A Safe Haven at Wartburg

Luther had gained a massive victory for the reformation by his appearance before the Diet of Worms but this did not deter his opponents from persisting to squeeze a recantation out of him. He steadfastly withstood the pressure, at one point volunteering to give up his Imperial safe conduct rather than give up a single one of his beliefs. Emperor Charles commanded him to return home soon after the conclusion of his hearings and he knew that Imperial condemnations would follow him. Nonetheless, he set off for Wittenburg with a deep sense of peace, commenting “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.” Little did he realize just how powerfully God would move to protect him or how he would find himself within the confines of Warburg Castle all too soon. 

The Papacy was in a frenzy of rage and many loyal Catholic Princes tried to persuade Charles to ignore the safe conduct, reduce Luther to ashes and throw them in the Rhine. Charles, though an ardent defender of the Catholic faith, could not be prevailed upon to do this. He knew, as did many others, to violate an imperial safe-conduct would lead to open rioting throughout Germany and even the Empire. He also knew that a living Luther was more useful to his own interests than a dead one, because in the cat and mouse game between Emperor and Pope, keeping the reformer alive was a significant trump card that Charles could throw in front of Leo, who was afraid of the effects the Reformation was already having on his hold over the people.

Wartburg Castle, Germany

So Charles reached a happy compromise. As soon as Luther departed Worms he issued an edict against him, stipulating that when his safe conduct expired Luther was to be apprehended and brought to the emperor as soon as anyone could get their hands on him. His edict ended with the condemnation that “this man (Luther) was not a man but Satan himself under the form of a man and dressed in a monk’s frock”

Luther, Wartburg Castle

Luther’s return journey home was filled with more fanfare and cheering than his journey to Worms had been and he preached to crowds of eager listeners in towns all along the way. He was traveling through the mountains of the Black Forest when, having reached a secluded spot near the Wartburg Castle, his wagon was surrounded by a group of masked, fully armed horsemen. They stopped the Wagon and kidnapped Luther, riding into the darkening forest with him, on horseback.  He was taken to the Wartburg Castle where he was told to take off his monk’s robes and put on the clothing of a Knight and take on the pseudonym of Knight George. He was then told that he would be spending an unspecified length of time in the castle. Frederick of Saxony had orchestrated the entire thing to keep him safe and completely off the papal radar. The storm raged through Germany, but Luther was safely ensconced at Wartburg, where he translated the entire Bible from Latin into German.

Luther, Wartburg Castle

In Luther’s absence, however, there was a surge of false revival. Men, like Thomas Munzer, spouting strange ideas and using the force of arms to propagate their opposition against Rome and it’s rites confused the people and divided the reformation, causing the work to grind to a slow crawl.  The fanaticism threatened to derail the entire movement causing Luther leave Wartburg and face the fanatics head on. 

His return to Wittenberg caused a stir, bringing crowds of people to hear Dr. Luther speak once more. Luther affirmed the wrongs inherent in Papal rites such as the mass but denounced the use of force in abolishing them, declaring that it was not the job of the Reformation to force the conscience of others. He was able to check the uprising for a period of time though it would spring up again with devastating results during the peasant’s revolt in which Munzer himself was killed.

Though the uprising propagated by Munzer and his cohorts seemed like a moment of defeat for the work of reform, God turned it into a victory. For every genuine experience with God, Satan tries to introduce a counterfeit, for every victory God grants us, Satan tries to orchestrate defeat. When you’re struggling in the face of defeat and surrounded by armies that threaten to overwhelm you, remember “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” (Proverbs 21:31 ESV)

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wilkerson, B.G. (1944) – Truth Triumphant
  • 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)