The Heidelberg Catechism saw the Palatinate capital of Heidelberg become the “Geneva of Germany” in 1563, a borough of reformation theology with a Calvinistic influence. The prelude to the Reformation in the Palatinate was Martin Luther’s Defense in 1518.
In April 1518, the German General Chapter of the Augustine monks was conferring in Heidelberg. The Vicar General since 1503 was Johann von Staupitz, one of the mentors of Martin Luther, himself an Augustine monk. The General Chapter, which convened every three years, was plagued by quarrels and tension within the order and so the scheduled debate to be conducted by the Wittenberg professor was supposed to reinforce the direction of the reform.
The Theology and Arts faculties of the university supported the gathering to the tune of four guilders. The General Chapter did not convene in the abbey itself but rather in the lecture hall of the Arts faculty on the east side of the Augustiner Lane. The beadle was present and carried the university scepter. The official setting highlighted the importance of the debate in which many academics and students took part. A stone plaque on the University Square has marked the location since the Luther anniversary year 1983.
His trip to Heidelberg was for Luther the first theological appearance outside Wittenberg after his 95 theses were nailed up in 1517. Carrying letters of recommendation, the nephew of the Elector Prince, Friedrich the Wise, travelled via Würzburg to Heidelberg where he stayed at the Augustine abbey. As Count Wolfgang, a younger brother of Elector Prince Ludwig V, had studied in Wittenberg in 1515, he invited Luther to dine at the castle. The overnight stay in the monastery of Schönau in Neuenheim in the modern-day Lutherstraße is only a legend. The actual meeting most probably took place on 25 April 1518 where Staupitz was re-elected Vicar General. The next day, the 26 April 1518, Luther led the debate where he presented 28 theological and 12 philosophical theses. As far as the minutes can verify, the discussion focused on Luther’s justification doctrine, while no time remained for attacks on the supremacy of the Aristotelian philosophy. One section of the theses was published in 1520 – unauthorized –; the complete version appeared in 1530, edited by Luther himself. The debate did not trigger any scandal. While the university did receive a rebuke on account of its support for an external debate, everything remained calm. The importance of Martin Luther’s appearance in Heidelberg lies in the initial impact: there were many aspiring theologians among the listening audience who later became the reformers throughout south-west Germany: Theobald Billican (Nördlingen), Johannes Brenz (Schwäbisch Hall and Stuttgart), Martin Bucer (Straßburg), Martin Frecht (Ulm) and Wenzel Strauß (Heidelberg, later Urach).
For forty years, the Palatinate remained undecided with regard to the Reformation. Under Elector Prince Friedrich III the Pious, who reigned from 1559 –1576, the Palatinate became Calvinist. His son Ludwig VI, Elector Prince from 1576 –1583, however, was Lutheran. In their wake, the ruling dynasty remained protestant for the next hundred years, except during the Thirty -Year War. Between 1659 and 1661and at their own expense, the Lutherans were allowed to build the Providenzkirche in the suburbs. In 1685 the catholic Pfalz-Neuburger from Düsseldorf was the Elector Prince of the Palatinate. In 1802/03 Heidelberg obtained the Lutheran margraviate of Baden. The united churches ended the reformational differences in the Bavarian Palatinate in 1818 and in Baden in 1821.