Five hundred years ago this month, a monk and radical religious reformer confronted the powerful Holy Roman Emperor at the Imperial Diet held in the city of Worms in April 1521.
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, in ducal Saxony, had written the Ninety-Five Theses almost four years earlier in 1517 and their publication had produced widespread religious controversy and debate throughout the German speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther wrote further polemical texts and published them as religious pamphlets using printing presses, igniting fierce debate among Christians in Germany.
Ecclesiastic authorities of the Latin Christian Church responded to Luther’s polemical writings with criticism and accusations of heresy. In June 1520, Pope Leo X accused Martin Luther of deviating from Church teachings and ordered him to recant his ideas. Luther refused to conform to papal authority, leading the Pope to excommunicate him in January 1521.
The new Emperor Charles V von Habsburg was eager to resolve the escalating religious controversies in the Empire. Charles V had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in June 1519, following the death of Emperor Maximilian I von Habsburg, and then crowned King of the Romans in Aachen in October 1520. The young Emperor called for the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire to assemble in the city of Worms in order to consult on the religious controversy.
The clerical, noble, and urban elites who served as representatives of the Imperial Diet convened at Worms in January 1521. The Imperial Diet deliberated for several months on various political and social issues affecting the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Charles V summoned Martin Luther to the Imperial Diet and granted him a safe conduct to attend the assembly. Luther appeared in the Diet chambers on 16-18 April 1521, and was confronted by theologians and lawyers, including Johann von Eck, who challenged Luther to acknowledged his authorship of polemical writings attributed to him and to renounce their heretical ideas.
Martin Luther acknowledged his authorship of his writings, but refused to recant any of his ideas unless they could be proved not to be based on Scripture. Luther concluded: “I cannot and will not recant, since it is difficult, unprofitable and dangerous indeed to do anything against one’s conscience. God help me. Amen.”
Following the dramatic confrontation, Luther departed Worms and went into hiding at the castle of Wartburg, under the protection of Friedrich III, Duke of Saxony. Emperor Charles V declared Luther a heretic and issued an arrest warrant for him: “After the impertinent reply which Luther gave yesterday in our presence, I declare that I now regret having delayed so long the proceedings against him and his false doctrines. I am resolved that I will never again hear him talk. He is to be taken back immediately according to the arrangements of the mandate with due regard for the stipulations of his safe-conduct. He is not to preach or seduce the people with his evil doctrine and is not to incite rebellion. As said above, I am resolved to act and proceed against him as against a notorious heretic, asking you to state your opinion as good Christians and to keep the vow given me.”
When the Diet of Worms concluded, Emperor Charles V issued the Edict of Worms (25 May 1521), declaring Martin Luther’s ideas heretical.
News of the confrontation at the Diet of Worms spread rapidly due to accounts published in printed Flugschrift (news pamphlets) and distributed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Luther continued to publish new theological and polemical works that challenging papal leadership and asserted new criticisms of official Church teachings.
The confrontation at the Diet of Worms had failed to resolve the religious controversies surrounding Luther’s writings and instead exposed the serious nature of his theological positions and his criticisms of ecclesiastical authority. The Diet of Worms thus the deepened the religious controversies within Germany and led to the fragmentation of the Latin Christian Church.
The city of Worms has prepared a series of events to commemorate the Diet of Worms of 1521, but the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted or postponed many of those events.
DW reports on the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms. The German History in Documents and Images (GDHI) website has English translations of key documents about the Diet of Worms, including Martin Luther’s Declaration, Emperor Charles V’s Response, and the Edict of Worms.