Martin Luther

History of the Christian Church
Volume VII, Chapter 3,

§ 55. Luther’s Testimony before the Diet.
April 17 and 18, 1521.
See Lit. in § 53.

On the day after his arrival, in the afternoon at four o’clock, Luther was led by the imperial marshal, Ulrich von Pappenheim, and the herald, Caspar Sturm, through circuitous side-streets, avoiding the impassable crowds, to the hall of the Diet in the bishop’s palace where the Emperor and his brother Ferdinand resided. He was admitted at about six o’clock. There he stood, a poor monk of rustic manners, yet a genuine hero and confessor, with the fire of genius and enthusiasm flashing from his eyes and the expression of intense earnestness and thoughtfulness on his face, before a brilliant assembly such as he had never seen: the young Emperor, six Electors (including his own sovereign), the Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers in Church and State. Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.

Dr. Johann von Eck, as the official of the Archbishop of Treves, put to him, in the name of the Emperor, simply two questions in Latin and German,—first, whether he acknowledged the books laid before him on a bench (about twenty-five in number) to be his own; and, next, whether he would retract them. Dr. Schurf, Luther’s colleague and advocate, who stood beside him, demanded that the titles of those books be read. This was done. Among them were some such inoffensive and purely devotional books as an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and of the Psalms.

Luther was apparently overawed by the August assembly, nervously excited, unprepared for a summary condemnation without an examination, and spoke in a low, almost inaudible tone. Many thought that he was about to collapse. He acknowledged in both languages the authorship of the books; but as to the more momentous question of recantation he humbly requested further time for consideration, since it involved the salvation of the soul, and the truth of the word of God, which was higher than any thing else in heaven or on earth.

We must respect him all the more for this reasonable request, which proceeded not from want of courage, but from a profound sense of responsibility.

The Emperor, after a brief consultation, granted him "out of his clemency" a respite of one day.

Aleander reported on the same day to Rome, that the heretical "fool" entered laughing, and left despondent; that even among his sympathizers some regarded him now as a fool, others as one possessed by the Devil; while many looked upon him as a saint full of the Holy Spirit; but in any case, he had lost much of his reputation.

The shrewd Italian judged too hastily. On the same evening Luther recollected himself, and wrote to a friend: "I shall not retract one iota, so Christ help me."

On Thursday, the 18th of April, Luther appeared a second and last time before the Diet.

It was the greatest day in his life. He never appeared more heroic and sublime. He never represented a principle of more vital and general importance to Christendom.

On his way to the Diet, an old warrior, Georg von Frundsberg, is reported to have clapped him on the shoulder, with these words of cheer: "My poor monk, my poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever done in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God’s name, and be of good courage: God will not forsake thee."

He was again kept waiting two hours outside the hall, among a dense crowd, but appeared more cheerful and confident than the day before. He had fortified himself by prayer and meditation, and was ready to risk life itself to his honest conviction of divine truth. The torches were lighted when he was admitted.

Dr. Eck, speaking again in Latin and German, reproached him for asking delay, and put the second question in this modified form:, Wilt thou defend all the books which thou dost acknowledge to be thine, or recant some part?"

Luther answered in a well-considered, premeditated speech, with modesty and firmness, and a voice that could be heard all over the hall.

After apologizing for his ignorance of courtly manners, having been brought up in monastic simplicity, he divided his books into three classes: (1) Books which simply set forth evangelical truths, professed-alike by friend and foe: these he could not retract. (2) Books against the corruptions and abuses of the papacy which vexed and martyred the conscience, and devoured the property of the German nation: these he could not retract without cloaking wickedness and tyranny. (3) Books against his popish opponents: in these he confessed to have been more violent than was proper, but even these he could not retract without giving aid and comfort to his enemies, who would triumph and make things worse. In defense of his books he could only say in the words of Christ:, "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?" If his opponents could convict him of error by prophetic and evangelical Scriptures, he would revoke his books, and be the first to commit them to the flames. He concluded with a warning to the young Emperor not to begin his reign by condemning the word of God, and pointed to the judgments over Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, and the ungodly kings of Israel.

He was requested to repeat his speech in Latin. This he did with equal firmness and with eyes upraised to heaven.

The princes held a short consultation. Eck, in the name of the Emperor, sharply reproved him for evading the question; it was useless, he said, to dispute with him about views which were not new, but had been already taught by Hus, Wiclif, and other heretics, and had been condemned for sufficient reasons by the Council of Constance before the Pope, the Emperor, and the assembled fathers. He demanded a round and direct answer, "without horns."

This brought on the crisis.

Luther replied, he would give an answer "with neither horns nor teeth." From the inmost depths of his conscience educated by the study of the word of God, he made in both languages that memorable declaration which marks an epoch in the history of religious liberty: —

"Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience."

So far the reports are clear and harmonious. What followed immediately after this testimony is somewhat uncertain and of less importance.

Dr. Eck exchanged a few more words with Luther, protesting against his assertion that Councils may err and have erred. "You can not prove it," he said. Luther repeated his assertion, and pledged himself to prove it. Thus pressed and threatened, amidst the excitement and confusion of the audience, he uttered in German, at least in substance, that concluding sentence which has impressed itself most on the memory of men: —

"Here I stand. [I can not do otherwise.] God help me! Amen."

The sentence, if not strictly historical, is true to the situation, and expresses Luther’s mental condition at the time,—the strength of his conviction, and prayer for God’s help, which was abundantly answered. It furnishes a parallel to Galileo’s equally famous, but less authenticated, "It does move, for all that" (E pur si muove).

The Emperor would hear no more, and abruptly broke up the session of the Diet at eight o’clock, amid general commotion.

On reaching his lodgings, Luther threw up his arms, and joyfully exclaimed, "I am through, I am through!" To Spalatin, in the presence of others, he said, "If I had a thousand heads, I would rather have them all cut off one by one than make one recantation."

The impression he made on the audience was different according to conviction and nationality. What some admired as the enthusiasm of faith and the strength of conviction, appeared to others as fanaticism and heretical obstinacy.

The Emperor, a stranger to German thought and speech, declared after the first hearing: "This man will never make a heretic of me." He doubted the authorship of the famous books ascribed to him. At the second hearing he was horrified at the disparagement of general Councils, as if a German monk could be wiser than the whole Catholic Church. The Spaniards and Italians were no doubt of the same opinion; they may have been repelled also by his lowly appearance and want of refined manners. Some of the Spaniards pursued him with hisses as he left the room. The papal legates reported that he raised his hands after the manner of the German soldiers rejoicing over a clever stroke, and represented him as a vulgar fellow fond of good wine. They praised the Emperor as a truly Christian and Catholic prince who assured them the next day of his determination to treat Luther as a heretic. The Venetian ambassador, otherwise impartial, judged that Luther disappointed expectations, and showed neither much learning, nor much prudence, nor was he blameless in life.

But the German delegates received a different impression. When Luther left the Bishop’s palace greatly exhausted, the old Duke Erik of Brunswick sent him a silver tankard of Eimbeck beer, after having first drunk of it himself to remove suspicion. Luther said, "As Duke Erik has remembered me to-day, may the Lord Jesus remember him in his last agony." The Duke thought of it on his deathbed, and found comfort in the words of the gospel: "Whosoever shall give unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, he shall in no wise lose his reward." The Elector Frederick expressed to Spalatin the same evening his delight with Luther’s conduct: "How excellently did Father Martin speak both in Latin and German before the Emperor and the Estates! He was bold enough, if not too much so." The cautious Elector would have been still better pleased if Luther had been more moderate, and not attacked the Councils. Persons of distinction called on him in his lodgings till late at night, and cheered him. Among these was the young Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who afterwards embraced the cause of the Reformation with zeal and energy, but did it much harm by his bigamy. After a frivolous jest, which Luther smilingly rebuked, he wished him God’s blessing.

The strongest sympathizers with Luther were outside of the Diet, among the common people, the patriotic nobles, the scholars of the school of Erasmus, and the rising generation of liberal men. As he returned from the Diet to his lodgings, a voice in the crowd was heard to exclaim: "Blessed be the womb that bare this son." Tonstal, the English ambassador, wrote from Worms, that "the Germans everywhere are so addicted to Luther, that, rather than he should be oppressed by the Pope’s authority, a hundred thousand of the people will sacrifice their lives." In the imperial chambers a paper was found with the words: "Woe to the nation whose king is a child" (Eccl. x. 16). An uprising of four hundred German knights with eight thousand soldiers was threatened in a placard on the city hall; but the storm passed away. Hutten and Sickingen were in the Emperor’s service. "Hutten only barks, but does not bite," was a saying in Worms.

The papal party triumphed in the Diet. Nothing else could be expected if the historic continuity of the Latin Church and of the Holy German Roman Empire was to be preserved. Had Luther submitted his case to a general council, to which in the earlier stages of the conflict he had himself repeatedly appealed, the result might have been different, and a moderate reform of the mediaeval Church under the headship of the Pope of Rome might have been accomplished; but no more. By denying the infallibility of a council, he openly declared himself a heretic, and placed himself in opposition to the universal opinion, which regarded ecumenical Councils, beginning with the first of Nicaea in 325, as the ultimate tribunal for the decision of theological controversies. The infallibility of the Pope was as yet an open question, and remained so till 1870, but the infallibility of a general council was at that time regarded as settled. A protest against it could only be justified by a providential mission and actual success.

It was the will of Providence to prepare the way, through the instrumentality of Luther, for independent church-organizations, and the development of new types of Christianity on the basis of the word of God and the freedom of thought.

§ 56. Reflections on Luther’s Testimony at Worms.

Luther’s testimony before the Diet is an event of world-historical importance and far-reaching effect. It opened an intellectual conflict which is still going on in the civilized world. He stood there as the fearless champion of the supremacy of the word of God over the traditions of men, and of the liberty of conscience over the tyranny of authority.

For this liberty, all Protestant Christians, who enjoy the fruit of his courage, owe him a debt of gratitude. His recantation could not, any more than his martyrdom, have stopped the Reformation; but it would have retarded its progress, and indefinitely prolonged the oppressive rule of popery.

When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death. At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history. This consideration furnishes the key for the proper appreciation of Luther’s determined stand at this historical crisis.

Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.

This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.

Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four ecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one ecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.

Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.

One man with the truth on his side is stronger than a majority in error, and will conquer in the end. Christ was right against the whole Jewish hierarchy, against Herod and Pilate, who conspired in condemning him to the cross. St. Paul was right against Judaism and heathenism combined, "unus versus mundum;" St. Athanasius, "the father of orthodoxy," was right against dominant Arianism; Galileo Galilei was right against the Inquisition and the common opinion of his age on the motion of the earth; Döllinger was right against the Vatican Council when, "as a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he protested against the new dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.

That Luther was right in refusing to recant, and that he uttered the will of Providence in hearing testimony to the supremacy of the word of God and the freedom of conscience, has been made manifest by the verdict of history.

§ 57. Private Conferences with Luther. The Emperors Conduct.

On the morning after Luther’s testimony, the Emperor sent a message—a sort of personal confession of faith—written by his own hand in French, to the Estates, informing them, that in consistency with his duty as the successor of the most Christian emperors of Germany and the Catholic kings of Spain, who had always been true to the Roman Church, he would now treat Luther, after sending him home with his safe-conduct, as an obstinate and convicted heretic, and defend with all his might the faith of his forefathers and of the Councils, especially that of Constance.

Some of the deputies grew pale at this decision; the Romanists rejoiced. But in view of the state of public sentiment the Diet deemed it expedient to attempt private negotiations for a peaceful settlement, in the hope that Luther might be induced to withdraw or at least to moderate his dissent from the general Councils. The Emperor yielded in spite of Aleander’s protest.

The negotiations were conducted chiefly by Richard von Greiffenklau, Elector and Archbishop of Treves, and at his residence. He was a benevolent and moderate churchman, to whom the Elector Frederick and Baron Miltitz had once desired to submit the controversy. The Elector of Brandenburg, Duke George of Saxony, Dr. Vehus (chancellor of the Margrave of Baden), Dr. Eck of Treves, Dean Cochlaeus of Frankfort, and the deputies of Strasburg and Augsburg, likewise took part in the conferences.

These men were just as honest as Luther, but they occupied the standpoint of the mediaeval Church, and could not appreciate his departure from the beaten track. The archbishop was very kind and gracious to Luther, as the latter himself admitted. He simply required that in Christian humility he should withdraw his objections to the Council of Constance, leave the matter for the present with the Emperor and the Diet, and promise to accept the final verdict of a future council unfettered by a previous decision of the Pope. Such a council might re-assert its superiority over the Pope, as the reformatory Councils of the fifteenth century had done.

But Luther had reason to fear the result of such submission, and remained as hard as a rock. He insisted on the supremacy of the word of God over all Councils, and the right of judging for himself according to his conscience. He declared at last, that unless convinced by the Scriptures or "clear and evident reasons," he could not yield, no matter what might happen to him; and that he was willing to abide by the test of Gamaliel, "If this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow it" (Acts 5:38, 39).

He asked the Archbishop, on April 25, to obtain for him the Emperor’s permission to go home. In returning to his lodgings, he made a pastoral visit to a German Knight, and told him in leaving: "To-morrow I go away."

Three hours after the last conference, the Emperor sent him a safe-conduct for twenty-one days, but prohibited him from writing or preaching on the way. Luther returned thanks, and declared that his only aim was to bring about a reformation of the Church through the Scriptures, and that he was ready to suffer all for the Emperor and the empire, provided only he was permitted to confess and teach the word of God. This was his last word to the imperial commissioners. With a shake of hands they took leave of each other, never to meet again in this world.

It is to the credit of Charles, that in spite of contrary counsel, even that of his former teacher and confessor, Cardinal Hadrian, who wished him to deliver Luther to the Pope for just punishment, he respected the eternal principle of truth and honor more than the infamous maxim that no faith should be kept with heretics. He refused to follow the example of his predecessor, Sigismund, who violated the promise of safe-conduct given to Hus, and ordered his execution at the stake after his condemnation by the Council of Constance. The protection of Luther is the only service which Charles rendered to the Reformation, and the best thing, in a moral point of view, he ever did. Unfortunately, he diminished his merit by his subsequent regret at Yuste. He had no other chance to crush the heretic. When he came to Wittenberg in 1547, Luther was in his grave, and the Reformation too deeply rooted to be overthrown by a short-lived victory over a few Protestant princes.

It is interesting to learn Aleander’s speculations about Luther’s intentions immediately after his departure. He reported to Rome, April 29, 1521, that the heretic would seek refuge with the Hussites in Bohemia, and do four "beastly things" (cose bestiali): 1, write lying Acta Wormaciensia, to incite the people to insurrection; 2, abolish the confessional; 3, deny the real presence in the sacrament; 4, deny the divinity of Christ.

Luther did none of these things except the second, and this only in part. To prevent his entering Bohemia, Rome made provision to have him seized on the way.