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3. The Reformation
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

E. Imperial Reformation.

The confrontation of Luther’s reformation with the Holy Roman Empire began at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Now excommunicated by Roman decree, Luther was summoned to attend the Diet, under safe-conduct, to give an account of his teachings. On April 18, 1521, he was asked if he was prepared to recant his errors in the presence of Emperor Charles V and the Imperial estates the next day. There, in perhaps the most famous speech of the era, Luther declared that he could not retract unless he could be convinced, on the grounds of the Bible and reason, that his opinions were false. The young emperor then replied – through an orator, not in person – and declared that he would stand by the faith of his royal ancestors and the traditions of the Roman Church, for it was not possible that one man could be right against the entire Church. This was the defining moment of the German Reformation: Bible and reason vs. history and Church. In the following month, Charles issued the Edict of Worms, which laid the condition of outlawry on Luther, his followers, his writings, his printers, and their sellers. This edict, republished several times, proved unenforceable.

The urban movements before the Peasants’ War had divided the clergy and burghers into parties. After the insurrection, the princes also began to form parties. They thereby created the possibility both of political protection for the Protestant Reformation and of the movement’s integration into the structure of Imperial governance, a change that frustrated its revolutionary potential. After the Diet of Speyer (1529), where some princes and a few cities protested the Diet’s republication of the Edict of Worms, the term “Protestant” started being used. At the Diet of Augsburg (1530), their party gained a profile by presenting a comprehensive statement of Lutheran doctrine in twenty-eight articles, the Augsburg Confession. After the emperor’s theologians rejected it, he and the Catholic estates set about defining the issues from a Catholic point of view. After the dissolution of this Diet, the Imperial estates began organizing into armed leagues. The emperor had given the Protestants until April 1532 to agree to a provisional peace (until a general council of the Church should meet). On February 27, 1531, they ratified their alliance, named the Schmalkaldic League after their meeting place in Thuringia. Under two commanders, Elector John of Saxony and Landgrave Philip of Hesse, the League followed the organization typical of German political associations, with two exceptions: first, it united south and north – from Strasbourg to Pomerania – to an unprecedented degree; and second, it committed itself to “the praise and due honor of God Almighty and to the support and spread of His holy Word and Gospel” and it pledged to “rule and protect in a Christian manner.” The Schmalkaldic League lasted for fifteen years until, having been defeated in battle by the emperor’s forces, it disbanded in 1547. Charles V deprived the League’s two commanders of their lands and decreed that the Protestants had to accept a semi-restoration of Catholic rites and had to send their theologians to the Council of Trent.

The emperor’s victory proved brief, for in 1552 Elector Maurice of Saxony, who in 1547 had fought for the emperor against his fellow Protestants, joined hands with the king of France in revolt. The peace concluded between Maurice and King Ferdinand, Charles’s brother and putative heir, contained some of the terms that reappeared in the Religious Peace established at the Diet of Augsburg in 1555. The Peace restored Imperial governance by accepting an impossibility: a plurality of religions. It provided religious toleration for the Imperial estates (not their subjects) that adhered to the Augsburg Confession within what remained a Catholic kingdom. With three exceptions, it gave the estates the right to determine the official religion and require dissenting subjects to conform or emigrate, a formula that a jurist later named “whose the rule, his the religion” [cuius regio, eius religio]. The three exceptions, against the first two of which the Protestant and Catholic parties respectively protested: first a Catholic bishop who turned Protestant had to resign his office and jurisdictions (Ecclesiastical Reservation); second, subjects of prince-bishops were exempted from the rule of conformity (Ferdinandine Declaration); and, third, certain Imperial cities were to be governed according to the principle of parity between the Lutheran and the Catholic confessions.

The year 1555 is probably the most frequently chosen division point between the age of the Reformation, in the narrower sense, and the age of confessional formations. The moment’s importance was reinforced by Charles V’s abdication the following year. Against his earlier wish, he confirmed not his son but his brother Ferdinand in the Imperial succession. He combined this wise decision with the worst decision of his reign by giving his son, Prince Philip (future king) of Spain, the succession to rule over the Low Countries. Under the Religious Peace, Ferdinand promoted the Imperial convivencia with considerable success. Under his son, Maximilian II (r. 1564-76), the Imperial peace suffered from three sides: first, starting in the 1560s, the growth of the Reformed (Calvinist) faith created a second, illegal Protestant confession; second, starting in the 1570s, the revival of Catholicism unsettled relations between the emperor and the Protestant estates; and third, the Religious Wars in France and the Low Countries complicated efforts to preserve the Religious Peace.

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