“Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.” The title of this essay in English is “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” It is probably apocryphal, shorthand for what Martin Luther actually said. (Endnote1) No matter. It captures the essence of what he did and stood for. Luther’s defiance of the church hierarchy and the empire of Charles V at the Diet of Worms (Endnote 2) April 1521 was the act that changed the course of Western Civilization.(Endnote 3)
Many regard the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses three an one-half years earlier as the beginning event of the Reformation. As related earlier on the site, and in numerous writings, posting of issues — theses — by theologians and other thinkers was the ususal method of seeking a public debate on those issues. It was unremarkable. What was remarkable was what was to come.
To recount the events following Luther’s posting, Johann Tetzel wasted little time defending his activities with counter-theses. Luther’s initial post had its intended effect, Debate among theologians occurred through the coming months and years. Pope Leo X summoned Luther to appear in Rome in July 1518. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, who found political advantage in backing Luther, intervened and convinced the Pope to let Luther appear in Germany.
In June 1520, Pope Leo X issued a Papal bull outlining forty-one purported errors found in Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and other writings. Luther was summoned by the Emperor Charles V to appear at the Imperial Diet held at Worms in April 1521. Frederick obtained an agreement that if Luther appeared he would be promised safe passage to and from the meeting. Frederick and Luther doubtless had in mind Jan Hus, who was tried and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415 despite a promise of safe conduct.
Emperor Charles opened the Diet of Worms in late January 1521. On April 16, Luther arrived in Worms. He was told to appear before the Diet in the afternoon of 4:00 p.m. the following day. He actually had a lawyer, a Wittenberg professor in Canon Law, with him at the Diet.
On April 17, the imperial marshal came for Luther. The marshal reminded Luther that he should speak only in answer to direct questions from the presiding officer, Johann von Eck. Eck asked if a collection of books was Luther’s and if he was ready to revoke their heresies. There were 25 of them, probably including the 95 Theses, Resolutions Concerning the 95 Theses, On the Papacy at Rome, Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. Luther requested more time for a proper answer, so he was given until the same time next day.
On April 18, Luther, saying that he had prayed for long hours and consulted with friends and mediators, appeared before the Diet. When the counselor put the same questions to him, then Luther answered, “They are all mine, but as for the second question, they are not all of one sort.” Luther went on to place the writings into three categories: (1) Works which were well received even by his enemies: those he would not reject. (2) Books which attacked the abuses, lies and desolation of the Christian world and the papacy: those, Luther believed, could not safely be rejected without encouraging abuses to continue. To retract them would be to open the door to further oppression. “If I now recant these, then, I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny.” (3) Attacks on individuals: he apologized for the harsh tone of these writings but did not reject the substance of what he taught in them; if he could be shown by Scripture that his writings were in error, he would reject them. (Endnote 4)
On a theological level, Luther had challenged the absolute authority of the Pope over the Church by maintaining that the doctrine of indulgences, as authorized and taught by the Pope, was wrong. He maintained that salvation was by faith alone (sola fide) without reference to good works, alms, penance, or the Church’s sacraments. Luther maintained that the sacraments were a “means of grace,” meaning that while grace was imparted through the Sacraments, the credit for the action belonged to God and not to the individual. He had also challenged the authority of the Church by maintaining that all doctrines of the Church not found in Scripture should be discarded.
As a result of Luther’s failure to recant Emperor Charles issued the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther to be an obstinate heretic and banned the reading or possession of his writings. The Edict also authorized Luther’s arrest and a reward for those helped capture him.
Fortunately for Luther, Elector Frederick helped Luther to avoid arrest and secreted him at Frederick’s castle in Thuringia for several months. There Luther continued to write and translate the New Testament into German.
Though a brave act by an individual, Luther would not have been able to get away and the Reformation would have doubtless proceeded on a different course had not Elector Frederick and other German princes not believed it was in their interest to support him. The Margrave (Elector) of Brandenburg was an early convert to Lutheranism, and many other princes and burghers of the free cities, mostly in the north of Germany, followed. The clerics and common subjects of these principalities also supported Luther. Furthermore, the ongoing tension with the Habsburgs, exacerbated by Charles V’s grandiose schemes to extend his power, contributed to the princes’ support of Luther.
As we learned here in America’s Watergate episode, one must also follow the money. The German princes, as well as the commercial and financial class in Germany, were sick and tired of supporting the opulence and corruption of the Papacy and its retinue in Italy. Luther gave them a reason to break with Rome.
Across Europe, the effect of Luther, and the German princes who supported him, gave rise to other breaks with Rome and the Papacy. In Switzerland, whose people were always distrustful of the Habsburgs, John Calvin was able to actually found a theocracy of his own. Most famously, Henry VIII in England, who initially criticized Luther, led the Church of England out of the Catholic orbit. (Endnote 5)
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife beset Germany for several decades after the Diet of Worms. Though Europe, as well as the rest of the world, had never been free of war for very long, the Reformation intensified conflict. The emperors, kings, and other potentates used the church as one means of social control to preserve their power. Accordingly, preservation of religious beliefs was a powerful motivator for them to keep that power. It was also a significant recruitment tool to raise armies. (Endnote 6)
Finally, Emperor Charles settled his differences with the German Lutheran princes and signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This treaty ended for a time the religious struggle, at least in Germany, and established the right of each ruler of a principality to chose Catholicism or Lutheranism as their official religion. This arrangement was bound to collapse, and did in the early 17th Century. The collapse precipitated the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) that was proportionately more devastating for Germany than World War II.
What did not fail was that more and more thinkers began to explore, and write and otherwise express new ideas without fear of being burned at the stake for heresy. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution followed, and later the Industrial Revolution. Within a few centuries, the world was no longer lit only by fire, but merely by the flip of a switch. (Endnote 7)
- This quote is from Daten zur Geschichte der Stadt Worms, from the Stadtarchiv Worms, Margit Rinker-Olbrisch at http://www.worms.de/downloads/Chronik.pdf
- A Dieta Imperii was a council called from time to time by the Holy Roman Emperor whose members were the princes, prelates, and burghers of the Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was, in Voltaire’s words, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The Diet had no real power — most was held by the numerous princes and other local land rulers and free cities. Such as it had really was exercised by the Emperor. The German title for the 1521 Diet was Reichstag vom Worms.
- Eric Mataxas, Martin Luther, (Viking 2017), p. 246.
- There are a number of versions of Luther’s statement, but the title of this essay fairly sums up his meaning and intent. See Will Durant, The Reformation, (Simon & Schuster 1957) p. 361, fn.
- In the same year, Pope Leo X conferred the title “Defender of the Faith” on Henry for the king’s tract in opposition to some of Luther’s ideas. In addition to Henry’s famous later break with Rome over his wish to divorce Queen Catherine, his motivation was also money. Henry had depleted the treasury by his many foreign conflicts and adventures, and found the monasteries in England to be treasure-troves to loot. (Pope Paul III revoked the title, but it was permanently conferred on English, later British, monarchs by Parliament.)
- “All wars are sacred, to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight…sometimes it’s ‘Down with Popery’….” — Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, p.231, (Macmillian 1936).
- A World Lit Only by Fire, William Manchester (Little, Brown 1992)