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Tell us about Thomas Muentzer and how he comes from being a protégé of Luther to something altogether different.

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

Thomas Muentzer is an example of what can happen when apocalyptic scriptures become widely accessible. Muentzer took the images of the apocalypse, the images of a desperate struggle between the forces of righteousness and the forces of evil, and applied it to the peasantry of Europe in his own day. And he preached to the peasants that the wealthy people of the day are in fact the evil ones whose destruction is foretold in the Book of Revelation. And thousands of peasants followed him, and in fact there was a tremendous slaughter ... . Thomas Muentzer had assured his followers that their struggle against the landowners, against the rulers and the leaders of the day, was a divinely ordained struggle, and that in the war that would follow, they would be spared, that God would intervene. ...
thomas muentzer

thomas muentzer
When the final showdown comes in 1525, the peasants are arrayed against the German princes and their army, and Thomas Muentzer continues to assure them, even at the last moment, that Christ will intervene on their side. This is the apocalyptic moment foretold in the Revelation. They're singing hymns. They literally are awaiting a glorious triumph. Muentzer assures them that he will catch the cannonballs in his shirthhsleeves. Of course, it turned into a slaughter. Five thousand ill-equipped peasants were slaughtered. The Peasants' Revolt was utterly destroyed. It was one of those incredible explosions of apocalypticism that arise in history.


Who was Thomas Muentzer?

Edwards serves as President of St. Olaf College and has written many books and articles on Martin Luther.

(more about Edwards)

Thomas Muentzer started as a follower of Martin Luther's. He may have even heard some of Luther's lectures. He certainly read Luther. The message he got from Luther, above all, was "scripture alone". And when he read scripture alone, he went his own way. For Luther, Thomas Muentzer was the epitome of someone who misunderstood the message. Luther saw this as a spiritual battle. Thomas Muentzer was not willing to make the distinction between spiritual and worldly that Luther was. So Thomas Muentzer, in reading the Bible and especially the Old Testament, felt that to be a good Christian you had to change society in various ways, and that just like the prophets had used force to convert the infidels in the Old Testament, that Muentzer and his followers had the right to use force to deal with those people who opposed the gospel. Luther did not believe in that. For Luther, that was Satan at work. And he called Thomas Muentzer the Satan at Allstadt (that's where Muentzer was preaching).

Tell me about Muentzer's role in the Peasants' War.

Thomas Muentzer had a role in part of the Peasants' War. The Peasants' War occurred over large parts of the empire. But in one part in the north-central area, Thomas Muentzer was the leader of a band of peasants. And for those peasants, he was taking the Old Testament images and bringing them to life, and telling them that just as all Christians were supposed to be free spiritually, they also were all to be equal and free economically and politically. This was the rallying cry that galvanized his supporters. This was the rallying cry that brought the princes together to oppose it. ...

One of the most famous battles in the Peasants' War occurred at Frankenhausen, where the armies of the princes in the cities met the peasants' bands led by Thomas Muentzer. The princes, by one report, attempted to find an end to the fight. The peasants, however, saw a rainbow in the sky, and Muentzer's flag had a rainbow on it, harkening back to the rainbow that Noah was given, the covenant with God. And so as the princes load their cannons and the cavalry gets ready to charge, the peasants are singing, "Come, Holy Spirit," believing that this battle is the final battle of Armageddon, and that God was going to break in and stop it right there. But instead, the cannons fired. The knights charged. Of about 8,000 peasants, about 5,000 lost their lives. And Muentzer himself was captured, cowering under a bed; tortured, executed. That was the end of Muentzer's apocalyptic vision.


battle at frankenhausen

What has Muentzer's legacy become?

Muentzer is important largely because the East German state in the 20th century, borrowing from Engels and Marx in the 19th century, needed their own hero. They needed their own usable history for their own apocalyptic vision of how history was going to go. And so Thomas Muentzer became for Marxist history the Martin Luther. And that's why he's important. If it had not been for Marxism, we would hardly talk about Thomas Muentzer. But because of the Marxist view of how histories work, they needed someone who stood for the proletariat, and that was Thomas Muentzer.

Marxists have their own view of history, which is apocalyptic in a secular sense. And in that history there are developments that go along. And you can read history in the same way you do with religious apocalypse. And in reading history, they needed a figure early on who stood for the common people. And in the Reformation, since Martin Luther was seen as the person who led the bourgeoisie, Thomas Muentzer was seen as the person led the proletariat. And so for Marxists, in their reading of history, Thomas Muentzer is central as part of this longer move towards the eventual proletarian state.

When Marxists speak of "Workers of the world, unite," they're talking about that final end, of the apocalypse, the end where history reaches its end in the proletarian state, where the workers own everything and they run everything. That is the goal, the apocalyptic goal. It's seen as foreshadowed ... in the abortive attempt of Muentzer to unite the peasants together. But Muentzer was too early, in terms of the way history works, and so he had to fail. ...

When East Germany was still Communist, they told a story which was to encompass everyone and make sense of their history, and through that history to say that East German state was inevitable. And one of the great heroes in that was Thomas Muentzer. He was a tragic hero because he died. But he was part of history's inevitable, inexorable move towards the East German state.

L. Michael White

White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, and acted as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"
Thomas Muentzer started out as a follower of Martin Luther. In the early stages, he takes up Luther's call for the Church to be reformed. Over time, however, Muentzer takes a different interpretation of the prophecies of the Bible, and carries the call for reform on to a new level of polemic, not only against the Catholic Church but eventually against Luther himself. Whereas Luther saw the battle of the end times as being primarily a spiritual and theological battle, for Muentzer it's a real political and military revolution. ... In his interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and more generally his apocalyptic framework, Thomas Muentzer is clearly borrowing the tradition of Joachim of Fiore. He talks explicitly about the three ages and the transformations of the last age. The end time, the one he is expecting right around the corner, is to be a revolutionary change. That's very important for Muentzer. ...

Muentzer has a very specific interpretation of the end time expectations that he draws from scripture. He combines the passage from Matthew 24, where you have the harvest at the end of the age, with the passage from Revelation 14, the "grapes of wrath" passage where the angels swing the sickle and gather in the harvest. He really understands now that this is the time when only the elect will be left behind. Everyone else will be taken away to torment. And then he adds another element. He sees himself as the divinely appointed, divinely inspired agent of God. He even says, "Now is the time of harvest. God has appointed me for this task. I've sharpened my sickle."

Why are peasants in particular drawn to Muentzer's apocalyptic vision?

In a way very different from others of the time, Thomas Muentzer sees the revolution at the end of the age to have a very particular social and economic impact. It's not a moral reform. It's not a spiritual form. It's economic. He's worried about the poor. And the working classes, especially in the growing cities of that time, were particularly drawn to his message. This was going to be a class revolution. ...

Despite [the] horrible defeat that [Muentzer and his followers] faced, Muentzer's legacy is not one that disappears so easily. Later generations, particularly in Germany, would look at him .. as a hero, as a proletarian rebel. Marxism would come along later and think of him as a saint, as a martyr to the cause. The very fact that the state, the symbol of oppression, are the ones who had killed him, only proves the fact that he's a prophet, that he's the one really calling for the people to rise up against big government.

For more on Muentzer's role as a charismatic, prophetic leader, see Stephen Stein's essay, "Modern Messiahs."

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