His Appearance Unexpected

Luther’s friends, and even more so his enemies, did not really expect him to come to Worms. When, however, on the sixteenth of April the sentinel on the lookout sounded his trumpet to announce Luther’s approach, the streets were suddenly flooded by men of all nations and levels of society. So great was the welcome that not even the emperor had received such a turnout. It was only with great difficulty that the procession was able to move through the press of people.

Luther Before the Diet

On his journey to Worms, Luther experienced an illness. Though somewhat weakened from his recent recovery, the Reformer arrived in Worms greatly fatigued from his fourteen days of travel and in need of rest. The anxiety of the people to see him was too great to allow for even an hours’ repose. He had but just entered his lodging when princes, dukes, counts, bishops, men of all ranks, both friends and foes, crowded into his apartment. Scarcely had one wave of visitors been dismissed when another pressed its way in.

The crowd of visitors, varying greatly in rank and purpose, pressed about Luther until late into the night. He answered all of their questions with such dignity and wisdom that even his enemies marveled. After the last visitor had left, Luther went to bed and sought rest; but the excitement of the day had left him restless and unable to sleep. After arising and playing a song on his lute, he went to the window. “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 to dwell in safety.’ ” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 335

At four o’clock on the day of the hearing, the marshal of the empire appeared to summon Luther before the diet. The crowd that filled the streets was even greater than that which had filled them the day before. It was impossible to advance, and at length the herald ordered some private homes to be opened and they made their way through gardens and private passages to the place where the diet was sitting.

Having at last reached the town hall, Luther and those who accompanied him were again prevented from further advance. By the use of main force, the soldiers were at last able to clear the doors and gain admittance. On the inside, every corner was crowded. In the antechambers and deep recesses of the windows, there were more than five thousand spectators; and it was only with great difficulty that Luther was able to advance to the entrance of the hall where the diet awaited him.

“As he was about to enter the presence of his judges, an old general, the hero of many battles, said to him kindly: ‘Poor monk, poor monk, thou art now going to make a nobler stand than I or any other captains have ever made in the bloodiest of our battles. But if thy cause is just, and thou art sure of it, go forward in God’s name, and fear nothing. God will not forsake thee.’. . .

“At length the doors opened and Luther went in, and with him entered many persons who formed no portion of the diet. Never had man appeared before so imposing an assembly. The emperor Charles V, whose sovereignty extended over a great part of the old and new world; his brother the Archduke Ferdinand; six electors of the empire . . . ; 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 hundred and four persons: such was the imposing court before which appeared Martin Luther.

A Victory for Truth

“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 farthest 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.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chapter 8

Luther was conducted to a place directly in front of the emperor’s throne. The sudden transition from the uneasy crowd to the calm grandeur of the diet had its effect upon him. As he felt all eyes turn upon him, Luther appeared, for a moment, almost intimidated and bewildered; but it passed and he quickly regained his composure. The sun was near its setting and its golden rays filled the room, accentuating the rich colors of the national costumes. In the midst of all of the imposing grandeur stood Luther in his monk’s frock.

The spokesman for the diet arose and, first in Latin and then in German, addressed Luther, asking him two questions. First he asked, as he pointed to a display of Luther’s books spread out on a table, if he acknowledge these to be his books. Second, was Luther prepared to retract and disavow the opinions that he had advanced in them?

Luther’s First Response

Luther, his bearing respectful and his voice low, began to speak. Some of the members thought that his voice trembled slightly and hoped for a quick retraction.

The first charge Luther frankly acknowledged. As to the second point, he replied. “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.’ ” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 339

It was a wise decision, which was interpreted differently by the papal members of the diet. Confidently, they expressed the belief among themselves that he was merely breaking his fall and would soon retract. They believed that while he might play the heretic in the safety of Wittenberg, he would play the part of a penitent at Worms. How little they penetrated the depth of Luther’s character.

After a deliberation, the diet granted the delay that Luther requested. Luther bowed, and instantly the herald was by his side to conduct him to his hotel.

As he arose the next day, it was not the prospect of death that filled Luther with apprehension but the full realization that the crisis had arrived and he felt unable to meet it. It seemed that the sustaining power that had been with him until that point had deserted him, and all that he could see was an approaching catastrophe. The fear that the enemies of the gospel would triumph distressed him beyond words. In an agony of soul he poured his heart out to God.

Rising from his knees, Luther felt complete calm return to his soul. He then sat down to arrange his thoughts, to draft, in outline, his defense, and to search the Scriptures for passages with which to fortify it. Having completed this task, he laid his left hand upon the sacred Book and raising his right hand to heaven, swore to remain faithful to the gospel and to uphold it, even if it cost him his life. After this, the Reformer experienced a still deeper peace.

At four o’clock that afternoon, the grand marshal and the herald again presented themselves to escort Luther to the hall. On arriving in the outer court, they found the diet in deep deliberation with no indication as to when Luther might expect to be heard. The first hour passed and then a second. So long a delay in such circumstances was sufficient to exhaust him physically and distract him mentally, but the Reformer’s tranquility did not forsake him. The night began to fall, and torches were kindled in the assembly hall.

At last the door opened and Luther entered the hall. If, as some suspect, the delay was arranged by Aleander in the hope that Luther would come before the diet in a state of agitation, he was doomed to disappointment. The Reformer stood before the diet in perfect composure and with an air of dignity.

Luther was conducted into the hall and brought to stand directly in front of the emperor. The chancellor of the Elector of Treves began speaking, addressing Luther first in Latin and then repeating his words in German.

“Martin Luther! yesterday you begged for a delay that has not expired. Assuredly it ought to have been conceded, as every man, and especially you, who are so great and learned a doctor in the Holy Scriptures, should always be ready to answer any question touching his faith. . . . Now, therefore, reply to the question put by his majesty, who has behaved to you with so much mildness. Will you defend your books as a whole, or are you willing to disavow some of them?’ ” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 8

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