Beginnings of the Protest at Spires

In 1526, the Diet of Spires issued an edict granting each member state of the empire religious freedom, which meant that each state was free to adhere to the religion of their choice, including the new wave of reformative thinking inspired by Luther and his associates. In addition to this, the Edict of Spires put a hold on the Edict of Worms issued in 1521, demanding the apprehension of Luther. This edict threatened to break up the spiritual monopoly of Rome and give the reformation a strong and abiding presence within the Empire.

In 1529, Charles the V called for a second Diet to be convened at Spires with the singular purpose of repealing the Edict issued in 1526. The matter appeared to be simple, a single agenda item that could be dealt with quickly and decisively. But in reality, the stakes were extremely high; the religious freedom of the entire Empire and the absolute sovereignty of Rome rested on the decision made by the assembly. Charles himself did not preside over the Diet but sent his brother, Ferdinand of Spain, to do the honors. The diet was formally opened, the business at hand, delineated by Charles in a curt message, read aloud and the tug of war between Catholicism and the Reformation began in earnest. The Papal delegates pushed the case for repeal while the Princes who backed the Reformation rejected the notion, arguing that the principles outlined in the Edict of Spires now made up the constitution of the Empire, having been almost unanimously voted upon by the delegates of the previous Diet.

Speyer, Germany

The Papal delegates, seeing they were not gaining any ground, tabled a third option. They proposed that the Edict of Spires be neither enforced nor repealed till a General Council could meet to debate the matter further, adding that whatever law was currently enforced in each individual state was to continue to be binding until the matter was resolved. An additional caveat to this arrangement was a request to reestablish the Papal hierarchy in states enjoying religious freedom and to not allow anyone to convert to Lutheran teaching until the General Council had met and outlined the steps forward.

In some states of the Empire the Edict of 1521, proscribing not only Luther but also the preaching of the Gospel was still in place while in other states the Edict of 1526 allowing religious freedom was enforced dividing the 

Empire into Catholic and Protestant strongholds. Adopting the third option would slow down the progress of the reformation in Catholic strongholds by putting a stop to conversion and would attack the influence of the Reformation in Protestant strongholds by reestablishing Papal hierarchies that had been thrown out. 

This gave Rome the opportunity to retain at least some of its power and created a launching pad from which they could bring down the strongholds of the reformation from within.  The Catholic delegates backed by Archduke Ferdinand rushed the proposition to the floor and pushed it through the Diet with a majority of votes and Ferdinand moved to close the proceedings of the Diet with the new Edict in place, commanding the Lutheran Princes to submit to the wishes of the majority.

The Princes of the Reformation banded together and deliberated their response, deciding that they would not bow down to the wishes of the majority. John, the Elector of Saxony, spoke on their behalf before the diet, voicing their protest and clearly delineating the reasoning behind it. On the 25th of April they gathered together in the house of Peter Mutterstadt, Deacon of St. John’s, with two notaries and several witnesses, to draft a protest against the decision of the Diet and to firmly take their stand on the side of the Gospel and the reformation, collectively declaring “in matters of conscience the majority has no power”. In the drafting of that appeal the whole of Christendom, up to that point joined together under the formidable arm of Rome, was divided into two distinct camps and Protestantism raised its standard beside that of Rome, boldly declaring itself to be a church and a movement.

Prior to the Diet of Speyer in 1529, some of the Lutheran Princes were told that the Catholic Princes of the Empire had hatched a secret plot to gather together the Catholic forces and mount a full-fledged attack against the two most powerful Lutheran territories, Saxony and Hesse. The ringleader of the plot was Archduke Ferdinand, the same Ferdinand who worked so feverishly on behalf of the Papacy during the Diet of Speyer in 1529. In addition to this many of those who had faithfully embraced the Reformation in Germany were martyred in the period between the Diet of Worms in 1521 and the Diet of Speyer in 1529.

This is the social and political climate that surrounded the Diet of Spires in 1529. When the Lutheran Princes marched out of the Diet in protest, they did so with a full knowledge of the consequences they would face in so doing. 

The Catholic Princes could easily form a confederacy with the armies of the Pope which would leave the Lutheran states vulnerable to war, bloodshed and persecution. 

But to them, the truth and the right of every single one of their subjects to freedom of conscience were more important than securing their territories against hostile forces. This was a principle they were willing to stand for regardless of the consequences.

The essence of the Protest of the Princes was two-fold; firstly it rejected the idea that civil authority had a say in matters of conscience and secondly it placed the authority of the word of God above that of the church, principles that gave birth to what we now call Protestantism. What does Protestantism mean to you and I today? Is it an archaic idea relegated to the annals of church history or is it a living, breathing principle that has taken root in our hearts? A principle that preserves us from yielding to the demands of the majority while empowering us to submit to the word of God. The apostles said it best in Acts 5:29 “We ought to obey God rather than men”.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

The Great Courses: The Renaissance, The Reformation and The Rise of Nations – Andrew C. Fix