Thomas Müntzer

From New World Encyclopedia

250px]Thomas Müntzer, in an eighteenth-century engraving by C. Van Sichem. No contemporary image of the reformer exists.

Thomas Muentzer (or Müntzer, Münzer) (1489 or 1490–27 May 1525) was an early Reformation-era German pastor who was a rebel leader during the Peasants' War and a leader of a radical Christian movement. The Protestant reformation's stress on salvation as a personal experience and on the priesthood of all believers resulted in a new confidence that, in a community of the saved, no individual could claim special authority. The more radical reformers wanted to return to a primitive Christianity, in which the believers held all things in common. Some took this concept of theological equality into the poltical arena and rebelled against feudal oppression. Under Muentzer, all authorities were to be opposed, since before the Fall, the Bible makes no mention of any priests or kings. Any man or woman could read the Bible without priestly mediation. The Bible was a sufficient basis for law and order. The people would govern themselves under God. Muentzer led an attempt to set up an ideal Christian commonwealth in which there was absolute equality and goods were held in common; however, he did so violently. He was captured at the battle of Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525) fighting, as he and his companions saw it, against political and spiritual oppression, convinced that God would intervene on their side. He was beheaded on May 27, 1525. Muentzer almost certainly believed that the "End" would follow the successful establishment of a Christian commonwealth. Muentzer's ideal was a utopian society and he has been recruited by Marxists as a pioneer of the class struggle, not without some justification.

Early life

Muentzer was born in the small village of Stolberg in the Hartz Mountains, Thuringia (what is now central Germany), in 1489 or 1490. Thomas Muentzer initially studied for the priesthood, earning the Master of Arts degree and completing the Bacculareus biblicus. He became versed in the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin languages. After ordination in 1513, he became a priest at St. Michael's in Braunschweig in May, 1514.

From 1517-19 Müntzer stayed in Wittenberg and was influenced by Andreas Karlstadt and Martin Luther, agreeing with their opposition to the Catholic church's sale of indulgences and its priests' abusive use of power.

Increasing Radicalism

In May 1520, Muentzer became a pastor in Zwickau in Saxony in 1520 on Luther's recommendation. In 1521 and 1522, however, the growing divide between Luther and Muentzer’s beliefs became apparent, as Muentzer developed his anti-intellectualism further and rejected infant baptism.

The Zwickau authorities expelled Muentzer in April, 1521; he fled to Prague. He was initially feted in the town when he arrived in June, welcomed as a follower of Luther, with accommodation provided for him and invitations to preach in Latin and German in the University chapels. For unknown reasons, however, by November he was far less welcome in the town. That month he wrote the Prague Manifesto. This survives in four different versions in German and Latin, and is an angry, anticlerical, apocalyptic work.

In December, 1521, Muntzer left Prague. He spent 1522 moving about, not staying in many places. In March, 1523, he became pastor at Allstedt, a town of around 900 people in an enclave of Electoral Saxony in Thuringia. In June, 1523, he married a former nun, Ottilie von Gerson. In November, he was interrogated by George Spalatin and Frederick the Wise. Luther pressed for a private confrontation in Wittenberg, but Muentzer wanted a more public disputation, and nothing happened. In December, 1523, Muentzer produced the first completely German liturgy, the Order of German Church Service, for use in Allstedt.

On July 13, 1524, Muentzer apparently delivered his Sermon to the Princes, a sermon allegedly given to Duke John of Saxony and his advisors in Allstedt, though the circumstances surrounding this event are unclear. The sermon focuses on Daniel 2, a chapter in which Daniel, hostage in Babylon, becomes an adviser to the king because of his ability to interpret dreams. In the sermon, Muentzer presents himself as a new Daniel to interpret the dreams of the princes to them. He interpreted Daniel 2:44 as speaking of the kingdom of God that would consume all earthly kingdoms.

Probably as a result of this event, combined with Luther's Letter to the Princes of early July, 1524 which attacked Muntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, Muntzer and others from Allstedt were called to a hearing at Weimar with Duke John of Saxony on July, 31 or August, 1. He decided that the printing press at Allstedt was to be shut down. Muntzer fled Allstedt soon after.

Peasants' War

In August, 1524, Muentzer became one of the leaders of the uprising later known as the Peasants' War. After fleeing Allstedt, he arrived in the imperial city of Muhlhausen in Thuringia. In mid-September, he and his associate, Heinrich Pfeiffer, took advantage of long-standing tensions between the middling craftsmen and city council to produce the Eleven Muhlhausen Articles, which called for the dissolution of the existing town council and the formation of an "eternal council" based on divine justice and the Word of God. Copies of this were sent to the peasantry in the surrounding village, but support did not materialise, apparently because the article expressed predominantly urban grievances which did not address peasant needs. On September 27, 1524, Muntzer and Pfeiffer were expelled from Muhlhausen.

Muntzer spent late 1524 in Nuremberg, but in mid-February was able to return to Muhlhausen. The following month, the citizenry voted out the old council and a new "Eternal League of God" was formed, composed of a cross-section of the male population and some former councillors.

Muntzer led a group of about 8,000 peasants at the battle of Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525) against political and spiritual oppression, convinced that God would intervene on their side. Utterly defeated, captured, imprisoned, and tortured, Muentzer recanted and accepted the Catholic mass prior to his beheading in Mühlhausen in Thuringia on May 27, 1525. His head and body were displayed as a warning to all those who might again preach treasonous doctrines.

Muentzer's Teachings

Martin Luther and Muentzer disagreed on several religious doctrines. Muentzer believed and taught of the "living word of God" (i.e., continued revelation and prophecy), the banning of infant baptism, and that the wine and bread of the Eucharist were only emblems of Jesus Christ's sacrifice. Luther disagreed with all of these doctrines. Because of his position on infant baptism, Muentzer ranks as one of the founders of the Anabaptist movement. Yet doubt exists as to whether he ever received adult "re-baptism."

Luther was also not as radical in his beliefs as was Muentzer. In criticizing the Catholic clergy, who did not believe in continued revelation from heaven, he stated, "These villainous and treacherous parsons are of no use to the church in even the slightest manner, 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."

Muentzer's legacy

In studies of the Reformation, Muentzer has often been ignored. To Protestant historians, he was a short-lived radical. Muentzer was then adopted by socialists as a symbol of early-class struggle. Muentzer's movement and the peasants' revolt formed an important topic in Friedrich Engels' book The Peasant War in Germany, a classic defense of historical materialism. Engels describes Muentzer as a revolutionary leader who chose to use biblical language—the only language the peasants would understand. He then became a symbolic hero for the East German state (German Democratic Republic, GDR) in the twentieth century, appearing from 1975 on their 5 mark banknote.

More recent studies, however, have been more sensitive to the context of Muentzer's life. He stands as a symbol of one of the many theological directions which could have been taken by the Reformation movement in its earliest stages.

He and his followers are usually described as anabaptists, although there is no evidence that he re-babtized people. Many early anabaptists were pacifist, although those who took their utopian beliefs to an extreme, and beleived that the perfect society could be established in necessary by the sword, promoted violence and some even practiced polygamy believing that in the period before the end, nornal moral rules no longer applied. Anabaptists were subsequently regarded with suspicion as a danger to social order but through the Mennonites they later gained respect especially for their renewed emphasis on pacifism, in contrast to Muntzer, and on voluntary service.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blissert, Luther. Q. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004. ISBN 0156031965
  • Brekke, Torkel. Religion og Vold. Oslo : Humanist Forlag, 1999 ISBN 8290425341
  • Engels, Friedrich. The Peasant War in Germany New York: International Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0717807207
  • Goertz, Hans-Jurgen. Thomas Muntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary. Edinburgh: T & t Clark, 1993. ISBN 0567096068 Translated by Jocelyn Jaquiery.
  • Gritsch, Eric W. Reformer Without a Church. The Life and Thought of Thomas Muentzer, 1488?-1525. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
  • Matheson, Peter (ed.). The Collected Works of Thomas Muntzer. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988. ISBN 0567094952
  • Münzer, Thomas. Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Muntzer. Translated and edited by Michael G. Baylor. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press; London; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1993. ISBN 0934223165

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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