Freedom of conscience is a cornerstone in Western Civilization. However, history demonstrates that freedom of conscience often carries a high price. The quotation listed as the title of this post is attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546) who was said to have spoken these words at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. What he really said is as follows:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
What brought him to make this declaration was his protest against abuses in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences, written down in his “95 Theses” in 1517. Prior to his appearance at the Diet of Worms, his “95 Theses” was forwarded to Rome where a number of sentences upon examination were condemned as heretical. After ignoring a warning from Pope Leo X, Luther was excommunicated on January 3, 1521. Excommunication in 16th century Europe meant proscription. You were made an outlaw, that is, you no longer had the protection of the law, it was forbidden for anyone to offer you food and shelter and you could be killed on sight without consequence. As it was the responsibility of civil authority to enforce the law, Luther was offered the chance to recant at the Diet of Worms which was the general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire with Emperor Charles V presiding. He refused, in doing so putting his life on the line. He was offered protection from Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and continued his efforts which led to the Protestant Reformation. Continue reading