'Luther at the Diet of Worms'. Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

January 25, 2021   5 mins

“Would that he worked to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is apt to boil over in every direction.” So wrote John Calvin — no mean polemicist himself — about Martin Luther. The comment did not derive from personal experience. The two great leaders of the Protestant Reformation never got to meet, and even the single letter that Calvin wrote to Luther failed to reach its addressee. This, however, hardly mattered. There was no need for a reformer in 16th century Christendom to have talked with Luther to be familiar with his temperament. The imprint of his personality was stamped on almost everything he wrote and said. And what Luther wrote and said had become, by the time Calvin came of age, very big news indeed.

To describe the Reformation as a Twitter spat that got out of hand would obviously be anachronistic. Nevertheless, it is not entirely so: for it hints at a quality of Luther’s genius that we, in the age of social media, are perhaps peculiarly qualified to appreciate.

When, in 1517, the previously obscure professor of theology at Wittenberg published 95 theses challenging Church doctrine on salvation, they promptly went viral. “A mere squabble of envious monks.” So the Pope, with the lordly tone of a politician in 2010 turning his nose up at Twitter, is said to have dismissed the imbroglio.

Pretty soon, however, the flame war had got out of hand. Luther turned out to have a genius for publicity beyond anything that Europe had witnessed before. A mere four years after he had posted his 95 theses, his name had come to sound across Germany, and far beyond. Even the emperor, Charles V, had found himself perturbed by it. When, 500 years ago this month, a great assembly of the empire’s power-brokers, a “diet”, was convened in the city of Worms, Luther was on its agenda.

On 26 March, a summons duly arrived in Wittenberg. Luther was instructed “to answer with regard to your books and teachings”. He was given three weeks to comply. He also received a personal assurance from the emperor of safe conduct to the diet. This, however, was not entirely reassuring, for history suggested that the word of an emperor could not always be trusted. Nevertheless, Luther answered the summons. He set off from Saxony for Worms. The journey proved a triumph. Welcoming committees toasted him at the gates of city after city; crowds crammed into churches to hear him preach. As he entered Worms, thousands thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of him. Luther was the man of the hour.

How had he done it? “Luther spoke,” as Diarmaid MacCulloch has put it, “at many levels: he debated with scholars, shouted from the pulpit, wrote vigorous German and sang his message in German hymns and songs.” He was — to coin a metaphor — a digital theologian faced by ponderously analogue foes. The technology he exploited was, of course, the printing press. No one had recognised its potential as readily as Luther, nor leveraged it to such seismic effect. The impact of his 95 theses had been crucially dependent on his determination to have them broadcast as widely as possible. He carried on as he had begun.

Staggeringly, over the course of the decade that followed the Diet of Worms, more than a fifth of the pamphlets printed by German presses came from Luther’s pen. These treatises and broadsides were then further amplified by memes. Luther himself was portrayed as a prophet, a hero, a saint. His enemies were shown as animals, or demons, or excrement. Nothing on the scale of this trolling had ever been witnessed before. Luther’s admirers were putting images to use in a way that was destined to have a long and enduring history. They had, in the words of Carlos Eire, “invented the satirical cartoon”.

Luther, by coming to the Diet of Worms, by sticking his head in the lion’s jaws, by daring the emperor to do his worst, had demonstrated in the most dramatic manner possible everything that had made him so effective a rebel against the established order: his daring, his popularity, his refusal to bow and cringe before his foes. Yet all these qualities would have been for nothing had they been in the service merely of his own ego. Certainly, Luther believed himself to be loved by God — but not because he merited such love. As a monk, he had lived in dread of divine judgement, starving himself and praying every night, confessing his sins for long hours at a time, wearying his superiors, all in a despairing attempt to render himself deserving of heaven.

Yet the more he had studied the Bible, and reflected on its mysteries, the more he had come to see this as wasted effort. God did not treat sinners according to their just deserts — for, were He to do so, none would ever be saved. Only by means of His grace might salvation be obtained. This was the conviction that Luther brought with him to Worms. Unworthy though he was, helpless and fit to be condemned, yet God still loved him.

Luther, afire with the intoxicating and joyous improbability of this, loved God in turn. There was no other source of peace, no other source of comfort, to be had. This was the conviction that Luther, a heretic excommunicated by the pope, a rebel summoned by the emperor, was prepared to die for rather than retract. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

Twice Luther appeared before Charles V; and twice, challenged to renounce his writings, he declared that he would not. To the emperor such defiance appeared bewildering. “A lone friar whose opinions contradict the past thousand years of the Christian religion must surely be wrong.” Two days after listening to Luther’s second bravura display in the crowded hall at Worms, Charles V wrote his reply. Obedient to the example of his forebears, he vowed, he would always be a defender of the Catholic faith: “the sacred rituals, decrees, ordinances, and holy customs.”

He therefore had no hesitation in confirming Luther’s excommunication. Nevertheless, he proved himself a man of his word. He permitted the “lone friar” to depart. Luther, leaving Worms, did so as both a hero and an outlaw. A survivor too. Abducted by his patron, the ruler of Saxony, and granted sanctuary in a castle, he devoted himself to moaning about his bowels, growing a beard, and translating the New Testament into German. By the time he finally felt safe enough to return Wittenberg, a year after the Diet of Worms, he had abandoned for ever the disciplines of his life as a monk. “Here I stand,” as he was reported to have told Charles V at Worms. “I can do no other.”

Was this arrogance, as the emperor had claimed, or was it the certitude of a sinner resolved, no matter what, to share the good news of God’s grace? Doubtless, it was both. The “restless, uneasy temperament” that so perturbed Calvin was the same temperament that enabled Luther, over the course of his eventful and fractious life, to upend Christendom.

500 years on from his defiance of emperor and pope at the Council of Worms, the episode has resonances for us that it would not have possessed even 20 years ago. Luther, over the course of his career, displayed a breathtaking command of all the qualities required to flourish on social media: a genius for aphorism, for invective, for denouncing fake news, for spreading fake news, even for publicly doting on pets. (“Oh, that I could only pray,” he once exclaimed, “in the way that my puppy stares at meat!”)

Yet few of us today in the West, when we use Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, are called to draw upon the most stirring of all Luther’s qualities: his readiness to risk death in the cause of holding true to his conscience. The anniversary of the great drama at Worms should serve to remind us of our own good fortune — and of those many today who, not sharing in it, have no choice, when making a stand, but to emulate Luther’s courage.

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX