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December 10, 1520 was the deadline for Luther to retract his writings; he didn’t, but defiantly threw a copy of Exsurge Domine into a bonfire in which the University of Wittenberg students were burning papal papers and books. The final bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum, was signed in Rome on January 3, 1521, and sent to Worms where the Diet of the empire would be meeting from the end of January to mid-May. The bull arrived in Worms in early February and in mid-March, Luther was summoned to Worms. Luther and three others left for Worms at the end of March in a horse-drawn carriage and arrived on April 16.
Some years later, when speaking about his excommunication, Luther counted three of them:
In 1516 I began writing against the pope. In 1518 Doctor Staupitz released me from obedience to the order and left me alone at Augsburg. In 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated me from the church and this was the second release. In 1521 Kaiser Charles excommunicated me from his empire, and that was the third release. And the Lord took me up —Psalm 27:10 (Table Talk item 884, WAT,1,442).
In the first item, Luther stretches things a bit. At Augsburg, John Staupitz had joined Luther to offer some moral support in his appearance before Cajetan. When it appeared Luther and the others might be captured and taken to Rome, Staupitz, head of the Augustinian order in Germany, released Luther from his vows as an Augustinian monk—not to rid the order of a troublesome monk but to protect Luther from being forced to Rome. The outcome of that was to be feared since people still remembered the fate of John Hus, who was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415. Luther was given a horse and told to get quickly back to Saxony. That release from his vows is not really an excommunication, but it makes his point—he was cut off, but the Lord took him under His protection, an allusion to Psalm 27:10.
The second event, the papal excommunication, meant Luther was out of the communion of the Roman Catholic Church. However, on the third one, Luther stretches things a little bit again. After the dramatic scene at Worms, in the presence of the emperor, the papal nuncio (emissary) Aleander, and members of the Diet/parliament, Luther refused to recant. The next few days, Luther met with a committee, including some theologians who tried to reason with him sympathetically. When that failed, Luther, with a safe passage guarantee, left Worms. Luther may have had an idea that something was going to happen, but Elector Frederick certainly knew. It was arranged that the wagon would be stopped by apparent robbers, who would abduct Luther and take him to the elector’s Wartburg castle at Eisenach, where he would be safely hidden away for a time.
From the time Aleander arrived in Worms, he had been exerting pressure on the emperor to take the strongest action possible against Luther. Aleander had been a professor at the University of Paris and later served on the papal staff in Rome as the Vatican librarian. In 1519, Pope Leo X had sent Aleander as emissary to the coronation of Charles as emperor or Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation and to the 1521 Diet of Worms, the first Diet during the reign of Charles V. Aleander had previously been appointed by the pope along with John Eck to distribute the bull Exsurge Domine in Germany. Aleander, a scholastic theologian, became a bitter enemy of Luther, who had widely condemned scholastic theology.
After Luther left Worms, Aleander kept prodding the emperor and produced a draft of the edict banning Luther from the Holy Roman Empire. Of course, the emperor had no power of excommunication, but he certainly could expel a troublemaker from the empire. For Luther, who loved his Germany, being banned from Germany was a much worse fate than being banned from the Roman Catholic Church.
There were many members of the Diet who had varying degrees of sympathy for Luther, even if they didn’t fully agree with him. When Luther arrived in Worms, he was enthusiastically greeted by the citizens. Thus, it was unclear if Charles could get them to treat Luther so harshly. Ernst Schwiebert comments that “the emperor had no real power in Germany according to the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire… He needed the good will of the German Diet” (505), and “it was evident that the German estates would assert their constitutional right and refuse to permit a fellow German to be condemned without their approval and consent” (509).
And yet the Diet did approve of the Edict of Worms—by subterfuge. While the Diet was still in session, drafts of the edict were presented. Twice there were criticisms and the drafts were sent back to Aleander for changes. It became obvious that there was some opposition to the edict, especially among the electors. By May 12, Aleander presented the corrected copies (Latin and German) to Charles to be signed. By then, however, Charles saw that the edict would not be adopted with so many sympathetic to Luther present, so he set the draft aside and did not sign it.
The official copies of the edict signed by the Emperor were dated “May 8,” the date of the first draft. During the days after May 12, many members of the Diet were leaving for various reasons. On May 25, the Diet was officially closed. That evening, the emperor summoned those electors and others who were still in Worms and had the edict read. The next day, May 26, the emperor signed the original Latin and German copies of the Edict on copies retaining the May 8 date (Schwiebert 511). Thus, the edict was in some quarters, especially Lutheran, regarded as the illegitimate act of a “rump session.”
The edict was long (over eleven pages single-spaced), but most of that was narrative. The essence was that Martin Luther and his books and writings were subject to the edict, but the scope was much broader, applying also to Luther’s associates—to anyone who favored him in any way or who gave him refuge.
The specific crime was “High Treason,” which was itemized in the narrative. The punishment was “Confiscation and loss of body and belongings, fixed and moveable,” and the proceeds from what was seized were to be divided in half, one half for the church and the other half to “the accusers and denouncers.”
One outcome of the edict may well be that it broadened Luther’s audience, especially in the north of Germany. Schwiebert comments that “it was too unreasonable to be enforced” (512). However, even before the adoption of the Edict of Worms, Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick, was worried enough to have Luther hidden away in the Wartburg castle for ten months, which turned out to be a highly productive time for Luther. That will be our next topic.
See http://www.crivoice.org/creededictworms.html for the text of the Edict.
Detailed accounts of these events are found in E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times, and Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation.
-Prof. Emeritus Erling T. Teigen
Bethany Lutheran College