Martin Luther, part VII – The Diet of Worms

Luther was conducted into the hall and brought to stand directly in front of the emperor. The chancellor of the Elector of Treves began speaking, addressing Luther first in Latin and then repeating his words in German.

“Martin Luther! yesterday you begged for a delay that has not expired. Assuredly it ought to have been conceded, as every man, and especially you, who are so great and learned a doctor in the Holy Scriptures, should always be ready to answer any question touching his faith. . . . Now, therefore, reply to the question put by his majesty, who has behaved to you with so much mildness. Will you defend your books as a whole, or are you willing to disavow some of them?” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 8

A deep silence settled over the room as every ear strained to catch Luther’s reply. What a moment! The fate, not only of the Reformation, but of nations was at that moment hanging in the balance.

Luther began by graciously saluting the emperor, the princes, and the lords. While he spoke firmly, he addressed the assembly in modest tones. “Most serene emperor! illustrious princes! gracious lords! I appear before you this day, in conformity with the order given me yesterday, and by God’s mercies I conjure your majesty and your august highnesses to listen graciously to the defense of a cause which I am assured is just and true. If, through ignorance, I should transgress the usages and proprieties of courts, I entreat you to pardon me; for I was not brought up in the palaces of kings, but in the seclusion of a convent.

“Yesterday, two questions were put to me on behalf of his imperial majesty: the first, if I was the author of the books whose titles were enumerated; the second, if I would retract or defend the doctrine I had taught in them. To the first question I then made answer, and I preserve in that reply.

“As for the second, I have written works on many different subjects. There are some in which I have treated of faith and good works, in a manner at once so pure, so simple, and so scriptural, that even my adversaries, far from finding anything to censure in them, allow that these works are useful and worthy of being read by all pious men. The papal bull, however violent it may be, acknowledges this. If, therefore, I were to retract these, what should I do? . . . Wretched man! Among all men, I alone should abandon truths that friends and enemies approve, and I should oppose what the whole world glories in confessing. . . .

“Second, I have written books against the papacy, in which I have attacked those who, by their false doctrine, their evil lies, or their scandalous example, afflict the Christian world and destroy both body and soul. The complaints of all who fear God are confirmatory of this. Is it not evident that the laws and human doctrines of the popes entangle, torment, and vex the consciences of believers, while the crying and perpetual extortions of Rome swallow up the wealth and the riches of Christendom, and especially of this illustrious nation? . . .

“Were I to retract what I have said on this subject, what should I do but lend additional strength to this tyranny and open the floodgates to torment of impiety? Overflowing with still greater fury than before, we should see these insolent men increase in number, behave more tyrannically, and domineer more and more. And not only would the yoke that now weighs upon the Christian people be rendered heavier by my retraction, but it would become, so to speak, more legitimate; for by this very retraction it would receive the confirmation of your most serene majesty and of all the states of the holy empire. Gracious God! I should thus become a vile cloak to cover and conceal every kind of malice and tyranny! . . .

“Lastly, I have written books against individuals who desired to defend the Romish tyranny and to destroy the faith. I frankly confess that I may have attacked them with more acrimony than is becoming my ecclesiastical profession. I do not consider myself a saint, but I cannot disavow these writings; for by so doing I should sanction the impiety of my adversaries, and they would seize the opportunity of oppressing the people of God with still greater cruelty.

“Yet I am but a mere man, and not God; I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did. If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil (see John 18:23) said He. How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes and who may so easily go astray desire every man to state his objections to my doctrine.

“For this reason, most serene emperor and you, most illustrious princes, and all men of every degree, I conjure you, by the mercy of God, to prove from the writings of the prophets and the apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error and be the first to lay hold of my books and throw them into the fire.” Ibid.

In closing, Luther drew the attention of the assembly to a judgment that they must each face: not a judgment beyond the grave but of the here and now. They were each, he pointed out, on trial. By their decisions, they were to determine whether their thrones were to be established or to be swept away in a coming deluge of wrath. “I might speak,” Luther continued, “of Pharaohs, the kings of Babylon, and those of Israel whose labours never more effectually contributed to their own destruction than when they sought by counsels, to all appearance most wise, to strengthen their dominion.” Ibid.

Luther’s Defense Repeated

Luther had spoken in German with great modesty and firmness. The imposing assembly, as well as his own emotion, had greatly fatigued him. The emperor, however, greatly disliked the German language, and it was now demanded of Luther that he repeat his defense in Latin. Frederick of Thun, the privy councilor of the Elector of Saxony, had been stationed by Luther’s side to see that no violence was used against him. Seeing Luther’s exhausted condition, he said, “If you cannot repeat what you have said, that will do, doctor.” Ibid. But Luther, after a brief pause, repeated his speech with the same energy he had presented his first. “God’s providence directed in this matter. The minds of many of the princes were so blinded by error and superstition that at the first delivery they did not see the force of Luther’s reasoning; but the repetition enabled them to perceive clearly the points presented.” The Great Controversy, 159

When he had finished speaking, the Chancellor of Treves said with indignation, ” ‘You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decisions of councils. You were required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you, or will you not, retract?’ Upon this Luther replied without hesitation: ‘Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning,—unless I am persuaded by the means of the passages I have quoted,—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.’ And then, looking round on this assembly before which he stood and which held his life in its hands, he said: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other; May God help me! Amen!’ ” D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 8

The words of the Reformer had a profound impact on the assembly. Many of the princes could scarcely conceal their admiration. In all, Luther had spoken for nearly two hours. The effects of Aleander’s address, given so eloquently before the diet but a short time before, had dissipated in less than a week; but Luther’s was to live on to stir men’s hearts for hundreds of years to come.

To their amazement, the princes discovered that the roles had completely reversed. But two hours earlier Luther had stood before them apparently condemned, but they found that they had now been summoned to stand before his bar. Unawed by the crowns they wore, or the armies they commanded, this simple monk had entreated, admonished, and reproved them. It mattered not what they might do with the Reformer; the victory was clearly his. Nothing that Rome might now do could reverse her defeat, or conceal the victory that had been won. What light has time shed on the words that he spoke! The history of the Catholic nations of Europe and the New World bear testimony to their truthfulness.

As soon as the assembly had partially recovered, the chancellor spoke. ” ‘If you do not retract, the emperor and the states of the empire will consult what course to adopt against an incorrigible heretic.’ At these words Luther’s friends began to tremble; but the monk repeated: ‘May God be my helper; for I can retract nothing.’ ” Ibid.

After Luther withdrew, the princes deliberated. The partisans of Rome could not bring themselves to concede defeat, and Luther was again summoned before them. The speaker for the diet again addressed him. “Martin, you have not spoken with the modesty becoming your position. The distinction you have made between your books was futile; for if you retracted those that contained your errors, the emperor would not have allowed the others to be burnt. It is extravagant in you to demand to be refuted by Scripture, when you are reviving heresies condemned by the general council of Constance. The emperor, therefore, calls upon you to declare simply, yes or no, whether you presume to maintain what you have advanced, or whether you will retract a portion?’—’I have no other reply to make than that which I have already made,’ answered Luther calmly.” Ibid. Firm as a rock, the Reformer remained unmoved by the waves beating about him. His firm, unshaken stand made a profound impression upon the assembly. Charles V arose, and with him all of the assembly. Deliberations were at an end until the morrow.

Two imperial officers formed Luther’s escort. Some imagined that Luther was being led forth to the scaffold, and a great tumult broke out. It was quickly quelled when Luther assured them that he was merely being escorted to his hotel.

Upon his return to his room, Luther was surrounded by Spalatin and other friends. Together they gave thanks to God for the events of the day. As they were talking together, a messenger from the Elector of Saxony came with orders for Spalatin to come to him immediately. When Spalatin arrived at the duke’s quarters, the duke had just seated himself for supper. Arising, he motioned Spalatin to follow him. As soon as they were alone in the duke’s bed chamber, he informed Spalatin of his resolution to more actively protect the doctor in the future.

Aleander recognized the impression that Luther had made upon the assembly. He saw that he must act quickly if he were to counteract the influence that was rapidly gaining ground. War was imminent between Charles and Francis. Leo X, desiring to enlarge his estates, was secretly negotiating with both parties. Aleander, however, sought to use the influence of an alliance with the pope against Francis as the means of influencing Charles, thereby deciding the fate of the Reformer. He knew that the life of a single monk was a mere trifle if it could purchase the pontiff’s friendship.

Charles Rejects the Reformation

On the day following Luther’s appearance, the emperor ordered a prepared message to be read to the diet. In the message, he affirmed his intentions to support the Catholic Church. While confirming the safe-conduct that he had extended to Luther, he expressed his resolve to move against the Reformer as soon as it should expire and to martial all of the resources at his command to crush the heresy.

Not all of the members of the diet were pleased with the address. Charles, in his youthful haste, had failed to comply with the usual form of consulting with the diet before forming his decision. On the other extreme, the elector of Brandenburg and several of the ecclesiastical princes demanded the safe-conduct given to Luther should not be respected. The Rhine, they said, should receive his ashes as it had the ashes of John Huss a century before. Against such a base proposal a number of the princes of Germany objected. The Bavarian nobles, though mostly papal, protested against the violation of public faith. Even George of Saxony, Luther’s avowed enemy, said, “The princes of Germany will not permit a safe-conduct to be violated. This diet, the first held by our new emperor, will not be guilty of so base an action. Such perfidy does not accord with the ancient German integrity.” Ibid., chap. 9. The proposal was turned down with scorn and indignation.

Charles, who was yet very young, shrank from the idea of committing perjury. He is reported to have said, “Though honour and faith should be banished from all the world, they ought to find a refuge in the hearts of princes.” A somewhat less charitable assessment was given by Vettori, the friend of Leo X, who alleged that Charles spared Luther only that he might be a check on the pope. Charles, it would seem, only half trusted Leo, and in the game of international intrigue in which he was then engaged, he believed that a living Luther would be a more valuable counter than a dead one. There was also reason to believe that he was not blind to the danger that public sentiment was running so high that should the safe-conduct be violated, his first diet could easily be his last one. Charles is, however, credited with having repented of his decision in after years. He is reported to have stated, near the close of his life, that he was not obliged to have kept his promise to a heretic who had offended a Master greater than he—God Himself. He might, he then believed, have stifled the heresy in its infancy.

The Safe-conduct Honored

The discussion as to what to do with the Reformer lasted two days. During this time, the emotions of the citizens ran high. According to some sources, there were four hundred nobles ready to enforce Luther’s safe-conduct, if necessary, with the sword. Sickingen, it was reported, had assembled many knights and soldiers behind the impregnable ramparts of his stronghold but a dozen miles from Worms. The enthusiasm of the people, not only in Worms but throughout Germany, as well as the intrepidity of the knights and the attachment that many of the princes felt for the cause of the Reformer, convinced Charles that it would be disastrous to follow the course proposed by the Romanists. Though it was only a question of burning a simple monk, the partisans of Rome had not the strength or courage to do so. To have violated the safe-conduct would have immediately convulsed Germany in a civil war. Luther was ordered to return home under the emperor’s safe-conduct, the violent propositions of Aleander having been rejected.

The Elector Frederick was delighted with the appearance that Luther had made before the diet, but he was not alone in his appreciation of the Reformer. From that time on, many others who heard him became friends of the Reformation. Some of them expressed their change of sentiment at the time, while with others it bore fruit years later. Though Frederick had determined more than ever to protect Luther, he knew that the less his hand was seen in the matter, the more effectively he could further the cause and protect its champion. He therefore avoided all personal contact with Luther.

On the morning of April 26, Luther, surrounded by twenty gentlemen on horseback, left Worms. A few days after his departure, the emperor made public an edict against him, placing him outside the pale of the law and commanding all men everywhere, once his safe-conduct had expired, to withhold from him food, water, and shelter, and to do all within their power to apprehend him. This edict was drafted by Aleander and ratified by a meeting in the emperor’s private chamber after Elector Frederick and those favorable to Luther had already departed. The edict was dated May 8, but in reality the imperial signature was not placed on it until May 26. The purpose of the antedating was to give it the appearance of carrying the authority of the full diet.

Luther had entered Worms under the anathema of the pope. When he left, to this was added the ban of the empire.

The End