Against the Radical Preacher Thomas Münzer. Luther warns of Open Rebellion on the Eve of the Peasants’ War

Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

Eyn Brieff an die Fürsten zu Sachsen von dem auffrurischen Geyst. Wittenberg

Wittenberg: Cranach and Döring, 1524

$5,500.00

Quarto: 21 x 15 cm. [20] pp. A4, B2, C4

FIRST EDITION.

Bound in marbled boards. With an excellent woodcut title page by Lucas Cranach (Luther 43c), cut from a single block, with putti, cornucopiae, architectural motifs and stags. A good copy, light soiling, a few stains.

First edition of Luther’s response to the growing danger posed by the radical preacher Thomas Münzer, who was ultimately executed the following year for leading the violent, open revolt that came to be known as the Peasants’ War.

In 1523, Thomas Münzer, formerly the leader of the radical “Zwickau Prophets” began to radicalize the area of Allstedt, where he was then pastor, preaching that the ungodly were to be eliminated and the elect would establish a kingdom of Christ on earth and threatening the political rulers of the area with rebellion. In early 1524, as Münzer “grew bolder in his denunciation of the authorities and called for an elimination of the enemies of God”, he divided the citizenry into military units in order to resist any outside interference in his activities. Münzer openly challenged and attacked Luther, who was openly opposed to Münzer’ ministry of the elect, as one of “our mad, debauching pigs, which are horrified by the windstorm, the raging billows and by all the waters of wisdom.”

In his “Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit”, written in July 1524 in response to the recent violence and Münzer’s mystical theology, Luther “appealed to the rulers to act before the incendiary suggestions of Münzer led to civil rebellion and open revolt”. Luther “distinguished two sides of Münzer’s behavior, that of violence and that of precept. Only the subject of violence concerns the princes and to this subject he devotes almost his entire letter. Satan can here be seen at work in a new way and has shown us his hoofprint all too plainly –meaning Münzer says that one is not to leave it up to the Word but that it is time to resist the authorities with fists, with the sacking of cloisters, with the destruction of images. Luther demanded that the princes respond preventively by rigorous prohibitions. If the Allstedters wished to defend themselves and show their true colors, let them do so in a public trial, before whomever they choose.

“Luther’s book is noteworthy not because he admonished them to suppress violence but much more because he drew boundaries for them to observe. They do not have to defend themselves against Münzer’s teaching: ‘Let them preach as confidently and as boldly as they are able and against whomever they wish…There must be sects, and the Word of God must be under arms and fight…Let the spirits collide and fight it out. If meanwhile some are led astray, let it be; such is war. Where there is battle and bloodshed, some must fall and some are wounded. Whoever fights honorably will be crowned.’…

“The princes became convinced that the disturbances might lead to rebellion and they summoned the leaders before them. The Allstedt council and Münzer were examined in Weimar at the beginning of August. To escape the impending verdict, Münzer fled to Mühlhausen, where later in the year he gained leadership over the city. He became a central figure in the Peasants’ Revolt and suffered death in May 1525, when the revolt was crushed.”(Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Career, p. 152 ff.)

Benzing 1927; Kessler 553; Title border: Luther, “Titeleinfassungen der Reformationszeit”, 43c