May 15

1525 Millennialist dreams are shattered at Frankenhausen

 The Protestant Reformation quickly brought to the fore a question that had been vexing Western Civilization since the time of the Greeks: is it ever legitimate to use violence to oppose tyranny?

Martin Luther and his followers initially opposed the notion of violent resistance but it was cautiously endorsed by Swiss theologian Huldreich Zwingli. The next expressions on resistance in the mid-1520s were far more intemperate and violent, coming out of the millennialist tradition formerly represented by the Bohemian Taborites. Thomas Müntzer, once an admirer of Luther’s, turned his back on much the Wittenberg preacher taught, especially his non-violence. Müntzer had come into contact with radicals who sought the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and who poured scorn on Luther’s biblicism; God, he said, still comes in dreams to His beloved, as he had to the prophets of old. He began to style himself “Destroyer of the Unbelievers” and to speak of the imminent end of the old era and the dawn of a new age of social justice. Müntzer preached to the Saxon princes in May 1524 and warned them that if they refused to use the sword against the godless it would be taken from them but his appeal to German princes to lead his crusade fell on deaf ears. Müntzer turned to the lower orders to be the new Elect, a covenanted people of God; he seems to have been the first in Reformation Europe to make political use of the concept of the covenant, a notion that will prove especially useful to later persecuted Protestants.

When the great German Peasant Rebellion broke out in 1524 he urged his poor followers on to violence and a liberating slaughter that would open the way to the new age of godliness and peace. “On! On! On!”, he told the peasant soldiers at Mülhausen, “Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry. Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! Clang! On! On!”

The climax of the struggle came outside the town of Frankenhausen in May, 1525. An army of poorly-armed peasants flying their rainbow flag met deadly Landsknecht mercenaries hired by Hessian and Saxon nobles. The peasants, entrenched in a wagon fortress of the sort that had been so effectively used by the Hussites in the 15th century, were able to repel the first enemy sorties but the next day they broke under an artillery barrage and a cavalry charge. The rebels were cut down in their thousands, bringing their uprising to an end.

Thomas Müntzer had told the peasants that he would precede them and catch their enemies’ bullets in his sleeves but in fact he ran away and was hiding in bed when he was captured by the forces of the triumphant princes. He was executed shortly thereafter as bloody recriminations against the peasantry were taken across Germany.

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