Table of Contents

Germany During the Reformation

Luther's Cause

The Reformation in Germany was varied and complex, but for this course we shall divide it into three sections: the Lutheran Reformation, the Calvinist Reformation (sometimes called the Second Reformation), and the era of the Thirty Years War. The first period extends from 1517 to 1555, the second from 1555 to 1618, and the third from 1618 to 1648. You should not think of these three periods as being completely distinct. Lutheran reforming sentiment did not suddenly end in 1555, and there were Calvinists in Germany prior to that date; nor did religious war in Germany begin only in 1618. The divisions are for convenience of discussion and to point out trends in the various movements.

For a discussion of the first steps in the Reformation, you should refer to the essay on Luther. The present essay looks at events beyond Luther's immediate circle.

Early Years

The initial spread of Luther's ideas produced chaos, dissent, and rebellion, which naturally only confirmed in the minds of staunch Catholics their belief that religious dissent brought civil war as well as spritiual peril. Luther himself called for German resistance to the papacy in nationalist terms, and the call was quickly answered.

In 1522, knights in the Rhineland rebelled. They claimed to be loyal to the emperor, to be defending his rights in Germany, but in truth they were trying to defend their own, for the lower orders of knights in Germany had long been suffering both economically and socially. Many of these also had been persuaded to Lutheranism, and so almost from the beginning religious dissent and political rebellion became entangled.

The revolt of the knights was quickly suppressed, but soon after a peasant revolt broke out in southern Germany (1524). This revolt spread rapidly in breadth and severity. Here, too, many of the rebels cited Luther's ideas or professed Lutheran sympathies. This rebellion was finally crushed in 1525.

By the later 1520s, Lutheranism spread more peacefully, usually when a prince or a city council formally adopted Luther's ideas and formally suppressed the Catholic Church within their jurisdiction. Although this progress was not marked by violence, it still constituted a flagrant disregard and defiance of established authority (the Emperor and the Church). Becoming Lutheran was not a step taken lightly or without cost.

The Reformation Spreads

It is worth recounting the way in which a town or principality "went Lutheran". While the details varied, and the variations are interesting and illustrative, I shall here reduce them to a standard account.

At the courts, the prince might decide that this Luther fellow had some interesting ideas; or, it might be the prince's wife or other relative who expressed a serious interest. The prince would bring in a preacher with Lutheran sympathies; he might keep his Catholic confessor as well, allowing the minister only to preach sermons, or he might openly dismiss the priests. The most convinced went further, confiscating Church property, dissolving the monasteries and nunneries, and bringing in Lutheran ministers.

Much the same happened in the cities. The city council was the key player here, and most city councils were dominated by a handful of families. If sufficient number of these families were of Lutheran sympathy, then the city might invite Lutheran preachers in. These would actually preach in the local cathedral; the Catholic church had a long tradition of guest speakers that could go further than the local priest or bishop dared.

If the preachers met with a favorable reception, then the city might go further. They might allow Lutheran congregations to worship openly, usually in private homes. The city might sponsor public debates between Catholic and Protestant authorities. And, as with the princes, a city might go further and decide to put an end to Catholic practices altogether.

The city council would declare all Church property forfeit. The monks and nuns were ordered out, to find jobs or else to leave the city. Often provision would be made for elderly nuns and monks, who might be allowed to live out their lives in the cloister even though the monastery itself was converted to other purposes. At the same time, the city founded schools, to replace the cathedral school; this marked the true beginnings of public education in Europe. The council also put Lutheran ministers on the public payroll, there being no Church fiscal system with which to fund them.

In the countryside, the Reformation spread more erratically. Lutheran ideas came often from itinerant preachers. Sometimes these co-existed with the existing Catholic structure, but other times the priests were driven away by the peasants or by the local landlord. As in the cities, the peasants wanted the right to choose their own ministers.

The Protestants

As the Reformation spread piecemeal throughout Germany, a larger issue loomed; namely, the conflict between Lutheran princes and the Catholic emperor. Luther himself did not want a separate religion, but a thorough-going reform of the one true church. The German princes who were sympathetic (and there were many who were not), likewise wanted a reform of the Church, but they looked to their emperor to provide it.

The cathedral of Speyer

The emperor, however, wanted none of it. He was a faithful Catholic who believed that kings had no place in matters of theology. When he called an imperial diet at Speyer in 1529, he specifically forbade any mention of religion or of Luther.

Some objected strongly to this position. They knew the emperor needed money and men, and they saw this diet as their best chance to bring their demands for relgious reform out into the open. This was precisely what Charles did not want, and he rejected every plea along those lines.

Fourteen of the German lords refused to attend the Diet of Speyeraudio gif. They sent a letter to the emperor protesting his decision and detailing their concerns. These lords became stamped by their signing this letter of protest. It is ironic that the term Protestant derives from some political maneuvering in the German Empire, and that it is applied to all the many offshoots of Lutheranism, however far removed.

Religious Tensions

In 1531, Charles V decided that he would have to use force to crush Lutheranism in the Empire. By this time, there were Lutheran princes throughout Germany and Charles was concerned about his ability to rule. Reason had been tried; it was time for force.

Charles' decision led the Lutheran princes to form a defensive alliance of their own, known as the League of Schmalkaldenaudio gif. It looked like war would break out any time, but in 1532 Charles agreed at the Diet of Regensburg to suspend actions against the Protestants in exchange for military support against the Turks.


All during the 1530s, both Catholics and Lutherans continued to hope for a general church council might settle the controversies once and for all. When the pope finally set a council for 1537 at Mantua, it precipitated a crisis among the Protestants. Could they attend a council called by the pope? Wouldn't that legitimize the pope? On the other hand, did they dare refuse?

The Protestant princes ended by refusing to attend, not on religious but on political grounds. To attend would be to bind themselves to the decisions of the Council and this they would not do. The Council of Mantua did meet, but it was lightly attended, accomplished nothing, and was adjourned in 1539.

These maneuverings and hopes did at least keep war at bay for some years. The Catholic League was formed in 1537, but in 1539 there was a further interim peace between the emperor and the Protestants.

In 1541, at the Diet of Regensburg, Charles made a serious effort at compromise. Martin Bucer was there, as were John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. Cardinal Contarini was there to represent the pope. Despite best efforts, neither side could yield on crucial points, and the effort failed. With the Catholic League now ranged against the League of Schmalkalden, open war seemed inevitable.

Religious War

Charles had other matters to attend to, first, however. Two years elapsed while he was in Italy, Algeria, Spain, and the Netherlands. The pope called another general council in 1545, this time at Trent. Again the Protestants refused to attend, and the Council of Trent went on to be the defining moment in the so-called Catholic Reformation.

With the other areas of his empire finally secure, Charles could finally concentrate on the Protestant powers. In February 1546, just before war broke out, Martin Luther died. But the forces he had unleashed had long passed beyond his control, and his death did not ease tensions.


The League of Schmalkalden raised 50,000 men and 7,000 cavalry. They had a common commander, but they were not united either physically or in spirit. Charles swept the forces of the League before him. He captured Memmingen, Biberach, Esslingen, Reutlingenaudio gif, and Frankfurt in the first year. Augsburg and Strassburg, two key centers of reform, fell in 1547. On 24 April 1547, Charles won the Battle of M?hlberg, capturing Duke John Frederick of Saxony. Philip of Hesse surrendered on 20 June.

Charles' victory was so decisive that it looked as if the Protestants might be crushed. The prospect of a united Germany so alarmed the French that they entered the war, and in 1552 a French army invaded Germany. By 1554, the Protestants had regained much of the lost ground.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 settled the matter. It was an arrangement between Catholics and Lutherans only—Calvinists, Anabaptists and others were anathema to both sides. By the terms of the Peace, every principality in Germany would adhere to whatever faith was held by its prince—the phrase in Latin was cuius regio, eius religioaudio gif (whose kingdom, his religion).

The Peace of Augsburg did not settle the religious conflict in Germany; rather, it was a declared truce. Both sides were exhausted and no one could see a way out, so everyone accepted matters as they stood.

The result was that religious conflict in Germany did not break out into general war for another sixty years. When it did, though, the resulting war was devastating.