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President of the Theological School of Geneva, and Vice-President

of the Société Evangelique:


B.A. Trinity College Cambridge. M.A. and Ph. Dr Heidelberg.




(1835 AD edition without footnotes)

Victories of the Word of God—The Diet of Worms—Policy of Rome—Difficulties—Charles demands Luther—The Elector to Charles V.—State of Feeling—Alarm of Aleander—The Elector departs without Luther—Aleander arouses Rome—excommunication of Pope and Communion with Christ—Fulminations of the Bull—Luther’s Motives in the Reformation.
THE Reformation, commenced by the struggles of an humble spirit in the cell of a cloister at Erfurth, had continually increased. An obscure individual, bearing in his hand the Word of Life, had stood firm before the mighty ones of the world, and they had shaken before him. He had wielded this arm of the Word of God, first against Tetzel and his numerous army; and those greedy merchants, after a brief struggle. had fled away: he next employed it against the Roman legate at Augsburg; and the legate in amazement had allowed the prey to escape him: somewhat later with its aid he contended against the champions of learning in the halls of Leipsic; and the astonished theologians had beheld their syllogistic weapons shivered in their hands: and, lastly, with this single arm, he had opposed the pope, when the latter, disturbed in his slumbers, had risen on his throne to blast the unfortunate monk with his thunders; and this same Word had paralyzed all the power of this head of Christendom. A final struggle remained to be undergone. The Word was destined to triumph over the emperor of the West, over the kings and princes of the earth; and then, victorious over all the powers of the world, to uprise in the Church, and reign as the very Word of God.

The entire nation was agitated. Princes and nobles, knights and citizens, clergy and laity, town and country,—all participated in the struggle. A mighty religious revolution, of which God himself was the prime mover, but which was also deeply rooted in the lives of the people, threatened to overthrow the long-venerated chief of the Roman hierarchy. A new generation of a serious, deep, active, and energetic spirit, filled the universities, cities, courts, castles, rural districts, and frequently even the cloisters. A presentiment that a great transformation of society was at hand, inspired all minds with holy enthusiasm. What would be the position of the emperor with regard to this movement of the age? and what would be the end of this formidable impulse by which all men were carried along?…...

A solemn diet was about to be opened: this was the first assembly of the empire over which Charles was to preside. As Nuremberg, where it should have been held, in accordance with the Golden Bull, was suffering from the plague, it was convoked to meet at Worms on the 6th January 1521. Never before had so many princes met together in diet; each one was desirous of participating in this first act of the young emperor’s government, and was pleased at the opportunity of displaying his power. The youthful landgrave Philip of Hesse, among others, who was afterwards to play so important a part in the Reformation, arrived at Worms, about the middle of January, with six hundred horsemen, among whom were warriors celebrated for their valour.

But a much stronger motive inclined the electors, dukes, archbishops, landgraves, margraves, counts, bishops, barons, and lords of the empire, as well as the deputies of the towns, and the ambassadors of the kings of Christendom, to throng with their brilliant trains the roads that led to Worms. It had been announced that, among other important matters to he laid before the diet, would be the nomination of a council of regency to govern the empire during Charles’s absence, and the jurisdiction of the imperial chamber; but public attention was more particularly directed to another question, which the emperor had also mentioned in his letters of convocation that of the Reformation. The great interests of worldly policy grew pale before the cause of the monk of Wittenberg. It was this which formed the principal topic of conversation between the noble personages who arrived at Worms.

Every thing announced that the diet would be stormy, and difficult to manage. Charles, who was hardly twenty years of age, was pale, of weak health, and yet a graceful horseman, able to break a lance like others of his time; his character was as yet undeveloped; his air was grave and melancholy, although of a kindly expression, and he had not hitherto shown any remarkable talent, and did not appear to have adopted any decided line of conduct. The skilful and active William de Croi, lord of Chièvres, his high chamberlain, tutor, and prime minister, who enjoyed an absolute authority at court, died at Worms: numerous ambitions here met; many passions came into collision; the Spaniards and the Belgians vied with each other in their exertions to creep into the councils of the young prince; the nuncios multiplied their intrigues; the German princes spoke out boldly. It might easily be foreseen that the under handed practices of parties would have a principal share in the struggle.

But over all these scenes of agitation hovered a terrible will—the Roman papacy, which, inflexible as the destiny of the ancients, had unceasingly crushed for ages past every doctor, king, or people that had opposed its tyrannous progress. A letter written at Rome in the month of January 1521, and by a Roman citizen, reveals its intentions. “If I am not mistaken, the only business in your diet will be this affair of Luther, which gives us much more trouble than the Turk himself. We shall endeavour to gain over the young emperor by threats, by prayers, and feigned caresses. We shall strive to win the Germans by extolling the piety of their ancestors, and by making them rich presents, and by lavish promises. If these methods do not succeed, we shall depose the emperor; absolve the people from their obedience; elect another (and he will be one that suits us) in his place; stir up civil war among the Germans, as we have just done in Spain; and summon to our aid the armies of the kings of France, England, and all the nations of the earth. Probity, honour, religion, Christ—we shall make light of all, provided our tyranny be saved.” A very slight familiarity with the history of the papacy is sufficient to show that these words are a faithful description of its policy. It is identically what Rome has always done when she has had the power: only the times were now a little changed. We shall soon behold her busy at her task.

Charles opened the diet on the 28th January 1521, the festival of Charlemagne. His mind was filled with the height importance of the imperial dignity. He said, in his opening discourse, that no monarchy could be compared with the Roman empire, to which nearly the whole world had submitted in former times; that unfortunately this empire was a mere shadow of what it once had been; but that, by means of his kingdoms and powerful alliances, he hoped to restore it to its ancient glory.

But numerous difficulties immediately presented themselves to the young emperor. What must he do, placed between the papal nuncio and the elector to whom he was indebted for his crown? How can he avoid displeasing either Aleander or Frederick? The first entreated the emperor to execute the pope’s bull, and the second besought him to take no steps against the monk until he had been heard. Desirous of pleasing both parties, the young prince, during his stay at Oppenheim, had written to the elector to bring Luther with hint to the diet, assuring him that no injustice should be shown to the reformer, that no violence should be used towards him, and that learned men should confer with him.

This letter, accompanied by others from Chièvres and the count of Nassau, threw the elector into great perplexity. At every moment the alliance of the pope might become necessary to the young and ambitious emperor, and then Luther’s fate was sealed. If Frederick should take the reformer to Worms, he might be leading him to the scaffold. And yet Charles’s orders were precise. The elector commanded Spalatin to communicate to Luther the letters he had received. “The adversaries,” said the chaplain to him, “are making every exertion to hasten on this affair.”

Luther’s friends were alarmed, but he himself did not tremble. His health was at that time very weak; but that was a trifling matter for him. “If I cannot go to Worms in good health,” replied he to the elector, I will be carried there, sick as I am. For if the emperor calls me, I cannot doubt that it is the call of God himself. If they desire to use violence against me, and that is very probable (for it is not for their instruction that they order me to appear), I place the matter in the Lord’s hands. He still lives and reigns who preserved the three young men in the burning fiery furnace. If He will not save me, my life is of little consequence. Let us only prevent the Gospel from being exposed to the scorn of the wicked, and let us shed our blood for it, for fear they should triumph. It is not for me to decide whether my life or my death will contribute most to the salvation of all. Let us pray God that our young emperor may not begin his reign by dipping his hands in my blood. I would rather perish by the sword of the Romans. You know what chastisement was inflicted on the Emperor Sigismund after the murder of John Huss. You may expect every thing from me except flight and recantation. Fly I cannot, and still less retract!”

Before receiving Luther’s reply, the elector had formed his resolution. This prince, who was advancing in the knowledge of the Gospel, now became more decided in his conduct. He felt that the conference at Worms would not have a favourable result. “It appears a difficult matter,” he wrote in reply to Charles, “to bring Luther with me to Worms; I beseech you to relieve me from this anxiety. Furthermore, I have never been willing to defend his doctrine, but only to prevent his being condemned without a hearing. The legates, without waiting for your orders, have permitted themselves to take a step at once dishonouring Luther and myself; and I much fear that they thus dragged Luther to commit a very imprudent act, which might expose him to great danger, if he were to appear before the diet.” The elector alluded to the burning of the papal bull

But the rumour of Luther’s coming was already current through the city. Men eager for novelty were delighted; the emperor’s courtiers were alarmed; but none showed greater indignation than the papal legate. On his journey, Aleander had been able to discover how far the Gospel announced by Luther had found an echo in all classes of society. Men of letters, lawyers, nobles, the inferior clergy, the regular orders, and the people, were gained over to the Reformation. These friends of the new doctrine walked boldly with heads erect; their language was fearless and daring; an invincible terror froze the hearts of the partisans of Rome. The papacy was still standing, but its buttresses were tottering; for their ears already distinguished a presage of destruction, like that indistinct murmur heard ere the mountain falls and crumbles into dust. Aleander on the road to Worms was frequently unable to contain himself. If he desired to dine or sleep in any place, neither the learned, the nobles, nor the priests, even among the supposed partisans of Rome, dared receive him; and the haughty nuncio was obliged to seek a lodging at inns of the lowest class. Aleander was frightened, and began to think his life in danger. Thus he arrived at Worms, and to his Roman fanaticism was then superadded the feeling of the personal indignities he had suffered. He immediately used every exertion to prevent the appearance of the bold and formidable Luther. “Would it not be scandalous,” said he, “to behold laymen examining anew a cause already condemned by the pope?Nothing is so alarming to a Roman courtier as inquiry; and yet, should this take place in Germany, and not at Rome, how great would be the humiliation, even were Luther’s condemnation to be agreed upon unanimously; but such a result appeared by no means certain. Will not Luther’s powerful eloquence, which has already committed such ravages, drag many princes and lords into inevitable destruction? Aleander pressed Charles closely: he entreated, threatened, and spoke as the nuncio of the head of the Church. Charles submitted, and wrote to the elector that the time accorded to Luther having already elapsed, this monk lay under the papal excommunication, so that, if he would not retract what he had written, Frederick must leave him behind at Wittenberg. But this prince had already quitted Saxony without Luther. “I pray the Lord to be favourable to our elector,” said Melancthon, as he saw him depart. It is on him all our hopes for the restoration of Christendom repose. His enemies will dare anything, Kai panta lithon kinesomenous [and they will not leave a stone unturned]; but God will confound the councils of Ahithophel. As for us, let us maintain our share of the combat by our teaching and by our prayers.” Luther was deeply grieved at being forbidden to come to Worms.

It was not sufficient for Aleander that Luther did not appear at Worms; he desired his condemnation. He was continually soliciting the princes, prelates, and different members of the diet; he accused the Augustine monk not only of disobedience and heresy, but even of sedition, rebellion, impiety, and blasphemy. But the very tone of his voice betrayed the passions by which he was animated. “He is moved by hatred and vengeance, much more than by zeal and piety,” was the general remark; and frequent and violent as were his speeches, he made no converts to his sentiments. Some persons observed to him that the papal bull had only condemned Luther conditionally; others could not altogether conceal the joy they felt at this humiliation of the haughtiness of Rome. The emperor’s ministers on the one hand, the ecclesiastical electors on the other, showed a marked coldness; the former, that the pope might feel the necessity of leaguing with their master; the latter, that the pontiff might purchase their support at a dearer price. A feeling of Luther’s innocence predominated in the assembly; and Aleander could not contain his indignation.

But the coldness of the diet made the legate less impatient than the coldness of Rome. Rome, which had had so much difficulty in taking a serious view of this quarrel of a “drunken German,” did not imagine that the bull of the sovereign pontiff would be ineffectual to humiliate and reduce him. She had resumed all her carelessness, and sent neither additional bulls nor money. But how could they bring this matter to an issue without money? Rome must be awakened. Aleander uttered a cry of alarm. “Germany is separating from Rome,” wrote he to the Cardinal de Medicis; “the princes are separating from the pope. Yet a little more delay, yet a little more negotiation, and hope will be gone. Money! money! or Germany is lost.”

Rome awoke at this cry; the vassals of the papacy, emerging from their torpor, hastily forged their redoubtable thunderbolts in the Vatican. The pope issued a new bull; and the excommunication, with which the heretical doctor had as yet been only threatened, was decidedly pronounced against him and all his adherents. Rome, by breaking the last tie which still bound him to the Church, augmented Luther’s liberty, and with increased liberty came an increase of strength. Cursed by the pope, he took refuge with fresh love at the feet of Christ. Ejected from the outward courts of the temple, he felt more strongly that he was himself a temple in which dwelt the living God.

It is a great glory,” said he, “that we sinners, by believing in Christ, and eating his flesh, possess within us, in all their vigour, his power, wisdom, and righteousness, as it is written, Whoso believeth in me, in him do I dwell. Wonderful abiding-place! marvellous tabernacle! far superior to that of Moses, and magnificently adorned within, with beautiful hangings, curtains of purple, and ornaments of gold; while without, as on the tabernacle that God commanded to be built in the desert of Sinai, we perceive nought but a rude covering of goats’ hair and rams’ skins. Often do Christians stumble, and, to look at them outwardly, they seem all weakness and reproach. But this matters not, for beneath this weakness and this foolishness dwells in secret a power that the world cannot know, and which yet overcometh the world; foe’ Christ dwelleth in us. I have sometimes beheld Christians walking lamely and with great feebleness; but when came the hour of conflict or of appearing before the bar of’ the world, Christ suddenly stirred within them, and they became so strong and so resolute, that Satan fled away frightened from before their face.”

Such an hour would soon strike for Luther; and Christ, in whose communion he dwelt, could not fail him. Meantime Rome rejected him with violence. The reformer and all his partisans were accursed, whatever their rank and power, aced dispossessed, with their inheritors, of all their honours and goods. Every faithful Christian, who valued the salvation of his soul, was to flee at the sight of this accursed band. Wherever the heresy had been introduced, the priests were enjoined, on Sundays and festivals, at the hour when the churches were thronged with worshippers, to publish the excommunication with due solemnity. The altars were to be stripped of their ornaments and sacred vessels; the cross to be laid on the ground; twelve priests holding tapers in their hands were first to light them, and immediately dashing them violently to the earth, to extinguish them under their feet; the bishop was then to proclaim the condemnation of these unbelievers; all the bells were to be rung; - the bishops and priests were to utter their anathemas and maledictions, and preach boldly against Luther and his adherents.

The excommunication had been published in Rome twenty-two days, but probably had not yet reached Germany, when Luther, being informed that there was another talk of summoning him to Worms, wrote a letter to the elector, drawn up in such a manner that Frederick might show it to the diet. Luther was desirous of correcting the erroneous ideas of the princes, and of frankly laying before this august tribunal the true nature of a cause so misunderstood. “I rejoice with all my heart, most serene Lord,” says he, that his imperial majesty desires to summon me before him touching this affair. I call Jesus Christ to witness, that it is the cause of the whole German nation, of the universal Church, of the christian world, nay, of God himself and not of an individual, especially such a one as myself. I am ready to go to Worms, provided I have a safe-conduct, and learned, pious, and impartial judges. I am ready to answer for it is not from a presumptuous spirit, or to derive any advantage, that I have taught the doctrine with which I am reproached: it is in obedience to my conscience and to my oath as doctor of the Holy Scriptures: it is for the glory of God, for the salvation of the Christian Church, for the good of the German nation, and for the extirpation of so much superstition, abuse, evil, scandal, tyranny, blasphemy, and impiety.”

This declaration, drawn up at a moment so solemn for Luther, merits particular attention. Such were the motives of his actions, and the inward springs that led to the revival of christian society. This is very different from the jealousy of a monk or the desire of marriage!

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