Reform in Germany: a context

The Question: Why will Luther succeed in Germany when Wycliffe failed in England, Hus failed in Bohemia, and Savonarola failed in Florence.” In other words, what were some of the critical factors that lead to the success of the reform in Germany when it had failed in other places?

German Princes and German Identity. The German princes were beginning to assert their political independence from Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor. Germany’s emerging political identity was fueled by its growing wealth in commerce and industry and the rise of its business class, the burghers, who were beginning to pursue their own interests. This new spirit of nationalism was to influence German society and its relationship to the Roman Church. Secular interests were taking precedence over religious matters. Germany’s newfound confidence and independence were to challenge papal and imperial authority and set forces in motion that were to affect European society during the Protestant Reformation.

The force of Martin Luther’s personality was certainly a factor. Luther appeared at a decisive moment in history. It was the growing interests of the princes and towns, however, that spurred and sustained this growing movement that would challenge the dominant religious and political authority of the Catholic Church. The Reformation was in part a secular movement and the rise of nationalism and economic rivalries led to its success. The growth of commerce and materialism in Germany, the emergence of German nationalism, and the German princes all played a decisive role in aiding the Reformation.

The Reformation stimulated by Germany’s emerging status and political power would, however, set back Germany’s unification for centuries. The Reformation that would bring Germany decades of religious conflict and centuries of cultural and economic decline in fact hindered German unity and did little to contribute to German democratic institutions.

Indulgences to the Rise of Nations. The German Reformation’s immediate cause was the issuance of indulgences by the papal agent Johann Tetzel upon the direction of Pope Leo X in 1517. It was this sale that prompted Martin Luther to post his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. These theses were translated from Latin into German, printed, and circulated throughout Germany. Soon a growing protest, founded in decades of papal oppression and abuses, was formed. In 1519 Luther was questioned by Church officials and debated with prominent theologians, and he openly questioned both the pope and the Roman curia, the Church council. In 1520, Luther wrote An Appeal to the Christian Nobility, calling on the German princes to take the initiative in the religious revolt. Pope Leo excommunicated Luther in 1521, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms placed him under the ban. Luther, however, was protected by the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Within the next few years, Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and soon members from all classes joined the movement.

In 1531 the Lutheran princes, who had protested Charles’ order against heretics, joined in the League of Schmalkald, which Charles ruthlessly put down. From then on, these dissidents were called Protestants. Charles’ action, however, was not effective, as Protestant zeal increased and the League continued to meet. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg provided that each prince establish the religion in his territory. Lutheranism was now firmly established in north and central Germany and Scandinavia. But boundaries were set until the Treaty of Westphalia (at the end of the Thirty Years War) set the borders of modern Europe (….sorta’….).  Even in 1648 you can see the complex mixture of princedoms, free cities, and the lot that defined the social, political and economic Germany of Luther’s time

2 thoughts on “Reform in Germany: a context

  1. Thanks for the information. It surely is a lesson in Catholic history and much of the religious world we live in.

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