Luther was lodged at the Johanniterhof, where part of the Saxon delegation lived. Because of the imperial diet, the town lacked sufficient accommodations for all the travelers, and Luther had to share his room with two others. Almost immediately, he was visited by several rulers, such as the young Philip of Hesse (1504–67), who would become quite important for the cause of the Reformation. On the morning of April 17, Luther was informed that at four o’clock in the afternoon he was expected at the palace of the bishop near the church tower, where he would appear before the emperor. He was told no more, because at that time it was still not clear how they were going to deal with this point on the imperial agenda. He hoped that he would at least have an opportunity to explain his vision about justification and discuss the points of disagreement.
One of the emperor’s chamberlains picked up Luther at noon. Because the streets were full of people who wanted to see him, he was led via small gardens and alleyways to the emperor. The beginning was awkward; Luther entered with a cheerful expression but soon realized that such behavior contravened protocols for being in the presence of the emperor. Luther was also surprised when Johann Eck, who was actually in service to the archbishop of Trier but spoke here on behalf of the emperor, indicated a collection of writings on a table and asked if they were all his. Luther requested that they be named one by one. When that was done, he acknowledged that he had indeed written them. Immediately, he was asked to retract them. Luther requested time to give this demand consideration, “because it concerns God’s Word, and that is after all the highest in heaven and earth.” Luther did not want to fall under the judgment of Christ, “who said that whoever is ashamed of me on earth, I will be ashamed of him before my heavenly Father and his angels.”
When he stood before the emperor and appeared to have some doubt, his request for some time to reflect was not surprising. He was standing before the most powerful man in the world, who was surrounded by a large group of powerful people from both the church and the empire. The emperor had just made it clear that for Luther’s own health, for that of the entire church, and for that of the whole empire, it would be better if Luther would quickly recant and then act normally again. In response to his request for time for reflection, Eck told Luther that he did not have the right to make such a request, because he should have known in advance that he was called here to recant. But the emperor wanted to be merciful and granted him time for reflection until the next day at noon.
Luther left immediately and heard from supporters that his performance had not been impressive. It had been difficult to hear him, and he had not shown a strong defense. When he returned to the inn after his first hearing, toward late afternoon, he wrote a letter, which was as much as he could do since so many people wanted to see and talk to him.
Fortunately, that evening several people dropped in to encourage him for the next day. That day would be a decisive one in Luther’s life and in the history of the Christian church.
Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are adapted or taken from Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography by Herman Selderhuis © 2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.