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Unrest in Church and State 1524-1525


In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.


Luther often had reason to be disappointed with those who were his friends. He was surprised when Dr. Eck first attacked his Ninety-Five Theses and stated that “We had recently formed a great friendship.” But Eck and Luther became determined opponents. Professor Agricola, a frequent house guest and colleague, later lost Luther’s trust when he insisted that the Law had no place in the life of the Christian. But perhaps the greatest disappointment was Dr. Carlstadt.

Carlstadt had been a professor at Wittenberg before Luther arrived, and was somewhat his elder. When Luther began teaching his new-found understanding of faith in Christ and the Gospel of free forgiveness, he found a willing ear in Carlstadt and an eager partner in spreading this message. Carlstadt was convinced by Luther that the outward trappings of worship were of little worth. He thought that many of the religious practices common at that time were vain attempts to instill piety and were actually distractions from the true merits of Christ and harmful to the faith of the simple Christian.

While Luther was hidden away in the Wartburg, Carlstadt took the lead and instituted drastic changes at Wittenberg. Priestly vestments—gone. Church organs—eliminated. Statuary and painted images—smashed and burned. The laity—allowed to take the bread and wine of communion for themselves directly from the altar. And it got even worse when radical outsiders came to Wittenberg from Zwickau proclaiming themselves prophets in direct communication with God. These were able to confuse Melanchthon and convince Carlstadt.

Luther felt compelled to return to Wittenberg, against the advice of the Elector. He immediately preached a remarkable series of eight sermons in eight days. Some things are essential, he reminded them; faith and love belong here. Other things can be freely chosen; vestments and images belong there. He exhorted patience, consideration for the weak brother lest he be confused by rapid changes, and reliance upon the Word to work real change in the heart. Peace was restored, but Carlstadt, unconvinced, left Wittenberg.

The Peasant War

Unrest on a much larger scale lay just under the surface of German society. The peasants’ lives were not easy. They were compelled to work hard and for little return. They were burdened with excessive taxes and compulsory labor, often forced to comply with the whims of their lord. The final straw came when a countess forced her peasants to interrupt their harvest to pick her strawberries! A statement was drawn up: the Twelve Articles, which asked for protections against unfair dealings, and for certain rights—for example, the right to fish and hunt in the common forest. These were reasonable, and Luther at first sided with the peasants. He certainly had harsh words to say about the greed and injustice of many of the princes of the land.

But then violence broke out in many places and spread across the Empire. Though the uprising had no central leadership, it met with growing success. Many castles and monasteries were captured and destroyed, and news of atrocities reached Luther. Wittenberg itself was under some threat. It was at this point that Luther wrote a severe pamphlet, indicting the peasants for committing murder and lawlessness while claiming to be a Christian movement. He exhorted the princes to use the sword to be “both judge and executioner” of “the murderous and plundering bands of peasants.” Before this could be published, imperial forces met the peasant army at Frankenhausen and crushed it. Afterwards, when his tract became available for reading, Luther was widely blamed for the bloodbath and lost some of his popular support. But being popular was never his goal; faithfulness to the Word, both in condemning sin and proclaiming the Gospel truth, was.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.