GHDI logo

4. Confessions
print version

1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

The story of the German Protestant Reformation has often been told as a tale of the Germans’ national liberation from the Middle Ages and the Roman Church. A more recent view is that the Reformation was the first stage of the confessional era, when a relatively stable convivencia (co-existence) of confessions emerged in the Holy Roman Empire. The three German confessions – Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed (Calvinist) – were large, trans-territorial, readily identifiable, and more or less religiously disciplined communities. They were characterized by distinctive liturgical practices and doctrinal teachings but also by similar motivations and disciplinary goals.

Little had been settled by the time of Luther’s death in 1546. Lutheranism underwent three decades of bitter doctrinal strife; in the 1560s Calvinism arrived as a third, illegal confession; and by 1600 the Catholic revival was putting the Empire’s Protestants on the defensive. For more than fifty years, political collaboration across confessional boundaries – the fruit of 1555 – nonetheless continued. The confessions constructed stable new forms of church and school life; the Imperial estates supported the Empire’s conflicts with the Ottoman power in Hungary; the integration of Imperial Jewry proceeded apace; and the long German campaign to rid the land of witches rose to its first highpoint. The war of 1618-48 disrupted these developments, of course, but also demonstrated the power of the incomplete reform of Imperial governance to resist a settlement of the incomplete religious reformation by force. Although the first major attempt at peace and restoration failed in 1634, in 1648 the old confessional order, its points of tension now soothed, could be fully restored.

A. Confessional Era.

In the post-1555 era, the Empire seemed to be moving toward a stronger monarchy and a single, Protestant faith. The Religious Peace of Augsburg did not arrest this Protestant advance. In 1574, Lazarus von Schwendi (1522-84), a retired Imperial general, laid his vision of the Empire as a strongly ruled Protestant kingdom before Emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564-76). Schwendi was a patriot who longed for the Germans’ restoration to the virtue and power of their ancient ancestors; he was a monarchist who saw the Empire beset by the Spanish and Ottoman tyrannies; and he was a Protestant who saw in Luther’s Reformation a liberation of the Germans from the Roman Church, which, in his view, lay on the brink of extinction. Within two years, however, his emperor was dead, and his vision of the Empire began to fade away.

The post-1555 generation of Protestant leaders created the institutions and tools that would carry their churches through the coming centuries. Churches were visited, purified of idols and unsuitable pastors, and equipped with comprehensive new regulations called “church ordinances” [Kirchenordnungen], which spelled out in great detail how the new churches were to be managed. There was much borrowing, notably from Lutheran ordinances issued in Electoral Saxony, Württemberg, and Brunswick and from a Reformed ordinance issued in the Electoral Palatinate. Schools also were reformed, or new ones founded, based on strictly utilitarian principles. Their classically oriented curricula were designed to prepare young subjects for service in the church and the law. Everywhere, the spirit of regulation, discipline, and order was in the air, and if the Catholics were slow to follow the Protestant examples, it was for a lack of means rather than of need. Such regulations, combined with normative codes of doctrine – the Augsburg Confession for the Lutherans and the Heidelberg Catechism for the Reformed – created the Protestant confessions as communities of belief and liturgical practice.

Not everyone was prepared to be disciplined in religious matters. While some simply refused to accept the dominant faith, others, called “Nicodemites” (after the Pharisee Nicodemus, who visited Jesus in the night) conformed in body but not in their hearts. In some regions, such as Westphalia, local interconfessional agreements regulated the use of local churches and their churchyards. In four southern Imperial cities, the Peace of 1555 had decreed coexistence and governance on equal terms. Augsburg, a city of some 50-60,000 inhabitants, was governed by a magistracy based on confessional parity, and, with two breaks during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), it maintained this regime until the end of the Old Regime. In such a large city, Christians could live as dissenters, not as gathered communities but as individuals who went about their work and lived as other people did. Some were wealthy artisan masters. One of them, the goldsmith David Altenstetter (ca. 1547-1617), told the interrogating magistrates of his fondness for the writings of the sixteenth-century spiritualist Caspar Schwenckfeld. Altenstetter went sometimes to the Catholic church, sometimes to the Lutheran church, and sometimes not at all.

The Catholic revival surfaced during the final quarter of the sixteenth century. In 1574, two years after Schwendi’s memorial, Peter Canisius (1521-97), a Dutch-speaking Jesuit from Nijmegen, informed Rome of the Church’s pitiful state in the Empire. His correspondent, Giovanni Cardinal Morone (1508-80), was president of the Vatican’s German Congregation and its leading expert on German affairs. Canisius’s gloomy picture and the remedies he recommended echo both the Regensburg reform program of 1524 and the acts of the Council of Trent. He called for a new discipline of clergy and laity, purification of ceremonies, catechetical instruction for the laity, and collaboration with Catholic rulers to halt the conversions of Catholics and the secularization of ecclesiastical properties. Canisius’s critique of the Catholic bishops emphasized the failure of leadership and need for outside help. Canisius and Morone also recognized the German nobility’s central role in the governance of the Church in the Empire.

The Catholic revival’s broad appeal is reflected in the mobilization of women for the cause. They sought to become “Jesuitesses” by serving God and the Church through the active life. Such a group, dedicated to St. Ursula, formed at Cologne in the latter years of the sixteenth century. Then help arrived from abroad in the persons of some Catholic Englishwomen led by Mary Ward (1585-1645) of Yorkshire. Ten years later, when these “English Ladies” had grown to about sixty members, Ward journeyed to Rome to seek papal approbation. Rebuffed, she and her companions turned to the Empire for help, where they found ducal (Munich) and Imperial (Vienna, Prague) sponsorship for the schools they founded for young women. Despite their zeal for the Church’s cause, the English ladies fell afoul of engrained prejudice and the Council of Trent’s prescription of claustration for women religious.

The work of counterreformation – winning whole lands back for the Catholic Church – depended on close collaboration between rulers, both dynastic and ecclesiastical, and clerical reformers. This work met perhaps its steepest challenges in the five duchies of eastern Austria. An exception was Tyrol, where the landed nobles had mostly adopted the new faith and negotiated toleration of it from their Habsburg princes. In some regions, Protestant nobles (illegally) extended this privilege from castle to town and burghers. Winning back these lands required, first, the destruction of the Protestant position by attacking noble liberties and Lutheran worship and, then, massive evangelization by a corps of educated, disciplined Catholic clergy. Most of the latter had to be recruited from neighboring lands. In Inner Austria, the project of Catholic reform began under Bavarian tutelage with a consultation in 1579 at Munich among Archduke Charles (r. 1564-90) and his brother, Ferdinand of Tyrol, and their host, Duke William V of Bavaria. The three princes agreed that the key to solving the problem was to enforce the Habsburg princes’ undoubted right under the Religious Peace to require religious conformity in their lands. One year later, Charles launched the campaign to break the Inner Austrian Protestant nobles’ institutional structure and to retake the lands for the Catholic Church.

Left without interference, communities of mixed religion could sometimes agree to a local arrangement that both satisfied religious needs and maintained the public peace. After 1531, confessional conflict within the Swiss Confederation was handled through negotiations, although, as in the Empire, only the Confederation’s full members could enforce conformity. True local convivencias appeared, however, in the associated republics, particularly Graubünden. When the commune of the Four Villages near Chur voted in the 1550s, three villages chose to maintain Catholic worship, the other Reformed. Dissenters attended services in a village of their confession until around 1600, when stronger Reformed minorities demanded use or even control of their own villages’ churches. Tensions grew until 1616, when the formally Catholic village of Zizers confronted the issue. The two parties agreed to joint use of the village church and thereby restored the communal peace. The more popular the regime, as a rule, the less violence was caused by confessional conflicts.

The making of religious peace varied as widely as the Empire’s forms of governance in the Empire. The Religious Peace did not apply to the kingdom of Bohemia, which (after 1527) shared a monarch with the Empire. The Bohemian religious situation was complicated by confessional diversity: Roman Catholics; two communities descended from the Hussites, Utraquists and the Bohemian Brethren (for political purposes a single party); and Lutheran and Reformed Protestants. The Bohemian estates, dominated by nobles, shielded the non-Catholic nobles and towns from their Catholic king. From around 1605, tensions were growing between Emperor Rudolph II and his eldest brother, Matthias. Allied to the heavily Protestant estates of Habsburg-ruled lands – Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Upper and Lower Austria – Matthias compelled Rudolph to cede these lands and to recognize him as future emperor. The Bohemian estates in turn exacted from the emperor a promise of a general edict of toleration. Issued as an edict in the summer of 1609, this “Letter of Majesty” guaranteed religious liberty to the allied Utraquists/Brethren and to the two Protestant confessions, whom Rudolph insisted be called “Utraquists.” On the same day, the heads of the Catholic and Protestant estates came to an agreement. These documents remained in force in principle until 1627, when the Catholic victories in the Thirty Years War emboldened the king-emperor to introduce a strongly Catholic and royalist constitution for Bohemia.

Page 12

first page < previous   |   next > last page