Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)
Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: The Martyrdom of Thomas Muentzer, by John George
Thomas Muentzer was born on Dec 20 or 21, 1488 in Stolberg, a small town in Saxony He continued his elementary education in Quedlinburg. And he entered the University of Leipzig in 1506 at a time when humanism was the philosophy of the day. He entered the University of Frankfurt in 1512. Perhaps it was here that he learnt the classical Hebrew and Greek which he later used in the extensive study of the Bible. Between 1511-1521, Muentzer drew a stipend from a prebend in Halberstadt. He inherited also large legacies after 1520 and acquired expensive books. Thus, contrary to the claims of socialist communist historians, Muentzer did not come from a poor proletarian family nor did he have the financial struggles of a young revolutionary. He was ordained fully in 1513 or 1514. And he chose to go to Frohse, a small monastery outside Halle, a good place for study and meditation, Muentzer was a secular priest at the monastery of St. Cyriacus near Ascherleben. He took interest in improving liturgy Luther’s publication of ninety five theses on Oct. 31, 1517 undoubtedly influenced Muentzer ‘s decision to leave Frohse, Probably in the Fall of 1518. After a brief stay in Wittenberg he went on to Leipzig. He took the pulpit of St. Nicolai in the April of 1519 and attacked papal authority and called for a general assembly which he esteemed above the papacy. He did not stay there long. He went to Leipzig and learnt there more about Luther’s movement. At Benditz, Muentzer studied church history He was particularly attracted to the mysticism of Suso and Tanlee. All these did not help resolve his religious uncertainty. From here Muentzer went to St. Mary’s Church in Zwickau as substitute Pastor for John Egramus on the recommendation of Luther in May 1520. He was still a seeker, restless and curious, driven by the desire to meet divine reality in a direct and personal way. At this time in the early years, the relationship between Luther and Muentzer seemed to have been congenial. He was a supporter of the young movement of Luther in Zwickau but was not a student or disciple of Luther. Thomas Muentzer has been a controversial figure in the religious controversies of the 16th Century. His ideas and his historical significance have been debated and judged differently by different historians. Luther’s view that Muentzer is a fanatic in religion and a rebel in politics seems to have been the verdict of practically all historians until recent times.
Luther regarded Muentzer as the incarnation of the devil; the oppressed peasants saw him as a prophet pointing to a new age of freedom. Communist historians claim him to be the forerunner of Marxist cause. In the midst of differing claims and assessments, Gritsch tries to fill a void in historical research, for the historical Muentzer has been buried too long in the grave of a legend. His assessment of Muentzer is in terms of the problem of the word and the spirit. The word means the Bible as an historical revelation, a source of religious truth.
The Pastor of Zwichau: Zwickau, because of its strategic geographic location with Leipzig, belonged to Germany’s most important trade centers. Grain, beer and textiles were the major products of the city. Zwickau was famous for schools too. It had eight Churches, four hospitals and even a Printing Press. The last probably helped put Zwickau, on the verge of becoming a center of Humanism.
The Church usually took the side of the rich and the common people resented the rich citizens in town. When Muentzer arrived in Zwickau, he attacked the Franciscans. He was supported by members of the city council and, common people mostly weavers, sided with Muentzer. In this fight against monks, Muentzer sought support from Luther. Thus, by the end of the summer Muentzer emerged as the leader of a basically ‘Lutheran’ reform movement in Zwickau. He and Luther were now fighting the same enemy, the papal church with the same weapon, the word of God. Nevertheless Muentzer became more and more attracted to Storch and his followers. In the class struggle that ensued due to the introduction of ideas from Wittenberg, Muentzer emerged as a spokesman of the common people.
Since Muentzer found it difficult to share the pulpit at St. Mary’s with Egranus, he moved to St. Catherine’s church across the town. He was welcomed there with great enthusiasm by the weavers and miners who constituted the membership of St. Catherine Church. Thus he became the Pastor of the lower classes. After sometime Muentzer left for Bohemia probably due to some private reasons.
The Prophet of Prague: The kingdom of Bohemia was the right place where Muentzer expected support for reform program more radical than Luther. Muentzer undoubtedly felt that Bohemia might become the center of the Reformation. He returned to Saxony. In several letters written in June 1521 Muentzer began calling himself the "messenger of Christ" and servant of the elect and found called to a higher ministry than that of the Parish. On Nov 1, 1521, the All Saints day, Muentzer posted a manifesto later to be called "The Prague Manifesto" perhaps at the doors of various churches. The manifesto was written in German addressed to common people, in Latin, aimed at Bohemian intelligentia, and Czech. The Prague manifesto contained as theological sketch Muentzer’s revolutionary program. His words disclosed a Prophetic self consciousness.
Muentzer argued that the Holy Spirit is given directly to those who are of a simple mind undistorted by the burden of complicated reason. The highest authority for Christians was not the written word of the Bible nor the spoken word of the priest but the inner experiencing of the Holy Spirit. Such extreme spiritualism centered in the concept that there are no external media whereby the Holy Spirit is received, became the basis for Muentzer’s reflections about the past. Muentzer warned the Bohemians of the coming day of Judgment, foreshadowed by the evils of the papacy, he advised them to elect their own Pastors who in turn should elect delegates to a General Council. The only practical suggestion Muentzer made in the Manifesto. Muentzer wrote the manifesto hoping to revive the Bohemian nationalism aroused a century earlier by John Hus. The Prague manifesto was more a radicalization of Lutheran theology.
Like Luther, Muentzer used the authority of the Bible to point at the Heresy of Clericalism. There is no longer a radical difference between Priest and laymen; both are equal before God. Muentzer insisted upon the inner certainty of salvation as the basis for his argument. The cross is no longer the experience of historical Jesus of Nazareth who effected salvation through his historical death but a spiritual experience, mediated through the Holy Spirit. Muentzer called upon the Bohemians to build a renewed Apostolic Church, a mirror reflecting the advent of the kingdom of God. Thus reformation movement was to become a political movement under Muentzer, designed to eliminate all evil particularly that of the old ecclesiastical and political order manifesting itself in clericalism and feudalism. Still Muentzer was not yet ready to identify his religious ideas with a definite political goal.
By March 1523 Muentzer was penniless. He was too proud to ask his friends for money. Instead he used his situation to propagate the idea that advent of the Holy Spirit must always be preceded by suffering and despair. Muentzer adopted a change in his tactics. He lived with growing conviction that he should offer himself as a living example of that which was to come. The transformation of human existence into a perfected, divine kingdom of God. Therefore he began to use a new approach. Instead of threatening his audience with the judgment of God, as he did in the Prague manifesto, Muentzer used the language of humility and personal experience to communicate his thoughts.
The Reformer of Allstedt: Allstedt was a small and insignificant town in electoral Saxony. On the Easter Sunday 1523, Muentzer descended on the town preaching the first of many fiery sermons that were to transform it from an obscure hinterland community into a launching site for a social revolution.
a) Pastoral and liturgical reforms: For six months Muentzer preached relentlessly attacking the old faith and demanding a radical form of ecclesiastical and social life. He did not stop with words. He wanted action. He introduced new forms of worship to replace the old ecclesiastical order and liturgy Muentzer ‘s musical sensitivity as well as his gift for practical ecclesiastical reform, represent one of the first "Protestant" efforts in the sixteenth century to reform the liturgy He also revised the entire order of Catholic worship which had been used for centuries. He introduced also the public confession of sin before Holy Communion as well as the preaching of a sermon before the creed. Thus his liturgical reforms created an evangelical church order. This was however rejected, ironically because of Muentzer ‘s involvement in the peasant’s war.
b) Attempts to win friends: While involved in liturgical re- forms at Allstedt, Muentzer tried to win friends. He communicated his ideas to people of different social levels. He attempted to win over Karlstadt also but the estrangement could not be resolved. Finally Muentzer tried to convert Fredrick, the elector, to a ‘Muentzerian’ rather than a ‘Lutheran’ type of Protestantism but the elector was cautious as he had psychological and political insecurity
c) League of the elect : Muentzer was not certain as to what form the kingdom of God would take in Saxony In any case it became clear that he wanted political power to be transferred from the nobility to the common people. This was to be the first step forward, a purely theocratic form of Government: The reign of God’s will as manifested in the Bible as well as in the pronouncements of the elect namely, Muentzer and his military league. Muentzer’s program was as he made out in the Prague manifesto concerning the invented faith in order to cooperate with God in the establishment of a pure; apostolic church in the creation of an era in which only the Holy Spirit reigns, every individual must learn how to distinguish between "true spirituality" and that "invented" by the so called Christian intellectuals. He stressed identification with Christ. This identification with Christ of which many medieval mystics had spoken is experienced, Muentzer said, in fear and trembling deep down in the soul, cleansing the believer’s faith First Muentzer argued against infant baptism. His argument was; no small child was baptized by Christ and in his messages there is no command to baptize children. Muentzer argued on the basis of Biblical foundation that man’s relationship with God begins not with the an external act, such as the rite of baptism but with the internal experience of the Holy Spirit. This baptism by the Holy Spirit marked by internal suffering and turmoil is the only way in which God reaches man.
d) Muentzer, the new Daniel: On July 13 Muentzer preached a sermon to the princes before Duke John, crown prince John Fredrich chancellor Eugany Bruech, Hans Von Grefendorf, Commissioner Hans Zeiss, Mayor Rueckert, and the town council of Allstedt. Basing on the second chapter of the Book of Daniel. Muentzer preached the sermon disclosing his self understanding within the framework of a biblical story tailor made for the occasion. In the sermon Muentzer likened himself to be a new Daniel in a new age of prophecy and invited the dukes of Saxony to accept and to advance the revolutionary program already being realized in Allstedt. The uniqueness of Muentzer’s proclamation was his insistence that the community of the faithful must prepare the world for the rule of Christ by establishing a theocracy in which princes renounced their titles and power for the sake of a visible equality before God. In other words, Muentzer demanded that the prince and common man be reborn by the Holy Spirit in order to create a political force which would cleanse the world of all evil through the sword of the elect. All the ideas with which Muentzer had become acquainted in his search for inner certainty had now become the ammunition for his war against a godless world. There were many odds against him. So he left Allstedt on the night of August 7.
The Rebel of Muehlhausen: The peasants war (1524-25) was the culmination of the persistent tensions between the prince and the common man. Muehlhausen, the place Muentzer reached from Allstedt, was to become one of the centers of the peasants war. There, rich merchants were exploiting the weavers and farmers in the best fashion of medieval capitalism. The Common man had no opportunity to participate in the local Government. Nepotism, unfair employment practices and political corruption, the traditional immorality of the priesthood were the order of the day. Muentzer arrived in the midst of such a situation on or before August 15. Muentzer saw in the rebellion the dawn of a new age in which God would rule through the sword of the elect. There Muentzer with Pfeiffer supported the rebellion and they presented eleven additional articles. Muentzer and Pfeiffer were banned from the city. Muentzer turned next to Swiss border. There were reasons to go there. A movement later known as "Ana baptism" has begun to spread throughout the Northern part of the country. It stressed adult baptism. Muentzer returned to Muehlhausen in February 1525 and before that he was arrested and held in Fulda for sometime. When he returned, he was made a preacher of St.Mary’s church and took a leading role in the of development of a military program for the peasants and helped in the election of an "eternal council." When the peasants war’s reached its apex, Muentzer was ready for it. On Apr. 26 Muentzer and Pfeiffer led about 6000 Muehlhausen citizens to Langensalza. The battle of Frankenhausen turned into a meaningless blood bath, 5000 were killed and 600 captured. Muentzer disappeared only to be found in bed, pretending to be sick. He was arrested by Mansfeld. He was tortured and made to admit. On May 26 Muentzer received the host, without wine according to Catholic rites and on Sat. May 27, Muentzer with Pfeiffer was beheaded and their heads were exhibited on stakes as a warning to the living
The Defender of the Lost Cause
a) Revolt against Wittenberg: Muentzer ‘s theological reflection culminating in a theology of society and political action received its first impetus from Luther’s opposition to medieval ecclesiastical authority. The problem of the interpretation of biblical authenticity became a primary concern, Muentzer pursued in this direction. He supported Luther’s denunciation of Rome. He was the first who tried to come to grips with the relationship between that inner faith Luther had referred to and the external norms especially the authority of the Bible. Muentzer came to insist that the consciousness of the Holy Spirit in the believer rather than the Bible constituted the ultimate authority for Christian faith and life. Muentzer argued that the Bible is only the historical record of those who had this" spiritual consciousness" and that any post- Biblical man can have the same experience as Biblical man. What Muentzer attacked was faith in the "outer word" of the Bible and called it invented, historical, sophistic and external. Muentzer, although he quoted often Bible to justify his reasoning, maintained that the Bible is not a witness to the revelation of God given once and for all in the historical Jesus. The Bible itself neither generates faith nor causes the rebirth of a sinful man. The Bible therefore has only pedagogical value. It makes the children of God fear and tremble in the face of God’s radical demand for obedience.
b) Theology of social and political action: Muentzer was led not only to a new concept of religious authority, the prophetic proclamation of the elect but also to a new understanding of man’s nature and destiny Luther saw man utterly sinful and can be saved only through complete trust in the grace of God as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whereas Muentzer saw the process of salvation as cooperation between human nature and divine spirit.
c) The measure of man: Muentzer ‘s significance, according to Gritsch, for the Protestant reformation, lies in the theological reflection upon the relationship between the Christian faith and the plight of the common man in the 16th century. Muentzer created a theology of social and political action. That is, the dynamic vitality of religious experiences, changing and transforming not only the personal life of the believer, but also existing order of the society. But what Luther stressed was personal aspect of faith. He was never fully concerned with the question of how the personal witness of God’s revelation affects the growth of personality and social order. On the other hand, Muentzer tried to answer the question of how the historical revelation in Christ was related to individual religious experiences and social change. Muentzer became aware of the needs of the walls around him. Words of faith had to become deeds. It was out of his pastoral concern for the plight of the common man in the context of his evaluation of history that Muentzer ‘s personal faith developed into a revolutionary zeal. Muentzer reminds that the world is often intolerant of those whose vision will stay fixed within narrow confines. He was a victim of such a world, a "Christian world".
The work done by Gritsch was published in 1967. He has tried to do a good job by giving us a lot of details about the life and work of Thomas Muentzer. And it is written with eminent scholarship and available historical data. Muentzer’s theological convictions are well highlighted. But socialistic, communistic claims are rejected by the author to a greater extent. Muentzer was a theologian and revolutionary. After reading about the life and work of Muentzer I was deeply moved by the way he really worked for the peasants and the others who were exploited. His faith was built not only upon words but was strongly reflected through action. He was a person who lived for the cause of the society where people were being deprived of their basic needs. Muentzer’s life has been an inspiration to millions of people, though he is not present physically, his words call us to remember him. As I was reflecting deeply, I was thinking when my day comes, would I be able to give my life for the upliftment of the poor; the marginalized and the oppressed? Would I be able to fight against the social evils of the society which still prevail in my country?
Gritsch, Eric, The Reformer Without a Church.
Friesen, Abraham, Reformation and Utopia.
William, George. Radical Reformation.
Balasundaram, F.J. "The Reformer without a Church", a paper based on Archive Reformation, University of Hamburg, 1986, (Unpublished).