Why did many German rulers support Luther's religious movement against the Catholic Church?

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In the 1520s, many German states and principalities turned to Protestantism and supported Martin Luther. First, Charles V was vying to become Holy Roman Emperor and many German princes feared that the extent of his kingdom would threaten their autonomy. They wanted to be powerful rulers of their small principalities,...

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In the 1520s, many German states and principalities turned to Protestantism and supported Martin Luther. First, Charles V was vying to become Holy Roman Emperor and many German princes feared that the extent of his kingdom would threaten their autonomy. They wanted to be powerful rulers of their small principalities, not puppets of an emperor. When Charles V called the Diet of Worms but refused to back Martin Luther when he would not recant the views for which he had been excommunicated by the pope, many German leaders were glad to break with Charles V and Rome.

Luther's theology taught them that they ruled by Divine Right and did not need papal approval. Many of these princes were burdened with the taxes that they were expected to send to Rome to support the papacy and with the pressure to buy and sell papal indulgences. They were glad to have an alternative to Roman Catholicism that got them out from under burdensome financial obligations.

Most of the support for Luther arose from secular concerns—money and power—but nevertheless gave Protestantism a firm foothold as a viable alternative to Catholicism.

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In Martin Luther's time, Germany was divided up among many different and somewhat independent principalities. Many German princes decided to go along with Luther for a variety of reasons. It is important to remember that Luther actively sought out the support and protection of these princes after the Diet of Worms and his excommunication in 1521. Luther felt that he needed the support of powerful local rulers if he and his new sect were to survive.

Fortunately for Luther, he found a lot of support among many princes. For starters, many liked the notion that Luther put forth that his church would not involve the rigid hierarchy of Catholicism. It also favored control by local rulers which meant that the princes could directly oversee their own churches. For centuries, European rulers chaffed at the power that the Vatican had to appoint bishops and priests in their lands without local oversight. They also did not enjoy paying large taxes to the Church and having large amounts of their land under church control. The Lutheran Church served as a way for German princes to take control of their own lands and domestic policy.

Some princes had even more selfish reasons to support Luther. Philip of Hesse, for example, interpreted Luther's literal take on the Bible to claim it supported polygamy. Even though Luther advised Prince Philip not to take multiple wives, the young ruler took a second wife citing some of Luther's very own sermons.

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Although different "princes" might have had different reasons (some might have truly believed Luther's message), most historians say that many of the rulers accepted Luther's message because they thought it would help them economically and politically.

In Luther's day, the princes of the various German state were in competition with the Holy Roman Emperor for control of their lands.  They were technically subordinate to him but they did not exactly want to just give in to everything he said.  Because of this, the idea of a new religious movement appealed to them.

Luther said that there should not be a church that was ruled by a pope and a central organization.  He thought that each state ought to control its own church.  You can see where this would sound good to the princes.  If Luther's ideas spread, the princes would be able to take over Church property and they would be able to have a lot of control over the church in their state.

In this way, Luther's ideas sounded beneficial to the princes both economically and politically.  This is why they supported those ideas.

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