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CHAPTER XII

THE OUTBREAK OF FANATICISM

 PERSECUTION and oppression have a tendency to develop manifestations of fanatical zeal in the oppressed and persecuted. History affords many instances of this principle, and nowhere perhaps is its working better illustrated than in Germany in the sixteenth century. The movement that we call the Reformation was a complex series of phenomena, social, political, and religious; and hardly had Luther begun his labors as a religious reformer, when another group of men began to agitate for far-reaching social reforms. These were the spokes. men of the peasants, the most miserable class of the German people.

The condition of the peasantry of Germany was rapidly changing for the worse during the sixteenth century. This was owing to the complete social revolution then in progress which we call the decay of feudalism. Many causes had been at work to disintegrate the feudal system, but none had been so powerful as the invention of gunpowder. The day when foot-soldiers of the peasant class were armed with muskets was the day of doom for feudalism. The old superiority of the armored knight was gone; battles were no longer contests of cavalry; once more infantry came to the front. As the man with the hoe, the peasant was still despised; as the man with the gun he compelled respect.

The political and social supremacy of the nobles had rested on their military power. So long as the armored knight was able to contend single-handed against a score and even a hundred ill—armed peasants in leather jerkins, so long he was powerful both to punish and to protect. The weak instinctively seek the protection of the strong, even when a high price must be paid for the favor, for it is better to give a part to one’s overlord than to lose all to another. The nobility had been tolerated and even upheld because they were necessary to society. They had been permitted to usurp much power, social privilege, wealth, that in nowise belonged to them. But the tacit condition on which these usurpations were condoned was that the nobility should discharge their functions as protectors of social institutions, as preservers of peace and order.

In the sixteenth century the power of the nobility was broken. The knight ceased to be supreme in arms, and as his political and social privileges depended on his military prowess, he must now prepare himself to part with these. This fact he could not and would not see. He was no student of social science, he had no philosophy of history, but he had the usual share of human selfishness, and the disposition to hold on at all hazards to his posessions. The increase of royal power on the one hand, and on the other his own growing poverty, began to pinch him sorely. The rise of the merchant class, the increase of manufactures and commerce, had done away with the old system of barter, and introduced the use of money. Of money the knight had little, of wants he and his household had an increasing number. It was natural that he should turn to his only resource, the peasants who tilled his soil, and try to wring from them the sums that he needed. Thus began new and continually increasing exactions from the peasants, until their condition became intolerable. Discontent became everywhere rife, and frequent insurrections showed that a violent social revolution was imminent.

The rise of the Lutheran Reformation was coincident with this state of things. It was inevitable that the peasants should be encouraged to expect betterment of their condition from the religious movement thus begun, and the early teachings of Luther must have fanned this hope. The seething discontent finally broke out into a general uprising throughout Southern Germany. The peasants drew up twelve articles, in which they demanded what seem now like very moderate measures of reform, such as the right to elect their own pastors, the status of freemen, restoration of the common rights to fish and game and woodlands, just administration of the laws, and abolition of fines and undue feudal services. In a tract that he wrote on the articles, though he criticised the peasants for resorting to forcible methods of obtaining redress, Luther felt compelled to defend the substantial justice of these demands, and exhorted the nobles to yield lest ruin overtake them.

It is quite clear that we have no one upon earth to thank for all this disorder and insurrection but you yourselves, princes and lords, and you especially, blind bishops, insane priests and monks, who, even to this very day, hardened in your perversity, cease not to clamor against the holy gospel, although you know it is just and right and good, arid that you cannot honestly say anything against it. At the same time, in your capacity as secular authorities, you manifest yourselves the executioners and spoilers of the poor, you sacrifice everything and everybody to your monstrous luxury, to your outrageous pride, and you have continued to do this until the people neither can nor will endure you any longer. With the sword already at your throat, your mad presumption induces you to imagine yourselves so firm in the saddle that you cannot be thrown off. If you alter not, and that speedily, this impious security will break your necks for you. . . It is you, it is your crimes that God is about to punish. If the peasants, who are now attacking you, are not the ministers of his will, others, coming after them, will be so. You may heat them, but you will be none the less vanquished; you may crush them to the earth, but God will raise up others in their place; it is his pleasure to strike you, and he will strike you.1

The leader of the peasants whose name has come down to us as most notable was Thomas M?zer. He was born about I490 at Stolberg, studied at several universities, becoming a bachelor of theology at Halle, and was a man of considerable learning, unusual ability, and remarkable eloquence. With all these gifts he showed himself from the beginning of his career to be one of those hot-headed, unbalanced, fanatical men, who are born to be troublers in Israel. In I5I5 he was provost of a convent at Trohsen, near Ascherslehen, and in I5I7 became a teacher in the gymnasium at Brunswick. In June, I520, he became preacher of the chief church at Zwickau, the city already leaning toward Lutheranism; and it is more than suspected that he received the appointment with Luther’s knowledge and sanction. In his first sermon he attacked the pope and clergy so furiously as to make a marked sensation in the town, and soon great crowds of people flocked in from the surrounding region to hear this preacher, who, according to an enemy’s testimony, was "gifted with angelic eloquence."

It was by Luther’s earlier writings that he had been won to the reformation cause, and he took more seriously than their author the ideas set forth in these writings. Luther’s course was a curious compound of radical opinions and conservative action, but M?zer was the kind man to insist on making action correspond to avowed opinion. He therefore attempted to carry out consistently the principle avowed by Luther in his "Babylonian Captivity," that the gospel should be the rule of political as well as of Christian life. He also dissented from Luther’s forensic ideas about justification. That faith alone justifies he denied, calling this a "fictitious faith." In short, the disciple showed a strong tendency to outrun his master, in unsparing application of logic and Scripture (as he understood the latter) to everyday life.

Finding the Council and more sober citizens opposed to his radicalism, M?zer thought to strengthen his position by attaching his fortunes to those of the "propets," Storch, St?ner, and Thom? and together they began to announce the speedy end of the age and the setting up of the kingdom of Christ. These prophecies soon produced such disorders in Zwickau that the Council was compelled to act. The "prophets" were thrown into prison, and M?zer was banished, going into Bohemia. The "prophets" were released after a time, went to Wittenberg, as already related, and then disappear from history. M?zer, unfortunately, did not disappear. About I523 he in some way became pastor at Alstedt, where he married a former nun. Here he was as conservative as previously he had been radical. He published a liturgy in German which is decidedly more Roman than Lutheran in doctrine, and contains a form of baptism for infants. In one of his tracts published he says that infant baptism cannot be proved from Scripture, which is probably the reason why he has been called an Anabaptist, but he never abandoned the practice of baptizing infants.

By the summer of I524 he had made the town too hot to hold him, and for some time he wandered from place to place, visiting (Ecolampadius at Basel, possibly Hubmaier at Waldshut, and making the acquaintance of the Swiss Anabaptists. At the beginning of I525 he came to M?lhausen. Before this time, in September, I524, learning what his views had come to be, and what was likely to be their outcome, Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock addressed a letter of warning and remonstrance to M?zer which did not reach him, but still exists in the archives at Schaffhausen to testify to the sound views of its authors. " Is it true," Grebel asks, "as we hear, that you preached in favor of an attack on the princes? If you defend war or anything else not found in the clear word of God, I admonish you by our common salvation to abstain from these things now and hereafter." it is impossible to say what effect this fraternal reproof might have had; but not receiving it, M?zer went on his way, and by his rash attempt to mingle civil and religious reform, and enforce both by the sword, he forfeited his life.

For when he reached M?lhausen it was the stormcenter of Germany; the outbreak of the peasants had already begun and the Peasants’ War was on. The peasants had a righteous cause, if ever men had one who strove for liberty with the sword, and the justice and moderation of their demands as made in their twelve articles is conceded by every modern historian. M?zer gave himself out as the prophet of God, come for the purpose of setting up the kingdom of heaven in the city, and promising destruction of princes, community of goods, and the gospel to be made the rule of life in all things.

By such means he easily made himself the head of the revolt, and thousands of the deluded peasants of Southern Germany flocked to his standard. The bubble was pricked by the lances of the allied German princes at the battle of Frankenhausen, May I5, I525. The peasants were defeated with great slaughter; M?zer and other leaders were captured and put to death; and it is credibly recorded of the "prophet" that before his death he recanted his errors, returned to the Catholic Church, received the last sacraments, and died exhorting the people of M?lhausen to hold fast to the true (Catholic) faith I Though the peasants had a good cause, they had not always adopted good methods. Most of them were ignorant, all were exasperated, and some were maddened by their wrongs. In their uprising some outrages were committed; castles had been burned and plundered and ruthless oppressors had been slain. These deeds were now made the pretext for a retaliation whose cruelty has rarely been surpassed in history. It is computed by historians who have no motive to exaggerate, that fully a hundred thousand were killed before the fury of the princes and the knights was appeased.

Foremost among those who urged them on was Luther. It would seem that he had become alarmed by the persistence of those who had sought to make him and his teachings responsible for the peasant war. His hope was in the protection and patronage of the princes, to whom the plain words he had spoken must have given deep offense. So in the midst of the uproar he sent to the press a second pamphlet, in which he turned completely about, and denounced the peasants as violently as he had before rebuked the princes.

They cause uproar, outrageously rob and pillage monasteries and castles not belonging to them. For this alone, as public highwaymen and murderers, they deserve a twofold death of body and soul. It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, known as such, already under God and the emperor’s ban. For of a public rebel, every man is both judge and executioner. Just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow. Rebellion is not a vile murder, but like a great fire that kindles and devastates a country; hence uproar carries with it a land full of murder, bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and destroys everything, like the greatest calamity. Therefore whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as when one must slay a mad dog; 6~ht him not and be will fight you, and a whole country with you. Let the dvii power press on confidently and strike as long as it can move a muscle. For here is the advantage: the peasants have bad consciences and unlawful goods, and whenever a peasant is killed therefore he has lost body and soul, and goes forever to the devil. Civil authority, however, has a .~iean conscience and lawful goods, and can say to God with ill security of heart: "Behold, my God, thou hast appointed me prince or lord, of that I cannot doubt, and hast entrusted me with the sword against evil-doers (Rom. I3 : 4)... Therefore I will punish and smite as long as I can move a muscle; thou wilt judge and approve." . . Such wonderful times are these that a prince can more easily win heaven by shedding blood than others with prayers.

Therefore, dear lords, redeem here, save here, help here; have mercy on these poor peasants, stab, strike, strangle, whoever can. Remainest thou therefore dead? Well for you, for a more pious death nevermore canst thou obtain. For thou diest in obedience to God’s word and to duty (Rom. I3: i), and in the service of love, to deliver thy neighbor out of hell and the devil’s chains.

The charge brought against Luther was of course absurd. There would have been a revolt of the peasants had there been no Luther and no Reformation, though it is possible that Luther and his teachings hastened the outbreak and increased its violence. It is equally absurd to charge the responsibility of the revolt upon the Anabaptists, and had not M?zer been erroneously called an Anabaptist by careless writers probably no connection would have been suspected between movements that had so little in common as the religious reformation sought by the Ariabaptists and the social revolution desired by the peasants. Some few Anabaptists were doubtless concerned in the revolt—it would be wonderful if such were not the case—but not the sect as a whole, or even any large proportion of them. One fact is decisive of this question: the vengeance of the princes and nobles was not directed against Anabaptists as such, on account of the peasant uprising. No contemporary charged the Anabaptists with responsibility for the disorders at M?lhausen or elsewhere during the revolt of the peasants. That charge it was left for certain writers of the present century to advance for the first time. It was in. Northern Germany, and some years after the revolt of the peasants had been subdued, that the anarchistic and doctrinal vagaries of certain Anabaptists found their fullest development. He who has been called the leading spirit of the movement that culminated at M?ster, never countenanced or taught the use of the sword in the cause of religion. Melchior Hofmann was a man of fervent piety, of evangelical spirit, of pure and devoted life; but his mind was of the dreamy, mystical type, and his lack of thorough knowledge of the Scriptures in the original tongues, and his deficiency in general mental culture made him an easy victim to speculations and vagaries. Pure in life and mild in character as he was, not a few of his teachings contained dangerous germs of evil, and their development under his successors brought great shame upon the Anabaptist cause.

Hofmann was born in Swabia, probably in the free imperial city of Hall, about I490. He had only a slight education, and was apprenticed to a iurrier. He very early embraced the Lutheran Reformation, but was by nature a radical and an enthusiast, and could be expected to remain permanently subject to no leader who halted half-way in the work of reform. A disparaging reference to him in one of Zwingli’s letters, written in I523, shows that he was then in Zurich, and later he went to Livonia, where he was in no long time thrown into prison and then banished. He was in Oorpat in the autumn of I524, and succeeded in obtaining testimonials from a number of scholars and influential men, including Luther himself. It was about this time that he began to develop his chiliastic notions, and as a lay preacher he did not fail to advocate them. This would bring him into no collision with the Lutherans, for Luther was himself inclined to chiliastic notions, at least during this portion of his career. About the beginning of I526 Irlofmann went to Stockholm, where he published his first book, an interpretation of the twelfth chapter of Daniel, in which he gave free vent to his notions about the coming of Christ’s kingdom, and fixed the year I533 for the end of the age.

For the next two years he was in Denmark; being still attached to the Lutheran party, he had little difficulty in obtaining the protection of the authorities, and even got a living assigned him. His restlessness in speculation soon made trouble for him with the Lutheran clergy, and finally his avowal of Zwinglian ideas regarding the Eucharist procured his banishment. Thence he seems to have gone to Strassburg, arriving there at the beginning of I529, or possibly a little before.

Up to this time there is no evidence that he had met any Anabaptists or become acquainted with their views, still less that he had any inclination toward them. At Strassburg the Anabaptists were numerous, and the death of Denck had left them without a recognized leader. They differed from many German Anabaptists on several points; in particular, they were opposed to the use of the sword, in spite of the authority of H?maier and Denck. The ardor of Hofmann and the novelty of his teachings naturally rally fitted him to step into the vacant leadership, and in a very short time he was recognized as the head nf the Anabaptists of Strassburg. He wrote and taught indefatigably, and made numerous missionary journeys into surrounding regions. One of these, into Holland, was fraught with momentous consequences, for in the recourse of it he met, converted, baptized, and indoctrinated with his notions, Jan Matthys, a baker of Haarlem, who was, to be his successor, and lead the Anabaptists into a career of shame and overthrow.

After a time the magistrates of the city became alarmed at flofmann’s growing influence, and he was arrested in May, I533, and thrown into prison. He had before this predicted that the end of the age was at hand; that Strassburg was to be the New Jerusalem, and that the magistrates would there set up the kingdom of God; that the new truth and the new baptism would prevail irresistibly throughout the earth. He had set the very year of his arrest as the time of consummation; and at first his followers were not dismayed, for this persecution, they persuaded themselves, was also foretold. But the years passed and Hoftnann still languished in prison, until death released him toward the close of I543.

In the meantime another "prophet" had arisen and his predictions were claiming the attention of the credulous. Ilofmann was discredited by the failure of his prophecies, but none the less eagerly were those of Jan Matthys received. He was one of these crack-brained fanatics, half lunatic, half criminal, who never fail to gain a large following, and as certainly lead their dupes to destruction. About the time of Hofmann’s imprisonment Matthys began to dream dreams and see visions; proclaimed himself to be the Elias of the new dispensation soon to begin, and sent out twelve apostles to herald the coming of the kingdom of Christ. Among other things he predicted the speedy overthrow of all tyrants and the coming of an age of gold. Converts were made to this new gospel by the thousand in Holland and Friesland.

Events just then occurring at the city of M?ster at tracted the attention of the Anabaptist leaders and caused that city to become the center of operations. M?stet was at that time a semi-free city, ruled by its council, but situated in the territory of a prince-bishop who claimed a certain suzerainty. The citizens had been struggling to gain freedom from an ecclesiastical caste that insulted and robbed them, and a famine that occurred in this region in I529 brought the city to the very verge of revolution.

At this juncture Bernard Rothmann began to preach the Lutheran doctrines there, and soon all the clergy of the city sided with him. A revolution, half political, half religious, ensued, and by the intervention of Philip of Hesse a treaty was made with the prince-bishop, in which M?ster was recognized as a Lutheran city. But Rothmann and his colleagues had no notion of stopping here; they issued a" Confession of Two Sacraments," in which they strongly advocated believers’ baptism, and defined the ordinance as "dipping or completely plunging into the water."

Just as affairs had come to this stage two of the apostles of Matthys reached the city and began preaching and baptizing. Tn eight days they are said to have baptized fourteen hundred people. Two weeks later Jan Matthys himself arrived, and in February the Anabaptists had so increased that they had no difficulty in electing a council from their own number, and so gained control of the government of M?ster without striking a blow. From this time they had supreme power in the town, though the prince-bishop speedily laid siege to it and confined them closely within.

The Anabaptist domination was celebrated by clearing the Dom of all images, and driving from the city all who would not join them. The council then established community of goods as the law of the town, and the orgy of fanaticism and wickedness began. Daily visions andl revelations came to the leaders, some of whom were evidently sincere, while others appear to have been simply devilish. Matthys was certainly one of the former, and proved it by his death. In obedience to a vision he made a sortie from the city with a fcw followers, and was killed while fighting desperately. John Bockhold, of Leyden, thereupon declared himself the successor, and had no difficulty in persuading the people to accept him as the prophet appointed by God. Nothing seemed too much for these cre(lulous M?steritcs to receive unquestioningly. When John of Leyden shortly afterward proclaimed that this was Mount Zion, that the kingdom of David was to be re-established, and that he was King David, nobody questioned hint The solemn farce was played out to the end. Of course King David had to have a harem, and polygamy was proclaimed as the law of the new kingdom. Perhaps the fact that six times as many women as men were now in the city had not a very remote connection with this feature of the kingdom.

The farce was about ended; it was soon to become bloody tragedy. The M?sterites, knowing that before the siege began the surrounding country held thousands who sympathized with them, were continually expecting that an armed force of Anabaptists would come to their aid. But the Anabaptists were overawed by the military force, or disgusted by the fantastic doings in the city, and no army came. The town was wasted by famine, weakened at last by dissensions, and betrayed by traitors. June 25, I535, it fell, and Anahaptism in Germany fell with it. There was great slaughter in the town, and the captured leaders, after tortures truly diabolical in their cruelty, were hung up in cages to the tower of the church of St. Lambert, in the chief market-place, to die of starvation and exposure, and there they hung until quite recent times, when for very shame the few remaining bones were removed. The cages still hang there.

The entire responsibility for these disorders was at once thrown upon the Anabaptists. There was this excuse for so doing, that several of the ringleaders, and a considerable number of their followers, called themselves or were called by that name. Yet the principles of Rothmann, in his writings that remain, are totally opposed to his conduct at M?ster. In none of the Anabaptist literature of the time is there anything but horror and detestation expressed for the M?ster doings; and even before they were made the scapegoats of this uprising, their writings were full of reproofs spoken against any who would propagate religion by the sword. M?ster was not more decidedly contrary to the teachings of the reformers than it was to the teachings of the Anabaptists generally. It is no more fair to hold the Anahaptists as a whole responsible for what occurred there, because Matthys and Bockhold were Anabaptists, than it is to hold the Lutherans responsible because Rothmann was a Lutheran when he began his evil career. Cornelius, the able and judicial Roman Catholic historian of the M?ster uproar, says justly: "All these excesses were condemned and opposed wherever a large assembly of the brethren afforded an opportunity to give expression to the religious consciousness of the Anabaptist membership." F?slin, a conscientious and impartial German investigator, says: "There was a great difference between Anabaptists and Anabaptists. There were those amongst them who held strange doctrines, but this cannot be said of the whole sect. If we should attribute to every sect whatever senseless doctrines two or three fanciful fellows have taught, there is no one in the world to whom we could not ascribe the most abominable errors." To which may be added the conclusion of Ulhorn: "The general character of this whole movement was peaceful, in spite of the prevailing exdtement. Nobody thought of carrying out the new ideas by force. In striking contrast to the M?zer uproar, meekness and suffering were here understood as the most essential elements of the Christian ideal."

But though scholarly investigations, with substantial unanimity, have now come to this conclusion regarding the teachings and methods of German Anabaptists, this was not the voice of contemporary opinion; that visited the sins of the few upon the many, and pronounced all Anabaptists alike to be enemies of society and worthy of any punishment that could be devised. The most atrocious crimes were not avenged with a severity greater than was visited on the members of this unfortunate sect. The seventies of former persecutions were far exceeded, and only in the domain of the Landgrave of Hesse was there anything like moderation or justice in the treatment meted out to these people. This prince alone among the Protestant rulers, while he favored the punishment of those actually concerned in the M?ster disorders, declared that merely to be an Anabaptist was not a capital crime: "To punish with death those who have done nothing more than err in the faith, cannot be justified on gospel grounds."

A gathering of Protestant authorities was held August 7, I536, at homburg, in Hesse, to consider the policy proper to be pursued toward the Anabaptists. Fight representatives of the nobility, seven delegates from five cities, and ten divines were present. The divines substantially agreed with Melanchthon, whose judgment was: "That the Anabaptists may and should be restrained by the sword. That those who have been sent into exile, and do not abide by the conditions, are to be punished by the sword." The representatives of the cities, particularly of Ulm and Augsburg, were of the milder opinion that death should not be inflicted as a punishment of heresy, though other seventies might be employed. Such of the nobles as spoke favored banishment, on pain of death in case of return. This was the penalty finally decided upon.

After the savage persecution following the downfall of M?ster, one might have expected the Anahaptists to have been extirpated. Their prominent leaders, it is true, disappeared, some being put to death, some dying of hardships and excessive toils. They were not entirely without leadership, however, and their dauntless fidelity to the truth continued. In Moravia, about the middle of the sixteenth century, there were seventy communities of Anabaptists, prosperous farmers and tradesmen, acknowledged to be among the most thrifty and law-abiding clement of the population. In Strassburg, in Augsburg, in Bohemia, and in Moldavia, they were also found in large numbers, and wherever found they were marked men by reason of their godly lives and good citizenship. Fifty years later, however, persecution had done its work only too well, and early in the seventeenth century we find the Anabaptists disappear from the history of Germany. They survived somewhat later in Poland, where they became quite numerous, and a large section of them adopted the Socinian theology.

The German Anabaptists committed the one sin that this world never pardons: they attempted a radical revolution, which would ultimately have transformed civil and social as well as religious institutions and—they failed. That is the real gist of their offense. Had they succeeded, the very men whom historians have loaded with execrations would have been held up as the greatest and noblest men of their age. The fame of Luther and Zwingli and Calvin would have been eclipsed by that of Grebel and H?maier and Denck, if the labors of the Anabaptists had been crowned with success. The true Reformation was that with which they were identified. The Reformation that actually prevailed in the sixteenth century was a perversion of the genuine movement, resulting from the unholy alliance with the State made by those who are called " reformers." Two centuries were required before the fruits of a real Reformation could ripen for the gathering; and it was in America, not in Germany, that the genuine Reformation culminated.

1 Michelet, "Life of Luther" (tr. by HazIitt). pp. I67, I68.

 
 
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