Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Learning from the Battle of Frankenhausen

Does an event of May 15, 1525, have any relevance for May 2012? Specifically, what lesson can we learn from the Battle of Frankenhausen led by Thomas Müntzer, a tragic figure of the Protestant Reformation in Germany?
Müntzer (born c.1489) has been highly regarded by socialists (Communists), but generally criticized by most Christian thinkers. He is also an embarrassment to contemporary Anabaptists, for he has sometimes been linked to the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
Early on, Müntzer was a follower of Martin Luther, and in 1520 Luther recommended him for the pastorate of a church in Zwickau, about 125 miles south of Wittenberg. But Müntzer became increasingly opposed to Luther's ideas and was exiled from Zwickau the next year.
Part of Müntzer’s opposition to Luther was with regard to baptism. Müntzer began to reject infant baptism, and for that reason he is sometimes said to be one of the first Anabaptists. And Luther increasingly opposed Müntzer, not just because of his rejection of infant baptism but for his militancy.
In 1524 Müntzer became a leader in the uprising later known as the Peasants’ War. This was partly a class struggle, and it has been praised as such by Friedrich Engels, who wrote The Peasant War in Germany (1850). It was also an attempt to set up a local theocracy by military force. Establishing an apocalyptic kingdom seems to have been a primary focus of Müntzer.
The Peasants’ War in Germany ended with the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525. Around 8,000 peasants were killed and Müntzer himself was captured, tortured, and then executed twelve days later.
The tragic Battle of Frankenhausen is depicted in the world's largest oil painting, Werner Tübke’s work housed in its own specially built panoramic museum. That painting is 400 feet long and 45 feet high. (Can you imagine a painting that is considerably longer than a football field?!) Unfortunately, the Internet link showing the painting no longer works, but here is an external link telling about the museum, and several scenes from the painting are included (one of which is pasted below).
What Can We Learn from Frankenhausen?
One obvious lesson for us is that, as Jesus said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, ESV). The only form of Anabaptism that has survived is that which is pacifistic, and perhaps it is more influential today than at any time since the sixteenth century.
The main lesson is to beware of, and openly oppose, Christians leaders who seek to lead us to war in order to bring about the End Times—such as Rev. John Hagee is seems to be doing.
Hagee (b. 1940) is the founder, in 2006, of Christians United for Israel, the most visible organization of American Christian Zionists. He launched that organization just a month after the release of his bestselling book Jerusalem Countdown. In his book, which last year was made into a movie that is now on DVD, Hagee asserts that an American and Israeli war on Iran is not only biblically prophesied but necessary to bring about Armageddon and the Second Coming.
The scary thing about Hagee’s ideas is how some prominent politicians—even recent presidential hopefuls such as Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—seemingly agree with them.
Linking beliefs about the End Times to taking up the sword to help inaugurate God’s rule was not a wise thing for the German peasants in 1524-25, and it is even a more dangerous idea for Christians today.


  1. What an interesting column, Leroy. I've suggested elsewhere that if the Catholics and Lutherans hadn't been so brutally repressive or if the militant Anabaptists had been stronger, we might not think of the Anabaptists today as so pacifistic. They would have presumably at least two different wings, one not so pacifistic.
    I think I would take issue with you regarding the effectiveness of the Anabaptist pacifism and their influence. It appears to me that the Catholics and Lutherans won those Reformation wars quite violently, and they have been and are by any stretch of the imagination far more influential than the left-wing elements of the Reformation.
    One of the weirdest things about Hagee and people like him is the spiritual hubris in thinking that what we human beings choose to do can influence God's timetable. Here, I think we need a good dose of traditional Calvinist theology.
    I think it's really cool how you post columns treating events that occurred on those dates.
    Thanks. Great stuff.

    1. And I want to second everything that Anton said, even the part about Calvinism (in this limited sense). Regarding whether the arc of history leads to more peace and justice or to more violence and injustice, I would like to side with Leroy, and I think, MLK, Jr. Hagee’s ideas are dangerous and seem to be gaining ground. Among recent presidential hopefuls, isn’t it only Ron Paul who advocates against more war, but his other views which align with Ayn Rand tend to discredit his anti-war views.

      In adult Sunday school this week it was mentioned that while Americans are considering a Mormon for president, and women have been seriously considered, we couldn’t say the same for an LGBT person or an atheist, nor, I would add, a pacifist.

      So I hope pacifism — faith-based and humanist — is advancing, I would like to see more signs of it. The struggle in Syria seems to increase the skepticism. But the deep divisions in America during the 60’s and at Kent State in 1970, and the peaceful transitions from JFK to LBJ to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan, etc., give me hope that non-violent change is possible. Thank you, Leroy, for this interesting column!

  2. It's an unfortunate accident of history that "Müntzer" and "Münster" are so similar, and yet those two names are associated with completely different incidents within the militant radical reformation. I have struggled for years to keep the history behind these two words separate in my mind so I've decided to explain the difference here in case there are others, like me, who need to be reminded of the difference.

    You wrote about Thomas Müntzer in your blog who was involved with the Battle of Frankenhausen and executed in 1525. The other word, "Münster" is the name of a city in northwest Germany that was the site of the Münster Rebellion from 1534 to 1536. The Münster Rebellion was an attempt by radical Anabaptists to establish a communal sectarian government in the city. (Details can be read at the links.)

    Because of the Battle of Frankenhausen and the Münster Rebellion, traditional historians of the Reformation era have generally referred to them as the Anabaptists and ignored the peaceful surviving remnants (Mennonites and Amish) as being inconsequential. Thankfully, interest in the peaceful remnant has increased in recent years.

    An action novel about these incidents that I found interesting was, "Q" written by Luther Blissett. It's a book that contains interesting fictional depictions of both the Battle of Frankenhausen and the Münster Rebellion in the early part of the book. In the later part of the book the action moves to the underground Anabaptist movement in Italy.

    A good non-fiction history of the Münster Rebellion is The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, by Anthony Arthur

  3. Responses to the above comments:

    Anton, I didn't mean to imply that the Anabaptists were more influential than the Lutherans or Catholics. What I wanted to say was that probably the Anabaptist influence is stronger now than it has ever been since the 16th century.

    Now, as in many times in the past, I think that the pacifist movement is gaining strength--but so is apocalypticism. As people become more polarized, the extremes on both sides become stronger.

    I appreciate Clif pointing out the difference, in spite of the similarity, between Müntzer and Münster. The Rebellion of Münster is another embarrassment to contemporary Anabaptists (and I may post about that next month). It is interesting to note, though, that both Thomas Müntzer and the Rebellion of Münster were in Germany. What I consider "real" Anabaptism came from Switzerland and, later, from Holland.

  4. Leroy: I'm interested in your suggestions that "Anabaptist influence is stronger now than it has ever been since the 16th century" and "that the pacifist movement is gaining strength." Why do you think these claims are true?

  5. Anton, thanks for the question, which I will answer briefly here and perhaps more fully on a blog posting at some point.

    By now I mean in the last forty years, say, not now as opposed to last year or the last decade.

    I think there has been a growing influence of Anabaptism from the early 1970s, although the roots of that resurgence goes back to Harold Bender’s “The Anabaptist Vision” which was the presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1943.

    Bender’s address was included in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, a seminal book first published in 1957 that broadened the understanding of Anabaptism, especially of the surviving part of that tradition.

    But in the world of Christian ethics and theology, a pivotal date is 1972, the year John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus was first published. In the academic world at least, that work by the premier Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian of the twentieth century has been, and continues to be, quite influential.

    More recently, the influence of Anabaptism has been strengthened and broadened through the writings of Stanley Hauerwas, who has remained a Methodist but who is an unabashed “disciple” of Yoder.

    Although he/it embraces traditions other than Anabaptism, the work/writings of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community has also greatly, and perhaps increasingly, enhanced the influence of Anabaptism over the past forty years.

    I may have more to add later, but this is enough for now.

  6. Interesting that contrary to the view in your postvery few Historians today see any of the Anabaptist groups as non-violent pacifists. See James Stayer 'Anabaptists and the Sword' for a full breakdown of this argument. The problem for Christians then and today is that to be able to implement their peaceful christian values (eg. Love thy neighbour) into their lives and spread these in society, they rely on the pre-existance peace in society. However the question is how can one achieve a peaceful utopian society without violence. For to maintain a peaceful state means defending a peaceful state and that often means using violence against those opposed to peace. Therefore even the most hardened christian pacifists have to admit that they rely on violence (if indirectly) to have a peaceful existance.