After Luther dramatically burned the Papal Bull of Excommunication, Rome turned all its guns on him. Leo X enlisted the help of the young emperor Charles V, who, needing a strong political ally, was happy to assist the Pope in any way he needed.The only problem was that Charles was not empowered to act unilaterally. The constitution of the Empire required that the Emperor could not proceed until he had given the Princes of the Empire an opportunity to put forward a more viable solution to whatever matter the Crown was deliberating. At this time the Diet of the Empire was in session at Worms and Charles planned to broach the subject of Luther there. Most of the Princes cared little for Martin Luther and the movement he had spawned but they did care about the infringement upon their rights by the Papacy and to agree to crush out Luther would be to submit themselves further to the authority of Rome, which they were not prepared to accommodate.

Charles enlisted the help of Aleander, the papal Legate delegated to handle the heresy of Wittenberg, to convince the Princes that Luther should be martyred without a hearing. In a long-winded discourse lasting three hours, Aleander argued his case before the assembled Diet at Worms, who then took three days to deliberate the matter. 

Worms, Germany

When they reconvened three days later they had sifted through Aleander’s oratory superfluity to reach the bare bones of his argument; a plea to propagate Papal extortion and to endorse terrible abuse of power. This they would not do and so accompanied by an Imperial safe conduct Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms.

On the 2nd of April 1521 Luther and three of his close friends set out for Worms. Melancthon was not among them, though he longed to be, for, as Wylie touchingly writes “if Luther should fall, who but Philip could fill his place and carry on his work?” The little procession that set out for Worms was an impressive one; first went Strum, the imperial herald, clothed in Imperial insignia and carrying the Imperial eagle, showing whose protection the procession traveled under, then came Sturm’s servant and last of all a little wagon 

Martin Luther

carrying Luther and his crew. In every town they passed through people flocked to the streets to catch a glimpse of the famous and courageous Dr. Luther. When they neared Worms rumors began to circulate that the emperor was not obliged to honor the safe conduct issued to a heretic and Luther was warned to turn back to Wittenberg. His response to this was “should there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the house tops, I will enter it” and so he boldly went forward, to stand before the diet come what may.

As Luther made his way to enter the Diet many spoke words of encouragement, one of the most touching instances being that of George Freundsberg, an old war veteran, who placing his hand on Luther’s shoulder told him that he was about to face greater peril than any soldier had been called to face on the bloodiest battle field, but, Freundsberg assured him, God would fight for him.  

Worms, Martin Luther

Once inside the assembly hall, Luther was asked two things; firstly were the books on display before the assembly his writings and secondly whether he would retract his opinions. At Luther’s request, the titles of the books were read aloud one by one and he acknowledged that the work was his. In response to the demand to retract he asked for time to craft a suitable response to this 

request, a reply that served to convince those in the assembly that he was not acting on impulse. He was given a day and when he appeared again before the diet he had a clear and firm response.

Dividing his work into three broad categories Luther confessed that while he was blunter than he should have been he could not with a clear conscience retract any of his opinions. He was then asked to translate everything he had just said in German into Latin, after which Aleander urged him “revocco (recant)” to which he calmly replied “ Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason –  I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen”.

The pin had dropped and the sound of the silence that surrounded its fall was deafening. The diet was dumbfounded and after deliberating their next course of action decided against martyring Luther. The religion of Jesus Christ would never be the same again because one man chose to stand unflinchingly in the face of a raging behemoth and the diminutive David slew the giant Goliath with the power of God’s word. Where are God’s Davids today?

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Rise of Nations –  Professor Andrew C. Fix (Lafayette College)