When the writer was a child he heard adults talking about the Smalcald Articles as one of the historical documents of Lutheranism. Given that he already knew that Luther’s Small Catechism is a rather small book, he mistakenly assumed that the ‘small-called articles’ were some kind of really short pieces of writing – so tiny that they didn’t even warrant a real name! It was an embarrassing number of years later before he realized that the word was actually the Latinization of the German city of Schmalkalden associated with the drafting of the document.
Now the Smalcald Articles document isn’t usually considered one of Lutheranism’s ‘biggies,’ even though it was authored by Martin Luther and included in the Book of Concord (the collection of official Lutheran teachings also known by its Latin name of Concordia). However, the name Smalcald is also associated with a little-known aspect of Lutheran history – a religious war (which we lost!)
When the Reformation movement broke out in the cities and kingdoms of what is now northern Germany, some of the key princes and leaders supporting Luther felt it necessary to form an alliance for their mutual defense against Emperor Charles V, who had made his hostility clear. They met at the city of Schmalkalden in 1531 and formed the Schmalkaldic (Smalcaldic) League. This alliance quickly became the political and military center of the Protestant movement and was eagerly joined by other parts of the Holy Roman Empire who supported Luther’s reforms of the church. Even England’s King Henry the VIII lobbied to join the Smalcaldic League, but that didn’t pan out. Eventually the League could boast a military force of about 10,000 foot soldiers and 2000 cavalry.
The Smalcaldic League wasn’t challenged for a while because Charles V was preoccupied with fighting the Turks in the East and France in the South. When those hostilities were ended by treaties, Charles turned his attention to crushing the Smalcaldic upstarts. From 1546 to 1547 skirmishes were fought at various places, but the League was decisively defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg, on April 24, 1547 when many of the key Protestant leaders were captured (Luther had already died in 1546). Formal surrender soon followed, and in principle all of the defeated areas were officially rejoined to the Roman Catholic Church. However, the seed of the Protestant Reformation was already too deeply planted to be uprooted by decree and Charles V was weary of fighting what he realized was ultimately a futile battle to suppress the Protestants. On September 25, 1555 Charles signed the Peace of Augsburg, an agreement which officially ended the Smalcaldic conflicts and allowed each prince of the Empire to determine the nature of the religious practice within his territory. Thus, the Holy Roman Empire acknowledged the legality of Protestantism and made official the religious division of Western Christendom.
Historians have remarked that the Lutheran forces in the Smalcaldic War were probably superior to the Emperor’s, but their inept leadership couldn’t seem to agree on strategies. (Some might be tempted to draw modern parallels!) However, one of the legacies of this ill-fated conflict is the insignia worn by the Smalcaldic forces (inset). This logo represents the Latin phrase: Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum (The Word of the Lord Endures Forever) which had become the slogan of the Reformation. Worn on the sleeves of uniforms, displayed on flags and shields, this rallying cry didn’t triumph on the field of battle, but yet it has had lasting effect in restoring the focus of the Church to God’s Holy Word. Thus, this emblem remains an apt reminder that though we are thankfully no longer engaged in military actions, the ‘Church Militant’ (the Body of Christ on Earth) is still engaged in a war of priorities within our world and culture – a war which will ultimately be won, not by our own skill or organization (though hopefully we have improved some in those) but because we put our total trust in our leader, Jesus Christ, who leads us in the power of His Word and under the loving sign of His Cross.