At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther stood alone against all the power of the emperor and the pope bearing down upon him. Emperor Charles V, the most powerful man in the world at that time, was present in the room. Luther was being pressured to deny his own teaching of the truth of God’s Word. It certainly looked like Luther was alone, and the government of his day was opposed to the Gospel.
At least that is how it looked.
Then Luther was “kidnapped” on the road. But this was a ruse. The men who did this were sent by Prince Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. He too was a ruling authority. He was Luther’s ruling prince. The electors were princes who had the right and duty of electing the emperor at the time of succession. So Elector Frederick had much power and influence. And he was on Luther’s side.
This is an example of how the political situation actually helped the Lutheran Reformation. That sounds strange to us. We think religion and politics have to be kept apart. But in the German lands of Luther’s day, the ruling prince determined the religion of his subjects. If the prince was Lutheran, then Lutheran doctrine and worship would have free course.
Frederick the Wise did three things that helped Luther in 1521 (in the early years of the Reformation) when the emperor agreed to putting Luther on trial in Rome. First, Frederick refused to let him be taken to Rome, and only would let him be tried in Germany. Second, Frederick ensured that Luther was guaranteed safe travel to and from the trial. Third, he had Luther “kidnapped” and taken secretly to the Wartburg Castle, out of danger for the time being.
Elector Frederick was Luther’s protector, and by extension the protector of Lutheran doctrine and worship. But he had many successors, and not only in Saxony.
Elector John the Steadfast succeeded Frederick the Wise. He was the first of the Lutherans to arrive at Augsburg in 1530 when the Lutherans were “invited” to declare their faith before the emperor. He and the other princes were threatened with the loss of their lands, their homes, their churches, and their lives. But he said: “Tell my theologians to do what is right to the glory and honor of God, and to have no regard for me, my country, or my people.” John and six other princes publicly signed their names to the Augsburg Confession.
In another country, Denmark, another ruler allowed the Lutheran faith to flourish. Christian III became king at age 30 and promptly invited Luther’s pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, to establish the Lutheran confession of faith throughout the nation, by means of a church order. This church order included the original form of the Lutheran liturgy that we use in our congregations (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, p. 41ff.).
For a brief time even a woman, Duchess Elisabeth of Braunschweig, used her opportunity to rule her people to spread the Lutheran faith among them. When she was thirty, her husband died; with their oldest son (the heir to the throne) only 12 years old, she had six years to rule the Braunschweig–Wolfenbüttel province.
Elisabeth brought a Lutheran pastor, Antonius Corvinus, to her lands. He went around the province introducing Lutheran catechetical instruction and worship. She often accompanied him, showing her people how important this faith was to her. She herself also taught her children the catechism, trying to prepare her son to be a Lutheran prince.
Things did not go as she planned; when her son became the ruling duke, he renounced his Lutheran faith, became an ally of Emperor Charles V, restored Roman Catholic worship, and persecuted the Lutheran pastors.
But Elisabeth had used her brief opportunity to spread the Lutheran faith throughout the country, and she is a good example of how it was possible for Lutheran teaching and worship to spread under the leadership of a Lutheran ruler.
Reverend Jerry Gernander
Bethany Lutheran Church