The people were too much excited by the fanatical speeches of the leaders of the insurrection to listen, as of old, to the words of the reformer.
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 «DAYSALPHA» 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.
Luther’s opinion of the revolt was the same as Melanchthon’s, but he had a heart that beat for the miseries of the people. On this occasion he manifested a dignified impartiality, and spoke the truth frankly to both parties. He first addressed the princes, and more especially the bishops:
“It is you,” said he, “who are the cause of this revolt; it is your clamors against the Gospel, your guilty oppressions of the poor, that have driven the people to despair. It is not the peasants, my dear lords, that rise up against you–it is God himself who opposes your madness. The peasants are but the instruments he employs to humble you. Do not imagine you can escape the punishment he is preparing for you. Even should you have succeeded in destroying all these peasants, God is able from the very stones to raise up others to chastise your pride. If I desired revenge, I might laugh in my sleeve, and look on while the peasants were carrying on their work, or even increase their fury; but may God preserve me from such thoughts! My dear lords, put away your indignation, treat those poor peasants as a man of sense treats people who are drunk or insane. Quiet these commotions by mildness, lest a conflagration should arise and burn all Germany. Among these twelve articles there are certain demands which are just and equitable.”
This prologue was calculated to conciliate the peasants’ confidence in Luther, and to make them listen patiently to the truths he had to tell them. He represented to them that the greater number of their demands were well founded, but that to revolt was to act like heathens; that the duty of a Christian is to be patient, not to fight; that if they persisted in revolting against the Gospel in the name of the Gospel, he should look upon them as more dangerous enemies than the Pope.
The Pope and the Emperor,” continued he, “combined against me; but the more they blustered, the more did the Gospel gain ground. And why was this? Because I have never drawn the sword or called for vengeance; because I never had recourse to tumult or insurrection: I relied wholly on God, and placed everything in his almighty hands. Christians fight not with swords or arquebuses, but with sufferings and with the Cross. Christ, their captain, handled not the sword. He was hung upon a tree.”
But to no purpose did Luther employ this Christian language. The people were too much excited by the fanatical speeches of the leaders of the insurrection to listen, as of old, to the words of the reformer. “He is playing the hypocrite,” said they; “he flatters the nobles. He has declared war against the Pope, and yet wishes us to submit to our oppressors.”
The revolt, instead of dying away, became more formidable. At Weinsberg, Count Louis of Helfenstein and the seventy men under his orders were condemned to death by the rebels. A body of peasants drew up with their pikes lowered, while others drove the count and his soldiers against this wall of steel. The wife of the wretched Helfenstein, a natural daughter of the emperor Maximilian, holding an infant two years old in her arms, knelt before them, and with loud cries begged for her husband’s life, and vainly endeavored to arrest this march of murder; a boy, who had been in the count’s service and had joined the rebels, capered gayly before him, and played the dead march upon his fife, as if he had been leading his victims in a dance. All perished; the child was wounded in its mother’s arms, and she herself thrown upon a dung-cart and thus conveyed to Heilbronn.
At the news of these cruelties, a cry of horror was heard from the friends of the Reformation, and Luther’s feeling heart underwent a terrible conflict. On the one hand the peasants, ridiculing his advice, pretended to receive revelations from heaven, made an impious use of the threatenings of the Old Testament, proclaimed an equality of rank and a community of goods, defended their cause with fire and sword, and indulged in barbarous atrocities. On the other hand, the enemies of the Reformation asked the reformer, with a malicious sneer, if he did not know that it was easier to kindle a fire than to extinguish it. Shocked at these excesses, alarmed at the thought that they might check the progress of the Gospel, Luther hesitated no longer, no longer temporized; he inveighed against the insurgents with all the energy of his character, and perhaps overstepped the just bounds within which he should have contained himself.
The peasants,” said he, “commit three horrible sins against God and man, and thus deserve the death of body and soul. First, they revolt against their magistrates, to whom they have sworn fidelity; next, they rob and plunder convents and castles; and lastly, they veil their crimes with the cloak of the Gospel. If you do not put a mad dog to death, you will perish, and all the country with you. Whoever is killed fighting for the magistrates will be a true martyr, if he has fought with a good conscience.”
Luther then gives a powerful description of the guilty violence of the peasants who force peaceful and simple men to join their alliance and thus drag them to the same condemnation. He then adds:
For this reason, my dear lords, help, save, deliver, have pity on these poor people. Let everyone strike, pierce, and kill who is able. If thou diest, thou canst not meet a happier death; for thou diest in the service of God, and to save thy neighbor from hell.”
Neither gentleness nor violence could arrest the popular torrent. The church-bells were no longer rung for divine service; whenever their deep and prolonged sounds were heard in the fields, it was the tocsin, and all ran to arms. The people of the Black Forest had rallied round John Muller of Bulgenbach. With an imposing aspect, covered with a red cloak and wearing a red cap, this leader boldly advanced from village to village followed by the peasantry. Behind him, on a wagon decorated with ribands and branches of trees, was raised the tricolor flag — black, red, and white — the signal of revolt. A herald dressed in the same colors read the twelve articles, and invited the people to join in the rebellion. Whoever refused was banished from the community.
Ere long this march, which at first was peaceful, became more disquieting. “We must compel the lords to submit to our alliance,” exclaimed they. And to induce them to do so, they plundered the granaries, emptied the cellars, drew the seigniorial fish-ponds, demolished the castles of the nobles who resisted, and burned the convents. Opposition had inflamed the passions of these rude men; equality no longer satisfied them; they thirsted for blood, and swore to put to death every man who wore a spur.