Martin Luther, part VIII – Leaving Worms

On April 26, Luther, attended by twenty gentlemen on horseback, passed in peace through the gates of the city from which no one had ever expected to see him come alive. As he left, he said, “The devil himself guarded the pope’s citadel; but Christ has made a wide breach in it, and Satan was constrained to confess that the Lord is mightier than he.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chapter 11.

On the evening of April 27, Luther reached Frankfort where he took the first leisure that he had experienced in a long time. From there he wrote to Lucas Cranach, the celebrated painter. He said, “I thought his majesty would have assembled some fifty doctors at Worms to convict the monk outright. But not at all.—Are these your books?—Yes!—Will you retract them?—No!—Well, then, be gone!—There’s the whole history. O blind Germans! . . . how childishly we act to allow ourselves to be the dupes and sport of Rome!” Ibid.

In a private conversation at Worms, Spalatin made known to Luther that for a time his liberty must be sacrificed to the anger of Charles and the pope. Though he knew nothing of the details, he was made aware that he would not be returning to Wittenberg.

On the ninth day after leaving Worms, Luther and several of his remaining traveling companions separated. Luther and Amsdorff struck northward to the town of Mora to visit Luther’s grandmother, while the rest of the party continued on to Wittenberg. Luther spent a quiet evening in the small town and the next morning resumed his journey. They had reached a lonely spot near the Castle of Altenstein in the forest of Thuringia when suddenly they found themselves surrounded by five, masked horsemen, who were armed from head to foot. Without saying a word, James, Luther’s younger brother immediately sprang from the wagon and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. The driver was ordered to stop and would have resisted, but one of the strangers, cried, “Stop!” and fell on him, throwing him to the ground. A second masked rider laid hold of Amsdorff, separating him from Luther, while the other three men roughly pulled Luther from the wagon, threw a military cloak around his shoulders, and placed him on a horse. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, all six riders disappeared in the thick forest. All day they rode this direction and that, assuring themselves that anyone attempting to follow them would be completely baffled. After darkness settled in, they began to ascend a mountain and a little before midnight, approached a castle at its summit. The drawbridge was let down, the portcullis raised, and the mysterious troop entered. Luther was led to an apartment where he was told that he must stay for an indefinite length of time and that during his stay, he must lay aside his ecclesiastical dress and dress in the custom of a knight. He was, he was told, to be known only as Knight George. His abduction was carried out so mysteriously that, for a time, even Frederick of Saxony was not aware of his whereabouts.

When morning broke, Luther looked from the castle window upon a familiar scene. Though the town could not be seen from his position, beneath him stretched the countryside that surrounded the village of Eisenach. He could not but have known that he was in Wartburg castle in friendly keeping.

Luther in Seclusion

How quickly the scene had changed. But a short time before, Luther had walked the dizzy heights as all eyes were fixed upon him. Now, suddenly, the man on whom the eyes of all the world had been turned, had disappeared. While there were those who received the news of Luther’s disappearance with joy, the grief of the friends of the Reformation was great. As spring turned to summer and summer gave way to autumn, it was as if he had suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth.

Aleander and his partisans rejoiced. The fate of the Reformation seemed sealed as the light of the gospel seemed about to be extinguished. But God reigns, and the blow that seemed about to destroy the Reformation was in truth but the preparation for even more far reaching conquests. God had not withdrawn His servant merely to preserve him from the wrath of his enemies. As men rejoice in the freedom that truth brings to them, they are inclined to view the instrument, who is the channel of truth, as the origin, and in so doing, place a man where only God should be. In His providence, God removed Luther for a time that he might not only have time to reflect and grow in his knowledge of truth, but that men might be led to realize their dependence upon God and be led to trust Him. The light of truth was yet to shed its light in even brighter radiance.

At first Luther rejoiced at being released from the heat of the battle; but after a time, he became restless and criticized himself for his idleness. Even as his enemies congratulated themselves that he had been silenced, a host of tracts began to issue from his pen and be circulated throughout Germany. In addition to his other writing, Luther began his translation of the New Testament into the German language.

Luther had a weakness that, if not checked, threatened to endanger the work that he was doing. He assumed that others should see the points of truth as readily as he himself did. He had dared to defy the pope, and in so doing had vanquished the emperor. Eager to advance the cause of truth, he would not only defy the strong, but at times, lacking a consideration for their infirmities, he tended to walk on the weak. In his enforced seclusion, he was now led to examine his heart and distinguish between that which had been the work of passion and that which properly represented the working of the Holy Spirit of God. As he was led to the Bible, not only was his theological understanding expanded, but his nature was sanctified and enriched. “The study of the Word of God revealed to him likewise, what he was apt in his conflicts to overlook, that there was an edifice to be built up as well as one to be pulled down, and that this was the nobler work of the two.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 1, 476.

No more had Luther disappeared from view in Wartburg than the political sky of Europe became overcast with dark and foreboding clouds. The states had been about to unsheathe their sword over Luther’s head when suddenly some hundred thousand Turkish scimitars were unsheathed over theirs! Soliman, whom thirteen battles had rendered the terror of Germany, suddenly appeared on the scene. Quickly gaining many small tows and castles, it was but a short time before they had also taken Belgrade. The states of the Empire had sufficient work to do in compelling Soliman and his hordes to return to their own lands, without troubling themselves about the Reformer.

While this danger threatened the East, news from Spain told of seditions that had broken out in the emperor’s absence. For the time, Charles was forced to return home in order to quell the dissension and secure his hereditary dominions.

To complicate matters more, war next broke out between Charles and Francis I. With the aid of the papal arms of Leo X, the French were driven from the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Milan, which they had held for six years. To their even greater humiliation, they were driven from Lombardy.

Great was Leo’s delight at having the Papal States returned. Coming as it did on the back of the emperor’s edict proscribing Luther; it was enough to make joy complete. He received the news in his country seat at Mallina. Amidst the popular celebration, he returned to Rome, reaching it before the festivities ended. His hour of victory was short-lived, however. Scarcely had he entered his palace when he was seized with a sudden illness. The malady ran its course so quickly that he died without the Sacrament. Leo had reigned with magnificence but died deeply in debt. The Romans never forgave him for dying without the Sacrament, and he died among manifest contempt.

The nephew of the deceased pope, Cardinal Guilio de Medici, aspired to take the place of his uncle. The political scene was shifting, however, and the monarch of Spain was a more potent factor in the affairs of Europe than the rich merchants of Florence. The conclave to elect a new pope lasted long; and Guilio de Medici, despairing of gaining the throne for himself, proposed that the Cardinal of Tortosa, who had been Charles’ tutor, should be elevated to the pontificate. He was an elderly man and entirely without ambition. Avoiding all show, he occupied himself with his religious duties. He was in every way the exact opposite of Leo.

Attempts to Reform the Church

Assuming the title Adrian VI, the new pope, who was in Spain on the emperor’s business, made his way to Rome. He viewed with indifference, if not displeasure, the magnificence of the papal palace. The humble and pious Adrian believed that a more profitable way to counteract the Reformation was to originate another. He began with a startling confession: “It is certain that the pope may err in matters of faith in defending heresy by his opinions or decretals.” Ibid., 477. This admission, meant to be the start of a moderate reform, became even more inconvenient in later years than it was at the time that he spoke it, when in the Encyclical and Syllabus of Pius IX and the Infallibility Decree, issued in July 18, 1870, he stated exactly the opposite to be true when he said that in matters of faith and morals, the pope cannot err. If Adrian spoke the truth, it follows that the pope may indeed err. If he did not, it leaves the church in a very difficult position to explain the matter, as the decree of the Vatican Council of 1870, which looked both backwards and forwards, declares that error is impossible on the part of the pope.

Wherever Adrian turned to effect reform, he found himself faced by insurmountable obstacles. If he touched an abuse, all who were interested in its maintenance would rise in arms to defend it. He found that were he to purse Rome of all but the virtuous, it would leave few but himself. He was finally forced to recognize that a middle path was impossible to follow and that his only choice lay between Luther’s reform on the one hand, and the policies of Charles V on the other. He chose the latter.

While Luther was in seclusion and the princes of the empire were occupied with political considerations, the progress of the reform moved forward. As with any reformation, however, Satan was not idle. In the place of true reform, fanaticism began to move in. “A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven and claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation which, they declared, had been but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished. They rejected the great principle which was the very foundation of the Reformation—that the Word of God is the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice; and for that unerring guide they substituted the changeable, uncertain standard of their own feelings and impressions. By this act of setting aside the great detector of error and falsehood, the way was opened for Satan to control minds as best pleased himself.” The Great Controversy, 186.

These men found followers in Wittenberg. The students of the university left their studies, considering them useless in the presence of an internal illumination which promised to teach them all that they needed to know without having to experience the toil of study. The enemies of the Reformation were exultant, deeming that they were about to witness its speedy disorganization and ruin. News of what was taking place in Wittenberg reached Wartburg, and Luther was filled with dismay and grief. He was torn between his desire to complete his translation of the New Testament and his desire to return to Wittenberg and meet the new fanaticism. At last, to his great joy, he completed his German version of the New Testament on March 3, 1522. The disorganization that was reigning at Wittenberg was a greater danger to the Reformation than the sword of Charles. The crisis was a serious one, and Luther immediately set out for Wittenberg.

On the first Sunday morning after his arrival, Luther entered the parish church. Intense excitement, yet deep stillness reigned in the audience. Never had Luther appeared more grand and truly great. As did the apostle, he reminded his hearers that the weapons of their warfare were not carnal but spiritual. The Word, he said, must be freely preached and left to work upon the heart. While he was against the abuses and errors of Rome, the heart of man must never be forced but won by the power of the Word. He pointed to the mighty victory that had already been won in weakening the power of the papacy to a degree that no prince or emperor had ever before been able to break it. And yet, as he pointed out, this had all been accomplished by the power of God’s Word.

Luther continued his series of discourses through the entire week. Every day the church was filled as many flocked from the surrounding villages to receive the bread of life. Without mentioning them by name, the Reformer was able to meet and defeat the various fanatical groups. By his wisdom and moderation, he carried the day; and the Word of God was restored to its supremacy. It was a great battle—greater in some respects than that which had been fought at Worms. Without tumult and without offense to anyone, Luther safely guided the Reformation through the crisis and again established it on the Word of God.

Day Dawns in Germany

In proportion as the Reformation strengthened at its center in Wittenberg, it was diffused more widely throughout Germany. To the terror of Rome, it seemed to be breaking out on all sides. A number of priests were converted to the reformed faith and preached it to their flocks. Great was the wrath of Rome as she saw her soldiers turning their arms against her. The world’s winter appeared to be passing; and with the coming of spring, the German nation began to emerge from the ignorance of the darkness into the dawning of light. “Whilst in the year 1513 only thirty-five publications had appeared, and thirty-seven in 1517, the number of books increased with astonishing rapidity after the appearance of Luther’s theses. In 1518 we find seventy-one different works; in 1519, one hundred and eleven; in 1520, two hundred and eight; in 1521, two hundred and 11; in 1522, three hundred and forty seven; and in 1523, four hundred and ninety eight.” D’Aubigne, History of the Protestant Reformation, book 9, chapter 11. For the most part, these were printed in Wittenberg. Generally they were authored by Luther and his friends. In 1522, while 130 of the Reformer’s writings were published, and in the following year, 183, only 20 Roman Catholic publications appeared.

What Luther and his friends published, others circulated. Monks, convinced of the unlawfulness of the monastic life, became colporteurs carrying the books through the length and breadth of Germany. Germany swarmed with these bold colporteurs. It was in vain that the emperor and princes published edicts against the writings of the Reformers. As soon as an inquisitorial visit was to be paid, the book dealers, who had received secret information in advance, concealed the books that were proscribed. The eager multitude, who were ever anxious for that which was prohibited, immediately bought them up and read them with great eagerness. Neither was it in Germany alone that such scenes were enacted. Luther’s writings were translated into French, Spanish, English, and Italian and circulated among these nations as well.

Elector Frederick had declared that he would allow the bishops to preach freely in his states, but he would deliver no one into their hands. Consequently, evangelical teachers persecuted in other countries soon found asylum in Saxony. Here they conversed with the Reformers, and at their feet were strengthened in the faith. At the same time, they were able to communicate to their teachers from their own experience the knowledge that they had acquired.

As Luther witnessed the success of the gospel, his confidence increased. He had foreseen nothing of the magnitude when he first rose up against Tetzel. Vainly would men seek to explain the movement by mere human circumstances. God, the Author of the work in its minutest detail, was breathing new life into Christianity. The church was passing through a state of transformation and of bursting the bonds in which it had so long been confined, returning in life and vigor to a world that had forgotten its ancient power. Not withstanding the violent and repeated efforts to stifle the progress, the gospel rose with a force that no human power was able to resist in its progress.