Protest of the Princes
ONE of the noblest testimonies ever uttered
for the Reformation was the Protest offered by the Christian princes of Germany at the
Diet of Spires in 1529. The courage, faith, and firmness of those men of God gained for
succeeding ages liberty of thought and of conscience. Their Protest gave to the reformed
church the name of Protestant; its principles are "the very essence of
Protestantism."--D'Aubigne, b. 13, ch. 6.
A dark and threatening day
had come for the Reformation. Notwithstanding the Edict of Worms, declaring Luther to be
an outlaw and forbidding the teaching or belief of his doctrines, religious toleration had
thus far prevailed in the empire. God's providence had held in check the forces that
opposed the truth. Charles V was bent on crushing the Reformation, but often as he raised
his hand to strike he had been forced to turn aside the blow. Again and again the
immediate destruction of all who dared to oppose themselves to Rome appeared inevitable;
but at the critical moment the armies of the Turk appeared on the eastern frontier, or the
king of France, or even the pope himself, jealous of the increasing greatness of the
emperor, made war upon him; and thus, amid the strife and tumult of nations, the
Reformation had been left to strengthen and extend.
At last, however, the papal
sovereigns had stifled their feuds, that they might make common cause against the
Reformers. The Diet of Spires in 1526 had given each state full liberty in matters of
religion until the meeting of a general
council; but no sooner had the dangers passed
which secured this concession, than the emperor summoned a second Diet to convene at
Spires in 1529 for the purpose of crushing heresy. The princes were to be induced, by
peaceable means if possible, to side against the Reformation; but if these failed, Charles
was prepared to resort to the sword.
The papists were exultant.
They appeared at Spires in great numbers, and openly manifested their hostility toward the
Reformers and all who favored them. Said Melanchthon: "We are the execration and the
sweepings of the world; but Christ will look down on His poor people, and will preserve
them."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5. The evangelical princes in attendance at the Diet were
forbidden even to have the gospel preached in their dwellings. But the people of Spires
thirsted for the word of God, and, notwithstanding the prohibition, thousands flocked to
the services held in the chapel of the elector of Saxony.
This hastened the crisis. An
imperial message announced to the Diet that as the resolution granting liberty of
conscience had given rise to great disorders, the emperor required that it be annulled.
This arbitrary act excited the indignation and alarm of the evangelical Christians. Said
one: "Christ has again fallen into the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate." The
Romanists became more violent. A bigoted papist declared: "The Turks are better than
the Lutherans; for the Turks observe fast days, and the Lutherans violate them. If we must
choose between the Holy Scriptures of God and the old errors of the church, we should
reject the former." Said Melanchthon: "Every day, in full assembly, Faber casts
some new stone at us gospelers."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5.
Religious toleration had been
legally established, and the evangelical states were resolved to oppose the infringement
of their rights. Luther, being still under the ban imposed by the Edict of Worms, was not
permitted to be present at Spires; but his place was supplied by his colaborers and the
princes whom God had raised up to defend His cause in this emergency. The noble Frederick
of Saxony, Luther's
former protector, had been removed by death; but Duke John, his
brother and successor, had joyfully welcomed the Reformation, and while a friend of peace,
he displayed great energy and courage in all matters relating to the interests of the
The priests demanded that the
states which had accepted the Reformation submit implicitly to Romish jurisdiction. The
Reformers, on the other hand, claimed the liberty which had previously been granted. They
could not consent that Rome should again bring under her control those states that had
with so great joy received the word of God.
As a compromise it was
finally proposed that where the Reformation had not become established, the Edict of Worms
should be rigorously enforced; and that "in those where the people had deviated from
it, and where they could not conform to it without danger of revolt, they should at least
effect no new reform, they should touch upon no controverted point, they should not oppose
the celebration of the mass, they should permit no Roman Catholic to embrace
Lutheranism." -- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5. This measure passed the Diet, to the great
satisfaction of the popish priests and prelates.
If this edict were enforced,
"the Reformation could neither be extended . . . where as yet it was unknown, nor be
established on solid foundations . . . where it already existed."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch.
5. Liberty of speech would be prohibited. No conversions would be allowed. And to these
restrictions and prohibitions the friends of the Reformation were required at once to
submit. The hopes of the world seemed about to be extinguished. "The re-establishment
of the Romish hierarchy . . . would infallibly bring back the ancient abuses;" and an
occasion would readily be found for "completing the destruction of a work already so
violently shaken" by fanaticism and dissension.-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5.
As the evangelical party met
for consultation, one looked to another in blank dismay. From one to another passed the
inquiry: "What is to be done?" Mighty issues for the world were at stake.
"Shall the chiefs of the Reformation
submit, and accept the edict? 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! The Lutheran princes were guaranteed the free exercise of their religion.
The same boon was extended to all those of their subjects who, prior to the passing of the
measure, had embraced the reformed views. 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.
"Happily they looked at
the principle on which this arrangement was based, and they acted in faith. What was that
principle? It was the right of Rome to coerce conscience and forbid free inquiry. But were
not themselves and their Protestant subjects to enjoy religious freedom? Yes, as a favor
specially stipulated for in the arrangement, but not as a right. As to all outside that
arrangement, the great principle of authority was to rule; conscience was out of court;
Rome was infallible judge, and must be obeyed. The acceptance of the proposed arrangement
would have been a virtual admission that religious liberty ought to be confined to
reformed Saxony; and as to all the rest of Christendom, free inquiry and the profession of
the reformed faith were crimes, and must be visited with the dungeon and the stake. Could
they consent to localize religious liberty? to have it proclaimed that the Reformation had
made its last convert? had subjugated its last acre? and that wherever Rome bore sway at
this hour, there her dominion was to be perpetuated? Could the Reformers have pleaded that
they were innocent of the blood of those hundreds and thousands who, in pursuance of this
arrangement, would have to yield up their
lives in popish lands? This would have been to
betray, at that supreme hour, the cause of the gospel and the liberties of
Christendom."--Wylie, b. 9, ch. 15. Rather would they "sacrifice everything,
even their states, their crowns, and their lives."--D'Aubigne, b. 13, ch. 5.
"Let us reject this
decree," said the princes. "In matters of conscience the majority has no
power." The deputies declared: "It is to the decree of 1526 that we are indebted
for the peace that the empire enjoys: its abolition would fill Germany with troubles and
divisions. The Diet is incompetent to do more than preserve religious liberty until the
council meets."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5. To protect liberty of conscience is the duty
of the state, and this is the limit of its authority in matters of religion. Every secular
government that attempts to regulate or enforce religious observances by civil authority
is sacrificing the very principle for which the evangelical Christian so nobly struggled.
The papists determined to put
down what they termed "daring obstinacy." They began by endeavoring to cause
divisions among the supporters of the Reformation and to intimidate all who had not openly
declared in its favor. The representatives of the free cities were at last summoned before
the Diet and required to declare whether they would accede to the terms of the
proposition. They pleaded for delay, but in vain. When brought to the test, nearly one
half their number sided with the Reformers. Those who thus refused to sacrifice liberty of
conscience and the right of individual judgment well knew that their position marked them
for future criticism, condemnation, and persecution. Said one of the delegates: "We
must either deny the word of God, or --be burnt."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5.
King Ferdinand, the emperor's
representative at the Diet, saw that the decree would cause serious divisions unless the
princes could be induced to accept and sustain it. He therefore tried the art of
persuasion, well knowing that to employ force with such men would only render them the
more determined. He "begged the princes to accept the decree,
assuring them that
the emperor would be exceedingly pleased with them." But these faithful men
acknowledged an authority above that of earthly rulers, and they answered calmly: "We
will obey the emperor in everything that may contribute to maintain peace and the honor of
God."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5.
In the presence of the Diet
the king at last announced to the elector and his friends that the edict "was about
to be drawn up in the form of an imperial decree," and that "their only
remaining course was to submit to the majority." Having thus spoken, he withdrew from
the assembly, giving the Reformers no opportunity for deliberation or reply. "To no
purpose they sent a deputation entreating the king to return." To their remonstrances
he answered only: "It is a settled affair; submission is all that remains."--
Ibid., b. 13, ch. 5.
The imperial party were
convinced that the Christian princes would adhere to the Holy Scriptures as superior to
human doctrines and requirements; and they knew that wherever this principle was accepted,
the papacy would eventually be overthrown. But, like thousands since their time, looking
only "at the things which are seen," they flattered themselves that the cause of
the emperor and the pope was strong, and that of the Reformers weak. Had the Reformers
depended upon human aid alone, they would have been as powerless as the papists supposed.
But though weak in numbers, and at variance with Rome, they had their strength. They
appealed "from the report of the Diet to the word of God, and from the emperor
Charles to Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 6.
As Ferdinand had refused to
regard their conscientious convictions, the princes decided not to heed his absence, but
to bring their Protest before the national council without delay. A solemn declaration was
therefore drawn up and presented to the Diet:
"We protest by these
presents, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one
day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our
people, neither consent
nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in
anything that is contrary to God, to His holy word, to our right conscience, to the
salvation of our souls."
"What! we ratify this
edict! We assert that when Almighty God calls a man to His knowledge, this man
nevertheless cannot receive the knowledge of God!" "There is no sure doctrine
but such as is conformable to the word of God. . . . The Lord forbids the teaching of any
other doctrine. . . . The Holy Scriptures ought to be explained by other an clearer texts;
. . . this Holy Book is, in all things necessary for the Christian, easy of understanding,
and calculated to scatter the darkness. We are resolved, with the grace of God, to
maintain the pure and exclusive preaching of His only word, such as it is contained in the
biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything thereto that may be
contrary to it. This word is the only truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of
all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand
against all the powers of hell, while all the human vanities that are set up against it
shall fall before the face of God."
"For this reason we
reject the yoke that is imposed on us." "At the same time we are in expectation
that his imperial majesty will behave toward us like a Christian prince who loves God
above all things; and we declare ourselves ready to pay unto him, as well as unto you,
gracious lords, all the affection and obedience that are our just and legitimate
duty."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 6.
A deep impression was made
upon the Diet. The majority were filled with amazement and alarm at the boldness of the
protesters. The future appeared to them stormy and uncertain. Dissension, strife, and
bloodshed seemed inevitable. But the Reformers, assured of the justice of their cause, and
relying upon the arm of Omnipotence, were "full of courage and firmness."
contained in this celebrated Protest . . . constitute the very essence of Protestantism.
Now this Protest opposes two abuses of man in matters of faith: the first is
of the civil magistrate, and the second the arbitrary authority of the church. Instead of
these abuses, Protestantism sets the power of conscience above the magistrate, and the
authority of the word of God above the visible church. In the first place, it rejects the
civil power in divine things, and says with the prophets and apostles, 'We must obey God
rather than man.' In presence of the crown of Charles the Fifth, it uplifts the crown of
Jesus Christ. But it goes farther: it lays down the principle that all human teaching
should be subordinate to the oracles of God."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 6. The protesters
had moreover affirmed their right to utter freely their convictions of truth. They would
not only believe and obey, but teach what the word of God presents, and they denied the
right of priest or magistrate to interfere. The Protest of Spires was a solemn witness
against religious intolerance, and an assertion of the right of all men to worship God
according to the dictates of their own consciences.
The declaration had been
made. It was written in the memory of thousands and registered in the books of heaven,
where no effort of man could erase it. All evangelical Germany adopted the Protest as the
expression of its faith. Everywhere men beheld in this declaration the promise of a new
and better era. Said one of the princes to the Protestants of Spires: "May the
Almighty, who has given you grace to confess energetically, freely, and fearlessly,
preserve you in that Christian firmness until the day of eternity."-- Ibid., b. 13,
Had the Reformation, after
attaining a degree of success, consented to temporize to secure favor with the world, it
would have been untrue to God and to itself, and would thus have ensured its own
destruction. The experience of these noble Reformers contains a lesson for all succeeding
ages. Satan's manner of working against God and His word has not changed; he is still as
much opposed to the Scriptures being made the guide of life as in the sixteenth century.
In our time there is a wide departure from their doctrines and precepts, and there is need
of a return to the great Protestant
principle--the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule
of faith and duty. Satan is still working through every means which he can control to
destroy religious liberty. The antichristian power which the protesters of Spires rejected
is now with renewed vigor seeking to re-establish its lost supremacy. The same unswerving
adherence to the word of God manifested at that crisis of the Reformation is the only hope
of reform today.
There appeared tokens of
danger to the Protestants; there were tokens, also, that the divine hand was stretched out
to protect the faithful. It was about this time that "Melanchthon hastily conducted
through the streets of Spires toward the Rhine his friend Simon Grynaeus, pressing him to
cross the river. The latter was astonished at such precipitation. 'An old man of grave and
solemn air, but who is unknown to me,' said Melanchthon, 'appeared before me and said, In
a minute officers of justice will be sent by Ferdinand to arrest Grynaeus.'"
During the day, Grynaeus had
been scandalized at a sermon by Faber, a leading papal doctor; and at the close,
remonstrated with him for defending "certain detestable errors." "Faber
dissembled his anger, but immediately after repaired to the king, from whom he had
obtained an order against the importunate professor of Heidelberg. Melanchthon doubted not
that God had saved his friend by sending one of His holy angels to forewarn him.
"Motionless on the banks
of the Rhine, he waited until the waters of that stream had rescued Grynaeus from his
persecutors. 'At last,' cried Melanchthon, as he saw him on the opposite side, 'at last he
is torn from the cruel jaws of those who thirst for innocent blood.' When he returned to
his house, Melanchthon was informed that officers in search of Grynaeus had ransacked it
from top to bottom."-- Ibid., b. 13, ch. 6.
The Reformation was to be
brought into greater prominence before the mighty ones of the earth. The evangelical
princes had been denied a hearing by King Ferdinand; but they were to be granted an
opportunity to present their cause
in the presence of the emperor and the assembled
dignitaries of church and state. To quiet the dissensions which disturbed the empire,
Charles V, in the year following the Protest of Spires, convoked a diet at Augsburg, over
which he announced his intention to preside in person. Thither the Protestant leaders were
Great dangers threatened the
Reformation; but its advocates still trusted their cause with God, and pledged themselves
to be firm to the gospel. The elector of Saxony was urged by his councilors not to appear
at the Diet. The emperor, they said, required the attendance of the princes in order to
draw them into a snare. "Is it not risking everything to go and shut oneself up
within the walls of a city with a powerful enemy?" But others nobly declared,
"Let the princes only comport themselves with courage, and God's cause is
saved." "God is faithful; He will not abandon us," said Luther.-- Ibid., b.
14, ch. 2. The elector set out, with his retinue, for Augsburg. All were acquainted with
the dangers that menaced him, and many went forward with gloomy countenance and troubled
heart. But Luther, who accompanied them as far as Coburg, revived their sinking faith by
singing the hymn, written on that journey, "A strong tower is our God." Many an
anxious foreboding was banished, many a heavy heart lightened, at the sound of the
The reformed princes had
determined upon having a statement of their views in systematic form, with the evidence
from the Scriptures, to present before the Diet; and the task of its preparation was
committed to Luther, Melanchthon, and their associates. This Confession was accepted by
the Protestants as an exposition of their faith, and they assembled to affix their names
to the important document. It was a solemn and trying time. The Reformers were solicitous
that their cause should not be confounded with political questions; they felt that the
Reformation should exercise no other influence than that which proceeds from the word of
As the Christian princes advanced to sign the Confession, Melanchthon interposed,
saying: "It is for the theologians and ministers to propose these things; let us
reserve for other matters the authority of the mighty ones of the earth." "God
forbid," replied John of Saxony, "that you should exclude me. I am resolved to
do what is right, without troubling myself about my crown. I desire to confess the Lord.
My electoral hat and my ermine are not so precious to me as the cross of Jesus
Christ." Having thus spoken, he wrote down his name. Said another of the princes as
he took the pen: "If the honor of my Lord Jesus Christ requires it, I am ready . . .
to leave my goods and life behind." "I would rather renounce my subjects and my
states, rather quit the country of my fathers staff in hand," he continued,
"than receive any other doctrine than that which is contained in this
Confession." -- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 6. Such was the faith and daring of those men of
The appointed time came to
appear before the emperor. Charles V, seated upon his throne, surrounded by the electors
and the princes, gave audience to the Protestant Reformers. The confession of their faith
was read. In that august assembly the truths of the gospel were clearly set forth, and the
errors of the papal church were pointed out. Well has that day been pronounced "the
greatest day of the Reformation, and one of the most glorious in the history of
Christianity and of mankind."-- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 7.
But a few years had passed
since the monk of Wittenberg stood alone at Worms before the national council. Now in his
stead were the noblest and most powerful princes of the empire. Luther had been forbidden
to appear at Augsburg, but he had been present by his words and prayers. "I am
overjoyed," he wrote, "that I have lived until this hour, in which Christ has
been publicly exalted by such illustrious confessors, and in so glorious an
assembly."-- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 7. Thus was fulfilled what the Scripture says: "I
will speak of Thy testimonies . . . before kings." Psalm 119:46.
In the days of Paul the
gospel for which he was imprisoned was thus brought before the princes and nobles of the
imperial city. So on this occasion, that which the emperor had forbidden to be preached
from the pulpit was proclaimed from the palace; what many had regarded as unfit even for
servants to listen to was heard with wonder by the masters and lords of the empire. Kings
and great men were the auditory, crowned princes were the preachers, and the sermon was
the royal truth of God. "Since the apostolic age," says a writer, "there
has never been a greater work or a more magnificent confession."--D'Aubigne, b. 14,
"All that the Lutherans
have said is true; we cannot deny it," declared a papist bishop. "Can you refute
by sound reasons the Confession made by the elector and his allies?" asked another of
Dr. Eck. "With the writings of the apostles and prophets--no!" was the reply;
"but with those of the Fathers and of the councils--yes!" "I
understand," responded the questioner. "The Lutherans, according to you, are in
Scripture, and we are outside."-- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 8.
Some of the princes of
Germany were won to the reformed faith. The emperor himself declared that the Protestant
articles were but the truth. The Confession was translated into many languages and
circulated through all Europe, and it has been accepted by millions in succeeding
generations as the expression of their faith.
God's faithful servants were
not toiling alone. While principalities and powers and wicked spirits in high places were
leagued against them, the Lord did not forsake His people. Could their eyes have been
opened, they would have seen as marked evidence of divine presence and aid as was granted
to a prophet of old. When Elisha's servant pointed his master to the hostile army
surrounding them and cutting off all opportunity for escape, the prophet prayed:
"Lord, I pray Thee, open his eyes, that he may see." 2 Kings 6:17. And, lo, the
mountain was filled with chariots and horses of fire, the army of heaven stationed to
protect the man of God. Thus did angels guard the workers in the cause of the Reformation.
One of the principles most
firmly maintained by Luther was that there should be no resort to secular power in support
of the Reformation, and no appeal to arms for its defense. He rejoiced that the gospel was
confessed by princes of the empire; but when they proposed to unite in a defensive league,
he declared that "the doctrine of the gospel should be defended by God alone. . . .
The less man meddled in the work, the more striking would be God's intervention in its
behalf. All the politic precautions suggested were, in his view, attributable to unworthy
fear and sinful mistrust."-- D'Aubigne, London ed., b. 10, ch. 14.
When powerful foes were
uniting to overthrow the reformed faith, and thousands of swords seemed about to be
unsheathed against it, Luther wrote: "Satan is putting forth his fury; ungodly
pontiffs are conspiring; and we are threatened with war. Exhort the people to contend
valiantly before the throne of the Lord, by faith and prayer, so that our enemies,
vanquished by the Spirit of God, may be constrained to peace. Our chief want, our chief
labor, is prayer; let the people know that they are now exposed to the edge of the sword
and to the rage of Satan, and let them pray."-- D'Aubigne, b. 10, ch. 14.
Again, at a later date,
referring to the league contemplated by the reformed princes, Luther declared that the
only weapon employed in this warfare should be "the sword of the Spirit." He
wrote to the elector of Saxony: "We cannot on our conscience approve the proposed
alliance. We would rather die ten times than see our gospel cause one drop of blood to be
shed. Our part is to be like lambs of the slaughter. The cross of Christ must be borne.
Let your highness be without fear. We shall do more by our prayers than all our enemies by
their boastings. Only let not your hands be stained with the blood of your brethren. If
the emperor requires us to be given up to his tribunals, we are ready to appear. You
cannot defend our faith: each one should believe at his own risk and peril."-- Ibid.,
b. 14, ch. 1.
From the secret place of
prayer came the power that shook the world in the Great Reformation. There, with holy
calmness, the servants of the Lord set their feet upon the rock of His promises. During
the struggle at Augsburg, Luther "did not pass a day without devoting three hours at
least to prayer, and they were hours selected from those the most favorable to
study." In the privacy of his chamber he was heard to pour out his soul before God in
words "full of adoration, fear, and hope, as when one speaks to a friend."
"I know that Thou art our Father and our God," he said, "and that Thou wilt
scatter the persecutors of Thy children; for Thou art Thyself endangered with us. All this
matter is Thine, and it is only by Thy constraint that we have put our hands to it. Defend
us, then, O Father!"-- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 6.
To Melanchthon, who was
crushed under the burden of anxiety and fear, he wrote: "Grace and peace in
Christ--in Christ, I say, and not in the world. Amen. I hate with exceeding hatred those
extreme cares which consume you. If the cause is unjust, abandon it; if the cause is just,
why should we belie the promises of Him who commands us to sleep without fear? . . .
Christ will not be wanting to the work of justice and truth. He lives, He reigns; what
fear, then, can we have?"-- Ibid., b. 14, ch. 6.
God did listen to the cries
of His servants. He gave to princes and ministers grace and courage to maintain the truth
against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Saith the Lord: "Behold, I lay in
Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be
confounded." 1 Peter 2:6. The Protestant Reformers had built on Christ, and the gates
of hell could not prevail against them.