On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.
Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.
Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.
When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”
This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.
That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.
Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.
[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*
Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”
So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.
Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.
* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.
** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.
† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”