Francis I

Charles Become Emperor

The choice for emperor fell between two men—Charles I of Spain, and Francis I of France. In order to gain the coveted price, Charles, who at nineteen was seven years younger than his rival, scattered gold profusely among the electors and princes of Germany. His rival, Francis, was liberal; but he lacked the gold mines of Mexico and Peru which Charles had at his command.

The very power of the two rivals nearly defeated both of them. Encouraged by the pope, who feared the rising power of both monarchs, the electors chose Frederick of Saxony. Frederick, perhaps as an act of weakness when suddenly faced with the fearful challenge meeting a multitude of distractions within the empire and the Moslems on its frontier, declined what the two most powerful sovereigns in Europe were so eager to obtain. On June 28, 1519, the electors again met; the vote was unanimous in favor of Charles. How differently might history have been written had Frederick, the friend of Luther, accepted the imperial crown. Instead, however, it passed to Charles, who was to become the bitter foe of the Reformation.

It was a year before Charles was to arrive for his coronation, and the regency was continued in the hands of Frederick. During that time, “the little group at Wittenberg busily engaged in laying the foundation of an empire that would long out last that of the man on whose head the diadem of the Caesars was about to be placed.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 305.

Luther began reading the writings of John Huss. To his surprise, he found in them the truth of free justification of the sinner. “‘We have all,’ he exclaimed, half in wonder, half in joy, ‘Paul, Augustine, and myself, been Hussites without knowing it!’ and he added, with deep seriousness, ‘God will surely visit it upon the world that the truth was preached to it a century ago, and burned!’” Ibid.

It was now that Luther published his famous appeal on the reformation of Christianity to the emperor, the princes, and the people of Germany. It was the most graphic and stirring appeal that had yet issued from his pen. Like a peal of thunder, it rang from side to side of Germany, and though unrecognized at the time, it was sounding the deal knell of Roman domination.

Presuming that the new emperor would be just and magnanimous, Luther appealed to Charles, knowing that his cause would triumph regardless of which side Charles might espouse. While he would rather have had its progress peaceful and its arrival at the goal speedy, Luther never doubted the ultimate triumph of truth. The emperor, however, never condescended to reply to the doctor of Wittenberg.

When Charles ascended to the throne, he was in the vigor of youth; and everything seemed to point toward a long and prosperous reign. A prince whose scepter extended over a considerable part of the old world, and even over much of the new, he was the most powerful monarch to appear in Christendom since the days of Charlemagne. Never, aside from the final conflict yet to be fought, was it to be more clearly shown that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: that no flesh should glory in His presence." I Corinthians 1:27–29

Melanchthon Joins the Reformed Movement


As the result of the debate at Leipzig, the lecture rooms of the university there were speedily deserted, while the number of students in attendance at Wittenberg soon doubled. Perhaps the most significant event to take place as the fruit of the debate, however, was the calling of one who would prove to be the theologian of the Reformation—Melanchthon. Until this conference, literature had been Melanchthon’s great interest; but as he sat quietly listening to the conference, he received a new impulse. From that day forward, theology became his career. Henceforth, he and Luther became close friends, contending together for the truth, the one with the energy of Paul and the other with the meekness of John.

Luther was strengthened by the debate with Dr. Eck. Driven to new inquiries, he arrived at unexpected discoveries. He was astonished at the magnitude of evil that he saw. "Searing into the annals of the Church, he discovered that the supremacy of Rome had no other origin than ambition on the one hand, and ignorant credulity on the other. . . . The Latin Church was no longer in Luther’s estimation the universal Church; he saw the narrow barriers of Rome fall down, and exulted in discovering beyond them the glorious dominions of Christ. From that time he comprehended how a man might be a member of Christ’s church, without belonging to the popes." D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 5, chapter 6.

Though Dr. Eck had proclaimed Luther vanquished in their much celebrated debate, he was much less than satisfied with the outcome. Making his way over the Alps, he arrived at Rome where he sought help to find revenge. In the city of Rome, however, he encountered greater difficulties than he had anticipated. The Roman Curia was apathetic. Its members did not yet realize the danger that Luther presented. They scoffed at the idea that Wittenberg could conquer Rome; and in that respect, history showed no evidence to support such an astounding phenomenon. Great tempests had arisen in former ages. Rebel kings and heretical nations had alike beaten themselves to death, seeking to challenge the Church. They no more availed its overthrow than the ocean’s foam to overthrow the rocks. That an insignificant German monk might topple the papal throne was an idea too preposterous to entertain.

In Rome, all appreciated that a move against the monk was not without risks. It was an easy matter for the church to launch a ban, but all depended upon the civil power executing that order. What if it should refuse? Besides, there were not a few more moderate and pious men, even in Rome, who were so displeased with the disorders of the papal court that in their heart they welcomed much of what Luther said. There were others who favored the use of diplomacy. They could not believe that among the many dignities and honors that it was within the power of the Church to bestow, some favor could not be found that would silence the clamorous monk.

In the midst of such indecisive apathy, the indefatigable Eck left no stone unturned to secure the condemnation of his opponent. His zeal in this respect was seconded by that of the banker Fugger of Augsburg. He was the treasurer of the indulgences; and Luther’s success in denouncing the indulgences had been his loss. This awoke in him a most vehement desire to crush the heresy that was so damaging to the interests of the church, as well as his own.

The news of what was taking place within the Vatican was carried to Luther. At this time of test, these reports caused him no alarm; for his confidence rested in One who was infinitely greater than Leo. While all was anxiety and turmoil in Rome, Wittenberg presented a very different picture. Visitors from various countries daily arrived to see and speak with the Reformer. The halls of the university were crowded with youth, and the fame of Melanchthon was extending. It was just at this moment that the young Swiss priest, Ulrich Zwingli, approached the papal nuncio in Switzerland, entreating him to use his influence at Rome to prevent the excommunication of the doctor of Wittenberg. This was the first evidence of the breaking of day in Switzerland.

Luther Excommunicated

At length, Eck triumphed, and on June 15, 1520, the Sacred College brought an end to their lengthy debates regarding the rebellious monk and placed their approval on a bull excommunicating him. With this move, they flattered themselves that they had forever successfully settled the Wittenberg heresy.

Luther, imagining that he might be expelled from Germany, engaged himself in publishing a report of the Augsburg conference. He saw the storm approaching but did not fear it. He desired, however, that when the anathema should arrive, all should know of the struggle between himself and Rome. Spalatin wrote to Luther, on behalf of the elector, asking him not to do so; but the communication arrived too late. Once it became known that the publication had already taken place, the prince gave his sanction to it.

◄List of Articles►Next Article