We asked Sam Wellman, author of Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther's Protector, to answer a few questions about the book and his work.
What made you decide to write a biography about Frederick the Wise?
I was initially interested in Martin Luther and wrote a complete draft of a biography on Luther. It dawned on me that a serious Luther scholar needs to be up to speed in Latin, 16th century German, and biblically-supported theology. I fell short, but in becoming familiar with the literature on Luther and his world, I also realized that major secular figures peripheral to Luther had no comprehensive treatment in English. I had adequate background to use sources in German for understanding those figures. None of those peripheral figures was more important to Luther’s viability than Frederick the Wise.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching the elector?
The most enlightening discovery was the meticulous, dogged wisdom of Frederick the Wise and how he gained the respect of all the powers of the time. The powers of the empire outside the imperial circle trusted him above all others to offer the correct course of action, or of inaction. The imperial circle feared Frederick because he had enough influence over the aristocracy to thwart any imperial action.
Could any other political figure of the time have wielded enough power to protect Luther during the formative years of the Reformation?
Emperor Maximilian could have protected Luther, but it would only have been to tweak the pope’s nose so he could get some concession from Rome. After the death of Maximilian, his successor Karl (Charles) V, who gained the throne only because of Frederick’s influence, threatened Luther for show but in fact did nothing to restrain him.
How did you first get involved in writing biographies?
My first was a short biography about Lincoln for children. The next biography for children was about Columbus. Both were secular figures with strong but unorthodox faith. At about the same time I wrote book-length biographies for older readers of Corrie ten Boom and David Livingstone, both essentially Christian missionaries. I recognized five essential attributes in common to all these dynamic people of faith. They were instructed in religion as youths. They were humble. They diligently applied themselves. They were tireless. They were fearless.
You’ve written several biographies about numerous people from many time periods. Who was your favorite person to research and write about, and why?
They all are exemplars and deserve admiration. Perhaps my favorite, because he was for many years a Kansan and because he was Lincolnesque in rising from slavery to become a scientist and premier inventor, is George Washington Carver. Other 20th century exemplars that I admire no less and I particularly liked to research were Mother Teresa and C. S. Lewis.
What’s next on your writing agenda?
Compelling figures relevant to Martin Luther and the Reformation remain to be treated in English. One obvious possibility for inquiry is the much neglected Elector Johann of Ernestine Saxony, who more than any other sovereign firmly established the Reformation. Yet another possibility is chaplain George Spalatin, the very important intermediary between Martin Luther and the Saxon electoral court.