Martin Luther made three dramatic protests in his life – and none of them was the affair of the “Ninety-Five Theses”. The first of them was a year later, and it may well have been a degree of confusion between these two events a year apart that led Philip Melanchthon, nearly thirty years afterwards, to jot down what immediately became the iconic story of the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

For there is no evidence at all prior to Luther’s death that any such public act of protest was performed on 31 October 1517. But just over a year later he made a very public gesture designed to attract the maximum possible attention.

In November 1518 Luther had just got back from Augsburg in Southern Germany (the second longest journey of his entire life), where he had had a deeply unsatisfactory meeting with the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan. Cajetan had been tasked with bringing the unruly German theologian to heel. It should have been straightforward enough. Cajetan represented the majesty of the universal church: Luther was just a provincial friar, a professor with a bee in his bonnet, briefly notorious perhaps, but no real threat.

All he had to do was to withdraw some hasty and incautious statements, to submit to ecclesiastical authority, and to promise to steer clear of such controversial topics in future. Then he could return to his podium and his pulpit and carry on much as before, preaching and teaching in an obscure corner of Saxony.

Which was not how Luther saw it. What he had wanted all along, from the day he mailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, was a chance to debate his ideas with someone who mattered. For Luther, the interview at Augsburg was the chance he had been waiting for, the chance to talk face to face, man to man, theologian to theologian, with someone of real weight. For Cajetan was one of the greatest living authorities on the theology of Thomas Aquinas. What Luther expected was a free and open debate. What Cajetan expected was a humble and obedient submission. They were both disappointed, though Luther did get a modicum of debate without giving even a hint of submission.

What Cajetan found himself faced with was a theological departure already so radical that, for him, it amounted to a new religion. For Luther, Cajetan’s refusal to engage and to provide him with a forum for that all-important debate sowed in his mind the seeds of a much more serious anxiety about the real state of the contemporary Church. Until that time, he had gone along with the general view that the Church, while in dire need of reform, was nonetheless fundamentally sound.

But Cajetan’s intransigence (as he saw it – for Cajetan, it was Luther who was stiff-necked and intransigent) seemed to him to signal a more deep-rooted malaise at the heart of the Church, in the papal curia at Rome. By the end of the year, he was voicing in private the fear that the Antichrist foretold in the Bible was already ensconced in the holy city.

1518: I shall never recant

The arrival of Antichrist. This was the literally apocalyptic anxiety stirring in Luther’s mind on his return from Augsburg. It was this anxiety that lurked behind his first grand gesture of public protest. On the feast of St Catherine (25 November), he made his way to the Castle Church of All Saints in Wittenberg and there he issued a public undertaking that he would “never recant what he had taught, written, and preached”, adding to this a formal appeal to a future General Council of the Church against any papal condemnation of his teachings that might in the meantime transpire.

A few days later, on the first Sunday of Advent (28 November), he repeated this performance at the town church, St Mary’s, before a huge audience. There was a lawyer on hand to make a formal record of proceedings, and the crowd was moved to tears by the solemnity of the occasion and by the intrepid bearing of Luther himself as, fearing what might befall him, he bade them farewell and urged them not to exact revenge for any wrongs that might be done to him.

Appealing to a future General Council was a familiar move in the late medieval Church, reflecting the uncertainty that had arisen from the Great Schism (1378-1418), which had seen Catholic Christendom divided in allegiance between two (and at times three) popes. That schism had been resolved only through a General Council, which had been convened mainly thanks to the political intervention of the most powerful European kings. The papacy had somewhat recovered its authority by Luther’s time, but by no means totally. So the long-running dispute about whether the ultimate authority in the Church on earth lay in the monarchical institution of the papacy or in the representative institution of the General Council was not finally resolved. Pope Pius II (1458-1464), who was ironically enough a former “conciliarist”, had issued a decree prohibiting such appeals on pain of excommunication. But that didn’t stop people doing it, and it certainly didn’t stop Luther.

Luther’s appeal was a carefully staged performance, deliberately recorded and playing to powerful emotive effect on the streets of Wittenberg. If he ever nailed anything dramatically to the doors of a church, it would have been this appeal, which was immediately put into print.

1520: burning the Pope’s books

Luther’s second public protest came two years later, when Johannes Eck and Girolamo Aleandro were busy promulgating the papal condemnation of his teachings wherever they found it safe to do so in Germany and the Netherlands. The publication of the papal bull, Exsurge Domine, was illuminated by bonfires of Luther’s books in such places as Brandenburg, Cologne, and Mainz. Where Luther had a popular following, however, things went differently. Thus at Erfurt, where he had studied as a young man, the students threw the bull into the river, while at Leipzig and elsewhere it was covered with excrement when it was set up in public.

A copy of the papal bull reached Luther in October, and over the next few months he matured various responses in the form of letters, sermons, and pamphlets. During this time his disenchantment with the old Church reached its climax. By the end of the year, he no longer suspected the Pope was Antichrist: he knew. But the most dramatic response to the papal condemnation was one that was ostensibly organised by students of his own university. Hearing of the bonfires of Luther’s books, they built a bonfire of their own and piled on tomes of canon law and scholastic theology, along with the anti-Lutheran pamphlets of Johannes Eck and Hieronymus Emser (a Catholic opponent of Luther’s based at the nearby rival university town of Leipzig). In pride of place was the papal bull itself. The whole affair was essentially a student prank, but Luther dignified it with his presence and reported it to a friend in an amusing parody of an ecclesiastical court record:

In the year 1520, on the tenth of December, at 9.00am, all of the Pope’s books were burned at the East Gate of Wittenberg: the Decretum, the Decretals, the Sextus, the Clementines, and the Extravagantes, and the latest bull of Leo X; together with the Summa Angelica, Eck’s Chrysopassus and other stuff of his and Emser’s, as well as other things thrown on by various people.

The Wittenberg students were a lively lot. A couple of months later, at carnival time, they made life-size figures of the pope with his cardinals and bishops, and paraded them through the town before drowning them in the Elbe.

1521: the Diet of Worms

Luther’s third protest was almost forced upon him, and was less extravagantly ostentatious than the previous two. It was his famous refusal to back down, a refusal delivered before the very face of Kaiser Karl V and the princes and potentates gathered at the Reichstag in the imperial city of Worms in spring 1521. The “Diet of Worms”, as it is commonly and incongruously labelled in English, could easily have been Luther’s final public appearance – or at least his last but for the terrible agony of burning at the stake.

Luther had been summoned before the Reichstag on the guarantee of a safe-conduct from the Kaiser. But promises such as that had been broken before. Just over a hundred years earlier, the Czech or Bohemian religious leader Jan Hus had gone to the General Council of Constance under an imperial safe-conduct. But that had proved powerless to prevent his trial, conviction, and execution by burning at the stake. Luther had begun to see marked parallels between his career and that of Hus, so he set off for Worms expecting the worst. He travelled almost in state, in a wagon, acknowledging the adulation of enthusiastic crowds all the way.

His reception at Erfurt, where he preached to a huge audience, was like a ceremonial royal entry. He himself called it his Palm Sunday, which tells us a good deal about how he was viewing the situation. When he reached Worms itself, the papal legate there, Girolamo Aleandro, knew at once – because the sound of the city changed. He knew from the hubbub. Aleandro had already reported to Rome on the sales of printed pictures of Luther which showed him with a halo, or else with the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove. People venerated the pictures and kissed them, he said, like sacred icons. The townsfolk had stuck these pictures in their windows. Luther was not just a celebrity; he was a poster-boy. The stage was set.

The appearance at Worms, like that at Augsburg, was meant to be straightforward. And by now the authorities were wary of Luther’s wiles. He was to have no opportunity to air his views or make his case or justify his position. He was to answer two simple questions. Would he acknowledge authorship of his books? And would he recant his errors?

Wary they may have been, but Luther was too many for them, and seized the initiative with characteristic adeptness and audacity. He frankly acknowledged that the books published over his name were indeed his, and followed this up with a blithe assurance of his willingness to recant anything that could be shown to be contrary to the Bible. Then he begged time to reflect, which was readily granted him. He used the day’s respite to prepare his real response. Presented next day with the same questions, he once more acknowledged his writings, only to launch into exactly the sort of justification that the authorities wanted to deny him. Such was his rhetorical talent, the benefit of surprise, and perhaps the level of sympathy for him in the assembly, that he got away with it.

He distinguished the various genres of his writings: simple devotional instruction; criticisms of tyrannous abuses in the Church; and private communications. Granting that he had sometimes expressed himself in language unbecoming a clergyman, he nevertheless came to the point. None of this could he recant without harm to his own conscience through seeming to acquiesce in wrongdoing. Asked one final time whether he would recant, he delivered his final words in reply:

Unless I am convinced by the evidence of scripture or by cogent reasoning – for I believe in neither Popes nor Councils alone, because it is plain that they have often erred and contradicted each other – I am overwhelmed by the scriptures I have myself quoted, and with my conscience thus taken captive by the Words of God, I neither can nor will revoke a thing, since it is neither safe nor sound to do anything against one’s conscience. God help poor little me. Amen.

This was Luther’s quietest yet most powerful protest, the most restrained in expression, required of him rather than volunteered, yet echoing around Germany within weeks and down the centuries ever since. The publicity was perfectly managed. His patron and protector, the Elector Duke Friedrich of Saxony, had brought a printing press to Worms in his entourage. Luther’s appearance before the Kaiser was written up as a re-run of Christ’s appearances before Herod and Pontius Pilate. His own account, What Happened at Worms, and the freelance effort The Passion of Martin Luther, circulated the story and made the myth.

Luther’s famous sign-off at Worms, “Here I stand – what else can I do?”, is not, we are told, in the earliest reported version of his speech. Did he say it? The evidence is far stronger than for the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, for it appeared more like thirty days afterwards than thirty years. It sounds like him. At best, perhaps it was an ad-lib, a spur of the moment addition to a carefully crafted statement, only later tacked onto the printed text of the official version. At worst, it must join the long list of things that famous people really ought to have said. Either way, it will do. Luther’s third and last public protest had been made.

The defining image of Luther, chin tilted defiantly upwards, saintly, contra mundum, had been cast in print as effectively as in bronze, fixed forever in the western imagination. There was still much that lay ahead. The best part of a year as a fugitive outlaw in hiding. The translation of the New Testament and then the whole Bible. Marriage and children. The “Protestant Reformation”. Complacent though busy old age. But Luther’s protests are the milestones that marked his progress from modest university lecturer to international fame as either the rediscoverer of the Gospel or the founder of a new religion.

Richard Rex is Professor of Reformation History at the University of Cambridge, in the UK. His latest book The Making of Martin Luther was released this month by Princeton University Press.

Reviews by other Luther experts of “The Making of Martin Luther”

“A remarkable piece of writing that will have an enduring influence. With shrewd and canny insights, powerful prose, and wit, Richard Rex offers a persuasive and provocative tour through the early years of the Reformation.”–Bruce Gordon, author of John Calvin's “Institutes of the Christian Religion”: A Biography

“One of the most interesting and original studies of Luther that I've read in my career. Combining deep learning and analytical rigor with a wry sense of humor, Rex breaks through the crust of endlessly repeated scholarly narratives and interpretative assumptions that have long been taken for granted. The Making of Martin Luther is an important book.”–Brad S. Gregory, author of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Richard Rex is Reader in Reformation History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge. His particular specialism is in the history of the kingdom and church of England...