Thomas Müntzer  

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This page Thomas Müntzer is a part of the protestantism series.  Illustration: The image breakers, c.1566 –1568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder
This page Thomas Müntzer is a part of the protestantism series.
Illustration: The image breakers, c.15661568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Thomas Müntzer (ca. 1488 – 27 May 1525) was an early Reformation-era German Anabaptist who was a rebel leader during the Peasants' War.


Early life

Müntzer was born in the small village of Stolberg in the Harz Mountains, Thuringia (what is now central Germany), in about 1488. Thomas Müntzer initially studied at the University of Leipzig and later the University of Frankfurt, though it is unknown to 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 Luther's 95 theses on October 31, 1517, most likely motivated Müntzer to leave the monastery and travel to Wittenberg where he reputedly had a confrontation with Luther who despised Müntzer for his politicization of Luther's reformation. After brief stints at Orlamünde and Jüeterbock in 1519, Müntzer may have traveled to Leipzig to witness the famous debates between John Eck and Andreas Bodenstein of Carlstadt (June 27 to July 3) and between Luther and Eck (July 4 to July 14). Müntzer continued to move much, 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 Thuringia and it was in Zwickau that Müntzer 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 anti-intellectualism further and rejected infant baptism.Template:Fact

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 in the town. That month he wrote the Prague Manifesto. This survives in 4 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 Electoral 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 Template:Bibleverse 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 with 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 Peasants' War. One of his battle cries was Omnia sunt communia, all things are common. After fleeing Allstedt, he arrived in the imperial city of Muehlhausen in Thuringia. In mid-September, he and his associate, the radical former priest Heinrich Pfeiffer, took advantage of long-standing tensions between the middling craftsmen and city council to produce the Eleven Muehlhausen 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 which did not address peasant needs. On 27 September 1524, Müntzer and Pfeiffer were expelled from Muehlhausen.

Müntzer spent late 1524 in Nuremberg, but in mid-February was able to return to Muehlhausen. 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 Muehlhausen town council and set up a communistic theocracy in its place.

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 and accepted the Roman Catholic mass prior to his beheading in Muehlhausen in Thuringia on May 27, 1525. His head and body were displayed as a warning to all those who might again preach treasonous doctrines.


Luther and Müntzer disagreed on several religious 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 was 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." Unlike Luther, Müntzer advocated the use of the sword to change political and religious structures. Also, in distinction to Luther, Müntzer believed good works were required in addition to faith to become righteous. 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."<ref>MSB 237:21-31</ref>


In studies of the Reformation, Müntzer has often been ignored. To Protestant historians, he was a short-lived radical. Müntzer was then adopted by socialists as a symbol of early class struggle due to his promotion of 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' book The Peasant War in Germany, a classic defense of historical materialism. Engels describes Müntzer as a revolutionary leader who chose to use biblical language—the language the peasants would best understand. He then became a symbolic hero for the East German state (German Democratic Republic, GDR) in the 20th century, appearing from 1975 on their 5 mark banknote. On the Frankenhausen battlefield the GDR built a huge memorial containing the world's largest painting by Werner Tuebke, with Muentzer as central figure.

More recent studies, however, have been more sensitive to the context of Müntzer's life. He stands as a symbol of one of the many theological directions which could have been taken by the Reformation movement in its earliest stages.

See also

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