Papal Plots Against Luther
As Luther exalted the word of God, and deposed the human power and authority that had usurped its place, the cry was raised by his enemies that he preached novelties, and that it could not be possible that great and learned men had been in so grave error. To this he answered: "These are not novelties that I preach. But I affirm that the doctrines of Christianity have been lost sight of by those whose special duty it was to preserve them; by the learned, by the bishops. I doubt not, indeed, that the truth has still found an abode in some few hearts, were it only with infants in the cradle. Poor husbandmen and simple children, in these days, understand more of Jesus Christ than the pope, the bishops, or the doctors."
Luther went steadily forward, rejoicing in his freedom from the shackles of Rome. He spoke and wrote as God moved him, not only confirming a that he had hitherto said, but still more decidedly protesting against the errors and abominations of popery. Every word was a living spark, burning away the accumulated rubbish of ages.
Rome was not idle. Her emissaries hastened to Germany to congratulate the new emperor, Charles the Fifth, and by their flatteries, false representations, and protests, influenced him to employ his power against the Reformation. The emperor gave his consent to the public burning of Luther's writings, beyond the limits of the German States.
The pope's ambassadors were warned that such a step would inflame the wound rather than heal it; that the doctrine of Luther was deeply engraved where it could not be obliterated, in the hearts of the German people; and that a few fagots consuming a few sheets of paper would be of little avail, while it would ill befit the dignity of the emperor. But these scheming Romans were aiming not merely at the productions of Luther's pen, but at Luther himself. "These fires," said they "are not sufficient to purify the pestilential atmosphere of Germany. Though they may strike terror into the simple-minded, they leave the author of the mischief unpunished. We must have an imperial edict sentencing Luther to death."
But they found it no easy matter to accomplish this object. The emperor was not prepared to take this step without the advice of his counselors. "Let us first ascertain," he responded, "what our father, the Elector of Saxony, thinks of the matter. We shall then be prepared to give our answer to the pope." And the papal delegates were obliged to confer with the good elector.
Here flatteries, arguments, and threats alike failed. To their demand that he destroy Luther's writings; and punish the Reformer as he deserved, or deliver him to the papal power, the elector replied that the matter was one of too great importance to be decided hastily, and that his determination in regard to it should be duly communicated to them.
May God help the elector now; for his position is one of great difficulty. He is partially convinced of the truth; but in his circumstances and surroundings a strong pressure is brought to bear against it. On the one side are the emperor, the princes of the empire, and above all the pope, whose power the elector was not yet ready to shake off; on the other side stands a poor monk, Martin Luther; for it is against this one man that all this assault is directed.
For a time it seemed that Satan was about to triumph. But God gave wisdom to Luther's defender; his courage, that had seemed to waver, again grew strong. He was filled with horror at the thought of delivering up to torture and death a man whom he believed to have been raised up of God to accomplish a great work. He saw that justice should be regarded above the desires of the pope, and he determined to act upon this principle.
The elector now gave the papal ambassadors to understand, "that neither his imperial Majesty nor any one else had yet made it appear to him that Luther's writings had been refuted, or demonstrated to be fit only for the flames; that he demanded, therefore, that Doctor Luther be furnished with a safe-conduct, and permitted to answer for himself before a tribunal composed of learned, pious, and impartial judges."
This was far from what the ambassadors desired. Every such opportunity granted to Luther had resulted in the weakening of the papal power and the strengthening and spread of the Reformation. To bring their arguments in contrast with the doctrines of Luther, which they knew they could not controvert, would prove a losing game to them. Justice and truth were principles which had no place in their system of faith or practice. The arguments which they could use with greatest effect against all opponents were fire and sword. They had expected the elector to yield to their demands, and without delay surrender the obnoxious monk. But Satan's power was circumscribed, and the cruel plots of Rome were frustrated by Him who is the eternal guardian of truth and justice.
Tidings of all that had transpired reached Wittenberg, and the friends of Luther were filled with joy. The Reformer pressed forward in his labors with fresh zeal. His words awoke new hope and courage in the hearts of the fearful and desponding. Luther stayed his soul upon God. His language was, "We see not the hand that is guiding us; we cannot, like Israel of old, look upon the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, and we hear not the voice that spoke to them from the mount. But if we wait upon the Lord, we shall be satisfied that the great Shepherd of Israel has been leading us all the way in the past, and that the path where he leads will be safe for all who follow him, even in the stormy days of trial and conflict." The first assembly of the German States after the accession of Charles the Fifth to the empire, gathered at Worms on the 6th of January, 1521. Never before had so many princes attended this national council. All were eager to take a part in the first acts of the young emperor's government, and all were ambitious to display their power and grandeur. There were important political questions and interests to be considered by this grand assembly, but all these appeared of little moment when contrasted with the cause of the monk of Wittenberg.
The emperor Charles was placed in a position of great perplexity and embarrassment. On the one hand was the papal legate, urging him to execute the pope's bull; on the other was the elector of Saxony, to whom he was in great degree indebted for his crown, and who entreated him to take no step against Luther until he should have granted him a hearing.
Charles had written to the elector to bring Luther with him to the diet, assuring him that the Reformer should be subjected to no injustice, that he should be protected from all violence, and should be allowed a free conference with one competent to discuss the disputed points.
Upon receiving this letter, the elector was not a little perplexed. Should he take the Reformer to Worms, he might be leading him to the scaffold. The friends of Luther were anxious and troubled; but he himself was clam. His health was at this time much impaired, yet he seemed anxious to appear before the emperor. He wrote to the elector: "If I cannot perform the journey to Worms as a man in good health, I will be carried thither on a litter. For, since the emperor has summoned me, I can regard it only as the cause of God. If they intend to use violence against me, as they probably do, for assuredly it is with no view of gaining information that they require me to appear before them, I commit the matter in the hands of God. He still lives and reigns who preserved the three Israelites in the fiery furnace. If it be not his will to save me, my life is but little worth. Let us only take care that the gospel be not exposed to the insults of the ungodly, and let us shed our blood in its defense rather than allow them to triumph. Who shall say whether my life or my death would contribute most to the salvation of my brethren? It is not for us to decide. Let us only pray God that our young emperor may not begin his reign by imbuing his hands in my blood. I would rather perish by the sword of Rome. You remember the judgments with which the emperor Sigismund was visited after the murder of John Huss. Expect anything from me but flight or recantation. Fly I cannot; still less can I recant."
The news was quickly circulated at Worms that Luther was to appear before the diet. A general excitement was created. Aleander, the papal legate to whom the care of Luther had been specially intrusted, was alarmed and enraged. On his way to the diet, this official had had opportunity to learn for himself how generally the gospel proclaimed by Luther had been received. He saw that it had found acceptance with the wealthy and learned, as well as with the poor and ignorant. Lawyers, nobles, the inferior ?? many of the monks, and vast numbers of the common people, had embraced it, and received the Bible only as their standard of faith and practice. The supporters of the new faith were firm and fearless, while the partisans of Rome seemed stricken with terror.
The pride of Aleander had been sorely wounded by the reception accorded him on his journey through Germany. So great had been the change in public sentiment that but little honor or even courtesy was shown the representative of Rome. He arrived at Worms in bitterness of spirit, both because of the insults which he himself had received, and because of the wide-spread defection from popery.
The legate saw that Luther's appearance at Worms would result only in disaster to the papal cause. To institute inquiry into a case in which the pope had already pronounced sentence of condemnation, would be to cast contempt upon the authority of the sovereign pontiff. Aleander set himself to prevent this by every means in his power.
Furthermore he was apprehensive that the eloquent and powerful argument of this man, who had already wrought so great mischief, might result in turning away many of the princes from the cause of the pope. He therefore, in the most urgent manner, remonstrated with Charles against Luther's appearance at Worms. He warned, entreated, and threatened, until the emperor yielded, and wrote to the elector that if Luther would not retract he must leave him behind at Wittenberg. The Reformer was much disappointed that he was forbidden to defend the truth at Worms. Aleander, not content with this victory, labored with all the power and cunning at his command to secure Luther's condemnation. With a persistence worthy of a better cause, he urged the matter upon the attention of princess, prelates, and other members of the assembly, accusing Luther of sedition, rebellion, impiety, and blasphemy. Satan's work bears the same stamp from century to century. The charges against Christ, against Stephen, and against Paul, were the same as the accuser of the brethren now urged against Luther. But in this case his rage brought its own defeat. The vehemence and passion manifested by Aleander, plainly revealed that he was actuated by hatred and revenge rather than by a zeal for religion. It was the prevailing sentiment of the assembly that Luther was innocent.
At this time the pope issued a new bull, and the excommunication which had before been threatened was decidedly pronounced against the Reformer and all who received his doctrines. Thus was broken the last tie that bound Luther to Rome.