Luther at Wurms (Modern Origin of Freedom of Conscience)

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I was listening to Vol. 2 of the D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation (Link to Book 10, Chapter 7), which, dare I say, is the greatest history book I have ever read/listened to. It is epic in portraying the destiny of nations, yet gives such depth of insight into the minds of even minor characters; all this without ever feeling tedious or slow. I used to be a big reader of fantasy and science fiction novels, and this book is like them, yet because it is grounded in reality, truth, and God, it’s high moral themes shine through much brighter. Even on pure entertainment value, its plot is more fascinating, its twists more interesting, its characters more eccentric, than anything that could be made up.

I wanted to share this passage on Luther coming to the majestic gathering of the Diet at Wurms. Regardless of what denomination you are, even if you are not Christian, what Luther stood up for at that occasion is important to every human who has ever lived since: He stood up for freedom of conscience, and put his life on the line for the principle that humans have the right to think for themselves on matters of spirituality. This right allowed our modern era of free thinking to happen. For example, in the EU charter of fundamental rights, Article 10:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. (http://fra.europa.eu/en/eu-charter/article/10-freedom-thought-conscience-and-religion)

This right was unheard of in the time of Luther, where all had to submit their conscience to the dictates of the religious-political state. Luther’s wisdom, humility, and respect for authority as he argued that he could not go against his conscience, won over many of the princes over to the belief that such a principle is worthy and just. It is this principle that we claim for ourselves and for the reader, so as to not fear to study the non-violent character of God in the face of a creeds and orthodoxy that state that He burns and kills.

Peter Sanford, author of the book Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, put it this way in an article about why we should honor Luther in the secular British newspaper The Guardian:

Yet the consequences of Luther’s rebellion were not confined to a particular period, to Germany, or even to organised religion. His essential message was that, at the end of his or her life, each believer stood naked before God, awaiting eternal judgment, with only the Bible and their faith to protect them. The “good works” that Catholicism encouraged – earning brownie points by going to mass, making pilgrimages, praying to relics and contributing to the church coffers – were irrelevant in salvation.

He was thus challenging the entire late medieval way of doing things and the result was strikingly modern. For Luther championed conscience, informed by reading the scriptures, over the dictates of church rules and regulations. Read scripture and make your own mind up. This, in its turn, opened the door in the 17th and 18th centuries to Enlightenment notions of human liberty, free speech and even human rights, all of which today shape Europe. Our ability to read the word of God and reject it out of hand comes from Luther – an outcome he could not have foreseen and which would surely horrify him.


Some background on what has happened. Luther’s books, on various subjects, have awakened all of Europe to be more curious about their faith. He has been excommunicated, but much of Germany sympathizes with him. The Emporer, who is against Luther, has called him to Wurms where all the princes of Germany are meeting to discuss matters of state. Though he has done this, the Papal faction hopes that he will not come and thus he can be branded a coward. Many of Luther’s friends think he shouldn’t go, because the last man who came in similar circumstances was Jan Huss, who was killed. But Luther has set his mind to confess his faith, whether he die or not – this is what the calling of his life has led up to, and indeed, it can be seen as the great high point of his life.

I particularly want to share the amazing prayer that Luther prays before he defends himself. If anything, read that, for it is that prayer that so struck D’Aubigne, the writer. But we must set the scene first. All the city has come out for his arrival, even more than for the emperor himself. We follow now as Luther enters Wurms (Audiobook below, after is the texts):


The train could scarcely proceed through the moving mass. At length the imperial herald stopped before the hotel of the Knights of Rhodes. Here lodged two of the Elector's counsellors, Frederic of Thun and Philip of Feilitsch, as well as the marshal of the empire, Ulric of Pappenheim. Luther got out of his carriage, and, on alighting, said, "The Lord will be my defence."... "I entered Worms," said he afterwards, "in a covered car in my frock. Everybody ran into the street to see friar Martin."

The news of his arrival filled the Elector of Saxony and Aleander with alarm. The young and elegant Archbishop Albert, who held a mean between those two parties, was amazed at Luther's boldness. "Had I not had more courage than he," said Luther, "it is true I never should have been seen in Worms."

Charles V immediately assembled his council. The counsellors in the emperor's confidence repaired in haste to the palace for they too were in dismay. "Luther is arrived," said Charles, "what must be done?"

Modo, bishop of Palermo and chancellor of Flanders, if we are to receive Luther's own statement, replied, "We have long consulted on this subject. Let your imperial Majesty speedily get rid of this man. Did not Sigismond cause John Huss to be burnt? There is no obligation either to give or observe a safe-conduct to a heretic.” "No," said Charles: "what has been promised must be performed." There was nothing for it, therefore, but to make the Reformer appear.

Meanwhile the crowd continued around the hotel of Rhodes at which Luther had alighted. Some looked upon him as a prodigy of wisdom, and others as a monster of iniquity. The whole town wished to see him. The first hours were left him to recover from his fatigue, and converse with his most intimate friends; but as soon as evening came, counts, barons, knights, gentlemen, ecclesiastics, and citizens flocked in upon him. All, even his greatest enemies, were struck with the bold step he had taken, the joy which appeared to animate him, the power of his eloquence, and the lofty elevation and enthusiasm which made the influence of this simple monk almost irresistible. Many attributed this grandeur to something within him partaking of the divine, while the friends of the pope loudly declared that he was possessed with a devil. Call followed call, and the crowd of curious visitors kept Luther standing to a late period of the night.

The next morning, (Friday, 17th April,) Ulric of Pappenheim, hereditary marshal of the empire, summoned him to appear at four o'clock, p. m., in presence of his imperial Majesty and the States of the empire. Luther received the summons with profound respect.

Thus every thing is fixed, and Luther is going to appear for Jesus Christ before the most august assembly in the world. He was not without encouragement. The ardent knight, Ulric von Hütten, was then in the castle of Ebernburg. Not being able to appear at Worms, (for Leo X had asked Charles to send him to Rome bound hand and foot,) he desired to stretch out a friendly hand to Luther, and on the same day (17th April) wrote to him, borrowing the words of a king of Israel: "The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble: the name of the God of Jacob defend thee: send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion: remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice. O dearly beloved Luther! my respected father, fear not and be strong. The counsel of the wicked has beset you, they have opened their mouths upon you like roaring lions. But the Lord will rise up against the wicked and scatter them. Fight then valiantly for Christ. As for me I also will fight boldly. Would to God I were permitted to see the wrinkling of their brows. But the Lord will cleanse his vine which the wild boar of the forest has laid waste.... May Christ preserve you!"

Bucer did what Hütten was unable to do: he came from Ebernburg to Worms, and remained the whole time beside his friend.


Four o'clock having struck, the marshal of the empire presented himself. It was necessary to set out, and Luther made ready. He was moved at the thought of the august congress before which he was going to appear. The herald walked first, after him the marshal, and last the Reformer. The multitude thronging the streets was still more numerous than on the previous evening. It was impossible to get on; it was in vain to cry, Give place: the crowd increased. At length, the herald seeing the impossibility of reaching the town hall caused some private houses to be opened, and conducted Luther through gardens and secret passages to the place of meeting.[507] The people perceiving this rushed into the houses on the steps of the monk of Wittemberg, or placed themselves at the windows which looked into the gardens, while great numbers of persons got up on the roofs. The tops of the houses, the pavement, every place above and below was covered with spectators.

Arrived at length at the town, Luther and those who all accompanied him were again unable, because of the crowd, to reach the door. Give way! give way! Not one stirred. At last the imperial soldiers forced a passage for Luther. The people rushed forward to get in after him, but the soldiers kept them back with their halberds. Luther got into the interior of the building, which was completely filled with people. As well in the antechambers as at the windows there were more than five thousand spectators—German, Italian, Spanish, etc. Luther advanced with difficulty. As he was at length approaching the door, which was to bring him in presence of his judges, he met a valiant knight, the celebrated general, George of Freundsberg, who, four years afterwards, at the head of the German lansquenets couched his lance on the field of Pavia, and bearing down upon the left wing of the French army, drove it into the Tessino, and in a great measure decided the captivity of the king of France. The old general, seeing Luther pass, clapped him on the shoulder, and shaking his head, whitened in battle, kindly said to him, "Poor monk, poor monk, you have before you a march, and an affair, the like to which neither I nor a great many captains have ever seen in the bloodiest of our battles. But if your cause is just, and you have full confidence in it, advance in the name of God and fear nothing. God will not forsake you." A beautiful homage borne by warlike courage to courage of intellect. It is the saying of a king, "He that ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city."


At length the doors of the hall being opened, Luther entered, and many persons not belonging to the Diet made their way in along with him. Never had man appeared before an assembly so august. The emperor Charles V, whose dominions embraced the old and the new world; his brother, the Archduke Ferdinand; six electors of the empire, whose descendants are now almost all wearing the crown of kings; twenty-four dukes, the greater part of them reigning over territories of greater or less extent, and among whom are some bearing a name which will afterwards become formidable to the Reformation (the Duke of Alva, and his two sons); eight margraves; thirty archbishops, bishops, or prelates; seven ambassadors, among them those of the kings of France and England; the deputies of ten free towns; a great number of princes, counts, and sovereign barons; the nuncios of the pope; in all, two hundred and four personages. Such was the court before which Martin Luther appeared.

This appearance was in itself a signal victory gained over the papacy. The pope had condemned the man; yet here he stood before a tribunal which thus far placed itself above the pope. The pope had put him under his ban, debarring him from all human society, and yet here he was convened in honourable terms, and admitted before the most august assembly in the world. The pope had ordered that his mouth should be for ever mute, and he was going to open it before an audience of thousands, assembled from the remotest quarters of Christendom. An immense revolution had thus been accomplished by the instrumentality of Luther. Rome was descending from her throne, descending at the bidding of a monk.

Some of the princes seeing the humble son of the miner of Mansfeld disconcerted in presence of the assembly of kings, kindly approached him; and one of them said, "Fear not them who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul." Another added, "When you will be brought before kings it is not you that speak but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you." Thus, the Reformer was consoled in the very words of his Master, by the instrumentality of the rulers of the world.

During this time, the guards were making way for Luther, who advanced till he came in front of the throne of Charles V. The sight of the august assembly seemed for a moment to dazzle and overawe him. All eyes were fixed upon him. The agitation gradually calmed down into perfect silence. "Don't speak before you are asked," said the marshal of the empire to him and withdrew.


After a moment of solemn stillness, John of Eck, the chancellor of the Archbishop of Trèves, a friend of Aleander, and who must not be confounded with the theologian of the same name, rose up and said, in a distinct and audible voice, first in Latin and then in German, "Martin Luther, his sacred and invincible imperial Majesty has cited you before his throne, by the advice and counsel of the States of the holy Roman empire, in order to call upon you to answer these two questions: First, Do you admit that these books were composed by you?"—At the same time the imperial orator pointed to about twenty books lying on the table in the middle of the hall in front of Luther—"I did not exactly know how they had procured them," says Luther, in relating the circumstance. It was Aleander who had taken the trouble. "Secondly," continued the chancellor, "do you mean to retract these books and their contents, or do you persist in the things which you have advanced in them?"

Luther, without hesitation, was going to reply in the affirmative to the former question, when his counsel, Jerôme Schurff, hastily interfering, called out, "Read the titles of the books." The chancellor going up to the table read the titles. The list contained several devotional works not relating to controversy.

After the enumeration, Luther said, first in Latin, and then in German.

"Most gracious Emperor! Gracious Princes and Lords!

"His imperial Majesty asks me two questions.

"As to the first, I acknowledge that the books which have been named are mine: I cannot deny them.

"As to the second, considering that is a question which concerns faith and the salvation of souls, a question in which the Word of God is interested, in other words, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or on the earth, I should act imprudently were I to answer without reflection. I might say less than the occasion requires, or more than the truth demands, and thus incur the guilt which our Saviour denounced when he said, 'Whoso shall deny me before men, him will I deny before my Father who is in Heaven.' Wherefore, I pray your imperial Majesty, with all submission, to give me time that I may answer without offence to the Word of God."


This reply, far from countenancing the idea that there was any hesitation in Luther, was worthy of the Reformer and the assembly. It became him to show calmness and circumspection in so grave a matter, and to refrain on this solemn moment from every thing that might seem to indicate passion or levity. Moreover, by taking a suitable time, he would thereby the better prove the immovable firmness of his resolution. History shows us many men who, by a word uttered too hastily, brought great calamities on themselves, and on the world. Luther curbs his naturally impetuous character; restrains a tongue always ready to give utterance; is silent when all the feelings of his heart are longing to embody themselves in words. This self restraint, this calmness, so extraordinary in such a man, increased his power a hundred-fold, and put him into a position to answer afterwards with a wisdom, power, and dignity which will disappoint the expectation of his enemies, and confound their pride and malice.

Nevertheless, as he had spoken in a respectful and somewhat subdued tone, several thought he was hesitating and even afraid. A ray of hope gleamed into the souls of the partizans of Rome. Charles, impatient to know the man whose words shook the empire, had never taken his eye off him. Now turning towards one of his courtiers, he said with disdain, "Assuredly that is not the man who would ever make me turn heretic." Then rising up, the young emperor withdrew with his ministers to the council chamber: the electors with the princes were closeted in another, and the deputies of the free towns in a third. The Diet when it again met, agreed to grant Luther's request. It was a great mistake in men under the influence of passion. "Martin Luther," said the chancellor of Trèves, "his imperial Majesty, in accordance with the goodness which is natural to him, is pleased to grant you another day, but on condition that you give your reply verbally and not in writing."

Then the imperial herald advanced and reconducted Luther to his hôtel. Menaces and cheers succeeded each other as he passed along. The most unfavourable reports were circulated among Luther's friends. "The Diet is dissatisfied," said they, "the envoys of the pope triumph, the Reformer will be sacrificed." Men's passions grew hot. Several gentlemen hastened to Luther's lodgings. "Doctor," asked they in deep emotion, "how does the matter stand? It is confidently said that they mean to burn you." "That won't be," continued they, "or they shall pay for it with their lives."—"And that would have been the result," said Luther, twenty years later at Eisleben, when quoting these expressions.

On the other hand, Luther's enemies were quite elated. "He has asked time," said they; "he will retract. When at a distance he spoke arrogantly, but now his courage fails him.... He is vanquished."


Luther, perhaps, was the only tranquil person in Worms. A few moments after his return from the Diet, he wrote to the imperial counsellor Cuspianus. "I write you from the midst of tumult, (meaning, probably, the noise of the crowd outside his hotel;) I have, within this hour, appeared before the emperor and his brother. I have acknowledged the authorship, and declared that to-morrow I will give my answer concerning retractation. By the help of Jesus Christ, not one iota of all my works will I retract."

The excitement of the people and of the foreign troops increased every hour. While parties were proceeding calmly to the business of the Diet, others were coming to blows in the streets. The Spanish soldiers, proud and merciless, gave offence by their insolence to the burghers of the town. One of these satellites of Charles, finding in a bookseller's shop the papal bull, with a commentary on it by Hütten, took and tore it to pieces, and then trampled the fragments under his feet. Others, having discovered several copies of Luther's 'Captivity of Babylon,' carried them off and tore them. The people, indignant, rushed upon the soldiers, and obliged them to take flight. On another occasion, a Spanish horseman, with drawn sword, was seen in one of the principal streets of Worms in pursuit of a German who was fleeing before him, while the people durst not interfere.

Some politicians thought they had discovered a method of saving Luther. "Recant your errors in doctrine," said they to him; "but persist in all you have said against the pope and his court, and you are safe." Aleander shuddered at this advice. But Luther, immovable in his purpose, declared that he set little value on a political reform, if not founded on faith.

The 18th of April having arrived, Glapio, the Chancellor Eck, and Aleander, met at an early hour, by order of Charles V, to fix the course of procedure in regard to Luther.


Luther had been for a moment overawed on the evening before when he had to appear before so august an assembly. His heart had been agitated at the sight of so many princes before whom great kingdoms humbly bent the knee. The thought that he was going to refuse obedience to men whom God had invested with sovereign power gave him deep concern; and he felt the necessity of seeking strength from a higher source. "He who, attacked by the enemy, holds the shield of faith," said he one day, "is like Perseus holding the head of the Gorgon, on which whoever looked, that moment died. So ought we to hold up the Son of God against the snares of the devil." On this morning of the 18th April, he had moments of trouble, when the face of God was hid from him. His faith becomes faint; his enemies seem to multiply before him; his imagination is overpowered.... His soul is like a ship tossed by a violent tempest, now plunged to the depths of the sea, and again mounting up towards heaven. At this hour of bitter sorrow, when he drinks the cup of Christ, and feels as it were in a garden of Gethsemane, he turns his face to the ground, and sends forth broken cries, cries which we cannot comprehend, unless we figure to ourselves the depth of the agony from which they ascended up to God. "God Almighty! God Eternal! how terrible is the world! how it opens its mouth to swallow me up! and how defective my confidence in thee! How weak the flesh, how powerful Satan! If I must put my hope in that which the world calls powerful, I am undone!... The knell is struck, and judgment is pronounced!... O God! O God! O thou, my God! assist me against all the wisdom of the world! Do it: Thou must do it.... Thou alone ... for it is not my work, but Thine. I have nothing to do here; I have nothing to do contending thus with the mighty of the world! I, too, would like to spend tranquil and happy days. But the cause is Thine: and it is just and everlasting! O Lord! be my help! Faithful God, immutable God! I trust not in any man. That were vain. All that is of man vacillates! All that comes of man gives way. O God, O God, dost thou not hear?... My God! art thou dead?... No, thou canst not die! Thou only hidest Thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it! Act, then, O God!... Stand by my side, for the sake of thy well beloved Son Jesus Christ, who is my defence, my buckler, and my fortress."

After a moment of silence and wrestling, he continues thus: "Lord, where standest thou?... O, my God, where art thou?... Come! come! I am ready!... I am ready to give up my life for thy truth ... patient as a lamb. For the cause is just, and it is thine!... I will not break off from thee either now or through eternity!... And though the world should be filled with devils, though my body, which however is the work of thy hands, should bite the dust, be racked on the wheel, cut in pieces ... ground to powder ... my soul is thine. Yes, thy Word is my pledge. My soul belongs to thee, and will be eternally near thee.... Amen.... O God, help me.... Amen."


This prayer explains Luther and the Reformation. History here lifts the veil of the sanctuary, and shows us the secret place whence strength and courage were imparted to this humble man, who was the instrument of God in emancipating the soul and the thoughts of men, and beginning a new era. Luther and the Reformation are here seen in actual operation. We perceive their most secret springs. We discover where their power lay. This meditation by one who is sacrificing himself to the cause of truth, is found among the collection of pieces relating to Luther's appearance at Worms, under number XVI, among safe-conducts, and other documents of a similar description. Some of his friends doubtless extended it, and so have preserved it to us. In my opinion, it is one of the finest documents on record.

Luther, after he had thus prayed, found that peace of mind without which no man can do anything great. He read the Word of God; he glanced over his writings, and endeavoured to put his reply into proper shape. The thought that he was going to bear testimony to Jesus Christ and his Word, in presence of the emperor and the empire, filled his heart with joy. The moment of appearance was drawing near; he went up with emotion to the sacred volume, which was lying open on his table, put his left hand upon it, and lifting his right toward heaven, swore to remain faithful to the gospel, and to confess his faith freely, should he even seal his confession with his blood. After doing so, he felt still more at peace.


At four o'clock the herald presented himself and conducted him to the place where the Diet sat. The general curiosity had increased, for the reply behoved to be decisive. The Diet being engaged, Luther was obliged to wait in the court in the middle of an immense crowd, who moved to and fro like a troubled sea, and pressed the Reformer with its waves. The doctor spent two long hours amid this gazing multitude. "I was not used," says he, "to all these doings and all this noise." It would have been a sad preparation for an ordinary man. But Luther was with God. His eye was serene, his features unruffled; the Eternal had placed him upon a rock. Night began to fall, and the lamps were lighted in the hall of the Diet. Their glare passed through the ancient windows and shone into the court. Every thing assumed a solemn aspect. At last the doctor was introduced. Many persons entered with him, for there was an eager desire to hear his answer. All minds were on the stretch waiting impatiently for the decisive moment which now approached. This time Luther was free, calm, self-possessed, and showed not the least appearance of being under constraint. Prayer had produced its fruits. The princes having taken their seats, not without difficulty, for their places were almost invaded, and the monk of Wittemberg again standing in front of Charles V, the chancellor of the Elector of Trêves rose up, and said:—

"Martin Luther! you yesterday asked a delay, which is now expired. Assuredly it might have been denied you, since every one ought to be sufficiently instructed in matters of faith to be able always to render an account of it to whosoever asks,—you above all, so great and able a doctor of Holy Scripture.... Now, then, reply to the question of his Majesty, who has treated you with so much mildness. Do you mean to defend your books out and out, or do you mean to retract some part of them?"

These words, which the chancellor had spoken in Latin, he repeated in German.

"Then doctor Martin Luther," say the Acts of Worms, "replied in the most humble and submissive manner. He did not raise his voice; he spoke not with violence, but with candour, meekness, suitableness, and modesty, and yet with great joy and Christian firmness."

"Most serene Emperor! illustrious princes, gracious lords," said Luther, turning his eyes on Charles and the assembly, "I this day appear humbly before you, according to the order which was given me yesterday, and by the mercies of God I implore your Majesty and august Highnesses to listen kindly to the defence of a cause which I am assured is righteous and true. If from ignorance I am wanting in the usages and forms of courts, pardon me; for I was not brought up in the palaces of kings, but in the obscurity of a cloister.

"Yesterday two questions were asked me on the part of his imperial Majesty: the first, if I was the author of the books whose titles were read; the second, if I was willing to recal or to defend the doctrine which I have taught in them. I answered the first question, and I adhere to my answer.

"As to the second, I have composed books on very different subjects. In some I treat of faith and good works in a manner so pure, simple, and christian, that my enemies even, far from finding any thing to censure, confess that these writings are useful, and worthy of being read by the godly. The papal bull, how severe soever it may be, acknowledges this. Were I then to retract these what should I do?... Wretch! I should be alone among men abandoning truths which the unanimous voice of my friends and enemies approves, and opposing what the whole world glories in confessing.


"In the second place, I have composed books against the papacy, books in which I have attacked those who, by their false doctrine, their bad life, and scandalous example, desolate the Christian world, and destroy both body and soul. Is not the fact proved by the complaints of all who fear God? Is it not evident that the human laws and doctrines of the popes entangle, torture, martyr the consciences of the faithful, while the clamant and never-ending extortions of Rome engulph the wealth and riches of Christendom, and particularly of this illustrious kingdom?

"Were I to retract what I have written on this subject what should I do?... What but fortify that tyranny, and open a still wider door for these many and great iniquities? Then, breaking forth with more fury than ever, these arrogant men would be seen increasing, usurping, raging more and more. And the yoke which weighs upon the Christian people would by my retractation not only be rendered more severe, but would become, so to speak, more legitimate; for by this very retractation it would have received the confirmation of your most serene Majesty and of all the States of the holy empire. Good God! I should thus be as it were an infamous cloak destined to hide and cover all sorts of malice and tyranny.

"Thirdly and lastly, I have written books against private individuals who wished to defend Roman tyranny and to destroy the faith. I confess frankly that I have perhaps attacked them with more violence than became my ecclesiastical profession. I do not regard myself as a saint; but no more can I retract these books: because, by so doing, I should sanction the impiety of my opponents, and give them occasion to oppress the people of God with still greater cruelty.

"Still I am a mere man and not God; and I will defend myself as Jesus Christ did. He said, 'If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil,' (John, xviii, 23.) How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes and so apt to err, desire every one to state what he can against my doctrine?

"Wherefore, I implore you, by the mercies of God, you, most serene Emperor, and you, most illustrious princes, and all others of high or low degree, to prove to me by the writings of the prophets and the apostles that I am mistaken. As soon as this shall have been proved, I will forthwith retract all my errors, and be the first to seize my writings and cast them into the flames.


"What I have just said shows clearly, I think, that I have well considered and weighed the dangers to which I expose myself; but, far from being alarmed, it gives me great joy to see that the gospel is now, as in former times, a cause of trouble and discord. This is the characteristic and the destiny of the Word of God. 'I came not to send peace, but a sword,' said Jesus Christ. (Matt. x, 34.) God is wonderful and terrible in working: let us beware, while pretending to put a stop to discord, that we do not persecute the holy Word of God, and bring in upon ourselves a frightful deluge of insurmountable dangers, present disasters, and eternal destruction.... Let us beware that the reign of this young and noble prince, the Emperor Charles, on whom, under God, we build such high hopes, do not only begin, but also continue and end under the most fatal auspices. I might cite examples taken from the oracles of God," continues Luther, speaking in presence of the greatest monarch in the world with the noblest courage, "I might remind you of the Pharaohs, the kings of Babylon, and of Israel, who never laboured more effectually for their ruin than when by counsels, apparently very wise, they thought they were establishing their empire. 'God removeth the mountains, and they know not.' (Job, ix, 5.)

"If I speak thus, it is not because I think such great princes have need of my counsels, but because I wish to restore to Germany what she has a right to expect from her children. Thus, commending myself to your august Majesty and your serene Highnesses, I humbly supplicate you not to allow the hatred of my enemies to bring down upon me an indignation which I have not deserved."

Luther had spoken these words in German, modestly, but also with much warmth and firmness. He was ordered to repeat them in Latin. The emperor had no liking for German. The imposing assembly which surrounded the Reformer, the noise and excitement, had fatigued him. "I was covered with perspiration," says he, "heated by the crowd, standing in the midst of the princes." Frederick de Thun, confidential counsellor of the Elector of Saxony, stationed by his master's order behind the Reformer, to take care that he was not taken by surprise or overborne, seeing the condition of the poor monk, said to him, "If you cannot repeat your address, that will do, doctor." But Luther, having paused a moment to take breath, resumed, and pronounced his address in Latin, with the same vigour as at first.

"This pleased the Elector Frederick exceedingly," relates the Reformer.


As soon as he had ceased, the Chancellor of Trêves, the orator of the Diet, said to him, indignantly, "You have not answered the question which was put to you. You are not here to throw doubt on what has been decided by Councils. You are asked to give a clear and definite reply. Will you, or will you not retract?" Luther then replied, without hesitation, "Since your most serene Majesty, and your high Mightinesses, call upon me for a simple, clear, and definite answer, I will give it; and it is this: I cannot subject my faith either to the pope or to councils, because it is clear as day that they have often fallen into error, and even into great self-contradiction. If, then, I am not disproved by passages of Scripture, or by clear arguments; if I am not convinced by the very passages which I have quoted, and so bound in conscience to submit to the word of God, I neither can nor will retract any thing, for it is not safe for a Christian to speak against his conscience." Then, looking around on the assembly before which he was standing, and which held his life in its hands, "Here I am," says he, "I cannot do otherwise: God help me. Amen."

Thus Luther, constrained to obey his faith, led by his conscience to death, impelled by the noblest necessity, the slave of what he believes, but in this slavery supremely free, like to the ship tossed by a fearful tempest, which, in order to save something more precious than itself, is voluntarily allowed to dash itself to pieces against a rock, pronounces these sublime words, which have not lost their thrilling effect after the lapse of three centuries; thus speaks a monk before the emperor and the magnates of the empire, and this poor and feeble individual standing alone, but leaning on the grace of the Most High, seems greater and stronger than them all. His word has a power against which all these mighty men can do nothing. The empire and the Church, on the one side, the obscure individual, on the other, have been confronted. God had assembled these kings and prelates that he might publicly bring their wisdom to nought. They have lost the battle, and the consequences of their defeat will be felt in all nations, and during all future ages.


The assembly were amazed. Several princes could scarcely conceal their admiration. The emperor, changing his first impression, exclaimed, "The monk speaks with an intrepid heart and immovable courage." The Spaniards and Italians alone felt disconcerted, and soon began to deride a magnanimity which they could not appreciate.

After the Diet had recovered from the impression produced by the address, the chancellor resumed: "If you do not retract, the emperor and the states of the empire will consider what course they must adopt towards an obstinate heretic." At these words, Luther's friends trembled, but the monk again said, "God help me; for I can retract nothing."

Luther then withdraws, and the princes deliberate. Every one felt that the moment formed a crisis in Christendom. The yea or nay of this monk was destined, perhaps for ages, to determine the condition of the Church and the world. It was wished to frighten him, but the effect had been to place him on a pedestal in presence of the nation. It was meant to give more publicity to his defeat, and all that had been done was to extend his victory. The partisans of Rome could not submit to bear their humiliation. Luther was recalled, and the orator thus, addressed him: "Martin, you have not spoken with the modesty which became your office. The distinction you have made between your books was useless, for if you retract those which contain errors, the empire will not allow the others to be burnt. It is extravagant to insist on being refuted from Scripture, when you revive heresies which were condemned by the universal Council of Constance. The emperor, therefore, orders you to say simply, Do you mean to maintain what you have advanced, or do you mean, to retract any part of it—yes, or no?" "I have no other answer than that which I have already given," replied Luther calmly. He was now understood. Firm as a rock, all the billows of human power had dashed against him in vain. The vigour of his eloquence, his intrepid countenance, the flashing of his eye, the immovable firmness imprinted in bold lineaments on his German features, had produced the deepest impression on this illustrious assembly. There was no longer any hope. Spaniards, Belgians, and even Romans were mute. The monk was victorious over earthly grandeur. He had negatived the Church and the empire. Charles rose up, and all the assembly with him. "The Diet will meet to-morrow morning to hear the emperor's decision," said the chancellor, with a loud voice.




Here is another article D'Aubigne on the Reformation:  Lessons from the Reformation on Liberty and Order

Read the book The Great Controversy for how the struggle over the principle of freedom of conscience comes to us in our day.

And see the beginning of this article for the audio and text of The History of the Reformation.