The Radical Reformation
Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1522, accompanied by his closest follower, the humanist and theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), to deal with the spread of radical religious enthusiasm in the town. In Luther’s absence, three ﬁrebrand preachers, Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch, and Mark Thomas Stübner, had come to the city and tried to push through a more radical brand of reform. According to these so-called Zwickau prophets, Luther’s program to reform the church was not thorough enough.
Most signiﬁ cantly, Luther retained infant baptism, while these Anabaptist prophets called for adult baptism, as a visible sign of membership in a com-munity of saints. While Melanchthon remained loyal to Luther, some of the reformer’s other associates, most notably Andreas Karlstadt (1486–1541), joined the Zwickau “enthusiasts,” much to Luther’s chagrin. When Luther returned to Wittenberg, in early March 1522, he interviewed the “prophets” and found them lacking.
He banished the trio from Wittenberg and purged their followers from the territory. These radical reformers were thus scattered throughout the German countryside. Some of them, such as the radical preacher Thomas Müntzer (1490–1525), expressed increasingly extreme religious and political views that would soon set Germany aﬂ ame during the Peasants’ War.
The ﬁ rst sign of the violent potential of the Reformation, however, was the Knights’ Revolt of 1522. The free imperial knights were minor nobles who owed allegiance only to the emperor and who ruled their ancestral lands as sovereign lords. By the 16th century, with the advent of gunpowder weaponry and the development of professional armies, the military role of these imperial knights had become negligible, and their prestige had declined. Inspired by their Lutheran and humanist sympathies, and their declining political and social position within the empire, a faction of imperial knights led by Franz von Sickingen (1481–1523) took up arms against both the emperor and the church.
Von Sickingen had fought under Emperor Maximilian in Venice and Emperor Charles in France, but once he became friends with Ulrich von Hütten, a fellow knight and prominent humanist, he joined the Lutheran cause. Soon his castle at Ebernburg became a refuge for reformers ﬂ eeing Catholic authorities, reformers including Johann Reuchlin, Martin Bucer (1491–1551), and Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531).
In 1522, von Sickingen called a “Brotherly Convention” of knights and convinced them to use violence to support the Reformation and to regain their former stature in the empire. The knights’ forces marched against the archbishop of Trier, a prince of the church and implacable enemy of Luther.
The knights besieged Trier but failed to breach its defenses. Meanwhile, the imperial Diet placed von Sickingen, like Luther, under the imperial ban, and the powerful rulers of the Palatinate and Hesse marched against the knights. Von Sickingen retreated to his stronghold at Landstuhl, but the walls of this fortress fell before the cannons of Trier, the Palatinate, and Hesse. Grievously wounded during the siege, von Sickingen died the same day the city fell, and the power of the imperial knights was broken forever.
The failed Knights’ Revolt proved to be but a prelude to a much more serious insurrection involving Germany’s servile peasantry that erupted in Swabia in 1524, one that also sought to enact religious and social change through violence. The conﬂict, at its height in the summer of 1525, eventually raged across southern, western, and central Germany, and involved as many as 300,000 peasant insurgents.
Chaﬁng under the crumbling feudal system, and inspired by ﬁrebrand preachers such as Thomas Müntzer, the rebels called for the end of oppressive exactions from their feudal lords on the basis of the “brotherly love” advocated in the Gospels. In March 1525, the peasants, joined by dissatisﬁed townsfolk and renegade knights and clerics, met in Memmingen and published a list of their grievances, a mix of economic, political, and religious demands. Luther, already under the imperial ban, and blamed for stirring up the rebellion by Catholic authorities, was caught between the peasants and the princes.
While the reformer had initially sought to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conﬂict, and had even expressed sympathy for the hard-pressed peasants’ plight, the destructive potential of their rebel-lion to Germany and to his reform initiatives quickly became apparent. Luther issued a pamphlet, “Against the Robbing, Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” which called upon the nobles to crush the rebels:
Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel . . . For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul; and the gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4.
They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure. (Luther in Perlikan and Lehmenn 1955–1986: 52)
Fearing that the peasants’ earthly excesses might swamp his theological movement, he ultimately sided with the princes, sanctioning their subsequent slaughter of the rebels by citing Romans 13, which reads in part:Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Luther in Perlikan and Lehmenn 1955–1986: 52)
Abandoned by Luther, the peasant bands were decimated by combined armies of Catholic and Protestant princes, working together temporarily to stem the tide of revolution. The rebel armies were crushed in May 1525 at Frankenhausen, where the princes’ trained armies reportedly butchered 100,000 peasants, and the ringleaders, including Luther’s former follower, Thomas Müntzer, were tortured and executed.
Amid this swirling controversy, Luther cemented his repudiation of Catholic morality and papal authority by making a radical change in his personal life. On June 13, 1525, the 42-year-old Luther married a 26-year-old former nun, Katharina von Bora (1499–1552), whom he had helped to escape from her Cistercian convent the month before. While other reformers had already taken wives, Luther’s marriage signaled his approval of clerical marriage and his denigration of the Catholic emphasis on chastity and virginity.
Luther and his new bride soon started a family that eventually included four children who survived into adulthood. Luther’s household would provide a potent symbol of the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the family and the establishment of the so-called “Holy Household.” At his wedding, Luther was feted by the new Saxon elector, Johann the Steadfast (1525–32), and the reformer soon began constructing a Lutheran church in Saxony.