Luther Visualized 11 – German Peasants’ Revolt

German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525)

Title page of Martin Luther’s addendum to Admonition to Peace, titled Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes. This is a reprint of just the addendum by Johann Weyßenburger (Landshut, 1525), available from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

In early May 1525 Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg from a trip to Thuringia, during which he had seen firsthand the rebelliousness and violence of the protesting peasants. He promptly wrote and published an addendum to his earlier work, Admonition to Peace, entitling it Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes. He urged swift and decisive action against the “poisonous” rebels. This woodcut, from the cover page of a Landshut reprinting of the addendum, depicts a peasant with a sword and his plundered goods. The fluttering paper says, “Esteem God.” This woodcut is doubtless meant to be an indictment against the rebellious peasants, in harmony with the work itself. They ought to esteem God, not the things of this world. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The verse beneath the woodcut is Psalm 7:16: “His intrigue will meet up with himself, and his ill-will will be vented on him.”

The German Peasants’ Revolt and the Sacramentarian Controversy (yet to be covered in this series) hindered the momentum of the Reformation more than anything else. With his Admonition to Peace, Luther strained his relationship with the nobility, and with his addendum Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes, he isolated himself from many of the peasants. On the whole Luther, as usual, was simply walking the narrow biblical path: On the one hand, “rulers are not appointed to exploit their subjects for their own profit and advantage, but to be concerned about the welfare of their subjects.” On the other hand, God clearly forbids rebellion against the government (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and arbitrarily taking the law into one’s own hands (Matthew 26:52). If Christians are being persecuted by their government, they can either use the legal channels available to address the wrongs (while patiently enduring in the meantime), or they can flee somewhere else (Matthew 10:23). But “rebellion is intolerable.” Luther would later accurately describe their attempt to advance the kingdom of God through opposition to the governing authorities as “fishing for the net” (i.e. going about things completely backwards).

However, even though Luther claimed to be writing Admonition to Peace “in a friendly and Christian spirit,” he presented his correct biblical position in harsh language in both that work and especially in the addendum. Luther also went too far in the addendum and actually contradicted himself when he advised “everyone who can” to “smite, slay, and stab” the rebellious peasants, “secretly or openly,” since he had correctly said in Admonition to Peace that “no one, by his own violence, shall arrogate authority to himself.” Even though a dispassionate reading of the rest of the addendum strongly suggests that he is giving this advice to the ruling authorities alone, that is not the impression given at the beginning.

Sources
Luther’s Works 46:3-55

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 172ff

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), p. 51

Title page of Johann Fundling’s book Demonstration of Luther’s Two False Tongues—How He Has Misled the Peasants with the One and Condemned Them with the Other. This is a reprint by Johann Weyßenburger (Landshut, 1526).

In the wake of Luther’s Admonition to Peace and Against the Murderous and Plundering Peasant Hordes, Johann Fundling, a Franciscan monk from Mainz, penned a scathing critique of these two works, sometimes also called Fifty-Five Astonishing Things. The woodcut on the cover page portrays Luther on the left attempting to seduce the peasant on the right with his teachings. Above the woodcut Ecclesiasticus 28:13 is cited: “The whisperer and the double-tongued is cursed, for many who have had peace he has troubled and perplexed.”

Initially styling himself anonymously as “Admiratus [Latin for astonished] the Wonderer,” Fundling attempted to point out all of Luther’s contradictions in these two works, both within the works themselves and when compared to his previous works. Fundling called Luther’s teachings “mouse crap” and questioned, for instance, how Luther could call Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer “prophets of murder” when he had previously spoken highly of them. Perhaps the climax comes when Fundling begins addressing Luther’s addendum. First he quotes Luther:

But before I could even inspect the situation, [the peasants] forgot their promise and violently took matters into their own hands and are robbing and raging like mad dogs. … [They] are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs.

Then Fundling, speaking as “the Wonderer” astonished at Luther’s words, responds:

Listen here, you traitorous and unfaithful Metius Fufetius,* isn’t that exactly what you instructed and told not only the peasants but the whole world to do? Long ago, in your propositions on vows (or reproaches of them) that you addressed to the heretical men at Wittenberg that you have made out to be bishops, you said: “This is the sense of the monastic vow: I vow to you, God, that I will lead an irreligious and sacrilegious or God-ignoring life all my days” [#34 of Luther’s Theses on Vows of 1521]. Therefore, you say, the monastic vows should not only be shattered and dissolved, but also severely punished, and all the cloisters of the earth likewise, since they are idol temples and Satanic whorehouses of the devil.

To this day, Luther’s biblical distinction between the two kingdoms, Church and State, and the means for carrying out God’s work in each continue to be misunderstood.

Endnote
* A general of the army of Alba Longa known for his treachery; he violated a treaty with Rome by withdrawing his troops from a battle between Rome and Fidenae and then waiting to see which side would win.

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Quote of the Week – Let It Rain Enemies

The following is taken from Martin Luther’s letter to Elector Frederick the Wise, penned at Borna and dated March 5, 1522. While Luther was “kidnapped” at the Wartburg Castle, his university colleague Andreas Karlstadt was rushing forward with all sorts of changes in worship that the people were not ready for. The neighboring Duke George of Leipzig in Albertine Saxony, a devoted Catholic, heard about the changes and vowed to put an end to them and to “the Lutheran heresy.” Thus Martin Luther decided to return to Wittenberg from the safety of the castle—at risk to his life, since he was still an outlaw—so as to put a stop to the hasty changes and restore order in Wittenberg, and to stop the slanders of Duke George. Elector Frederick the Wise did not want Luther to return, but here is what Luther had to say, as he was already on his way back to Wittenberg…

[T]he devil knows quite well that I did not [hide out in the Wartburg Castle] out of any fear. He could see my heart just fine when I entered Worms; he saw that if I had known that as many devils were lying in wait for me as there are tiles on the roofs, I still would have jumped right into their midst with joy.

Now Duke George is still far from the equal of a single devil. And since the Father of boundless mercy has made us gallant lords over all the devils and death through the gospel, and has given us such a wealth of confidence that we may dare to address him, “Dearest Father!”, Your Electoral Grace can see for himself that it is the greatest insult to such a Father not to trust him enough to know that we are also lords over Duke George’s wrath.

I know this much about myself at any rate: If affairs were the same in Leipzig as they are in Wittenberg, I would still ride right in, even if (Your Electoral Grace will pardon my silly speech) it rained nothing but Duke Georges for nine days and each one were nine times as furious as the one we have. He treats my Lord Christ like a doll-man woven out of straw; my Lord and I can certainly endure that for a while.

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe (Briefwechsel) 2:455