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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 66. The Revolution at Wittenberg. Carlstadt and the New Prophets.


See Lit. in § 65.


In Wittenberg the same spirit of violence broke out under the lead of Luther’s older colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, known to us from his ill success at the Leipzig disputation. He was a man of considerable originality, learning, eloquence, zeal, and courage, but eccentric, radical, injudicious, ill-balanced, restless, and ambitious for leadership.

He taught at first the theology of mediaeval scholasticism, but became under Luther’s influence a strict Augustinian, and utterly denied the liberty of the human will.

He wrote the first critical work on the Canon of the Scriptures, and anticipated the biblical criticism of modern times. He weighed the historic evidence, discriminated between three orders of books as of first, second, and third dignity, putting the Hagiographa of the Old Testament and the seven Antilegomena of the New in the third order, and expressed doubts on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He based his objections to the Antilegomena, not on dogmatic grounds, as Luther, but on the want of historical testimony; his opposition to the traditional Canon was itself traditional; he put ante-Nicene against post-Nicene tradition. This book on the Canon, however, was crude and premature, and passed out of sight.478478    Libellus de Canonicis Scripturis, Wittenb. 1520; also in German: Welche Bücher heilig und biblisch seind. Comp. Weiss, Einleitung in’s N. T. (1886), p. 109, and Reuss, Histoire du Canon (1863), 357 sqq. (Hunter’s translation, p. 336 sq.)

He invented some curious and untenable interpretations of Scripture, e.g., of the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. He referred the word "this," not to the bread, but to the body of Christ, so as to mean: "I am now ready to offer this (body) as a sacrifice in death." He did not, however, publish this view till 1524, and afterwards made common cause with Zwingli.

Carlstadt preached and wrote, during Luther’s absence, against celibacy, monastic vows, and the mass. At Christmas, 1521, he omitted in the service the most objectionable parts of the Canon of the mass, and the elevation of the host, and distributed both wine and bread to a large congregation. He announced at the same time that he would lay aside the priestly dress and other ceremonies. Two days afterwards he was engaged to the daughter of a poor nobleman in the presence of distinguished professors of the university, and on Jan. 20, 1522, he was married. He gave improper notoriety to this act by inviting the whole university and the magistrate, and by publishing a book in justification of it.

He was not, however, the first priest who openly burst the chains of celibacy. Bartholomäus Bernhardi of Feldkirchen, a Wittenberg licentiate and newly elected Probst at Kemberg, and two other priests of less reputable character, had preceded him in 1521. Justus Jonas followed the example, and took a wife Feb. 10, 1522, to get rid of temptations to impurity (1 Cor. 7:12). Luther approved of these marriages, but did not intend at that time to follow the example.

Carlstadt went further, and maintained that no priest without wife and children should receive an appointment (so he explained "must" in 1 Tim. 3:2); that it was sin to commune without the cup; and that the monastic vow of celibacy was not binding, at least not before the sixtieth year of age, chastity being a free gift of God, and not at man’s disposal. He introduced a new legalism instead of the old, in violation of the principle of evangelical liberty and charity.

He also denounced pictures and images as dumb idols, which were plainly forbidden in the second commandment, and should be burnt rather than tolerated in the house of God. He induced the town council to remove them from the parish church; but the populace anticipated the orderly removal, tore them down, hewed them to pieces, and burnt them. He assailed the fasts, and enjoined the people to eat meat and eggs on fast-days. He repudiated all titles and dignities, since Christ alone was our Master (Matt. 23:8). He expressed contempt for theology and all human learning, because God had revealed the truth unto babes (Matt. 11:25), and advised the students to take to agriculture, and earn their bread in the sweat of their face (Gen. 3:19). He cast away his priestly and academic robes, put on a plain citizen’s dress, afterwards a peasant’s coat, and had himself called brother Andrew. He ran close to the border of communism. He also opposed the baptism of infants. He lost himself in the clouds of a confused mysticism and spiritualism, and appealed, like the Zwickau Prophets, to immediate inspirations.

In the beginning of November, 1521, thirty of the forty monks left the Augustinian convent of Wittenberg in a rather disorderly manner. One wished to engage in cabinet making, and to marry. The Augustinian monks held a congress at Wittenberg in January, 1522, and unanimously resolved, in accordance with Luther’s advice, to give liberty of leaving or remaining in the convent, but required in either case a life of active usefulness by mental or physical labor.

The most noted of these ex-monks was Gabriel Zwilling or Didymus, who preached in the parish church during Luther’s absence, and was esteemed by some as a second Luther. He fiercely attacked the mass, the adoration of the sacrament, and the whole system of monasticism as dangerous to salvation.

About Christmas, 1521, the revolutionary movement was reinforced by two fanatics from Zwickau, Nicolaus Storch, a weaver, and Marcus Thomä Stübner.479479    Marcus (Marx) Thomä and Stübner are not two distinct persons, but identical. See Köstlin’s note, vol. I. 804 sq. The latter had previously studied with Melanchthon, and was hospitably entertained by him. A few weeks afterwards Thomas Münzer, a millennarian enthusiast and eloquent demagogue, who figures prominently in the Peasants’ War, appeared in Wittenberg for a short time. He had stirred up a religious excitement among the weavers of Zwickau in Saxony on the Bohemian frontier, perhaps in some connection with the Hussites or Bohemian Brethren, and organized the forces of a new dispensation by electing twelve apostles and seventy-two disciples. But the magistrate interfered, and the leaders had to leave.

These Zwickau Prophets, as they were called, agreed with Carlstadt in combining an inward mysticism with practical radicalism. They boasted of visions, dreams, and direct communications with God and the Angel Gabriel, disparaged the written word and regular ministry, rejected infant baptism, and predicted the overthrow of the existing order of things, and the near approach of a democratic millennium.

We may compare Carlstadt and the Zwickau Prophets with the Fifth Monarchy Men in the period of the English Commonwealth, who were likewise millennarian enthusiasts, and attempted, in opposition to Cromwell, to set up the "Kingdom of Jesus" or the fifth monarchy of Daniel.

Wittenberg was in a very critical condition. The magistrate was discordant and helpless. Amsdorf kept aloof. Melanchthon was embarrassed, and too modest and timid for leadership. He had no confidence in visions and dreams, but could not satisfactorily answer the objections to infant baptism, which the prophets declared useless because a foreign faith of parents or sponsors could not save the child. Luther got over this difficulty by assuming that the Holy Spirit wrought faith in the child.

The Elector was requested to interfere; but he dared not, as a layman, decide theological and ecclesiastical questions. He preferred to let things take their natural course, and trusted in the overruling providence of God. He believed in Gamaliel’s counsel, which is good enough in the preparatory and experimental stages of a new movement. His strength lay in a wise, cautious, peaceful diplomacy. But at this time valor was the better part of discretion.

The only man who could check the wild spirit of revolution, and save the ship of the Reformation, was Luther.



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