Luther and the Diet of Worms: April 17, 1521

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.


Being excommunicated, Luther was given over to the temporal power for punishment. But Luther’s prince, the Elector Frederick, had become his protector. The task of bringing Luther to justice fell, therefore, to the newly crowned German emperor, Charles V.


Martin Luther in 1520

Charles von Habsburg had become the most powerful ruler in Europe. The son of Juana, a daughter of Isabel and Fernando of Spain, Charles had become king of Spain when Fernando died in 1516. Charles, too, had inherited Flanders from his father, Prince Philip I (the “Handsome”). When Charles’s grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I von Habsburg, died in 1519, Charles was elected German emperor — even though he was not in Germany at that time. Charles V’s first journey to Germany did not occur until 1521, when he was to meet with the Imperial Diet at the city of Worms on the Rhine River.


Charles had many questions of imperial importance to address at Worms. The most important had become deciding what to do about the troublesome Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. Elector Frederick persuaded the emperor to summon Luther to Worms under a safe-conduct, for Frederick did not want Charles to condemn Luther unheard.


Luther before the emperor at the Diet of Worms

Luther’s friends tried to dissuade him from attending the Imperial Diet. Luther, however, insisted that he had to defend himself in person before the emperor. On Luther’s journey to Worms, a crowd of university friends and a contingent of German knights accompanied him, and when he reached Worms, crowds thronged the streets to greet him as a popular hero. What the authorities intended to be the treatment of a condemned heretic had become a triumphal procession.


Emperor Charles V

Luther appeared before the diet on April 17, 1521. He was unusually quiet and appeared timid; he asked for another day to consider his reply. The next day, however, Luther stood boldly before the emperor and the assembled princes. Asked to recant his errors, Luther replied, in German, “I neither can nor will recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience.” According to an old tradition, he then added, “Hier steh ich; ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen!” (“Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”) Luther repeated his statement in Latin. Then, throwing up his arms like a victorious knight, he left the hall.


The next day, Charles V declared that he would not depart from the traditions of his forebears, the kings of Spain, Burgundy, and Germany who “were all faithful to the death to the Church of Rome, defending the Catholic Faith and the honor of God. A single friar who runs counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong.” The young emperor condemned Luther; but, true to his word, Charles allowed him to leave Worms in peace.


Elector Frederick the Wise

Luther left the diet on April 26, his safe-conduct good for 21 more days. On May 8, a minority of those who had attended the diet approved the Edict of Worms, which condemned Luther’s heresy and declared him an outlaw under sentence of death. Luther was to be arrested as soon as his safe conduct expired. But the Elector Frederick intervened. By his order, a party of soldiers ambushed Luther’s party on the night of May 4. They took Luther to a castle called the Wartburg, where he went into hiding, disguised as a knight.


At the Wartburg, Luther, left to himself, underwent terrible doubts and struggles — was he alone right and the generations of Catholics wrong? He composed bitter attacks against his enemies, especially the papacy, which by then he was calling the Antichrist. Yet, in the course of the year 1522, Luther translated the whole of the New Testament into a forceful, spoken German. (He later translated the Old Testament, as well. The entire German Bible was published in 1534.) Luther’s German Bible became an important tool for carrying his reform forward among the common German people. It also became the basis for the modern German language.


A Priest-Composer Who Liked Luther


The priest-composer, Ludwig Senfl, was present at the Diet of Worms. But though he sympathized with Luther, Senfl never left the Catholic Church. We offer here two of his compositions, Es Taget vor dem Walde, and Ach, Elslein, Liebes Elselein Mein.

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