Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

The Primary Works of the Reformation
and the Diet of Worms

The Pope's bull, which was signed in June, was not published in Germany until September, and its sixty days of grace did not expire until November 28. In the mean time Luther had taken counsel with himself, and with a clear and discerning eye had scrutinized more deeply and widely the doctrines and practices of the Church. As the fruit of his research and meditation he published in August, October, and November three works: An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation on the Improvement of the Christian Estate; An Address on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and An Address on the Freedom of a Christian Man.

These works have been called the "Primary Works" of the Reformation. Multiplied by the new printing-press, spread into the uttermost corner of Germany as well as far beyond its boundaries, they made at once a profound impression. Simple, plain, earnest, they revealed the whole man, giving testimony to the deep spiritual experiences through which he had passed and eloquently expressing his passion for the welfare of Christ's Church.

The Address to the Nobility of the German Nation was written in German, the common language of those for whom it was intended. It demanded of the people that they should from patriotic motives set themselves to the reforming of the Church. With the most profound solemnity and earnestness Luther announced in the beginning, in the words of Ecclesiastes, that the time for silence was past, the time to speak at hand. After expressing his consciousness of his own weakness and his reliance upon God, he described three walls which the Roman Church had built about itself so that reform was impossible. First, when pressed by the temporal power, it maintained that the temporal power had no jurisdiction over it. Second, when charged with violating the Scriptures, it objected that no one might interpret the Scriptures but the Pope. Third, when threatened with a council, it asserted that no one might call a council but the Pope.

One by one Luther attacked these walls. In opposition to the first he made a statement so radical that the nation might well gasp at hearing it. "All Christians," said he, "are truly of the Christian estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. . . . Between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, or as they call it between spiritual and temporal persons, the only real difference is one of office and function, and not of estate. . . .Christ's body is not double or two-fold, one temporal, the other spiritual. He is one head and he has one body. . . . A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man in his office must be useful and beneficial to the rest." To the officials of the Church who held themselves so high above the rest of mankind the words must have been almost blasphemous. To others who had long deplored in thought or word the unchristian arrogance of the Church, they seemed to have the authority of the Scriptures themselves.

Since, said Luther, the so-called temporal power was just as valuable as the spiritual power, and equal to it and not beneath it in rank, it must do its duty "throughout the whole Christian body: whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, or nuns." The claim that the Pope only could interpret the Scriptures Luther denied without great elaboration, since he considered this wall tottering and weak. The Pope had often erred. It might even come to pass "that the Pope and his followers are not true Christians, and not being taught by God have no true understanding, whereas a common man may have true understanding." Moreover, "We are all priests, and have all one faith, one gospel, one sacrament; how then should we have not the power of discerning and judging what is right and wrong in matters of faith?"

As for the third wall, neither the Scriptures nor the early history of the Church gave the Pope alone the right to call a council. Christ commands: "Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between him and thee alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen and publican. . . ." The council of the apostles was not called by St. Peter, bait by the apostles and all the elders. Many councils have been called by Emperors. It was the duty of the temporal power to reform the Church, as it would be the duty of every citizen to give warning and aid if a fire should break out. "Would it not be most unnatural, if a fire were to break out in a city, and every one were to let it burn on and on, whatever might be burnt, simply because they had not the mayor's authority, or perhaps because the fire broke out at the mayor's house? How much more should this be done in 'the spiritual city of Christ, if a fire of offense break out, either at the Pope's government or wherever it may!"

Having demolished the three walls, Luther enumerated some of the evils which a council should consider. Among them were the life of the Pope who lived in worldly pomp such as no king or emperor could equal, and the greed of the cardinals to whom valuable livings were assigned while the people were ruined by taxation. With a decrease in the number of cardinals should come a cutting-off of the thousands of so-called papal servants who lived upon the revenues gathered from the poor. Surely it is the duty of the Christian princes of the German nation to protect their people from the "ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing!"

These matters were not, Luther emphatically declared, evils of which he alone knew and complained; they were notorious. "Even at Rome they are forced to own that it is more terrible and worse than one can say."

In conclusion Luther offered twenty-seven articles respecting the abolishing of these and other evils. The German princes, nobles, and cities should refuse to pay the tributes demanded by Rome, they should refuse to allow Rome to administer their ecclesiastical affairs. "If a courtling came from Rome, he should receive the strict command to withdraw, or to leap into the Rhine, or whatever river be nearest, and to administer a cold bath to the interdict, seal and letters and all." Thus those at Rome would learn that the Germans were not always what they called them in scorn, "drunken fools." No temporal matters might be decided at Rome and the "excessive, over-presumptuous, and most wicked claims of the Pope, which required the bishops to swear oaths of fealty, the Emperor to kiss the Pope's feet, or to pay any sort of homage, must be firmly denied." "The Pope," said Luther, "is not the Vicar of Christ in heaven, but only of Christ upon earth. For Christ in heaven, in the form of a ruler, requires no vicar, but there sits, sees, does, knows, and commands all things. But He requires the Pope—in the form of a servant to represent Him as He walked upon earth, working, preaching, suffering, and dying." In contrast with the lowliness of Christ, how dreadful the pomp of him who claims to be his Vicar and who compels men to kiss his feet!

Pilgrimages to Rome, which led to dissipation and the neglect of duties at home, should be abolished; so also should the mendicant monasteries wherein men "grievously labor and torment themselves by their own rules and laws, and yet never arrive at a true understanding of a spiritual and good life." Monasteries should be schools which men might leave when they chose. The parish priest who must live among his people should be allowed to marry in honor instead of living in dishonor as many did. The number of saints' days, which were inducements to idleness and wastefulness, should be diminished, fasts should be optional, and every kind of food should be made free.

It was now high time to take up the cause of the Bohemians of whom John Huss was burned. Whether or not Huss was wrong, his burning was a monstrous crime, and the Hussites should not be compelled to give approval to it and should be allowed to unite once more with the Church. The universities should be reformed, and above all subjects in the universities and in lower schools, should the Scriptures be taught.

The Address to the Nobility of the German Nation is a powerful appeal to patriotism and as such is one of the treasures of the nation. But it is more than a merely local document; it is one of the immortal documents of human freedom.

Having breathed his first loud trumpet blast, Luther followed it speedily with a second. The Address on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church was written in Latin, since it was intended primarily for the clergy and other learned men. Its subject was the sacramental system of the Roman Church and its errors and evils. Regretting his past toleration, stating that his earlier writings might as well be burned since they did not deal radically enough with the evils of the Church, Luther announced now his real opinion.

The Roman Church claimed seven sacraments,—baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, matrimony, and orders. Originally the word sacramentum meant merely a sacred or holy thing; ultimately the term was applied to a rite of the Church to which a spiritual meaning adheres. For the administration of these sacraments, which were bound up with the most ordinary events of life, the priests alone had power, and upon their administration the salvation of man was supposed to depend. By withholding them the Church could bring the most stubborn of its sons to submission; by exacting pay for them she could draw from the poorest of the laity a heavy tribute.

Luther struck at the roots of the upas tree which had spread its benumbing shade over Christendom by attacking the whole sacramental system. The sacraments, he declared, were not supernatural rites upon which man's salvation depended; they were merely the outward sign of God's promise. Only when a man had faith in the promises of God were they of value to him, and if he had this real faith he did not need them.

There were, moreover, only three sacraments,—the Eucharist, baptism, and penance. Since penance or repentance was merely return to baptism, there were in reality but two. Confirmation was merely a rite of the Church; matrimony, which had existed since the beginning of the world and existed now outside the Church, was in no sense a sacrament. Orders, or the laying-on of hands at the ordination of a priest, was, like confirmation, merely a rite of the Church to which no divine promise was attached. For the anointing of the sick there was no divine authority. The Apostle James advised anointing so that the sick might recover, not to prepare them for death, as the Church now taught.

The third of the Primary Works, On the Liberty of a Christian Man, was written both in Latin and German, so that it might be read by both the learned and the unlearned. In this little pamphlet Luther reached to the height and depth of spiritual things and to the height of noble and clear expression. It is one of the classics, not only of religious literature, but of all literature. Luther began by laying down two statements, "A Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none," and "A Christian man is the most dutiful servant to all and subject to every one." The soul can do without everything but the word of God thus Luther explained his first thesis—having the word of God, it is rich and wants for nothing. A right faith in Christ is an incomparable treasure, carrying with it universal salvation. The repentant and believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness of Christ. He becomes a king, exalted above all things, not in the sense of corporeal power as was the mad belief of certain ecclesiastics, but in a spiritual empire, a more lofty and eminent dignity.

But the Christian man, full of faith and assured of salvation, has still before him his earthly life, wherein he must do good works; not as penance in order to gain salvation, which is already his by reason of his faith in God, but first, so that his body may be purified and be made a fit vessel to hold the new man which he has become. The custom of injuring the body and the brain in mortification is enormous folly. A second sort of good work which the Christian man will do is that of charity and mercy; herein does he make himself a servant to all.

Prefacing the address was a letter to the Pope. Luther declared that he said nothing against the Pope; he denounced only the evil of the Pope's ministers, among whom he sat "like a lamb among wolves." "Leo," said Luther, "is worthy of a better age; let him be warned of those sirens who would make him out a god!"

Early in December Luther made solemn and spectacular answer to the bull of warning and to the many other threats which were preparing against him. When the time given him to recant had expired, when his condemned books had been burned by a papal gate at Louvain and Liege, Luther also lit a fire. Outside the walls of Wittenberg, he burned a copy of the bull, together with a copy of the canon law which set forth the supremacy of the Roman See and the power of the Pope. The notice of his action was prepared by his friend Melanchthon. "Let whosoever adheres to the truth of the Gospel be present at nine o'clock at the Church of the Holy Cross outside the walls, where the impious books of papal decrees and scholastic theology will be burnt according to ancient and apostolic usage. . . . Come, pious and zealous youth, to this pious and religious spectacle, for perchance now is the time when the Antichrist must be revealed!" As the fire burned, Luther apostrophized the Pope: "Because thou hest brought down the truth of God, He also brings thee down unto the fire this day."

The excommunication threatened by the Pope's bull was somewhat delayed. The document conveying the "holy curse "was drawn up in January, but was of so violent a character and included with Luther in its condemnation so many German patriots, among them the Elector himself, that its author was persuaded to revise it. While it was being modified, Luther was summoned to meet his Emperor at worms. The "single flea," as he had called himself, was now to address the most powerful of earthly kings face to face, a possibility of which he had not dreamed.

The Diet of worms was the first conference of the new Emperor with his German subjects. Various questions relating to the welfare of the kingdom were to be considered, among them the religious difficulty which had been the source of so much agitation. Toward this question and toward the originator of it the attitude of the Emperor was not yet known. Luther and his friends still hoped that his case might be heard before an impartial tribunal. Rome, on the other hand, considered that there was no reason for further discussion; Luther was a heretic already condemned by the Church and upon him should fall also the condemnation of the Emperor. The outcome depended, not upon the activities of the papal legates or upon the ability of Luther's friends to support him, but upon the decision of Charles.

Upon the head of Charles, who was but twenty-one years old, rested mighty crowns of actual sovereignty as well as lighter symbols of merely honorary rule. Already by inheritance ruler of Austria, Spain, Naples, and Burgundy, his election had made him also Emperor of Germany. Those who hoped for the success of Luther's cause or merely for the safety of his life might point to the German descent of Charles and to the necessity under which he was, on account of dangers within and without his wide realm, of treating with consideration his German subjects. Luther himself cherished high hopes of reform under the new Emperor, as did also all those who longed for the unity and independence of the German nation. Luther's enemies, on the other hand, remembered that in the first place the young Charles was a devout son of the Church, and that, in the second, he would have small sympathy with the theological or patriotic aims of the Germans, of whose language and spirit he was wholly ignorant.

For some weeks before he was actually summoned, Luther had been informed by his friends at the Diet that it was possible, indeed increasingly probable, that he would be required to appear, not to present his doctrines, but simply to recant. When they asked him what he would do in such a case, he answered in true Lutheran fashion:—

"If I am summoned, I will go if I possibly can: I will go ill if I cannot go well. For it is not right to doubt if I am summoned by the Emperor, I am summoned by the Lord. He lives and reigns who saved the three Hebrew children in the furnace of the king of Babylon. If he does not wish to save me, my life is a little thing compared to that of Christ, who was slain in the most shameful way, to the scandal of all and the ruin of many. Here is no place to weigh ruin and safety; rather we should take care not to abandon the gospel, which we have begun to preach, to be mocked by the wicked, lest we give cause to our enemies of boasting that we dare not confess that we teach and shed our blood for it. . . . You may expect me to do anything but flee or recant: I will not flee, much less will I recant."

When the summons came, together with a promise of safe-conduct, Luther set out, traveling in a wagon drawn by two horses which had been furnished by the town of Wittenberg and with money from the university to cover his expenses. In the reception which was tendered him on his journey he might well have forgotten, for a while at least, the danger into which he was about to venture. The common people blessed him as he went even though the Pope's ban was posted all along the way. In the words of the papal legate, "Nine tenths of the Germans shout, 'Long live Luther, and the other tenth, 'Down with Rome.' On April 16 he arrived at Worms, where the whole city crowded to greet him or to stare.

Worms was at this time an important and beautiful city. Above the steep-roofed houses towered the great Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, a visible symbol of the ancient might of the Church. Near by newer edifices testified to its continued power and prosperity. Hither came often the Imperial Court, so that the city was called the "Mother of Diets," and here before the time of Luther many important questions had been decided.

Never, however, had the city been the scene of so momentous a conference as that 'which was now in session. The assembly was presided over by the young Emperor; its members were great princes of spiritual and temporal states and representatives of the powerful free cities of Germany. Beside them, there had come to Worms all those of many nations—Germans, Spaniards, Netherlanders, Italians—who had business with the Imperial Court or who served it.

On the afternoon of April 17, 1521, Luther was called before the Diet. As he entered he saw for the first time his Emperor, panoplied with gold and surrounded by princes and cardinals. Crowding the hall, peering in through doors and windows, pressed a throng of men, some regarding Luther with curious horror, others with frightened admiration.

Luther was informed first of all that he must merely answer the questions put to him and say no more. Pointing to a pile of books on the table, an official asked whether they were his and whether he wished to recant any part of them. Luther made a wise answer:—

"First, the books are mine, I deny none of them. The second question, whether I will reassert all or recant what is said to have been written without warrant of Scripture, concerns faith and the salvation of souls and the Divine word, than which nothing is greater in heaven or on earth, and which we all ought to reverence; therefore it would be rash and dangerous to say anything without due consideration, since I might say more than the thing demands or less than the truth, either of which would bring me in danger of the sentence of Christ, 'Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in Heaven.' Wherefore I humbly beg Your Imperial Majesty to grant me time for deliberation, that I may answer without injury to the Divine Word or peril to my soul."

Contrary to the desire of his opponents, he was granted until the next day to deliberate and to prepare his answer. It was not strange that he did not sleep that night. Occupied with grave thoughts, he kept vigil.

When he appeared at the Diet the next afternoon he was reproached with not having had a reply ready the day before and was commanded to delay no longer to give his answer. At once he responded, first in German and then in Latin. While he spoke night fell, and the flaring lamps cast dark shadows into the corners of the hall, deepened the cardinals' robes into crimson, dulled the yellow canopy of Charles's throne, and made the white face of the monk whiter. He acknowledged that the books were his, and divided them into three classes, each of which he described:—

"In some I have treated piety, faith, and morals so simply and evangelically that my adversaries themselves are forced to confess that these books are useful, innocent, and worthy to be read by Christians. Even the bull, though fierce and cruel, states that some things in my books are harmless, although it condemns them by a judgment simply monstrous. If, therefore, I should undertake to recant these, would it not happen that I alone of all men should damn the truth which all, friends and enemies alike, confess?

"The second class of my works inveighs against the Papacy as against that which both by precept and example has laid waste all Christendom, body and soul. No one can deny or dissemble this fact, since general complaints witness that the consciences of all believers are snared, harassed, and tormented by the laws of the Pope and the doctrines of men, and especially that the goods of this famous German nation are devoured in numerous and ignoble ways. . . . If, therefore, I should withdraw these books, I would add strength to tyranny and open windows and doors to their impiety, which would then flourish more freely than it ever dared before.

"In the third sort of books I have written against some private individuals who tried to defend the Roman tyranny and tear down my pious doctrine. In these I confess I was more bitter than is becoming to a minister of religion. . . . Yet neither is it right for me to recant what I have said in these, for then tyranny and impiety would rage sand reign against the people of God more violently than ever by reason of my acquiescence."

When he was angrily pressed for a more simple and direct answer, he gave the Diet what it sought:—

"Since Your Majesty and Your Lordships ask for a plain answer, I will give you one without either horns or teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture or by right reason (for I trust neither in Popes nor in councils, since they have often erred and contradicted themselves) unless I am thus convinced, I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me, Amen."

At last a voice was lifted against the un-Christlike ways of Christ's Church, once more a higher standard was raised than the fallible judgment of fallible men, at last the liberty of Christian men was declared. In the voice echoed the tones of Huss, of Wycliffe, of the martyred Albigenses.

At once Luther was dismissed. His joyful relief was expressed in the words, "I am through! I am through!" For several days he remained in Worms, where he was visited by many persons who tried to persuade him to a less radical position. But he would not be moved.

On April 26, he left the city. Preaching on the way he visited his loved Eisenach and Mohra, the home of his father's youth, where he met his kinsfolk. The expiration of the Emperor's safe-conduct was at hand, and in its stead a new paper was being prepared to deal with his case, a paper draughted by the Emperor himself. Luther's doctrines were declared to be the most intolerable of heresies, and not only he but his followers were to be put under the ban of the Empire.

Before the paper was signed, however, Luther was safe. His Elector and his friends determined that he should seek a temporary refuge in the castle of Wartburg, the towering edifice at which he had gazed often from the streets of Eisenach. Thither after a pretended capture, he was carried on May 4. His disappearance caused the most intense excitement. By many it was believed that he had been murdered; by others the truth was suspected. The sentiment of the people was expressed by Albert Durer, the painter: "I know not whether he yet lives or is murdered, but in any case he has suffered for the Christian truth. . . .If we lose this man who has written more clearly than any one who has lived for one hundred and forty years, may God grant his spirit to another. . . . O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth expound to us the gospel?"