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14th - 15th century
Germany 1517-25
Switzerland 1518-31
Germany from 1526

16th-17th century
From the 17th century

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In the years following the Edict of Worms, and Luther's return to Wittenberg in 1522, the princes of German states and the councils of imperial cities engage in furious argument whether to accept the Edict's rejection of Luther's reforms. There is growing hostility to external interference in German affairs - from Rome and from the pope's committed ally, a Holy Roman emperor whose interests now seem as much Spanish as German. A large minority within the empire is in rebellious mood.

In 1526 the emperor, Charles V, attempts to calm the situation by appeasement.


An imperial diet held in Speyer in 1526 modifies the outright ban on Luther's teachings, imposed five years previously in the Edict of Worms. Now each German prince is to take his own decision on the matter, with the responsibility to answer for it 'to God and the emperor'.

Three years later, once again at Speyer, another diet take the opposite line. The concession of 1526 is withdrawn, and the Edict of Worms reinstated. A dissenting minority, consisting of five princes and fourteen imperial cities, publishes a 'Protestation' against the decision. As a result they become known as the Protestants.


Marburg: 1529

One of the five princes signing the Protestation at Speyer in April 1529 is Philip, the 25-year-old landgrave of Hesse. He has been among the most committed of Luther's supporters, founding in Marburg in 1527 the first Protestant university - with funds realized from the closure of Hesse's monasteries. But he has become disturbed by reports of theological disagreement among the reformers, and particularly between Luther and Zwingli on the central issue of the Eucharist.

In October 1529 Philip invites Luther and Zwingli to debate in front of an invited audience in the castle at Marburg. He hopes that the result will be a unified Protestant stance.


Given the passion and conviction of the participants, Philip's hope has little chance of success. Luther draws a circle of chalk on the table and writes within it THIS IS MY BODY. His text is Mark 14:22, where Jesus says to the disciples 'Take, eat, this is my body'. This must mean, insists Luther, that in some way, mysterious to us, the body and blood of Christ have a real presence in the bread and wine once they are consecrated.

Zwingli is equally adamant that Jesus's statement is a metaphor. The bread and wine, even when consecrated, only symbolize Christ's body and blood. His text is John 6:63: 'The spirit alone gives life; the flesh is of no avail'.


Agreement proves impossible, and this issue remains a distinction between Lutherans and the churches deriving from the Reformation in Switzerland (in the 16th century the word 'Protestant' is used of Lutherans, while the Swiss and French sects are described as 'reformed').

Philip of Hesse wants some concrete result from his assembly (known subsequently as the Colloquy of Marburg), so Luther produces Fifteen Articles of Marburg. The fifteenth registers the disagreement. The first fourteen, drafted in advance in Wittenbeg, have not been discussed. But they are common ground. So Philip has his document. In the following year it is partly incorporated in the more important Augsburg Confession.


Augsburg: 1530-1555

The need to settle religious unrest in Germany is made more urgent by the shock of the Turks besieging Vienna in September 1529. They withdraw unsuccessfully a month later. But the affront vividly suggests the possibility of greater dangers.

The emperor Charles V makes a new attempt to resolve the issue at a diet in Augsburg in June 1530. Luther, officially an outlaw under the terms of the Edict of Worms, is unable to attend. His place is taken by Melanchthon, who presents what is now known as the Augsburg Confession. Drawing various previous documents into one coherent whole, this becomes the standard statement of the Lutheran faith.


Melanchthon's purpose is to emphasize that the Lutheran reforms 'dissent in no article of faith from the Catholic church'. They merely strip away abuses which have been introduced in recent centuries. The diet refuses to accept this, decreeing instead that by April 1531 all Protestant princes and cities must recant from the Lutheran position and (an important element) restore all church and monastic property which has been seized.

The threat of military intervention by the emperor is implicit. In response, the Protestant princes and some of the imperial cities form a defensive pact for mutual defence, established in 1531 as the League of Schmalkalden.


Over the next two decades the League is often in action against its Catholic neighbours in Germany. In 1547 it suffers a severe reverse in the battle of Mühlberg, a victory for Charles V which results in the League's two main leaders - the elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse - spending five years as the emperor's prisoners.

But no military victory can resolve these deep religious divisions within the empire. When another imperial diet meets at Augsburg in 1555, presided over by Charles V's brother Ferdinand, all sides are weary and desperate for a solution.


The compromise eventually accepted, and known as the Peace of Augsburg, acknowledges the reality which has emerged in the years since Luther's ninety-five theses sparked off the conflict. Each prince and city is to be allowed to choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism (but all other sects, such as the Swiss reformed church and the Anabaptists, remain proscribed). The formula is later succinctly described in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio (whoever has the kingdom chooses the religion).

The principle of the ruler choosing the religion has effectively held sway for some time within the empire. And it has been far more starkly the case in the independent kingdoms of northwest Europe.


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