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Martin Luther's
German Reformation

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


By the beginning of the 16th century, the political circumstances in Germany were crucial. Germany was evolving out of the Middle Ages (with its dependency on feudalism) and into the modern age (with its emphasis on a strong central government in a nation state). Luther's religious reform would play a crucial role in this event.


By the year 1517 Germany was an entity known commonly as the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor, however, had lost much of his authority during the great Church vs State conflicts which happened during the 12th and 13th centuries. There were therefore some 300 states which made up the Empire, some large like Saxony, others small like the Palatinate. Some were merely city-states.


The rulers of the German states were varied in rank. Some, like Bohemia, were ruled by a King while others, like Saxony, were ruled by a Duke. There were also Church states and some city-states were under the control of a Bishop. The larger territories were fairly powerful while some of the smaller states were weak.

Although the emperor had lost much of his power during the 12th century, he was nevertheless using every opportunity to regain some of that lost power. He would therefore head a movement which ultimately would seek to re-unify Germany under his command. To do that, however, he would need to suppress the remnants of the old feudalism in much the same way in which the King of France was doing.

The rulers of the German states, on the other hand, would use every opportunity available to them to maintain their own power and prevent the unification. They were therefore suspicious of any move by the emperor which looked in any way likely to conflict with their traditional power.

The emperor, however, had other problems. He was emperor of Germany but often king of another territory. Emperor Charles V, under whose reign the Lutheran reformation took place, was also Charles I, King of Spain, as well as Charles the Duke of Burgundy. He therefore had the interests of his Spanish and Burgundian territories to look after, and sometimes these conflicted with those of the German Empire.

He was nevertheless expected to lead his Empire in defence from outside attack. Such was the case for Emperor Charles V who had to protect Germany from possible attack from the Moslem Ottoman Empire in the south-east. He therefore needed to make promises and compromises with the various German princes in order to maintain their support and to prevent them usurping power while he was otherwise occupied.

His emperorship was no longer hereditary, with seven elector states tasked with electing an emperor. The electors were the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, as well as the rulers of the Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg and Bohemia. To gain election the candidate was forced to promise the continued independence of these states.

Charles V was a young man when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. He was therefore still eager to please the electors who had voted him into this privileged office. It is natural that he was also striving to please them so that his own son would be elected his successor and so make the emperorship hereditary. It was hardly likely he would rock the boat.

Such was the world in which Martin Luther lived at the time of nailing his theses to the church door. How responsible was he therefore in causing the catastrophe which was to follow? Was he not simply a man of his time, whose actions became caught up in the eddy of international power struggles and personal ambitions?


Luther was a monk until the age of 40. He was a hot headed but spiritually uneasy man, with many dark and introspective recesses to his personality. He was terrified by the thought of the awful omnipotence of God. At the same time, he was distressed by his own littleness, apprehensive of the devil, and suffering from the chronic conviction that he was damned. Indeed, a distinctly unbalanced personality.

His psychological make-up came, it seems, from his unhappy childhood when he was punished relentlessly for minor offenses. As a result, he came to be tortured by spiritual anxiety and appeared to have been terrified by an ever-present fear of God, whom he conceived as an unforgiving judge punishing every infringement of the law.

The question of how he could please God soon became uppermost in his mind and ultimately determined the course of his life. He became a lawyer but the question of how to please God caused him so much mental anguish that he suddenly decided to become a monk where he devoted himself unremittingly to winning the favour of God by the customary discipline of fasting, praying and scourging.

He found no peace of soul. Indeed, he was a spiritual neurotic until he suddenly drew inspiration from St Paul and drew up his thesis of "justification by faith alone". This doctrine was not necessarily at odds with Catholic teaching and it was quite possible for him to give himself over to it without actually breaking with the Church. It seems that his eventual break was simply a question of circumstances which could quite easily have gone the other way.

The Catholic Church, through historic circumstances, had come to be modelled on the German feudal empire. It had also evolved into a system of feudalism, with pope as feudal overlord ("His Holiness"), the cardinals below him ("His Eminence"), then the Metropolitan or Archbishops ("His Grace"), the Bishops ("His Lordship") and the Monsignors ("His Excellence").

The clergy were those people ordained to carry out certain rituals which only they could do. These acts were called sacraments which were "visible signs of invisible grace" (a sort of hose-pipe conveying grace from heaven to earth). There were seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders and the Sacrament of the Sick.

If anyone attempted to preach anything at variance with Church teaching, he/she could be silenced by excommunication. A person dying in such a state would go straight to hell. In this way the Church was able to keep reformers in line. But Luther's attack was not against the Catholic Church's central core of theology, but against the peripheries.

His belief in justification by faith alone could easily have been reconciled with Church teaching because, after all, the Catholic teaching of grace through good works was merely an attempt to get people to live a more saintly life. In fact, Luther was forced to acknowledge that, although justification is by faith alone, nevertheless good works is an indication of that faith.

He also attacked the sale of indulgences, then a core subject of Church activity. Although indulgences may seem strange to modern society, it was a very real way in which the Catholic Church attempted to get its members to be more religious. By offering an indulgence, the Church was succeeding in getting the majority of its members to perform certain acts and prayers.

Martin Luther was not initially against the idea of indulgences. He was also not so angered even by the sale of indulgences. He objected to the fact that the Church failed to demand that the person earning the indulgence had first to be in a state of grace. His questioning the existence of seven sacraments was also not necessarily a major problem because the Church's own teaching was constantly in a state of flux.

Where then did the problem lie? Most people admitted that there were glaring abuses within the Catholic Church, especially in such things as simony and pluralism. They objected to the fact that people of influence could be dispensed from certain laws (e.g. the annulment of marriages). They also pointed to the moral decline of the clergy and the monasteries.

The Church had faced such problems before and they had been overcome through reform. Perhaps the papacy of the early 16th century was extremely corrupt at that moment, yet the Renaissance popes were not the most corrupt in the history of the Church. Had Luther attacked such blatant abuses, he might have been more successful.

The chief problem seemed to lie in the desire of the German princes to break free of what they believed was bondage under the papacy and its ally, the German Empire. Luther's fight with the Church presented an ideal opportunity. The princes therefore rallied behind him and gave him enough support to make him rebellious. Had he not been given such confidence, would he have stepped so far?

The Catholic Church was also a major problem because of the unbending face it presented. It was quick to enter into clever rhetoric against Luther. Although as a university man, he enjoyed such rhetoric, Luther also had a stubborn streak. The Church was therefore able to goad him into making declarations for which John Huss of Bohemia had earlier been burned at the stake.

Luther himself, finding that he had been cleverly manoeuvred into a corner, became obstinate and refused to retract, especially when he perceived that there was so much political and academic support from the German princes and students. The Church then presented him with a Papal Bull which excommunicated him, but which he in turn burnt publicly. At that point the die was cast.


It is probable that, if the emperor had stepped in immediately, the revolt could have been suppressed. Yet two factors militated against such action. First, the emperor was a very young man (he was 19) and proved indecisive. He had also only recently been elected emperor and had been forced to make certain promises to the electors, the chief of which was an acceptance to call a general assembly of the princes before making any major decisions.

Charles found himself helpless to impose on the German states the Roman Catholic edict by which Luther was declared a heretic and outlaw of the Empire. Instead he left it up to the individual princes to enforce or not enforce it as they saw fit. He therefore promised not to enter into any German territory to arrest Luther without the permission of the prince.

Charles was also in other political difficulties. Not only did he have the Turks snapping at his heels, but he found himself in a war with France for which he desperately needed the aid of the German states. He therefore could not afford to alienate the Germans by reneging on his agreement with them. By 1530, when the war was over, the rift was already too deep.

Some of the electors were themselves now Lutherans who protested against any action against Martin Luther and had formed themselves into a defensive union (Schmalkaldic League) in case the Emperor attacked. Before Charles could go to war against the Schmalkaldic League, however, advancing Turks took his attention and so it was not until 1546, after Charles's death, that the empire could go to war and so started the Wars of Religion.

Lutheranism was now a generation old and fully cemented into the life of customs of the German peoples. The Reformation had happened and would be very difficult to reverse.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. Why would the political makeup of Germany have ensured that Martin Luther's reformation would succeed?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. Is it true that Luther's grievances with the Catholic Church were not really all that extreme?
  4. [Need help?]

  5. It was mainly Luther's character which made him persevere with his rebellion against the Church. Do you agree?
  6. [Need help?]

  7. Was the emperor dithering or just unable to take a stand against the German rebellion?
  8. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

"And what's a plenary indulgence?" Bronnie asked.

"That's your get out of jail free' card," Popsie explained from his slumber. "It's the only indulgence worth the effort because, once earned, you're guaranteed heaven without ever having to pass go' . . . no matter how bad you've been."

"Really?" Bronnie was incredulous.

"In my youth," Popsie said, "I earned many plenary indulgences. Mass on the first Friday for nine months. Stations of the cross on Good Friday. You name it, I did it. Must've earned about fifty plenary indulgences. I'm safe."

"If I had that many plenary indulgences," said Pumzi, "I'd sell them to my friends and make some money."

Bronnie squealed with laughter. "Selling indulgences!" she exclaimed. "What next!"

"Actually the Church itself sold indulgences back in Martin Luther's day," Uncle Bertie informed her.

"Really?" Bronnie exclaimed.

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: The Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!