A Preliminary Synopsis of the Life of Thomas Müntzer (Occasionally Updated)

It has become a truism that history is written by the victors, and the case of Thomas Müntzer (died 1525) would not falsify this. During and after his lifetime he had acquired such high-caliber opponents as the iconic religious reformer Martin Luther, to say nothing of the secular princes of Saxony. Müntzer (also spelled Münzer, or Müncer, or even other ways, meaning “miner”) was thus largely remembered through the eyes of his opponents, until his literary remains were rediscovered in the 19th century. These remains cover a limited stretch of his life, however: his “extant, authentic writings and correspondence from the scant ten years between 1516 and 1525, along with scattered reports about him, are not sufficient sources for writing a genuine biography.” [Seebass, 338[1]] Indeed, “Little can be told with certainty about Müntzer before 1517”. [Gritsch, 1[2]]

Müntzer Medaille 1976

An East German coin

This uncertainty has not prevented various factions from advancing their claims for or against him, however. Frederick Engels and Marxist historians have claimed him as a forerunner of revolution, championing the working class against the oppression of the landlords (he became a hero in East Germany‘s Socialist national narrative). Martin Luther and Lutheran historians have despised him as a rebel and revolutionary, because of his role in the German Peasant’s War above all, and a fanatic, because of his propounding the necessity of a mystical and activist spirituality which required spiritual purification through suffering and divine abandonment, for which a special illumination distinct from the biblical text was required — as opposed to the sufficiency of a trusting response to the divine promise in the divine Word as it was set forth in proper preaching and rites of worship, per Martin Luther and the Wittenberg reformers (Müntzer thought that the text of the Bible was dead “Babel” without this illumination and transformation through the Spirit, just as Calvin would in a few short years say that the Bible was not the Word by the act of preaching and the rites of worship, as Luther taught, but was a deposit of divine teaching, requiring the additional illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret it). Anabaptists and other contemporary groups stemming from the so-called Radical wing of the Reformation have a conflicted stance toward him, disapproving of his use of the sword, while looking favorably upon many elements of his theology and spirituality, especially his emphasis on a faith that bears fruit in deeds and on the separation of the chosen people of God from “the world.” (Most current works on him attempt to temper or remove any ideological excesses of previous scholarship, even if they incline one way or another.)

Another East German coin, marking what was presumed to be the 500th anniversary of Müntzer's birth.

Another East German coin, marking what was presumed to be the 500th anniversary of Müntzer’s birth.

Psychologically, it is very easy to drape upon his words and deeds the most noble or else the basest motives, making chastity of psychological conjecture important for lack of certainty. As a final flourish of uncertainty, we don’t even know what he looked like — the earliest portrait of him was made long after his execution (not that a portrait would be an enormous help in reconstructing his life and motives). Yet despite the lack of certainty on nearly every level, we can say from what we do know that his life was at least iconic for many threads of the modern world, as the war over his legacy illustrates.

Some key dates are helpful. Müntzer died on the 27th of May, 1525 – executed outside the gates of a city (Mühlhausen) where he had been pastor shortly before. His place of birth is certainly Stolberg, though he seems to have moved to Quedlinburg before attending the University of Leipzig in 1506. (I will insert a map here should I find an appropriate one.)

Regarding the day and month of his birth, it is reasonable to assume that he was named after the calendrical saint whose feast is celebrated on the day of his birth –in his case, St. Thomas the Apostle (i.e., the Doubter, the Twin)– and the feast day of St. Thomas is traditionally December 21st. The year is unknown. A prebend (a benefice, effectively a stipend associated with a particular parish) granted to Müntzer on the 6th of May, 1514, named him as a presbyter, or priest. The prebend was from the parish of St. Michael’s in Braunschweig (Brunswick). “If one assumes that Müntzer was ordained shortly before he received the prebend, and if at the time of his ordination he was twenty-five years old, the minimum age required by Canon Law, then he could have been born in 1489.” [Gritsch, 1] [3] This is typical of the holes in his story early on.[4]

On the 16th of October, 1512, a “Thomas Müntzer of Stolberg” appears on the matriculation list at the University of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder (River), southeast of Berlin. (Someone later added “seditious” next to his name in the register.) [Gritsch, 3] “The curriculum stressed languages and law”. The dean of this school defended scholasticism against humanism, and sided with Tetzel against Luther – a contrast with what he would later find at Wittenberg.

Early on he was a chaplain to nuns living under a rule, rather than vows, at a convent near Halle (in Frohse), likely hearing confessions and celebrating the Mass. He retained his Braunschweig benefice. While in Frohse, Müntzer received a letter –addressing him as “learned man”– from a school rector from Braunschweig, asking Müntzer about divine forgiveness, indulgences, and the pope’s authority. Also while in Frohse, we have full copies of certain liturgical services “seemingly penned […] from memory” [Gritsch, 6], showing Müntzer’s early attention to liturgies. Under torture at the end of his life, he admitted to creating a conspiratorial group in Halle against Bishop Ernest, who died in 1513. These kinds of conspiratorial groups, covert at first, eventually become overt after he and his message are rejected by the princes as an alternative to Luther.

Wittenberg, 1517–1519: Müntzer’s biography picks up more clearly beginning in 1517, when he went to Wittenberg. He “spent an extended period of time” there, “probably from October 1517 to April 1519.” [Gritsch, 9] If so, then he was there on the 31st of October when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses (if that event is historical), and it is clear that he met Luther sometime between 1517 and 1518. (Luther would later say that Müntzer “had his nose punched” during his stay in his cloister. [Gritsch, 9]) During the winter semester of 1517-1518, Müntzer attended humanist lectures on St. Jerome, the tone of which was that classical antiquity was an alternative to scholasticism. Müntzer was then attracted to Plato, to the idea of learning through traveling, and through suffering – all themes of his later life and thought.

Orlamünde, January–April, 1519: Between January and April of 1519, Müntzer stayed in a parsonage at Orlamünde, a benefice held by Andreas von Karlstadt (Carlstadt). [Baylor, 15[5]] During this time, Karlstadt was not there, but in Wittenberg, as Karlstadt was then the Chancellor of the University. (For this particular prebend or benefice, such an arrangement was normal: the one who received this stipend was to be an archdeacon and professor at Wittenberg; Karlstadt was not neglecting responsibilities associated with a benefice from a parish outside the University. [Gritsch, 12-13]) It seems that it was during this stay at Orlamünde that Müntzer read John Tauler. Müntzer, like Luther, was very drawn to Tauler. Also in 1519, Karlstadt’s successor, Martin Glaser, wrote that he considered Müntzer’s errors to stem from an excessive love of Tauler [Gritsch, 13], to whom Luther himself attributed the Theologica Germanica., which was highly influential on Luther and expressive of the mystical strains of late Medieval thought as it was received in the Reformation and elsewhere (keeping in mind that most of the first two generations of Protestant reformers were originally Catholic priests, such as Luther, Müntzer and Karlstadt earlier, and John Calvin later).

Jüterbog, April 1519: On the 4th of September, 1517, one Franz Günther, a student of Martin Luther, successfully defended Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. In January of 1519, Günther arrived in the town of Jüterbog, which had called for Günther as a “Lutheran” pastor. There was conflict and controversy in Jüterbog between the evangelicals and the Catholics, specifically the local Franciscans. Friar Bernard Dappen wrote the bishop (Schulz) at one point because of Günther’s preaching, and the bishop reprimanded Günther, who stopped preaching for some time.

Approximately Easter of 1519, Müntzer was “driven from Braunschweig” (or so Dappen put it) shortly before Günther appointed Müntzer as his substitute. It appears that he had popular support, and likely the support of the city officials. Müntzer was identified as a “Martinian”, and preached against the Franciscans on Easter, 1519. Müntzer also preached a strongly conciliarist and anti-papal message, advocating for regular episcopal pastoral involvement in the churches, arguing also against scholasticism and even reason-based arguments as being demonic, among other things. Dappen wrote the bishop again, accusing Müntzer of being part of the “Wittenberg sect” [Gritsch, 12], and of Donatism (pastors must show Christ through being crucified with him, or they offer a dead letter and can only offer false faith – a theme that remains throughout Müntzer’s later preaching). Bishop Shulz had John Eck write up a response, which was a broadside against Luther, in which both Luther and Müntzer were dubbed Hussites. Luther responded to this by defending both himself and Müntzer. Günther returned to preaching and Müntzer left.

Müntzer may have been at the pivotal Leipzig debate between Luther, Eck, and Karlstadt that occurred during July, 1519, and which led to a papal condemnation of Luther’s views; some comments in his writings indicate that he had knowledge of the local events before, during and after the debate which may very well have been firsthand. “The Leipzig debate had focused on the question of ecclesiastical authority: Did papal authority exist from the very beginning of Christianity? Could pope and councils err?” [Gritsch, 16] Müntzer was caught up in the movement of such souls as Erasmus and Luther for historical truth. We might even hazard to say that conflicts such as this helped to cement the midwifing of the secure groundwork of a historical consciousness, centuries if not a millennium in the making, into the popular consciousness and public culture at the dawn of the early Modern period. History can be divided up into a number of ways, but in most premodern cultures, history is seen as a cycle of decay and renewal; there is not a succession of unique stages and epochs that are worlds to themselves. Christian history broke this cyclical narrative, but only so much: even among the Protestant reformers, there is the sense of a return to a primitive purity. This return, however, happens among the magisterial reformers, such as Luther and Calvin and others, by way of historical and philological work according to the tools of Renaissance humanism. It also brushes away the fog of an allegedly corrupt age, seen as a very specific decay in the form of the papacy — specific, and so not clearly part of any cycle of decay. In its uniqueness of the decay, and in the historical and philological tools used for the recovery of the primitive purity of the apostolic deposit, there is already the sense that “the past is a foreign country”, to borrow a book title — even if a contemporary might reconstruct and restore that country here and now.

Cistercian Nunnery, 1519–1520: Before or during Dec. 1519, Müntzer took a position as father confessor at a Cistercian women’s monastery at Beuditz (Southwest of Leipzig). He “needed an income and a place to stay”, but he used the time to read Augustine, Jerome, Eusebius, Josephus, Erasmus, Luther, Karlstadt, the acts of Church Councils –particularly the acts of the Council of Constance which ran from 1414-1418, and which condemned Jan Hus– and more. The Eck-Karlstadt exchange debated the antiquity of the papal office’s authority, as we mentioned, which set Müntzer and others in search of historical truth. Yet Müntzer, interestingly, wrote a friend noting that he had difficulty understanding what he was reading. [Gritsch, 14] Tellingly, he also complained that he often preached “without inner compulsion”, anticipating the kind of spiritualistic elements that would become normative in his later thought.

Zwickau, 1520–1521: In May of 1520, Müntzer took a position as a substitute priest for a vacationing cleric, John Egranus, for the main church in Zwickau. Luther had recommended Müntzer for the position in 1520. Luther considered him, at this time, a “reliable candidate for a ministry” [Gritsch, 18] dedicated to the reform. The “city fathers of Zwickau” [Gritsch, 20] chose and supported Müntzer because they wanted to be identified with the Lutheran movement, which Müntzer was affiliated with.

Zwickau was mostly evangelical. It had weaver’s guilds, silver mines – Europe’s major trade routes passed through it, so it was well-positioned economically. There was a Franciscan convent there, and the headmaster of the local school was a humanist: the right ingredients for a potential reaction.

Müntzer attacked the Franciscans as soon as he arrived. Tibertius, the leader of the friars, responded. Müntzer argued that Christians “must be transformed by imitating [Christ’s] example of suffering and dying.” By the 25th of August 1520, the commissioners of the Saxon court chaired a meeting in which Müntzer was told to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric. On the 1st of October, 1520, Egranus returned, and Müntzer was moved to a secondary parish in Zwickau. Müntzer saw that Egranus was an Erasmean, and began attacking him in print and in conversation. During December of 1520, Johann Eck (a Catholic) named Egranus an evangelical, and submitted his name for papal ban. Egranus resigned.

About this time, Müntzer began preaching that Catholics should no longer be tolerated. This came to a head on the 26th of December, 1520, when a priest was stoned on the feast day of St. Stephen, and almost died. The Saxon court official asked for an explanation; Müntzer preached that those who opposed him “and the Word of God he preached” would be stoned. [Gritsch, 25]

It is easy to see Müntzer, in such a narrative, as artfully raising the damage around him to the surface. This may be the case, but by itself it ignores an essential pastoral element of how and why this was part of his story. An example from this Zwickau period is indicative. On the 17th of January, 1521, Müntzer advocated for a couple who were engaged contrary to what was permissible by law; Müntzer argued that the council and the mayor should look into their case and examine the particulars. Although this is clearly an instance of the kind of certainty which Müntzer saw as typical of the spiritual person who “can pronounce on everything with flawless judgment” [Matheson, 77], including the propriety or impropriety of civil and ecclesiastical laws regarding engagement. It also reveals the Müntzer who (as he wrote in his letters) wanted to see that “the poor are comforted” [Matheson, 72], who has “been eaten up by a burning zeal for the poor, wretched, pitiable Christian people”, and who wishes to “throw [him]self forward as an iron wall to protect the needy” [Matheson, 68]. This is the Müntzer, Gritsch notes, who regularly saw the “victims [..] caught in the sixteenth-century feudal system” in Zwickau, Allstedt, and in the rest of his travels. [Gritsch, 117]

There were Hussite conventicles in Zwickau. Nicholas Storch was their leader; weavers and miners met with him to plot attacks on Catholics and Egranus. These were the “Zwickau prophets.” They privileged charismatic authority, and saw “dreams and visions as potential sources of divine revelation” [Baylor, 16]: God, they said, was not bound to any text or creature: he speaks directly to the spirit of the person, and is a free agent, his direct voice the only binding covenant. [Ozment, 65[6]] There is no scholarly consensus on the nature of the precise relationship between Storch and Müntzer, especially of influence, though by the most conservative estimate, Storch catalyzed Müntzer to move along a path of personal and theological development he was already on – after Zwickau, Müntzer sees himself as a prophet, and no longer holds learning to have the value it does for Humanists (such as Luther, the Wittenbergers and other Protestant and Catholic reformers prized, especially for proper preaching and the proper understanding of the biblical text). There was a massive tumult in Zwickau at one point, and this conventicle was apparently responsible; 56 weavers & Müntzer were accused of being involved, and on the 16th of April, 1521, the city council asked Müntzer to leave the city. Müntzer denied being involved.[7]

Not long after Müntzer departed, the city was divided into Storchites, Egranites, Müntzerites, Catholics, and Evangelicals – more divided than he found it, perhaps in no small part because of him.

Prague, 1521: After being expelled from Zwickau, Müntzer made two visits to Prague in 1521 (in between which his mother died [Baylor, 48]). Müntzer wanted to style himself one who would complete the work of Jan Hus and Luther, yet there were rumors of Luther’s death before Müntzer took his first trip to Bohemia, so the mood was grim. His experience in Zwickau likely did not help. “Prague, it appears, was to be Müntzer’s Jerusalem. His last days in Zwickau had been filled with foreboding. He therefore set out for Prague as much with martyrdom in mind as with any anticipation that the true reformation was about to begin there […].” [Matheson, 352] This is indicated by lines in his letters.[8]

Why did Müntzer, and many others, think that Martin Luther was dead? The Diet of Worms was held from January to May of 1521 to deal with the running of the Empire, and for two days in mid-April Luther was summoned to appear at it before Johann Eck (effectively representing the Archbishop of Trier, but also the Empire). Luther’s views were already declared heretical, but he was asked whether he held to them still. He said he did. In the aftermath, at the end of May in 1521, Luther was declared an outlaw by the Emperor, and his arrest demanded. Anyone who wished might kill Luther with impunity, and it was illegal to aid him and give him shelter. Luther was only promised safe passage to and from the Diet, so on the return trip to Wittenberg, the Elector Prince Frederick the Wise had Luther stolen away to Wartburg castle for safety, and arranged the transition to appear as though it had been the work of highway bandits. (Karlstadt continued the work of reform in Wittenberg in his absence.) Thus, Müntzer’s worry.

Contrary to the grim expectation Müntzer had on his journey to Prague, he received a warm welcome there as a disciple of Luther, but it seems that “the warm welcome was replaced by suspicion and repression”, and he ended his time there under house arrest. [Matheson, 353; Gritsch, 42; Baylor, 19] While there, he challenged both Catholic and Protestant scholasticism [Gritsch, 39], and accused the existing church structures of being instruments of Satan. [Gritsch, 40] On the 1st of November, 1521, Müntzer imitated Luther by posting a manifesto (the so-called Prague Protest or Prague Manifesto) on “a door of a centrally located church in Prague.” [Gritsch, 37] After this the authorities banned him from preaching, and eventually exiled him sometime before the Christmas of 1521.

Müntzer’s companion in Prague, Marcus Thomae (called Stübner), left Müntzer then to go join Nicholas Storch in Wittenberg to cause trouble – rioting in the streets, attacking priests during Mass, etc. This forced Luther to return from Wartburg castle to Wittenberg and address the situation, and, combined with reports Luther received about Müntzer’s activity in Zwickau, set the two up for a hostile relationship that never recovered.

PRAGUE MANIFESTO: There were three progressively expanding editions of this work, increasing in size as well as polemical tone. The first was in German [Nov 1st], a second in Latin, and the third again in German [Nov. 25th]. There was an unfinished Czech translation of the third edition. Peter Matheson argues that the Manifesto is generally “a reflection on Müntzer’s own immediate past experience, rather than an engagement with the fluid, but highly complex religious situation in Bohemia; no positive or coherent programme for reform is offered. As a clarion-call to action it was, in fact, an unmitigated failure, a bizarre misreading of the situation in and around Prague.” It anticipated that a worldwide movement would begin in Prague through it, but it was never published. [Matheson, 355] The themes of this work anticipate the themes of Müntzer’s later writings and career, and might be listed as:

-the separation of the godly (plus an apocalyptic chiliastic element)[9]

-distrust of scholarship, elevation of charismatic authority[10]

-trust is to incline towards “the people” rather than the authorities[11]

-the need for immediate revelation[12]

-the pastor must offer the key of Christ crucified by example (cf. the Donatist accusation)[13]

-authorities who express and reify a social situation in which the libido dominandi is necessary and inescapable make it difficult-to-impossible for people to hear the divine word which calls them to suffering, and, through it, to a share in divine life[14]

-certainty was a very serious and important issue, and something acquirable[15]

-a primitivist and restorationist ecclesiology (see several quotes above)[16]

-the purifying sufferings of Christ are participatory, transformative, and the means of salvation[17]

– in the purifying abyss of the soul, false faith & partial vision go away; Christ is related to his people as a head to members, restoring an original purity of relations between God and humanity: the connection is organic in a way so that the church is pure

-Scripture is an extrinsic testimony to the internal writing of God in the soul[18]

In the days immediately after leaving Prague, Müntzer’s story becomes uncertain for some time, though it is clear he was traveling heavily, and corresponding a great deal, including with Melanchthon. There he lauds the Wittenbergers for eliminating the Mass, but for Müntzer the ostensibly apostolic rite –which the evangelicals have replaced the Mass with– is simply another external, and what is needed is the Holy Spirit, without which there is no true worship; only those with this experience should partake of the Eucharist. [Gritsch, 44] Müntzer calls those in Wittenberg “scribes”. [Gritsch, 45] He says they follow a “muted Lord” and that “the word proceeds from the mouth of God, not from books” [Ozment, 70]. The letter to Melanchthon is something of a farewell to fellowship with the Wittenberg group, particularly regarding the nature of purgation and faith. “According to Müntzer, God does not accept the sinner but rather the one who becomes conformed to Christ through inner and outer suffering. His own sorrowful experiences in ‘the wretchedness of my expulsion’ only confirmed this conception.” [Seebass, 340; see also Gritsch, 45] His sense of being an apocalyptic instrument during this time was amplified: in one of his letters, he signed it, “Thomas Müntzer, the son who shakes out the wicked”. [Gritsch, 46]

Seebass notes that he was, shortly, a pastor at another Cistercian nunnery near Halle, but that his hostility to both Catholics and evangelicals made him a difficult fit everywhere. [Seebass, 340]

Marriage & Family: It was after his journey to Bohemia that he married Ottilie of Gersen, a former nun from a noble family [Baylor, 22], sometime shortly before or shortly after his arrival in Allstedt. Almost nothing is known about their meeting or marriage. [Gritsch, 48] She cared for Müntzer’s father during the year he stayed with them in Allstedt before he died in 1524, the year their son was born (27th of March, 1524). On or before the 7th of August, 1524, Müntzer left his wife and four-and-a-half-month-old son in Allstedt upon his departure to Mühlhausen. [Gritsch, 75] After his capture in the wake of the Peasant’s Rebellion he sent a letter to his friends in Mühlhausen asking them to look after the two. [Gritsch, 107] They might figure more prominently in his biography if we had more than a few treatises and a handful of letters and reports to reconstruct his life.

Allstedt, 1523–1524: By Easter of 1523, Müntzer was invited by town leaders (“apparently […] because of his reputation as a well-educated supporter of ecclesiastical reform” [Gritsch, 48]) to become a probational pastor in the town of Allstedt, a Saxon town under the patronage of the Elector Frederick the Wise. Allstedt was somewhat out of the way and quiet, composed “mostly of farmers, and [iron] miners” [Gritsch, 47]. Simon Haferitz was already pastor in Allstedt; the two became close colleagues. It was unprecedented in his career. As Gottfried Seebass notes: “for the first time, he was able to work out his theology in tolerable peace” [Seebass, 340].

In an earlier letter (29th of March, 1522 – between Prague and Allstedt) to Melanchthon, Müntzer noted with displeasure that “there are contentions among you about the abolition of the Mass. That some hate the abomination of the Papist sacrifice I applaud and commend; for they have acted under the leading of the Holy Spirit. But they are entangled in errors because they have not imitated the apostolic rite, and used it as a plumb-line.” [Matheson, 45[19]][20]

Naturally, then, upon arrival in Allstedt in Paschaltide of 1523, Müntzer began initiating liturgical reforms (a simplification of what was then the Catholic Mass and the Liturgical Year), so that people could “sing the entire Bible”, in a style based on Gregorian chant, in order to make people “Christ-shaped” [Gritsch, 49], in order that God might enter “the heart of the believer through the living Word” [Gritsch, 50]. This worship service in the vernacular predated Luther’s, which occurred later in the same year (1523) [Gritsch, 48]. Within only weeks of his arrival, people began coming to his services from the surrounding towns and villages, many of which were not under the Elector Frederick.

During this relative calm,[21] Müntzer moved to rekindle friendly relations with Luther.

After upbraiding Luther for recommending Egranus to him, and denying involvement in “the disorders in Zwickau” [Matheson, 56], Müntzer sought to secure common consent on the matter of divine knowledge and visions (for which he cites numerous biblical passages): “The recognition of the divine will […] is to be possessed by all […], so that we may be seen to be taught by the mouth of the living God and may know with complete certainty that the teaching of Christ was not devised by man but comes to us from the living God without any shadow of deception.” [Matheson, 56-57] This occurs through suffering, and conformity to Christ in suffering, after which certainty and visions occur, to discern the difference between divine and demonic teaching. [Matheson, 58] Müntzer attempted to distance himself from the Zwickau prophets [Gritsch, 52] (“You raise objections about Markus and Nicholas [Storch]” [Matheson, 58]), who did not see scripture as having even the role of witness to the immediate and directing presence of God in the human heart. [Gritsch, 51] Müntzer thought the text should be held together with visions, as a confirming witness, that the “whole of scripture” needed to pass through a person before they could be set free: others “failed to set the wisdom and the testimony of God side by side”. [Matheson, 58]

In what was apparently an attempt to assuage those at Wittenberg and show them a token of good faith, as well as to clear himself of any taint of being considered seditionist, Müntzer wrote An Honest and Open Letter to the Brothers at Stolberg to Avoid Illegitimate Rebellion on the 18th of July, 1523. In a draft for this letter he complained that people thought God would rush to their aid, “though none of them is exactly rushing to embrace suffering. For where there is no poverty of the spirit the kingdom of Christ cannot commence either.” [Matheson, 60] Inner purification through suffering must precede any God-sent rebellion. “There is strength when we perceive the power of God penetrating us. We will be girded just like Peter […]. Only then will the whole world be confirmed as the assembly place of the elect, so that the world obtains a Christian governance that no sack of gunpowder will be able to overthrow.” Our zeal prepares our souls to be thrones for God, whom alone we should fear; as God alone is to be feared, rulers must not interfere with this fear, and so each ruler must be emptied, filled with God, and must rule as a participant in God, as a signal repeater of sorts: “Therefore, no person whose faith is untested can rule, for a ruler must have the living judgment of God”. [Baylor, 62] This foreshadowed the conflict which was soon to come to Müntzer in Allstedt, but Luther’s response to the earlier letter was swift – on the 3rd of August he “wrote to the Allstedt leaders advising them to withdraw their support of Müntzer”. [Gritsch, 52]

Earlier that year, on the 6th of March, 1523, there was an imperial edict outlawing ecclesiastical reform until another diet could be convened. It was on the basis of this edict that the neighboring Count Ernst of Mansfield (“a staunch Catholic”) prohibited, in the Fall of 1523, public attendance at Müntzer’s popular vernacular services. On the 13th of September, 1523, Müntzer preached against the Count from the pulpit. Mansfield “sent an official protest to the town council of Allstedt demanding that Müntzer be arrested”, though they replied that “they could not arrest Müntzer since the Word of God rather than criminality was involved.” Letters from Müntzer and Haferitz were included. [Gritsch, 54]

In Müntzer’s letter to Count Ernst, he said that so long as the Count “persist[ed] in such senseless banning [of the gospel] and raging then I must continue to censure and denounce you and blot you out on paper as long as the blood flows in my veins” [Matheson, 66]. He then accused the count of taking “away the key of the knowledge of God”, which is to fear God alone.[22]

Nearly immediately, the Count wrote to the Elector Frederick the Wise asking for Müntzer to be arrested. Frederick replied that he would investigate the matter further, and leaving things to the Count. On the 28th of September, 1523, however, the Elector did send for an inquiry to be made about why Müntzer was employed in Allstedt, and required that “pastors refrain” from such attacks [Gritsch, 55]. Müntzer agreed in a public ceremony. On the 4th of October, 1523, he did write to the Elector, asking that he be granted a fair hearing. Alarmingly, he also stated that “princes hold no terrors for the pious. But should that change, then the sword will be taken from them and will be given to the people who burn with zeal so that the godless can be defeated; and then that noble jewel, peace, will be in abeyance on earth.” [Gritsch, 56; Matheson, 67-70 (cit. 69)] On the 11th of October, 1523, Frederick wrote to the Count noting that the situation had been taken care of. [Gritsch, 57]

Early 1524, Protest or Offering was published, making explicit Müntzer’s opposition both to the Catholic and the evangelical authorities: he wrote of the “honey-sweet Christ” set forth in “contrived faith” on the one hand and “glistening works” on the other, as ways that false prophets and their eager audiences have invented “to disavow […] suffering in a clandestine, thievish way, so that we do not need to suffer.” [Baylor, 65, 71, 74][23]

Sometime during or prior to early 1524, Müntzer organized a league of the elect in Allstedt, founding it with merely 30 members. [Gritsch, 61] It was not the first time that Müntzer had organized a group of people for a purpose, as we saw from the Halle league against Bishop Ernest prior to 1513. Given his belief that the Church must be pure, and separated from the non-elect, this behavior of establishing separatist groups of common intent is hardly surprising, although at this point in his life, these leagues are part of his covert strategy, and only really become overt after Allstedt. [Baylor, 20-21] Müntzer claimed that there were “over thirty leagues and covenants of the elect” in various places.[24] [Matheson, 84] Members of these leagues swore to defend the Gospel and never to pay tithes or taxes to monks and nuns. Unlike the earlier small conventicles of the like-minded, soon grew to include over 500 members once the conflict with Count Ernst of Mansfield would flare up again.

The conflict did not take long to rekindle. On the 24th of March, 1524, a group of Allstedt citizens burned down a Catholic chapel at Mallerbach. The Allstedt league of the elect was involved. It was owned by a group of Cistercian nuns in Naundorf, who immediately complained to the Elector Frederick. Members of the Allstedt town council were summoned before Duke John at Weimar on the 9th of May, and were ordered to punish the perpetrators. On the 14th of June the town sent a letter to Duke John defending the razing of an “idolatrous” chapel, for “the Devil [should not be permitted] to be worshipped at Mallerbach” any more than they would tolerate to be ruled by the Turks. [Ozment, 76; Matheson, 79-81] (Fear of a Turkish conquest was clearly felt at the time; yet it would be two decades before Luther turned to focus his attention to Islam and the Qur’an.) At issue also were the tithes that Allstedt was paying to the nuns, which the “poor people” were paying out of obedience to the princes, not out of “Christian obligation”. The political elements of their religious commitments were clear, echoing the kind of Müntzerian element of the Prague Manifesto. On the 18th of June, Martin Luther wrote to the Elector and the Duke, calling Müntzer “that satan in Allstedt” [Matheson, 226], and complaining that “this spirit of Allstedt” shows only violence, not patience nor love. [Ozment, 77] In fear of forces moving against the town, hundreds joined the now-militarized League of the Elect, even from nearby villages and towns. [Gritsch, 63]

In a letter dated in June, 1524, Luther expressed his desire to have Müntzer come to Wittenberg to have his teaching and spirit examined, as opposed to “remain[ing] in his own corner.” [Gritsch, 65] There is a strong contrast between the disruptive, clandestine (he had been organizing secret leagues for at least a decade by now), anti-intellectual (so the influence of Storch et alia) and essentially private features of Müntzer’s teaching and operations and Luther’s very public, open, and Humanistically academic preaching and teaching. Despite his alignment with Nominalist trends that might suggest theology to be thoroughly irrational and non-public and non-discursive, Luther emphasized in his exchange with Erasmus that the Gospel was not only able to publicly defend itself before its detractors, but that its proper defense would leave its detractors consciences singed and would defeat their objections. The public/private dichotomy is crucially important for so many cultural, legal and political elements of the modern world, and it is worth noting the Magisterial reformer employing it here.

Further, there are two tactics at work here — the one open and public, concerned with the whole people of the nation, and top-down, having the support of the princes and employing the power of the government; the other hidden and puritan, concerned with the group of the pure, making use of proto-guerrilla tactics through either secret groups or else a groundswell movement of popular resistance to regimes. Obviously, these tactics signal a break in the social fabric; not-so obviously, these tactics and the religious ideals associated with them are appropriate for their respective social worlds, once social differentiation has occurred, and these worlds have split, perhaps without reintegration.

Prince’s Sermon, 13th of July, 1524: Frederick the Wise and Duke George of Saxony consider moving against Müntzer, prohibiting him from preaching. Deciding to see personally what was happening in Allstedt, Duke John and his son John Frederick stayed at Allstedt castle on the 13th of July, 1524, while en route from Weimar to Halberstadt. Duke John ordered Müntzer to deliver a sermon on that day.

Müntzer’s sermon to the princes continued the themes familiar from his earlier works.[25] The sermon “weaves in and out of Daniel 2” [Matheson, 227]: even the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar heeded the God-sent visions: he “accepted what God said to him, although he was a terrible devastator and scourge of the chosen people” [Matheson, 236]. Nebuchadnezzar required, to interpret his dreams, “men who had communion with heaven.” This is in contrast to today’s biblical scholars, who deny present revelation, make God mute, and obstruct the Spirit’s work. [Matheson, 237] God’s loving kindness has “no limit” toward his elect, though, “provided that […] they can receive his warning”. [Matheson, 238] This warning will not come through a “stolen Scripture” at the hands of scribes, nor “the audacity of natural reason”, but through “the experience [of] the operation of the divine word from the well of [the] heart” [Matheson, 239], into which the word descends during suffering that has purified the soul of its “fleshly lusts” and “pleasures” and “distractions”. [Matheson, 240] God is only known from such God-borne pressure and rebirth and intimacy; otherwise, it makes an idol of Christ. Without being stripped-down to the death of lust and pleasure and false faith and discovering the “abyss of his soul”, the person cannot hear the word of God even should it come. [Matheson, 241] Nebuchadnezzar heard the divine word from Daniel, but because of his love of pleasure, he forgot it, to his punishment. Visions should be expected when one is faithful and in the midst of suffering. [Matheson, 242] It “would never be possible, for true preachers, dukes and rulers, to act in every respect blamelessly and correctly, unless they live by the revelation of God.” Such did Aaron and David. [Matheson, 243] Those who reject visions –implicitly Luther– will be thwarted in the end. The Spirit is presently revealing to many that “a full and final reformation in the near future” is at hand, which will be “the transformation of the world.” [Matheson, 244] “Therefore a new Daniel must arise and expound your dreams to you, and […] he must be in the vanguard, leading the way. He must bring about a reconciliation between the wrath of the princes and the rage of the people.” People swear that “princes are just pagans, that all they have to do is to maintain civic order.” [Matheson, 246] The princes are to be angels “who sharpen their sickles for the harvest” [Matheson, 250], are to “[d]rive [God’s] enemies away from the elect”. [Matheson, 247] “Do not, therefore, allow the evil-doers, who turn us away from God, to continue living, for a godless man has no right to live if he is hindering the pious.” [Matheson, 248] Unless they do this, “the Christian church will never return to its origins.” [Matheson, 250] This princely activity will transform the world and restore the Church. No clemency for the wicked, whether godless rulers or monks and priests. [Matheson, 251] The “rulers must […] be guided by the conclusion of” the chapter from the Book of Daniel, and heed the new Daniel, who can interpret their dreams, and should “install[…] the holy Daniel in office to judge fairly and well”, [Matheson, 251] for God is “taking the government into his own hands”. [Matheson, 252]

The sermon was a failure, and Müntzer knew it. He moved to form a league of the people that was not at all secret, calling for it from the pulpit on the 24th of July, 1524. The ranks swelled, and came to include the Allstedt town council [Gritsch, 72]; they were armed, and training. Luther wrote a tract Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit where he states that the Word of God should have free reign, but that the princes should step in when the use of force becomes involved. Duke John considered expelling Müntzer, and in a specially commissioned hearing at Weimar about the Allstedt situation, the town council disassociated themselves with him under pressure. [Baylor, 33-34]

Müntzer wrote to the Elector Frederick on the 3rd of August, promising to defend himself and to offer a clarification of his teachings, but seems to have felt betrayed in a way that he could not shake, and, seeming to think the waffling of the people of Allstedt made it an unfit base for his final reformation, left Allstedt “on or before” the 7th of August, 1524. [Gritsch, 75] Müntzer did draft an account for the Elector, the Special Exposure of False Faith, shortly after he left Allstedt, and remained briefly in Nuremberg.

Mühlhausen, 1524, 1525: On “perhaps” the 10th of August, 1524, Müntzer entered the imperial city of Mühlhausen, which was “much larger” than Allstedt. [Baylor, 34] He was welcomed by the local evangelical pastor Heinrich Pfeiffer, who was attempting a reform program similar to the one Müntzer had been building in Zwickau, and who had just returned to Mühlhausen after a short banishment. Pfeiffer invited Müntzer to preach at his church, but Luther wrote to the council of Mühlhausen and Duke John threatened another hearing of Müntzer, so the town council was neither welcoming nor receptive. Müntzer, ignoring these warnings, pressed for a new government by the “elect” from the pulpit and the street, culminating in an armed march of hundreds who camped outside of Mühlhausen, and drafted concrete demands for reform. There was too much confusion in the city for this to take there. [Gritsch, 85] On the 26th of September a village outside of Mühlhausen was torched; the old city council regained control. The next day, Pfeiffer and Müntzer were banned from the city.

The two traveled to Nuremberg, where Müntzer published his tract against Luther (the “Wittenberg Pope” [Gritsch, 89]), A Highly Necessary Defense Against the Soft-Living Flesh of Wittenberg. Eventually the people will be freed from “Doctor Liar”, who only succeeded because he had enlisted the aid of princes who oppress the godly and the poor; eventually, “the people will be free, and God will be their only lord.” [Gritsch, 91] The Nuremberg officials favored Luther, and threatened to expel Pfeiffer if he kept promulgating Müntzer’s writings. Thus, in November 1524, Müntzer left for Switzerland, where he remained until February of 1525. This time is “difficult to reconstruct” [Gritsch, 93], as is so much of Müntzer’s life.

Pfeiffer had returned to Mühlhausen in December of 1524. Sometime in February of 1525, Müntzer also returned to Mühlhausen, “convinced that this would be the strongest base for a realization of his ideals.” [Gritsch, 94] This time, there were rumors of attacks from the Catholic Duke George of Saxony, and Pfeiffer and Müntzer successfully persuaded the city council to draw up the able-bodied to defend. Müntzer and Pfeiffer used the circumstances to address the “agitated” citizens [Gritsch, 95], and eventually managed to have the city council replaced on the 17th of March, 1525. The town then proceeded to be refashioned as an anti-Catholic and anti-feudal launching pad.

There was widespread dissatisfaction and agitation among the peasants throughout Germany at the time against the oppressive and encroaching measures of the landlords and spurred by the pressures of the market economy. As the unrest escalated in southern and south-western Germany, Müntzer saw it as a sign that God’s elect had been purified, and were about to purge the world of evil. [Gritsch, 96] He wrote a final letter to Allstedt, encouraging them for what he thought was the final war of the elect against the ungodly, and then on the 26th of April, 1525, he and Pfeiffer left Mühlhausen with over 400 armed men to join the peasants a few miles southeast of the city. [Gritsch, 100] His band roamed about, sacking and pillaging as they went. He acquired the support of at least one noble. He returned to Mühlhausen to recruit more people, then left on the 11th of May, 1525, for Frankenhausen.

Frankenhausen & the Thüringian Peasants, 1525: There was a peasant rebel camp at Frankenhausen. While there, Müntzer wrote to Count Ernst of Mansfield, executed several of the Count’s men on the 13th of May, and two days later, on the 15th of May, the rebel encampment was bombarded with heavy artillery. Panic ensued. Müntzer fled into the Town of Frankenhausen, and was discovered there by a noble, hiding in a house with a sack of his correspondence [Gritsch, 105] He was taken immediately to Count Ernst’s “headquarters”, Heldrungen castle, where he was tortured the next day. [Gritsch, 105] The value of the torturer’s report is difficult to assess in parts, as the character of the confession extracted from Müntzer. Müntzer was allowed to write several letters, anticipating his execution, which occurred outside the walls of Mühlhausen on the 27th of May, 1525, together with Heinrich Pfeiffer, who was caught fleeing.

Müntzer was divisive in his life, and continues to be divisive today, both in terms of his legacy (Socialists wished to claim him as theirs, and early Anabaptists looked upon much of his thought favorably) and in terms of the theocentric politics he enjoined (which has certain echoes today, in various forms, no less divisive). Yet the simple judgment of Steven Ozment seems a fitting word to end a short life of Müntzer with: “[…] he, more than any other, is the magister of sixteenth-century dissent.” [Ozment, 97]


[1] All references to “Seebass” are to Gottfried Seebass, “Thomas Müntzer” in The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period, ed. Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 338-350.

[2] All references to “Gritsch” are to Eric W. Gritsch, Thomas Müntzer: A Tragedy of Errors (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989/2006).

[3] It is not clear what his role in Braunschweig was. Someone who knew Müntzer from his Braunschweig days addressed him, in a later letter written between 1515-1517, as a “persecutor of injustice”, which seems to address his role in some affair which is not clear. [Gritsch, 5.]

[4] A certain “Müntzer of Quedlinburg” [Gritsch, 2] was enrolled at the then-curricularly-traditional Leipzig University in 1506, which Eric Gritsch and Gottfried Seebass concur was the same Thomas Müntzer who was born in Stolberg (Michael Baylor calls his studies at Leipzig “probabl[e]” [Baylor, 15]). Seebass is quite firm: “We certainly know nothing more accurate about his studies than that he began in Leipzig in 1506”. [Seebass, 339]

[5] All references to “Baylor” are to Michael G. Baylor, Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1993).

[6] All references to “Ozment” are to Steven E. Ozment, Mysticism and Dissent: Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1973).

[7] He wrote to Luther after leaving, claiming that he had, in the aftermath, prevented the mobs from killing the town council, rather than encouraging them or conspiring with them, and that everyone in the town except the council members knew that during the riot in question he was “in the baths” without an “inkling” of what was happening. [Matheson, 56]

[8] The first is a line found in a letter, dated the 15th of June 1521, which he had written to Michael Gans who was in Jena, near Zwickau: “If I should happen to die I shall send a will, written in my own hand, by a sure messenger.” [Matheson, 33]

The second is in a letter to the cleric who replaced him in the Zwickau church, Nicholas Hausmann: “you should realize that I visited Bohemia not for the sake of my own petty glory, nor from a burning desire for money, but in the hope of my coming death. […] The time of Antichrist is upon us […] as in the days of Noah, we should not care a straw for [the reprobate].” [Matheson, 35]

[9] “no one [in the church] separates good people from the impudent band that is unknown [to God].” “the church is rotten to its floor and foundations with damned people.” “The elect must clash with the damned, and the power of the damned must yield before that of the elect. Otherwise you cannot hear what God is.” “Such errors had to occur so that the works of all people, the elect and the damned, would be fully manifest. In our time God wants to separate the wheat from the chaff, so that one can grasp, as though it were bright midday, who it is that has seduced the church for such a long time. All the villainy, even in the highest places, must come to light. […] The time of the harvest is at hand! Thus God himself has appointed me for his harvest. I have made my sickle sharp, for my thoughts are zealous for the truth and my lips, skin, hands, hair, soul, body and my life all damn the unbelievers.” “Whoever despises such warnings as these is already, now, in the hands of the Turks.” “shortly after this, Christ will give to his elect the kingdom of this world for all eternity.” Müntzer wrote similarly to Melanchthon in 1522: “Do not make peace with the reprobate, for they impede the mighty working of the word. Do not flatter your princes; otherwise you will live to see your undoing, which may the blessed God forfend.” [Matheson, 46]

[10] “he who has not heard the righteous, living word of God out of the mouth of God, [and can discern] what is Bible and what is Babel, is nothing but a dead thing.”

[11] “I do not doubt the common people. Oh, you righteous, poor, pitiful little band! How thirsty you still are for the word of God!” “after the death of the pupils of the apostles, the untarnished, virgin church soon became a whore at the hands of seducing parsons. For parsons have always wanted to have a ruling position in the church. […] [This happened] because the people neglected to exercise their right to elect their priests. And it has not been possible to hold a true council since the onset of such negligence.”

[12] “the living speech of God, when the father speaks to the son in the hearts of people.” “If [the Word] is only written in books, nowhere else, and God spoke only once and then vanished into thin air, then it surely cannot be the word of the eternal God.” “the sheep do not know that they should hear the living voice of God. That is, they should all have revelations” Not a belief in an external word: “the devil believes in the truth of the Christian faith.”

[13] “all true parsons must have revelations, so that they are certain of their cause” it seems that without this, the parsons, the “diarrhea-makers”, “have taught the people to pray to Baal.” There can be no true worship without this experience of the Spirit, just as there can be no true preaching.

[14] “Parsons are lords, who only devour, swill, and steal, day and night seeking to contrive how they can feed themselves and get many fiefs […]. They are not like Christ, our beloved Lord, who compares himself to a hen that makes her chicks warm.” “Rome has commanded this and that great thing, defending them with the ban of excommunication.”

[15] “the [unbelieving] parsons […] do not have the power to make a single individual sufficiently sure that he has been chosen for eternal life” because they throw the Bible to people like bread to dogs, instead of breaking it with the holy spirit, “so that [the people] might recognize the holy spirit in themselves.” “[Non-Christians] may indeed think to themselves, What kind of assurance of faith is this which comes from books? Perhaps [the authors of Scripture] have lied in what they have written? How can one know whether it is true?” Certainty through suffering. [Baylor, 71]

[16] “the new apostolic church will arise first in your land [Bohemia], and afterward, everywhere.”

[17] “God speaks only in the suffering of creatures, a suffering that the hearts of the unbelievers do not have […]unbelievers can and will not empty themselves […] in a time of tribulation, they collapse […]. In no way does the unbeliever want to become conformed to Christ through suffering; rather he seeks conformity only with honey-sweet thoughts.” “knowing the crucified by conformity with him in his self-denial”; “the useful abyss that the providential spirit meets as it empties itself”. Müntzer would later write that “consolation has made Christian rigor into an abomination.” [Baylor, 74], and defend Purgatory against the Wittenbergians, though not the “phantasies of the papists” [Matheson, 46, 73].

[18] “they themselves never heard this from God”, the “dead letter” expounded is as though God “had suddenly become dumb”

[19] All references to “Matheson” are to Peter Matheson, The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988).

[20] (Potentially alarming is Müntzer’s further suggestion that only those who seem moved by the Spirit after the homily should be present at the Supper, “because it is those endowed with the understanding of the testimonies of God, not from books of dead promises but of living promises, who are possessed by the Spirit.” [Matheson, 46])

[21] Ozment claims that Müntzer had heard earlier in a letter from John Buschmann, in September of 1522, that some notable “Martinians” were unhappy with him [Ozment, 72, fn.41 – though in the letter from Buschmann cited by Ozment, this only seems implied, at best; see Matheson, 52, where it is simply noted that some think Müntzer might be “worse” than the evangelicals].

[22] More specifically, the key is “to rule the people so that they learn to fear God alone, for the beginning of true Christian wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Now that you, however, want to be feared more than God, as I can prove from your deeds and your edict, you are the one who takes away the key to the knowledge of God and forbids the people to go into the churches, for you can never change for the better.” [Matheson, 67]

[23] There he set forth again his model of a pure, ideal, apostolic Church, decried infant baptism, wrote again about deification after purification (the “movement of our spirit in the divine spirit” [Baylor, 67], claimed that the oft-trumpeted fear of sectarianism by Catholic authorities distracted people from asking about the new birth of faith, emphasized the wickedness of the libido dominandi [Baylor, 69], underscored that people are not willing to suffer, and so make no entrance into the spiritual life (faith is costly). Faith is costly, and Müntzer writes several times about the “narrow way”, the reception of the divine word which “springs from the abyss of the heart” when one is “sober, freed from all desires” [Baylor, 73] (Conrad Grebel and his followers read the Protest and the follow-up work of 1524, On Contrived Faith, and were very receptive to them, even calling themselves by Müntzer’s name in correspondence with him. [Ozment, 74-75])

[24] There are letters to another league of the elect which he had apparently organized in Sangerhausen sometime before summer of 1524 [Matheson, 83-91], and who were suffering (he encouraged them that “there is no other way to illumination than through deep affliction” [Matheson, 84-85]), to console them even in prison.

[25] Christ and the apostles “founded a pure and true Christianity”, whose work was rejected by the servants tasked with watching over the churches, who pursued their own interests, instead. [Matheson, 231] The desire for mastery, the Augustinian libido dominandi, is in play here: paralleled with the self-interest of these false stewards is Caesar Augustus, who “sought to possess the whole world”. [Matheson, 233] The same are like the biblical scholars, who use the biblical text to fashion an imagined idol of Christ, ignoring the “true voice” of the “crucified Christ” [Matheson, 233] and setting up the suffering of Christ as a “fairground spectacle”, instead. Only after this suffering is recapitulated, in a manner, in the operation of God in the life of the believer through suffering, can the soul of the faithful be purified so as “to exercise vengeance on the enemies of God with burning zeal to God”. [Matheson, 234] This purification occurs through the fear of God, which cannot occur should there be fear of any creature: “just as it is impossible to serve two masters and be saved, so it is impossible to fear both God and created things and be saved.” God is “unable to have mercy” on us unless we fear him alone. [Matheson, 235]

5 thoughts on “A Preliminary Synopsis of the Life of Thomas Müntzer (Occasionally Updated)

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