St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Second Wednesday of Lent (February 24, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Elisabeth von Brandenburg/Elisabeth von Braunschweig

We continue today our consideration of the women of the Reformation as we anticipate the 500th anniversary of the events that led to the creation of the Lutheran Church. In these lives of significant women of the time, we look for reflections of Lenten themes while we learn about their important work.

We narrow our focus today onto two women who played instrumental roles in the spread of the Lutheran faith in Northern German territories in those early years. Elisabeth von Brandenburg (1485-1555) was a Danish princess, the only daughter of Frederik I, the king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. And Elisabeth von Braunschweig was her daughter.

The mother began to stir the waters of controversy when in 1527 she received communion in both kinds (not bread only, but both bread and wine-one of Luther's reforms of the day). She received this communion from a Lutheran minister, and this act-given her social standing, carried far-reaching significance. In the end, she and other family members, especially her brother Christian II, did much to instill Lutheranism in Denmark and Germany.

Here's an interesting note: At the age of 17, Elisabeth (the mother) married Joachim I, the elector of Brandenburg, in 1502. Joachim was the brother of Albert von Hohenzollern, Archibishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, who had purchased his office under-aged and without clergy status and, to pay off his debt, welcomed extravagant indulgence sellers in his territory, which chain of events provoked Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church. Small world.

Joachim vehemently opposed Luther and the reforms he proclaimed. We can hear echos of Argula's family troubles we discussed last week. And, of course, the couple became seriously estranged when Elisabeth openly adopted Lutheranism; her public conversion placed her politically and religiously in the opposite camp to her powerful Roman Catholic husband. It was a risky thing to do, even for a royal woman with significant authority and powerful friends and family.

The act of receiving communion in both kinds from a Lutheran pastor appears to have been premeditated. Surely she would have been aware of the significance, symbolic and actual, of her act of defiance against the explicit orders regarding religious practice of the man who, as her husband and her feudal overlord, had dominion over her. I think of that book title by Laurel Ulrich a few years ago, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History."

The outraged Joiachim consulted a team of learned men (bishops and doctors), who entertained different punishment options from imprisonment or drowning to exile or divorce. I am pleased to say that I can't even imagine such a conversation today, and it's still shocking to think that it was ever possible. Joachim, thankfully, took a moderate road and only demanded that Elisabeth return to the old faith within six months of be subjected to the discipline of the church. Apparently lacking in a willingness to act, he extended unmet deadlines several times.

Elisabeth wrote to her husband on October 15 of the year she left him about why she could not disobey the will of God or the word of God, but would rather give up her life and all that she loved for it. That's remarkably like Argula, and indeed many of the reformers of the time. They were bound by God's holy word and devoted to it. Sola Scriptura. Sola Fide. Sola Gratia. Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace alone. The watchwords of the Reformation.

Elisabeth finally decided to go into hiding since Joachim would not bend. Although some were angered at her disobedience, including Protestant leaders, she did not consider her womanhood either an obstacle or an issue. She remained in exile for several years with the help of friends and some family, living often in a small apartment and suffering from hunger and illnesses, such as loss of teeth, cramps, arthritis, gout, and deteriorating mental health.

There is a note that she was a high-maintenance houseguest, as the Luthers could testify, after taking care of her for about four months in 1537. She took up more than her share of the already limited space and resources, and they did not appreciate her long stay, her moods, or her daughter Elisabeth moving in with her for several weeks after disregarding their polite refusal of her unsolicited invitation to move in to care for her mother. In his letters, Luther complains about he childish, unruly, and erratic behavior and spendthrift ways.

When Joachim died in 1532, things changed. She continued to advocate for Brandenburg to accept Lutheran theology in the form of the Augsburg Confession. And she lived to see that come to fruition.

Elisabeth von Brandenburg's daughter, Elisabeth von Braunchweig (1510-1558), is the more interesting of the two. Like her mother, the duchess went into exile to enforce her territory's adoption of the Augsburg Confession. She has been characterized as one of the "more influential women in the politics of the Reformation,,,even more that her mother." (Bainton, 2001) As a ruler, as a politician, and the first writer in the Brandenburg and Braunschweig family, she was the embodiment of the new Renaissance ruler and was held in high regard by Lutheran reformers of the land, by Luther and Melanchthon.

As was the case with her mother, her husband was not the most faithful of fellows. The amount known about all of this is remarkable to me, and let me simply say that it is a colorful and troubling story and carried considerable heartbreak for Elisabeth. In the end, she won a settlement that allowed her to separate from her husband and rule the semi-independent territory of Gottingen and Munden.

That she was 40 years her husband's junior, as well as her growing interest in the works of Luther, were complicating factors for that relationship. She married at the age of 15 and was already being influenced by the reformers. A few years later, she followed in her mother's footsteps by receiving communion in both kinds publically-at a Lutheran worship service. While Erich, her husband, was willing to coexist peacefully in the face of their religious differences, Elisabeth had other plans. In fact, she spearheaded a daring and persistent mission to Lutheranize her entire land.

This endeavor was not a simple matter. After her husband's death, she dealt with complications created by his detailed will. But she eventually resolved things, and ruled well. She took action as a reformer and with zeal led Lutheran reforms in her territory and crafted advisory texts for her children and subjects and the estates in her territory. A missionary zeal combined with maternal care characterized her actions. Along with her pastor, she instituted careful and wise changes through "church orders." These dealt with education, including that of the clergy; teaching the catechism; administration of communion in both kinds, and the principles of the Augsburg Confession. Included were directions about changes regarding the cloisters, and showed exceptional sensitivity to the vulnerable status of women without protection and the need of the poor. In one such document, she orders priests in her territories to marry their concubines. That says more about the state of the church at the time that I really want to know. But it also emphasizes just how much in need the church was of reform.

Elisabeth took great pains to rear her four children in the reformed faith, but not without trial and setback. One especially powerful son, also named Erich, after having professed the faith and having been examined by Martin Luther himself, returned to the faith of his father and sought to reverse his mother's reforms.

Here's a piece from her writing: "O Lord God, to whom have I given birth? Whom have I reared? To deny the plain truth is a sin which cannot be forgiven on earth or in heaven. To persecute, maltreat, and abuse the servants of the Word of God is to persecute, maltreat, and abuse Christ Jesus, our only Savior, mediator, and intercessor, who has borne our sins. My son has brought me to bed. If he keeps on, he will bring me to the grave."

And from a letter to her son: "How have you fallen into such insane raving and raging against God, against his Word, his servants, his churches and against me, your dear mother, against the whole country and the poor oppressed subjects?... God have mercy on you. If you do not turn about, God will smite you...Woe, woe, woe, and again woe to you if you do not change. You have made me so sick and weak from weeping that I have not strength to write and have had to dictate. I must say this or my heart will break. If I do not speak the very stones will cry out."

There's some comfort to so many of us who struggle with the faith of our children. And perhaps some satisfaction that we perhaps have a better hold of our tongues and our pens. Well, maybe.

To make a long story short, her protestations in time yielded the desired results. Erich returned to his mother's faith and they made peace. Further, in a decree on May 21, 1553, Erich confirmed the Protestant faith as the legal religion in his territory.

Also like her mother, Elisabeth experienced a time of exile-three years, with no income and dependent on the help of others. She devoted that time to writing hymns and letters, and she wrote four and published two books in her lifetime. Those documents now provide us with great insight into her relationships, faith, and thoughtful theology. Added to her reforming documents, her mission letters, her ruler's manual for her son, her maternal advice on marriage for her daughter, and her book for widows, her writings are considerable and confirm her as a significant theologian. And in all of it, she used her own name, which carried considerable risk at the time.

Elisabeth's position in society, her sense of her own authority and importance, as well as her passion for spreading the Lutheran faith will all the means available to her, mark her as a considerable figure in the Reformation. With so much to lose-her children, her position and lands, her authority-she nevertheless gave religion priority. She did not apologize for her actions, for her gender, or for her religious choice. She didn't consider herself "just" a woman and accordingly assume a subordinate position. She acted as independently as the other main players in the Reformation, presenting a unique voice and the viewpoint of a mother of the land, confident of her rights and abilities.

These women stand out in history for their personal courage and religious convictions. They were willing to endure poverty, separation from children, marital strife, public humiliation, and other forms of punishment for the sake of the gospel. They bore the cross of Christ for the sake of the Word of God, and they helped to usher in a new age of scripture-based faith. They were both inspired by Luther and continued his work. They prepared the way to first introduce and then secure the Lutheran faith in strategically important areas of northern Germany. They acted upon a religious calling, without the official authorization of their church, were unhindered by their sex, and were fueled by strong scriptural knowledge and personal faith conviction. Their stories offer a personal, female face and both a domestic and a political perspective to the Reformation's complicated progress in German ducal territories.

 

 

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