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Martin Luther, Part 11: The Knight

When Elector Frederick saw that things were not going well at the diet, he feared for Luther’s safety. He knew that his enemies would try to seize and kill him as soon as the safe conduct was no longer in effect. He told one of his trusted knights to see to it that Luther would be taken to a safe hiding place. He said, “I want you to arrange to hide Luther somewhere in Saxony, but don’t tell me where he is. I don’t want to be able to answer any questions regarding his whereabouts.” Luther and Amsdorf knew something of what would happen on the way to Wittenberg, but they were not told the details.

Safe at the Wartburg

The two wagons carrying Luther and his friends continued without incident toward Wittenberg. After several days they reached Saxony. Now they all felt more secure. Luther sent the imperial herald Sturm back to Worms. Near Eisenach, Luther was secretly told to turn off on a less-traveled road which led to the town of Moehra. Amsdorf and the Augustinian monk were in the same wagon with Luther. The other wagon continued on the main road to Wittenberg. That evening Luther and his two friends reached Moehra where Luther’s uncle, Heinz Luther, lived. They spent the night there. The next afternoon they continued on their journey. Three people were on the wagon with Luther—Amsdorf, the monk Petzensteiner, and the driver of the horses.

Toward evening they were traveling on a narrow road through the dense Thuringian Forest. Suddenly ahead of them they heard the sound of galloping horses. Four or five horsemen rushed out from among the trees. One stopped the wagon by grasping the reins. Another knocked the driver from the wagon. The monk jumped from the wagon and ran into the woods. “Which one is Luther?” one of the horsemen shouted. “I am Luther,” Martin answered. The man roughly pulled Luther off the wagon.

Amsdorf put on a good act. “Don’t hurt him,” he shouted. “Let him go. He’s not a criminal. Let him go, you ruffians!” But it did no good. Luther was thrown on a horse. Then they turned their horses and rode off into the forest pulling Luther’s horse after them. For several hours they rode in different directions in order to cover their tracks and lose any possible pursuers. Luther knew he was being taken to a place of safety, but he did not know where. Suddenly ahead of him loomed a high hill with a large castle. It was the Wartburg. This old castle near Eisenach had been chosen as Luther’s place of refuge.

Luther and one of his abductors rode up toward the castle. The other horseman galloped down the road and disappeared in the darkness. It was almost midnight when Luther and his escort crossed over the drawbridge into the court of the castle. Luther was warmly greeted by the warden and immediately shown to his quarters.

“Welcome to the Wartburg,” said the warden. “I am Hans Berlepsch. These two rooms are your quarters. For the present you must not let yourself be seen by anyone except me and the two pages who will serve you your meals.”

“Am I a prisoner here in this castle?” asked Luther.

“No, you are a guest of Elector Frederick, but your stay here must be kept a secret. You are ordered to let your beard and hair grow and to put on the clothes of a knight. From now on you are to be known by everyone as Knight George. In about two weeks, when your hair and beard should hide your identity, you will be able to leave the castle for short periods of time. But someone is always to go with you.”

“How long am I to remain here?”

“That I don’t know. The elector will determine when it is safe for you to return to Wittenberg.”

When the warden had left, Martin looked about his quarters. The rooms were simply furnished with a table, desk, stool, chair, bed, and wash basin. At the end of the larger room was a window. He was exhausted, but before he retired for the night, he knelt down and prayed, “Heavenly Father, thank you for sustaining me during my trial at Worms and for bringing me safely to this place of refuge. Grant that the evil designs and work of my enemies and of the enemies of your Word come to naught. Bless your Word so that many people will find the true way of salvation as it is stated in your holy gospel. Hear my prayer for the sake of him who reconciled us to God, your Son, our Savior. Amen.” It was daylight when Luther awoke. He opened the window in the other room. There before and below him stretched miles and miles of forests, hills, and meadows. Just below the hill nestled the little city of Eisenach, where Luther had received his high school education. The sight from the window was beautiful and peaceful. Birds were flying about and singing. “This is the Land of the Birds,” he exclaimed, “but it is also my Patmos.” He was thinking  of the island to which the Apostle John had been banished by the enemies of the gospel.

Luther appreciated the elector’s kindness in making these elaborate arrangements in order to save his life. But he dreaded the isolation to which he would be subjected, possibly for many months. He had been in the forefront of the battle contending for the truth of God’s Word, and that is where he preferred to be. It was his fervent prayer that his co-workers, Melanchthon and others, would continuously carry forward the work of the reformation during his enforced absence.

For nearly a year Luther remained hidden in the Wartburg. Only a few close friends knew what had happened to him. Others could only guess where he was. Rumors spread that he had been killed, or that he had been imprisoned, or that he had escaped to another country. Albrecht Duerer, a great artist and admirer of Luther, wrote in his diary, “O God, is Luther dead? Who will now teach us the holy gospel?”

Soon letters arrived in Wittenberg from Luther’s hideout with the return address, “The Land of the Birds.” When Melanchthon heard that his friend and co-worker was alive and safe, he exclaimed happily, “Our beloved father lives. Let us take courage and be firm.” Spalatin informed Luther by secret messenger that the emperor had put him under the ban and that he was now to be treated as an outlaw of the state. This greatly disturbed Luther. He had been condemned because he opposed the false and corrupt teachings of the Catholic Church and defended the truths of God’s Word.

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

Image credit: Thierry Ehrmann (used under CC BY 2.0)