Frankenhausen, Germany, May 15, 1525. The slaughter lasted only minutes. One moment, the throng of several thousand armed peasants, till now so often divided into rival factions, was united in singing an expectant prayer: “Veni, creator Spiritus! – Come, Creator Spirit.” The next, the air was suddenly heavy with smoke and screams under a barrage of cannon fire. Many fled; many others were left groaning and limbless, gasping questions toward the sky. Blood from the fallen seeped into the battlefield, now covered with the boot prints of the six thousand mercenaries, or Landsknechte, fighting in the armies of Philip I of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony. Better equipped than the disordered peasant army, they had massacred the enemy.
Thomas Müntzer had inflamed this rebel army with talk of prophetic warfare:
God promised that he would help the afflicted, and such a promise is valid for us. The princes are truly tyrants.…God will not tolerate this any longer. He wants to annihilate them. Look at the sky. See the sign of his grace, the rainbow! God is showing that he is supporting us, proclaiming the defeat and destruction of our tyrannical enemies!
“Fight the fight of the Lord! It is high time!”
Now their rainbow, which had appeared just before the battle began, had vanished. For days it had brought the peasant armies hope: God’s signal to his elect ensuring that with prayers and pitchforks they would soon sweep the threshing floor clean. The hour of vengeance was at hand, they believed, and God’s judgment was on its way.
But God didn’t descend that day in Frankenhausen. Only six of the princes’ army fell or were wounded, while peasant casualties numbered in the thousands. Their shattered barricade, made of chains and farm wagons, along with makeshift weapons, lay abandoned as surviving peasants fled, leaving their pure white banner trampled and spattered with gore. Many who tried to escape were hunted down and executed on the spot. Müntzer himself was soon captured, hiding in a farmhouse and still clutching his bag of writings, giving him away as one of the leaders of the rebellion. At the hands of the conquering princes he was detained, examined, and tortured. On May 27, humiliated and broken, he was beheaded.
Who was this man who, five hundred years later, remains one of the most formidable, and also one of the most controversial, voices of the early German Reformation? Born in 1490 in the Harz Mountains of Germany, Müntzer received a decent education, studied theology, and became a Catholic priest. Soon, however, he began to question what he saw as the greed of the clergy and their extravagant lifestyles that came at the expense of desperately poor peasants. Attracted to Martin Luther’s ideas, he collaborated with him regarding the posting of Luther’s ninety-five theses. As Müntzer aligned himself more fully with Luther’s reforms, he began to preach openly against the unjust distribution of wealth.
Müntzer believed in God’s power to speak through visions and foretold the imminent collapse of the current world order. Along with fellow visionaries, he founded a missionary church and zealously spread the message that, as written in Revelation, God now wanted to raise up a chosen people, leading them into epic battle that would result in a new society without poverty or private property.
Persecution followed their reformatory efforts, and Müntzer’s life turned itinerant as he was expelled from one town after the next. Along the way he married Ottilie von Gersen, a former nun. During his travels he set up printing presses and distributed his pamphlets to anyone who would read them, particularly the lower classes, whose support for him grew. Deadly riots and attacks on churches, castles, and monasteries raged throughout Germany. Growing more incendiary, Müntzer saw himself as the “prophet of terror called by God” to bring violence against the evil ones. As he shifted from religious reformer to full-blown radical, a rift widened between him and Luther, whom he now considered a hypocritical “Wittenberg pope.” In another sermon he referred to Luther as “Brother Fattening-pig.” In response, Luther aligned himself with the rulers Müntzer opposed, urging them to crush the zealot and his followers.
Hearing about the increase of violent flare-ups, Swiss Anabaptist reformer Conrad Grebel and others in Zurich wrote to Müntzer, pleading for the populist leader to adhere purely to Christ’s example:
The Gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they to protect themselves.… True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; they must be baptized in anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death.… Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them – unless, indeed, we should still be of the old law. And even there (in the Old Testament), so far as we can recall, war was a misfortune after they had once conquered the Promised Land. No more of this.
Sadly, such counsel went unheeded, and the calamitous slaughter at Frankenhausen was the end result. After enduring weeks of torture, Müntzer implored the peasants in his final letter, written from his prison cell:
Flee from the shedding of blood. You definitely must not suffer such defeats as that of Frankenhausen. Without doubt each one seeking his own selfish interest more than the justification of Christendom caused this defeat. Against this I now warn you faithfully: you must not give in to rebellion again, so that no more innocent blood may be shed.
Müntzer referred to Martin Luther as “Brother Fattening-pig.”
Under torture prior to his execution, Müntzer called out, “Omnia sunt communia” (all things in common), still envisioning a world with equal distribution according to each person’s need. His vision became reality in the communal life of brotherhood that grew out of the Anabaptist Reformation in 1527. The Hutterites and other Moravian Anabaptists shared everything in common as outlined in Jesus’ teachings, not founding their life through violent defense but through repentance and believer’s baptism. As summarized in Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Müntzer’s example had made clear the terrible cost of promoting the kingdom of God through violence, yet it was in these pacifist communities, in which brotherly and sisterly love was not just a word but an economic and social reality, that the heart of his vision was realized.