It’s only recently I learned about the Peasants’ War which began in May 1525. Imagine. Forty years as a Lutheran, and not a word or sermon on an event that killed over a hundred thousand and in many ways involved Martin Luther. As I’ve watched the Trump phenomena unfold, I thought back to this--exciting the masses about injustices and then flip flopping.
Martin Luther added to the unrest that had been going on for years—at least the hopes that ordinary peasants had for liberation from both the clergy and the ruling classes. There were many societal and economic changes happening, a rising middle class, the creation of free towns, displacement of agrarian workers, the importation of precious metals from the "new world," the rise of banks and money becoming the source of wealth instead of land, and rampant inflation. The feudal system of the old Roman empire in Europe had become like slavery by the fifteenth century—the peasants couldn’t even marry without approval of their lord and if the head of household died, the lord could take the best property from the family for his own use They couldn’t hunt or fish on the lord’s properties even though there were ancient agreements to this freedom that were being ignored. (Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?) The nobility classes were growing by creation of titles and becoming impoverished, with the poorest taking offices in the church because there was no more land. The clergy also had both wealthy and poor classes.
And then Luther declared Christians no longer had to answer to Rome or any other man. I don’t know how common the ability to read was among the peasants, but through their radical and extremist leaders they knew about Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian and his Babylonian Captivity. Those pamphlets in that day were like social media flare ups of today. Luther declared that “no Christian was under the obligation to comply with any law which was enacted upon him by another man.” For thousands of peasants looking for justice for losing their rights, that was like throwing gasoline on the glowing embers of a simmering revolution.
At first Martin Luther encouraged the Peasants, who themselves were divided among the radicals and moderates and had many justifiable grievances going back a century, and he criticized the nobility and princes for being oppressive. He said he was one of them, even bragged about being from a family of peasants. But then he did an about face, “with the release of his pamphlet Against the Murdering Robbing Rats of Peasants. In it, he provoked and encouraged the nobles to shed blood in order to suppress the revolt, “stab, kill, and strangle.” Luther publicly exhorted the princes to exterminate the peasants. He called peasants pigs, stupid and incorrigible. He went as far as publicly proclaiming that the princes were not only ‘God’s swords’ but that it was also their sacred duty to preserve law and order on earth by punishing these most heinous and atrocious criminals [the peasants]. He believed that perjury, rebellion and hypocrisy called for harsh punishment.” (The Inconsistencies of Martin Luther Before, During, and After the Peasants’ War, 2011)
On May 15, 1525, and its aftermath, over 100,000 peasants were massacred—they were no match for their nobles’ soldiers. Luther, who had vowed to stand by the peasants, betrayed them and took the side of the nobility. Some reformers, who originally were Lutherans but abandoned Luther, said the new Lutheran church had less freedom of speech than the Turks (Muslims) and that Luther was taking more power than the Pope.