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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 6 — Luther put under the ban of the empire

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Luther's Supplications – Conducted to the Diet – The Crowd – Words of Encouragement – Splendor of the Diet-Significance of Luther's Appearance before it – Chancellor Eccius – Luther asked touching his Books – Owns their Authorship – Asked to Retract their Opinions – Craves Time to give an Answer – A Day's Delay granted – Charles's First Impressions of Luther – Morning of the 18th of May – Luther's Wrestlings–His Weakness – Strength not his own – Second Appearance before the Diet – His Speech – Repeats it in Latin–No Retractation – Astonishment of the Diet – The Two Great Powers.

NEXT morning–Wednesday, the 17th of April–at eight o'clock, the hereditary Marshal of the Empire, Ulrich von Pappenheim, cited Luther to appear, at four of the afternoon, before his Imperial Majesty and the States of the Empire. An important crisis, not only in the life of Luther, but also in the history of that Reformation which he had so recently inaugurated, was fast approaching, and the Reformer prepared himself to meet it with all the earnestness that marked his deeply religious nature. He remained all forenoon within doors, spending most of the time in prayer. His supplications and the moans that accompanied them were audible outside his chamber door. From kneeling before the throne of the Eternal God, with whom lay the issues of the coming strife, Luther rose up to stand before the throne of Charles. At four the Marshal of the Empire, accompanied by a herald, returned, and Luther set out with them to the Diet. But it was no easy matter to find their way to the town-hall, where the princes were assembled. The crowd in the streets was greater than on the previous day.

Every window had its group of faces; every house-top had its cluster of spectators, many of whom manifested considerable enthusiasm as they caught sight of the Reformer. The marshal with his charge had proceeded but a little way, when he found that he would never be able to force a passage through so dense a multitude. He entered a private dwelling, passed out at the back door and conducting Luther through the gardens of the Knights of Rhodes, brought hint to the town-hall; the people rushing down alleys, or climbing to the roofs, to catch a glimpse of the monk as he passed on to appear before Charles.

Arrived at the town-hall they found its entrance blocked up by a still denser crowd. The soldiers had to clear a way by main force. In the vestibule and ante-chambers of the hall every inch of space, every recess and window-sill was occupied by courtiers and their friends, to the number of not less than 5,000–Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and other nationalities.

As they were elbowing their way, and were now near the door at which they were to be ushered into the presence of the Diet, a hand was laid upon Luther's shoulder. It was that of the veteran George Freundsberg, whose name was a synonym with his countrymen for gallantry. He had ere this been in many a hard fight, but never, he felt, had he been in so hard a one as that to which the man on whose shoulder his hand now rested was advancing. "My monk, my good monk," said the soldier, "you are now going to face greater peril than any of us have ever encountered on the bloodlest field; but if you are right, and feel sure of it, go on, and God will fight for you." [1] Hardly had these words been uttered, when the door opened, and Luther passed in and stood before the august assembly.

The first words which reached his ear after he had entered the Diet, whispered to him by someone as he passed through the throng of princes to take his place before the throne of Charles, were cheering: "But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what you shall speak, for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak;" while other voices said, "Fear not them that can kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." Thus were the hopes which he expressed when he alighted at his hotel-door fulfilled. God was with him, for this was His voice.

The sudden transition from the uneasy crowd to the calm grandeur of the Diet had its effect upon him. For a moment he seemed intimidated and bewildered. He felt all eyes suddenly turned upon him; even the emperor scrutinised him keenly. But the agitation of the Reformer quickly passed, and his equanimity and composure returned. Luther advanced till he stood in front of the throne of Charles.

"Never," says D'Aubigne, "had man appeared before so imposing an assembly. The Emperor Charles V., whose sovereignty extended over great part of the old and new worlds; his brother the Archduke Ferdinand; six electors of the Empire, most of whose descendants now wear the kingly crown; twenty-four dukes, the majority of whom were independent sovereigns over countries more or less extensive, and among whom were some whose names afterwards became formidable to the Reformation; the Duke of Alva and his two sons; eight margraves; thirty archbishops, bishops, and abbots; seven ambassadors, including those from the Kings of France and England; the deputies of ten free cities; a great number of princes, counts, and sovereign barons; the Papal nuncios–in all two tlundred and four persons: such was the imposing court before which appeared Martin Luther.

"This appearance was of itself a signal victory over the Papacy. The Pope had condemned the man, and

he was now standing before a tribunal which, by this very act, set itself above the Pope. The Pope had laid him under an interdict, and cut him off from all human society, and yet he was summoned in respectful language, and received before the most august assembly in the world. The Pope had condemned him to perpetual silence, and he was now about to speak before thousands of attentive hearers drawn together from the furthest parts of Christendom. An immense revolution had thus been effected by Luther's instrumentality. Rome was already descending from her throne, and it was the voice of a monk that caused this humiliation." [2]

Let us take a nearer view of the scene as it now presented itself to the eyes of Luther. Chief in this assemblage of the powers spiritual and temporal of Christendom, sat the emperor. He wore the Spanish dress, his only ornaments being the usual ostrich-plume, and a string of pearls circling his breast, from which depended the insignia of the Golden Fleece. A step lower than the imperial platform, on a chair of state, sat his brother, Archduke Ferdinand. On the right and left of the throne were the six electors of the Empire–the three ecclesiastical electors on the emperor's right, and the three secular electors on his left. At his feet sat the two Papal nuncios–on this side Caraccioli, and on that Aleander. On the floor in front of the imperial seat was the table at which were the clerks and Dr. Eccius, who interrogated Luther, and who is not to be confounded with the Dr. Eck with whom the Reformer held the disputation at Leipsic. From the table extending backwards to the wall were rows of benches, which were occupied by the members of the Diet, princes, counts, archbishops, and bishops, the deputies of the towns and the ambassadors of foreign States. Here and there at various points of the hall were stationed guards, with polished armor and glittering halberds.

The sun was near his setting. His level rays, pouring in at the windows and falling in rich mellow light on all within, gave additional splendor to the scene. It brought out in strong relief the national costumes, and variously coloured dresses and equipments, of the members of the Diet. The yellow silken robes of the emperor, the velvet and ermine of the electors, the red hat and scarlet gown of the cardinal, the violet robe of the bishop, the rich doublet of the knight, covered with the badges of his rank or valor, the more sombre attire of the city deputy, the burnished steel of the warrior– all showed to advantage in the chastened radiance which was now streaming in from the descending luminary. In the midst of that scene, which might have been termed gay but for its overwhelming solemnity, stood Luther in his monk's frock.

John Eck or Eccius, Chancellor of the Archbishop of Treves, [3] and spokesman of the Diet, rose in deep silence, and in a sonorous voice repeated, first in Latin and then in German, the following words: "Martin Luther, his sacred and invincible Majesty has cited you before his throne, with advice and counsel of the States of the Holy Roman Empire, to answer two questions. First, do you acknowledge these books," pointing with his finger to a pile of volumes on the table, "to have been written by you? Secondly, are you prepared to retract and disavow the opinions you have advanced in them? [4]

Luther was on the point of owning the author-ship of the books, when his friend Schurf, the jurist, hastily interposed. "Let the titles of the books be read," said he.

The Chancellor Eck advanced to the table, and read, one after another, the titles of the volumes–about twenty in all. [5]

This done, Luther now spoke. His bearing was respectful, and his voice low. Some members of the Diet thought that it trembled a little; and they fondly hoped that a retractation was about to follow.

The first charge he frankly acknowledged.

"Most gracious Emperor, and most gracious Princes and Lords," said he, "the books that have just been named are mine. As to the second, seeing it is a question which concerns the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God than which nothing is greater in heaven or in earth–is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I entreat your imperial Majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may reply without offending against the Word of God." [6]

Nothing could have been more wise or more becoming in the circumstances. The request for delay, however, was differently interpreted by the Papal members of the Diet. He is breaking his fall, said they–he will retract. He has played the heretic at Wittemberg, he will act the part of the penitent at Worms. Had they seen deeper into Luther's character, they would have come to just the opposite conclusion. This pause was the act of a man whose mind was thoroughly made up, who felt how unalterable and indomitable was his resolve, and who therefore was in no haste to proclaim it, but with admirable self-control could wait for the time, the form, the circumstances in which to make the avowal so that its full and concentrated strength might be felt, and it might appear to all to be irrevocable.

The Diet deliberated. A day's delay was granted the monk. Tomorrow at this time must he appear again before the emperor and the assembled estates, and give his

final answer. Luther bowed; and instantly the herald was by his side to conduct him to his hotel.

The emperor had not taken his eyes off Luther all the time he stood in his presence. His worn frame, his thin visage, which still bore traces of recent illness, and, as Pallavicino has the candor to acknowledge, "the majesty of his address, and the simplicity of his action and costume," which contrasted strongly with the theatrical airs and the declamatory address of the Italians and Spaniards, produced on the young emperor an unfavorable impression, and led to a depreciatory opinion of the Reformer.

"Certainly," said Charles, turning to one of his courtiers as the Diet was breaking up, "certainly that monk will never make a heretic of me." [7]

Scarcely had the dawn of the 18th of April (1521) broke, when the two parties were busy preparing for the parts they were respectively to act in the proceedings of a day destined to influence so powerfully the condition of after-ages. The Papal faction, with Aleander at its head, had met at an early hour to concert their measures. [8] Nor was this wakeful activity on one side only. Luther, too, "prevented the dawning, and cried."

We shall greatly err if we suppose that it was an iron firmness of physical nerve, or great intrepidity of spirit, that bore Luther up and carried him through these awful scenes; and we shall not less err if we suppose that he passed through them without enduring great suffering of soul. The services he was destined to perform demanded a nature exquisitely strung, highly emotional, as well as powerfully reflective, with a full complement of the truest sympathies and tenderest sensibilities. But such a constitution renders its possessor, to a proportional extent, liable to the access of tormenting anxieties and gloomy forecastings. There were moments in which Luther gave way to these feelings. That they did not crush him, was owing to an influence higher far than his natural powers, which filled his soul and sustained him till the crisis had passed. The sweet, gracious, omnipotent Spirit of God descended upon him, and shed a divine serenity and strength into his mind; but so sweetly and gently did it infuse itself into, and work along with, his own natural faculties, that Luther was sensible of the indwelling influence only by his feeling that–to use Melancthon's beautiful words–"he was more than himself." He was also made sensible of this by the momentary withdrawal at times of this upholding power. [9] Then he was again simply himself weak as other men; and difficulties would of a sudden thicken around him, and dangers would all at once rise like so many giants in his path, and threaten him with destruction. So did it befall him on the morning of this eventful day. He felt as if he were forsaken. A horror of great darkness filled his soul; he had come to Worms to perish.

It was not the thought that he would be condemned and led to the stake that shook the Reformer on the morning of his second appearance before the Imperial Diet. It was something more terrible than to die–than to die a hundred times. The crisis had come, and he felt himself unable to meet it. The upholding power which had sustained him in his journey thither, and which had made the oft-repeated threat of foe, and the gloomy anticipation of friend, as ineffectual to move him as ocean's spray is to overturn the rock, had been withdrawn. What will he do? He sees a terrible catastrophe approaching; he will falter before the Diet; he will wreck his cause; he will blast the hopes of future ages; and the enemies of Christ and the Gospel will triumph.

Let us draw near to his closet-door, and hear his groans and strong cryings! They reveal to us the deep agony of his soul.

He has already been some considerable while engaged in prayer. His supplication is drawing to a close.

"O God! my God, hearest thou me not?... My God, art thou dead?... No! thou canst not die. Thou hidest thyself only. Thou hast chosen me for this work; I know it well!... Act then, O God!... Stand at my side, for the sake of thy well-beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield, and my strong tower."

Then comes an interval of silence. Again we hear his voice. His wrestlings once more become audible.

"Lord, where stayest thou?... O my God! where art thou? Come, come! I am ready... I am ready to lay down my life for thy truth... patient as a lamb. For it is the cause of justice–it is thine... I will never separate myself from thee; neither now, nor through eternity. And though the world should be filled with devils–though my body, which is still the work of thy hands, should be slain, should be racked on the wheel... cut in pieces... reduced to ashes... my soul is thine... Yes! thy Word is my assurance of it. My soul belongs to thee! It shall abide for ever with thee... Amen!... O God! help me... Amen!" [10]

This is one of those solemn points in history where the seen touches the unseen; where earth and heaven meet; where man the actor below, and the Great Actor above, come both together, side by side upon the stage. Such points in the line of history are rare; they occur only at long intervals, but they do occur. The veil is rent; a hand is stretched out; a light

breaks in as from a world separated indeed from that on which the terrestrial actors are placed, yet lying at no great distance from it, and the reader of history at such moments feels as if he were nearing the very precincts of the Eternal Throne, and walking on mysterious and holy ground.

Luther now rises from his knees, and in the calm reigning in his soul feels that already he has received an answer to his prayer. He sits down to arrange his thoughts, to draft, in outline, his defense, and to search in Holy Scripture for passages wherewith to fortify it. This task finished, he laid his left hand upon the sacred volume, which lay open on the table before him, and raising his right hand to heaven, he swore to remain ever faithful to the Gospel, and to confess it, even should he have to seal his confession with his blood. After this the Reformer experienced a still deeper peace.

At four of the clock, the grand marshal and the herald presented themselves. Through crowded streets, for the excitement grew greater with each passing hour, was the Reformer conducted to the town-hall. On arriving in the outer court they found the Diet in deep deliberation. When Luther should be admitted no one could say. One hour passed, then another; [11] the Reformer was still standing amid the hum and clamor of the multitude that filled the area. So long a delay, in such circumstances, was fitted to exhaust him physically, and to ruffle and distract him mentally.

But his tranquillity did not for a moment forsake him. He was in a sanctuary apart, communing with One whom the thousands around him saw not. The night began to fall; torches were kindled in the hall of the assembly. Through the ancient windows came their glimmering rays, which, mingling with the lights of evening, curiously speckled the crowd that filled the court, and imparted an air of quaint grandeur to the scene.

At last the door opened, and Luther entered the hall. If this delay was arranged, as some have conjectured, by Aleander, in the hope that when Luther presented himself to the Diet he would be in a state of agitation, he must have been greatly disappointed. The Reformer entered in perfect composure, and stood before the emperor with an air of dignity. He looked around on that assembly of princes, and on the powerful monarch who presided over them, with a calm, steadfast eye.

The chancellor of the Bishop of Treves, Dr. Eck, rose and demanded his answer. What a moment! The fate of ages hangs upon it. The emperor leans forward, the princes sit motionless, the very guards are still: all eager to catch the first utterances of the monk.

He salutes the emperor, the princes, and the lords graciously. He begins his reply in a full, firm, but modest tone. [12] Of the volumes on the table, the authorship of which he had acknowledged the day before, there were, he said, three sorts. There was one class of his writings in which he had expounded, with all simplicity and plainness, the first principles of faith and morals. Even his enemies themselves allowed that he had done so in a manner conformable to Scripture, and that these books were such as all might read with profit. To deny these would be to deny truths which all admit–truths which are essential to the order and welfare of Christian society.

In the second class of his productions he had waged war against the Papacy. He had attacked those errors in doctrine, those scandals in life, and those tyrannies in ecclesiastical administration and government, by which the Papacy had entangled and fettered the conscience, had blinded the reason, and had depraved the morals of men, thus destroying body and soul. They themselves must acknowledge that it was so. On every side they heard the cry of oppression. Law and obedience had been weakened, public morals polluted, and Christendom desolated by a host of evils temporal and spiritual. Should he retract this class of his writings, what would happen? Why, that the oppressor would grow more insolent, that he would propagate with greater licence than ever those pernicious doctrines which had already destroyed so many souls, and multiply those grievous exactions, those most iniquitous extortions which were impoverishing the substance of Germany and transferring its wealth to other countries. Nay, not only would the yoke that now weighs upon the Christian people be rendered heavier by his retractation, it would become in a sense legitimate, for his retractation would, in the circumstances, be tantamount to giving this yoke the sanction of his Serene Majesty, and of all the States of the Empire. He should be the most unhappy of men. He should thus have sanctioned the very iniquities which he had denounced, and reared a bulwark around those very oppressions which he had sought to overthrow. Instead of lightening the burden of his countrymen he should have made it ten-fold heavier, and himself would have become a cloak to cover every kind of tyranny.

There was a third class of his writings in which he said he had attacked those persons who put themselves forward as the defenders of the errors which had corrupted the faith, the scandals which had disgraced the priesthood, and the exactions which had robbed the people and ground them into the dust. These individuals he may not have treated with much ceremony; it may be that he had assailed them with an acrimony unbecoming his ecclesiastical profession; but although the manner may have been faulty, the thing itself was right, and he could not retract it, for that would be to justify his adversaries in all the impieties they had uttered, and all the iniquities they had done.

But he was a man, he continued, and not God, and he would defend himself not otherwise than Christ had done. If he had spoken

evil or written evil, let them bear witness of that evil. He was but dust and ashes, liable every moment to err, and therefore it well became him to invite all men to examine what he had written, and to object if they had aught against it. Let him but be convinced from the Word of God and right reason that he was in error, and he should not need to be asked twice to retract, he would be the first to throw his books into the flames. [13]

In conclusion, he warned this assembly of monarchs of a judgment to come: a judgment not beyond the grave only, but on this side of it: a judgment in time. They were on their trial. They, their kingdoms, their crowns, their dynasties, stood at a great Bar. It was to them the day of visitation; it was now to be determined whether they were to be planted in the earth, whether their thrones should be stable, and their power should continue to flourish, or whether their houses should be razed, and their thrones swept away in a deluge of wrath, in a flood of present evils, and of eternal desolation.

He pointed to the great monarchies of former ages–to Egypt, to Babylon, to Nineveh, so mighty in their day, but which, by fighting against God, had brought upon themselves utter ruin; and he counselled them to take warning by these examples if they would escape the destruction that overtook them. "You should fear," said he, "lest the reign of this young and noble prince, on whom (under God) we build such lofty expectations, not only should begin, but should continue and close, under the most gloomy auspices. I might speak of the Pharaohs, of the Kings of Babylon, and those of Israel, whose labors never more effectually contributed to their own destruction, than when they sought by counsels, to all appearance most wise, to strengthen their dominion. 'God removeth mountains and they know it not who overturneth them in his anger.'"

Having thus spoken, Luther sat clown and rested for a few minutes. He then rose once more, and repeated in Latin what he had said in German. The chancellor had made request that he do so, chiefly for the emperor's sake, who understood German but imperfectly. Luther spoke with equal facility and unabated animation in the second as in the first delivery of his address. He had occupied in all two hours. [14]

To their amazement, the princes found that a change had somehow come over the scene. Luther no longer stood at their bar–they had come suddenly to stand at his. The man who two hours before had seemed to them the accused, was now transformed into the judge–a righteous and awful judge–who, unawed by the crowns they wore and the armies they commanded, was entreating, admonishing, and reproving them with a severe but wholesome fidelity, and thundering forth their doom, should they prove disobedient, with a solemnity and authority before which they trembled. "Be wise, ye kings." What a light has the subsequent history of Europe shed upon the words of Luther! and what a monument are the Popish kingdoms at this day of the truth of his admonition!

At the conclusion of Luther's address Dr. Eck again rose, and with a fretted air and in peevish tones [15] said, addressing Luther:

"You have not answered the question put to you. We did not call you here to bring into question the authority of Councils; there can be no dispute on that point here. We demand a direct and precise answer: will you, or will you not, retract? "

Unmoved, Luther replied:

"Since your most Serene Majesty, and your High Mightiness, require from me a direct and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this. I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless, therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or on plain and clear grounds of reason, so that conscience shall bind me to make acknowledgment of error, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything contrary to conscience."

And then, looking round on the assembly, he said–and the words are among the sublimest in history–


These words still thrill us after three centuries. The impression which they made on the princes was overpowering, and a murmur of applause, as emphatic as the respect due to the imperial presence permitted, burst out in the Diet. Not from all, however; its Papal partisans were dismayed. The monk's NO had fallen upon them like a thunderbolt. From that hall that NO would go forth, and travel throughout Christendom, and it would awaken as it rolled onward the aspirations of liberty, and summon the nations to rise and break the yoke of Rome. Rome had lost the battle. After this it mattered absolutely nothing what her champions in the Diet might do with Luther. They might burn him, but to what avail? The fatal word had already been spoken; the decisive blow had been struck. A stake could neither reverse the defeat they had sustained, nor conceal, although it might enhance, the glory of the victory that Luther had won. Grievous, inexpressibly grievous, was their mortification. Could nothing be done?

Luther was bidden withdraw for a little; and during

his absence the Diet deliberated. It was easy to see that a crisis had arisen, but not so easy to counsel the steps by which it was to be met. They resolved to give him another opportunity of retracting. Accordingly he was called in, led again in front of the emperor's throne, and asked to pronounce over again–now the third time–his YES or NO. With equal simplicity and dignity he replied that "he had no other answer to give than that which he had already given." In the calmness of his voice, in the steadfastness of his eye, and in the leonine lines of his rugged German face, the assembly read the stern, indomitable resolve of his soul. Alas! for the partisans of the Papacy. The No could not be recalled. The die had been cast irrevocably.

There are two Powers in the world, and there are none other greater than they. The first is the Word of God without man, and the second is conscience within him. These two Powers, at Worms, came into conflict with the combined forces of the world. We have seen the issue. A solitary and undefended monk stood up as the representative of conscience enlightened and upheld by the Word of God. Opposed to him was a power which, wielding the armies of emperors, and the anathemas of Popes, yet met utter discomfiture. And so has it been all along in this great war.

Victory has been the constant attendant of the one power, defeat the as constant attendant of the other. Triumph may not always have come in the guise of victory; it may have come by the cord, or by the axe, or by the fiery stake; it may have worn the semblance of defeat; but in every case it has been real triumph to the cause, while the worldly powers which have set themselves in opposition have been slowly consumed by their own efforts, and have been undermining their dominion by the very successes which they thought were ruining their rival.

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