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Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scripture or evident reason (For I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me, Amen. (Martin Luther at Worms)
The Diet of Worms of 1521 was a four-month-long assembly of the princes and other officials of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation to advise and consult with twenty-one-year-old Emperor Charles V.
In the sixteenth century the diet was a civil assembly (Latin—Dieta Imperii; German—Reichstag) composed of three estates or colleges: 1) the princes who had a vote in electing the emperor (electors); 2) princes who did not have an electoral vote but ruled one of the German states and the ecclesiastical princes (archbishops); and 3) representatives of the imperial (free) cities. Questions or issues needing discussion or solution would be presented to the diet and would be discussed by the three colleges meeting separately. The colleges would come to consensus and report their opinion to the emperor, who would make a decision. The diets only met when summoned by the emperor.
The diet to be held in Worms in 1521 was set to begin in late January and would last until late May. The “Luther affair” was not on the agenda of the meeting. Because of the controversy swirling around the Wittenberg professor’s writings on papal authority and other Roman Catholic doctrines, Elector Frederick the Wise Prince of Saxony had met with the Emperor Charles and had given him a copy of Luther’s protest against Exsurge Domine. Frederick was given permission to bring Luther to the Diet in order to get a hearing. However, on February 10, the bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem arrived in Worms, as well as the report that Luther had defiantly burned the bull Exsurge Domine. Charles also had a copy of Luther’s attack on the Roman doctrine of the sacraments in Babylonian Captivity of The Church. Charles would not entertain a heretic at the Diet, so he withdrew his invitation.
During the first weeks of the Diet, Aleander, the papal nuncio or envoy at Germany, tried to persuade the Diet to have Luther’s books burned and to approve a mandate condemning Luther. Aleander had gone so far as to propose that Luther should be imprisoned until the Diet could decide what to do with him. However, the Holy Roman Empire had a constitution or charter, with a provision that the emperor could not condemn any person of the German nations without first giving the person a hearing. At his coronation the emperor had sworn to uphold the constitution.
Thus it was now necessary to bring Luther to Worms for some kind of a hearing, and the emperor, after March 6 sent a summons to Wittenberg which was not received in Wittenberg until March 29. The summons stated that the emperor and Diet “wish to obtain information from you about your doctrines and books” and promised safe-conduct to Worms and back. Luther was certainly justified in thinking that there would be a discussion, an opportunity to explain his views and decided to accept.
Luther, Nicolaus Amsdorf, another professor and a student traveling in a surrey-like carriage, set off on April 2 and arrived in Worms April 16 (about a five hour trip today). On the way through Saxony and also in Worms, Luther was honored and cheered by townspeople.
The next morning, Luther was informed that he was to appear at the Diet at four p.m. Before entering he was informed that he must not speak unless a question was asked of him. In the meeting room, there was a table with a pile of books on it. Luther was asked a double question: was he ready to acknowledge his authorship of these books and was he ready to revoke the heresies they contained? One of Luther’s colleagues suggested that the book-titles should all be read. Luther readily acknowledged them to be his writings. However, since the other question had to do with faith, he asked for more time to think about it and was given until the next afternoon.
Late the next afternoon, Luther was again brought before the emperor. It was clear that he had carefully thought through his speech—speaking first in Latin and then in German. He divided the books into three categories: 1) books he had written about faith and works; 2) books against the papacy and its human doctrines; 3) works he had written against individuals who supported the tyranny of Rome. In each case, Luther explained why he could not retract any of the books. In each case, he said, even Exsurge Domine acknowledged that there were some good things in the books. To revoke those good things would be to revoke the gospel. But he acknowledged that in some cases he may have spoken too strongly and confesses that he is not a saint.
After Luther had spoken he was asked for a simple answer. He then spoke the words with which we began: “my conscience has been taken captive by the word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant.”
According to contemporary sources, when Luther had spoken there was pandemonium in the room. E. G. Schwiebert writes: “The emperor, excited and angry, rose to his feet and exclaimed that he had had enough of such talk.” Luther, after leaving the palace, “raised his arms like a victorious knight and shouted: ‘I am through; I am through’” (505).
But he wasn’t through. On the following day, Charles called together the electors and a few other princes to decide what to do next. He was urged to go slowly. Though he had developed some strong feelings against Luther, he recognized that he had to honor the safe-conduct guarantee he had given Luther, but there would be no more discussion. Some of the wiser heads present may have realized that Luther had not been given a hearing on the substantive matters, authority of the papacy and the authority of God’s Word. Cardinal Albert of Mainz, with a select group was to meet with Luther and discuss his views.
On April 22-24, there were three meetings with Luther, with the participants varying some. None of the discussions got to substantive issues. The primary interest seemed to be to persuade Luther that it was not possible for one individual to be right against the hundreds of years of the accumulated wisdom of the church.
After writing a gracious note to the Emperor, on the morning of April 26, Luther was back in the carriage, headed for Wittenberg. Little did he know that he would not get back to Wittenberg until March 1522, and in the meantime would be out of circulation.
Note: Detailed accounts of these events are found in E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times, and Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation.
Rev. Erling Teigen