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Luther Before the Diet of Worms

April 19th, 2008
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Yesterday, on April 18 1521, Martin Luther took his stand against both Pope and Emperor. Here is a modern depiction of these events:

Here is a transcript of his remarks:

The World’s Famous Orations.
Continental Europe (380–1906).  1906.
Before the Diet of Worms
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
in 1483, died in 1546; became a Monk at Erfurt in 1505; published, at
Wittenberg in 1517, his thesis against indulgences; excommunicated and
his writings burned in 1520; proscribed at Worms in 1521; published a
translation of the Bible in 1534.
this day appear before you in all humility, according to your command,
and I implore your majesty and your august highnesses, by the mercies
of God, to listen with favor to the defense of a cause which I am well
assured is just and right. I ask pardon, if by reason of my ignorance,
I am wanting in the manners that befit a court; for I have not been
brought up in king’s palaces, but in the seclusion of a cloister.
  Two questions were yesterday put to me by his imperial
majesty; the first, whether I was the author of the books whose titles
were read; the second, whether I wished to revoke or defend the
doctrine I have taught. I answered the first, and I adhere to that
  As to the second, I have composed writings on very different
subjects. In some I have discussed Faith and Good Works, in a spirit at
once so pure, clear, and Christian, that even my adversaries
themselves, far from finding anything to censure, confess that these
writings are profitable, and deserve to be perused by devout persons.
The pope’s bull, violent as it is, acknowledges this. What, then,
should I be doing if I were now to retract these writings? Wretched
man! I alone, of all men living, should be abandoning truths approved
by the unanimous voice of friends and enemies, and opposing doctrines
that the whole world glories in confessing!
  I have composed, secondly, certain works against popery,
wherein I have attacked such as by false doctrines, irregular lives,
and scandalous examples, afflict the Christian world, and ruin the
bodies and souls of men. And is not this confirmed by the grief of all
who fear God? Is it not manifest that the laws and human doctrines of
the popes entangle, vex, and distress the consciences of the faithful,
while the crying and endless extortions of Rome engulf the property and
wealth of Christendom, and more particularly of this illustrious nation?
  If I were to revoke what I have written on that subject, what
should I do…. but strengthen this tyranny, and open a wider door to so
many and flagrant impieties? Bearing down all resistance with fresh
fury, we should behold these proud men swell, foam, and rage more than
ever! And not merely would the yoke which now weighs down Christians be
made more grinding by my retractation—it would thereby become, so to
speak, lawful,—for, by my retractation, it would receive confirmation
from your most serene majesty, and all the States of the Empire. Great
God! I should thus be like to an infamous cloak, used to hid and cover
over every kind of malice and tyranny.
  In the third and last place, I have written some books
against private individuals, who had undertaken to defend the tyranny
of Rome by destroying the faith. I freely confess that I may have
attacked such persons with more violence than was consistent with my
profession as an ecclesiastic: I do not think of myself as a saint; but
neither can I retract these books. because I should, by so doing,
sanction the impieties of my opponents, and they would thence take
occasion to crush God’s people with still more cruelty.
  Yet, as I am a mere man, and not God, I will defend myself
after the example of Jesus Christ, who said: “If I have spoken evil,
bear witness against me” (John xviii:23).
How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes, and so prone to
error, desire that every one should bring forward what he can against
my doctrine.
  Therefore, most serene emperor, and you illustrious princes,
and all, whether high or low, who hear me, I implore you by the mercies
of God to prove to me by the writings of the prophets and apostles that
I am in error. As soon as I shall be convinced, I will instantly
retract all my errors, and will myself be the first to seize my
writings, and commit them to the flames.
  What I have just said I think will clearly show that I have
well considered and weighed the dangers to which I am exposing myself;
but far from being dismayed by them, I rejoice exceedingly to see the
Gospel this day, as of old, a cause of disturbance and disagreement. It
is the character and destiny of God’s word. “I came not to send peace
unto the earth, but a sword,” said Jesus Christ. God is wonderful and
awful in His counsels. Let us have a care, lest in our endeavors to
arrest discords, we be bound to fight against the holy word of God and
bring down upon our heads a frightful deluge of inextricable dangers,
present disaster, and everlasting desolations…. Let us have a care lest
the reign of the young and noble prince, the Emperor Charles, on whom,
next to God, we build so many hopes, should not only commence, but
continue and terminate its course under the most fatal auspices. I
might cite examples drawn from the oracles of God. I might speak of
Pharaohs, of kings of Babylon, or of Israel, who were never more
contributing to their own ruin than when, by measures in appearances
most prudent, they thought to establish their authority! “God removeth
the mountains and they know not” (Job ix:5).
  In speaking thus, I do not suppose that such noble princes
have need of my poor judgment; but I wish to acquit myself of a duty
that Germany has a right to expect from her children. And so commending
myself to your august majesty, and your most serene highnesses, I
beseech you in all humility, not to permit the hatred of my enemies to
rain upon me an indignation I have not deserved. 2
  Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses
require of me a simple, clear and direct answer, I will give one, and
it is this: I can not submit my faith either to the pope or to the
council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into
error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I
am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if
I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is
not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can
nor will retract anything; for it can not be right for a Christian to
speak against his country. I stand here and can say no more. God help
me. Amen. 3
Note 1. From
the version given in D’Aubigny’s “History of the Reformation”—the
American edition of 1845. This speech was delivered at Worms on April
18, 1520, in response to a summons from the emperor, Charles V., who
had assured Luther of a safe conduct to and from Worms. When the
chancellor had demanded of Luther, “Are you prepared to defend all that
your writings contain, or do you wish to retract any part of them?” it
is stated in the “Acts of Worms,” that Luther “made answer in a low and
humble voice, without any vehemence or violence, but with gentleness
and mildness and in a manner full of respect and diffidence, yet with
much joy and Christian firmness.” D’Aubigny says he took this speech,
word for word, from an authentic document. [back]
Note 2. D’Aubigny says that
after Luther had pronounced these words in German, “with modesty, yet
with much earnestness and resolution he was desired to repeat them in
Latin,” the emperor being not fond of German. The splendid assembly
which surrounded Luther, its noise and excitement, had exhausted him.
(“I was bathed in sweat,” said he, “and standing in the center of the
princes.”) But having taken a moment’s breathing time. Luther began
again “and repeated his address in Latin, with undiminished power.” The
chancellor spokesman of the Diet, then said, “You have not given any
answer to the inquiry put to you. You are not to question the decisions
of the councils—you are required to return a clear and distinct answer.
Will you or will you not retract?” Luther then proceeded with the
answer given in the final paragraph. [back]
Note 3. A detailed report of
this memorable scene describes how, at this point, Luther, after going
out of the room, was again summoned, and asked whether he actually
meant to say that councils had erred, to which he answered, they had
erred many times, mentioning the Council of Constance. Luther was then
told if he did not retract, the emperor and the States of the Empire
would proceed “to consider how to deal with an obstinate heretic,” to
which he answered, “May God be my helper, but I can retract nothing.”
Pressed once more, and reminded that he had not spoken “with that
humility which befitted his condition,” he said, “I have no other
answer to give than that I have already given.” The emperor then made a
sign to end the matter, rose from his seat, and the whole assembly
followed his example. [back]
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