Luther Before the Diet
On the day following his arrival at Worms, Luther was notified to appear in the afternoon before the emperor and the members of the diet. This was the day that he had long desired; but to human appearance there was great danger before him.
On that day came a letter from a courageous knight, whispering in the Reformer's ear the words of an ancient prophet: "The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee; send thee help out of Zion; grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfill all thy counsel."
He added: "O beloved Luther, my venerated father! fear not, and stand firm. The counsel of the wicked has laid wait for you, and they have opened their mouths against you, like roaring lions. But the Lord will arise against them, and put them to flight. Fight, therefore, valiantly the battles of Christ. As for me, I, too, will combat boldly. Would to God that I were permitted to see how they frown. But the Lord will purge his vineyard. . . May Christ preserve you!"
At the appointed hour a herald appeared to conduct Luther to the presence of the diet. The streets were so thronged as to be impassable, and it was only through back ways and gardens that the Reformer and his attendants reached the town-hall. The roofs and the pavements, above, beneath, on every side, were covered with spectators. When they arrived at the hall, the crowd was so great that the soldiers were obliged to clear a passage. Within the outer inclosure every place was crowded. More than five thousand spectators, German, Spanish, and Italian, thronged the ante-chamber and recesses.
As Luther approached the door which was to admit him to the audience-room and the presence of his judges, an old general, the hero of many battles, touched him upon the shoulder as he passed, and shaking his head said to him kindly, "My poor monk, my poor monk, thou hast a march and a struggle to go through, such as neither I nor many other captains have seen the like in our most bloody battles. But if thy cause be just, and thou art sure of it, go forward in God's name and fear nothing! He will not forsake thee."
The doors are thrown open, and Luther enters. Never had any man appeared in the presence of a more imposing assembly. An emperor whose kingdom extended across both hemispheres; his brother, the archduke; the electors of the empire, most of whose successors were crowned heads; dukes, among whom were those fierce and bloody enemies of the Reformation, the Duke of Alva and his sons; archbishops, bishops, and prelates; the ambassadors of foreign nations; princes, counts, and barons; and the pope's ambassadors,--in all two hundred persons. Such were the judges before whom Martin Luther was to answer for his faith.
A signal victory was won for the truth, by the very fact of Luther's appearance before that princely council. That a man whom the pope had condemned should be judged by another tribunal, was virtually a denial of the pope's supreme authority. The Reformer, placed under ban, and denounced from human fellowship by the pope, had been assured protection, and was granted a hearing, by the highest dignitaries of the nation. The pope had commanded him to be silent; but he was about to speak in the presence of thousands assembled from all parts of Christendom.
In the presence of that powerful and titled assembly, the lowly-born Reformer seemed awed and embarrassed. Some princes who were near him, observing his emotion, approached him kindly and one of them whispered, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul." Another said, "When you are brought before kings, it shall be given you, by the Spirit of your Father, what you shall say." Thus the words of Christ were brought by the great ones of earth to strengthen the Reformer in his hour of trial.
Luther was conducted to a position directly in front of the emperor's throne. All eyes were fixed upon the man who had dared with pen and voice to resist the authority of the pope. A deep silence fell upon the crowded assembly. Then an imperial officer arose, and in a clear voice addressed the Reformer thus:--
"Martin Luther, his sacred and invincible Majesty has cited you before his throne, acting on the opinion and advice of the States of the holy Roman Empire, to require you to answer two questions; First, Do you acknowledge these writings to have been composed by you?" and the speaker pointed with his finger to about twenty volumes placed on a table in the center of the hall, immediately before Luther. "Secondly, Are you prepared to retract these works and the propositions contained therein, or do you persist in what you have therein advanced?"
The titles of the books having been read, Luther answered. "Most gracious emperor, princes, and lords! his imperial majesty puts to me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge the books just named to be mine. I cannot deny them. As to the second, whether I will maintain all these or retract them, seeing it is a question of faith and of one's salvation and of the word of God, which is the greatest treasure in Heaven and earth, and deserving at all times our highest reverence, it would be rash and perilous for me to speak inconsiderately, without reflection. I might affirm either more or less than is consistent with truth; in either case I should fall under the sentence of Christ. 'He that denieth me before men, him will I deny before my Father which is in Heaven.' Therefore I beg of your imperial majesty time for reflection, that I may be able to reply to the question proposed, without prejudice to the word of God or to my own salvation."
In making this request, Luther moved wisely. His course convinced the assembly that he did not act from passion or impulse. Such calmness and self-command, unexpected in one who had shown himself bold and uncompromising, added to his power, and enabled him afterward to answer with a prudence, decision, wisdom, and dignity, which surprised and disappointed his adversaries, and rebuked their insolence and pride.
The different orders of the diet withdrew for consultation, and when again assembled, they agreed to grant the Reformer's request, on condition, however, that his answer be returned by word of mouth, and not in writing.
As Luther was conducted to his lodgings, a rumor was circulated through the city that the pope had triumphed, and the Reformer would be brought to the stake. Both threats and expressions of respect and sympathy greeted him as he made his way through the crowded streets. Many visited him at his lodgings, and declared themselves ready to defend him with their lives. In the midst of the excitement, the Reformer alone was calm. A letter written by him at this time reveals his feelings:--
"I have just made my appearance before the emperor and his brother Ferdinand, and been asked whether I would retract my writings. I answered, The books laid before me are mine; but concerning the revocation, I will say what I will do to-morrow. This is all the time I asked, and all they will give. But Christ being gracious to me, I will not retract an iota."
The next day he was to appear before the diet to render his second answer. At times his heart sunk within him as he contemplated the forces that were combined against the truth. His faith faltered as his enemies seemed to multiply before him, and the powers of darkness to prevail. In anguish of spirit he threw himself with his face upon the earth, and poured out those broken, heart-rending cries which none but God can fully interpret. In his helplessness, his soul fastened upon Christ the mighty deliverer. It was not for his own safety, but for the success of the truth, that he wrestled mightily with God; and he prevailed. He was strengthened with the assurance that he would not appear alone before the council. Peace returned to his soul, and he rejoiced that he was permitted to uphold and defend the word of God before the rulers of the nation.
As the time for his appearance drew near, he approached a table on which lay the Holy Scriptures, placed his left hand upon the sacred volume, and raising his right hand to Heaven, he vowed to adhere constantly to the gospel, and to confess his faith freely, even though he should be called to seal his testimony with his blood.