Revolutionary sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader who fatefully influenced the Catholic and Protestant attitude toward the Anabaptist movement; b. Stolberg, Germany, before 1490 (1468?); d. Mühlhausen, Germany, May 27, 1525. After studying at universities in Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder, he was ordained and served for a time as convent chaplain. At the Leipzig Disputation in 1519 he met Luther, who recommended that Münzer serve a church in Zwickau (1520). In this socially unstable environment Münzer came under the influence of Nicolaus Storch and his Zwickau prophets, which led him to accept direct communication with God, rejecting Luther's reliance on the written word. Expelled from Zwickau (1521), he wandered about Central Europe until he was invited in 1523 to serve a church in Allsted in Electoral Saxony. Münzer proved to be a successful and eloquent preacher. He produced the first complete German liturgy, which anticipated Luther and influenced liturgical development. Involved in agitation against local authorities, Münzer organized a secret confederation consisting of peasants and miners from neighboring Mansfeld. In a command performance sermon preached on July 13, 1524, he vainly attempted to win John of Saxony, brother of Frederick the Wise, to his plan to establish a theocratic state. Opposed by Luther and forbidden to preach, Münzer fled to Mühlhausen, where he aided Heinrich Pfeiffer in making the city a center of the peasant revolt. He soon joined a roving, undisciplined, and poorly equipped army of peasants whom he encouraged with his apocalyptic preaching. Captured and tortured after their rout at Frankenhausen (1525), he recanted his political and religious views before execution. Replacing Luther's justification by faith with justification by suffering and Luther's distinction between the two kingdoms with theocratic milennial hopes, Münzer obtained religious certainty through dreams and visions. When these proved to be delusions he collapsed. Erroneously considered the typical Anabaptist by the Protestant reformers and the typical chaotic consequence of the Reformation by Catholics, Münzer became a symbol, distorting both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of the Reformation. His later popularity among Marxists as an early communist is based upon a misinterpretation of the records.
Bibliography: Werke, ed. g. franz (Gütersloh). g. w. forell, "Thomas Münzer, Symbol and Reality," Dialog 2 (1963): 12–33. c. hinrichs, Luther und Müntzer (Berlin 1952). m. m. smirin, Die Volksreformation des Thomas Münzer und der Grosse Bauernkrieg, tr. h. nichtweiss (2d ed. Berlin 1956). g. h. williams, ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia 1957). g. franz, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 6 v. (Tübingen 1957–63) 4:1183–1184. e. iserloh, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. (Freiburg 1957–65) 7:689–690.
[g. w. forell]
The German Protestant reformer Thomas Münzer (1489-1525) was associated with the "radical" Reformation, in the early stages of which his revolutionary social views placed him at the head of the Peasants' Rebellion.
Thomas Münzer was born at Stolberg in Saxony. He read widely and became a secular priest, first in Frohse and later in a convent in Beuditz. After meeting Martin Luther at Leipzig in 1519, Münzer experienced a religious crisis in which his doubt as to God's existence was resolved into a concept of the decline of the Church, the spiritual unity of all true believers, and his own conviction that he was an especially chosen instrument of God to purge the world of ecclesiastical abuses. His appointment to the town of Zwickau in 1520 brought him into contact with the socially radical Zwickau prophets, and Münzer began proclaiming his vision of a purified Christianity, devoid of ecclesiastical and social hierarchies and dependent upon personal revelation and the immediacy of the Day of Judgment.
Forced to leave Zwickau in 1521, Münzer went to Prague, where he further preached his visionary theology and vociferously denounced the social oppression of the poor which had been a result of ecclesiastical distortion of true Christian doctrine. In 1522 Münzer was appointed provisional pastor at Allstedt, where he married, carried out liturgical reforms (including services in the vernacular), and further developed his concept of the three stages in the true Christian life: utter despair, fear inspired by God, and finally personal illumination by the Holy Spirit. His increasingly radical position was made clear in his famous sermon to the princes of Saxony in 1524, in which Münzer urged the temporal rulers to lead God's chosen people against the "forces of antichrist." Forced to leave Allstedt later in the same year, Münzer joined the Peasants' Rebellion, which had broken out in June 1524.
The rebellion was the result of a complex series of social, legal, and theological disputes, and it soon swept up many peasants in what is now southwestern Germany. Demanding considerable social and religious reforms, the peasants practiced an apocalyptic Christianity and, with Münzer's influence, came to regard themselves as God's purifying army and Münzer as the "sword of Gideon." Münzer, from his base in Mühlhausen, issued broadsides proclaiming his completely radicalized theological and social views. He urged the destruction of all religious images, the sharing of property in common, and the immediate establishment of God's kingdom on earth. Vilifying Luther as "Doctor Liar, the Wittenberg Pope," Münzer was in turn denounced by Luther: "Anyone who has seen Münzer can say that he has seen the devil at his worst." After the defeat of the peasants at Frankenhausen in 1525, Münzer was forced to recant his "errors" before being beheaded.
Some English translations of Münzer's writings are in George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (1957). The best account of Münzer's life and thought is in George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962). On Münzer and the millenarian tradition see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), and Gordon Rupp, Patterns of Reformation (1969).
Friesen, Abraham, Thomas Muentzer, a destroyer of the godless: the making of a sixteenth-century religious revolutionary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Gritsch, Eric W., Thomas Muentzer: a tragedy of errors, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989. □