Martin Luther, part XII – The Protest at Spires

For three years the Reformation had been left in peace by the wars and strife of her enemies against each other. The Pope was sided with Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, against Charles V of Spain. Charles lost some battles but won the war decisively, and the Pope seeing he was not strong enough to curb Charles’ might, decided to throw Francis over and attempt to use the might of Charles to his advantage through craft. Clement made peace with Charles on the condition that the Emperor would do all in his power to root out the heretics and exalt the Roman See. Now the foes of the Reformation were again united in their determination to extinguish the heresy of Wittenberg.  The Diet of Spires of 1526, had given freedom to the various states to determine religious matters within their own borders. This freedom was to be in effect until a general council might be held. Charles moved swiftly to call another Diet at Spires for February of 1529.

The Reformers were apprehensive about the future and none the less for the apparent chaos in the natural atmosphere. Noisy meteors shot fire across the sky. Hyperborean lights illuminated the night skies. Rivers flooded whole provinces and great winds uprooted ancient trees. Even Luther partook of the general terror, writing that these signs announced the approach of the last day.

Otto Pack’s Plot

While many real dangers threatened the age, one very doubtful one nearly brought the Reformation to ruin. A nobleman named Otto Pack came to Phillip, the Landgrave of Hesse, claiming to have discovered a terrible secret of concern to the landgrave and the Elector of Saxony. For a sum he would reveal all. The landgrave’s fears were thoroughly aroused and he agreed to the terms.

Pack went on to say that the Popish princes had plotted to attack the two Reformed princes, seize their territories, and take Luther and his followers by force and reestablish the ancient worship. Pack had what he claimed was a copy of the league which bore all the ducal and electoral seals and it appeared to be authentic. Phillip was convinced.

Fearing that they had not a moment to lose, Phillip and John Federic entered into a formal compact and hastily raised an army for the protection of “the sacred deposit of God’s word for themselves and their subjects.” They believed they were facing impending destruction. They agreed to equip a force of 6,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry. Next they looked for allies among the other Reformed princes and had in view a league with the King of Denmark. They resolved to strike the first blow.

“All Germany was in commotion. It was now the turn of the Popish princes to tremble. The Reformers were flying to arms, and before their own preparations could be finished, they would be assailed by the overwhelming host, set on by the startling rumors of the savage plot formed to exterminate them. The Reformation was on the point of being dragged into the battlefield. Luther shuddered when he saw what was about to happen. He stood up manfully before the two chiefs who were hurrying the movement into this fatal path, and though he believed in the reality of the plot, despite the indignant denial of the Duke of George and the Popish princes, he charged the elector and the landgrave not to strike the first blow, but to wait till they had been attacked. ‘There is strife enough uninvited,’ said he…’Battle never wins much, but always loses much, and hazards all; meekness loses nothing, hazards little, and wins all.’

“Luther’s counsels ultimately prevailed, time was given for reflection, and thus the Lutheran princes were saved from the tremendous error which would have brought after it, not triumph, but destruction.” Wylie, 545


The Reformation was winning victories far more glorious than any army could have won, for a martyr is worth more than many soldiers. In Bavaria, where the reformed doctrines could not be preached, these very doctrines were promoted by the burning of Leonard Caspar for holding that justification was by faith alone, that there are but two Sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that the mass avails nothing, and that Christ alone made satisfaction for us. Other martyrs followed in the provinces under the Popish princes. Nine persons of Landsberg suffered the fire. Twenty-nine at Munich were drowned. Others were victims of the poignard. George Winkler, preacher of Halle, was run through with daggers under suspicion of heresy.

Luther said, “I am but a wordy preacher in comparison with these great doers.” These martyrs testified that the weapons that will “break the power, foil the arts, and stain the pride of the enemy” are patience, meekness, and heroism. Ibid., 547

Famous Diet Of Spires

In this climate of political intrigue, natural disaster, and martyr piles, the famous Diet of Spires was convened. King Ferdinand was to preside in the absence of his brother Charles V. He arrived with trumpet call and a retinue of 300 armed knights. He was followed by the Popes princes with their troops. They exchanged boastful greetings that proclaimed their confidence in carrying the Diet their own way.

Last to arrive were the Reformed princes. John Frederic rode with only Melanchthon at his side. Phillip of Hesse had 200 horsemen. The Lutheran princes held public worship at their hotel with 8,000 attending.

When the deputies of the cities arrived, the Diet was complete and business was opened. The Diet had barely opened when the emperor’s reason for convoking it was made clear. Charles sent a curt and haughty message declaring his expectation of legislation to repeal the Edict of Spires (1526). The Diet was being asked to abolish religious freedom in Germany. The Edict of Spires would mean Luther’s execution and the uprooting of Reformation doctrine. It would mean a flood of persecution in Germany.

“The sending of such a message even was a violation of the constitutional rights of the several States, and an assumption of power which no former emperor had dared to make. The message, if passed into law, would have laid the rights of conscience, the independence of the Diet, and the liberties of Germany, all three in the dust.” Ibid., 548, 549

The struggle began with the Popish members insisting on a repeal of the Edict of Spires. The Reformed princes argued that repeal would mean that a central authority would usurp local rights of administration and destroy the independence of the individual states. The Lutheran princes made clear they would retain their right of resisting such a step with force of arms. To repeal the Edict was to open the way for revolution and war.

A middle ground was proposed which would not repeal but just maintain the current practice in each state with some major exceptions. Where Romanism reigned, the reformed doctrines would still be forbidden, but where Lutheranism was held, the Popish hierarchy, should be reestablished, the mass celebration permitted, and no one could abjure popery and embrace Lutheranism.

In other words no Protestant would be required to renounce his faith but no new converts would be permitted. It had no penalties for existing converts but if the light reached another soul, they must stifle their convictions or suffer the dungeon and the stake. “The proposal drew a line around the Reformation, and declared that beyond this boundary there must be no advance, and that Lutheranism had reached its utmost limits of development. But not to advance was to recede, and to recede was to die. This proposition, therefore, professedly providing for the maintenance of the Reformation, was cunningly contrived to strangle it.” Ibid., 549. It passed by a majority of votes.

It would have been an easy thing to seize the olive branch which Rome was holding out and to justify themselves in a wrong course by being contented with their own freedom. But the Reformed princes acted on faith from principle. They could not accept the right of Rome to coerce conscience and forbid free inquiry, or Rome’s authority to grant freedom only where she chose, thus denying freedom of conscience as a right.

The Reformed princes met for deliberation. The great—liberty or slavery to Christendom. “The princes comprehended the gravity of their position. They themselves were to be let alone, but the price they were to pay for this ignominious ease was the denial of the Gospel, and the surrender of the rights of conscience throughout Christendom. They resolved not to adopt so dastardly a course.” Ibid., 550

King Ferdinand was eager to close the Diet and called the members together and thanked them for voting the proposition. He declared that an imperial edict was soon to be published announcing the decision of the Diet. He turned to the Reformed princes and announced that there was nothing left for them to do but to submit. He would not wait to hear the answer of the Reformed princes. He promptly left the Diet and did not return.

The Great Protest At Spires

The following morning the Reformed princes entered the hall, and before the empty chair of Ferdinand, John Frederic, the Elector of Saxony, read a Declaration. The following are the most important passages.

“We cannot consent to its (the Edict of 1526) repeal. Because this would be to deny our Lord Jesus Christ, to reject His Holy Word, and thus give Him reason to deny us before His Father, as He has threatened…Moreover, the new edict declaring the ministers shall preach the Gospel, explaining it according to the writings accepted by the holy Christian Church; we think that, for this regulation to have any value, we should first agree on what is meant by the true and holy Church. Now seeing that there is great diversity of opinion in this respect; that there is no sure doctrine but such as is conformable to the Word of God: that each text of the Holy Scriptures ought to be explained by other and clearer texts: that this holy book is in all things necessary for the Christian, easy of understanding, and calculated to scatter the darkness: we are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure and exclusive preaching of His Word, such as it is contained in the Biblical books of the Old and new Testament, without adding anything thereto that may be contrary to it. This Word is the only truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all powers of hell, whilst all the human vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God.

“For these reasons, most dear lords, uncles, cousins, and friends, we earnestly entreat you to weigh carefully our grievances and our motives. If you do not yield to our requests, we protest by these present, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His Word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls, and to the last decree of Spires.” Ibid., 550, 551

Considering the tyranny of Rome which had been practiced for so long, this document stands as “one of the grandest documents in all history, and marks an epoch in the progress of the human race second only to that of Christianity itself.” Ibid., 551. From this day forward the Reformers were known as Protestants.

Luther had stood alone at Worms eight years before but now a host stood with him and the Reformation was not just a doctrine but an organized church.

After meeting together in a small house to prepare a document outlining all that had transpired at the Diet, the princes left Spires. This was significant because Ferdinand had spoken his last word and left. This showed the firmness of their resolve.

Grandeur Of The Issues

“Even Luther did not perceive the importance of what had been done. The Diet he thought had ended in nothing. It often happens that the greatest events wear the guise of insignificance, and that grand eras are ushered in with silence.” Ibid., 551. But the principles of the Protest at Spires offered a wide field for development. “This Protest overthrew the lordship of man in religious affairs, and substituted the authority of God…Then what becomes of the pretended infallibility of Rome, in virtue of which she claims the exclusive right of interpreting the Scriptures, and binding down the understanding of man to believe whatever she teaches? It is utterly exploded and overthrown. And what becomes of the emperor’s right to compel men with his sword to practice whatever faith the Church injoins, assuming it to be the true faith, simply because the Church has enjoined it? It too is exploded and overthrown. The principle, then, so quietly lodged in the Protest, lays this two-fold tyranny in the dust.” Ibid., 551

“But the Protest does not leave conscience her own mistress; conscience is not a law to herself. That were anarchy—rebellion against Him who is he Lord. The Protest proclaims that the Bible is the law of conscience, and that its Author is her alone Lord. Thus steering its course between the two opposite dangers, avoiding on this hand anarchy, and on that tyranny, Protestantism comes forth unfurling to the eyes of the nations the flag of true liberty. Around that flag must all gather who would be free.” Ibid., 553

The centuries that followed demonstrated the results of this freedom to the nations. Where the nations rallied around the Protest there was seen progress of civilization, but where Romanism continued to rule, the people were left in slavery, and the nations experienced decay.

The End