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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 8 — War of the Peasants

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A New Danger–German Peasantry–Their Oppressions–These grow Worse–The Reformation Seeks to Alleviate them–The Outbreak–The Reformation Accused–The Twelve Articles–These Rejected by the Princes–Luther's Course–His Admonitions to the Clergy and the Peasantry–Rebellion in Suabia–Extends to Franconia, etc.–The Black Forest–Peasant Army–Ravages–Slaughterings–Count Louis of Helfenstein–Extends to the Rhine–Universal Terror–Army of the Princes–Insurrection Arrested–Weinsberg–Retaliation–Thomas Munzer–Lessons of the Outbreak.

THE sun of the Reformation was mounting into the sky, and promising to fill the world with light. In a moment a cloud gathered, overspread the firmament, and threatened to quench the young day in the darkness of a horrible night.

The troubles that now arose had not been foreseen by Luther. That the Pope, whom the Reformation would despoil of the triple crown, with all the spiritual glory and temporal power attendant thereon, should anathematise it; that the emperor, whose scheme of policy and ambition it thwarted, should make war against it; and that the numerous orders of the mitre and the cowl should swell the opposition; was to be expected; but that the people, from whose eyes it was to tear the bandage of spiritual darkness, and from whose arms it was to rend the fetters of temporal bondage, should seek to destroy it, had not entered into Luther's calculations. Yet now a terrible blow–the greatest the Reformation had as yet sustained–came upon it, not from the Pope, nor from the emperor, but from the people.

The oppressions of the German peasantry had been growing for centuries. They had long since been stripped of the rude privileges their fathers enjoyed. They could no longer roam their forests at will, kill what game they pleased, and build their hut on whatever spot taste or convenience dictated. Not only were they robbed of their ancient rights, they were compelled to submit to new and galling restrictions. Tied to their native acres, in many instances, they were compelled, to expend their sweat in tilling the fields, and spin their blood in maintaining the quarrels of their masters. To temporal oppression was added ecclesiastical bondage. The small portion of earthly goods which the baron had left them, the priest wrung from them by spiritual threats, thus filling their cup of suffering to the brim. The power of contrast came to embitter their lot. While one part of Germany was sinking into drudgery and destitution, another part was rising into affluence and power. The free towns were making rapid strides in the acquisition of liberty, and their example taught the peasants the way to achieve a like independence–by combination. Letters and arts were awakening thought and prompting to effort. Last of all came the Reformation, and that great power vastly widened the range of human vision, by teaching the essential equality of all men, and weakening the central authority, or key-stone in the arch of Europe–namely, the Papacy. [1]

It was now evident to many that the hour had fully come when these wrongs, which dated from ancient times, but which had been greatly aggravated by recent events, must be redressed. The patience of the sufferers was exhausted; they had begun to feel their power; and if their fetters were not loosed by their masters, they would be broken by themselves, and with a blind rage and a destructive fury proportioned to the ignorance in which they had been kept, and the degradation into which they had been sunk. In the words of an eloquent writer and philosopher who flourished in an after-age, "they would break their chains on the heads of their oppressors. [2]

Mutterings of the gathering storm had already been heard. Premonitory insurrections and tumults had broken out in several of the German countries. The close of the preceding century had been marked by the revolt of the Boers in Holland, who paraded the country under a flag, on which was blazoned a gigantic cheese. The sixteenth century opened amid similar disturbances. Every two or three years there came a "new league," followed by a "popular insurrection." These admonished the princes, civil and spiritual, that they had no alternative, as regarded the future, but reformation or revolution. Spires, Wurtemberg, Carinthia, and Hungary were the successive theaters of these revolts, which all sprang from one cause–oppressive labor, burdens which were growing ever the heavier, and privileges which were waxing ever the narrower. The poor people, de-humanised by ignorance, knew but of one way of righting them-selves– demolishing the castles, wasting the lands, spoiling the treasures, and in some instances slaying the persons of their oppressors.

It was at this hour that the Reformation stepped upon the stage. It came with its healing virtue to change the hearts and tame the passions of men, and so to charm into repose the insurrectionary spirit which threatened to devastate the world. It accomplished its end so far; it would have accomplished it completely, it would have turned the hearts of the princes to their subjects, and the hearts of the people to their rulers, had it been suffered to diffuse itself freely among both classes. Even as it was, it brought with it a pause in these insurrectionary violences, which had begun to be common. But soon its progress was arrested by force, and then it was accused as the author of those evils which it was not permitted to cure. "See," said Duke George of Saxony, "what an abyss Luther has opened. He has reviled the Pope; he has spoken evil of dignities; he has filled the minds of the people with lofty notions of their own importance; and by his doctrines he has sown the seeds of universal disorder and anarchy. Luther and his Reformation are the cause of the Peasant-war."

Many besides Duke George found it convenient to shut their eyes to their own misdeeds, and to make the Gospel the scape-goat of calamities of which they themselves were the anthors. Even Erasmus upbraided Luther thus–"We are now reaping the fruits that you have sown."

Some show of reason was given to these accusations

by Thomas Munzer, who imported a religiuus element into this deplorable outbreak. Munzer was a professed disciple of the Reformation, but he held it to be unworthy of a Christian to be guided by any objective authority, even the Word of God. He was called to "liberty," and the law or limit of that "liberty" was his own inward light. Luther, he affirmed, by instituting ordinances and forms, had established another Popedom; and Munzer disliked the Popedom of Wittenberg even more than he did the Popedom of Rome. The political opinions of Munzer partook of a like freedom with his religious ones. To submit to princes was to serve Belials. We have no superior but God. The Gospel taught that all men were equal; and this he interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, into the democratic doctrine of equality of rank, and community of goods. "We must mortify the body," said he, "by fasting and simple clothing, look gravely, speak little, and wear a long beard."

"These and such-like things, says Sleidan, "he called the cross." [3] Such was the man who, girding on "the sword of Gideon," put himself at the head of the revolted peasantry. He inoculated them with his own visionary spirit, and taught them to aim at a liberty of which their own judgments or passions were the rule.

The peasants put their demands (January, 1525) into twelve articles. Considering the heated imaginations of those who penned them, these articles were reasonable and moderate. The insurgents craved restitution of certain free domains which had belonged to their ancestors, and certain rights of hunting and fishing which they themselves had enjoyed, but which had been taken from them. They demanded, further, a considerable mitigation of taxes, which burdened them heavily, and which were of comparatively recent imposition. They headed their claim of rights with the free choice of their ministers; and it was a further peculiarity of this document, that each article in it was supported by a text from Scripture. [4]

An enlightened policy would have conceded these demands in the main. Wise rulers would have said. "Let us make these minions free of the earth, of the waters, and of the forests, as their fathers were; from serfs let us convert them into free men. It is better that their skin should enrich, and their valor defend our territories, than that their blood should water them." Alas! there was not wisdom enough in the age to adopt such a course. Those on whom these claims were pressed said, "No," with their hands upon their swords.

The vessel of the Reformation was now passing between the Scylla of established despotism and the Charybdis of popular lawlessness. It required rare skill to steer it aright. Shall Luther ally his movement with that of the peasantry? We can imagine him under some temptation to essay ruling the tempest, in the hope of directing its fury to the overthrow of a system which he regarded as the parent of all the oppressions and miseries that filled Christendom, and had brought on at last this mighty convulsion. One less spiritual in mind, and with less faith in the inherent vitalities of the Reformation might have been seduced into linking his cause with this tempest. Luther shrank from such a course. He knew that to ally so holy a cause as the Reformation with a movement at best but political, would be to profane it; and that to borrow the sword of men in its behalf was the sure way to forfeit the help of that mightier sword which alone could will such a battle. The Reformation had its own path and its own weapons, to which if it adhered, it would assuredly triumph in the end. It would correct all wrongs, would explode all errors, and pacify all feuds, but only by propagating its own principles, and diffusing its own spirit among men. Luther, therefore, stood apart.

But this enabled him all the more, at the right moment, to come in effectively between the oppressor and the oppressed, and to tell a little of the truth to both. [5] Turning to the princes he reminded them of the long course of tyranny which they and their fathers had exercised over the poor people. To the bishops he spoke yet more plainly. They had hidden the light of the Gospel from the people; they had substituted cheats and fables for the doctrines of Revelation; they had lettered men by unholy vows, and fleeced them by unrighteous impositions, and now they were reaping as they had sowed. To be angry at the peasants, he told them, was to be guilty of the folly of the man who vents his passion against the rod with which he is struck instead of the hand that wields it. The peasantry was but the instrument in the hand of God for their chastisement.

Luther next addressed himself to the insurgents. He acknowledged that their complaints were not without cause, and thus he showed that he had a heart which could sympathize with them in their miseries, but he faithfully told them that they had taken the wrong course to remedy them. They would never mitigate their lot by rebellion; they must exercise Christian submission, and wait the gradual but certain rectification of their individual wrongs, and those of society at large, by the Divine, healing power of the Gospel. He sought to enforce his admonition by his own example. He had not taken the sword; he had relied on the sole instrumentality of the Gospel, and they themselves knew how much it had done in a very few years to shake the power of an oppressive hierarchy, with the political despotism that upheld it, and to ameliorate the condition of Christendom. No army could have accomplished half the work in double the time. He implored them to permit this process to go on. It is preachers, not soldiers–the Gospel, not rebellion, that is to benefit

the world. And he warned them that if they should oppose the Gospel in the name of the Gospel, they would only rivet the yoke of their enemies upon their neck. [6]

The courage of the Reformer is not less conspicuous than his wisdom, in speaking thus plainly to two such parties at such an hour. But Luther had but small thanks for his fidelity. The princes accused him of throwing his shield over rebellion, because he refused to pronounce an unqualified condemnation of the peasantry; and the peasants blamed him as truckling to the princes, because he was not wholly with the insurrection. Posterity has judged otherwise. At this, as at every other crisis, Luther acted with profound moderation and wisdom. His mediation failed, however, and the storm now burst.

The first insurrectionary cloud rolled up in Suabia, from beside the sources of the Danube. It made its appearance in the summer of 1524. The insurrectionary spirit ran like wildfire along the Danube, kindling the peasantry into revolt, and fining the towns with tumults, seditions, and terrors. By the end of the year Thuringia, Franconia, and part of Saxony were in a blaze. When the spring of 1525 opened, the conflagration spread wider still. It was now that the "twelve articles," to which we have referred above, were published, and became the standard for the insurgents to rally round. John Muller, of Bulbenbach, traversed the region of the Black Forest, attired in a red gown and a red cap, preceded by the tricolor–red, black, and white–and followed by a herald, who read aloud the "twelve articles," and demanded the adherence of the inhabitants of the districts through which he passed. The peasant army that followed him was continually reinforced by new accessions. Towns too feeble to resist these formidable bands, opened their gates at their approach, and not a few knights and barons, impelled by terror, joined their ranks.

The excitement of the insurgents soon grew into fury. Their march was no longer tumultuous simply, it had now become destructive and desolating. The country in their rear resembled the track over which all invading and plundering host had passed. Fields were trampled down, barns and storehouses were rifled, the castles of the nobility were demolished, and the convents were burned to the ground. [7]

More cruel violences than these did this army of insurgents inflict. They now began to dye their path with the blood of unhappy victims. They slaughtered mercilessly those who fell into their power. On Easter Day (April 16th, 1525) they surprised Weinsberg, in Suabia. Its garrison they condemned to death. The fate of its commander, Count Louis of Helfenstein, was heart-rending in the extreme. His wife, the natural daughter of the Emperor Maximilian, threw herself at the feet of the insurgents, and, holding her infant son in her arms, besought them, with a flood of tears, to spare her husband. [8] It was in vain. They lowered their pikes, and ran him through. [9] He fell pierced by innumerable wounds.

It seemed as if this conflagration was destined to rage till it had devoured all Christendom; as if the work of destruction would go on till all the fences of order were torn down, and all the symbols of authority defaced, and pause in its career only when it had issued in a universal democracy, in which neither rank nor property would be recognised. It extended on the west to the Rhine, where it stirred into tumult the towns of Spires, Worms, and Cologne, and infected the Palatinate with its fever of sanguinary vengeance. It invaded Alsace and Lorraine. It convulsed Bavaria, and Wurtemberg as far as the Tyrol. Its area extended from Saxony to the Alps. Bishops and nobles fled before it. The princes, taken, by surprise, were without combination and without spirit, [10] and, to use the language of Scripture, were "chased as the rolling thing before the whirlwind."

But soon they recovered from their stupor, and got together their forces. Albert, Count of Mansfeld, was the first to take the fieid, He was joined, with characteristic spirit and gallantry, by Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, who was soon followed by John, Elector of Saxony, and Henry, Duke of Brunswick, who all joined their forces to oppose the rebel boors. Had the matter rested with the Popish princes, the rebellion would have raged without resistance. On the 15th May, 1525, the confederate army came upon the rebel camp at Frankenhausen, where Munzer presided. Finding the rebels poorly armed, and posted behind a miserable barricade of a few wagons, they sent a messenger with an offer of pardon, on condition of laying down their arms. On Munzer's advice, the messenger was put to death. Both sides now prepared for battle. The leader of the peasant army, Munzer, addressed them in an enthusiastic and inflammatory harangue, bidding them not fear the army of tyrants they were about to engage; that the sword of the Lord and of Gideon would fight for them; and that they would this day experience a like miraculous deliverance as the Israelites at the Red Sea, as David when he encountered Goliath, and Jonathan when he attacked the garrison of the Philistines. "Be not afraid," said he, "of their great guns, for in my coat will I catch all the bullets which they shall shoot at you. See ye not how gracious God is unto us? Lift up your eyes, and see that rainbow in the clouds; for, seeing we have the same painted on our banner, God plainly declares by that representation which he shows us from on high that he will stand by us in the battle, and that he will utterly destroy our enemies. Fall on them courageously." [11]

Despite this assurance of victory, the rebel host, at the first onset, fled in the utmost confusion. Munzer was among the first to make his escape. He took refuge in a house near the

gate, where he was discovered after the battle, hid in the garret. He was committed to the custody of Duke George.

In this encounter 5,000 of the peasantry were slain, and thus the confederates were at liberty to move their forces into Franconia, where the insurrection still raged with great fury. The insurgents here burned above 200 castles, besides noblemen's houses and monasteries. They took the town of Wirtzburg, and besieged the castle; but Trusches coming upon them charged, discomfited, and put them to flight.

Luther raised his voice again, but this time to pronounce an unqualified condemnation on a movement which, from a demand for just rights, had become a war of pillage and murder. He called on all to gird on the sword and resist it. The confederate princes made George von Trusches general of their army. Advancing by the side of the Lake of Constance, and dividing his soldiers into three bodies, Trussches attacked the insurgents with vigor.

Several battles were fought, towns and fortresses were besieged; the peasantry contended with a furious bravery, knowing that they must conquer or endure a terrible revenge; but the arms of the princes triumphed. The campaign of this summer sufficed to suppress this formidable insurrection; but a terrible retaliation did the victors inflict upon the fanaticised hordes. They slaughtered them by tens of thousands on the battle-field; they cut them down as they fled; and not unfrequently did they dispatch in cold blood those who had surrendered on promise of pardon. The lowest estimate of the number that perished is 50,000, other accounts raise it to 100,000. When we consider the wide area over which the insurrection extended, and the carnage with which it was suppressed, we shall probably be of opinion that the latter estimate is nearer the truth.

A memorable vengeance was inflicted on Weinsberg, the scene of the death of Count Helfenstein. His murderers were apprehended and executed. The death of one of them was singularly tragic. He was tied to the stake with a chain, that was long enough to permit him to run about. Trusches and other persons of quality then fetched wood, and, strewing it all about, they kindled it into a cruel blaze. As the wretched man bounded wildly round and round amid the blazing faggots, the princes stood by and made sport of his tortures. [12] The town itself was burned to the ground. Munzer, the eclesiastical leader, who had fired the peasantry by harangues, by portents, by assurances that their enemies would be miraculously destroyed, and by undertaking "to catch all the bullets in his sleeve," [13] after witnessing the failure of his enterprise, was taken and decapitated. Prior to execution he was taken before George, Duke of Saxony, and Landgrave Philip. On being asked why he had misled so many poor people to their ruin, he replied that "he had done only his duty." The landgrave was at pains to show him that sedition and rebellion are forbidden in the Scriptures, and that Christians are not at liberty to avenge their wrongs by their own private authority. To this he was silent. On the rack he shrieked and laughed by turns; but when about to die he openly acknowledged his error and crimes. By way of example his head was stuck upon a pole in the open fields. [14]

Such horrible ending had the insurrection of the peasants. Ghastly memorials marked the provinces where this tempest had passed; fields wasted, cities overturned, castles and dwellings in ruins, and, more piteous still, corpses dangling from the trees, or gathered in heaps in the fields. The gain remained with Rome. The old worship was in some places restored, and the yoke of feudal bondage was more firmly riveted than before upon the necks of the people.

Nevertheless, the outbreak taught great lessons to the world, worth a hundredfold all the sufferings endured, if only they had been laid to heart. The peasant-war illustrated the Protestant movement by showing how widely it differed from Romanism, in both its origin and its issues. The insurrection did not manifest itself, or in but the mildest type, at Wittenberg and in the places permeated by the Wittenberg movement. When it touched ground which the Reformation had occupied, it became that instant powerless. It lacked air to fan it; it found no longer inflammable materials to kindle into a blaze. The Gospel said to this wasting conflagration, "Thus far, but no farther." Could any man doubt that if Bavaria and the neighboring provinces had been in the same condition with Saxony, there would have been no peasant-war?

This outbreak taught the age, moreover, that Protestantism could no more be advanced by popular violence than it could be suppressed by aristocratic tyranny. It was independent of both; it must advance by its own inherent might along its own path. In fine, this terrible outbreak gave timely warning to the world of what the consequences would be of suppressing the Reformation. It showed that underneath the surface of Christendom there was an abyss of evil principles and fiendish passions, which would one day break through and rend society in pieces, unless they were extinguished by a Divine influence. Munzer and his "inward light" was but the precursor of Voltaire and the "illuminati" of his school. The peasants' war of 1525 was the first opening of "the fountains of the great deep." The "Terror" was first seen stalking through Germany. It slumbered for two centuries while the religious and political power of Europe was undergoing a process of slow emasculation. Then the "Terror" again awoke, and the blasphemies, massacres, and wars of the French Revolution overwhelmed Europe.

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