April 19th in German History: The Protestant Reformation

John, the elector of Saxony. One of the protesters. Image Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most influential events in the history of Germany, one that still divides Germany today, is the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation first began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and it quickly spread across Europe via the printing press. It spread first to the German principalities and cities which were closer to the point where the Reformation started. These States had traditionally enjoyed a great deal of autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire and so thought that they had the right to choose whether or not they would accept the reformation. The Imperial Diet had, however, in 1521 banned the word of Martin Luther in an attempt to maintain religious unity within the Empire. In the 1526 Imperial Diet, the Edict of Worms allowed each prince to choose which faith their state followed. However, at the beginning of the 1529 Diet, Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, announced that the 1526 decision would be annulled and the ban on Protestantism would be restored. Most princes accepted this, but Principalities and 14 Free Cities opposed this ban, and so on April 19th in 1529 six princes and representatives of the Free Cities petitioned the Diet to allow the spread of Luther’s belief and end the ban on Luther’s works. Ferdinand refused to listen to their protests and on April 20th the “Letter of Protestation”, written and signed by the evangelical princes, was read out loud and printed. At the final day of the Diet, on April 24th, the majority decision was read out, without mention of the dissent of the princes. In response, on April 25th the protesting princes wrote an Instrementum Appellationis which contained their grievances with the Diet’s decision. It was later brought to Charles V. The adherents of Luther’s movement thus became known as Protestants.

The protest of the Evangelic princes, even against the opposition of their Emperor as well as the majority of the other German princes, show the resilience of new ideas against the opposition of the old. That Protestantism survived and spread even as it faced violent persecution shows how futile attempts are to suppress new ideas and movements. This has been proven time and time again in history when new ideas spread even when they faced stiff opposition from established authorities. It is thus pointless to attempt to stop the spread of new ideas and more focus should be on how to adapt to them and how to best mitigate their, at times, disruptive impacts.

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