The news that Luther had been summoned to the diet spread rapidly throughout Germany. While the Germans were glad to see the cause of their country and their church taking on an importance that challenged examination and discussion by so august an assembly, they could not help but be filled with apprehension. They trembled when they considered the fate of the man who had become the ablest champion of both their political and religious rights. If Luther should be sacrificed to the hatred of the Church, who then would compensate for his loss to the movement which promised to free them from the tyranny of Rome?
On April 2, the arrangements for travel were completed and Luther, along with three of his more intimate friends, began the trip to Worms. Though Melancthon begged to accompany them, Luther firmly declined, pointing out that should he himself be sacrificed to the malice of Rome, there was no one but Melancthon capable of carrying on. The youth and professors from the university, as well as the towns people, thronged the streets of Wittenberg to witness his departure.
The procession was led by the imperial herald, wearing his insignia and displaying the imperial eagle, showing that the travelers journeyed under the guardianship of the emperor. For Luther’s convenience, the magistrates of Wittenberg, at their own cost, had provided a covered conveyance for his comfort in travel.
Everywhere they went, villagers poured out to catch a glimpse of the monk who dared to stand against Rome, Leipsic being one notable exception. The Roman party had dared to hope that Luther would not accept the invitation to appear. Once the news arrived that he had begun his journey, they did not despair by intrigues and menaces of making him turn back. All along the way both friends and enemies endeavored in vain to turn him from his purpose of appearing before the diet. Little did they know of the character of the man with whom they were dealing. To their dismay, Luther kept his face steadfastly towards Worms.
Rome Fears Luther
Alarm was general in the camp of the pope’s friends. They feared that if Luther entered Worms, all might be lost. To carry him off by force, they could not; for he was traveling under the protection of the emperor. All that was left for them was deception. Glapio, confessor to Charles, and Paul of Amsdorff, the emperor’s chamberlain, decided on a plan which they immediately set out to implement. Finding their way to the castle of Ebernburg, they approached Francis of Sickingen, a knight who was friendly to the Reformed movement. Bucer, a youthful Dominican who had been converted to the evangelical doctrine, had taken refuge there. The knight, who did not understand much about religious matters, was easily deceived by the designs of his visitors. Bucer’s disposition to naturally avoid conflict also played into their hands.
The chamberlain and Charles’s confessor began their attack by making Sickingen and Bucer to understand that Luther was lost if he entered the city. They declared that the emperor was ready to send a few men to Ebernburg to confer with the doctor and indicated that both parties would place themselves under the protection of Sickingen. Further, they asserted that they agreed with Luther on all of the essential points and that it was only on some secondary points that there remained any disagreement. These, they said, they were willing for Bucer to mediate between them. The knight and Bucer were staggered at the apparent change in circumstances. Their two visitors continued by pointing out that the invitation to come to the castle must be presented by Sickingen and Bucer and that they must not allow the too credulous Luther to enter Worms. When his safe conduct expired in three days, who would be able to protect him there?
When Luther arrived at Oppenheim and saw a group of horsemen approaching him, he realized that his safe conduct was only good for three more days. He soon recognized Bucer, a man with whom he had held intimate conversations at Heidelberg. After the first exchange of friendship, Bucer told him that the attending troops were cavaliers belonging to Francis of Sickingen and that the knight had sent him to bring Luther’s party to the safety of his castle. There, he was told, the emperor’s confessor, who held almost unlimited influence with Charles, desired an interview with him in the hope of working out all differences amicably. Aleander, the papal legate in Worms, was not, however, to be trusted.As Bucer was pressing them, Luther’s friends did not know what to think; but Luther had no hesitation. ” ‘I shall continue my journey,’ he replied to Bucer; ‘and if the emperor’s confessor has anything to say to me, he will find me at Worms. I shall go whither I am summoned.’ ” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 6, chap. 7
Word began to quietly circulate in Worms that the diet was not bound to honor the emperor’s safe-conduct. It was with great apprehension that Luther’s friends heard these whispers. One question came to the minds of all: Was the perfidy of Constance to be repeated in Worms? The elector, greatly alarmed, sent word to Luther by Spalatin, urging him not enter the city. This was perhaps the most difficult obstacle that Luther had yet been forced to deal with, coming as it did from a trusted friend. “Fixing his eyes on the messenger, Luther replied, ‘Go and tell your master that even should there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the house tops, still I will enter it.’ ” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 333
His Appearance Unexpected
Luther’s friends, and even more so his enemies, did not really expect him to come to Worms. When, however, on the sixteenth of April the sentinel on the lookout sounded his trumpet to announce Luther’s approach, the streets were suddenly flooded by men of all nations and levels of society. So great was the welcome that not even the emperor had received such a turnout. It was only with great difficulty that the procession was able to move through the press of people.
On his journey to Worms, Luther experienced an illness. Though somewhat weakened from his recent recovery, the Reformer arrived in Worms greatly fatigued from his fourteen days of travel and in need of rest. The anxiety of the people to see him was too great to allow for even an hours’ repose. He had but just entered his lodging when princes, dukes, counts, bishops, men of all ranks, both friends and foes, crowded into his apartment. Scarcely had one wave of visitors been dismissed when another pressed its way in.
The crowd of visitors, varying greatly in rank and purpose, pressed about Luther until late into the night. He answered all of their questions with such dignity and wisdom that even his enemies marveled. After the last visitor had left, Luther went to bed and sought rest; but the excitement of the day had left him restless and unable to sleep. After arising and playing a song on his lute, he went to the window. “There were the stars fulfilling their courses far above the tumults of earth, yet far beneath that throne on which sat a greater King than the monarch before whom he was to appear on the morrow. He felt as he gazed, a sense of sublimity filling his soul, and bringing with it a feeling of repose. Withdrawing his gaze, and closing the casement, he said, ‘I will lay me down and take quiet rest, for Thou makest me to dwell in safety.’ ” Ibid., 335
At four o’clock on the day of the hearing, the marshal of the empire appeared to summon Luther before the diet. The crowd that filled the streets was even greater than that which had filled them the day before. It was impossible to advance, and at length the herald ordered some private homes to be opened and they made their way through gardens and private passages to the place where the diet was sitting.
Having at last reached the town hall, Luther and those who accompanied him were again prevented from further advance. By the use of main force, the soldiers were at last able to clear the doors and gain an admittance. On the inside, every corner was crowded. In the antechambers and deep recesses of the windows, there were more than five thousand spectators; and it was only with great difficulty that Luther was able to advance to the entrance of the hall where the diet awaited him.
“As he was about to enter the presence of his judges, an old general, the hero of many battles, said to him kindly: ‘Poor monk, poor monk, thou art now going to make a nobler stand than I or any other captains have ever made in the bloodiest of our battles. But if thy cause is just, and thou art sure of it, go forward in God’s name, and fear nothing. God will not forsake thee.’. . .
“At length the doors opened and Luther went in, and with him entered many persons who formed no portion of the diet. Never had man appeared before so imposing an assembly. The emperor Charles V, whose sovereignty extended over a great part of the old and new world; his brother the Archduke Ferdinand; six electors of the empire . . . ; twenty-four dukes, the majority of whom were independent sovereigns over countries more or less extensive and among whom were some whose names afterwards became formidable to the Reformation,—the Duke of Alva and his two sons; eight margraves; thirty archbishops, bishops, and abbots; seven ambassadors, including those from the kings of France and England; the deputies of ten free cities; a great number of princes, counts, and sovereign barons; the papal nuncios—in all two hundred and four persons: such was the imposing court before which appeared Martin Luther.
A Victory for Truth
“This appearance was of itself a signal victory over the papacy. The pope had condemned the man, and he was now standing before a tribunal which, by this very act, set itself above the pope. The pope had laid him under an interdict, and cut him off from all human society; and yet he was summoned in respectful language, and received before the most august assembly in the world. The pope had condemned him to perpetual silence, and he was now about to speak before thousands of attentive hearers drawn together from the farthest parts of Christendom. An immense revolution had thus been effected by Luther’s instrumentality. Rome was already descending from her throne, and it was the voice of a monk that caused this humiliation.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, ch. 8
Luther was conducted to a place directly in front of the emperor’s throne. The sudden transition from the uneasy crowd to the calm grandeur of the diet had its effect upon him. As he felt all eyes turn upon him, Luther appeared, for a moment, almost intimidated and bewildered; but it passed and he quickly regained his composure. The sun was near its setting and its golden rays filled the room, accentuating the rich colors of the national costumes. In the midst of all of the imposing grandeur stood Luther in his monk’s frock.
The spokesman for the diet arose and, first in Latin and then in German, addressed Luther, asking him two questions. First he asked, as he pointed to a display of Luther’s books spread out on a table, if he acknowledge these to be his books. Second, was Luther prepared to retract and disavow the opinions that he had advanced in them?
Luther’s First Response
Luther, his bearing respectful and his voice low, began to speak. Some of the members thought that it trembled a little and hoped for a quick retraction.
The first charge Luther frankly acknowledged. As to the second point, he replied. “Seeing it is a question which concerns the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God—than which nothing is greater in heaven or in earth—is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I entreat your imperial Majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may reply without offending against the Word of God.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 339
It was a wise decision, which was interpreted differently by the papal members of the diet. Confidently, they expressed the belief among themselves that he was merely breaking his fall and would soon retract. They believed that while he might play the heretic in the safety of Wittenberg, he would play the part of a penitent at Worms. How little they penetrated the depth of Luther’s character.
After a deliberation, the diet granted the delay that Luther requested. Luther bowed, and instantly the herald was by his side to conduct him to his hotel.
As he arose the next day, it was not the prospect of death that filled Luther with apprehension but the full realization that the crisis had arrived and he felt unable to meet it. It seemed that the sustaining power that had been with him until that point had deserted him, and all that he could see was an approaching catastrophe. The fear that the enemies of the gospel would triumph distressed him beyond words. In an agony of soul he poured his heart out to God.
Rising from his knees, Luther felt complete calm return to his soul. He then sat down to arrange his thoughts, to draft, in outline, his defense, and to search the Scriptures for passages with which to fortify it. Having completed this task, he laid his left hand upon the sacred Book and raising his right hand to heaven, swore to remain faithful to the gospel and to uphold it, even if it cost him his life. After this, the Reformer experienced a still deeper peace.
At four o’clock that afternoon, the grand marshal and the herald again presented themselves to escort Luther to the hall. On arriving in the outer court, they found the diet in deep deliberation with no indication as to when Luther might expect to be heard. The first hour passed and then a second. So long a delay in such circumstances was sufficient to exhaust him physically and distract him mentally, but the Reformer’s tranquility did not forsake him. The night began to fall, and torches were kindled in the assembly hall.
At last the door opened and Luther entered the hall. If, as some suspect, the delay was arranged by Aleander in the hope that Luther would come before the diet in a state of agitation, he was doomed to disappointment. The Reformer stood before the diet in perfect composure and with an air of dignity.