Fachwerkhäuser in Schmalkaldens Altstadt


Luther and the Schmalkaldic League

The great reformer Martin Luther visited the town of Schmalkalden with its picturesque half-timbered houses only once in his life. He would be plagued by pain throughout the journey; however, his visit would nevertheless change the course of the history of the Reformation.

Luther came here to attend one of the Schmalkaldic League's largest and most magnificent national meetings. This led to far-reaching changes that still have a major impact on church practices to this day. The Schmalkaldic League was established in 1530/31 on the initiative of the Elector of Saxony and Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, by various Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The founding members believed that only a military alliance would offer protection against the Emperor when it came to their religious interests.

The alliance's great convention in 1537 is generally considered to have been the "most illustrious meeting of the princes". More than 1,000 people visited the town, which had a population of 3,500 at the time. The alliance members who met at the Schmalkalden town hall included sixteen Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire, six counts, delegates sent by the Emperor, the Pope, and the kings of France and Denmark, representatives of 28 Imperial and Hanseatic League cities, as well as 42 theologians. 

View across the market to the town hall and town church ©André Nestler

This Schmalkaldic League convention finalised the church rift in Central Europe. On 1 March 1537, following the Schmalkaldic League's unanimous rejection of the Council of Mantua to which the Pope had summoned them (in the hope of resolving the religious conflict), Philipp Melanchthon wrote to a theologian friend of his in Tübingen: "The division of the Church is now final, with all of the consequences this will forever have." 

Martin Luther's summary of his doctrine, already hotly debated during the time of the national meeting, later went down in history as the Smalcald Articles. In 1580, they found their way into The Book of Concord. Ever since, they have been amongst the core teachings of the Lutheran faith all over the world, and continue to be to this day. Luther himself once said about his work: "These are the Articles I must insists on, and will continue to insist on until my dying day, God willing. And I know not how to change them, or how to relent." 


Did you know?
When the Schmalkaldic League met, Luther stayed with Balthasar Wilhelm, the keeper of Hesse's public purse, in what is now called the Lutherhaus. However, whilst there, the great reformer suffered from kidney stones and was in severe pain, and therefore bound to his sickbed. He received regular visits from the leading Protestant princes. The pretty half-timbered building with a striking gable end directly on Lutherplatz square now serves as an exclusive holiday apartment with a special flair. Events such as "Luther's table talk" with meals served at Luther's table and a robed town guide belonging to the Schmalkalden guild of town guides are now also on offer in this historic building.


Luther left the convention early, because he was in such great pain that he thought himself close to death and decided to return to his home town of Wittenberg, as he wished to die there. However, things would turn out quite differently. As he travelled through the Thuringian Forest, the stones that caused his suffering were loosened by its bumpy, stony paths, and he was relieved of his pain. Today, the Lutherweg trail from Schmalkalden to Tambach-Dietharz is a reminder of this memorable story.    

It remains to be said that without the Schmalkaldic League, Luther would have remained nothing but a footnote in history, because it was precisely this alliance that made it possible for the Reformation in the first place to survive its infancy and to take root.


Places associated with Luther in Schmalkalden include:

-The Town hall: This is where the Schmalkaldic League was founded, and where it held its most important meetings from 1530 to 1543. The events of the 16th century are commemorated in the foyer of the town hall by the coats of arms of the League’s members and by the Luther bust created in 1996 by Wieland Förster.

-The most eminent Protestant theologians preached in the Church of St George: in February and March 1537, including Martin Luther on two occasions. The former parament chamber now houses a small museum known as the Luther room.

-The Luther House: Martin Luther stayed in this impressive timber-framed building during a visit to the town. Due to illness, he was forced to receive important callers here, and to preach sermons at the house. 

-Wilhelmsburg Castle: Topics covered by the permanent exhibition at the palace museum include the Reformation, Martin Luther and the Schmalkaldic League.


Header: ©Dominik Ketz, Regionalverbund Thüringer Wald e.V.

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