Thomas Münzer

The German Protestant reformer Thomas Münzer (1489-1525) was associated with the "radical" Reformation, in the early stages of which his revolutionary social views placed him at the head of the Peasants' Rebellion.

Thomas Münzer was born at Stolberg in Saxony. He read widely and became a secular priest, first in Frohse and later in a convent in Beuditz. After meeting Martin Luther at Leipzig in 1519, Münzer experienced a religious crisis in which his doubt as to God's existence was resolved into a concept of the decline of the Church, the spiritual unity of all true believers, and his own conviction that he was an especially chosen instrument of God to purge the world of ecclesiastical abuses. His appointment to the town of Zwickau in 1520 brought him into contact with the socially radical Zwickau prophets, and Münzer began proclaiming his vision of a purified Christianity, devoid of ecclesiastical and social hierarchies and dependent upon personal revelation and the immediacy of the Day of Judgment.

Forced to leave Zwickau in 1521, Münzer went to Prague, where he further preached his visionary theology and vociferously denounced the social oppression of the poor which had been a result of ecclesiastical distortion of true Christian doctrine. In 1522 Münzer was appointed provisional pastor at Allstedt, where he married, carried out liturgical reforms (including services in the vernacular), and further developed his concept of the three stages in the true Christian life: utter despair, fear inspired by God, and finally personal illumination by the Holy Spirit. His increasingly radical position was made clear in his famous sermon to the princes of Saxony in 1524, in which Münzer urged the temporal rulers to lead God's chosen people against the "forces of antichrist." Forced to leave Allstedt later in the same year, Münzer joined the Peasants' Rebellion, which had broken out in June 1524.

The rebellion was the result of a complex series of social, legal, and theological disputes, and it soon swept up many peasants in what is now southwestern Germany. Demanding considerable social and religious reforms, the peasants practiced an apocalyptic Christianity and, with Münzer's influence, came to regard themselves as God's purifying army and Münzer as the "sword of Gideon." Münzer, from his base in Mühlhausen, issued broadsides proclaiming his completely radicalized theological and social views. He urged the destruction of all religious images, the sharing of property in common, and the immediate establishment of God's kingdom on earth. Vilifying Luther as "Doctor Liar, the Wittenberg Pope," Münzer was in turn denounced by Luther: "Anyone who has seen Münzer can say that he has seen the devil at his worst." After the defeat of the peasants at Frankenhausen in 1525, Münzer was forced to recant his "errors" before being beheaded.

Further Reading on Thomas Münzer

Some English translations of Münzer's writings are in George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (1957). The best account of Münzer's life and thought is in George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962). On Münzer and the millenarian tradition see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), and Gordon Rupp, Patterns of Reformation (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Friesen, Abraham, Thomas Muentzer, a destroyer of the godless: the making of a sixteenth-century religious revolutionary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Gritsch, Eric W., Thomas Muentzer: a tragedy of errors, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

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