Fundamentally Luther succeeded because his ideas appealed to people of all classes. In its maturity his theology was seen as revolutionary in economic, social, and political—as well as intellectual and doctrinal ways. The printing press quickly made Luther’s ideas more accessible and assured that they were recorded in permanent forms. Political circumstances also favored Luther and Lutheranism. The protection provided to Luther by his local prince meant that Luther’s ideas took hold before resistance to them could be felt.
Thus, far more than theology was at issue in Luther’s revolt and in its success. The papacy, triumphant over the councils, had become embroiled in Italian politics. The Rome Luther visited as a young man was to him a shocking spectacle of intrigue and ostentation. One reason for Luther’s success was his attack on practices already abhorrent to many; another was his specific attack on the exploitation of Germans by Italians. In To the Christian Nobility, he claimed:
“For Rome is the greatest thief and robber that has ever appeared on earth, or ever wilt. . . Poor Germans that we are—we have been deceived’ . . . It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff”
What Luther started was soon taken out of his hands by princes who joined the reform movement—in part to strengthen their political power and fill their treasuries. Yet the momentum of Lutheranism without Luther is inconceivable. He wrote To the Christian Nobility in German to reach the largest possible number of readers; that his expectations were fulfilled further demonstrates the combined power of the vernacular and the printing press.
Luther’s defiance of the pope was well known among Germans, deepening their nationalistic emotions; his marriage to a former nun and their rearing of a large family dramatized the break with Rome; his translation of the Scriptures and the hymns he composed became part of German culture and made Luther’s language one of the bases of modern literary German.
Yet another reason for Luther’s success was the relative weakness of the forces opposing him. Religious opposition centered in the top levels of the Catholic bureaucracy. There were many moderate Catholics, anxious to compromise and avert a schism. The great Catholic historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) claimed that if the Catholic church had been headed by a pope willing to reform to preserve the unity of the church, even Luther might have been reconciled. Luther’s ablest associate, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), was a moderate and a humanist. Yet once Luther had been excommunicated and outlawed and had gained powerful political backing, compromise was unlikely.
Politically, the opposition to the Lutherans was centered in the youthful Charles V, who became Holy Roman emperor in 1519. Charles was the ruler not only of the German empire but also of Hungary, the Low Countries, Spain, Spanish America, and parts of Italy. The activity of Luther’s princely supporters in Germany threatened Charles’s power there and might have been enough to turn him against Luther. But he was a cautious, conventional man and was unwilling to exert his great influence on the side of the moderate Catholics. Instead of seeking a compromise, he decided to fight the Lutherans.
Charles did not lead the fight personally. In 1521 he entrusted the government of Germany to his younger brother, who formed alliances with Bavaria and other Catholic German states to oppose the Lutheran princes. The military arm of the Protestant princes and cities was the League of Schmalkalden (named for the town where it was founded in 1531), led by Philip landgrave of Hesse (1504-1567). When Charles finally crushed the League in 1547, his victory was short-lived because it threatened to upset the balance of power and alarmed both the papacy and the German princes, Catholic as well as Protestant. In 1555, in the twilight of his reign, Charles felt obliged to accept the Peace of Augsburg, a religious settlement negotiated by the German Diet.
The peace formally recognized the Lutherans in the German states where they already held power. Its guiding principle was expressed in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio (he who rules establishes the religion), which meant in practice that since the elector of Saxony was Lutheran, all his subjects should be, too; and since the duke of Bavaria was Catholic, all Bavarians should be Catholic. No provision was made for Catholic minorities in Lutheran states or Lutheran minorities in Catholic states.
The settlement also failed to recognize any Protestants except Lutherans; the growing numbers of Calvinists and still more radical Protestants were certain to press for equal treatment in the future. More trouble was also bound to arise from the failure to deal with the question of “ecclesiastical reservation”; that is, what should be done with church property in a German state headed by a prelate who had turned Protestant. Yet with all these deficiencies, the Peace of Augsburg did make possible the permanent establishment of Protestantism on a peaceful basis in Germany.