Protestant Princes going to Spires

The Diet of Spires

In 1529 the emperor convoked a second Diet at Spires. At no former Diet had the attendance, especially among the Catholic deputies, been so great. The Catholic princes arrived first. First in rank, and attended by 300 armed knights, was King Ferdinand, who was to preside in the absence of his brother Charles V. He was followed by the Dukes of Bavaria; then came the ecclesiastical electors of Mainz and Treves, and the Bishops of Trent and Hildesheim, each attended by horsemen. Their looks, and the greetings they exchanged with one another, revealed the hopes they cherished of being able to carry matters in the Diet their own way.

The last to arrive were the Reformed princes. On the 13th of March came Elector John of Saxony, the most powerful prince of the Empire. Philip of Hesse followed on the 18th of March. When the deputies of the cities had arrived, the constituent members of the Diet were complete, and the business was opened.

The Diet was not long left in suspense as to the emperor’s purpose in convoking it. Scarcely had the proceedings begun when the commissioners indicated that it was the emperor’s will that the Diet should repeal the Edict of Spires (1526). This was the only issue and the members might complete the business in an hour, and return in peace to their homes.

That edict of 1526, as we have seen, guaranteed the free exercise of religion in the several States of the Empire till a General Council should meet and was the first legal establishment of the Reformation. This religious freedom the Diet was now asked to abolish. But this was not all. To suspend the edict of 1526 would be to bring again into operation the Edict of Worms of 1521, which banned Luther and condemned the Reformation. If the edict of 1526 was to be suspended then Luther must be put to death; the Reformed opinions must be rooted out of all the places where they had taken root; in short, the floodgates of persecution would be opened 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. To have accepted the message, making it the law of the land, would not only have struck a blow to the rights of conscience, but it would have stripped the Diet of its independence and the liberties of all Germany.

A struggle ensued. The Popish members of the council were quick to insist that the edict should quickly be repealed and whoever was opposed to such a movement was not a friend of Charles. On the other side, the Protestant princes pointed out that the edict, which had been unanimously sworn to by all the member of the Diet was the constitution of the empire and that a movement to repeal it now would be public breach of national faith and that the Lutheran princes would retain the right of resisting, if necessary, by force of arms.

Until this time, each principality of Germany had retained the right of regulating its own internal affairs, including the faith and worship of its subjects. And, though the majority of the Diet was anxious to oblige the emperor, they could not fail to see the strength of the arguments presented, and that the ground on which those arguments were based was a constitutional one. If a majority of the Diet were to now claim the right of deciding the question for each individual State, it would clearly introduce a new order of things in Germany. They could not help but appreciate that their individual rights would then have been usurped by one central authority and that the individual States would no longer retain their autonomy. Such a course would clearly not only be to surrender their own independence, but would most certainly result in war.

In their bid to reach a compromise, they struck on a middle path. It was determined that they would neither abolish nor enforce the edict of 1526. The popish party placed on the table a proposition that would allow for each State to maintain whatever was the law at that time until such time as a General Council should meet. In some of the States, the edict of 1521 was already the law of the land, the preaching of the gospel being forbidden and its confessors were burned. In other States, the edict of 1526 was the law and practice and the gospel was freely preached. The proposition essentially meant each of the States would continue with things as they were, but with some very significant modification in those states that enjoyed religious liberty. It was proposed that the celebration of the mass should be permitted, but that no one should be allowed to renounce popery and embrace Lutheranism.

While the proposal did not require that a single Protestant renounce his faith, it drew a line around the Reformation declaring that it had reached its furthest limits. While professedly providing for the maintenance of the Reformation, it was a carefully crafted plan to destroy it. A decision not to advance with the gospel was a decision for the movement to die.

King Ferdinand

Hurried on by Ferdinand and the Popish faction, the proposal was quickly passed. In this crisis, how easily the Reformers might have found plausible pretext to submit. The Lutheran princes were personally guaranteed the free exercise of their religion. The same boon was extended to those of their subjects who had already embraced the Reformed views. What were the Protestant princes to do?

How easily might the Reformers at this crisis, which was truly a tremendous one, have argued themselves into a wrong course! How many plausible, pretexts and fair reasons might they have found for submission! “Ought not this to content them? How many perils would submission avoid! On what unknown hazards and conflicts would opposition launch them! Who knows what opportunities the future may bring? Let us embrace peace; let us seize the olive-branch Rome holds out, and close the wounds of Germany. With arguments like these might the Reformers have justified their adoption of a course which would have assuredly issued in no long time in the overthrow of their cause.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, Chapter 15

The Elector, the Landgrave, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Prince of Anhalt, and the Chancellor of Luneburg, along with the deputies for the free cities, consulted together. Never, perhaps in the annals of history have men faced a more critical question. “Having themselves entered the kingdom of heaven, should they shut the door after them? No! rather endure everything, sacrifice everything, even their states, their crowns, and their lives. ‘Let us reject this decree,’ said the princes. ‘In matters of conscience the majority has no power.’ 

“Some of the deputies proposed refusing all assistance against the Turks, hoping thus to force the emperor to interfere in this religious question. But Sturm called upon them not to mix up political matters with the salvation of souls. They resolved therefore to reject the proposition, but without holding out any threats. It was this noble resolution that gained for modern times liberty of thought and independence of faith.” D’Aubgine, History of the Reformation, Book 3, Chapter 5

Ferdinand and the Catholic faction, sought to break what they viewed as daring obstinacy. Beginning with the weaker states, they pursued a process of seeking to frighten and divide the cities that had heretofore stood united. On April 12, they were summoned before the Diet. Though they pleaded a delay because of the absence of some of their members, this was denied. As a result of the meeting, twenty-one of the free cities accepted the proposition of the diet, while fourteen, in what for them was a bold move, rejected it.

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