Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Martin Luther refused to recant his Protestant Reformist views at the Diet of Worms, which led to his subsequent condemnation by the Catholic Church and the eventual rise of Protestantism.

Summary of Event

The Catholic Church’s condemnation of Martin Luther’s teachings at the Diet of Worms was a pivotal event in the Protestant Reformation Reformation;Germany , intensifying the dispute within the Church over theology, polity, and worship and helping produce a permanent division. Worms, Diet of (1521) Luther, Martin Charles V (1500-1558) Erasmus, Desiderius Frederick the Wise Alexander, Jerome Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Frederick the Wise Alexander, Jerome Erasmus, Desiderius Luther, Martin

Martin Luther was declared a heretic at the Diet of Worms (1521) for his teachings against the Church.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The Reformation’s roots lie in political, educational, technological, social, and religious developments between 1450 and 1517. Growing nationalism and the desire of European countries for greater independence from Rome contributed to the rise of Protestantism. So did Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, Printing;Reformation which enabled Luther’s attacks on the Catholic Church to be widely disseminated, and the expansion of universities, many of which supported the teachings of the Reformers. The revival of trade, growth of cities, and development of a middle class also played a role. The Reformation, however, was primarily a protest against religious abuses, especially the tremendous financial power and alleged doctrinal errors of the Church, the corruption of the Papacy, and the ignorance and moral laxity of priests.

In 1516, Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, experienced a religious awakening that led him to attack many of the Church’s teachings. The next year, he posted Ninety-five Theses Ninety-five Theses[Ninety five Theses] that he wished to debate publicly with other Catholic scholars. These theses challenged the Church’s political and economic power and its monopoly over spiritual matters. Guided by his belief that justification was by grace through faith alone, Luther rejected the Church’s long-standing practice of selling indulgences as a means of granting forgiveness of sin and insisted instead that only heart-felt confession brought such remission. Catholicism;Germany

During the next few years, Luther continued to denounce major Church doctrines through a series of very popular pamphlets. He contended that God had established only two sacraments—baptism and communion—rather than seven, argued that all Christians should read and interpret the Bible themselves, and urged laypeople to reform the Church.

In response, Pope Leo X issued a bull in June of 1520, condemning Luther’s teachings and excommunicating him from the Church. When the papal edict reached Luther, he protested that it offered no scriptural proof to refute any of his charges against the Church. In response to the burning of his books by Catholic authorities in Rome, Cologne, and other cities, Luther, on December 10, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, threw the papal edict and the papal constitutions and the canon law into a bonfire.

Frustrated by the failure of his appeals to the pope to call a council to reform the Church, Luther had written in August, 1520, to twenty-year-old Charles V, who was soon to be crowned king of Spain and officially given the title of Holy Roman Emperor by the pope, asking for a hearing. After the Church’s condemnation of Luther, Frederick the Wise, elector of the German province of Saxony, urged Charles V to hold a public trial in Germany to examine Luther’s views. Some Germans opposed this action. They reasoned that since the Church had already condemned Luther, the state should simply execute the Church’s edict against the heretic. The papal representative at the trial, Jerome Alexander, sought to convince Charles V to settle the case by himself without even consulting the German nobles who were divided in their opinions of Luther. This was not politically expedient, however, because Luther’s supporters in Germany were numerous, powerful, and outspoken.

A middle party, led by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, strove to mediate between these opposing groups and proposed creating an impartial tribunal to decide the case against Luther. In November of 1520, Charles V invited Luther to attend a hearing to present his views. The next month, after Luther’s burning of the papal bull, Charles V rescinded the invitation. Asked to endorse the imperial edict proclaiming Luther a heretic and a revolutionary, the German nobles protested that his teachings were so popular among the German people that condemning him without a hearing might provoke an insurrection. As a result, Luther was invited in the name of both Charles V and the German nobles to a council at Worms to examine his views.

Originally called to deal with issues relating to the administration of the empire, foreign policy, economics, and public peace, the diet had already been meeting for more than two months when Luther arrived on April 16 in Worms to a warm welcome by two thousand supporters. The next day Luther was summoned before the emperor, the German electors, and other civic leaders and was asked whether he had authored certain books. Some of those present hoped he would repudiate his vehement denunciation of the sacraments and instead rally the German people in an attack against the financial and political power of the Papacy and help them gain the same concessions that England, Spain, and France already enjoyed. Much to their disappointment, Luther acknowledged his authorship of the books. When asked if he defended all of them, Luther, perhaps awed by the gravity of the situation, begged for time to think over his answer.

Granted a twenty-four-hour reprieve, Luther was summoned on April 18 to a much larger, very crowded hall. In a ringing voice, he declared that all the books were his, but they were of different kinds. Some were simple explanations of Christian faith and life that even his enemies did not dispute. Appealing to German nationalism, he insisted that others of his books explained the “incredible tyranny” of the Papacy that was devouring his country. A third group of books attacked private individuals, but he would not renounce them either unless he was “convicted of error from the prophets and the Gospel.” Luther’s accusers replied that he simply renewed the errors of earlier Reformers John Wyclif and Jan Hus. They chastised Luther for putting his own judgment above that of “many famous men,” for having the audacity to “question the most holy orthodox faith.” In oft-quoted words, Luther responded,

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

Following this public meeting, commissioners representing the German estates met with Luther for several days of private conversation but failed to reach a compromise on the disputed issues. As a result, the diet on May 6, after several days of deliberation, approved the Edict of Worms. It accused Luther of sullying marriage, disparaging confession, misunderstanding communion, and promoting “rebellion, division, war, murder, . . . and the collapse of Christendom.” Labeling Luther “an obstinate schismatic and a manifest heretic,” Charles V commanded Germans to refuse Luther hospitality, lodging, food or drink, take him prisoner if they saw him, and prohibited them from reading his books. Although the edict was published, it was not enforced because Luther’s popularity was too great in Germany. This, coupled with the protection provided by Frederick the Wise, saved Luther’s life and allowed him to continue to lead the Reformation.

Significance

One of the most striking facts about the Diet of Worms was simply that it occurred, that the emperor did not execute the condemned Luther in private without a public hearing. That a single professor was granted a trial to assess his questions about the central doctrines of the Christian faith indicated that centuries of tradition were under assault. Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church not only challenged long-held doctrines but also shook the foundations on which Europe rested. The failure to achieve a compromise between Luther and the Church led to the Protestant Reformation, the division of Christendom, religious wars, and the fracturing of Europe’s cultural base.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1977. A highly acclaimed account of the life, work, and impact of Luther. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boehmer, Heinrich. Road to Reformation: Martin Luther to the Year 1521. Translated by John W. Doberstein and Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946. Based thoroughly on primary sources, the book provides exceptional detail and insight into Luther’s life and thinking to the conclusion of the Diet of Worms. Lucid and well written, this work is considered by many Luther scholars to be a classic in the field. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brecht, Martin. Luther: His Road to the Reformation, 1483-1521. Translated by James L. Schaff. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. A judicious analysis of the events leading to the diet, especially Luther’s conversion and his critique of the Catholic Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fife, Robert H. The Revolt of Martin Luther. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957. A very thorough and balanced biography of Luther that includes a detailed description of the diet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGrath, Alister E. The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Traces the influence of medieval theology and Humanism upon Luther and the Reformation. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKim, Donald K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An anthology of essays by noted scholars covering Luther’s theology, moral thought, skill with words, direct effects, and lasting legacy, among other topics. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004. Subtle and balanced portrayal of Luther’s theology and its cultural context, explaining the importance of the debates in which he intervened and tracing the ultimate results of that intervention. Luther’s character receives an equally nuanced treatment. Includes maps and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Shwarzbart. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. A lively and unconventional account of Luther’s development as a person, a theologian, and a Christian, by a renowned scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberman, Heiko A. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. Edited by Donald Weinstein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A posthumous collection of essays by one of the foremost Reformation scholars of the twentieth century. Revisits debates on Luther’s anti-Semitism. Argues that medieval religious thought was essential to both John Calvin’s and Luther’s understandings of Christianity. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Schwarzenfeld, Gertrude. Charles V: Father of Europe. Translated by Ruth M. Bethell. London: Hollis and Carter, 1957. A life of Charles V that explains his participation in and perspective on the Diet.

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

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