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Thomas Müntzer

Thomas Müntzer
File:Thomas Muentzer.jpg
Thomas Müntzer, in an 18th century engraving by C. Van Sichem. No contemporary image of the reformer exists.
Born c. 1489
Stolberg, present-day Saxony-Anhalt
Died 27 May, 1525 (aged 35–36)
Mühlhausen, present-day Thuringia

Thomas Müntzer (ca. 1489 – 27 May 1525) was an early Reformation-era German theologian, who became a rebel leader during the Peasants' War. He believed that the questioning of authority promoted by the Lutheran Reformation should also be applied to the economic sphere. Luther distanced himself from Müntzer, stating that the Reformation he supported did not overthrow the civil order. Müntzer was eventually captured, tortured and decapitated.[1]

Müntzer promoted a new egalitarian society which would practice the sharing of goods. Müntzer's movement and the peasants' revolt formed an important topic in Friedrich Engels's book The Peasant War in Germany, a classic defense of historical materialism. Engels described Müntzer as a revolutionary socialist leader who chose to use religious language – the language the peasants would best understand.

Early life

Müntzer was born in the small village of Stolberg in the Harz Mountains (what is now Saxony-Anhalt), in about 1489. Thomas Müntzer initially studied at the University of Leipzig and later the University of Frankfurt, though it is unknown what academic degree he ultimately attained. He became versed in the Greek, Hebrew and Latin languages.

From the summer of 1516 to the fall of 1518, Müntzer stayed in a monastery at Frohse, though publication of Martin Luther's 95 theses on 31 October 1517 most likely motivated him to leave the monastery and travel to Wittenberg. There he reputedly had a confrontation with Luther, who despised Müntzer for his politicization of Luther's reformation. After brief stints at Orlamünde and Jüterbog in 1519, Müntzer may have traveled to Leipzig to witness the famous debates between John Eck and Andreas Karlstadt (27 June to 3 July), and between Luther and Eck (4 July to 14 July). Müntzer continued to move frequently, accepting the position of father confessor at a nunnery in Beuditz in December of 1519 before heading to Zwickau in 1520.

Increasing radicalism

In May 1520, Müntzer became a pastor in Zwickau in Saxony, and it was there that he had his first significant confrontation with church authorities. In 1521 and 1522, however, the growing divide between Luther and Müntzer's beliefs became apparent, as Müntzer developed his theology further and rejected infant baptism.

When the Zwickau authorities expelled Müntzer 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. 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, Müntzer 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 the Electorate of 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 Müntzer wanted a more public disputation, and nothing happened. In December 1523, Müntzer produced the first completely German liturgy, the Order of German Church Service, for use in Allstedt.

On 13 July 1524, Müntzer 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, Müntzer 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 Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, Müntzer and others from Allstedt were called to a hearing at Weimar before Duke John of Saxony on 31 July or 1 August. He decided that the printing press at Allstedt was to be shut down. Müntzer fled Allstedt soon after.

Peasants' War

In August 1524, Müntzer became one of the leaders of the uprising later known as the German Peasants' War. After fleeing Allstedt, he arrived in the imperial city of Mühlhausen in Thuringia. In mid-September, he and his associate, the radical former priest Heinrich Pfeiffer, took advantage of long-standing tensions between the middle craftsmen and city council to produce the Eleven Mühlhausen 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 villages, but support did not materialise, apparently because the article expressed predominantly urban grievances that did not address peasant needs. On 27 September 1524, Müntzer and Pfeiffer were expelled from Mühlhausen.

Müntzer spent late 1524 in Nuremberg, but in mid-February 1525 was able to return to Mühlhausen. 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. Müntzer and Pfeiffer succeeded in taking over the Mühlhausen town council and set up a communistic experiment in its place. Müntzer wrote to the citizens of Allstedt calling them to "join the uprising": "Be there only three of you, but if you put your hope in the name of God—fear not a hundred thousand.... Forward, forward, forward! It is high time. Let not kind words of these Esaus arouse you to mercy. Look not upon the sufferings of the godless! They will entreat you touchingly, begging you like children. Let not mercy seize your soul, as God commanded to Moses; He has revealed to us the same.... Forward, forward, while the iron is hot. Let your swords be ever warm with blood!"[2]

Müntzer led a group of about 8000 peasants at the battle of Frankenhausen (15 May 1525) against political and spiritual oppression, convinced that God would intervene on their side. Utterly defeated, captured, imprisoned and tortured, Müntzer recanted only his views on divine revelation. However, he accepted the Lutheran Lord's supper prior to his beheading in Mühlhausen in Thuringia on 27 May 1525.[citation needed] Under torture he confessed that he believed that omnia sunt communia, all things are in common. His head and body were displayed as a warning to all those who might again preach treasonous doctrines.

Theology and Marian views

Luther and Müntzer disagreed theologically on several doctrines. Müntzer 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, Müntzer ranks as one of the founders of the Anabaptist movement, yet doubt exists as to whether he ever received adult "rebaptism".

Luther was also not as radical as Müntzer. In criticizing the Roman Catholic clergy who did not believe in continued revelation from heaven, Müntzer 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." In agreed with Luther on sola gratia and sola fide . Müntzer wrote, "It is the diligent waiting for the Word that makes a beginning Christian. During this waiting one must first suffer the Word, and there must not be any consolation in the fact that our works are delayed. Then one thinks one has no faith at all; indeed, one feels that no faith will come. There is a meager desire for true faith, but it is so weak that one is hardly aware of it. Finally, one must break down and lament, 'Oh what a miserable man I am! What drives me in my heart? My conscience eats up all my strength and everything I am. What shall I do? I have lost confidence in God.' "[3] Müntzer, while renewing theology, kept many of its old doctrines.

This applies to his Marian views as well. In a 1520 sermon in Zwickau on the feast of Mary's birth, he described her as "Patriarch" "High Priest" and "Queen".[1]:535 The Virgin Mary is a mediatrix, mediator between day and night, between God and man, mediatrix inter deum et hominem.[1]:535 She won her fight with the devil by her humility. Her person shows the power of God, because her greatness was not result of her own doing but of his grace. The birth of Mary gave angels and humans new hope for the restoration of the old order. Müntzer defends the virginity of Mary before, during and after the birth of Jesus.[1]:535 He quotes Bernard of Clairvaux, specifically his Marian arguments. Müntzer insisted that neither Mary nor the apostles were baptized with water. From this, given Mary's high rank, he argues that baptism by water is inferior to the spiritual act of baptism.

Müntzer can be viewed as a father of liberation theology, in that he interpreted the Magnificat – "he raised the lowly" – as Mary's critique of the existing social order.[1]:535 Müntzer did not develop a systematic mariology, but his Marian views elevate Mary to the pedestal of a supreme model in scripture. Mary represents faith, fides non ficta. In the heavy and often polemical disputes with Luther, Müntzer uses the model life of Mary to prove his views. In all his Marian interpretation, Müntzer quotes scriptures as his basis.[1]:536

Müntzer's personal belief about the Kingdom of God differed from Luther's as well. This belief gave rise to his often praised communistic views. Frederick Engels wrote that he believed in "a society with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to, members of society".[4] This belief is core to the socialist basis of communism, and while Müntzer is hailed as a hero by socialists now, the Peasants at the time did not like the elimination of private property[citation needed]. In the face of conflict, the peasants still chose Müntzer to follow rather than abandon their cause entirely.


File:East German Medal 1989 Thomas Müntzer.jpg
East German Medal 1989 Thomas Müntzer, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall
The Communist regime in East Germany held Müntzer in high esteem. The Five East German Mark banknote from 1975 depicted Thomas Müntzer.

In 1956, the East German studio DEFA produced Thomas Müntzer, a biographical film about the priest's life, directed by Martin Hellberg and starring Wolfgang Stumpf in the title role.[5] Müntzer is immortalized in the Peasant's War Panorama in Bad Frankenhausen, whose 1,722 square meters of painted surface make it the largest oil painting in the world.[6] The panorama was inaugurated on September 14, 1989, eight weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin there is a coincidence of political projects between Müntzer and English reform Protestant revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley. For Bookchin "In the modern world, anarchism first appeared as a movement of the peasantry and yeomanry against declining feudal institutions. In Germany its foremost spokesman during the Peasant Wars was Thomas Muenzer; in England, Gerrard Winstanley, a leading participant in the Digger movement. The concepts held by Müntzer and Winstanley were superbly attuned to the needs of their time — a historical period when the majority of the population lived in the countryside and when the most militant revolutionary forces came from an agrarian world. It would be painfully academic to argue whether Müntzer and Winstanley could have achieved their ideals. What is of real importance is that they spoke to their time; their anarchist concepts followed naturally from the rural society that furnished the bands of the peasant armies in Germany and the New Model in England."[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f R. Schenk, “Thomas Müntzer” in Marianlexikon, Eos St. Ottilien, Regensburg, 1992, :535
  2. ^ Shafarevich, Igor. The Socialist Phenomenon, page 57
  3. ^ MSB 237:21-31
  4. ^ Engels, Frederick (2000). The Peasant War in Germany. New York: International Publishers. p. 23. 
  5. ^ Thomas Müntzer on the IMDb.
  6. ^ Art of the 20th Century, Part 1 [1], Karl Ruhrberg et al (2005)
  7. ^ Lewis Herber. (Murray Bookchin) "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought". (2009-04-27). Retrieved on 2011-12-28.


  • Thomas Müntzer. Pater Matheson, ed. The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer. ISBN 0-567-09495-2. 
  • Hans-Jürgen Goertz. Thomas Müntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary. ISBN 0-567-09606-8. 
  • Torkel Brekke. Religion og Vold. ISBN 82-90425-34-1. 
  • Eric W. Gritsch (1967). Reformer Without a Church. The Life and Work of Thomas Muentzer (1488?-1525). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 
  • Eric W. Gritsch (1989). Thomas Muntzer: A Tragedy of Errors. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-6200-4. 
  • Michael G. Baylor (Editor) (1993). Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Muntzer. Lehigh University Press. ISBN 978-0-934223-16-4. 
  • Gordon Rupp (1969). Patterns of Reformation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 
  • Hans-Jürgen Goertz (1982). Profiles of Radical Reformers. Scottdale,Pennsylvania: Herald Press. 
  • B.A. Gerrish (1967). Reformers Profile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 

Further reading

  • Ernst Bloch (1921). Thomas Müntzer als Theologe der Revolution. 
  • Jay Rosellini, Thomas Müntzer im deutschen Drama: Verteufelung, Apotheose und Kritik. Verlag Peter Lang, 1978
  • Abraham Friesen (1990). Thomas Müntzer, a Destroyer of the Godless: The Making of a Sixteenth-Century Religious Revolutionary. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • Friedrich Engels (1850). The Peasant War in Germany. Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Revue. 
  • Edmund Wilson (1940). To the Finland Station (Chapter 12). Harcourt Brace. ISBN 1-56849-574-9. 
  • R. Po-chia Hsia (editor) (2004). A Companion to the Reformation World. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-631-22017-8. 
  • Luther Blissett (2004). Q. Arrow Books. 
  • Stayer, James M. (1991). The German Peasant's War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1182-2. 
  • Wu Ming (introduction), Thomas Müntzer (2010). Sermon to the Princes. Verso. ISBN 978-1-84467-320-9. 

External links

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