Müntzer, Thomas, born ca. 1489 in Stolberg am Harz, executed May 27, 1525, near Mühlhausen, Germany, preacher and prominent participant in the German Peasants’ War 1525.
Origins, Education, pre-Reformation Activity
Like Martin Luther, Thomas Müntzer was born in a Harz Mountain lordship whose economy was oriented to mining. The persons of that name from the fifteenth century onwards belonged overwhelmingly to the urban upper class and had an occupational connection to the ruling counts. Müntzer’s parents have not been identified up to now, and there is no verifiable connection between his social origins and his later development. Presumably he received his schooling in Quedlinberg, after which he matriculated in Leipzig University as “Thomas Munczer de Quedilburck” in the winter semester 1506/07. At the beginning of the winter semester 1512/13 he was enrolled as “Thomas Müntczer Stolbergensis” in the university at Frankfurt a. d. Oder. There is no information available about the length and content of his studies, nor about his contacts with teachers and fellow students. Nor is there any evidence in extant university records of his graduation as master of arts (first mentioned in 1515) or his receipt of the baccalaureus biblicus (first mentioned in 1521). Probably in intervals during his university studies he practiced the usual interim occupation of Latin school teacher in Aschersleben and Halle. After his ordination as priest in the Halberstadt diocese the old council of the city of Brunswick on May 6, 1514, endowed him with a lightly funded altar benefice at the church of St. Michael. Possibly in this Hanseatic city he also instructed private students from upwardly mobile families of merchants and artisans, persons searching for deeper biblical piety in the framework of the popular mysticism of the late middle ages. In 1515/16 he was prefect of the chapter of female canons at Frose near Aschersleben. Here he was in charge of the small contingent of priests assigned to the chapter. At the same time he instructed young men from the circle of his acquaintances among the citizens of Brunswick. When the issues surrounding indulgences were discussed in Brunswick due to the activities of Johann Tetzel, Müntzer criticized indulgences before Luther began to do so. It is unclear whether this controversy made it necessary for him to leave Brunswick, and possibly to seek clarity about indulgences at Wittenberg.
More Rigorous Ally of the Wittenberg Reformers
Müntzer’s stay in Wittenberg extended from 1517 to 1519 with frequent interruptions, such as a journey to Franconia. While at Wittenberg he engaged in humanistic and theological studies, joined the early Reformation movement and came in contact with its representatives. At Easter 1519 he substituted in Jüterbog for the resident preacher, Franz Günther, who had gotten into a conflict with the local Franciscans. Müntzer’s engaged early Reformation critique of the church sharpened this conflict, one of the antecedents of the Leipzig Disputation, and it won the support of Luther. At the time he assumed the post of father confessor of a cloister of Cistercian nuns at Beuditz near Weißenfels in 1519 we see the first evidence of Müntzer’s personal sense of mission. Here he found leisure for intensive study of ancient authors, of church fathers (particularly Augustine), the history of the early church, as well as documents of the reform councils of Constance and Basel.
With Luther’s endorsement in May 1520 Müntzer began a longer appointment as substitute preacher for the humanist reformer Johann Egranus at St. Mary’s church in Zwickau, an important economic and cultural center. He thought of this position as a call for a rigorous proclamation of the Reformation. His very first sermon occasioned a conflict with the influential local Franciscans, which had to be damped down with the help of the town council and the resident official of the Electoral Saxon government. After the return of Egranus, Müntzer was installed in the vacant position of preacher at the second town church, St. Catherine’s. There were no substantial social differences between the two parishes. In contrast to Egranus’ Erasmian conception of the Reformation, Müntzer proclaimed an experiential certainty of salvation, patterned on his understanding of the apostolic age and the working of the Holy Spirit. A lay circle of followers, centered on the cloth maker Nikolaus Storch, and characterized by an experiential piety, criticism of infant baptism and apocalyptic expectations, supported Müntzer. Egranus and his supporters, on the contrary, advocated a more traditional reform Christianity. Müntzer’s group pilloried Egranus and his flock as merely external supporters of the Reformation who inwardly rejected the new gospel, thus polarizing the controversy. On April 16, 1521, Müntzer was discharged from his post by the Zwickau council and this earliest controversy among supporters of the Reformation was for the time being calmed down.
With his sense of mission unbroken Müntzer left Zwickau and traveled to Bohemia, where he had even before that time imagined he would find better Christians. As a prophetic servant of God and in view of the imminence of divine judgment, he wanted to win the Bohemians for the institution of a purified church modeled on the church of the apostles. Obviously, at the beginning he was regarded in Prague university circles as a representative of the Wittenberg Reformation. He gave expression to his sharpened anticlerical polemic and to the main points of his proclamation – discipleship, living experience of God, and restoration of the original order of creation – in an epistle of November 1521 which he produced in one Latin, two German, and one Czech version. He found only limited response, was put under observation, and obliged to leave Bohemia before the end of the year. In the course of 1522 there are only scattered traces of Müntzer’s efforts to secure a position from which he could launch his mission. At the end of 1522 and the beginning of 1523 he obtained a post as chaplain at the cloister of Cistercian nuns at Glaucha near Halle, which he was obliged to leave after three months.
Creating a Congregation of the Elect before the Approaching Judgment
At Easter 1523 Müntzer was able to assume the pastorate of the new city church in the Electoral Saxon enclave Allstedt, and to address himself forthwith to the renovation of the worship service. He translated the order of a German mass from the Latin missal, and the order of German weekly services from the traditional hourly prayers, with five patterns of worship for the church year. Probably in the course of 1523 he prepared these German worship services (the first that came into actual use) for print with Nikolaus Wiedemar in Eilenburg. He quickly established himself in Allstedt, married the former nun Ottilie von Gersen, and undertook to transform the new city church of Allstedt into a congregation of the elect. His attempt to renew contact with Luther came to nothing, but he did renew his connection to Andreas Karlstadt. Quite soon his worship services proved to be very attractive throughout the whole region. They disturbed rulers opposed to the Reformation, particularly since the renewal of the Edict of Worms was promulgated by the Reichsregiment to the Saxon princes in May 1523. It was probably in this situation that Müntzer composed his first printed writing, “An Open Letter to his dear brothers in Stolberg solemnly warning them to shun unjustifiable rebellion” (1523). He stressed that the beginning of the rule of Christ could only come after the elect had attained true faith.
In September 1523 Müntzer came into open conflict with Count Ernst of Mansfeld, after the count repeatedly forbade his subjects to attend the “heretical” worship service at Allstedt, in response to which Müntzer stigmatized him as an enemy of the gospel. When the Elector of Saxony became involved, Müntzer justified himself with his divinely bestowed preaching commission and the princes’ duty to extend protection, since their office was subordinate to the judgment of God. He published with Wiedemar his Order and Explanation of the German Church Service at Allstedt (1523), an explanation of his order of the mass, baptism, marriage, communion for the sick, and burial. In Allstedt Müntzer continued the practice of infant baptism, although he stressed the responsibility of the godparents to see to the education in the faith of the maturing children. It is uncertain whether Müntzer’s short memo about an annual baptism ceremony and the postponement of baptism until age six or seven stems from the Allstedt period. Probably the conflict about Müntzer’s reform of the worship service and the content of his preaching first came to light during the stay of Elector Frederick and his entourage at Allstedt castle from November 4 to November 14, 1523, during their journey to attend the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg. Possibly this was the occasion for the appearance of the critical tract, Protestation or proposition by Thomas Müntzer from Stolberg in the Harz mountain, now pastor of Allstedt, about his teachings, beginning with true Christian faith and baptism (1523). In the aftermath of the “doctrinal discussions” at the castle he perhaps published his last small writing: On Counterfeit Faith (1523). He demanded that the assumed (counterfeit) faith be replaced by the true faith, which could only be attained by following the suffering Christ.
In spring 1524 the Ernestine Saxon rulers of Allstedt intervened once again, when adherents of Müntzer burned down the nearby Mallerbach field chapel of the cloister of Naundorf and the abbess demanded the punishment of the guilty. The Allstedt council and the castellan Hans Zeiß were able to delay an investigation. Only in June was a council member arrested due to pressure from Duke John. Outsiders who attended the Allstedt worship services were increasingly subjected to reprisals by their rulers; and even those who had taken refuge in Allstedt had to expect extradition. The Allstedters wanted to take arms against these outside interventions. At the time Müntzer tried to stop this escalation of violence by winning over the rulers for the defense of the elect. On July 13 he preached a sermon on Daniel 2 at the castle before Duke John and his entourage – on the fall of the world’s empires, the rise of the lordship of Christ, and the role which was expected of rulers in this transition. This remarkable sermon was immediately printed by the Allstedt press which Müntzer had established after the closing of the printing house in Eilenburg. Even before this in the summer of 1523 Müntzer had organized his followers into a secret league for mutual protection; and now in the present tense situation on July 24 he gave this league a public form, admitted outsiders, and undertook to spread it to other places, such as Orlamünde. Luther responded with his Letter to the Princes of Saxony about the Rebellious Spirit (1524), in which he demanded that Müntzer should be banished from the territory as a preacher who was ready to resort to violence. In a hearing at the princely residence in Weimar, to which Müntzer, the Allstedt council, and castellan Zeiß were subjected at the end of July and the beginning of August 1524, Müntzer was admonished to dissolve his league and to discharge his printer. After a vain attempt to win the council and castellan to his side, Müntzer left Allstedt in the night of August 7/8. From the middle of August he undertook, together with the former Cistercian Heinrich Pfeiffer, to build up a congregation of the elect on the basis of the Reformation movement in the free Imperial city of Mühlhausen. Eleven articles, written either by Müntzer or with his participation, demanded a new council for Mühlhausen. Probably in connection with the sharpening conflict with the city government, at this time an “eternal covenant of God” was founded and given a military organization. However, at the beginning of October, with the help of a levy of its rural subjects, the Mühlhausen council succeeded in forcing Müntzer and Pfeiffer into exile.
Müntzer’s Protestation and On the Counterfeit Faith came into the hands of the proto-Anabaptists around Conrad Grebel in Zurich; and through Hans Hujuff from Halle, one of their close associates, they received further information about Müntzer’s activities in Allstedt. At the beginning of September Grebel wrote on behalf of his group to Müntzer, whom he called his “brother in Christ,” with the object of undertaking a “future mutual discussion” with him. They found commonalities in his writings, as they did with other critics of traditional infant baptism, above all Andreas Karlstadt and Jakob Strauß. The letter emphasized the true faith attained in suffering discipleship, criticism of infant baptism, denunciation of the half-heartedness of the Reformers, and the purification of the church according to apostolic norms. However, it did not hesitate to express reservations about Müntzer’s ideas of the validity of ceremonies and his readiness to use force in implementing the Reformation. Still, the stress was on the search for a discussion partner rather than on criticism of Müntzer as a radical Reformer. The letter probably never reached Müntzer, since he had already left Allstedt, so the hoped for discussion never took place.
Hopes for the Peasant Rebels as the Instrument of Divine Judgment
After his banishment from Mühlhausen we next find evidence of Müntzer in Nuremberg. The revised Allstedt writing, A Manifest Exposé of False Faith, which Hans Hut saw through the press, was confiscated by the Nuremberg Council in October 1524. In December the same fate befell his settling of accounts of with Luther, whose printing he himself took in hand – A Highly Provoked Vindication and Refutation of the unspiritual soft-living flesh in Wittenberg. Müntzer did not appear in public, either in Nuremberg or in his subsequent meeting with the Basel Reformer Oecolampadius. There is no evidence for his meeting the proto-Anabaptists of Zurich, although a visit to Balthasar Hubmaier in Waldshut is a possibility. Possibly Müntzer authored “articles about the exercise of authority” for the peasant rebel movement in the Klettgau. Seemingly he regarded the rebellious commons as the chosen instrument of divine judgment in the aftermath of the regular governments’ refusal to assume this task. In February 1525 he returned to Mühlhausen, took over the pastorate of St. Mary’s church, and set about to create a congregation of the elect in expectation of imminent divine judgment. After the presentation of the Eleven Articles a new, “eternal council” was chosen for Mühlhausen. When the southwest German rebellion spread to Thuringia in late April, Müntzer saw this as a decision of God to remove the previous authorities and to initiate the separation of the elect from the godless. Now he called the members of the previous league in Allstedt as well as all the faithful to join the rebellion in accordance with God’s will. After a short military expedition in the Eichsfeld region, he responded at the head of half of the Mühlhausen contingent to the pressing calls for help of the Thuringian rebels who had assembled at Frankenhausen. There occurred the decisive battle with the advancing princely armies of Hesse and Saxony (Peasants’ War). After a skirmish on the previous day the enemy forces collided on May 15. The course of the battle is not easy to understand. Most of the rebels were slaughtered, almost without offering resistance. Müntzer was apprehended in flight and imprisoned in Heldrungen Castle. After an interrogation he was executed, together with Heinrich Pfeiffer, in the princely camp before Mühlhausen, after he had called upon the people of Mühlhausen to abandon the struggle. He singled out the greed of the rebels as the cause of the defeat; and he understood his death as a propitiatory sacrifice for the people’s disobedience to the will of God. However he did not question his own divine commission.
Reformation Theology with a Personal Style
The theological contours of Müntzer’s self-understanding are difficult to determine with clarity. As an academically educated Reformation theologian, he respected the confessional tradition of the medieval church (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity) but with his personal accents. At the center of his proclamation was the endeavor to unmask the “counterfeit” faith. He wanted to clarify the indispensable, suffering path of every human being in a true faith in the footsteps of Christ, to announce divine judgment, and to undertake to restore the original order of God with God’s lordship over human beings and human lordship over the creatures. In his argumentation Müntzer oriented himself on the Bible, which he understood, in the manner of the tradition of the early church, as a unity. Altogether the apostolic era had a stronger normative function for him than it did for most theologians of the Reformation. In his description of the process of salvation, he used the conceptions and expressions of late medieval mysticism; in his statements about the coming judgment and about the future he drew on elements from the apocalyptic tradition. Müntzer combined these traditional elements, so that he connected ideas about the salvific process in individuals with programs for the ordering of the world in view of the imminent divine judgment. The fear of creatures was to be replaced by the fear of God; this was the root of his call for decisive resistance against the institutions which were grounded in the fear of creatures.
Müntzer’s emphasis on an experienced faith, his criticism of traditional baptism and the order of estates, as well as his orientation to the apostolic era, were positively received quite early wherever a different conception of faith from that of the Lutheran or Zwinglian Reformations came to the fore. With an altered title and under the pseudonym Christian Hitz from Salzburg, his writing On the Counterfeit Faith was published in 1526 in Augsburg. Copies were still circulating among Anabaptists in 1531. Spiritualists such as Sebastian Franck and Valentin Weigel were acquainted with Müntzer’s writings – as was the case with the Nuremberg Anabaptist Hans Denck. Later Gottfried Arnold worked for a renewed, however reserved, reception of Müntzer’s writings. Müntzer’s participation in the Peasants’ War was kept fresh in the memories of later generations, above all through polemical writings originating in Wittenberg, so that into the twentieth century he was seen as the archetypical rebel and fanatic. The idea of a close connection of Müntzer with the Anabaptist movement, which also persisted into the twentieth century, was not at first based on the Grebel letter, which only became known in the eighteenth century. Rather, this notion (and the related notion of a connection between Müntzer and the Anabaptist kingdom in Münster) was based above all on the idea of Philip Melanchthon that Anabaptism arose among the Zwickau Prophets (Müntzer was supposedly a disciple of Nikolaus Storch), as well as the presentation of the Anabaptists in the writings of Heinrich Bullinger. Recent scholarship has confirmed an influence of Müntzer on central and south German Anabaptists, transmitted above all through Hans Hut, who was correctly labeled one of Müntzer’s heirs by Gottfried Seebaß.
Thomas Müntzer can be recognized as a figure of general historical importance in view of his influence on the history of Protestant worship, his piety of discipleship of Christ, and his widening of the Christian teaching about critique of established authority and the right of resistance.
Thomas Müntzer. Schriften und Briefe. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, unter Mitwirkung von Paul Kirn hg. von Günther Franz, Gütersloh 1968. – Thomas-Müntzer-Ausgabe. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, hg. von Helmar Junghans, Bd. 2: Briefwechsel, bearb. von Siegfried Bräuer und Manfred Kobuch, Leipzig 2010; Bd. 3: Quellen zu Thomas Müntzer, bearb. von Wieland Held und Siegfried Hoyer, Leipzig 2004. – The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer, hg. und übersetzt von Peter Matheson, Edinburgh 1988.
Marion Dammaschke und Günter Vogler, Thomas-Müntzer-Bibliographie (1519-2012), Baden-Baden 2013. – Gottfried Seebaß, Art. Thomas Müntzer, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie 23, Berlin 1994, 414-436 (Lit.). – Max Steinmetz, Das Müntzerbild von Martin Luther bis Friedrich Engels, Berlin 1971. – Ingo Warnke, Wörterbuch zu Thomas Müntzers deutschen Schriften und Briefen, Tübingen 1993. – Carl Hinrichs, Luther und Müntzer. Ihre Auseinandersetzung über Obrigkeit und Widerstandsrecht. Berlin 1952. – Manfred Bensing, Thomas Müntzer und der Thüringer Aufstand 1525, Berlin 1966. – Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Innere und äußere Ordnung in der Theologie Thomas Müntzers, Leiden 1967. – Walter Elliger Thomas Müntzer. Leben und Werk. 3. Aufl., Göttingen 1976. – Reinhard Schwarz, Die apokalyptische Theologie Thomas Müntzers und der Taboriten, Berlin 1977. – James M. Stayer und Werner O. Packull (Hg.), The Anabaptists and Thomas Müntzer, Dubuque, Iowa, 1980. – Max Steinmetz, Thomas Müntzers Weg nach Allstedt, Berlin 1988. – Ulrich Bubenheimer, Thomas Müntzer. Herkunft und Bildung. Leiden 1989. – Siegfried Bräuer und Helmar Junghans (Hg.), Der Theologe Thomas Müntzer. Untersuchungen zu seiner Entwicklung und Lehre. Berlin und Göttingen 1989. – Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Thomas Müntzer. Mystiker, Apokalyptiker, Revolutionär. München 1989 (engl. und jap.). – Günter Vogler. Thomas Müntzer, Berlin 1989. – Tom Scott, Thomas Müntzer. Theology and Revolution in the German Reformation. Houndmills und London 1989. – Abraham Friesen, Thomas Muentzer, a Destroyer of the Godless. The Making of a Sixteenth Century Religious Revolutionary. Berkeley, Los Angeles und Oxford 1990. – Siegfried Bräuer, Spottgedichte, Träume und Polemik in den frühen Jahren der Reformation, hg. von Hans-Jürgen Goertz und Eike Wolgast, Leipzig 2000. – Gottfried Seebaß, Müntzers Erbe. Werk, Leben und Theologie des Hans Hut. Gütersloh 2002. – Günter Vogler, Thomas Müntzer und die Gesellschaft seiner Zeit, Mühlhausen 2003. – Günter Vogler (Hg.), Bauernkrieg zwischen Harz und Thüringer Wald, Stuttgart 2008.
(Trans. by James M. Stayer)
Aus: Mennonitisches Lexikon, Bd. 5, Teil 1, hg. von Hans-Jürgen Goertz, 2010 (www.mennlex.de)