History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 75. The Peasants’ War. 1523–1525.

I. Luther: Ermahnung zum Frieden auf die zwölf Artikel der Bauernschaft in Schwaben (1525); Wider die mörderischen und raüberischen Rotten der Bauern (1525); Ein Sendbrief von dem harten Büchlein wider die Bauern (1525). Walch, Vols. XVI. and XXI. Erl. ed., XXIV. 257–318. Melanchthon: Historic Thomae Münzers (1525), in Walch, XVI. 204 sqq. Cochlæus (Rom. Cath.), in his writings against Luther.

II. Histories of the Peasants’ War, by Sartorius (Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs, Berlin, 1795); Wachsmuth (Leipzig. 1834); Oechsle (Heilbronn, 1830 anti 1844); Bensen (Erlangen, 1840); Zimmermann (Stuttgart, 1841, second edition 1856, 3 Vols.); Jörg (Freiburg, 1851); Schreiber (Freiburg, 1863–66, 3 vols.); Stern (Leipzig, 1868); Baumann (Tübingen, 1876–78); L. Fries, ed. by Schäffler and Henner (Würzburg, 1876, 1877); Hartfelder (Stuttgart, 1884).

III. Monographs on Thomas Münzer by Strobel (Leben, Schriften und Lehren Thomae Müntzers, Nürnberg and Altdorf, 1795); Gebser (1831); Streif (1835); Seidemann (Dresden, 1842); Leo (1856); Erbkam (in Herzog2, Vol. X. 365 sqq.).

IV. Ranke: II. 124–150. Janssen: II. 393–582. Häusser: ch. VII. Weber: Weltgesch., vol. X. 229–273 (second edition, 1886).

The ecclesiastical radicalism at Wittenberg was the prelude of a more dangerous political and social radicalism, which involved a large portion of Germany in confusion and blood. Both movements had their roots in crying abuses; both received a strong impetus from the Reformation, and pretended to carry out its principles to their legitimate consequences; but both were ultra- and pseudo-Protestant, fanatical, and revolutionary.

Carlstadt and Münzer are the connecting links between the two movements, chiefly the latter. Carlstadt never went so far as Münzer, and afterwards retraced his steps. Their expulsion from Saxony extended their influence over Middle and Southern Germany.557557    Ranke (II. 126): "Dass Münzer und Karlstadt, und zwar nicht ohne Zuthun Luthers, endlich aus Sachsen entfernt wurden, trug zur Ausbreitung und Verstärkung dieser Bewegung ungemein bei. Sie wandten sich beide nach Oberdeutschland." Ranke attributes too much influence to Carlstadt’s false doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which he published after his expulsion.

Condition of the Peasants.

The German peasants were the beasts of burden for society, and in no better condition than slaves. Work, work, work, without reward, was their daily lot, even Sunday hardly excepted. They were ground down by taxation, legal and illegal. The rapid increase of wealth, luxury, and pleasure, after the discovery of America, made their condition only worse. The knights and nobles screwed them more cruelly than before, that they might increase their revenues and means of indulgence.

The peasants formed, in self-protection, secret leagues among themselves: as the "Käsebröder" (Cheese-Brothers), in the Netherlands; and the "Bundschuh,"558558    So called from the tied shoe which the peasants wore as a symbol of subjection, in contrast to the buckled shoe of the upper classes. in South Germany. These leagues served the same purpose as the labor unions of mechanics in our days.

Long before the Reformation revolutionary outbreaks took place in various parts of Germany,—a.d. 1476, 1492, 1493, 1502, 1513, and especially in 1514, against the lawless tyranny of Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg. But these rebellions were put down by brute force, and ended in disastrous failure.559559    On the connection of the earlier peasants’ insurrections with the movements preparatory to the Reformation, compare Ullmann’s essay on Hans Böheim of Niklashausen, in his Reformatoren vor der Reformation, vol. I. 419-446.

In England a communistic insurrection of the peasants and villeins occurred in 1381, under the lead of Wat Tyler and John Balle, in connection with a misunderstanding of Wiclif’s doctrines.

The Reformation, with its attacks upon the papal tyranny, its proclamation of the supremacy of the Bible, of Christian freedom, and the general priesthood of the laity, gave fresh impulse and new direction to the rebellious disposition. Traveling preachers and fugitive tracts stirred up discontent. The peasants mistook spiritual liberty for carnal license. They appealed to the Bible and to Dr. Luther in support of their grievances. They looked exclusively at the democratic element in the New Testament, and turned it against the oppressive rule of the Romish hierarchy and the feudal aristocracy. They identified their cause with the restoration of pure Christianity.

Thomas Münzer.

Thomas Münzer, one of the Zwickau Prophets, and an eloquent demagogue, was the apostle and travelling evangelist of the social revolution, and a forerunner of modern socialism, communism, and anarchism. He presents a remarkable compound of the discordant elements of radicalism and mysticism. He was born at Stolberg in the Harz Mountain (1590); studied theology at Leipzig; embraced some of the doctrines of the Reformation, and preached them in the chief church at Zwickau; but carried them to excess, and was deposed.

After the failure of the revolution in Wittenberg, in which he took part, he labored as pastor at Altstädt (1523), for the realization of his wild ideas, in direct opposition to Luther, whom he hated worse than the Pope. Luther wrote against the "Satan of Altstädt." Münzer was removed, but continued his agitation in Mühlhausen, a free city in Thuringia, in Nürnberg, Basel, and again in Mühlhausen (1525).

He was at enmity with the whole existing order of society, and imagined himself the divinely inspired prophet of a new dispensation, a sort of communistic millennium, in which there should be no priests, no princes, no nobles, and no private property, but complete democratic equality. He inflamed the people in fiery harangues from the pulpit, and in printed tracts to open rebellion against their spiritual and secular rulers. He signed himself "Münzer with the hammer," and "with the sword of Gideon." He advised the killing of all the ungodly. They had no right to live. Christ brought the sword, not peace upon earth. "Look not," he said, "on the sorrow of the ungodly; let not your sword grow cold from blood; strike hard upon the anvil of Nimrod [the princes]; cast his tower to the ground, because the day is yours."

The Program of the Peasants.

At the beginning of the uprising, the Swabian peasants issued a program of their demands, a sort of political and religious creed, consisting of twelve articles.560560    They are given In German by Walch, Strobel, Oechsle, Gieseler, Weber. The authorship is uncertain. It is ascribed to Christoph Schappeler, a native Swiss, and preacher at Memmingen; but also to Heuglin of Lindau, Habmeier, and Münzer. See the note of Ranke, II. 135.

Professing to claim nothing inconsistent with Christianity as a religion of justice, peace, and charity, the peasants claim: 1. The right to elect their own pastors (conceded by Zwingli, but not by Luther). 2. Freedom from the small tithe (the great tithe of grain they were willing to pay). 3. The abolition of bond-service, since all men were redeemed by the blood of Christ (but they promised to obey the elected rulers ordained by God, in every thing reasonable and Christian). 4. Freedom to hunt and fish. 5. A share in the forests for domestic fuel. 6. Restriction of compulsory service. 7. Payment for extra labor above what the contract requires. 8. Reduction of rents. 9. Cessation of arbitrary punishments. 10. Restoration of the pastures and fields which have been taken from the communes. 11. Abolition of the right of heriot, by which widows and orphans are deprived of their inheritance. 12. All these demands shall be tested by Scripture; and if not found to agree with it, they are to be withdrawn.

These demands are moderate and reasonable, especially freedom from feudal oppression, and the primitive right to elect a pastor. Most of them have since been satisfied. Had they been granted in 1524, Germany might have been spared the calamity of bloodshed, and entered upon a career of prosperity. But the rulers and the peasants were alike blind to their best interests, and consulted their passion instead of reason. The peasants did not stick to their own program, split up in parties, and resorted to brutal violence against their masters. Another program appeared, which aimed at a democratic reconstruction of church and state in Germany. Had Charles V. not been taken up with foreign schemes, he might have utilized the commotion for the unification and consolidation of Germany in the interest of an imperial despotism and Romanism. But this would have been a still greater calamity than the division of Germany.

Progress of the Insurrection.

The insurrection broke out in summer, 1524, in Swabia, on the Upper Danube, and the Upper Rhine along the Swiss frontier, but not on the Swiss side, where the peasantry were free. In 1525 it extended gradually all over South-Western and Central Germany. The rebels destroyed the palaces of the bishops, the castles of the nobility, burned convents and libraries, and committed other outrages. Erasmus wrote to Polydore Virgil, from Basel, in the autumn of 1525: "Every day there are bloody conflicts between the nobles and the peasants, so near us that we can hear the firing, and almost the groans of the wounded." In another letter he says: "Every day priests are imprisoned, tortured, hanged, decapitated, or burnt."

At first the revolution was successful. Princes, nobles, and cities were forced to submit to the peasants. If the middle classes, which were the chief supporters of Protestant doctrines, had taken sides with the peasants, they would have become irresistible.

But the leader of the Reformation threw the whole weight of his name against the revolution.

Luther advises a wholesale Suppression of the Rebellion.

The fate of the peasantry depended upon Luther. Himself the son of a peasant, he had, at first, considerable sympathy with their cause, and advocated the removal of their grievances; but he was always opposed to the use of force, except by the civil magistrate, to whom the sword was given by God for the punishment of evil-doers. He thought that revolution was wrong in itself, and contrary to Divine order; that it was the worst enemy of reformation, and increased the evil complained of. He trusted in the almighty power of preaching, teaching, and moral suasion. In the battle of words he allowed himself every license; but there he stopped. With the heroic courage of a warrior in the spiritual army of God, he combined the humble obedience of a monk to the civil authority.

He replied to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants with an exhortation to peace (May, 1525). He admitted that most of them were just. He rebuked the princes and nobles, especially the bishops, for their oppression of the poor people and their hostility to the gospel, and urged them to grant some of the petitions, lest a fire should be kindled all over Germany which no one could extinguish. But he also warned the peasants against revolution, and reminded them of the duty of obedience to the ruling powers (Rom. 13:1), and of the passage, that "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matt. 26:52). He advised both parties to submit the quarrel to a committee of arbitration. But it was too late; he preached to deaf ears.

When the dark cloud of war rose up all over Germany, and obscured the pure light of the Reformation, Luther dipped his pen in blood, and burst out in a most violent manifesto "against the rapacious and murderous peasants." He charged them with doing the Devil’s work under pretence of the gospel.561561    Kurzum, eitel Teufelswerk treiben sie, und insonderheit ists der Erzteufel, der zu Mühlhausen regiert [Münzer],und nichts denn Raub, Mord, Blutvergiessen anricht, wie denn Christus von ihm sagt, Joh. 8:44, dass er sei ein Mörder von Anbeginn."Erl. ed., XXIV. 288. He called upon the magistrates to "stab, kill, and strangle" them like mad dogs. He who dies in defence of the government dies a blessed death, and is a true martyr before God. A pious Christian should rather suffer a hundred deaths than yield a hair of the demands of the peasants.562562     "Darum, lieben Herren, löset hie, rettet hie, erbarmet euch der armen Leute [i.e., not the peasants, but the poor people deluded by them]; steche, schlage, würge hie wer da kann. Bleibst du darüber todt: wohl dir, seliglicheren Tod kannst du nimmermehr überkommen. Denn du stirbst im Gehorsam göttlichs Worts und Befehls, Rom. 13:1." ... "So bitte ich nun, fliche von den Bauern wer da kann, als vom Teufel selbst."Ibid., xxiv. 294. In his explanatory tract, p. 307, this passage is repeated more strongly."Der halsstarrigen, verstockten, verblendeten Bauern erbarme sich nur niemand, sondern haue, steche, würge, schlage drein, als unter die tollen Hunde, wer da kann und wie er kann. Und das alles, auf dass man sich derjenigen erbarme, die durch solche Bauern verderbt, verjagt und verführt werden, dass man Fried und Sicherheit erhalte."

So fierce were Luther’s words, that he had to defend himself in a public letter to the chancellor of Mansfeld (June or July, 1525). He did not, however, retract his position. "My little book," he said, "shall stand, though the whole world should stumble at it." He repeated the most offensive passages, even in stronger language, and declared that it was useless to reason with rebels, except by the fist and the sword.563563    Ibid., 298, 303, 307. See preceding note.

Cruel as this conduct appears to every friend of the poor peasants, it would he unjust to regard it as an accommodation, and to derive it from selfish considerations. It was his sincere conviction of duty to the magistrate in temporal matters, and to the cause of the Reformation which was threatened with destruction.

Defeat of the Rebellion.

The advice of the Reformer was only too well executed by the exasperated princes, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, who now made common cause against the common foe. The peasants, badly armed, poorly led, and divided among themselves, were utterly defeated by the troops of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, Duke Henry of Brunswick, the Elector Jolin, and the Dukes George and John of Saxony. In the decisive battle at Frankenhausen, May 25, 1525, five thousand slain lay on the field and in the streets; three hundred were beheaded before the court-house. Münzer fled, but was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed. The peasants in South Germany, in the Alsace and Lorraine, met with the same defeat by the imperial troops and the forces of the electors of the Palatinate and Treves, and by treachery. In the castle of Zabern, in the Alsace (May 17), eighteen thousand peasants fell. In the Tyrol and Salzburg, the rebellion lasted longest, and was put down in part by arbitration.

The number of victims of war far exceeded a hundred thousand.564564    Bishop Georg of Speier estimated the number of the killed at a hundred and fifty thousand. This does not include those who were made prisoners, beheaded, and hanged, or dreadfully mutilated. A hangman in the district of Würzburg boasted that he had executed by the sword three hundred and fifty in one month. Margrave George of Brandenburg had to remind his brother Casimir, that, unless he spared some peasants, they would have nothing to live on. Janssen, II. 563. The surviving rebels were beheaded or mutilated. Their widows and orphans were left destitute. Over a thousand castles and convents lay in ashes, hundreds of villages were burnt to the ground, the cattle killed, agricultural implements destroyed, and whole districts turned into a wilderness. "Never," said Luther, after the end of the war, "has the aspect of Germany been more deplorable than now."565565    Letter of Aug. 16, 1525, to Brismann (in De Wette, III. 22): "Rusticorum res quievit ubique, caesis ad centum millia, tot orphanis factis, reliquis vero in vita sic spoliatis, ut Germaniae facies miserior nunquam fuerit. Ita saeviunt victores, ut impleant suas iniquitates."

The Peasants’ War was a complete failure, and the victory of the princes an inglorious revenge. The reaction made their condition worse than ever. Very few masters had sufficient humanity and self-denial to loosen the reins. Most of them followed the maxim of Rehoboam: "My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions" (1 Kings 12:14). The real grievances remained, and the prospect of a remedy was put off to an indefinite future.

The cause of the Reformation suffered irreparable injury, and was made responsible by the Romanists, and even by Erasmus, for all the horrors of the rebellion. The split of the nation was widened; the defeated peasantry in Roman Catholic districts were forced back into the old church; quiet citizens lost their interest in politics and social reform; every attempt in that direction was frowned down with suspicion. Luther had once for all committed himself against every kind of revolution, and in favor of passive obedience to the civil rulers who gladly accepted it, and appealed again and again to Rom. 13:1, as the popes to Matt. 16:18, as if they contained the whole Scripture-teaching on obedience to authority. Melanchthon and Bucer fully agreed with Luther on this point; and the Lutheran Church has ever since been strictly conservative in politics, and indifferent to the progress of civil liberty. It is only in the nineteenth century that serfdom has been entirely abolished in Germany and Russia, and negro slavery in America.

The defeat of the Peasants’ War marks the end of the destructive tendencies of the Reformation, and the beginning of the construction of a new church on the ruins of the old.

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