From January till the end of May 1521, the rulers of the empire gathered in Worms, Germany for Charles V’s first council meeting. One of the matters they were determined to come to a decision on was what to do about Luther and the trouble he’d started with his calls for reform.
Charles was in a difficult position. On the one hand, his ancestors were defenders of the Roman Church and he did not want to separate from the pope. On the other hand, Frederick the Wise, his uncle, had turned down the offer to be the next emperor. Charles owed it to Frederick that he’d been elected emperor. Charles was torn between the two loyalties.
In the end, politics won out. Charles did not want to lose the pope’s support. He wrote to Elector Frederick to bring Luther with him to the diet. Frederick understood the danger of bringing Luther with him to the diet. For one thing, he didn’t believe that Luther would get a fair trial there. And, he knew that Charles was trying to please the pope, so he worried that Luther might be sacrificed to strengthen ties with Rome.. He thought Charles might use Luther to build his alliance with Rome and hand him over to be condemned and killed. Frederick wrote that he could not bring Luther to the diet without endangering Luther’s head. When Luther burned the pope’s bull, he only angered the church more.
Many leaders in the Roman Church didn’t want Luther to come to the meeting either. Aleander, the pope’s ambassador, was one of them. On his way to Worms he found it difficult to find a place to stay at night. His opposition to Luther had made him very unpopular in Germany and no one wanted to give him a place to stay.
Aleander was stupefied by the support Luther had all over Germany. He worried that if Luther appeared at Worms, the German people could become dangerous. Besides, wouldn’t it be an insult to the pope to give Luther a hearing after the pope had already condemned him?
Luther must be kept away from Worms. He must not have a chance to defend himself or state his case before the council. Not only that, but Luther must be discredited. Aleander applied himself to the task of knocking Luther’s reputation down. He told the princes and church leaders meeting at Worms that Luther was wicked. “He is moved by hatred and vengeance, much more than by zeal and piety,” he said.[i]
It was clear to Aleander that Germany was separating from the Roman Church. He sent an urgent message to Rome requesting immediate action and money to help sway the princes to side with the pope against the Reformation.
In response to Aleander’s warnings, the pope issued a new bull. This new decree cursed Luther and all his supporters and commanded all Christians to flee at the sight of them. It ordered that all the Reformers’ properties be taken away.
The priests were required to publish this new bull on Sundays and at religious festivals when the churches would be full. This is how they were to make the pope’s judgment against Luther known. The altars were to be stripped of their ornaments and the cross was to be laid on the ground. Twelve priests, each holding a candle, were to light their candles, then throw them to the ground and stamp on them with their feet. In this dark, foreboding act, they were to show Luther’s condemnation in such a simple yet vivid way that even simple people and children could understand and be terrified by it.
Luther, hearing that he might be called to Worms, wrote to the Elector Frederick that he was willing to go to Worms, not to defend himself, but to stand for a cause which God had ordained. “I call Jesus Christ to witness that it is the cause of the whole German nation, of the universal Church, of the Christian world. Nay of God Himself…it is not from a presumptuous spirit, or to derive any advantage, that I have taught the doctrine with which I am now reproached…it is for the glory of God, for the salvation of the Christian Church…and for the extirpation of so much superstition, abuse, evil, scandal, tyranny, blasphemy, and impiety.”[ii] Luther was ready to go to Worms if he was called.
[i] History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 348.