Thomas Müntzer – Prophet of the Peasants’ Uprising
Quote: “All things in common!”
It is inaccurate to suppose that the Reformation was religious in nature only. Many leaders and their followers were influenced by social and political factors as well. Thomas Müntzer (c. 1488 – 1525) was a radical reformer whose philosophical and religious perspectives soundly clashed with most Anabaptists as well as with Catholics and Magisterial Reformers. Though often lumped with the Anabaptists, he does not easily fit that label, and he predates the broader Anabaptist movement. Born in a small village in Germany, he was raised a devout Catholic and was a monastic leader by the age of twenty-one. But motivated by the writings of Luther, he left the monastery behind for university studies and political activism.
In 1520, Müntzer accepts a call to serve as minister in a church in Zwickau, a town that had gained a reputation for radicalism as the home of the Zwickau prophets. Some of these prophets had relocated in Wittenberg and created problems for Luther. Müntzer has barely begun his ministry when his church sends him packing. He is too radical for their tastes. Moving on to Prague, he is welcomed as a reformer in the tradition of Luther. There he writes the “Prague Manifesto,” denouncing Catholic clerics and prophesying the reign of Christ. Luther renounces him as a Schwärmer (fanatic), as do secular rulers. By 1523, he is back on German territory, ministering in the village of Allstedt. He remains long enough to marry Ottilie von Gerson, a former nun. Fearing the wrath of authorities, he moves on and becomes an instigator in the peasants’ uprising, using as his rallying cry, Omnia sunt communia (all things in common). Indeed, some scholars view him as a precursor to modern socialism. But his views change as often as does his place of residence.
Settling down in Mühlhausen in 1525, he stirs the citizens to overthrow the city council and institute his “Eternal League of God.” At the height of his popularity he leads some one thousand followers in an independent religious community, identifying himself as an interpreter of dreams in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. But more important than the Bible is his direct revelation from God. “These villainous and treacherous parsons are of no use to the church in even the slightest manner,” he thunders, “for they deny the voice of the bridegroom, which is a truly certain sign that they are a pack of devils. How could they then be God’s servants, bearers of his word, which they shamelessly deny with their whore’s brazenness? For all true parsons must have revelations, so that they are certain of their cause.”
Unlike Anabaptists, Müntzer does not administer believers’ baptism, nor is he a pacifist. In fact, he leads thousands of ill-equipped peasant soldiers in the final battle of the Peasants War in the spring of 1525. Government troops had agreed to a truce, but the next day they attack in full force, slaughtering the unsuspecting peasants. Müntzer is arrested and tortured to the point that he recants and submits to the Mass. Any hope for leniency, is dashed, however. He is beheaded, and his head is publicly displayed to serve as a deterrent to future radicalism.