How political factors affected the spread of the early Reformation movement

Seminar Paper, 2011
10 Pages, Grade: 1,7


How political factors affected the spread of the early Reformation movement

In early modern Europe, there were arguably few other events of such far-reaching significance and with ultimately such cataclysmic and lasting consequences than the Reformation movement started by Martin Luther. With all the individual and idiosyncratic forms the different protestant denominations were to assume in the following years, they certainly often stood at the centre of events and developments which were to have profound political, religious and social repercussions upon the overall course of early European history, lasting for many decades while plunging large parts of the continent into a long period of internal unrest and cross-national conflicts[1] . Beyond any doubt the reformation imprinted itself upon the lives and works of people throughout various countries and affected the decision-making of entire states in substantial ways, changing forever the face of not only Europe, but even of the entire world through movements eventually spreading all over the globe[2] . In hindsight it may therefore be all too enticing to assume that there simply hadn't been any other possible scenario than for Protestantism to develop the viral power with which it ultimately was to sweep over societies at the time; and that in fact the mere promise and novel nature of its diverging spiritual teachings and religious views from established Catholic doctrines offered by its various proponents alone had sufficed to gain such permanent and widespread a foothold as it ultimately did. Yet to show that it was as well a variety of additional factors - above all pertaining to the power- and geopolitical realm– that ultimately made possible for such irreversible an establishment and rapid diffusion of the Protestant movement will be the principal aim of this essay.

The focus of the following analysis will, however, chiefly lie upon the socio-political and power-political development of the Holy Roman Empire during those most crucial early years of the Reformation. Such an approach does not only seem conducive given the limited space of this paper; but mainly because the territory of the Holy Roman Empire was after all the point of origin of the first Protestant movement, and also largely because it were in fact the inner disposition and external involvements of the Empire which provided at the time the perhaps most fruitful ground for such a movement to assume so rapidly such viral and extensive a quality as the teachings of Martin Luther ultimately did. Whereas in the initial years the Reformation was aided largely by internal factors - although certainly always in close corollary relation with external events-, its swift diffusion in the decade thereafter was to a not unsubstantial extent only possible due to a series of significant external occurrences and developments. How exactly each of these eventually aided the spread of Protestantism will be elaborated at length on the subsequent pages.

To begin with, Martin Luther's Reformation was originally allowed to assume such a dynamic character only because in its very early stages it was in a certain sense simply not deemed important enough by the Catholic to actually give it much thought[3] . Already in its early beginnings it benefited substantially from the fact that whatever inherent dangers might have lain dormant in Luther's teachings with regard to potentially undermining the authority of the Holy Roman Church, the latter was simply too preoccupied with matters largely pertaining to the immediate secular and political realities of the period so as to divert much of its attention to this seemingly only local annoyance[4] . For the time being Pope Leo X. apparently thought it would do to leave the resolution of this admittedly unpleasant, yet hardly upsetting issue largely in the hands of the Augustin order to which Martin Luther adhered to, while for himself the dealing with various political necessities of the time evidently figured far more urgent and worthwhile for the sake and prosperity of the Holy Roman Church.[5]

Yet from early on the teachings of Martin Luther did not merely remain restricted to the local or purely academic level, much as that might have been his original intention[6] . Very soon they also began to assume a more worldly character, and thus next to serving the purpose of the church's internal reformation, they were in equal measure given an important political significance as well. Still, Martin Luther could hardly have succeeded with his proclamations without the help and support of benevolent secular benefactors, notably by Frederic of Saxony. Yet undoubtedly the assistance and protection provided to him were not solely granted on grounds of general good-will or as a noble means for promulgating his cause[7] ; larger and comprehensive political considerations were at issue too and thus ultimately played a significant role as well. In this context it is above all interesting to analyse what factors initially induced Frederic of Saxony, a hitherto devout Catholic[8] , to grant his firm and unwavering support for a man who increasingly seemed likely of falling out of grace with the ubiquitously influential and powerful Catholic Church. Even if personal motivations for Frederic’s intervention might indeed have figured among his reasons for doing so[9] , this in itself hardly seems a cause worthwhile for drawing the potential ill-will of the clergy upon himself. More likely, he was probably also led by deeper political expediencies when he chose to support Luther. To begin with, he may on a very basic level have feared for the prestige and reputation of his university at Wittenberg where Luther taught as professor of theology, therefore compelling him to place a protective hand over his servant for the sake of the institution's academic renown[10] . And while a personal sense and duty for justice might also have affected his reasoning[11] , the teachings of Martin Luther nevertheless also undoubtedly offered Frederic the unique opportunity of ensuring greater personal, political and economical authority within the Holy Roman Empire.


[1] Kennedy, Paul, Rise and fall of the great Powers, New York 1987, p. 70.

[2] MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation. A History, New York 2004, pp. xxi-xxii (Introduction).

[3] Wallbank, Tailor, Bailkey, Western Civilization, People and Progress, Volume 1, Illinois 1977, p. 216.

[4] Lutz, Reformation und Gegenreformation, München 1997, p. 25.

[5] MacCulloch, The Reformation, pp. 124-125.

[6] Lutz, Reformation und Gegenreformation, p. 25.

[7] Frederic of Saxony was in fact anything but a keen follower of Martin Luther's teachings, which was for one suitably expressed by his large collection of relics. Fuchs, Das Zeitalter der Reformation, p.70.

[8] MacCulloch, The Reformation, pp. 116-117.

[9] Ostensibly Frederic was rather disgruntled when being denied to marry the daughter of Maxmillian, Margarethe. Hofsommer, Johann, Friederich der Weise und die Reformation, Norderstedt 2008, pp. 23-24.

[10] Fuchs, Walther Peter, Das Zeitalter der Reformation, München 2002, p. 70.

[11] Fuchs, Das Zeitalter der Reformation, p. 70.

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How political factors affected the spread of the early Reformation movement
University of Luxembourg
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Reformation, Early Modern Europe, Neuzeit, Luther, Confessionalism, Religionskriege, Wars of Religion
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Joe Majerus (Author), 2011, How political factors affected the spread of the early Reformation movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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