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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Luther’s Journey To Augsburg

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

The Diet of the Empire was at that moment (1518) sitting at Augsburg.

Further, the Emperor Maximilian was more alive to the danger that impended over the Papal See than Pope Leo X. Nearer the cradle of the movement, the Emperor was much exercised by the spread of Lutheran doctrines in his own dominions. He wrote to the Pope who, cocooned in decadent luxury, was oblivious to the gathering storm.

The emperor sought to inflame those present, particularly Luther's patrons and defenders, with a furious philippic (tirade) directed particularly at the Elector Frederick of Saxony. Frederick was already thwarting the election of Maximilian's grandson, the future Charles V, to succeed him in the Empire, but since Leo dreaded further uniting of the sceptres of empire he was unlikely to be much concerned.

The Summons

Nevertheless it was resolved to lay vigorous hold upon the Wittenberg movement. On the 7th August, 1518, Luther was summoned to answer at Rome. To go was at peril of death. To stay would mean excommunication by Leo, backed with punishment by the secular powers. The King of the Seven Hills was raising up the Kings of the Earth against the unbefriended monk.

The Archbishop of Treves

The University of Wittenberg appealed to the Vatican. The Elector Frederick pleaded that it was a right of the Germans to have all ecclesiastical questions decided upon their own soil and suggested the Archbishop of Treves to undertake the task. Pope Leo remembered that Frederick of Saxony had done him a service at the Diet of Augsburg. So he thought it possible that he might need Frederick's good offices in the future. Also Leo's legate-a-latere, who was now in Germany, wanted to adjudicate Luther's case. This was because he needed the prestige of dealing with Luther to compensate for failing at Augsburg to engage the princes in a war against the Turk, with the associated loss of levied taxes.

The Pope therefore issued a brief on the 23rd of August, empowering his legate, Cardinal de Vio, to summon Luther before him, and pronounce judgment in his case. Leo, while appearing to oblige both Frederick and the cardinal, did not show all his hand. This transference of the cause to Germany was but another way eventually to bring Luther to Rome.

Cardinal Cajetan

Thomas de Vio, Cardinal St. Sixti, better known as Cardinal Cajetan, cited the doctor of Wittenberg to appear before him at Augsburg. He was a suave Dominican and therefore Inquisition trained and versed in scholastic philosophy. He was a senior member of the Sacred College. By instinct and training no one placed the Papal prerogatives higher, or was prepared to do stouter battle for them, than he. Cardinal Cajetan judged regally amidst pomp believing legates are above kings. He sought only Luther's unconditional submission to what Cajetan had already decided. The legate's instructions were that Luther retract or go in chains to Rome .


A very few days before Luther's departure, Philip Melancthon arrived at Wittenberg to fill the Greek chair in its university. No one at the time realised what a great support to Luther and help to the Reformation this young man would become. In a day or two the new professor delivered his inaugural lecture. It was at once clear what a great soul was contained in that small body. He poured forth luminous thought compelling to both the soul and the heart of his audience. Melancthon displayed in his address a knowledge so full, and a judgment so sound and ripened, he was clearly destined for great things.

Only twenty-one, Melancthon was the son of a master armourer in Bretten in the Palatinate. His father, a pious and worthy man, died when he was eleven, and he was educated by his maternal grandfather. His disposition was as gentle as his genius was beautiful. His training was completed at the University of Heidelberg, where he took his bachelor's degree at fourteen. It was about this time that he changed his name from the German Schwartzerd to the Greek Melancthon. Luther now stood on the threshold of his stormy career. He needed a companion and God placed Melancthon by his side. Together they formed a complete Reformer. The gentleness, the timidity, the perspicacity of Melancthon were the companion graces of the strength, the courage, the passionate energy of Luther. They both loved the Lord and were passionate for the Gospel.

Like the Apostles of the first age, all the leading Reformers, without exception, were of lowly birth. Luther first saw the light in a miner's cottage; Calvin was the grandson of a cooper in Picardy; Knox was the son of a plain burgess of a Scottish provincial town; Zwingle was born in a shepherd's hut in the Alps; and Melancthon was reared in the workshop of an armourer. Such is God's method. It is a law of the Divine working to accomplish mighty results by weak instruments. In this way God glorifies himself, and afterwards glorifies his servants.

Luther sets out

We return to the scenes which we recently left. Luther departed, amid the trembling of his friends, to appear before the Legate of Rome. He might be waylaid on the road, or his journey might end in a Roman dungeon. Luther himself did not share these apprehensions. He set out with intrepid heart. It was a long way to Augsburg, and it had all to be gone on foot, for whatever the conflict had brought the monk, it had not brought him wealth. The Elector Frederick, however, gave him money for his journey, but not a safe-conduct. This last, he said, was unnecessary.

The fate of John Huss, which many called to mind, did not justify the Elector's confidence. On September 28th, our traveller reached Weimar, and lodged in the convent of the Bare-footed friars. A young inmate of the monastery, who had already received Luther's doctrine into his heart, sat gazing upon him, but durst not speak to him. This was Myconius. The Cordeliers were not favourably disposed to their guest's opinions, and yet one of their number, John Kestner, the purveyor, believing that Luther was going to his death, could not help expressing his sympathy. "Dear brother," he said, "in Augsburg you will meet with Italians, who are learned men, but more likely to burn you than to answer you."

"Pray to God, and to his dear Son Jesus Christ," replied Luther, "whose cause it is, to uphold it for me." Luther here met the Elector, who was returning from Augsburg, and at his request preached before the court on St. Michael's day, but said not a word, as was remarked, in praise of the saint.


From Weimar, Luther pursued his way, still on foot, to Nuremberg. Here he was welcomed by warm friends. Among these were the illustrious painter and sculptor Albert Durer, Wenceslaus Link, monk and preacher, and others. Nuremberg had formerly enjoyed an enriching trade; it was still famous for the skill of its artists; nor were letters neglected, and the independence of mind thus engendered had led to the early reception of Luther's doctrines within it. Many came to see him, but when they found that he was travelling without a safe-conduct, they could not conceal their fears that he would never return from Augsburg. They tried to dissuade him from going farther, but to these counsels Luther refused to listen. No thoughts of danger could alter his purpose or shake his courage. "Even at Augsburg," wrote he, "in the midst of his enemies, Christ reigns. May Christ live, may Luther die: may the God of my salvation be exalted."

There was one favour, however, which Luther did not disdain to accept at the hands of his friends in Nuremberg. His frock, not the newest or freshest when he started from Wittemberg, by the time he reached the banks of the Pegnitz bore but too plain marks of his long journey, and his friends judged that it was not fit to appear in before the legate. They therefore attired him in a frock belonging to his friend Link. On foot, and in a borrowed cloak, he went on his way to appear before a prince of the Church, but the serge of Luther was more sublime than the purple and fine linen of De Vio.


Link and another friend accompanied him, and on the evening of October 7th they entered the gates of Augsburg, and took up their abode at the Augustine monastery. On the morrow he sent Link to notify his arrival to the cardinal. Had Luther come a few weeks earlier he would have found Augsburg crowded with princes and counts, among whom would have been found some willing to defend him; but now all had taken their departure, the Diet being at an end, and no one remained save the Roman Legate, whose secret purpose it was that Luther should unconditionally submit, or otherwise never depart alive out of those gates within which, to De Vio's delight, he had now entered.

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