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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 5 — Luther before the Diet at Worms

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Luther's Resolution – Alarm in Germany – The Reformer sets out – His Reception at Leipsic – Erfurt – Preaches – Eisenach – Sickness – Auguries of Evil – Luther's Courage – Will the Safe-conduct be respected? – Fears of his Friends – They advise him not to come on – His Reply – Enters Worms – Crowd in the Street – An Ill-omened Pageant – The Princes throng his Apartment – Night and Sleep.

"WILL he come?" asked the members of the Diet of one another, when they had determined to summon Luther before them. The only man who did not hesitate a moment on that point was Luther himself. In the citation now in his hand he beheld the summons of a Greater than the emperor, and straightway he made ready to obey it. He knew that in the assembly before which he was to appear there was but one man on whom he could fully rely, the Elector Frederick. His safe-conduct might be violated as that of John Huss had been. In going to Worms he might be going to the stake. His opponents, he knew, thirsted for his blood, still not for a moment did he permit fear to make him waver in his resolution to go to Worms. There he should be able to bear testimony to the truth, and as to all beyond, it gave him no concern. "Fear not," he wrote to Spalatin, the elector's secretary, "that I shall retract a single syllable. With the help of Christ, I will never desert the Word on the battle-field." [1] "I am called," said he to his friends, when they expressed their fears; "it is ordered and decreed that I appear in that city. I will neither recant nor flee. I will go to Worms in spite of all the gates of hell, and the prince of the power of the air." [2]

The news that Luther had been summoned to the Diet spread rapidly through Germany, inspiring, wherever the tidings came, a mixed feeling of thankfulness and alarm. The Germans were glad to see the cause of their country and their Church assuming such proportions, and challenging examination and discussion before so august an assembly. At the same time they trembled when they thought what might be the fate of the man who was eminently their nation's representative, and by much the ablest champion of both its political and its religious rights. If Luther should be sacrificed nothing could compensate for his loss, and the movement which promised to bring them riddance of a foreign yoke, every year growing more intolerable, would be thrown back for an indefinite period. Many eyes and hearts, therefore, in all parts of Germany followed the monk as he went his doubtful way to Worms.

On the 2nd of April the arrangements for his departure were completed. He did not set out alone. Three of his more intimate friends, members of the university, accompanied him. These were the courageous Amsdorff– Schurff, professor of jurisprudence, as timid as Amsdorff was bold, yet who shrank not from the perils of this journey–and Suaven, a young Danish nobleman, who claimed, as the representative of the students, the honor of attending his master.

Most tender was the parting between Luther and Melancthon. In Luther the young scholar had found again his country, his friends, his all. Now he was about to lose him. Sad at heart, he yearned to go with him, even should he be going to martyrdom. He implored, but in vain; for if Luther should fall, who but Philip could fill his place and carry on his work? The citizens were moved as well as the professors and youth of the university. They thronged the street to witness the departure of their great townsman, and it was amidst their tears that Luther passed out at the gate, and took his way over the great plains that are spread out around Wittemberg.

The imperial herald, wearing his insignia and displaying the imperial eagle, to show under what guardianship the travelers journeyed, came first on horseback; after him rode his servant, and closing the little cavalcade was the humble wagon which contained Luther and his friends. This conveyance had been provided by the magistrates of Wittemberg at their own cost, and, provident of the traveller's comfort, it was furnished with an awning to shade him from the sun or cover him from the rain. [3]

Everywhere, as they passed along, crowds awaited the arrival of the travelers. Villages poured out their inhabitants to see and greet the bold monk. At the gates of those cities where it was known that Luther would halt, processions, headed by the magistrates, waited to bid him welcome. There were exceptions, however, to the general cordiality. At Leipsic the Reformer was presented with simply the customary cup of wine, as much as to say, "Pass on." [4] But generally the population were touched with the heroism of the journey. In Luther they beheld a man who was offering himself on the altar of his country, and as they saw him pass they heaved a sigh as over one who should never return. His path was strewed with hints and warnings of coming fate, partly the fears of timid friends, and partly the menaces of enemies who strove by every means in their power to stop his journey, and prevent his appearance at the Diet.

His entrance into Erfurt, the city where he had come to the knowledge of the truth, and on the streets of which he had begged as a monk, was more like that of a warrior returning from a victorious campaign, than a humble doctor going to answer a charge of heresy. Hardly had he come in sight of its steeples, when a numerous cavalcade, composed of the members of the senate, the university, and two thousand burghers, [5] met him

and escorted him into the city. Through streets thronged with spectators he was conducted to the old familiar building so imperishably associated with his history, the convent of the Augustines. On the Sunday after Easter he entered its great church, the door of which he had been wont, when a friar, to open, and the floor of which he had been wont to sweep out; and from its pulpit he preached to an overflowing crowd, from the words so suitable to the season, "Peace be unto you" (John 20:19). Let us quote a passage ofhis sermon. Of the Diet–of the emperor, of himself, not a word: from beginning to end it is Christ and salvation that are held forth.

"Philosophers, doctors, and writers," said the preacher, "have endeavored to teach men the way to obtain everlasting life, and they have not succeeded. I will now tell it to you.

"There are two kinds of works–works not of ourselves, and these are good: our own works, they are of little worth. One man builds a church; another goes on a pilgrimage to St. Iago of Compostella, or St. Peter's; a third fasts, takes the cowl, and goes bare-foot; another does something else. All these works are nothingness, and will come to naught, for our own works have no virtue in them.

But I am now going to tell you what is the true work. God has raised one Man from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ, that he might destroy death, expiate sin, and shut the gates of hell. This is the work of salvation.

"Christ, has vanquished! This is the joyful news! and we are saved by his work, and not by our own... Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'Peace be unto you! behold my hands'–that is to say, Behold, O man! it is I, I alone, who have taken away thy sins, and ransomed thee; and now thou hast peace, saith the Lord." [6]

Such was the Divine wisdom which Luther dispensed to the men of Erfurt. It was ill their city that he had learned it; and well might he have added what the centurion said of his liberty: "With a great sum have I obtained this knowledge, which now I freely give to you."

Traversing ground every foot-breadth of which was familiar as forming the scene of his childhood, he came soon after to Eisenach, the city of the good "Shunammite." It must have called up many memories. Over it towered the Wartburg, where the Reformer was to open the second stage of his career, although this was hidden as yet. At every step his courage was put to the test. The nearer he drew to Worms the louder grew the threats of his enemies, the greater the fears of his friends. "They will burn you and reduce your body to ashes, as they did that of John Huss," said one to him. His reply was that of a hero, but it was clothed in the grand imagery of the poet. "Though they should kindle a fire," said he, "all the way from Worms to Wittemberg, the flames of which reached to heaven, I would walk through it in the name of the Lord, I would appear before them, I would enter the jaws of this Behemoth, and confess the Lord Jesus Christ between his teeth."

All the way from Eisenach to Frankfort-on-the Maine, Luther suffered from sickness. [7] This however produced no faintness of spirit. If health should serve him, well; but if not, still his journey must be performed; he should be carried to Worms in his bed. As to what might await him at the end of his journey he bestowed not a thought. He knew that he who preserved alive the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace still lived. If it was His pleasure he would, despite the rage of his foes, return safe from Worms; but if a stake awaited him there, he rejoiced to think that the truth would not perish with his ashes. With God he left it whether the Gospel would be better served by his death or by his life, only he would rather that the young emperor should not begin his reign by shedding his blood; if he must die, let it be by the hands of the Romans.

The Roman party had hoped that the monk would not dare set foot within the gates of Worms. [8] They were told that he was on the road, but they did not despair by intrigues and menaces to make him turn back. They little knew the man they were trying to affright. To their dismay Luther kept his face steadfastly toward Worms, and was now almost under its walls. His approaching footsteps, coming nearer every hour, sounded, as it were, the knell of their power, and caused them greater terror than if a mighty army had been advancing against them.

Whispers began now to circulate in Worms that the Diet was not bound to respect the safe-conduct of a heretic. This talk coming to the ears of Luther's friends gave them great uneasiness. Was the perfidy of Constance to be repeated? Even the elector shared in the prevalent alarm; for Spalatin sent to Luther, who was now near the city, to say to him not to enter.

Fixing his eyes on the messenger, Luther replied, "Go and tell your master that even should there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the house-tops, still I will enter it." [9] This was the sorest assault of all, coming as it did from one of his most trusted friends; but he vanquished it as he had done all previous ones, and what remained of his journey was done in peace.

It was ten o'clock in the morning of the 16th of April, when the old towers of Worms rose between him and the horizon. Luther, says Audin, sitting up in his car, began to

sing the hymn which he had composed at Oppenheim two days before, "A strong Tower is our God." [10] The sentinel on the look-out in the cathedral tower, descrying the approach of the cavalcade, sounded his trumpet. The citizens were at dinner, for it was now mid-day, but when they heard the signal they rushed into the street, and in a few minutes princes, nobles, citizens, and men of all nations and conditions, mingling in one mighty throng, had assembled to see the monk enter. To the last neither friend nor foe had really believed that he would come. Now, however, Luther is in Worms.

The order of the cavalcade was the same as that in which it had quitted Wittemberg. The herald rode first, making way with some difficulty through the crowded street for the wagon in which, shaded by the awning, sat Luther in his monk's gown, [11] his face bearing traces of his recent illness, but there was a deep calm in the eyes whose glance Cardinal Cajetan liked so ill at Augsburg.

The evil auguries which had haunted the monk at every stage of his journey were renewed within the walls of Worms. Pressing through the crowd came a person in grotesque costume, displaying a great cross, such as is carried before the corpse when it is being borne to the grave, and chanting, in the same melancholy cadence in which mass is wont to be sung for the dead, this doleful requiem–

"Advenisti, O desiderabilis!
Quem expectabamus in tenebris!" [12]

Those who arranged this ill-omened pageant may have meant it for a little grim pleasantry, or they may have intended to throw ridicule upon the man who was advancing single-handed to do battle with both the temporal and spiritual powers; or it may have been a last attempt to quell a spirit which no former device or threat had been able to affright. But whatever the end in view, we recognize in this strange affair a most fitting, though doubtless a wholly undesigned, representation of the state and expectancies of Christendom at that hour. Had not the nations waited in darkness– darkness deep as that of those who dwell among the dead–for the coming of a deliverer? Had not such a deliverer been foretold? Had not Huss seen Luther's day a century off, and said to the mourners around his stake, as the patriarchs on their deathbed, "I die, but God will surely visit you?"

The "hundred years" had revolved, and now the deliverer appears. He comes in humble guise–in cowl and frock of monk. He appears to many of his own age as a Greater appeared to His, "a root out of a dry ground."

How can this poor despised monk save us? men asked. But he brought with him that which far transcends the sword of conqueror–the Word, the Light; and before that Light fled the darkness. Men opened their eyes, and saw that already their fetters, which were ignorance and superstition, were rent. They were free.

The surging crowd soon pushed aside the bearer of the black cross, and drowned his doleful strains in the welcome which they accorded the man who, contrary to the expectation of every one, had at last entered their gates. Luther's carriage could advance at only a slow pace, for the concourse on the streets was greater than when the emperor had entered a few days previously. The procession halted at the hotel of the Knights of Rhodes, which conveniently adjoined the hall of the Diet. "On descending from his car," says Pallavicino, "he said bravely, 'God will be for me.'" [13]

This reveals to us the secret of Luther's courage.

After his recent illness, and the fatigue of his journey, now continued for fourteen days, the Reformer needed rest. The coming day, too, had to be thought of; eventful as the day now closing had been, the next would be more eventful still. But the anxiety to see the monk was too great to permit him so much as an hour's repose. Scarcely had he taken possession of his lodgings when princes, dukes, counts, bishops, men of all ranks, friends and foes, besieged his hotel and crowded into his apartments. When one relay of visitors had been dismissed, another waited for admission. In themidst of that brilliant throng Luther stood unmoved. He heard and replied to all their questions with calmness and wisdom. Even his enemies could not withhold their admiration at the dignity with which he bore himself. Where has the miner's son acquired those manners which princes might envy, that courage which heroes might strive in vain to emulate, and where has he learnt that wisdom which has seduced, say some– enlightened, say others–so many thousands of his countrymen, and which none of the theologians of Rome have been able to withstand? To friend and foe alike he was a mystery. Some revered him, says Pallavicino, as a prodigy of knowledge, others looked upon him as a monster of wickedness; the one class held him to be almost divine, the other believed him to be possessed by a demon. [14]

This crowd of visitors, So varied in rank and so different in sentiments, continued to press around Luther till far into the night. They were now gone, and the Reformer was left alone. He sought his couch, but could not sleep. The events of the day had left him excited and restless. He touched his lute; he sang a verse of a favourite hymn; he approached the window and opened the casement. Beneath him were the roofs of the now silent city; beyond its walls, dimly descried, was the outline of the great valley through which the Rhine pours its floods; above him was the awful, fathomless, and silent vault. He lifted his eyes to it, as was his wont when his thoughts troubled him. [15]

There were the stars, fulfilling their courses far above the tumults of earth, yet far beneath that throne on which sat a greater King than the monarch before whom he was to appear on the morrow. He felt, as he gazed, a sense of sublimity filling his soul, and bringing with it a feeling of repose. Withdrawing his gaze, and closing the casement, he said, "I will lay me down and take quiet rest, for thou makest me dwell in safety."

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