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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 76. The Three Electors.

G. Spalatin: Friedrich d. Weise, Lebensgeschichte, ed. by Neudecker and Preller, Jena, 1851. Tutzschmann: Fr. d. W., Grimma, 1848. Ranke, vol. II. Kolde: Friedrich der Weise und die Anfänge der Reformation, Erlangen, 1881. Köstlin in the Studien u. Kritiken, 1882, p. 700, (vers. Kolde). Comp. §§ 26 and 61.


Shortly before the close of the Peasants’ War, Frederick III., surnamed the Wise, Elector of Saxony (1486–1525), died peacefully as he had lived, in his sixty-third year, May 5, 1525. His last hours at the castle of Lochau form a striking contrast with the stormy and bloody scenes around him. He hoped that the common people would not prevail, but admitted that they had reason to complain of harsh treatment. "Dear children," he said to his servants, "if I have wronged any one of you, I beg you to forgive me for God’s sake; we princes do many naughty things to the poor people." Shortly before his death, he partook of the holy communion in both kinds. This is the only distinct Protestant act in his life. His body was removed to Wittenberg, and buried in the castle church at which Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses. Melanchthon delivered a Latin oration; Luther wrote letters of condolence to his brother and nephew, who succeeded him, and praised his wisdom, his kindness to his subjects, his love of justice and hatred of falsehood. Aleander, the Pope’s legate at Worms, called him the old fox of Saxony, but in history he bears the name of the Wise. He had charge of the German Empire after the death of Maximilian; he modestly declined the imperial crown; he decided the election of King Charles of Spain, and was the only Elector who did not sell his vote.

Frederick was a devout Catholic, a believer in relics and indulgences, but at the same time a lover of fair dealing, an admirer of Luther, and much concerned for his university. He saved the German Reformation by saving the Reformer, without openly breaking with the Catholic Church. He never saw Luther, except at a distance in the Diet of Worms, and communicated with him chiefly through his chaplain and secretary, Spalatin. His cautious reserve was the best policy for the time.

Frederick was succeeded by his brother, John the Steadfast or Constant (1525–1532). He was less prudent and influential in politics, but a more determined adherent of the Reformation. He was too fat to mount his horse without the aid of a machine. He went to sleep at times under Luther’s sermons, but stood by him at every cost. His motto was: "The word of God abideth for ever," which was placed on his ensigns and liveries.566566    "V. D. M. I. AE." = Verbum Dei manet in aetemum. He was the first to sign the immortal protest of Speier in 1529, and the Confession of Augsburg in 1530.

His son and successor, John Frederick the Magnanimous (1532–1554), survived Luther. He founded the University of Jena. He suffered the disastrous defeat at Mühlberg (April 24, 1547), and would rather lose his Electorate and half of his estates than deny the evangelical faith in which he was brought up. How different was the conduct of Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who sold the Lutheran faith of his ancestors for the crown of Poland (1697), and disgraced both by his scandulous life.

Luther has left some characteristic remarks about his three sovereigns. Of Frederick, whom he only knew from a distance, he said, "He was a wise, intelligent, able, and good man, who hated all display and hypocrisy. He was never married.567567    But he left two illegitimate sons. His life was pure and modest. His motto ’Tantum quantum possim’ was a sign of his good sense .... He was a fine manager and economist. He listened patiently in his council, shut his eyes, and took notes of each opinion. Then he formed his own conclusion. Such a prince is a blessing from God." Of John he said, "He had six pages to wait on him. They read the Bible to him for six hours every day. He often went to sleep, but when he awoke he had always some good text in his mouth. At sermon he used to take notes in a pocket-book. Church government and secular affairs were well administered. The Emperor had only good to say of him. He had a strong frame, and a hard death. He roared like a lion." John Frederick he judged to be "too indulgent, though he hates untruth and loose living. He fears God, and has his five wits about him. You never hear an impure or dishonorable word from his lips. He is a chaste husband, and loves his wife,—a rare virtue among kings and princes. One fault he has: he eats and drinks too much. Perhaps so big a body requires more than a small one. Otherwise he works like a donkey; and, drink what he will, he always reads the Bible or some good book before he goes to sleep."568568    Extracts from the Tischreden, Erl. ed., vol. LXI., 379, 380, 385, 387, 389, 393, 394.

These three Electors of Saxony are the model princes of the Lutheran Reformation, which owes much to their protection. Philip of Hesse was more intelligent, brilliant, liberal, and daring than any of them, but his bigamy paralyzed his influence. He leaned more to the Reformed side, and stood on good terms with Zwingli. The most pious of the princes of Germany in the sixteenth century was Frederick III., surnamed the Pious, Elector of the Palatinate (1559–1576), who introduced the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Protestant sovereigns became supreme bishops in their respective dominions. They did not preach, nor administer the sacraments, but assumed the episcopal jurisdiction in the government of the Church, and exercised also the right of reforming the Church (jus reformationis) in their dominions, whereby they established a particular confession as the state religion, and excluded others, or reduced them to the condition of mere toleration. This right they claimed by virtue of a resolution of the Diet of Speier, in 1526, which was confirmed by the Peace of Augsburg, 1555, and ultimately by the Peace of Westphalia, 1648. The Reformers regarded this secular summepiscopate as a temporary arrangement which was forced upon them by the hostility of the bishops who adhered to the Pope. They justified it by the example of Josiah and other pious kings of Israel, who destroyed idolatry and restored the pure worship of Jehovah. They accepted the protection and support of the princes at the sacrifice of the freedom and independence of the church, which became an humble servant of the state. Melanchthon regretted this condition; and in view of the rapacity of the princes, and the confusion of things, he wished the old bishops back again, and was willing even to submit to the authority of a pope if the pope would allow the freedom of the gospel. In Scandinavia and England the episcopal hierarchy was retained, or a new one substituted for the old, and gave the church more power and influence in the government.



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