The Diet of Worms was an imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire convoked by Emperor Charles V. It was held in the city of Worms located not far from Heidelberg. An imperial ‘diet’ was a deliberative assembly of the whole empire. This diet was conducted from January 28 to May 25 of 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding. Other imperial diets took place at Worms in different years (829, 926, 1076, 1122, 1495, and 1545), but the diet in 1521 is the best known.
In that day, the city of Worms had a population of about 7,000. It is estimated that twice that number of visitors filled the city from the first of the year. Summoned by the emperor Charles V, to this city came churchmen from all over Europe including faraway Rome, political rulers high and low from all regions of Germany, and Martin Luther with a large, wildly supportive following.
The diet was first and foremost a political gathering called by the new Emperor Charles V. Charles was born in 1500 in present-day Belgium and spent much of his early life in the Lowlands. Through various alliances and marriages of his grandparents and parents, by age 16 he was the ruler in such varied places as Spain, Austria, and the Lowlands. Three years later, in June 1519, he was selected to be ruler over the German provinces and given the title “Holy Roman Emperor.”
How did this come about? The area of Germany that still considered itself “the Empire” was composed of many independent provinces. Within these provinces were seven electors, three of whom were high church officials and four who were rulers in their provinces. When their previous emperor (Maximilian I, grandfather of Charles) died in January of 1519, the electors looked about for a replacement. The three leading candidates were Frederick the Wise, one of the prominent electors, Francis I, King of France, and Charles. Due largely to Frederick’s influence, the electors chose Charles. He was 19 years old. On the one hand, he was well schooled in the business of ruling because of his upbringing in a royal family. On the other hand, he was unfamiliar with the political landscape of the German provinces that still called themselves collectively the Holy Roman Empire.
The diet, therefore, was necessary for Charles to set his political house in order. He wished to meet with the various rulers and begin charting the course for his domain. He faced significant issues. To begin, the Turks were pressing on the eastern borders of the empire, and he wanted the German princes to agree to join forces to battle the Turks. He was concerned about possible threats from France. Charles was also considering a possible alliance with England, where his aunt Catherine was married to King Henry VIII. The empire needed a council of regency set up for governing the empire when the emperor was absent. Finally, the finances of the empire needed to be arranged on a solid footing.
These were some of the issues that the diet would face. To this assembly the German princes came by the hundreds—the electors, the governors, and rulers at all levels attended. Some of the more notable included Frederick the Wise, ruler of the province of Saxony (which included Wittenberg); Duke George of Saxony, an early supporter of Luther who had become a bitter foe; and Dietrich von Clemm, master of the Teutonic Knights. Besides the rulers, many doctors of theology from various universities came to Worms.
In addition to Charles’ ambitious political agenda and all the issues he faced, there was also the “German problem.” This was a reference to Martin Luther, his attacks on the Romish church, and the storm of political protest arising out of Martin Luther’s writings. Charles had already made plain what was in his heart. He was a faithful son of the Church of Rome and would defend Rome to the end. But how to deal with Luther in his new position, that was the question.
The high officials of the Roman Catholic Church were present in force to exert all the influence they could on Charles. Many cardinals and archbishops attended. Two specially appointed papal legates were present, commissioned by Pope Leo X. The leader of the church officials was the legate Hieronymous Aleander. Aleander had formerly held the significant positions of rector of the renowned university of Paris and then the Vatican librarian. Pope Leo had selected him to be the special papal advisor to Charles V on the Luther matter. Aleander’s goal was to obtain Charles’ condemnation of Luther, thus supporting the papal bull condemning Luther. He hoped to gain this while at the same time not giving Luther any opportunity for a public hearing.
And finally, attending the diet was Martin Luther himself. His appearance at the Diet of Worms occurred only two and a half years after he had posted his Ninety- five Theses in Wittenberg. Luther’s life since that day had been a whirlwind of activity as he was driven by the controversy. Many monks, priests, bishops, university professors, and special papal delegates had attacked Luther. The printing press spread his replies and his teachings far and wide.
And then there were the public debates. In April of 1518, he debated John Eck on the topic of sin, free will, and grace (Heidelberg Disputation). As a result of this, Luther came to reject the notion that works merit with God and that fallen man has a free will. God was leading Luther step by step into a deeper understanding of the issues of the great battle for sovereign grace in salvation.
Rome took serious notice of Luther after Heidelberg, recognizing the real threat to papal power. On August 7, Luther received a papal letter instructing him to report to Rome in 60 days. On August 23, the pope demanded of Frederick the Wise that he deliver up this “child of the devil.” Frederick rather arranged for a meeting with Cardinal Cajetan at the upcoming Diet of Augsburg in October. Luther and Cardinal Cajetan debated the issues. Cajetan ordered Luther to renounce his views. Luther refused. We should notice that Frederick’s refusal to hand over Luther is significant: it is the first instance of a ruler protecting one of the Reformation figures.
The pope tried diplomacy once more, sending Karl von Miltitz in January 1519. He did everything in his power to persuade Luther to renounce his views and submit to Rome. He did obtain from Luther a promise to write a letter of apology to the pope asking for pardon, which Luther did in March.
Next came the Leipzig Disputation in the summer of 1519, sanctioned by Duke George of Saxony. Once again Luther faced the capable debater John Eck. In preparation for this debate, Luther had studied the issue of papal authority, its history and claims. Eck and Luther faced off. Eck charged Luther with the errors of Jon Hus on the doctrine of the church. Luther first denied it, but after reading some of the Council of Constantine’s judgments against Hus, he concluded that Hus was correct in many respects, and that the Council of Constance had wrongly condemned Hus. The significance is that Luther became convinced that councils and popes are not infallible. And, especially important, his conviction was confirmed that Scripture is the only authority!
The year 1520 was a watershed year. On June 15, 1520 the papal bull Exsurge Domine gave Luther 60 days to recant or be excommunicated. Luther’s full condemnation was not far behind. (See the following article for details.)
In the meantime, Luther continued to study and write. He wrote three especially important works in 1520. The first was To the Christian Nobility. In this address to the German nobles, Luther set forth the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Spirit is given to all believers and guides them into the truth. He also appealed to the nobles to provide education for the people. The second was On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this work, Luther examined all seven sacraments of Rome, and took the position that there are but three sacraments, not seven (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Penance). He also destroyed the bedrock of the whole sacerdotal system of worship by rejecting transubstantiation. When Erasmus read this work, he is reported to have said that this made the rift between Luther and Rome permanent. The third significant work was The Freedom of a Christian, which developed the truth of Christian liberty. Luther sent this to Pope Leo X.
God was using Luther to reform His church. Luther was also the darling of the German people, long oppressed and robbed by the Romish church. When Luther came to Worms, he was accompanied by a crowd of enthusiastic supporters including knights and peasants. His arrival led to as much excitement as the coming of the emperor. Aleander reported the mood of the city, even of Germany. “All Germany is in revolution. Nine tenths shout ‘Luther!’ as their war cry; and the other tenth cares nothing about Luther, and cries: ‘Death to the court of Rome!’”1
This was the highly charged atmosphere in which the Diet of Worms was held. The rulers of Germany were likewise very divided on their view of Luther, though for many rulers their support for Luther was not out of religious conviction but political motivations. Nonetheless, the Diet of Worms would be a most significant moment, even a defining moment for Luther and the Reformation. And God providentially ensured that His chosen Reformer would not be put to death and that the Reformation would not be squelched. On the contrary, the stand of Luther would be the clearest and boldest public confession of his convictions grounded on the holy Scriptures.
1 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 70.