Martin Luther, Part 8: The Accused (continued)

The Summons from the Emperor

Luther had dared to defy the pope. What would happen now? On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X announced the formal excommunication of Martin Luther and his followers. The pope thereby decreed that everyone was to consider Luther and his supporters heretics and heathen. The church had excommunicated Luther, but that was where its power ended. It could not imprison him or punish him by death. That power belonged to the state, but Luther knew he was not safe. His enemies were still scheming to take him to Rome or to kill him. He told his students that he expected to die a martyr’s death. Luther and the elector of Saxony had appealed to the emperor for a hearing at the diet, or assembly, which was in session in Worms at that time. Charles V, a young man only twenty years old, was the new emperor. He was a loyal Catholic who had sworn allegiance to the pope, but he knew that Luther had many followers in Germany and that Elector Frederick was a very influential and strong-willed man. He therefore agreed to permit Luther to appear at the diet for a hearing. On March 26 the emperor’s messengers delivered this summons to Luther at Wittenberg: “Dear esteemed and honorable Dr. Luther: We and the states of the holy empire here assembled, having resolved to institute an inquiry touching the doctrines and books that you have lately published, have issued for your coming and return to a place of safety our safe conduct.

“Our sincere desire is that you should prepare immediately for this journey in order that within a space of twenty-one days fixed by safe conduct you may without fail present yourself before the diet. Fear neither injustice or violence.” The summons was signed, “Charles V, Emperor.” Although Luther expected to be summoned to Worms, he was taken aback when the royal messenger himself appeared at the door of the Black Cloister with the summons. He, of course, would go, but many thoughts came to his mind. Within a few days he would be standing before none other than Emperor Charles V and the highest tribunal of the empire. His life would be in their hands. Would he be permitted to speak and defend himself? What would their verdict be? He had been promised safe conduct to and from Wittenberg. But would he  really be safe? Huss had also been promised safe conduct, but he never returned to his home. He was burned at the stake. The one thought that occupied his mind more than any other was that now God was giving him a wonderful opportunity to witness to the truth. He looked forward to the meeting, even though he knew that his life was in grave danger. He said, “This is the Lord’s cause. I commend myself to him. He who saved the three men in the fiery furnace will also preserve me.”

On to Worms

On March 26, 1521, the imperial herald, Kasper Sturm, arrived to escort Luther to Worms. The journey began on April 2. Luther rode in a wagon accompanied by the herald and three friends, Professor Amsdorf, an Augustinian monk, and a student. A three hundred-mile journey lay ahead, but it turned out to be more of a triumphal procession than a journey. In every town and city people turned out to cheer and encourage Luther. They wanted to see the brave man who was so daring as to set himself against pope and emperor. Some feared for his life. They said, “Since there are so many cardinals and bishops at the diet, he will doubtless be burned to a powder in short order as was Huss at Constance.” To this Luther replied, “Even if they kindled a fire as high as heaven from Wittenberg to Worms, I will appear in the name of the Lord, in obedience to the summons, and confess Christ.” On the way they passed through Leipzig, Erfurt, Frankfurt, and Naumburg. The mayor of Naumburg honored Luther by inviting him to dinner. Outside Erfurt the university student body met him and accompanied him to his quarters in the Augustinian monastery. On April 7 he preached by special request in the Augustinian church, which was crowded to overflowing. While in Frankfurt Luther received a letter from his friend Spalatin. He wrote that Elector Frederick had asked him to advise Luther not to continue on to Worms because he could no longer protect him. He had heard that Luther would most likely be condemned and put under the imperial ban. But Luther did not permit himself to be frightened. He said, “Even if there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will enter the city.”

On the morning of April 16 Luther’s wagon was nearing Worms. Sturm, the imperial herald, rode ahead of the wagon. Suddenly a large number of horsemen came riding out from the city. They had been sent to escort Luther into Worms. A crowd of several thousand cheered and called Luther’s name as the procession moved down the street. Somewhat embarrassed, Luther waved to the people and said, “God bless you.” The wagon stopped at the House of the Knights of St. John, where the elector had arranged lodging for Luther and his friends.


150376_featuredFrom The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.