Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Martin Luther and the Diet of Worms

History Book Club, Rockport, MA
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Show Trials in History

Luther before the Diet of Worms


Beard, Charles, Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany until the close of the Diet of Worms, by Charles Beard (1827-1888) Edited by John Frederick Smith ((1869-1923); 1896, Philip Green: London, UK; 490 pp.

            Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an Augustinian friar and priest who is credited with nailing his “Ninety-five theses” on the door of Schloßkirche in Wittenberg, a city on the Elbe River east of Hamburg, 498 years ago this Hallowe'en. (Oct. 31, 1517). 
            Recent scholarship has questioned that he actually nailed these writings on the door, but he certainly got the attention of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope at that time, Leo X, who in 1520 demanded him to retract them. He refused, and the next year, 1521, he was summoned to a trial at the Diet in Worms, on the banks of the Rhine River. The Diet was what might later have been called a “Show Trial”.  Convened by Emperor Charles V, it was intended to show the German people that Martin Luther would get a fair hearing before they sacked him for heresy.
            Martin Luther’s father expected him to become a lawyer, but young Martin was determined to become a priest. He became an Augustinian friar, then a priest, then a teacher and a doctor of philosophy. 
            The start of the 16th century must have been a fascinating time in Germany. The Renaissance was in full swing.  After Gutenberg developed the printing press with moveable type about 1450, printing presses popped up everywhere.  Every city in Germany had several of them, and they were cranking out books at breakneck speed. 
            Just like today, when the internet has made all the world’s information so amazingly available, the printing press made it possible for anyone who could read to learn.  More and more people learned to read.  No longer would people be content with having the village priest tell them what was what. Where before the people depended upon the clergy to interpret the Bible, which was available only in elegantly crafted Latin manuscripts, and in Hebrew and Greek, now it could be translated into German, and other modern languages, and distributed widely.
            In 1516 Luther was thoroughly entrenched in the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg, when the Archbishop of Mainz sent him on a journey to Rome to argue against a new edict about selling indulgences.   When Luther arrived in Rome he saw a truly different Catholic church than that home in Germany. Young priests were cavorting around the Eternal City, the atmosphere in the church was one of “anything goes” and the Pope had established a way of financing the church by the sale of indulgences.  For a fee, you could buy your way out of your sins.  For another fee you could pay to have departed loved ones sprung from purgatory. 
            Wherever he looked in Rome, Luther saw a church run by lunatics.  Many priests had girlfriends and sex was open and rampant. When he returned to Wittenberg, Luther began preparing an intellectual dissertation against this departure of the Church from the ways of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This became the “95 theses”.
            Today we can see how a great Church can come disconnected from its origin because we have just witnessed the worldwide scandal of hundreds of priests who have used their office to abuse children; of church leaders who have condoned this behavior, and covered it up.  It is so easy for any person, or any organization, to lose its bearings.
            Professor Beard’s book takes us slowly and carefully through the life of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the life of Martin Luther, growing into his role as a very observant, intelligent priest.  Germany, or the various kingdoms and electorates, for Germany was not united, contained a people who were very loyal to the Church. They were hard-working, just as loyal to their leadership, and they were experiencing new prosperity in many sectors. 
            Just as today, Germans are not Italians, or Spaniards, [Ordnung hat Gott lieb, which translates as: "Orderliness is next to Godliness."] and the picture they were getting of their Catholic Church in these other kingdoms was revolting.  From Luther’s viewpoint, the Church of Peter was coming apart at the seams. 
            Luther’s intellectual dissertation against Church profligacy was attracting a lot of attention in Germany and as far as Rome.  While many Germans cheered him on, many did not, and in Rome, he was a heretic. The Pope issued a Papal Bull and ordered all of Luther’s books burned. When he received the document, Luther openly burned it, in return for the destruction of his books.

Luther burning the Papal Bull

            Beard goes into great detail describing the political situation in Europe in these days. Charles’ hold on the empire was shaky, and he was always concerned that France and François I would get the best of him. Pope Leo X, a Medici from Florence, was a crook of the first order, and around him were legions of Spanish and Italian churchmen who would do anything to defend the status quo in the Church. 
            It was determined to convene a Diet, or congress in the city of Worms, in spring of 1521, and Luther was ordered to appear.  It was clear that he would be convicted of heresy, and he understood this, but it was not that clear what would follow.  He already had quite a supportive following in Germany, and Charles, and the other German leaders, were hesitant to call down more trouble on their heads at this time.
            On April 2, 1521, Luther began the trip south to Worms. It was rather a “victory march” for him, because all along the way he was celebrated by crowds of admirers.  He preached in numerous towns. When he arrived in Worms on April 16 crowds cheered him.
            Luther appeared before the Diet, held in the city that at that time was an important political gathering point.  Attending were Spaniards, Italians, Frenchmen and the leaders of the German establishment. There were electors, prelates, nobles, ambassadors, papal nuncios, from Hungary, England and Poland. Some were brilliant academics and philosophers. Some were steely-eyed charlatans. Some came with the idea of converting Luther back.  Would he simply renounce his claims and his heresy?
            No, he was not about to. He simply stated that his thinking and writing was according to Scripture. The Diet finally convicted him, and then went about the business of writing the Edict of Worms.  In the finest bureaucratic fashion, they labored long and hard on this while Luther departed with his small entourage, escorted by what seemed to be those who would keep him under their control while this edict inched toward completion. The Wormser Edikt declared Luther an outlaw, which meant that he could be killed by anyone without threat of punishment.
            Luther started the long journey back to Wittenberg, but, with help from the Elector Friedrich the Wise, he was mysteriously “kidnapped” by the elector’s soldiers.  He became his guest at Wartburg, and bided his time not so quietly, giving sermons as he had before. 
            In the meantime, the establishment Catholics were sputtering, burning his books, and shaking their fists, as more and more Germans joined the growing ranks of Lutherans.
            Luther brought on the Reformation, and led us to a new, enlightened world.
            Luther was the man who broke apart the Catholic Church when it needed stern reformation.  However, Luther was also the man who changed his views toward Jews from supportive to blazingly brutal in his anti-Semitism, so virulent that many have questioned if he provided the Nazis their intellectual stimulus for the Holocaust.

-- Sam Coulbourn

 Wed. Dec. 2, 2015:   Elections in American History. [Suggested by Rick Heuser] Donald Trump may think he is something unique in the long history of campaigns and elections in the United States of America, but our history is chock-a-block with strange, weird and fantastic characters and events. For this November meeting, one week late to account for Thanksgiving, read any book about presidential campaigns and elections, There was 1800 when Adams ran against an "Un-Christian Deist", Thomas Jefferson.  There was 1828, when things got dirty-- the Adams men said Jackson was the son of a prostitute and a Mulatto, and a bigamist and an adulterer. We had Know-nothings, Mugwumps, Half-breeds and Progressives. One man, Eugene V. Debs, ran from prison and still received 900,000 votes. And then there was Watergate... and the Swiftboaters.
For 2016, consider these possible topics:
History of Labor Movements, 
History of Money and Money Handling or Banking,
"The End of the World"-- history of doomsday forecasts, 
History of Journalism and the Media, 
or History of ___________ (fill in the blank).


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