Historian James Stayer has shown that the German Peasants’ War and the Anabaptist movement each emerged out of the sixteenth century European social turmoil, that they’re linked in significant ways, and that both had their origins in a nonviolent peasants’ social movement (The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods). Peasants in Franconia, Waldshut, and Schaffhausen, communities that later became centers of the Anabaptist movement, decided to act and organized peasants’ leagues to fight their cause.
Because canon law in Europe was stacked against them, the peasants appealed directly to the Bible, which they called the divine law. If the Gospel demanded equality, why was European society so stratified along class lines? They insisted on the abolition of the class privileges of the aristocrats and religious orders who they called the “Big Jacks.”
They drew up a treatise known as the Twelve Articles and appealed to the social elites to join them out of their love for the Gospel. If not, they would take nonviolent action against them. The holders of castles and monasteries would be placed under a “ban” or boycott unless they voluntarily withdrew from those strongholds of oppression. If they didn’t join the peasants in upholding the general Christian welfare, the common people would refuse to associate with then in any way—“neither by way of eating, drinking, bathing, grinding meal, baking, tilling the soil, mowing hay” or in any other way (71). Even today, we can see a remnant of that “ban” in the Amish practice of shunning former church members.
At first the peasants were successful. They began to occupy and dismantle various castles and monasteries. There were processions from town to town under the rainbow banner of the peasants’ league. James Stayer has shown that, at that point in time, it was impossible to separate the Anabaptists from the peasants’ league activists. Things got nasty in 1525 when the aristocrats hired mercenary soldiers to fight against the peasants. The peasants, in turn, decided that they had no choice but to take up whatever arms they could find, including pitchforks, and prepare for battle.
During this tense standoff, a group of Anabaptist leaders in Zürich wrote a letter to Thomas Müntzer, the spiritual leader of the peasants. They supported Müntzer’s fight against the onerous rents and obligatory tithes and taxes collected by the clergy and the aristocrats. At the same time, they counseled him against taking up arms, “The Gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, neither are they thus to protect themselves” (62).
We don’t know if Müntzer ever received the letter. Shortly thereafter he led the peasants into battle, believing that God was on their side. The mercenaries ruthlessly destroyed the poorly armed peasant army, slaughtering about 100,000 of them. Protestant reformer Martin Luther sided with the aristocrats and encouraged then to show no mercy on what he described as murdering and pillaging peasant bands (21, 58).
Anabaptist leaders like Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler, on the other hand, generally supported the social objectives of the peasants’ leagues while rejecting the final resort to violence. My next blog post will look at how this shaped the emerging Anabaptist social gospel.