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§ 55. Luther’s Testimony before the Diet.

April 17 and 18, 1521.

See Lit. in § 53.

On the day after his arrival, in the afternoon at four o’clock, Luther was led by the imperial marshal, Ulrich von Pappenheim, and the herald, Caspar Sturm, through circuitous side-streets, avoiding the impassable crowds, to the hall of the Diet in the bishop’s palace where the Emperor and his brother Ferdinand resided. He was admitted at about six o’clock. There he stood, a poor monk of rustic manners, yet a genuine hero and confessor, with the fire of genius and enthusiasm flashing from his eyes and the expression of intense earnestness and thoughtfulness on his face, before a brilliant assembly such as he had never seen: the young Emperor, six Electors (including his own sovereign), the Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers in Church and State.355355    Walch, XV. 2225-2231, gives a list of over two hundred members of the Diet that were present. Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.

Dr. Johann von Eck,356356    Not to be confounded with the more famous Dr. Eck of Ingolstadt. Aleander, who lodged with him on the same floor, calls him "homo literatissimo" and "orthodoxo," who had already done good service in the execution of the papal demands at Treves. Brieger, I. 146. In a dispatch of April 29, he solicits a present for him from the Roman See. ("Al official de Treveri un qualche presente sarebbe util," etc., p. 174). Froude, in his Luther (pp. 32, 33, 35), confounds the Eck of Treves with the Eck of Ingolstadt, Aleander with Cajetan, and makes several other blunders, which spoil his lively description of the scene at Worms. as the official of the Archbishop of Treves, put to him, in the name of the Emperor, simply two questions in Latin and German,—first, whether he acknowledged the books laid before him on a bench (about twenty-five in number) to be his own; and, next, whether he would retract them. Dr. Schurf, Luther’s colleague and advocate, who stood beside him, demanded that the titles of those books be read.357357    "Legantur tituli librorum," he cried aloud. This was done. Among them were some such inoffensive and purely devotional books as an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and of the Psalms.

Luther was apparently overawed by the August assembly, nervously excited, unprepared for a summary condemnation without an examination, and spoke in a low, almost inaudible tone. Many thought that he was about to collapse. He acknowledged in both languages the authorship of the books; but as to the more momentous question of recantation he humbly requested further time for consideration, since it involved the salvation of the soul, and the truth of the word of God, which was higher than any thing else in heaven or on earth.

We must respect him all the more for this reasonable request, which proceeded not from want of courage, but from a profound sense of responsibility.

The Emperor, after a brief consultation, granted him "out of his clemency" a respite of one day.

Aleander reported on the same day to Rome, that the heretical "fool" entered laughing, and left despondent; that even among his sympathizers some regarded him now as a fool, others as one possessed by the Devil; while many looked upon him as a saint full of the Holy Spirit; but in any case, he had lost much of his reputation.358358    Letter to Vice-Chancellor Medici, Worms, April 17, 1521 (in Brieger, l.c. p. 147): "El pazzo era entrato ridendo et coram Cesare girava il capo continuamente quà et là, alto e basso; poi net partir non parea così allegro. Quì molti di quelli et [=etiam]che lo favoreggiavano, poi che l’hanno visto, l’hanno existimado chi pazzo, chi demoniaco, molti altri santo et pieno di spiritu santo; tutta volta ha perso in ogni modo molta reputatione della opinione prima."

The shrewd Italian judged too hastily. On the same evening Luther recollected himself, and wrote to a friend: I shall not retract one iota, so Christ help me."359359    April 17, to John Cuspinianus, an imperial counsellor. See De Wette, I. 587 sq.

On Thursday, the 18th of April, Luther appeared a second and last time before the Diet.

It was the greatest day in his life. He never appeared more heroic and sublime. He never represented a principle of more vital and general importance to Christendom.

On his way to the Diet, an old warrior, Georg von Frundsberg, is reported to have clapped him on the shoulder, with these words of cheer: "My poor monk, my poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever done in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God’s name, and be of good courage: God will not forsake thee."360360    "Mönchlein, Mönchlein, du gehst jetzt einen Gang, dergleichen ich und mancher Oberster auch in unserer allerernstesten Schlachtordnung nicht gethan haben," etc. The saying is reported by Mathesius (who puts it on the second day of trial, not on the first, as Köstlin and others), by Spangenberg and Seckendorf (Leipzig ed. of 1694, vol. I. 156, in Latin and German).

He was again kept waiting two hours outside the hall, among a dense crowd, but appeared more cheerful and confident than the day before. He had fortified himself by prayer and meditation, and was ready to risk life itself to his honest conviction of divine truth. The torches were lighted when he was admitted.

Dr. Eck, speaking again in Latin and German, reproached him for asking delay, and put the second question in this modified form:, Wilt thou defend all the books which thou dost acknowledge to be thine, or recant some part?"

Luther answered in a well-considered, premeditated speech, with modesty and firmness, and a voice that could be heard all over the hall.361361    "Respondit Doctor Martinus et ipse latine et germanice, quanquam suppliciter, non clamose, ac modeste, non tamen sine Christiana animositate et constantia."Acta, etc. (Op. Lat., VI. 9). He began with the customary titles: "Allerdurchlauchtigster, grossmächtigster Kaiser, Durchlauchtige Churfürsten, gnädigste und gnädige Herren!" These fulsome titles are used to this day in Germany, as if a king or emperor were mightier than the Almighty I

After apologizing for his ignorance of courtly manners, having been brought up in monastic simplicity, he divided his books into three classes:362362    In his report at Eisleben, he calls the three classes briefly Lehrbücher, Zankbücher, and Disputationes. (1) Books which simply set forth evangelical truths, professed-alike by friend and foe: these he could not retract. (2) Books against the corruptions and abuses of the papacy which vexed and martyred the conscience, and devoured the property of the German nation: these he could not retract without cloaking wickedness and tyranny. (3) Books against his popish opponents: in these he confessed to have been more violent than was proper, but even these he could not retract without giving aid and comfort to his enemies, who would triumph and make things worse. In defense of his books he could only say in the words of Christ:, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?" If his opponents could convict him of error by prophetic and evangelical Scriptures, he would revoke his books, and be the first to commit them to the flames. He concluded with a warning to the young Emperor not to begin his reign by condemning the word of God, and pointed to the judgments over Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, and the ungodly kings of Israel.

He was requested to repeat his speech in Latin.363363    So Luther says himself (in his Eisleben report of the Worms events, in the Erl. Frkf. ed., vol. LXIV. 370): "Dieweil ich redete, begehrten sie von mir, ich sollt es noch einmal wiederholen mit lateinischen Worten ... Ich wiederholte alle meine Worte lateinisch. Das gefiel Herzog Friedrich, dem Churfürsten überaus wohl." Spalatin confirms this in Epitome Actorum Lutheri, etc.: "Dixit primo germanice, deinde latine." Other reports put the Latin speech first; so the Acta Luth. (in the Erl. Frkf. ed. of Op. Lat., VI. 9: respondit D. Martinus et ipse latine et germanice). Köstlin follows the latter report (I. 445, 451), and overlooked the testimony of Luther, who must have known best. This he did with equal firmness and with eyes upraised to heaven.

The princes held a short consultation. Eck, in the name of the Emperor, sharply reproved him for evading the question; it was useless, he said, to dispute with him about views which were not new, but had been already taught by Hus, Wiclif, and other heretics, and had been condemned for sufficient reasons by the Council of Constance before the Pope, the Emperor, and the assembled fathers. He demanded a round and direct answer, without horns."

This brought on the crisis.

Luther replied, he would give an answer "with neither horns nor teeth."364364    In the German text, "ein unstüssige und unbeissige Antwort" (vol. LXIV. 382); i.e., an answer neither offensive nor biting—with reference, no doubt, to his concluding warning. From the inmost depths of his conscience educated by the study of the word of God, he made in both languages that memorable declaration which marks an epoch in the history of religious liberty: —

"Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience."365365    We give also the German and Latin texts."Weil denn Eure Kaiserliche Majestät und Eure Gnaden eine schlichte Antwort begehren, so will ich eine Antwort ohne Hörner und Zähne geben diesermassen: ’Es sei denn, dass ich durch Zeugnisse der Schrift oder durch helle Gründe überwunden werde—denn ich glaube weder dem Papst, noch den Konzilien allein, dieweil am Tag liegt, dass sie öfters geirrt und sich selbst widersprochen haben,—so bin ich überwunden durch die von mir angeführten heiligen Schriften, und mein Gewissen ist gefangen in Gottes Wort; widerrufen kann ich nichts und will ich nichts, dieweil wider das Gewissen zu handeln unsicher und gefährlich ist.’ " See Köstlin, I. 452. The oldest reports vary a little in the language. Some have scheinbarliche und merkliche Ursachen for helle Gründe, and at the close:"dieweil wider das Gewissen zu handeln beschwerlich und unheilsam, auch gefährlich ist." Werke (Erl. Frkf. ed.), vol. LXIV. 382.
The Latin text as given in the Acta Lutheri Wormatiae habita is as follows: "Hic Lutherus: Quando ergo serenissima Majestas vestra Dominationesque vestrae simplex responsum petunt, dabo illud, neque cornutum, neque dentatum, in hunc modum: ’Nisi convictus fuero testimoniis Scripturarum, aut ratione evidente (nam neque Papae, neque Conciliis solis credo, cum constet eos errasse saepius, et sibi ipsis contradixisse), victus sum Scripturis a me adductis captaque est conscientia in verbis Dei; revocare neque possum neque volo quidquam, cum contra conscientiam agere neque tutum sit, neque integrum.’ " Opera Lat. (Frankf. ed.), vol. VI. 13 sq.

So far the reports are clear and harmonious. What followed immediately after this testimony is somewhat uncertain and of less importance.

Dr. Eck exchanged a few more words with Luther, protesting against his assertion that Councils may err and have erred. "You can not prove it," he said. Luther repeated his assertion, and pledged himself to prove it. Thus pressed and threatened, amidst the excitement and confusion of the audience, he uttered in German, at least in substance, that concluding sentence which has impressed itself most on the memory of men: —

"Here I stand. [I can not do otherwise.] God help me! Amen."366366    "Hier steh’ ich. [Ich kann nicht anders.] Gott helfe mir! Amen." The bracketed words cannot be traced to a primitive source. See the critical note at the close of this section.

The sentence, if not strictly historical, is true to the situation, and expresses Luther’s mental condition at the time,—the strength of his conviction, and prayer for God’s help, which was abundantly answered. It furnishes a parallel to Galileo’s equally famous, but less authenticated, "It does move, for all that" (E pur si muove).

The Emperor would hear no more, and abruptly broke up the session of the Diet at eight o’clock, amid general commotion.

On reaching his lodgings, Luther threw up his arms, and joyfully exclaimed, "I am through, I am through? "To Spalatin, in the presence of others, he said, "If I had a thousand beads, I would rather have them all cut off one by one than make one recantation."

The impression he made on the audience was different according to conviction and nationality. What some admired as the enthusiasm of faith and the strength of conviction, appeared to others as fanaticism and heretical obstinacy.

The Emperor, a stranger to German thought and speech,367367    The little German he knew was only the Platt-Deutsch of the Low Countries. He always communicated with his German subjects in Latin or French, or by the mouth of his brother Ferdinand. declared after the first hearing: "This man will never make a heretic of me." He doubted the authorship of the famous books ascribed to him.368368    Aleander (l.c. p. 170): "Cesar palam dixit et sepissime postea repetiit, che mai credera che l’ habbii composto detti libri." The mixing of Latin and Italian is characteristic of the Aleander dispatches. He was inclined to ascribe the authorship of the greater part of Luther’s books to Melanchthon, of whom he says that he has "un belissimo, ma malignissimo ingegno (p. 172). At the second hearing he was horrified at the disparagement of general Councils, as if a German monk could be wiser than the whole Catholic Church. The Spaniards and Italians were no doubt of the same opinion; they may have been repelled also by his lowly appearance and want of refined manners. Some of the Spaniards pursued him with hisses as he left the room. The papal legates reported that he raised his hands after the manner of the German soldiers rejoicing over a clever stroke, and represented him as a vulgar fellow fond of good wine.369369    Aleander and Caracciolo to the Vice-Chancellor Medici, April 19, 1521 (Brieger, I. 153): "Martino uscito fuora della sala Cesarea alzò la mano in alto more militum Germanorum, quando exultano di un bel colpo di giostra." In a letter of April 27 (l.c. p. 166), they call Luther "il venerabile ribaldo," who before his departure drank in the presence of many persons "molte tazze di malvasia, della qual ne è forte amoroso." The charge of intemperance is repeated in a dispatch of April 29 (p. 170): "la ebrietà, alla quale detto Luther è deditissimo." That Luther used to drink beer and wine according to the universal custom of his age, is an undoubted fact; but that he was intemperate in eating or drinking, is a slander of his enemies. Melanchthon, who knew him best, bears testimony to his temperance. See below, the section on his private life. They praised the Emperor as a truly Christian and Catholic prince who assured them the next day of his determination to treat Luther as a heretic. The Venetian ambassador, otherwise impartial, judged that Luther disappointed expectations, and showed neither much learning, nor much prudence, nor was he blameless in life.370370    Contarenus ad Matthaeum Dandalum, quoted by Ranke, I. 336.

But the German delegates received a different impression. When Luther left the Bishop’s palace greatly exhausted, the old Duke Erik of Brunswick sent him a silver tankard of Eimbeck beer, after having first drunk of it himself to remove suspicion. Luther said, "As Duke Erik has remembered me to-day, may the Lord Jesus remember him in his last agony." The Duke thought of it on his deathbed, and found comfort in the words of the gospel: "Whosoever shall give unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, he shall in no wise lose his reward." The Elector Frederick expressed to Spalatin the same evening his delight with Luther’s conduct: "How excellently did Father Martin speak both in Latin and German before the Emperor and the Estates! He was bold enough, if not too much so."371371    Walch, XV. 2246. The cautious Elector would have been still better pleased if Luther had been more moderate, and not attacked the Councils. Persons of distinction called on him in his lodgings till late at night, and cheered him. Among these was the young Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who afterwards embraced the cause of the Reformation with zeal and energy, but did it much harm by his bigamy. After a frivolous jest, which Luther smilingly rebuked, he wished him God’s blessing.372372    The interview as related by Luther (Walch, XV. 2247; Erlangen-Frankfurt edition, LXIV. 373) is characteristic of this prince, and foreshadows his future conduct. "Der Landgraf von Hessen kam zu Worms erstlich zu mir. Er war aber noch nicht auf meiner Seiten, und kam in Hof geritten, ging zu mir in mein Gemach, wollte mich sehen. Er war aber noch sehr jung, sprach: Lieber Herr Doctor, wie geht’s? Da antwortete ich: Gnädiger Herr, ich hoff, essoll gut werden. Da sagte er: Ich höre, Herr Doctor, ihr lehret, wenn ein Mann alt wird und seiner Frauen nicht mehr Ehepflicht leisten kann, dass dann die Frau mag einen anderen Mann nehmen, und lachte, denn die Hofräthe hatten’s ihm eingeblasen. Ich aber lachte auch und sagte: Ach nein, gnädiger Herr, Euer Fürstlich Gnad sollt nicht also reden. Aber er ging balde wieder von mir hinweg, gab mir die Hand und sagte: Habt ihr Recht, Herr Doctor, so helfe euch Gott."

The strongest sympathizers with Luther were outside of the Diet, among the common people, the patriotic nobles, the scholars of the school of Erasmus, and the rising generation of liberal men. As he returned from the Diet to his lodgings, a voice in the crowd was heard to exclaim: "Blessed be the womb that bare this son." Tonstal, the English ambassador, wrote from Worms, that "the Germans everywhere are so addicted to Luther, that, rather than he should be oppressed by the Pope’s authority, a hundred thousand of the people will sacrifice their lives."373373    In Fiddes Life of Wolsey, quoted by Ranke, I. 337, note. In the imperial chambers a paper was found with the words: "Woe to the nation whose king is a child" (Eccl. x. 16).374374    Ranke (I. 337) says "in den kaiserlichen Gemächern." Other reports say that these words were placarded in public places at Worms. An uprising of four hundred German knights with eight thousand soldiers was threatened in a placard on the city hall; but the storm passed away. Hutten and Sickingen were in the Emperor’s service. "Hutten only barks, but does not bite," was a saying in Worms.

The papal party triumphed in the Diet. Nothing else could be expected if the historic continuity of the Latin Church and of the Holy German Roman Empire was to be preserved. Had Luther submitted his case to a general council, to which in the earlier stages of the conflict he had himself repeatedly appealed, the result might have been different, and a moderate reform of the mediaeval Church under the headship of the Pope of Rome might have been accomplished; but no more. By denying the infallibility of a council, he openly declared himself a heretic, and placed himself in opposition to the universal opinion, which regarded oecumenical Councils, beginning with the first of Nicaea in 325, as the ultimate tribunal for the decision of theological controversies. The infallibility of the Pope was as yet an open question, and remained so till 1870, but the infallibility of a general council was at that time regarded as settled. A protest against it could only be justified by a providential mission and actual success.

It was the will of Providence to prepare the way, through the instrumentality of Luther, for independent church-organizations, and the development of new types of Christianity on the basis of the word of God and the freedom of thought.


These words of Luther have been reported again and again, not only in popular books, but in learned histories, without a doubt of their genuineness. They are engraven on his monument at Worms.

But this very fact called forth a critical investigation of the Saxon Archivarius, Dr. C. A. H. Burkhardt (author of the learned work: Luther’s Briefwechsel), Ueber die Glaubwürdigkeit der Antwort Luthers: "Hie steh’ ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helff mir. Amen," in the "Theol. Studien und Kritiken" for 1869, III. pp. 517–531. He rejects all but the last three words (not the whole, as Janssen incorrectly reports, in his History, II. 165, note). His view was accepted by Daniel Schenkel (1870), and W. Maurenbrecher (Gesch. d. kath. Reform., 1880, I. 398). The latter calls the words even "Improper and unworthy," because theatrical, which we cannot admit.

On the other hand, Professor Köstlin, the biographer of Luther, has come to the rescue of the whole sentence in his Easter-program: Luther’s Rede in Worms, Halle, 1874; comp. his notes in the "Studien und Kritiken" for 1882, p. 551 sq., and his Martin Luther, I. 453, and the note, p. 800 sq. (second Ed. 1883). His conclusion was accepted by Ranke in the sixth Ed. of his Hist. of Germany (I. 336), and by Mönckeberg (pastor of St. Nicolai in Hamburg), who supports it by new proofs, in an essay, Die Glaubwürdigkeit des Lutherwortes in Worms, in the "Studien und Kritiken" for 1876, No. II. pp. 295–306.

The facts are these. In Luther’s own Latin notes which he prepared, probably at Worms, for Spalatin, there is no such sentence except the words, "God help me." The prayer which he offered loudly in his chamber on the evening before his second appearance before the Diet, and which some one has reported, concludes with the words, "Gott helfe mir, Amen!" (Walch, X. 1721; Erl. -Frkf. Ed., LXIV. 289 sq.). Spalatin in his (defective) notes on the acts of the Diet, preserved at Weimar (Gesammtarchiv, Reichtagsacten, 1521), and in his Annals (Ed. by Cyprian, p. 41), vouches likewise only for the words, "Gott helfe mir, Amen!" With this agrees the original edition of the Acta Lutheri Wormatiae habita which were published immediately after the Diet (reprinted in the Frankf. ed. of the Opera Lat., vol. VI. p. 14, see second foot-note).

But other contemporary reports give the whole sentence, though in different order of the words. See the comparative table of Burkhardt, I.c. pp. 525–529. A German report (reprinted in the Erl. -Frkf. ed., vol. LXIV. p. 383) gives as the last words of Luther (in reply to Eck): "Gott kumm mir zu Hilf! Amen. Da bin ich." The words "Da bin ich" (Here I am) are found also in another source. Mathesius reports the full sentence as coming from the lips of Luther in 1540. In a German contemporary print and on a fly-leaf in the University library of Heidelberg (according to Köstlin), the sentence appears in this order: "Ich kann nicht anders; hier steh’ ich; Gott helfe mir." In the first edition of Luther’s Latin works, published 1546, the words appear in the present order: "Hier steh’ ich," etc. In this form they have passed into general currency.

Köstlin concludes that the only question is about the order of words, and whether they were spoken at the close of his main declaration, or a little afterwards at the close of the Diet. I have adopted the latter view, which agrees with the contemporary German report above quoted. Kolde, in his monograph on Luther at Worms (p. 60), agrees substantially with Köstlin, and says: "Wir wissen nicht mehr, in welchem Zusammenhang diese Worte gesprochen worden sind, auch können sie vielleicht etwas anders gelautet haben; bei der herrschenden Unruhe hat der eine Berichterstatter den Ausspruch so, der andere ihn so verstanden; sicherlich drückten sie zu gleicher Zeit seine felsenfeste Überzeugung von der Wahrheit seines in sich gewissen Glaubens aus, wie das Bewusstsein, dass hier nur Gott helfen könne."

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