Luther and the Right Wing of the Reformation (2)

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the reformers had the unenviable task of battling Rome on the left and the radicals on the right. They were required to fight on two fronts, no easy task. That they steered, for the most part, a middle course for the most part between these two extremes is a monument to the power of the grace of God. When on God’s clock the time comes for church reformation, nothing can prevent it from happening—though it may seem to be ever so hopeless.Looking at it from our point of view, the radicals almost succeeded in stealing the Reformation. In the early history, when Luther was really only feeling his way, uncertain what direction to follow in the work of reform, the radicals struck with force and fury at the heart of the reformatory movement—in Wittenberg itself. No one was there to resist them. Carlstadt had joined their forces; Melanchthon was too timid; others, men faithful to Lutheran principles, stood wringing their hands but totally at a loss as to what to do. And Luther was in hiding in Wartburg. From Wartburg he came, by his own decision, against the wishes of the prince who had specifically forbad him to leave the castle. He stood alone in the gap. For perhaps the one and only time in his life, he did not come roaring out of Wartburg to unleash all his heavy artillery. He came secretly, spent three days incognito, and only then assumed the responsibilities of stopping the radicals in their tracks. And he did it simply by preaching, nothing more, but also nothing less.

We may be thankful that God gave the church this man Luther, for if the radicals had succeeded in stealing the Reformation, the new edifice, so carefully and painstakingly being built, would have gone up in the smoke of the battlefield soaked with the blood of all those desiring reform.

One characteristic of the radicals, though not of all the Anabaptists, was their mysticism. They built their theology and their Christian morals on direct and immediate revelation to them by the Spirit through dreams, visions, and private inner conversations between the human heart and God. As is so often the case with those who think they are specially favored with revelations through special divine illumination and inner light, these Spiritualists became more and more radical. Some began to teach that no education was necessary, for all the Christian needed to know was in the Bible. Others became increasingly persuaded that they represented the kingdom of Christ and had to bring about the realization of that kingdom, even if force was necessary. They opposed earthly government, military service, private property, the oath, infant baptism, and all externals in worship.

But all these radicals had in common the notion that Christ was about to return to establish His kingdom here on earth, and these radicals had been entrusted with the obligation to prepare the way by establishing that kingdom prior to Christ’s coming, so that it would be there ready for Christ when He actually came. They were premillenarian. They looked for Christ to establish an earthly kingdom. They would have it ready and waiting when Christ came.

We shall discuss the lives of two of these radicals in this article. Agreeing in the fundamentals of their position, they nevertheless went different ways.

Thomas Münzer

Thomas Münzer was born in 1490 (it seemed to be the year for the birth of radicals, for several of them came into the world in this year) in the German town of Stolberg. He studied in Leipzig and Frankfurt and became a gifted linguist, a literary scholar, and a learned theologian. He early came to appreciate and believe the ideas developed by Martin Luther, and received a pastorate in the city of Zwickau (1520). When Carlstadt made his move to assume the leadership of the reformation in Wittenberg (while Luther was hiding in a castle in Wartburg), two radicals, Nicholas Storck, a weaver, and Marcus Stübner, who had studied under Melanchthon, came from Zwickau, attracted by the possibility of mischief. Already by 1520 Zwickau was a hotbed of mysticism, and the radicals in Germany became known as the Zwickau prophets. Thomas was one of them. He too paid a visit to Wittenberg during the iconoclastic riots, but fled when Luther appeared on the scene.

I must interject at this point another aspect of the reformation in Germany which is important for an understanding of what follows.

I refer to the fact that Luther’s doctrines and reforms had a special appeal to the peasants in Germany. There were, I think, especially three reasons for this. Luther, though an educated man, nevertheless could talk in the language of the peasants and easily bring himself down to their level. He was their man, one of them who understood them and spoke to them in their own coarse and uninhibited German. The second reason was that a keystone in Luther’s thought was the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The lowest peasant, when he believed, Luther said, became a prophet, a priest, and a king in his own life. This was heady tonic if the true nature of such an office were not clearly understood. In the third place, the peasants in Germany, as well as most other places in Europe, were terribly oppressed. The remnants of the old feudal system gave princes enormous powers to exercise over the peasants, and these poor struggling people had all they could do to keep body and soul together for 35 or 40 years, when they died a premature death.

Put all those things together and one has a huge pile of tinder-dry brush. Add the spark of Anabaptist fire and you have a conflagration. When the radicals preached their inner-revelation doctrine and scorned learning, when they spoke of the peasants as being closer to God than the princes because the peasants lacked learning, when they were convinced that their calling was to prepare the way for Christ by establishing His kingdom here in the world, and when thousands upon thousands of peasants, moved by the rhetoric of a Luther, looked upon the Reformation as an opportunity to overthrow the princes’ power and rule themselves, all Germany burst into one mighty holocaust—a tragedy known in history as the Peasants’ War.

While first the peasants were successful in their rampaging, rioting, and slaughter, soon the princes organized their armies, united their forces, and with Luther at their backs urging them to restore order, they destroyed the peasants in the Battle of Frankenhousen on May 15, 1525. Luther hated disorder, had preached for years that the Word of God was the power of reformation, and clearly understood that no matter how much one could sympathize with the terrible plight of the peasants, rebellion against authority was contrary to the will of God. It was a sad day in the history of the Reformation. The peasants lost confidence in Luther, and Luther lost confidence in the peasants. This never changed in Luther’s lifetime.

Münzer was the chief architect of the revolution. With his fiery preaching, promises of a high place in the kingdom of Christ, and with his vision of deliverance from the oppression of greedy princes, he stirred up the people to a frenzy.

Thomas Münzer was captured, tortured until he recanted his heretical views, and then unceremoniously put to death. He was 35 years old.

John of Leyden

There were other radicals who left their imprint on Europe. Hans Hut engaged in that favorite pastime of radicals: the prediction of the date of the Lord’s return. He claimed that this momentous event would take place on Pentecost Sunday, 1528. He was imprisoned for leading people astray, and was burned alive when he set the prison on fire in an effort to escape.

Melchior Hoffmann was another such radical, but his story is intertwined with that of John of Leyden.

John of Leyden was much like Thomas Münzer in his beliefs. He was also a radical of the worst stripe and firmly believed not only that the kingdom of Christ was to be established on earth, but that it was the solemn responsibility of those belonging to that kingdom to overthrow existing kingdoms, by force if necessary. John was from the Lowlands and remains a blot on the history of that country to this day.

John was born in 1509. He soon turned to the most radical teachings of the radical reformation. He gathered a circle of people about him who were persuaded by his fiery style and somewhat charismatic personality. The establishment of Christ’s kingdom here on earth in anticipation of the Lord’s coming required that the true believers go back to early apostolic Christianity and practice religion according to the early church.

John had learned his lessons well, for he had learned them at the feet of Melchior Hoffmann. Hoffmann believed himself to be one of the two witnesses mentioned inRevelation 11, and claimed to be Elijah of whom the prophet Malachi had spoken in the last words of his prophecy. He also believed that Strasburg was to be the new Jerusalem and the seat of Christ’s universal kingdom. Direct revelation was to be the pipeline through which the citizens knew the will of God. Hoffmann asked to be imprisoned, thinking that this would make a greater impression on Christ, who was to return at any moment. He died in prison. John of Leyden, whose actual name was John Matthys, a baker from Holland, seized the opportunity. If Hoffmann was the first witness, then he, John, was the second. If Hoffmann was Elijah, then he was Enoch. He moved into Strasburg and took Melchior’s place, but soon moved the “new Jerusalem” from Strasburg to Münster.

There John set up his kingdom. And he was king. He called himself “King of Righteousness” and proceeded to set up a theocracy in Münster. Three times weekly he appeared in the market place in royal robes to converse with his subjects, receive their homage, and direct their lives by means of the revelations given him by God. He established a communism, for this is what the early church practiced. He introduced polygamy and took the lead himself in marrying a number of women. The excesses which went on in that city under the guise of its being the kingdom of Christ are beyond telling.

Spain was still the ruling power in the Lowlands, but in this instance Spanish and Protestant forces joined to dig out this rot from the nation. The city held out for a long time, but was taken when some of its own citizens betrayed it. The carnage unleashed by the capture of the city cannot be told. John himself was caught and tortured beyond endurance until at last death rescued him from his tormentors. The year was 1535. John was 26 years old.


It seems to me that two remarks are necessary to bring this article on the radical movement in the Reformation to a close.

The first remark is that the radical movement had a profound effect on Luther. Earlier I mentioned that the Peasants’ War brought about a break between Luther and the common people which was not healed in Luther’s lifetime. But Luther’s commitment to the objective Word of God was unwavering. Because these radicals, who had all but destroyed Wittenberg and who had stirred up the peasants to war, proclaimed a despised gospel of subjective illumination, Luther’s hatred of their views was fierce and unmitigated. He despised all subjectivism and took every opportunity to oppose it.But I refer to something else. Some scholars contend that Luther’s own wrong view of the Lord’s Supper and his cold rejection of the Zwinglians and Calvinists, who differed from him, was due to the lessons he had learned of the dangers of mysticism. Let me explain. Luther wanted the objective Word of Christ to be not only the content but also the power of all preaching. He wanted the same for the sacraments and therefore clung to an objective presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament. Hence his consubstantiation. Luther studied the views of the Swiss theologians, saw that they made the statement of the Lord “This is my body” a metaphorical expression, realized that the Swiss theologians made Christ’s presence in the bread and wine a spiritual presence, and concluded that they too were guilty of the same subjectivizing of the Word of Christ as the radicals. Fearful of where such theology would lead, he rejected their position out of hand.

The second remark that needs to be made is that there is a reference to these radical Anabaptists in our own Confession of Faith. Although this confession was written in 1561, nearly thirty years after the debacle at Münster, the Roman Catholic authorities were painting all protestants with the same brush and insisting that all protestants were as rebellious and politically treacherous as John of Leiden and his followers. They should, therefore, be eradicated.

To distinguish between these radicals and the true Calvinistic protestants in the Lowlands, Guido deBrès added to Article 36 these words: “Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God hath established among men.”