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Martin Luther, Part 10: The Edict of Worms

The Edict of Worms

Charles V was angry. The next day he summoned the electors and princes to ask their advice. He had already made up his mind to put Luther under the imperial ban. He said, “I wish to proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.” But the electors thought it wise not to condemn Luther without making another effort to persuade him to recant. They knew that Luther had many followers who would come to his defense. Some were powerful German princes. The emperor finally was persuaded to appoint a small committee to confer with Luther. In the discussions with that committee Luther made it very clear that he would recant only if he was proven wrong on the basis of the Bible and clear reason. That the committee would not accept.

The useless meetings dragged on for almost a week. Finally, Luther begged Elector Frederick to ask the emperor to grant him permission to return to Wittenberg. The request was granted with the assurance of another safe conduct of twenty-one days. That evening he wrote a letter to the emperor and electors. In it he thanked them for granting him the hearing. He expressed his disappointment that the meetings with the special committee had been fruitless. He wrote that he wanted nothing more than a reform of the church on the basis of the Bible. He was willing to suffer shame and death for the emperor, but he reserved for himself the liberty to confess and proclaim the Word of God. On the morning of April  26, Martin Luther left Worms.

His friends accompanied him in two wagons. The imperial herald Kaspar Sturm rode ahead. Luther had been given a safe conduct, but he knew that his enemies would stop at nothing to prevent him from reaching Wittenberg. There was a possibility that they might seize him and force him to return as their captive.

Several drafts of the edict against Luther had to be written before a copy was produced that was acceptable to the electors and Charles V. On May 26 the emperor signed the edict (public notice, or decree) outlawing Martin Luther. The edict decreed that no one should have any dealings with Luther. All his books should be burned, and everybody was forbidden to publish or read them. Luther was declared an outlaw of the state, and no one dare give him protection or shelter. It was the duty of any citizen to seize him and deliver him to the emperor. Anyone disobeying the edict would be arrested, punished, and his property taken from him. Would the emperor be able to enforce the edict?

From The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.