Martin Luther’s Stand at Worms, Uncut

“FREEDOM!!” Thus roared the cobalt-faced, blue-eyed Braveheart that is Mel Gibson, neck straining both to bellow and to hold up a noggin that remarkably dwarfed the majestic highlands of Scotland. The real William Wallace was a relatively important figure in the 13th century Wars for Scottish Independence, but the image as a champion of the commoner and noble freedom fighter is largely the stuff of myth and movies.

Legends have swirled around Martin Luther as well. Luther’s contemporaries were struck by his epoch-making significance even while he was yet alive—friends believed he was a prophetic vessel of God; enemies feared him as an instrument of the devil. Generations later, Luther continued to stride across the pages of history—a giant in the German and European imagination. In particular, modernity wanted Luther to be one of their own—to be an enlightened modern, a harbinger of independence, autonomy, and freedom. And nothing was more emblematic of this than Luther’s defiant stance at the Diet of Worms in 1521. There, standing before the most powerful institutions in the world, the Holy Roman Empire and the Church—the emperor and the papacy, Luther declared that he could not act against his conscience and that he would not recant even if it meant his death: “Here I stand, I can do no other!” The moment has been immortalized in numerous paintings and movie scenes, with Luther—standing with Braveheart-like boldness—in the midst of the world’s potentates, a lone, triumphant individual.

It’s a powerful image but there are some problems with it. For almost a century, historians have known that it is highly unlikely that Luther ever said the words, “Here I stand,” in his speech at Worms (though I still love that Bob Kolb wears socks that have “Hier stehe ich” embroidered along their length). But more importantly, Luther’s moment before the emperor was not the triumphant declaration of individual freedom and autonomy. Luther did write about freedom, but it was the freedom of the conscience in the Gospel which liberated the heart from the tyranny of our sins and the fear of death. The duty and obligation to give up one’s own freedoms to serve one another in love was also part of the same message. But at Worms, Luther’s speech was not about freedom, but about captivity. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he said, “I cannot and will not recant.… Deus adjuvet me—God help me.” This was not the speech of a freedom fighter, a defiant rebel who sought to cast off the shackles of every authority and institution. This was a speech of a monk—perhaps a very frightened monk—who nevertheless discovered that he had no choice but to cling to “the one thing needful,” the Word and promise of Jesus Christ. Maybe he got some things wrong in his writings. Maybe he said some things about others that he ought not to have. But in the end, he could not escape the Scriptures. He had been captured by the Word of God—only that would save him, only that would reform the church, only that could bring true freedom (John 8:36—“if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”).

This weekend is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. In anticipation we have included the video below. Several years ago, I had the privilege of advising the PBS documentary Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World. The producers, Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein, have put together a “directors’ cut” of Luther’s speech and graciously gave us access to it. It includes a more complete version of his speech than what we normally hear (though even here it does not include everything), and I think the actor (Pádraic Delaney) captures well the mood and the import of the moment. Enjoy and feel free to share it and show it.