Luther´s rulers in electoral Saxony

In Luther´s time, democracy was far off. Germany was at best a vague idea and not even the language was anywhere near to being uniform in the various landscapes north of the Alps. He was always a citizen of electoral Saxony and had three different rulers in this time.

First off was elector Frederick III – called the Wise (1463-1525) – got the Reformation off to a good if somewhat hesitant start despite Worms and Luther´s subsequent banishment to and exile on the Wartburg. Even when Luther was far too confrontational in his theological dealings and maneuvers for Frederick´s liking, he never withdrew his hesitant support. He remained the ever cautious diplomat and wise politician. The two men never got to meet each other personally and most business was negotiated between them by the faithful Georg Spalatin.

When the bachelor duke died in May 1525 he was succeeded by his younger brother Johann the Constant (1468-1532). He took over the reign of the electoral duchy Saxony. He was in frequent contact with Luther and actively promoted the reformation – even through and past the crucial Augsburg diet of 1530.

Luther often expressed a positive opinion about John, especially for his behavior at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, he praised him very much: “I am sure that the Elector Johann of Saxony had the Holy Spirit. In Augsburg he proved this admirably by his confession. John said, ‘Tell my scholars that they are doing what is right, praise and honor God, and take no regard for me or my country.'” 


It was a blow for the reformation, when he passed away in 1532, as Luther feared the worst. He was skeptical, whether the duke´s son Johann Friedrich – the benevolent – would live up to the wisdom and steadfastness of his predecessors. This was partly due to his more extravagant lifestyle and somewhat excessive alcohol consumption. However, Luther´s fears were mostly dispelled as the young man promoted the reformation faithfully – and finally even paid for this support with his freedom and post – but that is another story, which only ends after Luther´s death in 1546.

During, but especially after the peasant uprising Luther was blamed of being a “Fürstendiener” – lackey of the nobility – and going far too harshly against their peasant subjects. However, that isshortsighted. Luther took his role as “German prophet” seriously – and therefore saw his first and main obligation towards preaching, teaching and applying God´s Word faithfully to those, who were entrusted to his pastoral care. That´s why he was responsible to preach both Law and gospel to all those under his pulpit or sat across his desk or in his audience – virtually and literally, orally or in writing. He would often challenge his lordship with politically controversial issues, which sometimes had far-reaching consequences. Luther´s polemics against indulgences, relics deprived his rulers of considerable income and caused a crash in their acquired stocks. His drive to clean out the monasteries and have pastors marry left many of the clergy in poor straits as they had lost the traditional income via the cloisters and had additional responsibilities to growing families and parsonages. Here Luther also addressed his duke directly in writing, pleading for his brothers, that they would be supported financially in their new roles. But Luther was a serious pickle for the duke – as both Pope and emperor were his outspoken opponents, he was politically outlawed and under ecclesial ban. Despite these burdens the Ernestine line of the electoral Dukes of the House Wettin stuck to “their” man – kept him safe and sorted – and even had an open ear for his requests and admonitions – at least to some degree.

Luther reflected on the complicated relationship between rulers and subjects, kings and prophets, but also on that between clergy and politicians. His initial reflections on Psalm 101 go a long way to reflect this:

This psalm is one of those which praise and thank God for the secular authorities, as is also done in Psalms 127 and 128 and in many others. Together with other psalms, this one has always been sung in the church by the clergy, who claimed that they alone were the church and the holy, favored people of God. But they did not realize or consider at all that in these psalms they were praising the very group with their mouth which they daily treated with utter contempt and practically trampled under their feet. Had they understood these psalms, I really think they would have omitted them and would never have sung them. It certainly makes no sense for these holy people to praise and commend the secular authorities publicly in the church.1 In comparison with their position they have treated these authorities with contempt, and that for the sole reason that they would have liked to see themselves alone be masters on earth and all other leaders become monks. And in this they have truly succeeded, to such an extent that fifty per cent or more of the secular leaders have forgotten their own duties and have occupied themselves with the church and with Masses, while the clergy have in the same measure given up their priestly duties and have busied themselves with hunting, waging war, and such utterly secular affairs. Still God permitted this psalm and others like it to be sung by their mouths, even as he spoke to Balaam through the donkey, although the stupid prophet was unable to understand it (Num. 22:28).

This psalm, however, is directed especially against those schismatic spirits who put on a front of great holiness by condemnemning housekeeping, the estate of marriage, and other high and low positions on earth.2 For it instructs and comforts the people who occupy these positions and must occupy them; it bids them not to run away and forsake everything. It has a particular lesson for those high ranks in which one must maintain a court and court personnel. Therefore David, who was a king and had to keep servants at his court, cites himself as an example of the way a pious king or prince should treat his personnel. And though I myself am inexperienced at court and know very little about the treachery and deceit that prevail there,3 still, on the basis of much that I have heard and gathered from others, and with the assistance of the historical records, I will try to understand and interpret the words of the psalm as clearly as possible and to the best of my ability.

Martin Luther´s commentary on Psalm 101 (LW 13)

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in biographies and other stories, Lutheran World, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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