7. The Radical Reformation, Thomas Münzer

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

The Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, when it came, was certainly a revolution, but it was a revolution within society, within the dominant culture, and within the general process of history of Western civilization. The Reformation dissolved the hierarchical nature of feudalism and shattered its web of interlocking rights and duties. It released the frozen assets tied up in ecclesiastical property — over one-half of the agricultural land of Western Europe and probably a greater proportion of its portable wealth. It abolished all the legal sanctions and the customs which kept the economy static. It sanctioned usury and permitted the lender to take any interest he could get. It did away with the guilds’ suppression or control of competition amongst their members. In the Middle Ages the peasantry had clearly defined rights and duties, sanctioned by immemorial custom and by law — but so had the lord of the manor, and he in turn had his responsibilities and privileges in relation to his overlord, and so on up the ladder to emperor and pope. With the Reformation the peasant, who at first expected to gain a vague but wonderful freedom from the new social morality preached by the young Luther, found himself being reduced to the status of a serf, with no rights and, instead of duties, the naked compulsion to hard labor.

By the end of the Middle Ages society had become top-heavy with charitable organizations of all kinds which cared for the redundant unemployed, or at least kept them off the labor market. With the seizure of wealth of the Church, only a tiny fraction of these institutions were revived under private or State auspices and the absorption of the labor surplus necessary to a static economy ceased. From then on until the present day legislators would fulminate against “sturdy rogues” and “welfare chiselers.” The Poor Laws of post-Reformation Europe, where they exist, all have one assumption in common — poverty is the fault of the poor and indigence is a vice. Theoretically the old fealties of the Middle Ages were replaced by a structure of contracts between individuals, man and man, or “legal persons,” juridical individuals; but since the bulk of the population did not in fact enter into contracts of any kind, what resulted was progressive atomization. Medieval man was saved as a member of the body of Christ, the Church, which literally incorporated its members. Luther’s Christian was saved alone, by an individual act of faith, and so his relationship to the deity was one of an utterly contingent atomic instant devoid of self-sufficiency upon God’s absolute omnipotence and self-sufficiency.

Calvinism introduced only a change of emphasis. If God had predestined an elect to salvation, and all other men to damnation from the beginning of time and regardless of their merits, this elect did not form a community, because its membership was unknown and unknowable. One would think that this would have led to complete antinomianism, the abandonment of all morality. Quite the contrary, all that man could do was behave as though he belonged to the elect and hope for the best. Calvin’s extreme asceticism so circumscribed man’s behavior that he could do little else but work hard, save money, and invest it. Luther’s was a religion of free enterprise, Calvin’s of capital accumulation. In such a system as the Calvinist theocracies of Geneva, Huguenot France, Scotland, or New England, the poor were convicted prima-facie by their situation. Every member of the elite might not be a member of the elect, but the poor, and especially the indigent poor, obviously were not. The incompetent, the wastrel, the drunkard, and all those who lived only for pleasure rather than profit were self-evidently damned.

Although the three great reformers were to make much of an appeal to the Bible — “only by faith, only by the Bible,” said Luther — to the apostolic age, and to the fathers of the Church, their theology was in fact derived directly from St. Augustine and the medieval scholastics. Their insistence on salvation by faith and predestination represents only slight changes of emphasis, if that, from the teachings of the most orthodox scholastics. It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century in England in the Anglican Church that there begins a serious attempt to construct a theology based on the Fathers and the testimony of the united Church of the ecumenical councils. For the reformers the Church was coterminous with the State, just as it was for the Catholic theologians, and Church and State played only slightly different roles in the exercise of power. The difference was that the Church no longer had final authority — as personified in the pope. At first the ultimate appeal was to Luther himself. The other leaders of the German Reformation deferred always to his final decision — as in the case of Zwingli’s doctrine of the Eucharist; and in the question of relations with the Utraquist church of Bohemia and the surviving Taborites, and with the first Swiss Brethren; and regarding disciplinary problems such as those raised at the beginning of the career of Thomas Münzer; and finally, of course, in the matter of Luther’s notorious condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt.

In practice most religious problems were met by the secular State, the town councils, the local lords, and ultimately the princes and dukes of the conglomeration of petty states and small kingdoms that made up the German empire, an overarching political community which was beginning to collapse under the blows of the universal conflict engendered by the Reformation. Once the principle was established of cujus regio, ejus religio, “as the ruler, so the religion,” without which Middle Europe would have broken down in a war of each against all, spiritual authority was in fact vested no longer in the emperor or in an abstract secular power, but in the chance circumstances of the petty courts of Germany.

The religion of the Anabaptists and the radical Reformation was the exact opposite in almost every case of Luther’s. Thomas Münzer at Mühlhausen and Frankenhausen and the apocalyptic Anabaptist commune at Münster were attempts to establish the millennial kingdom as a secular imperium, but for all their notoriety they were atypical and involved relatively few previous members of Anabaptist groups. Recent Mennonite and American Baptist historians have stressed the ancient roots of Anabaptism and the continuity of the sixteenth-century radical reformers with similar sects throughout the Middle and Dark Ages back to the time of the apostles. They are essentially right.

The Reformation with its seeming, but quite transient, advocacy of freedom of speech, released and made public radical dissent, which had been there all the time, and briefly permitted widespread proselytizing by preachers whose doctrines were subversive of the Reformation itself, even more than they were subversive of Roman Catholicism. The record would indicate that until the Reformation the Roman Church had probably ignored most of the strange cults that flourished in the Middle Ages, unless they gave scandal or insisted on giving notice, much as it had dealt with the concubinage of the clergy. In later years the extreme sectarians and the Roman Catholics were often to form a united front against a Protestant church and state, as witness the close friendship between William Penn and James II.

Radical sectarians did not just appeal to the traditions of the Church before it was coopted by Constantine; they strove to reinstate it totally in faith and practice, as a saving remnant within a doomed world. They were indifferent to the conflict of power of emperor and pope, Luther and prince, because they did not believe in worldly power as such. They were indifferent to laws regulating competition and the taking of interest because they did not believe in what would later be called “political economy” at all. They strove to achieve the self-sufficient economy of a closed subculture, a communism of both production and consumption. In most cases circumstances did not permit this, but they always advocated an apostolic community of goods, the shared responsibility for the physical welfare of all members; and in the early days they often practiced a communism of consumption while earning their bread at jobs in the world. Deeply influenced by Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, whom most of their theologians read, they looked on the process of salvation as the progressive deification of man in community rather than the forensic “justification” of the individual before the judgment seat of God by faith in the sacrifice of Christ — they believed in at-one-ment rather than atonement, the Christ life rather than his sacrifice, in communion rather than Mass. So they were Anabaptists (twice-baptizers) opposed to the baptism of unconscious infants or immature children. For them baptism was a divine sealing of the awakened soul into the community of the elect, a conscious act by which the individual turned from the world and embarked on the spiritual pilgrimage toward divinization in company with the beloved community.

Although practically all Anabaptists were millenarians in the sense that they looked forward to the coming of the kingdom in the indefinite future, they thought of themselves not as the army of the apocalypse to whom it had been given to usher in the last days, but as waiters on the advent of the Lord. The two most famous episodes in the early history of Anabaptism did not arise out of the main body of the movement but were generated independently.

Thomas Münzer was not an Anabaptist at all, or at least the questions of when and why to baptize were of no importance to him; and he gave contradictory answers at various times in his career. Nor until his last days at Mühlhausen did he preach community of goods, and his only definite statement on the subject was made in his final confession after torture and before execution.

Münzer was born in Stolberg of a well-to-do family in the Harz Mountains and educated at Leipzig and Frankfurt. He seems to have visited Luther sometime around 1519 and to have spent his school years in earnest study and seeking, profoundly troubled by the apostasy of the established Church. That same year he became father confessor to a nunnery at Beuditz and with the security and leisure that his position gave him spent over a year of intensive study reading Josephus, the church history of Eusebius, St. Augustine, the acts of the general councils and those of Constance and Basel, and the mystical writings of Suso and Tauler. He began to correspond with the leading reformers, most of whom were five to ten years older than he. The next year he was recommended as a preacher to St. Mary’s Church at Zwickau to replace temporarily the pastor, John Egranus. At first he appeared to be just another of the young apostles of Luther who were springing up all over Germany and immediately got himself in a violent controversy with the local Franciscans.

Zwickau in those days was one of the largest cities in Germany, three times the size of Dresden. It had been a prosperous textile center but with the development of silver mines in the nearby mountains, the weaving trade had declined and many weavers were unemployed. The city had taken on a boom-town character with the severe local price inflation typical of mining towns, the radical polarization of classes with great wealth at the top and poverty and mass unemployment at the bottom. Zwickau was just over the border from Bohemia and had been a center of Taborite agitation in the previous century; and small clandestine groups of Picards had survived to be gathered up and organized into an open movement known as the Zwickau Prophets by Nicholas Storch, the descendant of a once wealthy and powerful family forced into bankruptcy by the mine owners. When Münzer arrived Storch had made himself the leader of an extreme pentecostal, chiliastic sect of religious revolutionaries, often unemployed weavers like himself.

The violence of Münzer’s sermons against the Franciscans got him into trouble with the city council and the congregation of St. Mary’s and with, when he returned, John Egranus, and he was forced more and more into the arms of Storch. Eventually he left the upper-class St. Mary’s and became the pastor of St. Katherine’s, with a large congregation of miners, poor weavers, and unemployed. At St. Katherine’s Münzer became quite consciously a pastor of the poor. He ceased to be an orthodox Lutheran and became an apocalypticist like Storch and spent more and more of his time addressing the conventicles of the Prophets. The city council grew increasingly antagonistic. In the spring of 1521 Münzer was asked to leave Zwickau. Luther in the meantime had withdrawn his support.

Münzer went to Prague, where he was welcomed enthusiastically as one of the new Lutherans and invited to preach in the churches. His sermons were not Lutheran; he had not only become a full-fledged chiliast, but his language had grown extraordinarily violent, abusive, and gross, and his claim to be appointed by God to gather in the elect for the final armed struggle before the millennium was presented in terms outrageous even for those days. The sophisticated citizens of Prague had heard all this one hundred years before and were not impressed.

Münzer left, disillusioned with the Bohemians. Before he left, in imitation of Luther, he nailed a manifesto to the doors of the principal churches. It summarizes his leading ideas which were to guide him for the rest of his life, but the violence and incoherence of the language are its most notable features. During 1522 he wandered about with no regular employment. He visited Luther in Wittenberg, whom he seems to have annoyed, but who may have used his influence to get Münzer a position as pastor of St. John’s Church in the small town of Alstedt in Saxony. There he gave his first sermon on Easter Day 1523.

The sixteen months or so that Münzer spent in Alstedt were the quietest and most productive of his brief career. He married a former nun, Ottilie von Gersen. The next Easter day she presented him with a son. He began, quietly enough for him, as a spokesman for the orthodox Reformation, albeit an emotional and eccentric one. He had apparently decided to move cautiously and with a certain amount of duplicity, but his tempestuous sermons soon made him the most popular preacher in the entire district. People came from all around to hear him. He wrote and celebrated the first Eucharist in the German language and later published a complete prayer book with liturgies for communion, baptism, marriage, communion of the sick and funerals, and the public confession of sin before communion. His prayer book promised to be widely adopted, but after his involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt it was condemned by Luther who, however, did not scruple to imitate it three years later. The most impressive thing about Münzer’s liturgies is their total lack of his usual coarseness and violence. On the contrary they show an exceptional poetic and devotional sensibility.

As time went on Münzer revealed more and more of his apocalyptic message and presented himself openly as the chosen man of God. At the same time he began the secret organization of a revolutionary army. The League of the Elect started out by raiding, looting, and burning convents and monasteries in the neighboring countryside. Within a short time he was recruiting for his league in an ever-widening circle of communities in Thuringia. As they became noised abroad his activities began to worry Frederick, the elector of Saxony, and his brother Duke John, who were supporters of the Reformation, and Luther, with whom his correspondence became more and more eccentric and incoherent. Münzer also got in a violent quarrel with the local lord, the Count of Mansfeld. Meanwhile he was issuing a steady stream of pamphlets, each one more radical than the last. Frederick decided to investigate and sent Duke John, his son John Frederick, his chancellor, and various other officials to Alstedt. They invited Münzer to preach before them at the castle and on July 13 he delivered what has been called the most extraordinary public utterance of the Reformation era.

Basing his sermon on the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel, Münzer announced the immediate oncoming of the war between the forces of the Devil and the League of the Elect which would usher in the millennium, and appealed to the visiting princes to join him as leaders of the army of the saints. He envisaged a new reformation with its capital in the little town of Alstedt, being spread by the word, first through Saxony, then all Germany, then throughout the world. It would be a kingdom of the elect held in unanimity, obtained by the simple method of killing everybody else. He ended by threatening his noble listeners with extermination if they did not join him. Nothing shows the intellectual turmoil of the age better than Münzer’s confidence that Duke John would accept his ideas.

The sermon was printed and circulated. Duke John returned to confer with Elector Frederick, who at first was prepared to tolerate Münzer’s fanaticism as long as it did not pass over into overt action. Münzer persisted in baiting both Luther and the rulers. He was called to Weimar and examined, where his claims to be leader of the last age and his bloodthirsty language became even more extreme. He returned to Alstedt, still confident that he had won over the Saxon court. Frederick, Duke John, and Luther began to exert pressure on the town council of Alstedt to expel him from the city. Suddenly, on the night of August 7, 1524, he left Alstedt, leaving behind his wife and children and all his possessions.

Münzer spent the autumn and winter in travel, first to Mühlhausen, where the militant Anabaptist Henry Pfeiffer had organized his own League of the Elect and was attempting to take over the city. Münzer immediately took over the leadership from Pfeiffer, superimposed his own apocalyptic program, raised a demonstration, and attempted to drive the mayor and council from the city. The nobles and a company of mercenary soldiers dispersed the crowd and expelled Münzer and Pfeiffer.

Münzer went on to Nuremberg to visit his friend John Hut, who published Münzer’s most violent, incoherent, and abusive pamphlet against Luther, an utterance of almost continuous hysterical anger. The Nuremberg authorities confiscated and destroyed all but a very few copies, arrested the printer, and expelled Münzer and Pfeiffer. Münzer went to Switzerland seeking allies amongst the Swiss Brethren, and even visited John Oecolampadius, the orthodox Zwinglian reformer. He also visited Balthasar Hübmaier in the Waldshut over the border in Germany, an Anabaptist leader only slightly less militant than Münzer, everywhere seeking allies and attempting to rouse the people for his revolution. Neither leaders nor people were impressed, and the pacifist Swiss Brethren were profoundly shocked. Münzer returned to Mühlhausen. Pfeiffer had already come back and the radicals had gained control of the city. Münzer revitalized and armed his league, expelled its opponents, and placed in office a new council to which both he and Pfeiffer declined to belong. Meanwhile the Peasants’ Revolt had reached Thuringia and Münzer was ready, not just to join but, he imagined, to take it over.

It should be understood that although Münzer is often called the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt, he in fact had nothing to do with it. The revolt in Mühlhausen was an entirely separate action with quite different objectives. As the Reformation proceeded in the destruction of the social and economic relationships of feudalism, the peasants of Germany had taken Luther’s professions of freedom at face value and had looked forward to a society of independent yeoman farmers and free laborers, with a money economy. The old social relationships had no sooner been done away with — from the top — than the nobles and magnates began a forcible enserfment of the peasantry, a quite different status from that of the medieval peasant who had both rights and duties. Post-Reformation serfdom was much like the Russian version, a servile status close to slavery.

As the upper classes began to close them in, peasantry all over south Germany began to rebel. From the beginning of the sixteenth century sporadic revolts broke out every year somewhere, usually under the leadership of a former soldier, Joss Fritz, and with a widespread secret organization called at first the Bundschuh after the peasant’s clog, and later Poor Konrad. These were not small riots, but battles involving as many as five thousand armed peasants. By 1525 local actions and riots had coalesced to full-scale war in the Tyrol, Austria, and southwest Germany.

By this time Luther, who had originally been neutral and blamed both peasants and rulers, was denouncing the peasants and urging the nobility on to the kill, in language at least as unbridled as ever was Thomas Münzer’s. “The only way to make Mr. Everyman do what he ought,” said Luther, “is to constrain him by law and the sword to a semblance of piety, as one holds wild beasts by chains and cages . . . better the death of all the peasants than the princes . . . strangle the rebels as you would mad dogs.” And when rebellion had been suppressed by wholesale massacre “all their blood be upon me,” said Luther, who then proceeded to a theological justification of the new serfdom.

The demands of the peasants were simple, consistent, far from millenarian, scarcely religious, and certainly not communist. They demanded the abolition of the remnants of feudalism and of the new measures which were forcing them into serfdom, the disestablishment of the Church, a drastic reduction of taxes, the reinstatement of common rights in pastures, woodlands, and free hunting and fishing. There was nothing subversive of the new social order inaugurated by the Reformation. On the contrary, it was the return to a semi-feudalized capitalism, with the crushing of the Peasants’ Revolt, which held back German development for three hundred years.

Thomas Münzer was not interested in the practical problems of the peasantry and working class. In all his writings he shows no evidence of even being aware of them. He was interested only in the millennium, and on his return to Mühlhausen he began feverishly to prepare to usher it in. Couriers were sent in all directions to gather forces wherever the League of the Elect had members, or where Münzer had formed conventicles of his disciples. Alstedt, Zwickau, Mansfeld, were called upon for troops. As in Tabor a century before, footloose ecstatics and revolutionaries, when the news reached them, headed for Mühlhausen. Nicholas Storch arrived at the head of his own little army. At this point Münzer, Pfeiffer, and Storch may have introduced community of goods, though whether on principle or as a form of siege communism, or simply communism of a besieged town, it is impossible to tell. The subject is only mentioned in passing in Münzer’s final confession.

During the first week in May the peasant army, eventually to number between eight and ten thousand, had gathered at Frankenhausen, a town which had been taken over by revolutionary Mühlhausen. On the eleventh Münzer arrived at the peasant camp and began to organize the army of the apocalypse. It is significant that he brought only three hundred of his own followers from Mülhausen and that Pfeiffer remained behind, opposed to the alliance of the city of the apocalypse with the army of the peasants. Meanwhile Duke John, who had become elector on the death of his brother on the fourth of May, and other neighboring princes had raised an army under the command of Philip, Landgraf of Hesse, who immediately marched on Mühlhausen.

On the fifteenth Philip attacked with possibly five thousand troops equipped with artillery, and with two thousand cavalry, neither of which the peasants had. Philip offered peace if they would surrender Münzer; but after an impassioned speech by Münzer himself, who promised to catch the cannon balls in his cloak, and implied that those who had complete faith would be immune to the bullets, a rainbow, the symbol emblazoned on their flag, appeared in the sky, and the peasants refused. Philip’s artillery opened fire while the peasant army was singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus” and drove the peasants back against the charge of the cavalry while his infantry attacked from the other two sides. Completely surrounded, the peasants were cut to pieces. Five thousand were killed on the battlefield, six hundred captured, and the rest fled into the Thuringian forest. Philip’s army lost six men.

The moment the attack began Münzer ran away and hid in an attic in Frankenhausen. The soldiers discovered him lying in bed with the covers pulled over his head. He claimed to be a sick man who had nothing to do with the revolt; but he had been unwilling to abandon his papers and these betrayed him. He was brought to Philip and turned over to his enemy, Count Ernest of Mansfeld, who had him tortured most of the night. In the morning Münzer signed a confession which named all of his confederates and in which he claimed to have begun his revolutionary career in an underground group in Halle when he was a boy.

A ducal army captured Mühlhausen, which put up no resistance but begged for mercy, on May 24. On May 26 Pfeiffer, most of the members of the “eternal council,” and Münzer were beheaded in the city square. Münzer recanted and received communion according to the Catholic rite but could not remember the Nicene Creed. Pfeiffer refused and died defiant. The city of Mühlhausen was fined forty thousand gulden (over half a million dollars). Its status as a free city was abolished and it never recovered its prosperity.

The battle of Frankenhausen marked the end of the Peasants’ Revolt, although the next year was spent in mopping up operations, trials, executions, and minor massacres of the demoralized peasants all over south Germany and Austria. Luther published an exultant pamphlet, A Terrible Story and Judgment of God Concerning Thomas Münzer. Münzer’s papers fell into the hands of Philip of Hesse and George of Saxony who deposited them in the archives of Marburg, Dresden, and Weimar.

Four different Thomas Münzers were to survive in history. To the orthodox Protestants he would be the typical Anabaptist who had only pushed the doctrines of radical sectarianism to their logical conclusion. But the Anabaptists had already mostly become pacifists, and their pacifism was only intensified by Münzer and the Münster commune a few years later. Thus they repudiated him as a completely aberrant fanatic with no real connection with the main body of the movement. For the Roman Catholic historians Münzer had simply worked out the inevitable consequences of Protestant individualism, and Mühlhausen was only a slightly more extreme example of the Reformation’s attack upon law and order. In 1850 Friedrich Engels published The Peasants’ War in Germany and Münzer became a revolutionary saint, a position he has never lost. Marxian historians call him the ideologist of the Peasant War, the first political cosmopolitan. Engels said that his religious philosophy touched atheism and his political program touched communism. Karl Kautsky in his Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation and Ernst Bloch in Thomas Müntzer als Theologe der Revolution, both portray Münzer as a fully developed, although primitive, ideologue of revolutionary communism. He is a popular hero in East Germany. Many books have been written about him, streets and squares named after him. Engels’s version of his story is taught to school children and his face appears on postage stamps. In recent years research in sources unknown to Engels has made it possible to draw a fairly accurate picture of the real Thomas Münzer.