Arise O Lord: The Political Origins of Luther’s Reformation

In his sermon given at the funeral of Duke John of Electoral Saxony (John the Steadfast) in 1532, Martin Luther stated, “a prince is also a human being and always has ten devils around him where another man has only one, so that God must give him special guidance and set his angels about him.”* While the Lutheran Reformation revolved around the theological rediscovery of essential biblical teachings (i.e. justification by faith), political events played a major role in the Lutheran Reformers’ temporal success.  Most likely, Dr. Luther would have gladly embraced martyrdom in 1521.  However, his survival, based upon the support of certain German princes and city councils, changed the history of the Christian Church and the world.  As the above quote demonstrates, Luther had a very realistic understanding of the princes, even those who supported him.

Pope Leo X issued the papal bull, Exsurge Domine (Arise O Lord) that identified and condemned forty one errors in Luther’s published writings in June 1520.  However, Luther’s support in Germany continued to grow.  After Luther received the papal bull against him, Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and students at Wittenberg burned it and another texts in December as a response to the authorities’ burning of Luther’s works.

On January 3, 1521 the papal curia published the final bull of excommunication against Martin Luther.  The politics surrounding the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation had slowed down papal action against Luther for two years.  As one of the seven electors of the new emperor, Duke Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony had a strong political position in 1519.  Pope Leo X did not want Charles, who had recently become king of Spain, to replace his maternal grandfather (Maximilian I) as Holy Roman Emperor.  The pope had even suggested Frederick as a candidate for the imperial position.  Rejecting his own candidacy, Frederick convinced the majority of electors to vote for Charles in June 1519.

Charles V had agreed to significant concessions in order to become emperor.  Most significantly for Martin Luther in 1521, Charles had agreed to grant any imperial subject a hearing before impartial judges within the Holy Roman Empire before that subject’s condemnation.  Based on this concession and Frederick’s persuasive arguments, Charles agreed to give Martin Luther a hearing at the imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521.

This led to Dr. Luther’s famous testimony and refusal to recant before the imperial assembly, including Charles V and papal representatives.  The reaction to Luther’s speech exposed a developing rift within the Empire.  Although Luther already had significant support among the political leaders, Charles and the imperial assembly did issue an edict against Luther in May 1521.  This imperial edict declared Luther to be a heretical outlaw and forbade anyone to support him or even communicate with him.  The penalty for assisting Luther could be imprisonment and confiscation of one’s property.  Charles V and the papal party thought this edict would settle the matter. This edict and its ramifications played a major role in the politics of the Holy Roman Empire for the rest of Luther’s life.

*LW 51:236

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