An important event in connection with the Reformation was the “protest at Speyer.” Speyer, or Spires, is an old town in Bavaria, Germany. It is situated on the Rhine River1The Rhine River originates in the Swiss Alps. It is 820 miles long, the longest river in Western Europe. and is one of the oldest towns in Germany. It is a walled town with gates and towers. In Luther’s time, it was a place of great trade and wealth. It had a large palace belonging to the emperors of Germany. There is also a large cathedral where many of the emperors were buried.

Martin Luther had been declared a heretic by the pope and the emperor after he burned the papal bull on December 10, 1520. Shortly after this, he was excommunicated. At the Diet of Worms in April 1521, Luther was asked to recant and retract his writings. His response was his famous statement, “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen!” The result of this firm stance was that Charles V signed a document which outlawed Luther. This document was called the Edict of Worms, dated April 19, 1521. Luther’s friends hid him in the Wartburg Castle to keep him safe from his enemies.

The Roman Catholic Church could not stop the light of the Reformation from shining into the darkness of error, however, and Luther continued to write; more and more people came to embrace the light of the gospel. When Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1522, it was a time of political and religious unrest. Many people were opposed to the ban on Luther and his teachings and writings. In 1526, Charles V called for an Imperial Diet of Speyer to try to settle some of the unrest. At this diet, which opened on June 25, the ban on Luther was lifted after much discussion. Surprisingly, the same emperor who had branded Luther a heretic now granted a measure of religious freedom to the German people; each prince could decide for himself what he thought was best for the people in his province as far as religion was concerned. This law had been passed by Luther’s friends and was a great help to the cause of the Reformation.

This freedom was cut short, however, by the Diet of Speyer three years later. The Reformation was spreading at an alarming rate. The pope, the Roman Catholic leaders, and Charles V decided that something had to be done to stop it.

Diet at Speyer
The Diet of Speyer was called by Emperor Charles V on March 15, 1529. The emperor himself did not attend the meeting, but he sent his younger brother, Ferdinand2 Ferdinand I was emperor of Germany from 1558-64 and king of Bohemia and Hungary from 1526. , to take his place. At this meeting, it became clear that the Roman Catholics would no longer tolerate the teachings of the Reformation. Ferdinand tried to get a new law passed that would repeal the decision that the Diet had made in 1526 that allowed religious freedom. He wanted a law passed that would forbid anyone to preach or believe the doctrines that Luther taught. Melanchthon observed, “We are regarded as the curse of the earth; but Christ will look down on His poor people, and will preserve them.”

Most German princes, however, were friends of Luther and the Reformation. They opposed the pope and Ferdinand so strongly that this new law could not be passed.

When the friends of the pope realized this fact, they proposed a law stating that a person could believe what he wanted, but he should not be allowed to make a change in his religion. The Roman Catholics believed this would be an effective way to stop the spread of the Reformation. The friends of the Reformation objected, arguing that such a law would bring strife and controversy into Germany, whereas the last three years had been peaceful. Ferdinand and the Roman Catholic princes tried to persuade those who objected, but they would not submit. Finally, Ferdinand announced that his decision was made: they must submit to his authority and the pope’s; Roman Catholicism was to be the religion of the land. He then left the meeting and refused to listen to any requests to change his mind.

The Memorial Church of the Protestation. Built between 1893 and 1904, the church was constructed in memory of the Speyer protest.

The Protest Written
Six reforming princes and fourteen cities met together to talk about this tragic law that was intended to stop the spread of the Reformation. They drafted a protest for themselves, their subjects, and all who then or in the future would believe in the Word of God. They said to each other, “We will obey the emperor in everything that maintains peace and the honor of God, but we cannot give up the truths of the Bible or the true worship of God.”

One of the five princes signing the Protestation at Speyer in April 1529 was Philip, the 25-year-old landgrave (a count or prince in Germany) of Hesse. He was among the most committed of Luther’s supporters, founding in Marburg in 1527 the first Protestant university. Another of these princes was John, Elector of Saxony, known as John the Steadfast or John the Constant (1468-1532). He became the Elector of Saxony in 1525 when his brother Frederick III, also known as Frederick the Wise, died. His name “The Steadfast” indicates his unwavering faith in God and his protection of those who helped the Protestant Reformation.

At this Diet, John the Steadfast was requested to read the letter of protest before those in attendance. This is what the letter said:

We are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure preaching of God’s holy Word, such as is contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything to it 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.

Ferdinand I

For these reasons, most dear lords and friends, we earnestly entreat you to weigh carefully our grievances and our motives. If you do not yield to our request, we protest before God, our only Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer, and Savior, who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and 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, and to the salvation of souls.

This protest also stated:

There is no true preaching or doctrine but that which conforms to the Word of God. The Lord forbids the teaching of any other faith. Each text of the holy and divine Scriptures should be explained by other texts. This Holy Book is in all things necessary for the Christian and easy to be understood. It shines clearly in its own light, and is found to enlighten the darkness. We are determined by God’s grace and aid to abide by God’s Word alone, to maintain the pure preaching of God’s only Word, as it is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, without anything added thereto. This Word alone should be preached, and nothing that is contrary to it. It is the only truth. It is the sure rule of all Christian doctrine and life and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all the powers of hell, whilst all the vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God. We therefore reject the yoke that is imposed upon us.

This protest was important for several reasons. First, it showed the selflessness of the German princes. They did not say to themselves, “Well, we belong to the Reformation, so it doesn’t affect us.” Rather, they thought of others. They saw that this new law was intended to stop others from joining the Reformation, so they took a stand in favor of religious freedom. The salvation of souls was more important to them than their own safety.

Second, it was important because it gave to the friends of the Reformation the name by which they have become known. The word “Protestant” comes from the word “protest.” The English word originally meant “resolute confession, solemn declaration.” The princes were standing for the truth of God’s Word against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Diet of Augsburg and the Augsburg Confession

Since Ferdinand did not want to hear any more from these German princes, the protest was sent to Emperor Charles V. He made an attempt to resolve this matter at the Diet of Augsburg in June 1530. Melanchthon and Luther were the main authors of a statement describing the views of the Reformation. They bolstered these views with Scripture. This statement of faith, now known as the Augsburg Confession, was accepted by the Protestant princes, and they signed their names to it.

Luther had been declared a heretic and an outlaw and was therefore unable to attend. His place was taken by Philip Melanchthon. While Melanchthon and the princes were gathered at Augsburg, Luther prayed at least three hours each day. In the privacy of his chamber, he was overheard pouring out his soul before God as if speaking to a friend.

The ‘old’ University of Marburg

On the day of the meeting, the Confession was read before Charles V. The emperor had demanded that the Confession be read in Latin, but John, Elector of Saxony objected, saying that they were Germans and the Confession should be read in German. So the truth of the Scriptures was clearly proclaimed in the language of the people, and the errors of the Roman Catholic Church noted.

The Confession made a great impact on all who heard it. Some of the princes’ eyes were opened and they began to understand that the Reformation was true, since it was based solely on Scripture. Even John Eck, the opponent of Martin Luther, had to admit that he could not refute this confession with Scripture, but only with the writings of the Roman Catholic clergy. Emperor Charles V could find no words to declare the confession unscriptural. Though Luther could not be there, he rejoiced. “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. Herein is fulfilled what the Scripture saith, ‘I will declare Thy testimony in the presence of kings.3Ibid., quoting Psalm 119:46'” Although the Augsburg Confession made an impression, the Diet did not want to accept this document, since it spoke against the Roman Catholic Church. They decided to give the Protestants time to retract their confession. A statement was written that by April 1531 all Protestant princes and cities must recant from the Lutheran faith.

If the Roman Catholic Church thought that the Protestants would yield to their pressure, they were mistaken. The Protestant princes and some of the cities united to protect each other. This became known as the League of Schmalkald. Though there was tension between the two groups, there was no outright war until after Luther’s death in 1546.

In 1547, in the battle of Mühlberg, Charles V gained the victory, and Philip of Hesse was imprisoned for five years. In 1555, another Diet gathered at Augsburg. By this time, both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants were willing to come to an agreement. This agreement, known as the Peace of Augsburg, allowed each prince and city to choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.

The conflict between truth and error continued over the years. This conflict will not end until the Lord Jesus Christ returns in the clouds to judge the living and the dead. Jesus told His disciples, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22).


1 The Rhine River originates in the Swiss Alps. It is 820 miles long, the longest river in Western Europe.
2 Ferdinand I was emperor of Germany from 1558-64 and king of Bohemia and Hungary from 1526.
3 Ibid., quoting Psalm 119:46