Diet of Worms

The Imperial Diet (German Reichstag) of Worms refers to Martin Luther’s legal appearance before Charles V in April 1521. There Luther defended himself before the civil government regarding the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnations of him as a heretic.

The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was convinced that the practices of the church were in error but he did not initially see himself protesting against the leadership of the church; instead, he felt he was trying to bring reform to the church.

Several debates and many tracts later, Luther had become a popular figure in Germany. For many reasons, Germans were unhappy with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, and resented the fact that Rome, rather than Germany, was telling German citizens what to do.

In addition, there had been much maneuvering surrounding the 1519 election of Charles V. The pope and Rome were not in favor of Charles V’s election, and there was little love lost between these two powerful figures. Yet Charles V wanted to cooperate with Rome, if only to show that he (and not the pope) had the power over Germany and its controversies.

In 1520 Pope Leo X wrote a document (papal bull) condemning Martin Luther, and describing him as a heretic. Luther was not excommunicated from the church at that time, but he knew it would not be long in coming. Yet Luther had political supporters in Germany, most notably several princes, including Elector Frederick the Wise, who was one of the small number of electors who chose a new emperor.

When the controversy was brought to Charles’s attention in 1520, he did not want to interfere in a church affair, seeing potentially much to lose and little to gain in getting involved. After some negotiating, Charles agreed to a hearing at the next German diet in April 1521, as long as the princes agreed to support his decision, and they did. He agreed also to grant Luther safe conduct (a significant issue, as one who was named a heretic was technically an outlaw in the Empire and could be killed without penalty).

Accompanied by an Imperial herald, in early April 1521, Luther slowly went from Wittenberg to the city of Worms, a journey of several hundred miles, preaching at several churches along the way. He was hailed as a hero by the townspeople in the various cities. Charles V was present when Luther arrived, conducting many other items of business. (The issue with Luther was only a small part of the schedule for the Diet.)

On April 17, 1521, Luther appeared before Charles, the papal envoy Alexander, and the princes of Germany. On a table nearby were piled high all of Luther’s writings. There he was asked two questions—were the writings his, and would he retract them? Luther answered that the writings were his, but that he needed more time to consider the answer to the second question.

Appearing the next day, Luther was asked again whether he would retract his writings, and his response was “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

While Luther is often credited as saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen,” most scholars believe this to be a later addition by one of Luther’s followers. A small committee was appointed by Charles to negotiate with Luther to see if he would retract portions of his statements. Luther was ready to admit that he overstated some of his attacks on the pope and church practices, but was unwilling to bend on any of his theological statements.

Faced with an impasse, Luther was dismissed, with a letter of safe conduct for 21 days. On his journey back to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped by soldiers loyal to Frederick the Wise and secretly taken to Frederick’s castle in Wartburg where he stayed for several months until the initial reaction to the Diet had quieted down.