Martin Luther had very little understanding of the realities of the revolution when he waded into commenting on the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants. He knew the princes were abusing the peasants, but he had only heard vague rumors of the atrocities of the peasantry.
That all changed when he took a trip to Thuringia to open a new Christian school. He was confronted by hecklers who openly mocked his calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. There’s also evidence that he heard more of first hand accounts of the peasants attacks on the princes.
When Luther returned to Wittenberg, he wrote a sharp rebuke of the peasantry with language so harsh that his friends pleaded with him to soften it. But Luther would not be swayed, releasing “Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants” in May of 1525, a book that Luther advocates have repeatedly had to explain and defend for the past 500 years.
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AGAINST THE ROBBING AND MURDERING HORDES OF PEASANTS
Luther built his entire position on the first few verses of Romans 13.
Let’s take a sidebar into Romans 13 to see what Paul has to say.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Luther starts out pretty strong:
“In my earlier book on this matter, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be corrected and to be instructed; and Christ in Matthew 7 [:1] commands us not to judge. But before I could even inspect the situation, they forgot their promise and violently took matters into their own hands and are robbing and raging like mad dogs. All this now makes it clear that they were trying to deceive us and that the assertions they made in their Twelve Articles were nothing but lies presented under the name of the gospel.”
He then references Muntzer:
“This is particularly the work of that archdevil who rules at Mühlhausen, and does nothing except stir up robbery, murder, and bloodshed.”
Luther then outlines “3 terrible sins”.
The first sin is a lack of obedience to ruling authorities.
The second sin is abusing the property of the others.
The third sin is that the peasants have called themselves a “Christian Association”. Luther is especially upset that they are calling themselves Christian, even as they rebel.
Luther goes back to his original position to finish everything up. “If anyone thinks this too harsh, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour.”
Well, there are plenty of people who think Luther was too harsh. Even modern “law and order” folks would have problems with Luther’s call against due process in the face of revolution, especially coupled with the use of the sword to kill. Our mind immediately goes to people like Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, where the civil authorities need to be constrained. Of course, Luther had never seen industrialized killing, like we have.
Thanks to Josh our sound engineer
James Kittelson – Luther the Reformer
Scott Hendrix – Martin Luther, The Man and His Vision
Christina Vunguyen – The Black Death: How it affected Feudalism
Eric W. Gritsch – Thomas Müntzer: A tragedy of errors
Luther’s Works 46
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