The Origins of a Term: Protestantism

The term “Protestant” is widely used to refer to the new forms of Christianity that emerged during the early sixteenth century. The origins of this word date from the second Diet of Speyer, held in 1529. (A “Diet” was a legislative assembly.) The historical context of this term needs to be appreciated. The Diet of Worms (1521) issued an edict declaring Martin Luther to be a dangerous heretic, and a threat to the safety of the Holy Roman Empire. Any who supported him were threatened with severe punishment. It was an unpopular move with many German princes, a growing number of whom were sympathetic to at least some of Luther’s demands for reform.


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One of them, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, arranged for Luther to be abducted and given safety in Wartburg Castle, where he began his great German translation of the Bible. This hostility on the part of many German rulers towards its policies led Emperor Charles V to dilute the Edict of Worms. In 1526, the Diet of Speyer decreed that it was up to individual princes whether they should enforce its draconian anti-Lutheran measures. The outcome – though clearly not the intention – of this measure was to allow Luther’s reforming vision and program to gain strength in many regions of Germany.

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