NB: The Reformation was likely inevitable, with or without Luther, when one considers the financial and ethical corruption in the Church and the reality of the printing press. The official Church certainly did Christianity no favors at the time and in the years preceding. At the same time, Luther didn’t exactly wrap himself in noble cloth either. This post will examine one of Luther’s more egregious acts.
As usual, the post is about the history, not about the theology. That I personally find sympathy with certain of the Church’s positions and at the same time certain of Luther’s is irrelevant, other than to suggest, perhaps, that I am a confused Christian.
Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.
Taking to heart Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers, the Orlamünders had become confident exegetes….
This is a story of what happens when the cat is let out of the bag, and when the one who opened the bag believes he is the only one qualified to be so set free….
The peasants were growing restless. The Orlamünders were after images, and they were moving fast. Luther offered that all that was commanded was that images not be worshipped; there was no prohibition regarding images as images. Luther was, therefore, accused of being among the damned: “…get out, in the name of a thousand devils.”
These townspeople had been taught directly by the living voice of God; what use did they have for Luther? Sounds rather Lutheran. Luther would warn the princes; an uprising was at hand. By this time, the early 1520s, it spread from the Upper Rhine valley to Alsace in the west, to the Black Forest in the east, and all the way to Lake Constance and Upper Swabia. Basically, the southwestern corner of Germany was a tinderbox.
Massing lays the main blame on a unique understanding of capitalism, which he describes as landlords usurping many of the rights to which small farmers and others had been previously entitled under feudalism. Common lands, previously used for sheep and cows, were closed off; forests – for firewood, thatch, and nuts, were declared off limits; streams and ponds were no longer accessible; taxes and fees were increasing. Penalties for violations could even include execution.
As an aside, this behavior should be kept in mind when one considers what has been labeled as the Wars of Religion. Wars too simply blamed on the division between Catholics and Protestants. These wars are more appropriately labeled wars of state and state-building. As we see even here, the issue is not religion (and certainly not capitalism, as Massing claims). The issue is aggrandizement of power at the expense of rights long-held via tradition and custom.
Returning to Massing: the peasants were using Luther’s own words to defend their right: no pope or bishop has the right to impose any law on the laypeople without their consent; every Christian is a free lord, subject to none. The priesthood of all believers allowed all to hold to their own understanding. Luther, after all, defied all such external authority. Was this freedom only allowed to him?
Adjacent Switzerland was not spared: Zwingli stressed the right of the community to recall secular authorities who failed to rule in a Christian manner – an idea foreign to Luther. On June 15, 1524, images from all Zurich churches were removed – all pictures, statues, saintly images, etc.
The Eucharist became another point of contention – with Luther holding to a position much closer to the Catholic than to that held by many Reformers. Luther, seeing himself as the only proper authority for properly interpreting Scripture, now had as enemies both the Church and the unleashed priesthood of believers.
Luther would respond as he often did: vehemently and abusively. His awareness was growing as to the spirit he unleashed, discovering that Scripture might be interpreted differently than how he believed it ought to be understood.
The first major revolt occurred just nine days later, some forty miles north of Zurich, across the Rhine and in Germany. The local count’s wife demanded the peasants take time away from their own crop to gather empty snail shells for her spooling. It was just this kind of abuse that drove the peasants to revolt.
Meanwhile, aggrieved peasants in what is today Bavaria began to form in military bands. Multiple thousands would join. The put their grievances to the Swabian League – an association of princes and barons. From here they were told to go to the Imperial courts, but the peasants held no faith in this course. Eventually their grievances would become known as The Twelve Articles – perhaps the first written set of human rights in Europe.
Each community should have the right to elect its own pastor; the tithe should be used only for the local pastor and needy poor; the lords’ must no longer treat us as serfs as we are free in Christ. The peasants would gladly withdraw any articles that were shown to be contrary to Scripture. As can be seen, Luther’s teachings and arguments were clearly on display.
In short order, more than 25,000 copies of the Articles were printed and distributed. As copies would arrive at a village, a town meeting was held to consider whether these would be supported with men and arms. But some would not wait for such organized action, having been pauperized beyond limit.
Abbeys and castles were seized, pillaged and burned. For the most part, the peasants stuck to taking or destroying property; rarely life. The nobles didn’t play by these rules. Eventually, Truchsess George von Waldburg would organize a force of 7,000 foot soldiers and 1,500 horsemen to counter this uprising. Encounters would quickly turn to routs, as the peasants faced organized and trained military men. Peasants were slaughtered by the thousands.
Such events were repeating throughout the southwestern part of Germany – aggrieved peasants coming up against trained mercenaries and fighters, usually ending in slaughter. At one point, on Easter Sunday, a small group of peasants descended on the town of Weinsberg. Contrary to other actions that primarily targeted property, here they slaughtered something around forty people. No other event would so damage the peasant’s cause.
Despite certain setbacks, by mid-April 1525, much of central Germany was on the verge of falling to the peasants. And this is where Luther would directly enter the stage – previously he was an inspiration, now he would be a primary actor.
Luther would write three pamphlets on the peasant revolt. In the first, he was unsparing in his criticism of the ruling class: “We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks…you do nothing but cheat and rob the people…”
Luther then turned to the peasants, and his turn was bizarre. Luther went full-on Romans 13: those in authority were instituted by God, and they alone have the authority of the sword. Yes, the rulers erred, but the peasants had the much greater sin. Like Christ, it was the peasants’ duty to suffer every injustice!
This, it seemed, was quite contrary to Luther’s attitude when faced with what he believed to be injustice at the hand of the authority of the Church. Where Luther would often write of Christ bearing a sword, he now only focused on bearing the Cross. The peasants should no longer call themselves Christian: “As long as there is a heartbeat in my body, I shall do all I can to take that name away from you.”
The author of The Twelve Articles was a lying preacher and a false prophet. Luther even found a way to dismiss the first article – that of the right of the peasants to choose their own pastor…and this, nothing but a direct point made by Luther previously! When the peasants complained of serfdom, Luther would respond that Abraham had slaves. Luther would devote three times as much space to attacking the peasants as he did to attacking the rulers.
By this point, Luther was becoming an enemy of both sides: by the rulers because Luther’s teaching was obvious in many of the Articles, and by the peasants because Luther now dismissed the very same teaching. It seems that it was only Luther who Luther believed qualified to interpret much of anything regarding both this world and the next.
By May 1525, the peasant armies seemed unstoppable. Luther would respond further: to murder a peasant in rebellion wasn’t really murder, 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. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”
If the peasants would not come to terms, a Christian ruler was just to murder. There could be no place for justice or mercy. And the timing was perfect. The various lords and nobles began to organize, and they would proceed to smite, slay and stab with particular zeal and efficiency – all with Luther’s blessing.
Around the time that Luther’s words were published, the violence against the peasants increased significantly. A combined force of Hessian, Saxon and Brunswick cavalry would kill five thousand peasants near Frankenhausen; at Böblingen, bodies were strewn for seven or eight miles; at Ochsenfurt, another five-thousand; up to twenty-thousand slain in Saverne.
Beheadings of leaders, eyes plucked out, women raped. Severe penalties for anyone caught aiding the wounded. Weapons seized, meetings and gatherings disallowed, any and all proposals by the peasants rejected.
The death toll was somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000, with another 50,000 fugitives. The peasants, certainly also guilty of many crimes, stood no chance against trained armies and cavalry.
It was felt, not without reason, that Luther’s words allowed for and encouraged this slaughter. Although Luther’s first pamphlet came out after the devastation began, Luther did not mind that his name was so associated. The peasants got what they deserved. “They have gone mad and will not hear the Word, and so they must bear the rod, or the guns.” Let them be obedient, or let the shots whistle.
Luther would double-down. When asked to tone down his rhetoric, he would reply with ever more stinging rebuke based on his understanding of Romans 13. Whatever the rulers do, they are justified, as they are placed in position by God.
“…it is better that all the peasants be killed than the magistrates and princes perish, because the peasants took the sword without divine authority.”
Let no one have mercy on the peasants; let everyone who is able “strike, hew, stab, and slay, as though among mad dogs.” This, despite acknowledging that the peasants had slain no one in the way that they were being slain. Luther would even find time to attack those who criticized the methods of the princes.
With such statements, disillusionment was setting in even among [Luther’s] staunchest backers.
Even when a nobleman felt some guilt about his actions toward the peasants, Luther would quickly assuage any such remorseful feelings. Such harsh treatment would please God! Luther went from being the hero to the German people to being a pariah:
Far from being the Joshua who would lead the people into the promised land, he seemed the Judas who betrayed them.
He was reviled by the peasants as Dr. Liar, a lapdog of the princes. Many would turn away completely from the Reformation – some to atheism, others returning to the Catholic Church.
Religion used as a pretext for control and subjugation. When the Catholic Church was at its best, it acted as an effective check against kings and nobles – a meaningful separation of church and state (actually, a separation of church and king, as – by definition – there was no state as the king did not hold monopoly authority).
The subsequent religious wars continued this trend – opportunities for lords and kings to reduce or eliminate Rome’s check on kingly abuse. Of course, the Church was not blameless in the loss of this authority, but it was a loss nonetheless. A loss for decentralized, competing authorities that allowed for liberty.
Luther’s life was a perfect example of this: his king, Frederick, shielded Luther from certain execution – just as there are many examples where the Church protected individuals from their king. Luther, in decrying the authority of the Catholic Church, helped to usher in the age where kings would grow into monopoly power. He certainly cheered this transition on, with his writing during this period of what we know as the peasant rebellions.
Troops of Charles V would go on to sack Rome. A large portion of these troops were made up of German mercenaries – Landsknechts – many of these Lutheran. The same Charles, who as Holy Roman Emperor, was the man charged with bringing Luther to Catholic justice. The same Charles who called Luther to Worms in order to renounce his views. That same Charles now had an army attacking the Vatican.
Charles needed money – gold and silver; more than was even coming to Spain from the New World. This was available to him on the Italian peninsula, and especially in Rome. His troops, unpaid for months, would look forward to paying back the pope for the crimes and abuses of the past. The Vatican was under siege, with the pope and others in hiding.
The imperial troops raced into the heart of the city, slashing and stabbing to death all they encountered…
The Catholic Holy Roman Emperor against the head of the Catholic Church. So much for the idea of wars of religion.