Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector

This book review explores the life of one of Martin Luther's greatest supporters.

—Nikolaus Satelmajer, DMin, now retired, served as editor of Ministry

This year Martin Luther is remembered for posting his ninety-five Theses and, of course, starting one of the most important reformation movements in the history of Christianity. While Luther’s contributions need to be recognized, we must also acknowledge that Luther did not work in isolation. Many others made significant contributions to his mission or gave him needed support.

Sam Wellman has written a book about Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), who gave life-saving support to Luther and consequently enabled him to move forward with his mission. How was it that Frederick—a loyal member of the Roman Catholic Church, faithful to the papacy and an ardent collector of relics—came to support Luther? After all, Luther attacked the papacy and relics, and though he denied attacking the church itself, his actions were interpreted as an attack on the church. This book addresses those and some other questions.

Before highlighting some central themes of the book, I will point out several features—some helpful and others somewhat distracting. The author provides a helpful list of Luther’s contemporaries (ix–xiv)—rulers, church leaders, and others. Additionally, the chronological list (xv–xxi) up to the death of Frederick (1525) is a bonus. On the other hand, while the author uses English versions of personal names, when he refers to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, as Karl, he uses the German version of the name. No reason is given. In addition, the author, without giving adequate support for some of his conclusions or views, all too often uses “surely” (9), “no doubt,” or “possibly,” “might” (10), “probably knew,” “could have” (11). The reader needs to detour around these expressions.

Frederick became the Elector of Saxony in 1486, three years after Luther’s birth. If he had not become Luther’s protector, he most likely would be remembered for the castles he built, the start of the university in Wittenberg, and his immense collection of relics. Pope Julius II (pope 1503–1513) issued a bull in 1507 directing various church officials throughout the empire “to send parts of their relic collection to the Frederick” (117). Wellman writes that even while he built his relic collection, Frederick “opposed indulgence preaching, because the so-called Turkish Crusade money somehow would land in Maximilian’s [emperor] hand for yet another war against anyone but the Turks” (105). The Turkish invasion was an ongoing threat to Europe, and neither the emperor nor the pope found an effective way to repel it.

Yet Frederick’s relic collection of more than five thousand items should not be dismissed as merely outward piety. His focus on the spiritual was also exhibited by his Holy Land pilgrimage, a venture desired by many Christians yet experienced by few (53ff). The trip was also an opportunity to acquire more relics. He never married but did have a mistress, Anna, with whom he had two children (94ff). Frederick nevertheless interpreted their relationship in a spiritual context. Upon his death he left money for Anna, whom he referred to as his “God-given wife” (228).

Frederick was enthusiastic to have Luther as a professor, but Luther made his entry onto the world scene with the posting of the ninety-five Theses in 1517. Frederick was at times bewildered by Luther’s positions and manner; and it was Frederick’s secretary and chaplain, George Spalatin, who presented Luther in a positive manner. Three years after Luther posted the ninety-five Theses, Frederick, with Spalatin present, examined Luther’s teachings with Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist (1466–1536). Frederick wanted to know whether Luther had erred. Erasmus responded positively since according to him, Luther assailed the pope’s crown and monk’s bellies (199). In the same year, Frederick stopped collecting relics, and the next year, 1521, he protected Luther at the Diet of Worms and took actions that saved Luther’s life. Frederick did all this even though most likely he first met Luther personally the next year, 1522.

The author introduces the reader to a man who at first somewhat reluctantly protected his subject, Luther. Without Frederick’s actions, Luther may not be remembered as a reformer and without Luther’s actions, Frederick may not be remembered as a believer. By the time he died in 1525, Frederick had also gone through a spiritual transformation. The Reformation that changed the one also changed the other.

—Nikolaus Satelmajer, DMin, now retired, served as editor of Ministry.

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—Nikolaus Satelmajer, DMin, now retired, served as editor of Ministry

March 2017

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