In the Aftermath of the Peasants’ War, A Consideration of How Uprisings Can be Calmed

Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

Eyn ratschlag wie in der Christlichen gemeyne, ain rechter anfang vnd beharrliche endtschafft, eyner bestendigen ordnung solle furgenomen vnnd auffgericht werden

Nuremberg: Friedrich Peypus, 1526


Quarto: 21 x 15 cm. [8] p. A4


A good copy with a little marginal fraying and chipping (not affecting the text) in modern boards. With a very fine woodcut title page border.

Luther's concern with meaningful church reform led him to explore new ideas of church organization. This was especially so after the Peasants’ War showed him how "Evangelical freedom" could be misunderstood and confused with moral license. This tract, written not only to propose how future uprisings could be avoided, had the further purpose of shoring up faith among the nobility that the Reformation was a positive movement rather than a corrosive one. These issues were to be addressed at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 and this work may have been written (or edited) for Duke John Frederick to take with him to that gathering.

The Peasants’ War was one of the bloodiest chapters in the turbulent early history of the German Reformation. The uprising began in upper Swabia in early 1524 and quickly spread to southern and western Germany, as well as to parts of Switzerland and Austria. By the time the rebellion was crushed in late 1525, some 100,000 combatants and civilians had been killed. Reprisals were carried out for the next two years, and the peasants’ demands, as outlined in their Twelve Articles, came to nothing.

The peasants were motivated by a number of factors: crushing taxation, lack of a voice in government, no recourse to the courts, crop failure, and helplessness in the face of their feudal masters’ demands. But whereas these conditions had resulted in smaller uprisings in the past, the massive rebellion of 1524-5 was also a result of the turbulent upheaval caused by the nascent Reformation. With his message of the priesthood of all believers, the idea of salvation by faith rather than works, and his complex opinions about the role that temporal authorities had in the life of Christians, Luther had inadvertently unleashed forces that threatened to destabilize the entire social order.

While some reformers supported the peasants’ cause, Luther pleaded again and again with the peasants not to listen to those leading them to the edge of disaster. He warned them against riot and revolution, not just because they could not win but also because they would only bring on themselves the wrath of God, since revolution is always contrary to His Word. When, in mid-1525, Luther saw firsthand the havoc that the peasant armies were visiting upon the land, he wrote what would become a notorious work, “Against the Rioting Peasants”, in which Luther charged that the peasants had violated oaths of loyalty, which made them subject to secular punishment; that they had committed crimes that went against their faith; and that their crimes were committed using Christ’s name which was blasphemy. He justified violence against the peasants by their lords on the basis that the rebels had become “faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish.” Luther was condemned by many for betraying the peasants and certain aspects of works such as “Advice on the Establishment of an Enduring Order in a Christian Community” might have been motivated in part by some nagging sense of responsibility.

Benzing 2308