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Müntzer, Thomas


MÜNTZER, THOMAS (1488?1525), also known as Münzer; radical Protestant reformer involved in the German Peasants' War of 15241525. Little is known about Müntzer's early life. His name first appears in the 1506 matriculation records of the University of Leipzig, which required entering students to be at least seventeen years old. Attempts to demonstrate that Müntzer was born earlier than 1488perhaps as early as 1468on the basis of records reporting his membership in a religious order have been successfully refuted by Walter Elliger in his detailed biography, Thomas Müntzer (Göttingen, 1975, pp. 1011). Born of a well-to-do family in the Saxon town of Stolberg, Müntzer attended the universities of Leipzig (15061512) and Frankfurt an der Oder (15121516), where he received the master of arts degree. He was ordained, perhaps in 1513.

Increasingly curious about the relationship of faith to history, Müntzer learned Hebrew and Greek. He studied Eusebius's Church History, Augustine, Jerome, the apocalyptic speculations of the Italian Cistercian abbot Joachim of Fiore, the German mystics (especially Johannes Tauler), the records of the reform councils of Constance (14141418) and Basel (14311449), and canon law. Between 1516 and 1520, Müntzer was an itinerant priest and scholar, for a brief period taking the positions of provost and father confessor in the convents of Frose and Beuditz. In 1518, he traveled to Wittenberg, where he may have met Luther, then north to Jüterbog, where he became known as "emulator of Martin." In 1520, on Luther's recommendation, he became pastor of Zwickau, the "pearl of Saxony."

Zwickau had become the center of the silver trade, with a large influx of tradesmen hoping to make a fortune. There Müntzer began a reform program to eliminate socioeconomic differences between the rich and the poor. He organized meetings of small groups of common people, mostly weavers who had lost their jobs in the wake of the silver boom. Nicholas Storch, the leader of the unemployed weavers and a member of a radical Christian group known as the Zwickau Prophets, persuaded Müntzer that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that the end of the world was near. The city council soon accused the Zwickau Prophets and their pastor, Müntzer, of fomenting rebellion. Müntzer tried to enlist the support of Luther who, however, did not respond.

In 1521, the Zwickau council dismissed Müntzer from the pastorate of Saint Catharine's Church. Müntzer went to Prague, hoping for the support of the Hussites, who were well-known enemies of the Roman papacy. There he posted a handwritten declaration (later known as the Prague Manifesto) on the doors of various churches. Written in German, Latin, and Czech, this manifesto attacked the status quo and announced the beginning of a final reformation leading to a "renewed apostolic church" in which only the Holy Spirit would reign. Müntzer called on the people of Prague to support him in communicating the new "living word" and to oppose anyone defending the status quo. The Prague authorities first placed Müntzer under house arrest and then banned him from Prague.

Once again Müntzer took to the road, traveling through Saxony with brief stops in Erfurt, Halle, and Nordhausen; by 1523 he was penniless and nearly starved. However, he was convinced that his personal suffering was but a prelude to the final tribulations of the world. He met and married the apostate nun Ottilie of Gersen in 1523, the same year he received a call to the pastorate in Allstedt, a small town in electoral Saxony. In 1524, the Müntzers became parents of a son.

In Allstedt, Müntzer implemented his new vision of church and world. First, he reformed congregational life by creating a German church order, a German Evangelical mass, and the German Order of Allstedt, this last to help "poor and collapsing Christendom." He wrote Luther, his Stolberg friends, and Karlstadt that he had become the advocate of the Holy Spirit, who would radically change Germany and the world. In addition, Müntzer wrote several revolutionary tracts. Published in 1524, the tracts Concerning the Invented Faith, Protestation, A Clear Disclosure of the False Faith of an Unfaithful World, and A Highly Necessary Defense and Answer against the Soft-Living Flesh of Wittenberg (all written in German) declared that the "elect of God" must experience the "bitter Christ" in the "depth of the soul" in order to be purified for the final battle between good and evil, the final struggle between the status quo and new life in the Holy Spirit. Müntzer now called himself the "new Daniel," the leader of a "league of the elect" who would smash the opponents of the Holy Spirit. Those who refused to accept the Holy Spirit in their souls, Müntzer proclaimed repeatedly, would have to be forced to do so, if necessary by the sword. No "ungodly" could be tolerated among the "elect."

When Müntzer led a small band of "elect" in destroying a small Catholic chapel outside Allstedt, Saxon authorities became alarmed. Having been warned by Luther against the "restless spirit of Allstedt," representatives of the Saxon court met with Müntzer in Allstedt, where he preached a radical sermon to them. They then summoned him to Weimar and ordered him to stop his agitations. When the authorities confiscated copies of his treatises, Müntzer was convinced that the time had come to oppose the status quo with force. But, in a letter of September 5, 1524, the Anabaptist reformer Conrad Grebel warned Müntzer against the use of violence.

Müntzer never received the letter because he had left Allstedt vainly seeking support in Switzerland, especially in Basel. He then joined bands of rebellious peasants in Mühlhausen. He and the radical priest Henry Pfaiffer tried once again to create a model of reform, but the Mühlhausen authorities banned both of them. By the spring of 1525, Müntzer had joined the rebelling peasants in Thuringia and had become their chaplain. In May of 1525, the peasants were cruelly defeated at Frankenhausen, and Müntzer, who had fled before the massacre, was captured, tortured, and beheaded. Luther approved of Müntzer's execution, calling it a "just and terrible judgment of God."

Müntzer was the first Protestant theocrat who advocated a Christian crusade to liberate the world from sin, death, and evil. He was a spiritualist who could no longer endure the compromise between internal spiritual experience and living in an imperfect external world; a truly apocalyptic thinker, he tried to transform theological ideas into revolutionary action. Reformers like Luther and Calvin made him the symbol of villainy, and Anabaptists and other radical reformers refused to support him. Ironically, he would become a hero in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to Marxists and other communist groups who advocated revolution, although of course without Müntzer's theological foundation.


A treatment of Müntzer's life and thought and a translation of some of his writings are offered in my book Reformer without a Church (Philadelphia, 1967). The most detailed analysis of Müntzer's life and work is available only in German: Walter Elliger's Thomas Müntzer (Göttingen, 1975). Müntzer's entire literary production, including letters and notes, has been collected and critically edited by Günther Franz with the collaboration of Paul Kirn in Thomas Müntzer: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Gütersloh, 1968).

Müntzer's language is difficult, since he wrote in medieval Latin and in sixteenth-century German, often using a particular dialect. Two of his works are available in English: "Sermon before the Princes" (1524), in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George H. Williams, "Library of Christian Classics," vol. 25 (Philadelphia, 1957); and "Highly Necessary Defense and Answer against the Soft-Living Flesh of Wittenberg" (1524), in Hans J. Hillerbrand's "Thomas Müntzer's Last Tract against Luther," Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (1964): 2036. Some excerpts from these two works and a portion of his "Confession and Recantation" (1525) have been translated by Lowell H. Zuck in a collection he has edited, Christianity and Revolution: Radical Christian Testimonies, 1520 1650 (Philadelphia, 1975), pp. 3644, 4647. The British Reformation historian E. Gordon Rupp has written a comprehensive essay on Müntzer, "Thomas Müntzer: The Reformer as Rebel," in Patterns of Reformation (Philadelphia, 1969), pp. 157353. There are also two American historical sketches depicting Müntzer as dissenter and revolutionary: "Thomas Müntzer," in Steven E. Ozment's Mysticism and Dissent (New Haven, 1973), pp. 6197; and "Thomas Müntzer," in Hans J. Hillerbrand's A Fellowship of Discontent (Philadelphia, 1967), pp. 130.

Eric W. Gritsch (1987)

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