The insurrection began in the Black Forest, and near the sources of the Danube, so frequently the theatre of popular commotions.
Continuing The Peasants’ War in Germany,
our selection from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle d’Augbigne published in 1853. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Peasants’ War in Germany.
The most notorious of these enthusiasts was Thomas Munzer; he was not devoid of talent, had read his Bible, was zealous, and might have done good if he had been able to collect his agitated thoughts and find peace of heart. But as he did not know himself, and was wanting in true humility, he was possessed with a desire of reforming the world, and forgot, as all enthusiasts do, that the reformation should begin with himself. Some mystical writings that he had read in his youth had given a false direction to his mind. He first appeared at Zwickau, quitted Wittenberg after Luther’s return, dissatisfied with the inferior part he was playing, and became pastor of the small town of Alstadt in Thuringia. He could not long remain quiet, and accused the reformers of founding, by their adherence to the letter, a new popery, and of forming churches which were not pure and holy.
Luther,” said he, “has delivered men’s consciences from the yoke of the Pope, but he has left them in a carnal liberty, and not led them in spirit toward God.”
He considered himself as called of God to remedy this great evil. The revelations of the Spirit were in his eyes the means by which his reform was to be effected. “He who possesses this spirit,” said he, “possesses the true faith, although he should never see the Scriptures in his life. Heathens and Turks are better fitted to receive it than many Christians who style us enthusiasts.” It was Luther whom he here had in view. “To receive this Spirit we must mortify the flesh,” said he at another time, “wear tattered clothing, let the beard grow, be of sad countenance, keep silence, retire into desert places, and supplicate God to give us a sign of his favor. Then God will come and speak with us, as formerly he spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he were not to do so, he would not deserve our attention. I have received from God the commission to gather together his elect into a holy and eternal alliance.”
The agitation and ferment which were at work in men’s minds were but too favorable to the dissemination of these enthusiastic ideas. Man loves the marvelous and whatever flatters his pride. Munzer, having persuaded a part of his flock to adopt his views, abolished ecclesiastical singing and all other ceremonies. He maintained that obedience to princes, “void of understanding,” was at once to serve God and Belial. Then, marching out at the head of his parishioners to a chapel in the vicinity of Alstadt, whither pilgrims from all quarters were accustomed to resort, he pulled it down. After the exploit, being compelled to leave that neighborhood, he wandered about Germany, and went as far as Switzerland, carrying with him, and communicating to all who would listen to him, the plan of a general revolution. Everywhere he found men’s minds prepared; he threw gunpowder on the burning coals, and the explosion forthwith took place.
Luther, who had rejected the warlike enterprises of Sickengen, could not be led away by the tumultuous movements of the peasantry. He wrote to the Elector:
It causes me especial joy that these enthusiasts themselves boast, to all who are willing to listen to them, that they do not belong to us. The Spirit urges them on, say they; and I reply, it is an evil spirit, for he bears no other fruit than the pillage of convents and churches; the greatest highway robbers upon earth might do as much.”
At the same time, Luther, who desired that others should enjoy the liberty he claimed for himself, dissuaded the Prince from all measures of severity:
Let them preach what they please, and against whom they please,” said he; “for it is the Word of God that must march in front of the battle and fight against them. If their spirit be the true spirit, he will not fear our severity; if ours is the true one, he will not fear their violence. Let us leave the spirits to struggle and contend with one another. Perhaps some persons may be led astray; there is no battle without wounds; but he who fighteth faithfully shall be crowned. Nevertheless, if they desire to take up the sword, let your highness forbid it, and order them to quit the country.”
The insurrection began in the Black Forest, and near the sources of the Danube, so frequently the theatre of popular commotions. On the 19th of July, 1524, some Thurgovian peasants rose against the Abbot of Reichenau, who would not accord them an evangelical preacher. Ere long thousands were collected round the small town of Tengen to liberate an ecclesiastic who was there imprisoned. The revolt spread with inconceivable rapidity from Swabia as far as the Rhenish provinces, Franconia, Thuringia, and Saxony. In the month of January, 1525, all these countries were in a state of rebellion.
About the end of this month the peasants published a declaration in twelve articles, in which they claimed the liberty of choosing their own pastors; the abolition of small tithes, of slavery, and of fines on inheritance; the right to hunt, fish, and cut wood, etc. Each demand was backed by a passage from holy writ, and they said in conclusion, “If we are deceived, let Luther correct us by Scripture.”
The opinions of the Wittenberg divines were consulted. Luther and Melanchthon delivered theirs separately, and they both gave evidence of the difference of their characters. Melanchthon, who thought every kind of disturbance a crime, oversteps the limits of his usual gentleness, and cannot find language strong enough to express his indignation. The peasants are criminals against whom he invokes all laws human and divine. If friendly negotiation is unavailing, the magistrates should hunt them down as if they were robbers and assassins. “And yet,” adds he–and we require at least one feature to remind us of Melanchthon–“let them take pity on the orphans when having recourse to the penalty of death!”