Sometimes Martin Luther must have felt that he had loosed the whirlwind, even opened the gates of Hell. Shortly after Luther launched the Reformation, various Anabaptist sects appeared and spread throughout Germany. The Anabaptists believed in predestination of the elect, but they also believed, in contrast to Luther, that they knew infallibly who the elect were: i.e. themselves. The sign of that election was in an emotional, mystical conversion process, that of being ‘born again’, baptized in the Holy Spirit. Such baptism must be adult and not among infants; more to the point, it meant that only the elect are to be sect members who obey the multifarious rules and creeds of the Church. The idea of the sect, in contrast to Catholicism, Lutheranism or Calvinism, was not comprehensive Church membership in the society. The sect was to be distinctly separate, for the elect only.
Given that creed, there were two ways that Anabaptism could and did go. Most Anabaptists, like the Mennonites or Amish, became virtual anarchists. They tried to separate themselves as much as possible from a necessarily sinful state and society, and engaged in non-violent resistance to the state's decrees.
The other route, taken by another wing of Anabaptists, was to try to seize power in the state and to shape up the majority by extreme coercion: in short, ultra-theocracy. As Monsignor Knox incisively points out, even when Calvin established a theocracy in Geneva, it had to pale beside one which might be established by a prophet enjoying continuous, new, mystical revelation.
As Knox points out, in his usual scintillating style:
... in Calvin's Geneva... and in the Puritan colonies of America, the left wing of the Reformation signalized its ascendancy by enforcing the rigorism of its morals with every available machinery of discipline; by excommunication, or, if that failed, by secular punishment. Under such discipline sin became a crime, to be punished by the elect with an intolerable self-righteousness...
I have called this rigorist attitude a pale shadow of the theocratic principle, because a full-blooded theocracy demands the presence of a divinely inspired leader or leaders, to whom government belongs by right of mystical illumination. The great Reformers were not, it must be insisted, men of this calibre; they were pundits, men of the new learning...13
And so one of the crucial differences between the Anabaptists and the more conservative reformers was that the former claimed continuing mystical revelation to themselves, forcing men such as Luther and Calvin to fall back on the Bible alone as the first as well as the last revelation.
The first leader of the ultra-theocrat wing of the Anabaptists was Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525). Born into comfort in Stolberg in Thuringia, Müntzer studied at the Universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt, and became highly learned in the scriptures, the classics, theology, and in the writings of the German mystics. Becoming a follower almost as soon as Luther launched the Reformation in 1520, Müntzer was recommended by Luther for the pastorate in the city of Zwickau. Zwickau was near the Bohemian border, and there the restless Müntzer was converted by the weaver and adept Niklas Storch, who had been in Bohemia, to the old Taborite doctrine that had flourished in Bohemia a century earlier. This doctrine consisted essentially of a continuing mystical revelation and the necessity for the elect to seize power and impose a society of theocratic communism by brutal force of arms. Furthermore, marriage was to be prohibited, and each man was to be able to have any woman at his will.
The passive wing of Anabaptists were voluntary anarcho-communists, who wished to live peacefully by themselves; but Müntzer adopted the Storch vision of blood and coercion. Defecting very rapidly from Lutheranism, Müntzer felt himself to be the coming prophet, and his teachings now began to emphasize a war of blood and extermination to be waged by the elect against the sinners. Müntzer claimed that the ‘living Christ’ had permanently entered his own soul; endowed thereby with perfect insight into the divine will, Müntzer asserted himself to be uniquely qualified to fulfil the divine mission. He even spoke of himself as ‘becoming God’. Abandoning the world of learning, Müntzer was now ready for action.
In 1521, only a year after his arrival, the town council of Zwickau took fright at these increasingly popular ravings and ordered Müntzer's expulsion from the city. In protest, a large number of the populace, in particular the weavers, led by Niklas Storch, rose in revolt, but the rising was put down. At that point, Müntzer hied himself to Prague, searching for Taborite remnants in the capital of Bohemia. Speaking in peasant metaphors, he declared that harvest-time is here, ‘so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair, soul, body, life curse the unbelievers’. Müntzer, however, found no Taborite remnants; it did not help the prophet's popularity that he knew no Czech, and had to preach with the aid of an interpreter. And so he was duly expelled from Prague.
After wandering around central Germany in poverty for several years, signing himself ‘Christ's messenger’, Müntzer in 1523 gained a ministerial position in the small Thuringian town of Allstedt. There he established a wide reputation as a preacher employing the vernacular, and began to attract a large following of uneducated miners, whom he formed into a revolutionary organization called ‘The League of the Elect’.
A turning point in Müntzer's stormy career came a year later, when Duke John, a prince of Saxony and a Lutheran, hearing alarming rumours about him, came to little Allstedt and asked Müntzer to preach him a sermon. This was Müntzer's opportunity, and he seized it. He laid it on the line: he called upon the Saxon princes to make their choice and take their stand, either as servants of God or of the Devil. If the Saxon princes are to take their stand with God, then they ‘must lay on with the sword’. ‘Don't let them live any longer,’ counselled our prophet, ‘the evil-doers who turn us away from God. For a godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly’. Müntzer's definition of the ‘godless’, of course, was all-inclusive. ‘The sword is necessary to exterminate’ priests, monks and godless rulers. But, Müntzer warned, if the princes of Saxony fail in this task, if they falter, ‘the sword shall be taken from them... If they resist, let them be slaughtered without mercy...’. Müntzer then returned to his favourite harvest-time analogy: ‘At the harvest-time, one must pluck the weeds out of God's vineyard... For the ungodly have no right to live, save what the Elect chooses to allow them....’ In this way the millennium, the thousand-year Kingdom of God on earth, would be ushered in. But one key requisite is necessary for the princes to perform that task successfully; they must have at their elbow a priest/prophet (guess who!) to inspire and guide their efforts.
Oddly enough for an era when no First Amendment restrained rulers from dealing sternly with heresy, Duke John seemed not to care about Müntzer's frenetic ultimatum. Even after Müntzer proceeded to preach a sermon proclaiming the imminent overthrow of all tyrants and the beginning of the messianic kingdom, the duke did nothing. Finally, under the insistent prodding of Luther that Müntzer was becoming dangerous, Duke John told the prophet to refrain from any provocative preaching until his case was decided by his brother, the elector.
This mild reaction by the Saxon princes, however, was enough to set Thomas Müntzer on his final revolutionary road. The princes had proved themselves untrustworthy; the mass of the poor were now to make the revolution. The poor were the elect, and would establish a rule of compulsory egalitarian communism, a world where all things would be owned in common by all, where everyone would be equal in everything and each person would receive according to his need. But not yet. For even the poor must first be broken of worldly desires and frivolous enjoyments, and must recognize the leadership of a new ‘servant of God’ who ‘must stand forth in the spirit of Elijah... and set things in motion’. (Again, guess who!)
Seeing Saxony as inhospitable, Müntzer climbed over the town wall of Allstedt and moved in 1524 to the Thuringian city of Muhlhausen. An expert in fishing in troubled waters, Müntzer found a friendly home in Muhlhausen, which had been in a state of political turmoil for over a year. Preaching the impending extermination of the ungodly, Müntzer paraded around the town at the head of an armed band, carrying in front of him a red crucifix and a naked sword. Expelled from Muhlhausen after a revolt by his allies was suppressed, Müntzer went to Nuremberg, which in turn expelled him after he published some revolutionary pamphlets. After wandering through southwestern Germany, Müntzer was invited back to Muhlhausen in February 1525, where a revolutionary group had taken over.
Thomas Müntzer and his allies proceeded to impose a communist regime on the city of Muhlhausen. The monasteries were seized, and all property was decreed to be in common, and the consequence, as a contemporary observer noted, was that ‘he so affected the folk that no one wanted to work’. The result was that the theory of communism and love quickly became in practice an alibi for systemic theft:
... when anyone needed food or clothing he went to a rich man and demanded it of him in Christ's name, for Christ had commanded that all should share with the needy. And what was not given freely was taken by force. Many acted thus... Thomas [Müntzer] instituted this brigandage and multiplied it every day.’14
At that point, the great Peasants’ War erupted throughout Germany, a rebellion launched by the peasantry in favour of their local autonomy and in opposition to the new centralizing, high-tax, absolutist rule of the German princes. Throughout Germany, the princes crushed the feebly armed peasantry with great brutality, massacring about 100 000 peasants in the process. In Thuringia, the army of the princes confronted the peasants on 15 May with a great deal of artillery and 2 000 cavalry, luxuries denied to the peasantry. The landgrave of Hesse, commander of the princes’ army, offered amnesty to the peasants if they would hand over Müntzer and his immediate followers. The peasants were strongly tempted, but Müntzer, holding aloft his naked sword, gave his last flaming speech, declaring that God had personally promised him victory; that he would catch all the enemy cannon-balls in the sleeves of his cloak; that God would protect them all. Just at the strategic moment of Müntzer's speech, a rainbow appeared in the heavens, and Müntzer had previously adopted the rainbow as the symbol of his movement. To the credulous and confused peasantry, this seemed a veritable sign from Heaven. Unfortunately, the sign didn't work, and the princes’ army crushed the peasants, killing 5000 while losing only half a dozen men. Müntzer himself fled and hid, but was captured a few days later, tortured into confession, and then executed.
Thomas Müntzer and his signs may have been defeated, and his body may have mouldered in the grave, but his soul kept marching on. Not only was his spirit kept alive by followers in his own day, but also by Marxist historians from Engels to the present day, who saw in this deluded mystic an epitome of social revolution and the class struggle, and a forerunner of the chiliastic prophesies of the ‘communist stage’ of the supposedly inevitable Marxian future.
The Müntzerian cause was soon picked up by a former disciple, the bookbinder Hans Hut. Hut claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and give the power to enforce justice to Hut and his following of rebaptized saints. The saints would then ‘take up double-edged swords’ and wreak God's vengeance on priests, pastors, kings and nobles. Hut and his followers would then ‘establish the rule of Hans Hut on earth’, with Muhlhausen as the favoured capital. Christ was then to establish a millennium marked by communism and free love. Hut was captured in 1527 (before Jesus had had a chance to return), imprisoned at Augsburg, and killed trying to escape. For a year or two, Huttian followers kept emerging, at Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Esslingen, in southern Germany, threatening to set up their communist Kingdom of God by force of arms. But by 1530 they were smashed and suppressed by the alarmed authorities. Müntzerian-type Anabaptism was now to move to north-western Germany.