At the Diet of Spires in 1526, a resolution had been passed to allow each of the German states to practice religion as they thought best until the emperor himself would return and a general council could be called to restore religious unity.
Three Years of Peace
The princes expected the emperor to call a general council within a year, but three years passed before the emperor could turn his attention to Germany. In that time, some German states maintained the traditions of the Roman Church. Other states, however, reformed religious practices. In the Reformed states, ministers preached the Word of God, priests were allowed to marry, and mass was said in the German language.
While Luther, Melanchthon and Spalatin were visiting the churches and establishing a new order within the evangelical churches, Emperor Charles V was fighting the pope.
Sack of Rome
On May 6, 1527, the emperor’s army revolted against its commanders and attacked Rome, killing around 25 000 civilians and 1 000 Swiss Guards[i]. Pope Clement VII surrendered in June.
The next year, in June 1528, the emperor and the pope made peace. The pope’s reconciliation with Charles included a large payment to the imperial army, the end of his alliances with Charles’ enemies, and giving up some of his territory to the emperor.
Diet of Spires 1529
With a return of peace between himself and the pope, Emperor Charles determined to bring a close to the Reformation in Germany and restore the German states to the control of the papacy. A diet, or council, was scheduled to meet in Spires February 21, 1529. The emperor’s brother, King Ferdinand represented the emperor at Spires.
Hostility toward the Reformation princes was apparent right from the start of the diet. Elector of Saxony Duke John and the landgrave, Philip of Hesse, were prohibited from having the Gospel preached in their palaces.
Arbitrary Action of Ferdinand
Then King Ferdinand made an announcement. He said that since the resolution of Spires 1526 had caused so much trouble in Germany, it would be annulled and the edict of Worms would be enforced instead. That was like saying, “We’ve tried the Reformation and it didn’t work. We’ll now return to the old traditions which were so much better.”
Ferdinand’s announcement shocked the council. The Reformation princes knew that Germany’s peace from 1526-1529 was owed to the religious liberty allowed by the Diet of Spires in 1526, contrary to Ferdinand’s opinion. Not only that, but the announcement was unusual in another important way. It was not the way laws were made in the Holy Roman Empire. Before new laws were brought in, there was always discussion and the German princes were part of the law-making process. Ferdinand’s high-handed behaviour alarmed the princes.
The Commission’s Proposal
The diet formed a commission to consider the emperor’s resolution and came up with a sort of compromise. It was proposed that wherever the edict of Worms had been carried out, that is, in states where Luther’s writings were banned and the Roman Church’s traditions were maintained, no reforms should be allowed. In states that had embraced the Reformation and where it was likely the people would revolt if the reforms were swept away, no new reforms should be introduced. But the commission also required that no new converts from Roman Catholicism should be allowed.
Thwarting Christ’s Gospel Commission
The Reformation princes were troubled. The commission’s proposal allowed reformers to practice their faith, but at the same time, if the proposal were to be made law, it would prevent the spread of the Gospel. Had Jesus not commissioned believers to “Go…into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15)?
The Reformation princes rejected the decree of the commission, because it would take away the religious liberty that the Diet of Spires had established in 1526. They said, “In matters of conscience, the majority has no power.”[ii] They reminded the council that the Diet of Spires 1526 had determined to maintain religious liberty until a general council met to decide how to deal with the Reformation.
Ferdinand and Roman Church representatives were frustrated. They pushed the free cities to vote on the commission’s resolution. The vote was 21 to 14 in favour of accepting the resolution. Ferdinand announced to the council that the vote was decisive and all that was necessary was submission. Then he left the council hall.
[ii] Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 862.