FREDERICK III., THE WISE: Elector of Saxony 1486-1525; b. at Torgau (31 m. e.n.e. of Leipsic) Jan. 17, 1463; d. at Lochau (now Annaburg, 40 m. n.e. of Leipsic) May 5, 1525. He received the electoral dignity after the death of his father, Ernest, and governed the other Ernestine territories in union with his, brother, John the Steadfast (q.v.).
His Religious Nature. This article will consider only his attitude in religion and church polity. He did not originate an established Church in Germany, as some have believed, but, while his predecessors and other princes were prompted chiefly by political motives, the purely religious interest was strongest in Frederick. He was the model of a pious prince of the medieval kind. He lived and moved in the forms of churchly devotion peculiar to his time, and they fully satisfied his religious nature. He received his first instruction in the school at Grimma, where the Augustinians possessed a flourishing monastery, and from that time he showed a predilection for their order. In 1493 he traveled to the Holy Land, with a large suite, but as a mere pilgrim. He was devoted to the worship of saints like all pious men of his time. In his church at Wittenberg he had the choicest collection of relics that could be found in Germany. Most of them he had probably bought on his pilgrimage for large sums; others he brought from a journey to the Netherlands, which he undertook in 1494, and he never tired of adding new treasures. A catalogue of the collection printed in 1509 (cf. the Wittenberger Heiligtumsbuch, ed. G. Hirth, Munich, 1883) contains no less than 5,005 entries. The relics opened the way to the free granting of indulgences; any one who visited the collection was assured of the forgiveness of his sins for a hundred years. It is therefore not to be assumed that Frederick when he founded a university at Wittenberg in 1502 meant to break with the past, by receiving adherents of what was later called humanism.
Relations with Luther. Frederick probably heard of Luther for the first time in 1512 when Johann von Staupitz (q.v.), the general vicar of the Augustinians, asked him to defray the expenses of promotion for the poor but promising monk. It seems to have been Staupitz also who directed the attention of the elector to the study of the Bible as the only certain source of salvation; and he became an earnest student of Scripture. It might be supposed that Luther's theses concerning indulgences were likely to arouse the anger of the elector, devoted as he was to the practise and to the worship of saints. But he was too large-hearted and possessed too noble a nature. Luther was mistaken, however, when he thought that Frederick's intention to protect him and not to allow his removal to Rome originated in his "wonderful inclination toward his theology." The attitude of the elector was due rather to his love of justice, which could not endure that Luther should be delivered to his enemies without having been convicted, and to his wish to save for his university as long as possible one of its most celebrated teachers, as may be plainly seen from his letter to Staupitz, Apr. 8, 1518 (T. Kolde, Johann von Staupitz, Gotha, 1879, p. 314). Because he shrank from interfering with the will of God, it was the policy of the elector neither to approve nor disapprove of Luther's actions, but to let him fight out his own convictions. He himself, however, clung to his saints and relics; in 1520 the number of the latter had increased to 19,013.
Then followed the great events of 1520, the bull of excommunication against Luther, the publication of his great reformatory writings, the appeal to a council, the burning of the papal bull, etc. Without misjudging the seriousness of the condition, Frederick did not recede from his course, repeating his demand that Luther's cause should be entrusted to learned and unprejudiced judges. As an obedient and faithful son of the Church, however the thought never entered his mind to defend Luther's doctrine; as a layman, he did not pretend to understand anything of it. He followed the same policy at the diet of Worms. Luther, he insisted, should be convicted of heresy only according to the established principles and forms of law. In confidential letters he showed a cordial interest in the persecuted monk, but at the diet he took great pains not to show it and to avoid all intercourse with him. It was undoubtedly due to the influence of his brother, John of Saxony, who was a devoted Lutheran, that Frederick protected Luther after the diet. He probably gave his councilors an order in a general way to guard Luther, without definite directions, since for a long time neither the elector nor his brother knew that Luther was in the Wartburg. At any rate, it was not the intention of Frederick to protect the cause of Luther, but only his person. He soon perceived, however, that his action had furthered the cause in the most powerful way.
Attitude Toward the Wittenberg Reforms. Now the hardest and most troublesome years of his life began. No prince ever faced a more difficult and responsible task than Frederick before the disturbances and innovations in Wittenberg; but seldom has a prince practised greater self-renunciation. Everything that he loved so dearly was gradually deprived of its value, and although he always counseled moderation, he was not willing to stem the tide because he did not wish to act against the word of God, and the new movement might perhaps be his will. As a layman he tolerated everything in religion as long as the public order was not disturbed. But his opponents did not acknowledge the justness of this standpoint and made him responsible for everything that happened in the Saxon churches. In 1523 he consented to make an end of the worship of relics in the Catholic Church. The abolition of the mass must have cut deeply into his heart, but his opposition was of no avail. He could not be induced, however, to advocate himself the introduction of reforms.
Accepts the Reformed Faith on His Death-bed. Evidently he had become more and more absorbed in the study of Luther's doctrine and especially of the Gospel, under the influence of his faithful adviser and secretary Georg Spalatin (q.v.), an intimate friend of Luther. He strove with his whole heart to live according to the Gospel and fulfil God's will. However severely Luther had attacked his favorite devotion and whatever trouble and care Luther's actions had caused him, he always retained for him the same inclination, and accepted the advice of Spalatin regarding him; but he still avoided all direct contact with Luther. Luther hardly ever saw him, except at the Diet of Worms, and never spoke to him. Only when the hour of death arrived, did he send for Luther; but then it was too late. Luther was far away in the Hartz mountains, trying to quell the rebellion of the peasants, which embittered the last days of the peace-loving prince but did not shake his trust in God. Spalatin consoled him on his death-bed. Before his death, he partook of the Lord's Supper in both kinds, from full conviction, and thus openly avowed the Evangelical doctrine and joined himself to the Evangelical Church.