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The Pursuit of the Millennium

 by Norman Cohn


Thomas Müntzer was born in Stolberg in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. He was born not -- as has often been stated -- to poverty but to modest comfort; and his father ws not hanged by a feudal tyrant but died in bed in the fulness of years. When he first comes clearly into view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an 'eternal student', extraordinarily learned and immensely intellectual. After becoming a university graduate and then a priest he led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, immersed himself also in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he never was a pure scholar; and his voracious reading was carried out in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer at that time was a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty -- in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also -- if only incidentally and transitorily - as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1517 he nailed the famous theses against the sale of indulgences on to the church door at Wittenberg, in 1519 he questioned in public disputation the supremacy of the Pope, in 1520 he published -- and was excommunicated for publishing -- the three treatises which launched the German Reformation. Although it was to be many years before there appeared Evangelical churches organized on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognizable Lutheran party; and many of the clergy joined it, even while the majority clung firmly to 'the old religion'. It was as a follower of Luther that Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; and all the deeds that have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; and it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not indeed to be found in Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Niklas Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, Strorch himself had been in Bohemia and it was essentially the old Taborite doctrines that were revived in Storch's teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; and the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then -- and it would be very soon -- the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless, so that the Second Coming could take place and the Millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this program was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, he now thought and talked only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents in the Old tEstament as Elijah's slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu's slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael's assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving.

By force of Arms the elect must prepare the way for the Millennium; but who were the Elect? In Müntzer's view they were those who had received the Holy Spirit or, as he usually called it, 'the living Christ'. In his writings, as in those of the Spiritual Libertines, the 'living' or 'inner' or 'spiritual' Christ who is imagined as being born in the individual soul; and it is the latter who possesses redemptive power. Yet in one respect the historical Christ retains great significance: by submitting to crucifixion he had pointed the way to salvation. For he who would be saved must indeed suffer most direly, he must indeed be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. First he must voluntarily subject himself to an ascetic preparation and then, when he has become fit and worthy to receive them, God will impose further and unutterable sufferings upon him. These last afflictions, which Müntzer calls 'the Cross', may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience -- but above all they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world, weariness with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. Only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. This was of course traditional doctrine, such as had been held by many Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages; but when Müntzer comes to speak of the outcome he follows another and less orthodox tradition. For according to him when once 'the living Christ' enters into the soul it is for evermore; and the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit -- Müntzer even speaks of his 'becoming God'. Endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission; and that is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself. It was not for nothing that this propheta had been born within a few miles of Nordhausen, the centre of that underground movement in which the doctrine of the Free Spirit blended with that of the flagellants. The scourge might be cast away -- the underlying fantasy was still the same.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded amongst Luther's followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. Since the middle of the preceding century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau and had turned the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden...A few months after he arrived in Zwickau Müntzer became a preacher...and he used the pulpit to utter fierce denunciations not only of the local Franciscans, who were generally unpopular, but also of the preacher -- a friend of Luther's -- who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

In April 1521, the Town Council intervened and dismissed the turbulent newcomer; whereupon a large number of the populace, under Storch's leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down and many arrests were made... As for Müntzer, he betook himself to Bohemia, apparently in the hope that even at that late date he would find some Taborite groups there... His own role he now defined in terms of that same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants' Revolt: 'Havest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed with the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair, soul, body, life curse the unbeliever.'

Müntzer's appeal to the Bohemians was, naturally enough, a failure; and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by a now unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. . .His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a cure at the small Thuringian town of Allstedt... Peasants from the surrounding countryside...came regularly to hear him. Together with the artisans of Allstedt these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organization, the 'League of the Elect'. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated people, was Müntzer's answer to the university, which had always been the centre of Luther's influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Allsted was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium.

Before long Müntzer became involved in conflicts with the civil authority; so that the two princes of Saxony -- the Elector Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John -- began to observe his doings with a mixture of curiosity and alarm. In July 1524, Duke John, who had himself abandoned the traditional Catholic faith and become a follower of Luther, came to Allstedt and, by way of finding out what kind of man Müntzer was, ordered him to preach him a sermon. Müntzer did so, taking his text from that fountain-head of the apocalyptic tradition, the Book of Daniel; and the sermon, which he very soon had printed, gives the clearest possible conspectus of his eschatological beliefs. The last of the world-empires is approaching it end; now the world is nothing but the Devil's empire, where those serpents, the clergy, and those eels, the secular rulers and lords, pollute one another in a squirming heap. It is high time indeed that the Saxon princes choose whether to be servants of God or of the Devil. If it is to be the former their duty is clear:

Drive Christ's enemies out from amongst the Elect, for you are the instruments for that purpose. Dearly beloved brethren, don't put up any shallow pretence that God's might will do it without your laying on with the sword, otherwise your sword might rust in its scabbard. . . . Christ is your master. So don't let them live any longer, the evildoers who turn us away from God. For a godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly.

Priests, monks and godless rulers must all perish; and the preacher insists:

The sword is necessary to exterminate them. And so that it shall be done honestly and properly, our dear fathers the princes must do it, who confess Christ with us. But if they don't do it, the sword shall be taken from them. . .If they resist, let them be slaughtered without mercy. . . .At the harvest-time one must pluck the weeds out of God's vineyard. . . But the angels who are sharpening their sickles for that work are no other than the earnest servants of God. . .For the ungodly have no right to live, save what the Elect choose to allow them. . .

Müntzer however admits that the princes cannot carry out these tasks effectively unless they are informed of God's purposes; and that they cannot attain for themselves, since they are still too far from God. Therefore, he concludes, they must have at their court a priest who by self-abnegation and self-mortification has fitted himself to interpret their dreams and visions, just as Daniel did at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. And the Biblical allusions which accompany this recommendation show clearly enough that he saw himself as the inspired prophet who was to replace Luther in the favour of the princes, as Daniel replaced the unillumined scribes. In this way, he reckoned to acquire such influence over the rulers of the land that he would be able to direct them in making the necessary preparations for the Millennium. . .

As for Müntzer himself, when he writes of the Law of God he certainly seems to equate it with that original and absolute Natural Law which was supposed to have known no distinctions of property or status. . .According to [Histori Thoma Müntzers], Müntzer, at least in the last months of his life, taught that there should be neither kings nor lords and also, on the strength of a misunderstanding of Acts iv, that all things should be held in common.. . .For what he confessed was that the basic principle of his league was that all things are common to all men; that its aim was a state of affairs in which all would be equal and each would receive according to his need; and that it was prepared to execute any prince or lord who stood in the way of its plans. In this programme there is after all nothing which the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine drew up for his imaginary Brotherhood of the Yellow Cross.

When Müntzer delivered his sermon before Duke John he clearly hoped that the princes of Saxony could be won over to the cause; and when, a few days later, followers of his were expelled by their lords. . .and came as refuges to Allstedt, he called on the princes to avenge them. But the princes made no move and this transformed his attitude. In the last week of July he preached a sermon in which he proclaimed that the time was at hand when all tyrants would be overthrown and the messianic Kingdom would begin. This in itself would no doubt have sufficed to alarm the princes; but in any case Luther now wrote his Letter to the Princes of Saxony, pointing out how dangerous Müntzer was becoming. . .

Müntzer had reached the point which had been reached by earlier prophetae during the English Peasants' Revolt and the Hussite Revolution. For him too it was now the poor who were potentially the Elect, charged with the mission of inaugurating the eqalitarian Millennium. Free from the temptations of Avaritia and Luxuria, the poor had at least a change of reaching that indifference to the goods of this world which would qualify them to receive the apocalyptic message. It was therefore the poor who, while the rich and mighty were being cut down like weeds in the last great harvest, would emerge as the one true church: Then must what is great yield to what is small. Ah, if the poor downtrodden peasants knew that, it would be a great help to them. And nevertheless -- Müntzer insisted -- so far not even the poor were fit to enter into their appointed glory. First they too must be broken of such worldly and frivolous past times as they had, so that they should with sighs and prayers recognize their abject condition and at the same time their need for a new, God-sent leader. If the holy church is to be renewed through the bitter truth, a servant of God must stand forth in the spirit of Elijah. . .and set things in motion. In truth, many of them will have to be roused, so that with the greatest possible zeal and with passionate earnestness they may sweep Christendom clean of ungodly rulers. Just as Müntzer had previously offered his services to the princes as the new Daniel, so he now proposed himself for the office of divinely inspired leader of the people.

The explicit unmasking was followed at no great interval by another and more virulent pamphlet, directed specifically against Luther and accordingly entitled The most amply called-for defence and answer to the unspiritual soft-living flesh at Wittenberg. It was with good cause that Luther and Müntzer had by this time come to regard one another as deadly enemies. Just as much as Müntzer, Luther performed all his deeds in the conviction that the Last Days were at hand. But in his view the sole enemy was the Papacy, in which he saw Antichrist, the false propet; and it was by the dissemination of the true Gospel that the Papacy would be overcome. When that task had been accomplished Christ would return to pass sentence of eternal damnation upon the pope and his followers and to found a Kingdom -- but a Kingdom which would not be of this world. In the context of such an eschatology armed revolt was bound to seem irrelevant, because bodily death inflicted by men was as nothing in comparison with the sentence of damnation imposed by God. And armed revolt was also bound to seem pernicious, partly because it would shatter the social order which allowed the Word to be disseminated and still more because it would discredit the Reformation which to Luther was incomparably the most important thing in the world. It was therefore to be expected that Luther would do his utmost to counteract Müntzer's influence. . .

Click here for Chapter 13: The Egalitarian Millennium / ANABAPTISM AND SOCIAL UNREST (in Münster)

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