The Confrontation that Began the Protestant Reformation

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 28 January 2021

“Luther at the Diet at Worms”, by Anton von Werner, 1877

The Diet of Worms convened 500 years ago today.[1] Four years earlier, Martin Luther had sent his Ninety-five Theses as part of a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg. The date on which Luther sent this letter, 31 October 1517, is now celebrated as “Reformation Day”, but the Reformation in a serious sense did not begin until after Luther was summoned before the 1521 Diet of Worms.

The dispute over Luther’s theology was regarded as an internal and relatively minor issue for the Roman Catholic Church. When Pope Leo X (r. 1513-21), the first of the three Medici popes, was informed about Luther’s agitation and the small movement gathered around Luther in Wittenberg, he is said to have remarked, “this outbreak is a mere squabble of envious monks” and predicted that the “drunken German who wrote the Theses” will “change his mind” once sober. Ironically, given what was to come, Henry VIII had forcefully repudiated Luther’s arguments in 1517 and been named by the Pope as Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).

Portrait of Charles V in 1519 (aged 19) by Bernard van Orley

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sent Luther a summons to the Diet on 11 March, demanding that he appear to “answer with regard to your books and teachings”, and promising him safe passage if he arrived within twenty-one days (three weeks) of receiving the letter, which arrived in Wittenberg on 26 March. Wary but with little choice, Luther made the 300-mile trip to the Imperial Free City in the south-west of Germany.

About two-thousand people lined the streets to greet the “Wittenberg nightingale” as he entered the city of Worms on 16 April, and dozens of people, including some of the most powerful nobles and Princes in the Empire, lined up to meet Luther in private. The indelible image of Luther having entered the lion’s den, risking martyrdom to witness for his faith, would attach to the man and his movement as it went forward.[2]

Luther first appeared before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms on 17 April 1521, and was interrogated by Johann von der Ecken, a Roman Catholic official from the nearby diocese of Trier who had publicly burned Luther’s books a few months earlier. Luther was asked if he was the author of a series of books and pamphlets (those chosen were the ones that had not been banned by the Papacy) and he confirmed he was. These materials had been produced on printing presses, a piece of technology less than a century old at this point, which had enabled their wide distribution. Luther was then asked if he recanted any of their contents, and said he needed time to consider the matter; the Emperor granted him twenty-four hours.[3]

Portrait of Martin Luther c. 1523 (aged 40) by Lucas Cranach the Elder

When Luther returned to the Diet on 18 April, the meeting now having moved into a much larger room to accommodate the onlookers, he gave a ten-minute prepared statement from memory, first in German and then in Latin, saying his works fit into three categories: (1) evangelical materials that even the Pope did not object to; (2) attacks on the Papacy and Roman Curia for their corruption, which had “laid waste [to] the Christian world”; and (3) polemics against his critics and the defenders of the Pope. Luther allowed that he might have been over-harsh in some of his polemical works but did not stand down from any of the ideas expressed.[4]

Luther attacked the “papists” who had corrupted the church and brought “evil and tyranny” to Germany. “I cannot escape my duty to my Germans”, Luther thundered, a well-placed nationalist appeal. Pressed for a plain answer on whether he recanted—Charles V is said to have muttered after the lecture on “papists” began that Luther should shut up and answer the question—Luther famously replied:

Since, then, Your Majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it … Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason—for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me, Amen.[5]

Many histories have Luther adding, “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise”, but that remark does not appear in any of the contemporaneous transcripts. The sentiment was correct, however, and the meaning of Luther was dawning on the Emperor, the Pope, and the audience: this was not simply an internal dispute for the Roman Church. Von Der Ecken linked Luther to previous heresies, notably the Hussites; the comparison was not unfair but the implications were quite stark, since the Roman Church had stamped this Czech movement out by burning its leader, Jan Hus, in the main square in Prague in 1415 and then launching a full-scale Crusade against his followers in Bohemia.[6] Laying down the battlelines within Christendom that have lasted ever since, Von Der Ecken mocked Luther’s pretensions to be “the one and only man who has knowledge of the Bible”, in defiance of the judgment of distinguished men of the Church, the upholders of a tradition stretching back for a millennium.[7]

Many nobles in the Empire favoured delay; even if they believed Luther was a heretic, they were impressed by his performance and nervous about moving quickly against him.[8] Charles V took a different view and read aloud a statement he had prepared for himself:

A lone friar whose opinions contradict the past thousand years of the Christian religion, down to our own day, must surely be wrong. Therefore, I am totally determined to commit all of my resources against him: my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life, and my soul. For not only I, but you of this noble German nation … who are preeminent defenders of the Catholic faith … would be forever disgraced, along with our successors, if by our negligence not only heresy but the mere suspicion of heresy were to survive.[9]

Charles V, per his guarantee, did not arrest Luther on the spot and let Luther depart Worms.

A little over a month later, on 25 May 1521, the Diet concluded, and Charles V issued the Edict of Worms:

[I]t seems that this man, Martin, is not a man but a demon in the appearance of a man, clothed in religious habit to be better able to deceive mankind, and wanting to gather the heresies of several heretics who have already been condemned, excommunicated, and buried in hell for a long time. … [H]e labours to … demolish all religious peace and charity and all order and direction in the things of this world. And finally, he brings dishonour upon all the beauty of our Holy Mother Church.

After having mentioned all these things before the council of the nations and our Holy Father the Pope, we are endowed with all power to assist and give orders to put an end to and exterminate forever this dangerous and mortal heresy. … He is an obstinate, schismatic heretic, and we want him to be considered as such by all of you. … [W]e want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic … Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

Portrait of Luther disguised as Junker Jörg in 1521 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony (r. 1486-1525), Luther’s home state, realised the danger his subject was in and staged a kidnapping as Luther headed back to Wittenberg. Frederick ensured that the hired men did not tell him where Luther had been hidden (it was at Wartburg Castle) so that Frederick would not have to lie to the Emperor. Safe in the castle, Luther grew his hair and his beard, took the name Junker Jörg (The Knight George), and set about translating the New Testament into German. The Holy Roman Empire was complex enough, and without modern surveillance and other technologies its repressive apparatus was weak enough, that even a most-wanted heretic could easily evade the World Emperor, especially since he had official collaboration in the ruse. While Luther hid as an outlaw for about a year, other men filled the void, and the printing press he had put to such effective use would be taken up as the Protestants’ primary weapon. The Reformation had begun; soon would come the Counter-Reformation and more than a century of sectarian warfare until exhaustion brought respite.[10]

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[1] An imperial diet in the Holy Roman Empire was a forum to discuss and negotiate policy.

[2] Alberto Melloni [ed.] (2017), Martin Luther: A Christian between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017).

[3] Melloni, Martin Luther

[4] Melloni, Martin Luther

[5] Melloni, Martin Luther; Carlos Eire (2016), Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, pp. 176-7.

[6] Stephen Lahey (2019), The Hussites.

[7] Melloni, Martin Luther

[8] Melloni, Martin Luther

[9] Eire, Reformations, p. 176.

[10] Eire, Reformations, pp. 177-8.

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