FREDERICK THE WISE: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector.
FREDERICK THE WISE: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector. By Sam Wellman. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 321 pages. $25.99.
This book is the first, and so far only, biography of Frederick the Wise in English. It is a very dense book that refuses to be read speedily. I am not a historian in any legitimate sense. I am only familiar with the basic contours of Reformation History, and I had previously no knowledge of the structure of the Holy Roman Empire nor how it operated. Even after reading this book, I’m still not sure I understand it or how exactly Frederick the Wise fit into it, but I am a lot smarter now than I was before.
Aptly titled this book is not a book about Martin Luther disguised as a book about Frederick the Wise. It really is about Frederick the Wise. Excluding notes and bibliography, the book is 238 pages long and Martin Luther doesn’t appear in any meaningful way until page 157.
Wellman begins his historiography with the death of Frederick’s father, Ernst, which propelled Frederick into a position of authority. Ernst is best known for his inexplicable decision to divide Saxony in two with his brother Albert. Thus, there is Ernestine Saxony that Frederick inherits, and there is Albertine Saxony that Frederick’s cousin, George the Bearded, inherits. Ernst’s decision to divide Saxony before his death is generally viewed by historians as being a terrible decision. It was confounding even to Ernst’s contemporaries. With such poor judgment in dividing the land, had Ernst adequately prepared his son Frederick to rule at all? What Ernst lacked in political adeptness he more than made up for in the education and preparation he provided for Frederick.
When Ernst died, Frederick inherited half a kingdom. Unlike his uncle Albrecht “the Courageous” and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, Frederick was not eager for war. Frederick’s pacifism imbued with his resoluteness earned him significant respect with many other electors and political powers. Rather than expand his kingdom by war, Frederick tried to improve the half-kingdom he inherited into something respectable. To do that he need a castle-church worthy of burials for the powerful Wettin family to which he belonged and he also needed a university. Wittenberg was the place to establish these things. Frederick did accomplish these goals while simultaneously navigating the complicated position he had within the Holy Roman Empire.
Wellman writes well enough. There are a prodigious number of endnotes, accounting for sixty pages—or nearly one-fifth—of the book. There can be no denying that Wellman has done his homework and done it well. However, in my view, Wellman fails to really make Frederick come alive for the reader in the way that Roland Bainton succeeds with Luther in his biography Here I Stand. Perhaps Wellman’s academic integrity prevents him from putting flesh and bones on the skeleton of Frederick the Wise that his research gave him. One way that Wellman attempts to add color is by using speculative questions which, if answered affirmatively, would provide a reasonable motive for many of Frederick’s actions. These questions are found throughout the entire book and are so common they border on distracting. There are eleven such questions on pages 14 and 15 alone.
I read this book while traveling through Germany on a Luther tour. I think this alone kept me engaged enough to finish this book. The travels helped me make sense of all the locations that are referenced in this biography. My travels also helped me keep the names of prominent families straight—such as the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria.
I cannot overstate how much I learned in reading this book. However, I also cannot overstate how hard I had to work to digest it. I haven’t worked this hard to understand a book since my seminary days. Many of the struggles I had with wading through this volume were due to my own ignorance about the time period in which Frederick lived. The names of all the electors, archbishops, humanists, knights, and princes quickly blended together and muddied the waters. Without Wellman’s guide of “Contemporaries Relevant to Frederick the Wise” and the “Chronology” on pages ix–xxi, I would have never made heads or tails of this book.
I don’t regret reading this book, but I wouldn’t recommend this book to any casual reader, be they laypeople or pastors. I know pastors would benefit from reading this book, but they'd have to be willing to put in the effort to finish it. If you're thinking about reading this book, I warn you, without a strong interest in Reformation history fueling the tank, you'll never make it to the end.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.