Where Luther Got It Wrong: The Peasants’ Revolt

martin_lutherby Michael Rinehart

I am deeply grateful for the sabbatical summer I spent reading about Luther and the Reformation, among other things. Thank you.

LEAD asked me to share a few of my gleanings. This is a small portion of a chapter I wrote for some future work, perhaps a Lenten study on the Reformation.

The Reformation meant an increase in education. It launched a flurry of hymn-writing. Luther translated the Bible into German. The liturgy and sermons were brought into in the language of the people. The laity began receiving the cup. And while there was sadly a division in the church, the Roman Catholic side also initiated reforms.

But all was not well. Luther was often acerbic, harsh and unbending. He called the Pope the Antichrist. He said Copernicus was trying to turn the whole world of astronomy upside down (54:359), and tried to prove him wrong from Scripture (Joshua 10:12). He said men had broad shoulders and narrow hips, therefore possessing more intelligence, whereas women had broad hips and a wide fundament for keeping the house and raising children. And who hasn’t read Luther’s senile ranting about the Jews in his 1543 pamphlet, that Luther scholars prayed would get lost in the dustbin of history?

I want to devote these next few paragraphs, however, to another place where Luther got it wrong, and missed a huge opportunity: Luther’s stance on The Peasants’ Revolt of 1525.

In Luther’s day, the vast majority of Europeans did not live in cities. According to Princeton Reformation scholar Kenneth Appold, most Europeans were rural peasants living in some form of feudal servitude. Since 95% of them did not know how to read or write, their names are not known, and their story is often not told in books chronicling the events of the Reformation.

Long before Luther was born, in the mid-14th century, the Black Plague began to devastate Europe. The Black Plague, also known as the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague killed over 100 million people, around half of Europe.

The Plague had a curious consequence. As the populations of Europe were decimated, there was a considerable surplus of grain. With 100 million less mouths to feed, there was more grain than needed. The laws of supply and demand being what they are, this superabundance of food led to steep drop in the price of grain. The result, of course, meant that the lords of a predominately agrarian economy got a considerable haircut. Their profits plummeted.

In order to offset these losses, the lords increasingly found ways to pass costs on to their subjects, most of whom were peasants farming on land owned by the lord. Rents were raised. Leases were extended to a lifetime, essentially making slaves or indentured servants out of the farmers. Some rents went beyond a lifetime, indenturing peasants’ children and grandchildren. If debts were not paid, the poor land workers could be jailed and their families forced to work them out of jail. The lord of the manor would also offer protection, for a fee. Serfs who were beholden to their master would have to ask permission to travel, or to marry. Laws favorable to the aristocracy were often passed that widened the gap between peasant and lord.

In addition, the lords began to fence in their considerable properties. Peasants had less access to common lands for hunting, fishing and gathering firewood. Peasants could be fined or jailed for poaching. Lords could confiscate personal property. When a peasant died, the lord could help himself to the peasant’s belongings. Serfs were the lowest class of feudal Europe. As their situation worsened, the complaints increased and uprisings began to surface.

These peasants never envisioned a democratic society or an end to feudalism. They did not call for the termination of serfdom, at first anyway. They simply wanted to return to the fairer practices of antiquity. They wanted access to common lands.

Sometimes the lands belonged to monasteries, so the landowners were prince-abbots. Peasants who questioned practices that smacked of extortion would be reprimanded, deprived of property, accused of larceny, or in some cases excommunicated. Tensions increased as peasants protested. Mercenaries would be sent in to plunder uppity villages.

In 1524 a few unrelated skirmishes flared up. In Stülingen, in the middle of the harvest, the Countess of Lupfen ordered her serfs to collect snail shells to use as thread spools. Over a thousand peasants gathered, formed a committee and drew up a list of complaints. Other concurrent events blended into a large scale revolt running across southwest Germany. In time they formed a confederation and drew up the Twelve Articles, stating their cause. They wanted to elect their own pastors. They wanted to use their tithes (10% or more of their crops) to pay their pastor rather than sending those tithes on to an external church entity that sent them a pastor not of their choosing. They called for an end to serfdom, and the restoration of hunting and fishing rights.

Luther sympathized with the peasants’ plight. He denounced the unjust practices. Many peasants found a ringing voice in Luther’s writings, especially his most famous treatises, On Christian Freedom, which had been published in 1520, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In On Christian Freedom, Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Luther meant this theologically. Christians were not subject to Moses’ law, only to Christ’s law to love one another, as Paul had said in Romans 13:8. The peasants, however, heard this as a type of manifesto. While not yet a Jeffersonian “all men are created equal,” which was to come two centuries later, they heard a fresh wind of freedom from an intolerable situation. Luther’s writings were not the cause of the revolt, but they certainly appealed to the peasants.

When the revolts began to turn violent, Luther opposed them. He claimed the peasants had misunderstood what he was saying, and while he felt their cause was just, he could not support their insurrection and breaking of the peace. Responding to the peasants he wrote, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hoards of Peasants (Wider die Mordischen und Reubischen Rotten der Bawren). In this tract, Luther instructed the German Nobility to strike down the peasants as one would kill a mad dog. This was just what the Lutheran and Catholic aristocracy wanted to hear, and it is precisely what they did. The revolt was put down. When the smoke cleared 100,000 peasants were dead.

It is easy with our 21st century, post-American Revolution eyes to judge Luther for his lack of democratic values. Luther was a product of Late Medieval feudal society. He wanted to part in anarchy. Nevertheless, his decision cost him the support of the peasants, who, in time, identified with the more egalitarian Anabaptist movement. He sided with the powerful over the powerless. Because Luther and his parents were neither peasants nor rural, it is likely that he didn’t fully understand their plight. Lutheranism henceforth became a religion for the upper classes.

What can we learn? One who sees part of the gospel may not see all of it. There were no clear winners and losers in the Reformation. There were many players besides Lutherans and Catholics. There were Anabaptists and Calvinists. This was not a bipolar conflict. Luther is at best a flawed hero. Approach Reformation Sunday with some humility. If you find yourself siding with the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless, beware. You might just be on the wrong side of history.

 

Michael Rinehart, Bishop, Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

5 replies
  1. Richard Boshoven
    Richard Boshoven says:

    Nah… Luther simply chose to stay consistent with St. Paul in chapter 13 of Romans. There is simply no justification given in scripture for rebellion against authority. It’s not like the princes we’re demanding blood sacrifices to Dagon. Ok… Can’t comply with that… Short of that however, Luther was certain there was no excuse to protest against the establishment with violence. None at all. Luther was captive to scripture. He backed the princes in order to restore the peace. And condemned them for thier overreach.
    I gather that you would have preferred Luther to be a social warrior, but he was never that. A warrior, yes, Luther was certainly polemic. But only ever in defence of the pure, uncompromising, gospel. Sola, scriptura. Not so?
    😁
    Rev Bosh, (lcms)

    Reply
    • Dave
      Dave says:

      Your interpretation of Romans 13 is troubling. Governments are created by men, not God.
      If they are unjust, it is our calling as Christians to speak out against them through non-violent activism.

      Reply
  2. J. Daniel Lupton
    J. Daniel Lupton says:

    Thank you for this rare honest appraisal of history. While I appreciate the roles of Jan Hus and Martin Luther, both were medieval men raised with medieval prejudices. Hus did more than Luther to lift up the serfs, and the Bohemian/Moravian Brethren were the first to educate equally boys and girls, children of the nobility and peasant serfs. Luther, a hundred years later, and with the advantage of not being burning at a stake, had time to write more lasting theology. Hus is largely overlooked in reformation history, while Luther is increasingly treated as the 12th or 13th apostle. Luther was errant in his writings about serfdom and he erred about the Jews in every way…theologically and practically, giving the last years of his life calling for pogroms against the Jews, which evil continued from his day until the Nazi persecution, which began most severely on Luther’s birthday to honor Luther in the launching of the holocaust. If Luther had called all Christians to love all their neighbors, including Hebrew neighbors, European history would be different. The year’s after the 95 thesis were amazing in many positive and lasting ways, but seminaries, non-Lutheran seminaries, are currently increasingly exalting Reformation Theology, and with it an unbalanced adulation and near deification of Luther. The result is Antisemitism, with its friend Indifference, rising again.

    Reply

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