During the winter of 1521-22, Martin Luther (1483-1546) – former Augustinian friar recently declared a heretical outlaw – was protected in the Wartburg Castle by Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony. While he was occupied translating the Scriptures into the German tongue, a storm of controversy brewed in his beloved Wittenberg. The urgent, and often unruly, demands of students and citizens for ecclesiastical reform were met by the restive actions of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486-1541), who celebrated the mass in his native German tongue on Christmas Day 1521. The significance of this service of worship lay not simply in the deployment of some aspects of the liturgy in the local lingua franca, but in the violent iconoclasm which came before and after it; much of which was due to Karlstadt’s testy manner and methods. Martin Luther was drawn out from his repair in at Wartburg and arrived in Wittenburg in February 1522 to denounce the radicalism and restore order. In time Karlstadt was banished from the university and town, and Luther’s liturgies provided much needed moderation and stability to the future epicentre of the European reformation.
Luther set forth his first outline for celebrating the mass in An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523). This short treatise provided guidance for evangelical worship which did not intend to dispense with the old liturgy but restore it to its rightful use. It specifically aimed to correct abuses that had crept through a lack of the Word of God:
‘And this is the sum of the matter: Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that has been the rule up to now. We can spare everything except the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word. For the whole Scripture shows that the Word should have free course among Christians. And in Luke 10 [:42], Christ himself says, “One thing is needful,” i.e., that Mary sit at the feet of Christ and hear his word daily. This is the best part to choose and it shall not be taken away forever. It is an eternal Word. Everything else must pass away, no matter how much care and trouble it may give Martha.’
This liturgical outline was amplified and developed in his later two liturgical proposals: Form of the Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523; Formula Missae) and German Mass and Order of Service Adopted in Wittenberg (1526; Deutsche Messe). The Formula Missae was aimed at
university or city churches with trained choirs (the service was choral and worshippers participated by receiving the Word and Sacrament), and the Deutsche Messe was not aimed specifically at Wittenberg but for churches throughout the region: ‘because of the widespread demand for German masses and services and the general dissatisfaction and offense that has been caused by the great variety of new masses, for everyone makes his own order of service.’
Both liturgical proposals aimed to promote the once for all sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and strip the liturgy of superstition that would confuse the proclamation of the Gospel. Together with Luther’s theological companions, Johan Bugenhagen and Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s liturgical ideas influenced various official church orders (Kirchenordnungen) throughout and well beyond Germany for years to come.