Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

The Diet of Worms

"Here stand I. I cannot act otherwise. So help we God!"


Tetzel was coming to Wittenberg in the autumn of 1517 when Luther determined on more open opposition. It was the eve of All Saints when he posted up on the door of the church ninety-five reasons against the sale of indulgences. He had no idea what a storm he was raising. He did not wish to quarrel with the Pope, only to expose this abuse in the Church. But he had kindled the spark that fired the great Reformation. Widespread excitement followed, and at last Luther was summoned to Rome to answer for his ninety-five reasons. But the distance was great, and it was agreed that he should go to Augsburg, where a representative of the Pope would meet him.

Martin Luther was but a poor friar still, and he walked the distance, clad in his brown frock with his few wants on his back. His fellow-citizens attended him to the gates and followed him some way along the road.

"Luther forever!" they cried as they bade him farewell.

"No," he answered quietly, "Christ for ever!"

Arrived at Augsburg, the cardinal sent by the Pope received Luther with all civility. He made no doubt that he could soon settle this son of a German miner; and so perhaps he might, had he been the right man. But he took a high hand, and simply told him to withdraw his opposition and retract his words at once.

"What is wrong?" asked Luther.

The cardinal refused to discuss matters.

"I am come to command, not to argue," he replied.

But the little monk refused to retract.

Then, history says, the cardinal grew angry.

"What!" he cried. "What! Do you think the Pope cares for the opinion of a German peasant? The Pope's little finger is stronger than all Germany. Do you expect princes to defend you. I tell you, No; and where will you be then?"

"Then, as now, in the hands of Almighty God," answered Luther.

Then cardinal and monk parted. But Luther was too deeply moved to keep silent.

"God hurries and drives me," he said. "I am not master of myself. I wish to be quiet and am hurried into the midst of tumults."

At this moment Charles V. became Emperor of Germany and ruler of half the world. Matters were now referred to him, for Luther was taking firmer ground and attacking not only the abuses of the papacy, but the whole Church of Rome.

At last a command came from the Pope forbidding Luther to preach any more. He replied by burning the document at the gate of the city. Crowds gathered to see the fire blaze up. Then Luther, pale as death, stepped forward holding in his hand the document with the Pope's seal upon it. He knew full well what he was doing now as he dropped it into the flames that rose high that wintry afternoon at Wittenberg. The crowds shouted approval and admiration.

"It was the shout of the awakening of nations," says a famous writer. Not only the little crowd at Wittenberg, but the whole world, was looking on. For that little fire lit up the whole of Europe. Luther was now ordered by the Emperor Charles to appear before a council, or Diet, as it was called, which should meet at Worms, a city on the Rhine. He was warned by his friends not to go, for feeling ran high. There would surely be bloodshed, they told him, and he would never leave Worms alive.

"Were there as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the roofs of the houses, I would go on," replied Luther.

The whole country was moved by his heroism. Whether he was right or whether he was wrong, this was a brave man. In April 1521, at ten in the morning, he arrived at Worms in the covered waggon provided for him.

"God will be with me," he said as he descended from the waggon.

Crowds assembled to see him as he passed to the council chamber, this resolute little monk, who was defying the Pope of Rome.

Inside, the scene was most impressive. On a raised platform sat Charles V., ruler of half the world. Archbishops, ministers, princes, stood on either side to hear and judge this son of a miner who had made the world ring with his name. In the body of the hall stood knights and nobles, stern hard men in gleaming armour. Between them Luther was led, still in his monk's dress. As he passed up the hall a knight touched him on the arm.

"Pluck up thy spirit, little monk," he said. "Some of us here have seen warm work in our time, but never knight in this company more needed a stout heart than thou needest it now. If thou hast faith, little monk, go on; in the name of God, forward!"

"Yes," said Luther, throwing back his head, "in the name of God, forward!"

At last he stood alone before his judges. "It was the greatest scene in modern European history—the greatest moment in the modern history of men."

The books he had written lay on a table at hand. The titles were read aloud, and he was asked if he had written them.

"Yes," was his firm answer.

Would he withdraw all he had written? No—that was impossible. For two long hours Luther defended his opinions. He would retract nothing. They might kill him if they wished, and he knew death was the penalty, but he was ready to die in such a cause. What he said he now repeated, for the matter had gone far beyond the sale of indulgences by this time.

"Here stand I. I cannot act otherwise. So help me God!"

Uttering these famous words, he ended.

The council broke up in excitement, and Luther was free to go home.

"It is past! it is past!" he cried in heartrending accents, as he clasped his hands above his head.

The verdict was not long in coming. It was against him. He must preach no more, teach no more. The emperor of half the world must uphold the authority of the Pope.

"Be it so," said Luther, uncomplaining. "I will bear anything for his Imperial Majesty and the Empire, but the Word of God must not be bound."

For the next year he was sheltered by one of his friends in an old German castle, lest he should suffer violence from the hands of those who disapproved his conduct. But after a time he returned to Wittenberg,—the scene of his old labours,—while others carried on the work of reformation which he had begun.