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Thomas Muntzer: Radical Reformer

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

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Thomas Muntzer is credited with being the forerunner of the Anabaptist movement, German Christian mysticism and also the father of modern socialism. He was born around 1489, in Stolberg, Germany. He became an ordained priest in 1513. soon after, he was exposed to the ideas of Martin Luther. He became verbally critical of some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1520, he met Nicholuas Storch. Storch was not a priest but a self-appointed preacher. He had been exposed to a Bohemian group (Taborites) who believed that the Protestant Reformation was a sign of Jesus’ imminent return to earth to cleanse the church and usher in a new social order. Given the radical upheaval being caused by the Reformation, many including Muntzer, began to embrace these ideas. The term Millennarian was given to those like Storch and Muntzer who believed that the church would rule over the government and the laws of the Bible would be the laws of the land once the church is spiritually pure. Storch also introduced the idea that the “spirit” of God leads people directly and the Bible is only secondary to direct revelation.

Prague Manifesto

On November 25, 1521, Muntzer released his letter that came to be known as the “Prague Manifesto” (so named, because this is where he was residing at the time). It was handwritten and did not exist in a printed form until later. He believed that Christians needed to be bold and forward the reformation. He stated:

“In short, every man must be possessed of the Holy Spirit seven times over, for otherwise he will neither hear nor understand the living God.”

The influence of Luther is obvious when Muntzer refers to one person as a “donkey-farting doctor.”

While not being direct, the overall tenor of the letter seems to call the Bohemians to revolt, after which the “new apostolic Church will arise” and the pure church will then spread to the whole world.

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Letter to the People of Allstedt

While in Allstedt, Muntzer became a popular preacher. He supported the miners in their effort to form trade unions and demand concessions. By this time, Muntzer had grown more radical. He urged the people to “Get going, and fight the battle for the Lord!” and to “hunt the knaves down like dogs.” The knaves he referred to were, in the broadest sense, the Roman Catholics and those who aligned themselves with them. In essence, he was calling for a revolution. Given that Muntzer was a student of Luther and Luther was a peasant as well as outspoken against the Church, many blamed Luther for Muntzer and those like him.

Theologically, Munster was a mix of Luther’s idea, with German mysticism, by which a person could have direct communication with God through the Spirit, and a works/suffering based salvation. (1)

Muntzer formed the “Allstedt League” with the goal that its member would bring reform at any cost, including the use of violence. He said the new church should not have ungodly people in it. Soon a Catholic Cathedral was set on fire. Duke Joahnn Na Fredrick the Wise and others who were sympathetic to the Reformation, were embarrassed by Muntzer. They did ask him to come and preach for them and explain his position. Using the book of Daniel, he said that authority had been given to the Church, with the power of the sword to defeat the enemies of God. If they did not use their power it would be taken away from them. They were confused and consulted with Luther. Luther suggested that maybe in time Muntzer would cool down.

He moved to Muhlhausen and became a preacher there. Soon the city council was overthrown. And Muntzer fled again. He wrote a tract attacking the Protestant doctrine of original sin. 1524 he returned to Munhlhausen and called the peasant to take violent action in the Reformation. (2) After an ugly defeat, Muntzer recanted of everything and took the Catholic Mass but it was too late. He was beheaded in 1525.

Anabaptist and the Kingdom of God

Footnotes

(1) Harry Loewen, Ink Against the Devil, Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press., June 18, 2015, p.60-61

(2) James M. Stayer, German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods, McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 1 Apr 1991

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