Müntzer, Thomas (1488/9-1525)

Jump to navigation Jump to search

1957 Article

[These two articles reflect the tension between the monogenesis interpretation of Anabaptist origins of the mid-20th century (Friedmann) and the polygenesis interpretation of Anabaptist that emerged in the late 20th century (Packull).]

Engraving from Apocalypsis, or The revelation of certain notorious advancers of heresie. London, 1655.
Scan provided  by the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Thomas Müntzer (Muentzer, Muntzer) was perhaps the most controversial figure of the period of the German Reformation, a man who has been called at various times the "beginner of the great Anabaptist movement," the forerunner of modern socialism, the beginner of the mystical-spiritualistic movement in Germany, a religious socialist, the leader in the Peasants' War 1525, and other such designations, none of which really fit this versatile man who during the decisive last five years of his life (1520-1525) changed his position almost from year to year. Karl Holl's assertion that most of the catchwords or slogans of the German Reformation during its formative period were made current by this fiery and restless mind is acceptable. Noble and deep thoughts mingle in his writings with rather coarse and rude expressions, not to say offensive passages; genuine spirituality alternates with fanciful inspirationism. At the end, in spite of his position as a priest and preacher, one may legitimately ask: Was he still a Christian?

The literature about Müntzer is extensive but not too enlightening, providing for each author an occasion for personal interpretation of an ambiguous personality, thereby using categories often wanting in precision. Praise and blame, love and hatred speak from these writings, but no author seems to be able to be fully neutral and detached. But since Müntzer has quite persistently been called the "originator of the great Anabaptist movement" it is desirable that a careful and objective study be made of his relation to Anabaptism.

Thomas Müntzer was born in Stolberg in the Harz Mountains ca. 1488-1489. He received a good academic education which familiarized him with the Bible and the mystics, and with Plato and St. Augustine and the classic Christian writers, which were required in higher education at that time. He had a brilliant and dynamic mind. In 1513 he became a Catholic priest, was soon promoted as provost (Propst) of a monastery, and in 1519 he became father-confessor of a nunnery. It was about that time he also became acquainted with Martin Luther. In 1520 he was a priest in Zwickau (Saxony), where he met Nicolaus Storch, the inspirationist and "'prophet" who proclaimed that the Bible is secondary to the direct revelation of God to His chosen servants. Müntzer felt akin to this viewpoint and began to develop his own doctrine of the "spirit." Soon unrest and disturbances set in (they were to follow this man from now on wherever he chanced to preach) and he had to flee the city in April 1521.

Next Müntzer was in Prague (until February 1522), where he drew up the "Prague Manifesto" in four different versions, two in German, one in Czech, and one in Latin. This Manifesto was the real program for his further life. He wanted to start a "new church," the church of the spirit. He called it the "spirit of the fear of God." The German and Czech versions of the Manifesto appealed to the plain people (Am Volk zweifle ich nicht) ; the Latin version, much milder, addressed itself to the scholars, the humanistically educated readers. The Manifesto is a visionary document, but like all of Müntzer's later writings is confused and without clear-cut orientation. Certainly its program was not Scriptural in any concrete sense. Müntzer had little success in Bohemia, the old land of John Hus, and as he left it he began a period of restless wandering. He passed through Wittenberg during Luther's absence at the Wartburg and lodged in the home of Karlstadt, who was sympathetic to some of his ideas but unwilling to go all the way with him.

From Easter of 1523 until August 1524 Müntzer was a priest or preacher (things were still fluid in these years) in Allstedt, a small town in the Harz area, in the neighborhood of rich ore mines which produced a restless class of miners (Bergknappen), always eager to promote social changes. His sermons were attended allegedly by 2,000 hearers even though Allstedt had hardly more than a few hundred population. In Allstedt he now wrote a number of liturgical tracts concerning (infant) baptism and the German Mass. These liturgical writings are a clear indication that his reforms were a deviation from Catholicism in degree only, not in substance. He did not propose the establishment of a completely new church. He distributed the sacraments in both elements (instead of the one of the Catholic practice) and read the Mass in German interspersed by German hymns instead of using the Latin—that is all. As for baptism the records are contradictory; some say that every two months he baptized all the infants, others that he postponed baptism until the children were six or seven years of age. He never in his life baptized adults.

In Allstedt he married, like Luther, a former nun, and reared children. This fact seems to indicate his break with the old church, but one cannot claim that the new church in Allstedt was Protestant or Lutheran in any specific sense. The Reformation was still in its formative years. For the time being he had not yet broken with Luther; in fact, he sent him a rather conciliatory letter on 9 July 1523. In this same year he also wrote a letter to his brethren in Stollberg. Of all his writings this letter breathes a spirit nearest to the evangelical spirit of the later Anabaptists. It is the only document of this kind and has been carefully analyzed by Anne-Marie Lohmann. Unfortunately, he soon pursued other directions: in the winter of 1523-1524 he founded the Allstedt League, a strange conspiratorial society which was to carry out the Prague program, if necessary even with violence. Here Müntzer lost altogether his sense of reality and embarked on a road of romantic fanaticism. Luther recognized this correctly when he called Müntzer a Schwärmer (fanatic). The new church should be radical; "ungodly people" should not be allowed to exist. Soon a nearby Catholic chapel went up in flames.

The two princes of Saxony, Duke Johann and Prince Elector Frederick the Wise, were embarrassed by Müntzer and did not know what to do, being themselves in favor of the Lutheran reforms. Therefore as they passed through Allstedt they invited Müntzer to preach for them and explain his theology. On 13 July 1524 he preached in the castle in the presence of the princes his famous "Sermon on Daniel." In it he claimed that the authorities were given the sword to eradicate the ungodly, but insisted that if they did not do their duty the sword would be taken away from them (Daniel 7) and given to the people; "for the ungodly have no right to live except as the elect grant it to them." Obviously the princes were now even more confused than before and asked Luther for advice. No persecution was considered for the moment, as Luther still advised lenience. But unrest in Allstaedt prompted Müntzer to flee at night over the city walls. On 15 August 1524 he arrived in Mühlhausen, Thuringia, and soon became a preacher in a church here. This city was to become his real misfortune, for here he met another preacher, Heinrich Pfeiffer, who might be called a real social-revolutionary comparable to John Ball of the English Peasants' War of 1381. Soon the Mühlhausen city council was overthrown and things looked almost like events ten years later in Münster. But after two months, early in October 1524, Müntzer had to flee again. This time he turned south, stopping in Nürnberg, where he may have met Hans Denck, the rector of the School at St. Sebald's. Müntzer's fiery mysticism might have impressed this sensitive man, but his stay was too short to produce any major influence upon him. In Nürnberg Müntzer also had (later, most likely) two new tracts printed: the Hochverursachte Schutzrede (a vitriolic pamphlet in which he called Luther das geistlose, sanftlebende Fleisch zu Wittenberg) which attacked the Protestant doctrine of original sin, and the Ausgetrückte Emplössung des falschen Glaubens, of which more is to be said later.

November and December 1524 Müntzer spent in the South, in Griessen in the Klettgau (Swabia) near Schaffhausen, and in Basel, Switzerland, where he was the guest of Oecolampadius and Hugwald. Not much is known about these eight weeks of restless wandering, but it may be assumed that they merely increased his "prophetic" fancies. Bullinger's claim that he met and converted Hubmaier on this trip is without any foundation and is rather unlikely, even though Griessen is only 15 miles distant from Waldshut, where Hubmaier was living.

In February 1525 Müntzer was back in Mühlhausen, to which city Heinrich Pfeiffer had returned by the end of December 1524. At this point Müntzer placed upon the rebellious peasants his last hope and chance of carrying out his apocalyptic program. Between February and May of this year he may rightly be called the preacher of the peasants, encouraging them mainly during the last three weeks to violent action—expecting at any moment the great crisis of mankind. On 15 May the tragic battle at Frankenhausen was fought (or rather not fought by the confused and discouraged peasants), followed by the senseless massacre which ended the Peasants' War in Thuringia. Müntzer, who tried to hide, was caught, imprisoned, and soon tortured to make him yield a full confession of all his misdeeds. He recanted, accepted the Mass according to Catholic rites, and wrote a farewell letter to his followers in Mühlhausen which is a complete turnabout from his former position. On 27 May 1525 he was beheaded. His symbol and heraldic sign had always been "a red cross and a naked sword."

The biographical sketch has indicated that Müntzer could not possibly have been the "beginner and originator of the great Anabaptist movement" (as in our day Böhmer and Holl have claimed). In view, however, of the persistency of this claim further discussion is needed. We may distinguish here between the factual and pragmatic evidence on the one hand, and on the other, the possible influences from the viewpoint of a history of ideas where evidence is usually of a more indirect nature.

Factual evidence for Müntzer's connection with the Anabaptists is almost completely lacking. Harold S. Bender has proved this with great thoroughness. The legend of such causal influences started with Bullinger in his Der Widertoufferen Ursprung (Zürich, 1560), where he claims that Müntzer was the beginner of Anabaptism "down there in Saxony." That was written 35 years after Müntzer's death and naturally without any documentation. Bullinger also says that Hubmaier was "completely confused by Müntzer" (er sey durch ihn ganz verkehrt worden), again without any proof. The fact is that Bullinger in none of his earlier books ever mentioned such a theory, and it must be assumed that he more or less invented it later. Bender conjectures that he did so for the purpose of freeing the Zürich Reformed Church from any "reproach" that Anabaptism had its origin in Zürich—which it actually had.

Unfortunately, Bullinger's invention was an appealing theory and has been repeated many times since, in part perhaps because the Müntzer story is so much better known than the story of the early Anabaptists. Neither Holl nor Böhmer seems to have been very familiar with the origins of the Anabaptists (e.g., Conrad Grebel); hence they were inclined to follow the pattern which was first set by Martin Luther, namely, to lump together all nonconformists, "left-wing" groups and individuals, as fanatics (Schwärmer), without much discrimination of categories. Since the tragic events of Münster (1534-1535) provided evidence that violence could also develop in connection with some forms of Anabaptism (though not with the evangelical type) there was little hesitation to give Bullinger full credence.

What are the facts? Müntzer himself never baptized adults; in fact he somewhat minimized the significance of baptism in general. "Neither Mary, the mother of God, nor the disciples of Christ had been baptized with water." True baptism takes place only through the Holy Spirit. To be sure, he also says, "As they made babes into Christians, Christians became children," but nowhere does he follow up this idea, and for all practical purposes continued to baptize children, either as infants or as six- and seven-year-olds. In 1524 he published a new baptismal liturgy, Von der Tauff wie man die heldt (dealing with infant baptism of course). Anne-Marie Lohmann, who carefully analyzed the issue, says that adult baptism was definitely contrary to Müntzer's basic ideas. Nevertheless, she too speculates that it was perhaps "Müntzer's interpretation of the cross as a sort of baptism" which might have influenced people who were then seeking "an external symbol for the inner baptism of the cross." . . . "All this is, of course, but a conjecture and lacks any proof. . . ." It is not very clear how this connection is to be understood.

Now as to concrete contacts. First of all, the very first act of adult baptism took place in Zürich in January 1525, when contacts with Müntzer were out of the question. His sojourn in the Klettgau in December 1524 did not produce any known contact with the Conrad Grebel circle in Zürich. Moreover the long letter by Grebel to Müntzer of 5 September 1524 shows that Grebel and his friends were familiar with Müntzer's two earlier tracts, Von dem getichten Glauben, and Protestation odder Empbietung (both written in Allstedt, 1524). Both these tracts were still rather moderate in tone, the former dealing in the main with the idea of the "cross," the other criticizing infant baptism. Grebel now wrote that he was glad to find in these tracts some familiar ideas and he welcomed Müntzer as a brother in the spirit. But then he reproached Müntzer on two points: one, his emphasis upon church liturgy (Deutsche Messe), and two, because of certain rumors that Müntzer was advocating the "sword." This, the Grebel friends emphatically opposed and therefore warned the unknown "brother" not to continue in this way. Müntzer never received this letter, and the Grebel circle had no further knowledge about Müntzer's activities. Thus nothing can be deduced from this letter, except that no real contact existed and that Zürich went ahead with their new brotherhood of regenerated Christians independently of anything outside their circle. One indirect contact between Müntzer and the Grebel group was the visit of a brother of Hans Huiuf (one of the Grebel group in Zürich), who came from Halle to Zürich and had known Müntzer.

The same holds true with regard to Müntzer's supposed influence on Hubmaier (who was baptized by Reublin at Easter of 1525), Bullinger's claim notwithstanding.

Three additional possible contacts must be investigated: Hans Denck, Hans Hut, and Melchior Rinck. Müntzer's contact with Denck in Nürnberg, if it took place at all (Fellmann denies it), was very brief and superficial; moreover it had nothing to do with Denck's later turn to Anabaptism, and can therefore be dismissed. The situation with regard to Hans Hut, however, is different. He must be called a former friend of Müntzer who supposedly spent a few days in Hut's home in Bibra. Hut then received a manuscript from Müntzer, the Ausgetrückte Emplössung des falschen Glaubens (1524), and was asked to manage its publication. (Hut as a book peddler might have been better acquainted with printers willing to risk such a publication.) Hut thereupon approached the journeymen of the Nürnberg printer Hans Hergott, who in the absence of the master actually printed the pamphlet clandestinely. When the councilmen of Nürnberg heard of it, the journeymen and Hut were imprisoned and the book edition was destroyed. (Only one or two copies survived.) In his court trial in 1527 Hut openly admitted this act. Was he then a Müntzerite? To some extent, yes, mainly with regard to Müntzer's apocalyptic expectations that the end of this world-aeon had drawn near and that the new era was about to come at any moment, indicated by wars and rumors of war. Müntzer's apocalypticism seems to have appealed to Hut's frame of mind, but not his doctrine of the sword. At the battle of Frankenhausen, Hut was present; whether as an itinerant book peddler or as a curious onlooker is hard to say. He had no part whatever in the events and soon left. A year later, in the spring of 1526, in Augsburg, he was baptized by Hans Denck and became truly a "new man."

It might be argued that in spite of his conversion, Hut nevertheless promoted certain Müntzerite ideas throughout his itinerant activities as an Anabaptist missionary up to his early death in 1527.

What about this argument with its crucial bearing on the question of Müntzer's relation to later Anabaptism? True enough, Hut preached "the cross," that is, the suffering church, and in this message sounded somewhat like a Müntzerite. But an analysis reveals that it is only the key word "cross" which is the same as with Müntzer; its meaning, however, is very different with Hut, as will be shown presently. The same holds true with regard to Hut's "spiritualism," i.e., the idea that the Word of God can be interpreted rightly only by those who are filled by a spirit akin to that of the Holy Scriptures. No word of direct inspiration or of dreams can be found in all of Hut's teaching, as far as is known. Again, the key word "spirit" is the same, but the content is different. If Hut was a "spiritualist," he was a Biblical one, as were Michael Sattler and all the early Anabaptists, but he really was not a spiritualist at all. Müntzer, on the other hand, was an inspirationist (like David Joris a decade or so later), and understood the idea of the "spirit" much more subjectively than any Anabaptist. To him the "inward scripture" outbade the "Holy Scripture." Lydia Müller thinks that this was also the position of at least some leading Anabaptists but cannot prove it. Anabaptists at no time minimized the unconditional Biblical faith.

Finally, it is known that Hut passionately opposed the "sword." In Nikolsburg in 1526 he debated this issue with Hubmaier, who defended the use of the sword under certain conditions. When Hut saw the impasse he left Nikolsburg, continuing his Anabaptist mission of cross and love. Incidentally, Müntzer, his former friend, had very little to say concerning this Christian love; Lohmann expressly states that "the idea of love drops inadvertently into the background," all the more when Müntzer preached the needed eradication of the ungodly. Thus Hut cannot be a useful witness for Bullinger's theory and its late defenders, even though some common key words actually appear in both camps. It is their meaning which matters, not the terms as such.

There remains one last contact with later Anabaptism: Melchior Rinck. This contact is a real one. Rinck was openly a Müntzerite, and in fact he even boasted that God had spared him at Frankenhausen that he might carry out Müntzer's plans more successfully and bring them to a happy end. He apparently owed to Müntzer his first spiritual awakening and was grateful for that, but perhaps understood only part of Müntzer's message. Rinck's own later writings do not continue Müntzer's fancies concerning dreams and the violent overthrow of the ungodly. After becoming an Anabaptist in May 1527 at Worms as a result of his contact with Hans Denck and Jakob Kautz, he became one of the most effective leaders of early Anabaptism in Thuringia, until he too experienced the very cross of all true confessors in martyrdom sometime after 1545, having been in prison since 1531. In no way may he be called a "beginner" of Anabaptism or even one of its leading figures. And after becoming an Anabaptist he shows no trace whatever of Müntzer's ideas. He could not have been a channel of transmission of these ideas into Anabaptism.

But what about indirect influences on later Anabaptism by Müntzer's writings? A brief review of some of the major points of possible contact and similarity in the realm of ideas between Müntzer and the Anabaptists, in other words, continuities of Müntzer's ideas, reveals the following facts.

Cross. To Müntzer the cross meant two things: outwardly human suffering through sickness, poverty, and the hostility of people; and inwardly Anfechtung, i.e., doubt, error, and unbelief. A "cross" of such a kind is utterly foreign to the Anabaptists, who become "disciples of Christ" only through rebirth and determination to follow the commandments of Christ. On the other hand, suffering for the sake of truth, the idea of a "church under the cross" (Grebel) never occurred to Müntzer, who had no revealed truth in the first place to be witnessed to and no church either. Thus even though the term "cross" appears frequently in Müntzer's writings sometimes also called "the bitter Christ" (vs. the "sweet Christ" of Luther)—it means something different. When he vaguely indicates that whoever experiences the cross experiences inner spiritual baptism that idea is not in itself to be equated with the Anabaptist doctrine of the cross.

Spirit. To a certain extent all early Anabaptists had a good share of spiritualism in their understanding of the Holy Scriptures; but the latter remained the rock foundation upon which they built their faith. No fanatical dreaming can ever be found among them, and Lydia Müller's claim that the appreciation of the Scriptural Word drops into the background with the Anabaptists just as with Müntzer is simply a misstatement, since she confounds the occasional Anabaptist term "inner word" with Müntzer's inspirationism.

Gelassenheit, i.e., yielding to the will of God and not following one's own imaginations, was a frequent term in Müntzer's earlier writings when he was still under the influence of the German mystics, and also a central idea with the Anabaptists. Müntzer had learned a great deal from these German mystics, through whose writings he apparently grew spiritually in the earlier period of his life. But soon he gave it up; it was "basically against his very nature," which nature was unrest, passion, activity, and challenge. A man who wanted to kill all the ungodly could have little Gelassenheit, even though he might preach it as an ideal.

Adult baptism. Concerning this little needs to be added. Müntzer was not interested in it (as so many radical spiritualists were not), and would hardly have understood its new meaning with the Anabaptists as a sealing of the inner rebirth, making men determined to walk the narrow path of discipleship.

Lord's Supper. Remembering his liturgical tracts (Deutsche Messe) it becomes evident that to Müntzer the celebration lacked completely the Anabaptist meaning of a symbol of sharing, akin to the "love-feast" idea. Lohmann expressly states that Müntzer's tracts were extremely "conservative" in character, i.e., nearer to a modified Catholicism than to Lutheranism or any radical idea. For that reason he continued to the end to speak of the "Mass" and not of the Lord's Supper.

Church. This is perhaps the most difficult item of all, and has never been fully studied. Most authors think that here at least are to be found similarities with Anabaptism. The Anabaptist idea is that of a voluntary free church of genuine believers as opposed to the ecclesiastical institution of both Catholicism and Lutheranism (state church, people's church). A careful analysis, however, will destroy even this most persistent argument. To be sure, in the Prague Manifesto of 1521 Müntzer passingly said that in Bohemia the "new church" would arise. It was to be the church of the new aeon, the church without the ungodly, an apocalyptic vision, and no concrete reality. This is theory. But what was Müntzer's practice? First, he remained to the very end of his life a priest-preacher both in Allstedt and in Mühlhausen city churches, and hence never actually opposed an institution of that kind (either Catholic or Lutheran in nature). Second, his Allstedt League was anything but an Anabaptist brotherhood; it was rather a secret society to promote the imminently expected kingdom of God by means of wiping out, if need be by the sword, all (Catholic) superstition—a chapel was burned down—and all ungodliness. Of a restitution of the primitive church in the Anabaptist sense there is no trace whatever, since Müntzer completely lacked the idea or vision of discipleship and obedience to the Word of God.

It is true that at times Müntzer also taught that the true reign of Christ could come only by genuine "kenosis," that is, emptying oneself of all worldly desires and humbling oneself to the will of God. Rut then he contradicted himself by claiming (at another place) that those who were prepared by the "fear of God" were now entitled to reign and rule, for they alone knew the will of God. Obviously no doctrine of the church could follow from such a confused theology. Since he continued as a state church preacher, it cannot be claimed that the "believers' church" originated with Müntzer.

Eschatology. This may be omitted here, since it is but marginal with the Anabaptists. Hans Hut, to be sure, was much attracted by it, but when it came to preaching the new birth and discipleship he voluntarily restrained himself and kept his apocalyptic ideas silent. With Müntzer it was the exact opposite. Only by these ideas about the change of the world did he find an inner justification for all his violent and revolutionary actions.

The writings of Hans Denck have recently been carefully studied by the editor of the new 1956 edition of Denck, Walter Fellmann, for evidence of possible literary influence of Müntzer's writings on Denck. Surprisingly Fellmann found twenty-four passages in Denck which echo Müntzer's terms or phrases, and concludes that "the literary dependence on Müntzer's mysticism is noticeable." J. J. Kiwiet thinks that this may be explainable through a possible common source of both, i.e., the writings of the German mystics, particularly Theologia deutsch, rather than a borrowing by Denck from Müntzer. Grete Mecenseffy ("Die Herkunft des oberösterreichischen Täufertums") believes that Hans Hut's mystical ideas had their origin in Müntzer's writings. Granting both Fellmann's and Mecenseffy's point, it remains only to say that the mystical ideas were not the essence of Anabaptism and that no evidence has been brought forward which would contradict any of the points made above.

In summary we may agree with Anne-Marie Lohmann that the years 1524-25 appallingly show how this erstwhile mystically minded man, who knew so much about suffering and human tragedy, became more and more shallow (Verflachung). Since all his six major tracts and sermons date from 1524, it is after all this Müntzer whom we have to consider first, not the man of the Prague Manifesto (1521), confused and equivocal though this document also appears. This weakening of Müntzer's former spiritual position is a tragedy in itself, the result not of any "kenosis" but of a self-centered and romantic fanaticism.

That Müntzer represented a tremendous spiritual power for his time, being a passionate awakener, is true enough. That he was a "beginner of Anabaptism" in any sense whatever is, however, just as incorrect as the opposite claim which sees in him a forerunner of modern socialism. Since his writings are contradictory, such attitudes might be read into them; but any such interpretation does not do justice to his true nature.

But what was Müntzer then, after all? Were it not for his activism, Müntzer might be placed beside David Joris, the inspirationist. This activism, however, with all its hazy orientation toward a goal to be achieved by the sword, brings him into the neighborhood of the "kingdom of Münster" of 1534-1535. Müntzer had little essential in common with evangelical Anabaptism, which arose when he was about to pass from the scene, and which became victorious simply by being a "church under the cross." -- Robert Friedmann

1990 Update


Thomas Müntzer remains one of the most controversial and important radical reformers. The article reproduced above refuted any connection between Müntzer and Anabaptism. It contrasted an image of Müntzer created by a historical tradition dependent on Luther with an ideal type of Anabaptism shaped by studies of the Swiss and Hutterian Brethren. Müntzer, the unbalanced Schwärmer (fanatic) and inconsistent conspirator given to inspirationism or prophetic fantasies, could have little in common with sober disciples of Jesus. It became a rhetorical rather than a historical question whether Müntzer could even be considered a Christian! The impressions left by Friedmann are in obvious need of revision. Unfortunately, space permits only a correction of the more glaring misrepresentations and an updating of biographical details.


Of artisan stock, Müntzer received a humanist education that included knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. At Leipzig and Frankfurt [Oder] he earned the MA degree and completed the Bacculareus Biblicus stage of theological studies, the latter earmarking him for an academic career in theology. After ordination in 1513, he accepted an appointment as priest at St. Michael's in Braunschweig (May 1514). He apparently drew a stipend from this position until 1521. Between 1516 and 1517 he also served as provost of a convent at Frohse. In late 1518 or at the beginning of 1519, he seems to have visited Wittenberg. Early in 1519 he defended the need of reforms against Franciscans at Jüterbog (Jüterborgk). It seems likely that he witnessed the debate between Luther and Eck at Leipzig later that year. On his way he appears to have stopped at Orlamünde. The first Catholic polemic using the label "Lutheran" included him under the designation. From 1519 to 1520, Müntzer served as confessor to Cistercian nuns near Weissenfels. During this period he studied the writings of Johann Tauler (ca. 1300-1360), Heinrich Suso (ca. 1295-1366), and the Theologia Deutsch. A book order dating from 1520 provides evidence of his keen reading habits. The 74 items include works of the church fathers, mystical literature, canon law, church history and publications by Erasmus, Luther, and Karlstadt (Carlstadt). Still in 1520 and with the support of Luther, Müntzer obtained the preachership at Zwickau. His polemical style and popularity among the economically hard-pressed weavers contributed to iconoclastic disturbances and a polarization of the community. This in turn led to his dismissal on 16 April 1521. The better known events that followed need no reiteration here.


Although shaped by the turbulent conditions of the early Reformation, Müntzer's ideas reveal a remarkable coherence and consistency. Scholars have disagreed on what constitutes the core of his theology. Spiritualism, mysticism, apocalypticism, and perfectionism have been variously identified as chief traits. Related issues concern (1) Müntzer's indebtedness to the mystics; (2) his dependence on Luther; (3) the influence of the Zwickau prophets, or Karlstadt or both; (4) his break with Luther, i.e., the turning point from would-be-reformer to revolutionary; (5) the consistency or inconsistency between his political radicalism and his theology; (6) his connection to the Anabaptist movement. Each of the above issues has received attention in recent research and needs no detailed discussion here. It suffices to state that an emerging consensus suggests that Müntzer brought his own assumptions to the Reformation agenda. These were shaped by late medieval "realism," (i.e., the belief that particular things are manifestations of unseen universal, realities), a mystical inwardness, popular anticlericalism, his reading of church history, and certain apocalyptic expectations. His key theological premises were formed well before meeting the Zwickau prophets. His indebtedness to Luther was at best qualified. An astute observer, Müntzer was one of the first to fault Lutheran preaching for its lack of power to change both individual and collective life. Accusing Luther of emphasizing only the "sweet Christ," Müntzer insisted on the experience of the "bitter Christ." The cross as the mortification of the flesh had to be experienced by every believer in surrender to the will of God. In his view the debate about works righteousness versus justification by faith alone seemed misplaced. Salvation concerned not a question of meritorious works, but whether humans were prepared to suffer God's work, a work that began in fear of judgment and in death to self and to the lusts of the flesh, but also was grounded in an experience of cleansing, spiritual regeneration, and newness of life. The spiritualist and perfectionist tendencies were rooted in an existential participation in Christ's death and resurrection. The movement of the Spirit involved in the sanitive process of death and rebirth became exchangeable with the redemptive activity of Christ, the eternal Word. When given an epistemological twist, the living Word heard in the soul could be directed against too close an identification of Word with Scripture. Behind the Lutheran emphasis on the written and preached word, Müntzer came to suspect the self-interested bibliolatry of the preacher-exegete, who hoped to replace the priest as the privileged officeholder in the church. Against the emergence of the learned elite, Müntzer emphasized the priesthood of all believers. He believed that the division of the church into laity and clergy had led to corruption immediately after the apostles. The free movement of the Spirit and the possibility of regeneration of all believers permitted no such distinction. Justification through regeneration meant a being made righteous. The tensions between the implied perfectionism and Müntzer's populism were overcome by the conviction that the apocalyptic harvest was at hand. The church, about to be restored to its pristine purity, would inherit the earth.

Much of the scholarly debate has been concerned with the consistency of Müntzer's theology and his politico-social activism. How could an emphasis on cross mysticism and regeneration lead to an attempt at advancing the kingdom through the Peasants' War? H.J. Goertz has suggested an answer in Müntzer's unique integration of the "inner and outer order." Müntzer astutely surmised a reciprocal relationship between individual and collective well-being. The salvation of the community depended on the regeneration of its individual members, but sociopolitical structures that reinforced fear of man or were preoccupied with creaturely matters could hinder the proper spiritual orientation toward God. Rulers who set themselves against the second coming in its individual and collective expression forfeited divine approval. The right to resist them devolved upon the people. Seeing the events of 1525 as resistance to godless tyranny and God's instrument to purify Christendom, Müntzer placed his considerable talents at the disposal of the great uprising of the peasants and "common man." Although not its instigator, he became one of its theologically most articulate defenders.


Müntzer's influence on his contemporaries was considerable. His involvement on the side of the commoners brought notoriety and fame while his critique of Luther fell on receptive ears. A number of Anabaptists later considered him their spiritual father. Factions of the movement in Thuringia, Hesse, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Upper Austria, Salzburg and Northern Tyrol unmistakably carried his ideological traits. Melchior Rinck, Hans Hut, Hans Denck, Balthasar Reif, Hans Römer and Heinz Kraut were some of the Anabaptists compromised in one form or other by contact with him. The founding members of Swiss Anabaptism drafted a controversial letter to him (The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents: 284-294), and Hutterian chroniclers nurtured his memory. Generally, most Anabaptists shared with him a strong anticlericalism (social animosity toward priests), a corresponding anti-sacerdotalism (rejection of the idea of priestly mediation), and a radical application of the priesthood of all believers. Related to these views was the Anabaptist tendency toward a subjective interpretation of the sacraments (ordinances); their critique of the theology of justification by faith alone and of Reformation preaching that produced no change in life; and their advocacy of apostolic restitutionism and zeal for a pure church. Needless to say, none of this made Müntzer the founder of Anabaptism. Anabaptism, a heterogeneous, decentralized movement that defies easy generalizations, went beyond Müntzer by making believers' baptism normative, rejecting violence, and establishing separated brotherhoods. Even those factions strongly influenced by his cross-mysticism eventually shed the spiritualizing tendencies.

Modern scholarship has been fascinated by Müntzer's theological integration of individual and collective salvation. His engagement on the side of the commoners makes it tempting to see in him a forerunner of liberation theologies. His intuition about the interconnection between institutional structures and ideological legitimation appears provocatively modern. However, Müntzer's modernity should not be exaggerated. Nor should less attractive aspects of his ministry be ignored. He was not the atheist-socialist that Friedrich Engels thought he was. His egalitarianism was qualified by the advocacy of charismatic leadership, above all his own. The radical priesthood of all believers was mitigated by an elitism of the regenerate elect whose identification defied empirical verification. Müntzer misread the signs of the times. He failed to see that an armed defense of the future kingdom inevitably led to new coercive structures in the present. But despite these delinquencies or perhaps because of them, Müntzer deserves a fair hearing and a rightful place in the all-too-human story of the Reformation and of Anabaptist beginnings. -- Werner O. Packull


Primary Sources

Brandt, Otto H. Thomas Müntzer, Sein Leben und seine Schriften. Jena,1933. An excellent edition of Müntzer's tracts in modernized German together with other source material.

Bräuer, S. And W. Ullmann. Editors. Thomas Müntzer's theologische Schriften aus dein Jahr 1523, 2nd edition. Berlin, 1982

Franz, G., ed. Thomas Müntzer Schriften und Briefe: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Gütersloh, 1968.

Hinrichs, Carl. Thomas Müntzer, Politische Schriften mit Kommentar. Halle, 1950. Contains Müntzer's last three and most important writings.

Matheson, Peter, ed. The collected works of Thomas Muntzer. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, c1988.

Schaub, M. Müntzer contre Luther: Le droit divin contre l'absolutisme princier. Paris, 1984. Contains translations into French of Müntzer's three major pamphlets of 1524.

Williams, George H. Editor. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers. Library of Christian Classics XXIV, Philadelphia, 1957. Reprints Müntzer's "Sermon Before the Princes" in English, with an introduction, pp. 47-70, also Grebel's letter to Müntzer with an introduction, pp. 71-85.

Secondary Literature

Baylor, M. "Thomas Müntzer's First Publication." Sixteenth Century Journal, 17 (1986): 451-458.

Bender, Harold S. Conrad Grebel. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950: 198 f. and passim.

Bender, H. S. "The Zwickau Prophets, Thomas Müntzer and the Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 3-16 (basic).

Bender, H. S. "War Thomas Müntzer wirklich der Urheber der grossen Taufbewegung?" Mühlhauser Geschichtsblätter 30 (1929): 268-73.

Bender, H. S. "Inner and Outer Word." Mennonite Quarterly Review 26 (1952): 171-193.

Bensing, M. Thomas Müntzer und der Thüringer Aufstand 1525. Berlin, 1966.

Blickle, Peter. "Thomas Müntzer und der Bauernkrieg in Südwestdeutschland." Zeitschrift für Agrargeschichte und Agrarsoziologie, 24 (1976).

Böhmer, Heinrich. "Thomas Müntzer und das jüngste Deutschland." Gesammelte Aufsätze. Gotha, (1922): 187-222.

Böhmer, H. and P. Kim. Thomas Müntzer's Briefwechsel. Leipzig, 1931, containing also the four versions of the Prague Manifesto.

The Böhmer school produced the following monographs, in all of which Heinrich Böhmer's thesis concerning Müntzer as the beginner of the Anabaptist movement is discussed and conditionally respected:

Ecke, K. Schwenckfeld, Luther und der Gedanke einer apostolischen Reformation. Berlin, 1911.
Neusser, H. Hans Huth. Berlin, 1913.
Sachsse, C. Balthasar Hubmaier als Theologe. Berlin, 1914.
Muller, L. Der Kommunismus der miihrischen Wiedertaufer. Leipzig, 1928.
Lohmann, Anne-Marie. Zur geistigen Entwicklung. Leipzig, 1931.

Bräuer, S. "Müntzerforschung von 1965 bis 1975." Luther Jahrbuch, vol. 44 (1977): 127-141, vol. 45 (1978): 102-139.

Bräuer, S. "Thomas Müntzer und der Alstedter Bund." and Hoyer, Siegfried. "Die Zwickauer Storchianer - Vorlaufer der Täufer?" Anabaptistes et dissidents au XVIe siècle: Bibliotheca Dissidentium scripta et studia. Edited by J. Rott and S. Verheus. Baden-Baden, 1987: 65-83, 85-101.

Bubenheimer, Ulrich. "Thomas Müntzer in Braunschweig." Braunschweigisches Jahrbuch, vol. 65 (1984): 37-76, vol. 66 (1985): 79-114.

Bubenheimer, Ulrich. "Thomas Müntzer und der Anfang der Reformation in Braunschweig" Nederlands Archief voor Kereschiednis, 65 (1985): 1-30.

Bubenheimer, Ulrich. "Thomas Müntzer." Protestantische Profile: Lebensbilder aus fünf Jahrhunderte. Frankfurt, 1983: 33-46.

Clemen, Otto. "Das Prager Manifest Thomas Müntzers." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1933): 73-81.

Demke, C. Editor. Thomas Müntzer: Anfragen an Theologie und Kirche. Berlin, 1977.

Drummond, A. W. "Thomas Müntzer and the Fear of Man." Sixteenth Century Journal, 10, no. 2 (1979): 63-71.

Dülmen, Richard van. "Müntzers Anhänger im oberdeutschen Täufertum." Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte, 39 (1976): 883-91.

Ebert, Klaus. Thomas Müntzer: Von Eigensinn und Widerspruch. Frankfurt a. M., 1987.

Elliger, W. Thomas Müntzer: Leben und Werk. 3rd ed. Göttingen, 1974.

Fellman, Walter. Hans Denk Schriften, Part 2: Religiose Schriften. Gütersloh,1956.

Friedmann, Robert. "Thomas Müntzer's Relation to Anabaptism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 31 (1957): 75-87.

Friesen, Abraham. "Thomas Müntzer and the Anabaptists." Journal of Mennonite Studies, 4 (1986): 143-161.

Friesen, Abraham and Hans-Jürgen Goertz. Editors. Thomas Müntzer: Wege der Forschung. Darmstadt, 1978. With a comprehensive survey of the history of Müntzer research.

Gericke, W. "Thomas Müntzer als Theologe des Geistes und seine Sicht von der Erziehung der Menschheit." Herbergen der Christenheit. (1977/78): 47-63.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. Innere und äussere Ordnung in de Theologie Thomas Müntzers. Leiden, 1967.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "The Mystic with the Hammer: Thomas Müntzer's Theological Basis for Revolution." Mennonite Quarterly Review, 50 (1976): 83-113.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "'Lebendiges Wort' und `totes Ding': Zum Schriftverständnis Thomas Müntzers im Prager Manifest." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 67 (1976): 153-78.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "Thomas Müntzer." Profiles of Radical Reformers, Edited by H.-J.Goertz and Walter Klaassen. Scottdale, 1982: 29-44.

Gritsch, Eric W. Reformer Without a Church: The Life and Thought of Thomas Müntzer. Philadelphia, 1967.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 187-191.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. A Fellowship of Discontent. New York, 1967.

Hinrichs, C. Luther und Müntzer: Ihre Auseinandersetzung fiber Obrigkeit und Widerstandsrecht. 2nd edition. Berlin, 1962.

Lindberg, Carter. "Conflicting Models of Ministry: Luther, Karlstadt and Müntzer." Concordia Theological Quarterly. 41 (1977): 35-50.

Lohmann, Anne-Marie. Zur geistigen Entwicklung Thomas Müntzers. Leipzig, 1931.

Mecenseffy, Grete. "Die Herkunft des oberösterreichischen Täufertums." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 47 (1956): 252-258.

Metzger, W. "Müntzeriana." Thüringisch-Sächsische Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kunst 16 (1927).

Packull, Werner O. "Thomas Müntzer Between Marxist-Christian Diatribe and Dialogue." Historical Reflections, 4 (1977): 67-90.

Reimer, A. James. "Bloch's Interpretation of Müntzer: History, Theology, and Social Change." CLIO, 9, no. 2 (1980): 253-67.

Rüger, H. P. "Thomas Müntzer's Erklärung hebräischer Eigennamen und der liber de Interpretatione hebraicorum nominum des Hieronymus." Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 94 (1983): 83-87.

Schulz, K. "Thomas Müntzers liturgische Bestrebungen." Zeitschrift für Kirchengesch. 47 (1928).

Schwarz, Reinhold. Die apoka yptische Theologie Thomas Müntzers und der Taboriten. Tübingen, 1977.

Scott, Tom. "The "Volksreformation" of Thomas Müntzer in Allstedt and Mühlhausen." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 34 (1983): 194-213.

Scott, Tom. "Thomas Müntzer - Bemerkungen zu Herkunft und Charakter seiner Ideologie." Mühlhäuser Beitdräge 4 (1983): 3-16.

Stayer, James M. and Werner O. Packull. Editors. The Anabaptists and Thomas Müntzer. Dubuque, Iowa and Toronto, 1980.

Wappler, Paul. Die Täuferbewegung in Thüringen. Jena, 1913.

Zimmerman, Joachim. Thomas Müntzer, ein deutsches Schicksal. Berlin, 1925.

A considerable number of socialist-Marxist studies in Müntzer have appeared since Engels' work on the great Peasants' War. The latest book is by a Soviet-Russian scholar, Smirin, M. M. Die Volksreformation des Thomas Müntzer und der grosse Bauernkrieg. Berlin, 1952; 675 pages. In which the author distinguishes between the "Reformation of the Princes" (Luther) and the "Reformation of the working people" (Müntzer).

Meusel, A. Thomas Müntzer und seine Zeit. Berlin, 1952. Repeats the same idea.

Seealso Kleinschmid, K. Thomas Müntzer. 1952. Of similar character are the earlier volumes:

Friedlander, P. Thomas Müntzer: Redner der Revolution VI. Berlin, (1926), and Walter, L. G. Thomas Müntzer 1489-1525 et Les Luttes Sociales a L'Epoque de la Reforme. Paris, 1927.

And to a lesser extent Freund, Michael. Thomas Müntzer: Revolution als Glaube, Eine Auswahl aus den Schriften Thomas Müntzers und Martin Luthers zur religiösen Revolution und zum deutschen Bauernkreig. Deutsche Schriften V, Potsdam, 1936.

Regarding other secondary sources, for literature prior to 1976, students should consult: Hillerbrand, Hans J. Thomas Müntzer: A Bibliography. St. Louis, 1976.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Werner O. Packull
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert and Werner O. Packull. "Müntzer, Thomas (1488/9-1525)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 29 Sep 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=M%C3%BCntzer,_Thomas_(1488/9-1525)&oldid=160766.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert and Werner O. Packull. (1987). Müntzer, Thomas (1488/9-1525). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 September 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=M%C3%BCntzer,_Thomas_(1488/9-1525)&oldid=160766.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 785-789; vol. 5, pp. 607-609. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.