The Thomas Müntzer inner light

Has over three centuries and one half

Cast the shadow of revolt in the name

Of the modern Romantic Marx.

Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society.

He was, initially, an advocate of Lutheran theology, yet soon opposed the Lutheran idea of ‘justification’ – i.e. justification by faith alone, with authority vested in Scripture. Müntzer instead vested supremacy in the inner light of the Holy Spirit. That in turn led to a call for the conquest of anti-Christian earthly government. In his view the common people, as the instruments of God, would have to perform that conquest themselves. Müntzer professed that the commoners, lacking property and unspoiled by worldly sophistication, were God’s elect through whom God’s will was manifest. As God’s elect it was for the peasants to lead the eschatological process against all enemies of the Holy Spirit.

Through his preaching Müntzer gathered disciples to his cause, and produced important religious, liturgical, and theological writings, including German Church Office, German-Protestant Mass, Of Written Faith, and Precise Exposure of False Belief. He tried, unsuccessfully, to urge on Saxon rulers the task of restoring Christendom to its biblical resplendence.

He was involved in the abortive revolt of 1524–25, with grievances against, among other things, rising taxes. Mühlhausen was at the centre of the uprising in central Germany, where Müntzer took command of local troops. He stressed his belief that only if the common people identified the law of God within themselves, and placed group above individual interests, would society be transformed, promising a future without social and legal discrimination. During the rebellion, possibly seen by him as the last struggle between cosmic good and evil, Müntzer equated the lot of peasant, tradesman, and commoner with the liberation of Christendom. The revolt collapsed and Müntzer was taken prisoner, tortured, tried and executed.