Against Frederick the Wise’s wishes, Martin Luther left the Wartburg to deal with problems at Wittenberg. This local unrest was part of much bigger troubles breaking out all over Germany. Most of the people in Germany at this time were peasants, or farmers. Very few owned their own land. Even the “common lands,” which all the peasants used together, were taken over by the nobles. Taxes were going up, and so were prices. Disease and hunger were common. Peasants found it harder and harder and harder to feed and clothe their families. If they were caught trying to get extra food or fuel from the nobles’ forests, they could be put to death. Life for most of them was almost like slavery.
The German peasants had tried to revolt many times. The most recent attempt had been in 1514. Each time the rulers put down the revolt. When the peasants heard about Luther’s dispute with the pope, the church, and the imperial diet, they began to ask themselves, “If this one monk can stand up against both church and state, why can’t we?” When Luther wrote and spoke of the “freedom of the Christian,” he was talking about man’s relation to God. The peasants took it to mean that they were free to change their laws and living conditions and free themselves from the bondage of feudalism.
Luther had spoken against greedy princes and churchmen (the church owned much property at this time) and had warned them of troubles ahead. But Luther did not want the peasants to use violence to bring about social reforms. He believed that the free preaching of the Gospel would change the hearts of people. When people believed the Gospel, he was sure they would no longer cheat, beat, mistreat, or enslave their fellow Christians or anyone else. Luther told the peasants to suffer quietly rather than use force to make changes.
The Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525)
In spite of all his efforts, a revolt broke out in June 1524. It began in southwestern Germany when the Countess of Lufen tried to force her peasants to pick strawberries for a banquet; they rebelled. Soon the rebellion spread over much of Germany and Austria. The peasants drew up a list of their demands and gave it to the rulers. These demands were known as The Twelve Articles. Luther thought that the Articles were fair and the rulers should agree to them. He again warned the peasants not to take the law into their own hands. At the same time he scolded the rulers for their bad treatment of the peasants.
“Don’t use the Gospel and Christian freedom to justify violence,” he told them. “Negotiate.” There had been little bloodshed so far. Now a few trouble makers got busy. Thomas Muntzer told the peasants of Saxony not to listen to Luther. He urged them to destroy the nobles’ property and to kill the wicked princes and priests. He wanted to establish God’s kingdom by using force to destroy godless people. Other leaders did the same, and soon all of Germany was ablaze with revolt. Over 40 monasteries and castles were destroyed in central German alone. In the midst of all this activity, Luther’s one sure protector, Elector Frederick the Wise, died on May 5, 1525.
When Luther head of all this mob action, he wasvery angry with the rebels. He became incensed when he found out they were using his writings to justify their actions. When he visited the area around Eisleben to help start a Christian school, he saw the damage that had been done. He was heckled during a sermon by those who disagreed with his advice to settle matters peacefully.
When he arrived back in Wittenberg, he wrote a tract, Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he called on the rulers to strike down the mobs of peasants without mercy. It was written in anger and contained viciously bitter words. Luther received much justifiable criticism for this tract. To make matters worse, the tract appeared after the peasants had been defeated, making it look as though Luther had taken a position favoring the winning side.
Meanwhile the rulers and princes had gathered regular soldiers and marched into battle against the mobs of farmers. One after another the peasant armies were beaten, and their leaders were killed. A peasant army was crushed in the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525. Thomas Muntzer was found hiding in a bed; he was tried for leading a rebellion and was executed. By 1526 the revolt of the peasants had been crushed. When Luther had called them “thieves” and” murderers” and had called for their destruction, many would have nothing more to do with him. Luther, too, had a change of heart. He tried to explain his position in An Open Letter to the Peasants, but he did not approve of the rebellion, especially when God’s Word was used to justify rebelling. From this time on, he looked to the princes and nobles to take the lead in the new churches.