1555). The key term s of the Peace permitted each of the approximately 300 German princes within the Holy FRoman Empire (rulers) to choose either Catholocism or Luthernism and enforce that choice in his subjects. This was the first official recognition of a Protestant faith. It alsp meant that the concept of a single all encompasing Christain community in Western Christendom under the authority of the pope was permanently ended.

The Modern Mind

Luther and the Reformation played a major role in the development of the modern Western mind set. The origins of course can be traced to Greece and Rome and the Renaisance had renewed the familiarity of European scholars with surviving works of the great classics. The core belief of the Greeks was that man was the measure of all things. Christianity as it developed in Europe put God at the center of the universe and individuals were not encouraged to read, even the Bible. Individuals who questioned not only Church theological doctrine, but Church doctine on the natural world were putting their lives in danger. This put limitations on how Europeans could advance science. (Similar limitations did not exist in China which is one reason why Chinese science until the Renasance was more advanced than European science.) The Reformation had two impacts on the closed Roman Catholic mind set. First, Luther believed that individuals should read and study the Bible to persue their own personal salvation rather then simply follow the instructions of the Church through the priesthood. Luther was primarily thinking in religious terms. But incouraging people to read, study, and think had ramifications in many other areas, including politics, philosophy, science, and other areas. Second, Luther by destoying the Roman Catholic church as a arbiter of values and morals created a diversity in Europe which was condusive for the development of democracy. Here we do not say that Luther believed in diversity any more than the pope did, but we maintain that the Reformation created conditions in which diversity of thought could develop, Luther's emphasis on reading and education was another factor in the growth of democracy.


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Created: August 29, 2003
Last updated: 5:48 PM 12/9/2012