What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=23.

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Scholars use the term “magisterial reformation(s)” to refer to the mainline German and Swiss reformation movements under the leadership of Luther and Zwingli (or Calvin) respectively. The term is used because magistrates (the elite, princes, or ruling classes) were so instrumental in both cases, though in quite different ways. Politics had an extremely important role to play in these reformation movements.

Martin Luther’s well-known Appeal to the German Nobility (written 1520, online here) begins to illustrate just how important magistrates, princes, and other rulers were for the Lutheran reformation. In that writing, Luther appeals directly to the German aristocracy to assert their “temporal” authority over against the supposed authority of the “Romanists” (the papacy of the time and those that supported it). German magistrates were called on to apply their punishing role throughout the whole Christian body: “Forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be” (trans by C. A. Buchheim). There is a sense in which Luther’s appeal to magistrates, which continued well after this was written, was successful. Already the prince who had recently founded the University of Wittenberg (where Luther was a “star” professor), prince Frederick, was a strong supporter of Luther and was instrumental in saving Luther from being tried or burnt as a heretic by the papacy. Soon, many other magistrates likewise came to support the Lutheran reformation and made their territories officially Lutheran, over against other German princes and rulers whose territories remained Catholic. As a result, many actual wars were fought between these territories.

The situation with the Swiss reformation was quite different, but magistrates were heavily involved again. This time, it is city-magistrates that give the descriptor “magisterial” to this movement. The reformations led by Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva were intimately tied in with the city-council, led by civic magistrates, and the city council continued to be the main force behind reformation movements in various other Swiss towns. The role of magistrates in both the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements contrasts strongly to the so-called “radicals” within these same areas who insisted that being a Christian and being a magistrate were by nature incompatible (more about these “radicals” later).

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