Luther answering charges of heresy before the Diet of Worms in 1521

 The Trial of Martin Luther: An Account
(Luther's Hearings Before the Diet at Worms on Charges of Heresy)

by Douglas O. Linder (2010)

Historians have described it as the trial that led to the birth of the modern world.  Before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Diet of Worms in the spring of 1521, as Luther biographer Roland H. Bainton noted, "the past and the future were met."  Martin Luther bravely defended his written attacks on orthodox Catholic beliefs and denied the power of Rome to determine what is right and wrong in matters of faith.  By holding steadfast to his interpretation of Scripture, Luther provided the impetus for the Reformation, a reform movement that would divide Europe into two regions, one Protestant and one Catholic, and that would set the scene for religious wars that would continue for more than a century, not ending until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. 

Martin Luther's long journey to Worms might be said to have begun in 1505 on a road near his home town of Erfurt in Saxony (now part of Germany), when a bolt of lightening knocked Luther to the ground.  Luther took the lightening to be a call from God, and--to the disappointment of his father, who hoped he would become a lawyer--, took vows at an Augustinian monastery to begin a profoundly Christian life.  Luther impressed his superiors at the Erfurt monastery.  By 1507, he was an ordained priest and had offered his first mass.  By 1508, he had earned a degree in Biblical studies from the University of Wittenberg and become an instructor at that Augustinian institution. 

Questioning the Sale of Indulgences

A trip to Rome in 1510 caused Luther to begin to seriously question certain Catholic practices.  The opportunity for the trip arose when Luther was selected as one of two Augustinian brothers to travel to the Eternal City to help resolve a dispute within the order that called for resolution by the pope.  What Luther saw in Rome disillusioned him.  As he watched incompetent, flippant, and cynical clergy performing their holy duties he began to experience doubts about the Catholic Church.  He wrote after his journey that he had "gone with onions and returned with garlic."

Those early doubts concerning Rome and its ways would blossom over the next several years after Luther earned the prestigious post as Doctor of the Bible at Wittenberg University and undertook a thorough review of  the source book of his religion. Luther's study led him to the theology of Paul and his belief in the possibility of forgiveness through faith made possible by the crucifixion of Christ.  In Paul's theology, which Luther would largely adopt as his own, there was no need to look to priests for forgiveness because, to those who believed and were contrite, forgiveness was a gift of God.

Luther's understanding of Paul's theology led him to view skeptically the Catholic Church's reliance on the practice of selling indulgences as its major source of revenue.  (An indulgence was a remission of temporal punishment after a confessor revealed sin, expressed contrition, and made the required contribution to the Church.) In sermons in Wittenberg beginning in 1516, Luther argued that forgiveness came from within, and that no one--whether a priest or a pope--was in position to grant forgiveness because no one can look into the soul of another.  He also questioned whether the pope could, as he claimed, deliver souls of a confessor's dead loved ones from purgatory.  By lashing out at the sale of indulgences, Luther was striking at the heart of the Church's array of money-raising tools and confrontation was inevitable.

Matters began to come to a head the next year when Pope Leo X launched an indulgence-driven campaign to raise funds for construction of a grand basilica of St. Peter's in Rome.  The practice of the time was to grant the privilege of selling indulgences to various bishops, who would retain for themselves and their purposes a portion of the raised funds.  Albert of Brandenburg, granted an indulgence franchise in his territory for eight years, told his indulgence vendors that they could promise purchasers a perfect remission of all sins and that those seeking indulgences for dead relatives need not be contrite themselves, nor confess their sins.  Proclamation of the indulgence fell to an experienced Dominican vendor named John Tetzel, who journeyed from town to town around Albert's territories.  Tetzel would follow a cross bearing the papal arms into a town's marketplace and launch into a sermon, or sales pitch, that included a jingle that Martin Luther found especially objectionable:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther, in an angry response to the indulgence sales campaign, prepared in Latin a placard consisting of ninety-five theses for debate. The placard, in accordance with the custom of the time, was placed upon the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church.  The power of pardon, Luther contended in his Ninety-Five Theses, was God's alone.  If, indeed, the pope had the power he claimed, Luther asked why he didn't simply exercise it: "If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?" Luther's complaints also went to the Church's justification for promoting contributions.  He complained about "the revenues of all Christendom being sucked into this insatiable basilica" when their were much greater needs, including "living temples" and local churches. 

When a copy of Luther's theses reached Rome, the pope, according to some accounts, said: "Luther is a drunken German.  He will feel different when he is sober."  Nonetheless, the pope saw Luther as sufficiently threatening to appoint a new general of the Augustinian order in the hopes that the he would "smother the fire before it should become a conflagration."  Surprisingly, however, at the gathering of Luther's chapter that year in Heidelberg Luther's arguments met with enthusiasm among the younger Augustinians and mere head-shaking among the older attendees. 

Encouraged by the reception to his views, Luther aimed at new targets.  He challenged the power of the Church to excommunicate its members, writing that only God could sever spiritual communion.  He also questioned the primacy of the Church in Rome, suggesting that there was a lack of historical support for putting its authority above that of other churches.  Clearly, the pope began to understand, Luther was more of a threat that he first thought.  The pope turned to Dominican Sylvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome, to draft a reply to Luther's arguments.  Prierias's reply branded Luther a heretic and, gratuitously, called him "a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron."  On August 7, 1518,
Luther received a citation to appear in Rome to answer the charge of heresy.

The Road to Worms

The papal bull condemning Luther

Frederick the Wise, the Elector for Germany in the Holy Roman Empire, found himself in the middle of an unwanted controversy.  From Pope Leo, Frederick had received a letter expressing concern that had provided support for Martin Luther, "a son of iniquity" who had been "hurling himself upon the Church of God." The Pope called upon Frederick to place Luther "in the hands of the Holy See lest future generations reproach you with having fostered the rise of a most pernicious heresy against the Church."  Feeling obligations to the Church but also somewhat sympathetic to Luther, whose attacks on Rome won substantial support in his home region, Frederick sought a compromise.  In negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, Frederick prevailed in having Luther's hearing on the heresy charge moved to Augsburg, a city on German soil.

Cardinal Cajetan interviewed Luther three times from October 12-14, 1518.  Told that he must recant his views on indulgences and papal infallibility, Luther refuses.  On the issue of papal infallibility, Luther said, "I deny that he is above scripture."  The frustrated cardinal complained after the meeting to Luther's superior, John Staupitz, "His eyes are as deep as a lake, and there are amazing speculations in his head."  Luther remained in Augsburg for another week awaiting some sort of decision from the Church, but when rumors reach him of a plan to have him arrested, he fled on horseback at night.

Catejan pressured Frederick the Wise to have Luther either arrested and sent to Rome or banished from his territories, but Frederick balked.  Instead, he wrote to the emperor requesting that Luther's case either be dropped or sent to Germany for a hearing before judges.  On December 18, 1518, Frederick wrote a letter to Catejan informing him that he would only send Luther to Rome "after he has been convicted of heresy."  He urged that Luther be given an opportunity to debate his interpretation of Scripture and submit it to a university for decision.  "He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance," wrote Frederick.  Frederick's views no doubt reflected those of most Germans.  One writer of the period reported that he polled people in inns around the territory and found that three out of every four persons he talked to supported Luther. 

In Rome, meanwhile, a papal bull (Cum Postquam) had been prepared clarifying the Church's position on indulgences.  Although the decretal ended some of the worst abuses, it affirmed that the pope had complete power to absolve temporal punishment through indulgences.

In Germany, Luther's arguments were the talk of the nation.  The University of Wittenberg had become a predominantly Lutheran institution while a rival university, the University of Leipzig, had emerged as the champion of traditional Catholic positions.  A debate was proposed.  Luther would come to Leipzig and defend his views against a prominent professor named John Eck.  Despite the protests from some church men appalled at the notion of giving the heretic such a stage, the debate went forward in July 1519. For four sessions over eighteen days the two intellectual powerhouses argued over free will, Biblical support for indulgences, and the primacy of Rome. In the end, there was no clear winner and only one of the two judging universities (Paris and Erfurt) reported its judgment.

The fame and influence of Luther continued to spread.  Between the Leipzig debates and the summer of 1520 Luther wrote and published a series of tracts that are considered his primary works: The Sermon on Good Works, The Papacy in Rome, The Babylonian Captivity, and The Freedom of the Christian ManThe Babylonian Captivity was an especially controversial book, questioning all but two of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Rome, however, had not forgotten about Martin Luther.  On
June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X, in the papal bull Exsurge Domine, warned Luther that he will be excommunicated unless he recanted 41 sentences included in his 95 Theses within the next sixty days.  The bull opened with a paragraph that compared Luther to a wild boar: 

Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.

Exsurge Domine ended with a plea and an injunction:

Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us....We enjoin, however, on Martin that in the meantime he cease from all preaching or the office of preacher.

With the papal bull executed and plans for its distribution in the works, Luther's books were were burned in Rome's Piazza Navona. In the meantime, Luther had drafted an appeal of his case and sent it to the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V.  Often called An Appeal to Caesar, Luther's document asked the emperor to allow his guilt or innocence on the heresy charge to be determined after a hearing by non-ecclesiastical officials.  Luther boldly asserted in his August appeal that church officials should be answerable to the state:

For three years I have sought peace in vain. I have now but one recourse. I appeal to Caesar. I have no desire to be defended if I am found to be impious or heretical. One thing I ask, that neither truth nor error be condemned unheard and unrefuted

It took three months for the papal bull to reach Luther in Wittenberg. The day after receiving a copy of the pope's bull, Luther wrote to a friend, "This bull condemns Christ himself" and that he was now "certain the pope is the Antichrist."  Luther, thoroughly aroused, unleashed a defense of his assertions that received condemnation in the papal bull in his Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist.  The tone of his tract was defiant:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand. 

On December 10, 1520, Martin Luther and some of his university supporters gathered at Wittenberg's Elster gate where various theological works and documents from Rome were placed in a pile and lit on fire.  Luther himself tossed the papal bull into the blaze.  "Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs," he said. 

With Luther in obvious defiance of his demand for recantation, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther on January 3, 1521.  Managing the Luther case for Pope Leo was the papal nuncio, Aleander.  In Aleander's view, secular tribunals had no role to play.  Luther had been found guilty of heresy, condemned by the Church, and the only job of secular authorities should be to carry out the Church's decision.  "The only competent judge is the pope," Aleander wrote.

When Luther's Appeal to Caesar reached Emperor Charles V, he tore it up and trampled on it.  Within a month, however, a more composed Charles V, concerned with the reaction of the German people if Luther were to be condemned without a hearing, reconsidered his decision.  On March 11, 1521, the emperor sent to Luther an invitation to come to the Diet meeting at Worms to "answer with regard to your books and your teaching."  The emperor's mandate promised safe-conduct if he would arrive in Worms within twenty-one days.  "You have neither violence nor snares to fear," the letter said.

Luther decided to go. In a letter to Frederick the Wise, Luther explained his thinking: "I will go even if I am too sick to stand on my feet.  If Caesar calls me, God calls me.  If violence is used, as well it may be, I commend my cause to God."

Luther Before the Diet

Luther, in Worms, preparing to face the Diet

Although describing himself as "physically fearful and trembling," Luther and a small band of supporters entered Worms on the early evening of April 16 in a two-wheeled cart.  A crowd of two thousand people helped escort Luther to his lodging.

A third-person account, almost certainly written by Luther himself, describes the scene the next day, when Luther was first to be questioned:

At four in the afternoon, the imperial chamberlain, and the herald who had accompanied him from Wittenberg, came to him at his inn, The Court of Germany, and conducted him to the town hall, along bye-ways, in order to avoid the crowds which had assembled in the leading streets. Notwithstanding this precaution, there were numbers collected at the gates of the town hall, and who essayed to enter with him, but the guards kept them back. Many persons had got upon the roofs of houses to see Dr. Martin. As he proceeded to tip the kail, several noblemen successively addressed to him words of encouragement. "Be bold," said they, "and fear not those who can kill the body, but are powerless against the soul."

The Archbishop of Trier, John Eck (not the Eck of the Leipzig debate), opened the hearing by pointing to a large pile of Luther's books and asking him whether the books were his and whether he would retract the doctrines espoused in them.  "I think the books are mine," Luther replied.  When the titles of the books were read, Luther answered more certainly:  "Yes, the books are mine."  When asked, "Will you retract the doctrines herein?," Luther answered cautiously saying it "would be rash and dangerous to reply to such a question until I had meditated thereupon in silence and retreat, least I incur the anger of our Lord."  While expressing surprise that a professor of theology couldn't immediately answer his question, Eck granted Luther's request to think things over.  He told Luther to come back the next day at the same time with his answer.

The next day at six o'clock Luther entered a larger hall that was filled to overflowing.  Eck demanded, "E
xplain yourself now. Will you defend all your writings, or disavow some of them?"

Luther saw an opportunity to give a speech, rather than a "yes" or "no" answer, and he took it.  He replied by drawing distinctions between his various writings: "I entreat your majesty and the states of the empire to consider that my writings do not all treat of the same matter. Some of them are perceptive, destined for the edification of the faithful, for the advancement of piety, for the amelioration of manners; yet the bull, while admitting the innocence and advantage of such treatises, condemns these equally with the rest. If I were to disavow them, what practically should I be doing? Proscribing a mode of instruction which every Christian sanctions, and thus putting myself in opposition to the universal voice of the faithful."

Luther then described a second class of writings, those "in which I attack the papacy and the belief of the papists, as monstrosities, involving the ruin of sound doctrine and of men's souls."  He brashly asserted that "the pope's decretals have thrown utter disorder into Christianity, have surprised, imprisoned, and tortured the faith of the faithful...contrary to the gospel."  If  he "were to retract these writings," Luther said, he would "lend additional strength and audacity to the Roman tyranny" and "open the floodgates to the torrent of impiety, making for it a breach by which it would rush in and overwhelm the Christian world."

Finally, Luther said, there is a third class of works in which he had attacked his theological adversaries.  For these writings, Luther offered a small apology: "
I have no hesitation in admitting that in these I have shown greater violence than befitted a man of my calling; I do not set up for a saint, I do not say that my conduct has been above reproach."  Nonetheless, Luther refused to disavow these writings as well because to do so would allow "Rome would make use of the disavowal, to extend her kingdom and oppress men's souls."

Luther would not back down.  Only if he could be convinced of his errors on the basis of Scripture might he offer a retraction and "throw my books into the fire with my own hand."  He warned those judging him to not "condemn the Divine Word" lest God send down upon them "a deluge of ills, and the reign of our noble young emperor, upon whom, next to God, repose all our hopes, be speedily and sorely troubled."  He ended his speech by entreating the emperor and the lordships to not let "my enemies to indulge their hatred against me under your sanction."

Eck found Luther's answer evasive.  He asked again, "Martin--answer candidly and without horns--do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"

Luther replied, "
'Since then your imperial majesty and your lordships demand a simple answer, I will give you one without teeth and without horns. Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence...I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience....Here I stand. God help me! Amen!"

After, as requested, repeating his answer in Latin (he had spoken in German), a sweating and tired Luther threw up his arms in victory and left the hall to a chorus of hisses from the Spaniards present.  Frederick the Wise offered an appraisal of Luther's performance: "Dr. Martin spoke wonderfully before the emperor, the princes, and the estates, but too boldly."  Arriving back in his lodging after his two-hour hearing, Luther downed in one gulp a can of Eimbeck beer that had been left for him there by a friend.

Charles V told a group of electors after the hearing that he was ready to proceed against Luther as "a notorious heretic."  Most of the electors were in agreement with the emperor, but there were the German peasants to worry about.  The peasants were on the verge of a revolt and condemnation of Luther, who they saw as a champion, might push them into open conflict.  A committee was selected to meet with Luther and to try to seek at least a partial revocation.  The committee's efforts failed.  Luther would not compromise on his principles.

On May 6, a final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander, was submitted to the Diet.  It was finally signed by the emperor on May 26.  The Edict called Luther a "reviver of the old and condemned heresies" and an "inventor of new ones."  It called for the burning of his books and for confiscation of his property.  It cut him off from the church, called for his arrest, and forbid anyone from harboring or sustaining him.  Finally, it warned that anyone who dares to directly or indirectly oppose this decree...will be guilty of the crime of lese majeste and will incur our grave indignation as well as each of the punishments mentioned above."

By the time the Edict of Worms was announced, Martin Luther was a month gone from Worms.  He was, in fact, at Wartburg Castle where he had been hustled on horseback by a gang of "abductors" as part of a staged kidnapping on his route back to Wittenberg.  Frederick the Wise had decided to hide him.

The Aftermath

After nearly in Wartburg Castle, where Luther occupied himself with translating the Bible into German, he bravely accepted the invitation of Wittenberg's town council to come home.  Within days of his return, the exile was--in the defiance of the pope, the emperor, and the elector--back in the pulpit, beginning a series of important lectures ("the Invocavit Sermons") on core Christian values.

Much of the remainder of Luther's career was devoted to building the liturgy, patterns, and institutions for a new Church, one based on his interpretation of Scripture and his guiding principle of salvation through faith and the grace of God.  He also worked tirelessly on his complete translation of the Bible into German. 

In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a nun fifteen years younger than he who he had helped escape from a convent.  The couple had six children.

The period of 1524-25 is a tumultuous one in Germany, with the outbreak of the Peasants' War, a revolt by the have-nots of Germany against the state and the upper classes.  Luther was to many of those in the rebellion a hero because he had publicly sided with the peasants on many of their grievances.  When, however, the peasants committed atrocities in his name, Luther called for them to obey authorities and wrote a tract in which he condemned the violence at the devil's work.

In the late 1520s, most of northern Germany became Lutheran, as well as several major cities in other parts of Germany. Meanwhile, the popularity of Luther and his ideas within his home region convinced secular authorities that enforcement of the Edict of Worms is no longer a wise option.  In August 1526, the Diet of Speyer reaffirmed the Edict of Worms only for Catholic territories and allowed Lutheranism to be tolerated in regions where it could not be effectively suppressed. 

Lutheranism continued its spread and became the dominant faith in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. (Much later, of course, it gained an extensive following in the United States.  Just as significantly, the Reformation planted the seeds for the growth of other varieties of Protestantism.) 

Religious wars occupied Europe for a century, finally ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia.  With that, the principle of national sovereignty began to dominate both the theory and practice of international relations.  Because of Luther, and the events he set in motion, no higher authority stood above nations and only the ceaseless exercise of power kept contending national interests in check.  We had come into the modern world.

Martin Luther died at age 62 on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben.  He was buried beneath the pulpit in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.