Let us begin by listening in on an eighth and ninth-grade Heidelberg Catechism class. The pastor, beginning the class as he often does with a time of review to drive deep in the students’ minds important facts and main ideas, asks about the history of the Heidelberg Catechism. The pastor asks, “When was the Heidelberg Catechism written?” A student answers, “1563.” The pastor asks, “By whom was the Heidelberg Catechism written?” A student answers, “Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus.” Along this line of questions, the pastor asks: “Who was Frederick III?” And the answer given by the student would be, “The elector of the Palatinate who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.” As heirs of the Reformation of the sixteenth century and confessors of the gospel of comfort contained in the Heidelberg Catechism, we know well the significance of Frederick III, the devoted Calvinistic elector who did much to support and promulgate the Reformed faith in Germany.

But there is another Frederick III with whom we should be familiar as heirs of the Reformation, a Frederick III from the days of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. God used this other Frederick, albeit in a very different way, to serve the cause of the Reformation by being the man in power who protected Luther. While the two men share a name and number, Frederick III, they have distinct monikers. The Frederick III of the Heidelberg Catechism is known as “Frederick the Pious,” a fitting description due to his devotion to the Lord and to the Reformed faith. The Frederick III of Luther’s day is known as “Frederick the Wise.”

The question arises: Was he truly wise? Does the name match the character and life of the man in the same way that “pious” most certainly characterized the Frederick III of the Heidelberg Catechism? There is no doubt that the Frederick III of Luther’s day possessed a natural ability to rule, mastering the late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century political world when power continually ebbed and flowed between princes and emperors and popes. But a more pertinent question is: Did he possess the wisdom of Jesus Christ? Only the Lord knows the answer to that question, as it is challenging to understand what motivated Frederick III to protect Luther after the firestorm caused by Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Was it all about power and politics and prestige? At that time, such seemed to be the case. However, we cannot know if the Lord was at work in the heart of Frederick III, for at the end of his life, there were indications that he may have supported and confessed the teachings of the man whose life he protected for many years.

Nevertheless, this we know with certainty and this we confess from our hearts: God is wise. Studying this portion of church history wonderfully displays the wisdom of God. According to His wise providence, Jehovah guided and governed all events political and ecclesiastical during the time of the Reformation, including in particular the life and decisions of Frederick III. Without a doubt, God used Frederick III for the good of His church and the cause of the Reformation, especially in his protection of Luther from the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church who sought to silence him.

The hand of the Lord was guiding Frederick III with an eye on the Reformation that was to come, well before Luther appeared on the scene of European history. Frederick III inherited his position when Ernst, his father, died in 1486. An event just before his father’s death in 1485 would have serious ramifications for the rule of Frederick III and the Reformation. For many years Ernst ruled Saxony with his brother Albrecht. That is, until they had a falling out, the result of which was the Leipzig Division of 1485, the official dividing of Saxony into the two parts that became known as Ernestine and Albertine Saxony after the names of the two brothers. Albertine Saxony had in it the more important cities: Meissen, Dresden, and Leipzig with its university. Ernestine Saxony had neither powerful cities nor influential universities. Nevertheless, it retained influence that could not be measured in terms of money, population, or cities. The prince of Ernestine Saxony would continue to be, according to the Golden Bull of 1356, one of seven men to cast a vote to elect the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the full title of the subject under discussion in this article is “Elector” Frederick III of Saxony.

These two facts—that Frederick III was an imperial elector and that he inherited an impoverished territory—would significantly influence his rule as it related to the Reformation.

Concerning the former, Frederick III’s imperial electorship, coupled with his political know-how, allowed him to have tremendous influence with fellow electors, the emperor, and even the pope. When the time came, he could make demands and arrange circumstances to the favor of Luther. Concerning the latter, Frederick III had a strong desire to make a name for himself and bring influence to the land under his rule. Furthermore, he could see the big picture to gain more influence and prestige. This is noteworthy with regard to the Reformation and Luther because very early in his rule, Frederick III set his eye upon Wittenberg. When Frederick III began to rule, Wittenberg was little and poor and insignificant, a town more than a city. In the only biography of Frederick III in English, Sam Wellman writes regarding Wittenberg, “If a person had traveled out in the empire itself, Wittenberg was a sorry sight indeed, a mere east-west strip of wooden buildings and neglected stone edifices from forgotten times. A man on foot could stride along its inglorious main strip and rid himself of it in less than fifteen minutes; on a fast horse, he could free himself of it in two minutes.”1  Frederick III spent years and money making something  of Wittenberg. He rebuilt the bridge over the River Elbe  on which Wittenberg was situated. He hired renowned  architects to design and build buildings and promising  artists and woodworkers to beautify them. He amassed  hundreds and, eventually, thousands of relics for the  Castle Church, which would attract pilgrims from all  over the empire. And most of all, he established the  University of Wittenberg, the school that would attract  students from all over Europe, and eventually its most  famous and influential professor, Martin Luther himself.

For at least two reasons, God used Frederick III’s zeal  for Wittenberg for the good of the Reformation. In the  first place, it inclined Frederick III to protect Luther.  Frederick III was invested, of course, in his people and  his land. Luther was a Saxon German, who brought recognition  to the university, which would dispose Frederick  III to protect Luther in the years after 1517. In the second  place, Frederick III’s development of Wittenberg contributed  to the spread of Luther’s writings and teachings.  Luther was a professor in an up-and-coming university,  which allowed the truth that came from his mouth and  pen to spread. It is fascinating to consider, understanding  the era in which Luther lived, just how quickly and  how far what he taught spread after 1517 and during his  conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. Partly due to  Frederick III’s focus on Wittenberg, the stage was set for  the Reformation truth of the gospel to be disseminated  throughout Europe, which is precisely what took place  through Luther and the other Reformers.

Frederick III was well connected. He had eyes and  ears everywhere. He knew very well what was going  on among the authorities in Rome after Luther challenged  publicly in writing the pope’s authority and exposed  the corruption of indulgences. Through it all, he  protected Luther. It is noteworthy that in the biography  mentioned above, a book that treats the whole of Fredrick’s  life, the author chose the following as its subtitle:  “Seen and Unseen Lives of Luther’s Protector.” This is  Frederick’s mark on the history of the Reformation—he  protected Luther.

Let’s consider a few ways in which he did this. First,  Frederick III refused to comply with Exsurge Domine,  the papal bull issued in 1520 by Pope Leo X that condemned  Luther as a heretic and demanded that Luther  recant under the threat of excommunication. Frederick  III understood full well what this bull meant for him personally. Pope Leo X made sure he understood, writing  him a personal letter exhorting him to deliver Luther  to Rome. Nevertheless, Frederick III refused, insisting  that Luther would receive a fair trial under favorable circumstances  in Germany. Second, Frederick III always  provided Luther safe passage as he traveled through  Germany to and from disputations and diets. Most  famously, Frederick III, through his advisors, arranged  the “capture” of Luther after the Diet of Worms, bringing  him in safety to the Wartburg Castle, the fascinating  story of which is told in another article in this edition  of the Standard Bearer. Third, Frederick III was instrumental  in protecting Luther in another sense, namely,  allowing him the freedom to preach and write. From  the pulpit at the Castle Church and through his pen as a  professor, Luther boldly defended his convictions about  the pope, the church, and salvation. Though Frederick  III never openly espoused Luther’s teaching in the years  leading up to the Diet of Worms and thereafter, neither  did Frederick III condemn his teaching nor silence his  writing and preaching. It was that preaching and writing  that God used to fan the flames of the gospel that  would spread throughout Europe.

We conclude with a few fascinating details on the  relationship between the prince and preacher. Though  their lives were very much intertwined, there is no historical  evidence that the two men ever communicated  personally and directly with one another. In fact, the  first time that Frederick III ever laid eyes on Luther was  likely at the Diet of Worms itself in 1521. But yet, when  Frederick III died on May 5, 1525, who was it that conducted  his funeral? It was Luther himself, delivering  two sermons. And what was sung at his funeral? It  was nothing other than Luther’s funeral hymn on Psalm  130. And where was Frederick III buried? Fittingly,  he was laid to rest in the Castle Church in Wittenberg,  the church that he erected and the church in which Luther  himself faithfully proclaimed the glorious gospel of  grace in Jesus Christ.

1 Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise (St. Louis, MO: Concordia
Publishing House, 2015), 33.