It seems strange that much of the life of one of the men who saved the Lutheran Reformation is, in Wellman’s words, “unseen.” We think we know so much about Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony who protected Luther in the early years of the Reformation (1517-1525), but we actually know little. In contrast to Dr. Luther, who put almost everything he ever thought on paper somewhere (or a friend did it for him), Frederick recorded almost none of his thoughts.
Was Frederick for or against the Reformation? Was Frederick a full-throated Lutheran or a politician irritated by papal and imperial encroachments? From this book we discover that we still don’t have every answer. But reading Wellman’s timely biography will help us see the Reformation movement in a fuller way. For that, and because English biographies of Frederick are few and far between, this book is worth the read.
Wellman draws his own conclusion, but he admits that absolute certainty about all of Frederick’s motives eludes biographers. This is because of Frederick’s ability to keep his own personal feelings, beliefs, and motives so close to the vest. In his conclusion he notes the split decision of other historians and critics. Some criticize Frederick for temporizing or for being reluctant to take a personal hand in matters as a man happy to “let things take their course” (235). Others tag him as sly, duplicitous, or trying to usurp power. Some say he’s only famous because of Luther. On the other side, some see him as the one honest prince in a realm neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. A man as well-known in Reformation scholarship circles as Heiko Oberman wrote, “Historians of every stripe have found only one statesmen thoroughly praiseworthy: Frederick the Wise. A German and a man of integrity” (quoted on 237).
There are three things that are perfectly clear about Frederick that will allow us (with Wellman) to draw some sort of assessment. He was a politician of the first order. It may be true that we would not know Frederick apart from his relationship to Luther, but that does not deny his political career. He was bred for political service and leadership in the empire. His family was the number one competitor to the ruling Habsburgs. He counted as an uncle Emperor Frederick, as a cousin Emperor Maximilian, and as a second cousin the infamous archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz. In the game of “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” Frederick was perfectly positioned. He knew (and was related to) everyone that mattered in the Holy Roman Empire.
He wasn’t just prepared for it. He gained the desired rank, titles, and influence. It is likely that we don’t understand how powerful Frederick was. We take for granted that he protected Luther, but we don’t think about how. He ruled a small electorate and the two most powerful men in the world – the emperor and the pope – were arayed against him. How did he do it? For one thing, he was for much of his adult life the right hand man of everyone that mattered. For a time he was imperial vicar, the official in charge when the emperor was out of the empire. As Wellman summarizes later, “Kings curried his favor. Popes favored him until Luther poisoned the water. Scholars dedicated important works to him. Great artists realized he was a perceptive and reliable patron. His fellow imperial princes revered him. He was their rock at the Reichstags” (234). We discover from Wellman that of all the princes Luther could have been born under or accountable to, he “happened” to serve under the one prince to whom all, even the emperor, looked to and relied upon for help, advice, and service.
Famously, Luther’s prince almost became emperor (186-191). What really happened may only be known in heaven, but there is significant evidence that Frederick was either elected Holy Roman Emperor or needed only to cast his own vote to secure election. In either case, Frederick did not become emperor. His relative Charles did. Wellman suggests that Frederick’s health (he’d already been 33 years an elector) and desire not to bankrupt his own electorate kept him from taking the throne. Perhaps Frederick also knew that being emperor might prevent him from assisting in any theological reforms he was interested in. In the cause of reformation (assuming Frederick was a proponent of it), being an elector was more powerful.
Another thing we know about Frederick is that he was a relic collector of the first order. He had over 15,000 relics worth over 5,000,000 days of indulgence. He built constantly to house and display those relics. He even won a dispensation from Julius II that everyone should send a part of their relic collections to him. In other words, he was a true believer. This wasn’t a man spoiling for reformation, a closet atheist, or what have you. This was a loyal papalist and a loyal member of the empire.
This leads to the third thing we know about Frederick. You cannot dispute his role in keeping Luther safe from papal flames. Many princes would have handed Luther over to the inquisition, sent him on to Rome, or silenced him. Frederick did none of these. He demanded hearings in Germany. He arranged for Luther to be kidnapped to keep him out of the hands of his enemies. And a projected 70+ volumes in English alone remind us that Frederick did not silence his professor.
Still, there are some details that muddy the waters. It is entirely possible that Frederick never met one of his prize professors from his prize university who was criticizing his prized relic collection (and the practice of indulgences that undergirded it) until 1521 at the Diet of Worms, where Luther took his stand. It seems strange (at least to this reviewer) that a man like Frederick, regardless of what he did or did not believe, would not have had more intercourse with his world-famous subject, whether to yell at him, praise him, or pick his brains.
In addition, Wellman notes that Frederick only ever wrote one letter to Rome directly on Luther’s behalf, and in that letter he took no position except to protect the body of his monk.
Of course, we could explain this strangely distant relationship as a political move. Frederick needed to appear not to be colluding with Luther. He kept his deniability. Even the well-known kidnapping of Luther had been arranged by Frederick’s advisors (207-208), not Frederick directly. He could say, “I know nothing.”
Yet we find much to suggest that Frederick did not just protect, but also listened to and supported Luther. In 1520 he stopped buying new relics. In 1521, in Wellman’s words, he “no longer touted indulgences.” This was his baby, his showcase, his pride and joy, not to mention a source of revenue and fame for his electorate. A move like this comes from a theological conviction, a Lutheran conviction. Wellman calls this “resounding proof that he deferred to Luther in things religious” (213). In 1525, on his deathbed, he also received the sacrament in both kinds.
Two other striking items help us to lean towards dubbing Frederick a certain Lutheran. In a letter of 1521, when talking about some of the iconoclastic things happening in Wittenberg, Frederick wrote, “We have gone too fast.” Trained exegetes see a first-person plural pronoun for what it is: inclusion in the reforming efforts. And if it is a so-called “royal we,” it becomes even stronger, Frederick taking personal responsibility for the things happening in Wittenberg.
The other interesting item is also from 1521. As noted above, Frederick maintained his power and influence and made it hard for Charles or anyone to accuse him directly of anything. They lacked proof. Frederick knew well how to play the political game (as portrayed by Peter Ustinov in the 2003 movie Luther). Wellman writes, “Amazingly, just before he left the Reichstag Frederick had wrangled from the emperor an exemption for himself from the mandate. Frederick did not have to enforce the Edict!”
Details like this lead Wellman to his conclusion: “From a sense of justice and Christian duty, he risked his electorate to protect the truth he thought Martin Luther revealed in the Holy Scriptures” (238).
It is hard not to draw the same conclusion. This allows us to see Frederick in the same light as Mordecai saw his relative Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this” (4:14)?
God be praised for raising up such a man at such a time. This proves the words of Jesus in Matthew 6, that we need not worry, God provides. This proves the words of our catechism as we remind ourselves how much daily bread God provides in so many abundant ways, especially in preserving the preaching of the “for you” gospel of Jesus Christ crucified.
Apart from a fine overview of the history of a man we wish we knew more about, one of the great features of this book was a timeline of events and cast of characters in the front. I wouldn’t call it “worth the price of the book,” but such things are not always helpful in books. These were.
Sam Wellman grew up in central Nebraska and graduated from the University of Nebraska. After obtaining a doctorate from Princeton University, Wellman worked in industry for several years. From 1987 to the present, he has used his knowledge of German to write many biographies that center on the Reformation and those stalwarts who made it happen. Wellman traveled to Germany twice to personally visit and research the key sights in the life of Frederick. He lives in Kansas with his wife Ruth.