Book review: BYU professor shows Martin Luther was a reluctant radical

Oxford UP

BYU professor of history Craig Harline will speak about his new book “A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation” at The King’s English on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.

A WORLD ABLAZE: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation,” by Craig Harline, Oxford University Press, 312 pages (nf)

In the parlance of early modern Europe, a “diet” was a formal gathering of the various powers in the Holy Roman Empire, a motley collection of states and principalities that covered central Europe and was governed by an elected emperor.

At a diet, the emperor gathered with the various noblemen of his empire to hash out policy. The January 1521 diet at the city of Worms is, as you may vaguely recall from your European history courses, most famous because it was there that the friar Martin Luther refused to recant his various writings about the pope and the sacraments and selected policies of the Roman Catholic church he found objectionable, even while standing in the presence of Emperor Charles V.

“So help me God,” said Luther, and though the emperor had promised the friar safe passage back to his home in Wittenberg, it was soon widely known that Charles would like to have Luther safely under arrest. Luther fled and went into hiding, and thus, it may be said, the Reformation began.

The Diet of Worms is the climax of Craig Harline’s new book, “A World Ablaze,” a rollicking account of the first few years of Luther’s career as a dissenter from the Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestants (and Americans living in a largely Protestant culture) share a common narrative presenting Luther as a hero consciously abandoning an institutional church drowning in its own corruption, and Harline wants us to think again about how much of this may be myth. But Harline, a lively stylist and professor of history at Brigham Young University, goes about this deconstruction in such a graceful way readers will hardly notice.

For instance, despite the Diet of Worms being remembered today for Luther’s defiance, Harline takes time to point out that the friar was something of an afterthought there. Rather, Charles, a brand-new emperor, dominated the…

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