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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 6 — From the Leipsic Disputation to the Diet at Worms, 1521

Chapter 4 — Luther's journey and arrival at Worms

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A Check – Aleander Pleads before the Diet – Protestantism more Frightful than Mahommedanism – Effect of Aleander's Speech – Duke George – The Hundred and One Grievances – The Princes Demand that Luther be Heard – The Emperor resolves to Summon him to the Diet – A Safe-conduct–Maunday-Thursday at Rome – The Bull In Caena Domini – Luther's Name Inserted in it – Luther comes to the Fulness of Knowledge – Arrival of the Imperial Messenger at Wittemberg – The Summons.

YET the storm did not burst. We have seen produced the Pope's bull of condemnation; we have heard read the emperor's edict empowering the temporal arm to execute the spiritual sentence; we have only a few days to wait, so it seems, and we shall see the Reformer dragged to the stake and burned. But to accomplish this one essential thing was yet lacking. The constitution of the Empire required that Charles, before proceeding further, should add that "if the States knew any better course, he was ready to hear them." The majority of the German magnates cared little for Luther, but they cared a good deal for their prescriptive rights; they hated the odious tyranny and grinding extortions of Rome, and they felt that to deliver up Luther was to take the most effectual means to rivet the yoke that galled their own necks. The princes craved time for deliberation. Aleander was furious; he saw the prey about to be plucked from his very teeth. But the emperor submitted with a good grace. "Convince this assembly," said the politic monarch to the impatient nuncio. It was agreed that Aleander should be heard before the Diet on the 13th of February.

It was a proud day for the nuncio. The assembly was a great one: the cause was even greater. Aleander was to plead for Rome, the mother and mistress of all churches: he was to vindicate the princedom of Peter before the assembled puissances of Christendom. He had the gift of eloquence, and he rose to the greatness of the occasion. Providence ordered it that Rome should appear and plead by the ablest of her orators in the presence of the most august of tribunals, before she was condemned. The speech has been recorded by one of the most trustworthy and eloquent of the Roman historians, Pallavicino [1]

The nuncio was more effective in those parts of his speech in which he attacked Luther, than in those in which he defended the Papacy. His charges against the Reformer were sweeping and artful. He accused him of laboring to accomplish a universal ruin; of striking a blow at the foundations of religion by denying the doctrine of the Sacrament; of seeking to raze the foundations of the hierarchy by affirming that all Christians are priests; of seeking to overturn civil order by maintaining that a Christian is not bound to obey the magistrate; of aiming to subvert the foundations of morality by his doctrine of the moral inability of the will; and of unsettling the world beyond the grave by denying purgatory. The portion of seeming truth contained in these accusations made them the more dangerous. "A unanimous decree," said the orator in closing his speech, "from this illustrious assembly will enlighten the simple, warn the imprudent, decide the waverers, and give strength to the weak... But if the axe is not laid at the root of this poisonous tree, if the death-blow is not struck, then... I see it overshadowing the heritage of Jesus Christ with its branches, changing our Lord's vineyard into a gloomy forest, transforming the kingdom of God into a den of wild beasts, and reducing Germany into that state of frightful barbarism and desolation which has been brought upon Asia by the superstition of Mahomet. [2] I should be willing," said he, with consummate art, "to deliver my body to the flames, if the monster that has engendered this growing heresy could be consumed at the same stake, and mingle his ashes with mine." [3]

The nuncio had spoken for three hours. The fire of his style, and the enthusiasm of his delivery, had roused the passions of the Diet; and had a vote been taken at that moment, the voices of all the members, one only excepted, would have been given for the condemnation of Luther. [4] The Diet broke up, however, when the orator sat down, and thus the victory which seemed within the reach of Rome escaped her grasp.

When the princes next assembled, the fumes raised by the rhetoric of Aleander had evaporated, and the hard facts of Roman extortion alone remained deeply imprinted in the memories of the German barons. These no eloquence could efface. Duke George of Saxony was the first to present himself to the assembly. His words had the greater weight from his being known to be the enemy of Luther, and a hater of the evangelical doctrines, although a champion of the rights of his native land and a foe of ecclesiastical abuses, he ran his eye rapidly over the frightful traces which Roman usurpation and venality had left on Germany. Annats were converted into dues; ecclesiastical benefices were bought and sold; dispensations were procurable for money; stations were multiplied in order to fleece the poor; stalls for the sale of indulgences rose in every street; pardons were earned not by prayer or works of charity, but by paying the market-price of sin; penances were so contrived as to lead to a repetition of the offence; fines were made exorbitant to increase the revenue arising from them; abbeys and monasteries were emptied by commendams, and their wealth transported across the Alps to enrich foreign bishops; civil causes were drawn before ecclesiastical tribunals: all which "grievous perdition of miserable souls" demanded a universal reform, which a General Council only could accomplish. Duke George in conclusion demanded that such should be convoked.

To direct past themselves the storm of indignation

which the archbishops and abbots [5] saw to be rising in the Diet, they laid the chief blame of the undeniable abuses, of which the duke had presented so formidable a catalogue, at the door of the Vatican. So costly were the tastes and so luxurious the habits of the reigning Pope, they hinted, that he was induced to bestow Church livings not on pious and learned men, but on jesters, falconers, grooms, valets, and whosoever could minister to his personal pleasures or add to the gaiety of his court. The excuse was, in fact, an accusation.

A committee was appointed by the Diet to draw up a list of the oppressions under which the nation groaned. [6] This document, containing a hundred and one grievances, was presented to the emperor at a subsequent meeting of the Diet, together with a request that he would, in fulflment of the terms of the capitulation which he had signed when he was crowned, take steps to effect a reformation of the specified abuses.

The Diet did not stop here. The princes demanded that Luther should be summoned before it. It were unjust, they said, to condemn him without knowing whether he were the author of the incriminated books, and without hearing what he had to say in defense of his opinions. [7] The emperor was compelled to give way, though he covered his retreat under show of doubting whether the books really were Luther's. He wished, he said, to have certainty on that point. Aleander was horror-struck at the emperor's irresolution. He saw the foundations of the Papacy shaken, the tiara trembling on his master's brow, and all the terrible evils he had predicted in his great oration, rushing like a devastating tempest upon Christendom. But he strove in vain against the emperor's resolve, and the yet stronger force behind it, in which that resolve had its birth–the feeling of the German people. [8] It was concluded in the Diet that Luther should be summoned. Aleander had one hope left, the only mitigating circumstance about this alarming affair, even that Luther would be denied a safe-conduct.

But this proposal he was ultimately unable to carry, [9] and on the 6th of March, 1521, the summons to Luther to present himself within twenty-one days before the Diet at Worms was signed by the emperor. Enclosed in the citation was a safe-conduct, addressed "To the honorable, our well-beloved and pious Doctor Hartin Luther, of the order of Augustines," [10] and commanding all princes, lords, magistrates, and others to respect this safe-conduct under pain of the displeasure of the Emperor and the Empire.

Gaspard Sturm, the imperial herald, was commissioned to deliver these documents to Luther and accompany him to Worms. [11]

The fiat has gone forth. It expresses the will and purpose of a Higher than Charles. Luther is to bear testimony to the Gospel, not at the stake, but on the loftiest stage the world can furnish. The master of so many kingdoms and the lords of so many provinces must come to Worms, and there patiently wait and obediently listen while the miner's son speaks to them. [12] While the imperial herald is on his way to bring hither the man for whom they wait, let us turn to see what is at that moment taking place at the opposite poles of Christendom:

Far separated as are Rome and Wittemberg, there is yet a link binding together the two. An unseen Power regulates the march of events at both places, making them advance by equal steps. What wonderful harmony under antagonism! Let us turn first to Rome. It is Maunday-Thursday. On the balcony of the Metropolitan Cathedral, arrayed for one of the grand ceremonies of his Church, sits the Pope. Around him stand attendant priests, bearing lighted torches; and beneath him, crowding in silence the spacious area, their knees bent and their heads uncovered, are the assembled Romans. Leo is pronouncing, as the wont is before the festival of Easter, the terrible bull In Coena Domini.

This is a very ancient bull. It has undergone, during successive Pontificates, various alterations and additions, with the view of rendering its scope more comprehensive and its excommunications more frightful. It has been called "the pick of excommunications." It was wont to be promulgated annually at Rome on the Thursday before Easter Sunday, hence its name the "Bull of the Lord's Supper." The bells were tolled, the cannon of St. Angelo were fired, and the crowd of priests that thronged the balcony around the Pope waved their tapers wildly, then suddenly extinguished them; in short, no solemnity was omitted that could add terror to the publication of the bull–superfluous task surely, when we think that a more frightful peal of cursing never rang out from that balcony, from which so many terrible excommunications have been thundered. All ranks and conditions of men, all nationalities not obedient to the Papal See, are most comprehensively and energetically cursed in the bull In Coena Domini. More especially are heretics of every name cursed. "We curse," said the Pope, "all heretics Cathari, Patarins, Poor Men of Lyons, Arnoldists, Speronists, Wickliffites, Hussites, Fratricelli;"–" because," said Luther, speaking aside, "they desired to possess the Holy Scriptures, and required the Pope to be sober and preach the Word of God." "This formulary," says Sleidan, "of excommunication coming afterwards into Luther's hands, he rendered it into High Dutch, besprinkling it with some very witty and satirical animadversions." [13]

This year a new name had been inserted in this curse, and a prominent place assigned it. It was the name of Martin Luther. Thus did Rome join him to all those witnesses for the truth who, in former ages, had fallen under her ban, and many of whom had perished in her fires. Casting him out of the Roman pale irrevocably, she united him with the Church spiritual and holy and catholic.

At the same

moment that Rome fulfils and completes her course, Luther fulfils and completes his. He has now reached his furthest point of theological and ecclesiastical advancement. Step by step he has all these years been going forward, adding first one doctrine, then another, to his store of acquired knowledge; and at the same time, and by an equal process, has he been casting off, one after another, the errors of Romanism. The light around him has been waxing clearer and ever clearer, and now he has come to the meridian of his day. In his cell he was made to feel that he was utterly fallen, and wholly without power to save himself. This was his first lesson. The doctrine of a free justification–salvation by grace–was next revealed to him. As he stood encompassed by the darkness of despair, caused by the combined sense of his utter ruin and his utter inability, this doctrine beamed out upon him from the page of Scripture. The revelation of it was to him the very opening of the gates of Paradise. From these initial stages he soon came to a clear apprehension of the whole of what constituted the Reformed system–the nature and end of Christ's obedience and death; the office and work of the Holy Spirit; the sanctification of men by the instrumentality of the Word; the relation of good works to faith; the nature and uses of a Sacrament; the constituent principle of the Church, even belief in the truth and union to Christ. This last, taken in connection with another great principle to the knowledge of which he had previously attained, the sole infallible authority of Scripture, emancipated him completely from a thraldom which had weighed heavily upon him in the earlier stages of his career, the awe, even, in which he stood of Rome as the Church of Christ, and the obedience which he believed he owed the Pontiff as head of the Church. The last link of this bondage was now gone. He stood erect in the presence of a power before which the whole of Christendom wellnigh still bowed down. The study of Paul's Epistles and of the Apocalypse, and the comparison of both with the history of the past, brought Luther about this time to the full and matured conviction that the Church of Rome as it now existed was the predicted "Apostacy," and that the dominion of the Papacy was the reign of Antichrist. It was this that broke the spell of Rome, and took for him the sting out of her curse. This was a wonderful training, and not the least wonderful thing in it was the exact coincidence in point of time between the maturing of Luther's views and the great crisis in his career. The summons to the Diet at Worms found him in the very prime and fullness of his knowledge.

On the 24th of March the imperial herald, Gaspard Sturm, arrived at Wittemberg, and put into the hands of Luther the summons of the emperor to appear before the Diet at Worms.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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