Opposition to Radical Reformation:
Martin Luther Against
Anabaptists and Radicals

Harold P. Shelly

Lutheran Church in Sweden changes,” read the recent headline in the Alliance Life “Religious News Digest.”1 The Lutheran Church has given up its status as the state Church. “By the year 2000, the church will begin appointing its own bishops, evaluating and dividing its own property holdings, and trimming its state-supported budget,” explains the article. The official status of over 400 years will be no longer. In the sixteenth century those who advocated such a separation of church and state were labeled Anabaptists and outlawed. This idea was too radical, too revolutionary.

  These “Anabaptists” were the most hated, persecuted and harassed sects of the sixteenth century. They were condemned “everywhere, always and by all.” They were banished, imprisoned, executed, burned at the stake and drowned. And yet they survived; they were uninhibited and indefatigable, a real nuisance to the authorities.

  The label “Anabaptist” was an epithet of reprobation and condemnation. It was attached to any religious difference, both evangelical and extremist, whether they baptized or not. It identified them with fanaticism, icono-clasm, schism and lawlessness. These so-called Anabaptists were radical in their day, radical in relation to the practices of their contemporaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. They were convinced that magisterial reformers like Martin Luther had stopped short; he had retained too much of the old Church. Luther, on the other hand, was convinced the Anabaptists went too far. Who was right? The purpose of this paper is to allow Luther to speak for himself from his major anti-radical, anti-Anabaptist sermons and writings published during the decade 1522-32.

 Reformation or Reinstitution

  For most radicals the institutional Church was beyond reformation; it needed to be reinstituted, rebuilt according to the New Testament pattern. The institution was beyond repair. The Reformers were trying to repair or reform the Church with the Bible; the Radicals intended to rebuild the church, and maybe society too, from the ground up according to the plain teachings of the New Testament. They were not, therefore, reformers, but revolutionaries. For Martin Luther such revolutionaries threatened to undo everything he had accomplished.

  Though some might emphasize obedience to Christ out of faith issuing from repentance, the enigmatic interpretations of Scripture and reliance on the inner witness of the Spirit by some was incomprehensible to the rational exegete of Wittenberg. Some spoke of feeding upon the celestial Christ; others of their sensitivity to the “inner word” and answering the call or voice of the Spirit. They might preach simple “imitation of Christ,” but their proclamation of the imminent kingdom of Christ based upon their understanding of biblical prophecies terrified civil authorities. Luther had the support of his prince and of other princes of the Holy Roman Empire. This he dared not jeopardize. These fanatics were out of control, he thought, and not submissive to his authority. They failed to live by faith and love as Luther taught. In theory Luther believed in separation of church and state, but the current situation required the patronage of princes.

 Radical Disciples

  Many radicals began as disciples of the major reformers. Some so-called Anabaptists had begun as disciples of Martin Luther. These included Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, a biblical scholar, and Thomas Münzer, a spiritualizer. Even the iconoclastic Zwickau prophets were somewhat influenced by Luther. Karlstadt was a professor of theology at Wittenberg when Luther arrived and had granted Luther his doctorate in theology, but Karlstadt moved further and faster than Luther. Thomas Münzer took up social issues and supported the peasant revolt in 1525. Another Anabaptist, Melchior Hofmann, had been a follower of Luther. His pilgrimage had taken him from Lutheran to Zwinglian (sacramentarian) to Anabaptist to Chiliast. Menno Simons had read Luther as a Catholic priest before his conversion to Anabaptism. Were they simply impatient? Would Luther have moved as far as they had, given more time? Or were there fundamental differences which were irreconcilable?

  Other Anabaptists had been disciples of Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, Switzerland, or had been affected by his writings. Although Zwingli had been influenced by Luther and did not reject the authority of the state, even he went too far for Luther when he advocated that what could not be found in Scripture ought to be removed from the Church. Ulrich Zwingli was a biblical humanist and therefore was more radical than the conservative Luther. Luther might even include him among the fanatics. The principle on which Luther operated was that he would retain the traditions unless the Scriptures definitively rejected them. Zwingli operated on the opposite theory. Whatever was not supported by clear and certain Scriptures should be discarded. This was the radical approach.2 Biblical humanists like Zwingli determined to return to the source of the faith and what was not there does not belong on the tree. Zwingli began his reform on this principle. So did the Anabaptists. This, in Luther's estimation, opened the door for fanaticism and revolution. As Bruce Shelley observes, “In a sense the rise of Anabaptism was no surprise. Most revolutionary movements produce a wing of radicals who feel called of God to reform the reformation.”3

Concerns of the Anabaptists

  Baptist historian Robert Baker suggests the Anabaptists tried to make four points:

1. The state cannot make Christians.

2. The state cannot be the same as the Church.

3. The state cannot determine ethics and attitudes for the Church.

4. The state cannot satisfy the longings of the human spirit. The state, therefore, cannot appoint the clergy; all are priests.4

  The implications of these concepts are important: 1) Infant baptism viewed as entry into the Church is not a matter for the state; 2) The state should not determine and punish heresy; 3) The state cannot legislate personal ethics and morality; and 4) Spiritual longings are satisfied by the Spirit.

To one degree or another, all the Anabaptists were mystics. Every believer could have direct, intimate union and communion with God. They did not need state-appointed priests. If the local congregation was to have a pastor, the congregation itself should select him. All this was revolutionary in the sixteenth century. Were the Anabaptists simply ahead of their time as the state-church separation in Sweden now suggests? Why, one may ask, did the reformers like Luther not simply let the Anabaptists alone? Was a peaceful coexistence out of the question?5 One might ask, Was Christianity intended to be socially and politically revolutionary? Or was the state-supported church the best option available at the time? Would the acceptance of an Anabaptist model of the Church have terminated Luther's reformation? For Luther, Christianity ought to make the Christian citizen the most civilized and submissive person in the realm. The only cause for resistance to legitimate authority would be when the Christian was called upon to “obey man rather than God.” Otherwise one does not rebel, for “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” The Anabaptists, on the other hand, would agree with the affirmation of Luther at the Council of Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe for us.”6

 A Revolutionary Age

  The effect of Martin Luther's reformation on his age was revolutionary in spite of the fact that Luther never intended to disrupt the political and social order. Those who intended to go further than Luther in their reformation came under his suspicious eye and became the objects of his verbal and literary attacks. Upon these “radicals” of the reformation their opponents fastened labels such as “Enthusiasts” and “Anabaptists.”7 To evaluate the exact nature of this diverse group is difficult since they were hunted, their works destroyed wherever possible and their theologically trained leaders systematically eliminated by whatever authorities, Catholic or Protestant, apprehended them. They left relatively few writings to posterity and, as historians of their day tended to be quite provincial, they were often misrepresented and greatly misunderstood.8

Two Scholars Look at Luther

  Mistaken Enthusiasts—In a paper delivered at the “Reformation Studies and Luther Week” at Ormond College, Melbourne, Australia, June 1976, Christof Windhorst argued that Luther's attacks on the Enthusiasts show that the radicals were not in the Reformation train of thought but in medieval thought for they remained “on the whole Catholic in basic doctrine.”9 The danger they posed was theological and reactionary, a “general relapse into times and conditions the overthrow of which seemed almost achieved.”10 Like the ancient Gnostics, these Anabaptists relied on their own spirits, spirits which, when tried, were found to be false; they claimed erroneously that they relied on the Holy Spirit not the dead letter. Their error was that of the Gnostics, refuted in the First Epistle of St. John, and the medieval monks—they did not take the Word of God seriously. Luther was in process of reforming the existing Church; the Enthusiasts, who thought they could reinstitute the primitive Church, were chasing a utopian fiction since even the early Church was not really the pure Church they thought it was.11

  Not only were the Enthusiasts mistaken about the purity of the primitive church, they erred more seriously in their “over-accentuation of the spirit” by which “Christ's incarnation has been made useless.”12 By following the errors of Gnosticism and monasticism, these radicals in reality failed to take the word of God seriously and led simple folks astray, thereby threatening Luther's reformation along with its political and social support; consequently, even Luther's theological concerns did have certain political and social implications. Although Christhorst was analyzing a theological document written two years after the unsuccessful Peasants' War, when the threat of direct, violent confrontation from the peasants seemed unlikely, the situation nonetheless remained uncertain.

  A political threat—Andrew Drummond, on the other hand, who focuses his study on the radical revolutionary Thomas Müntzer, who had been executed in 1525 during the Peasants' Wars, emphasizes the political threat posed by the radicals. He suggests that since Luther was supported by his prince he could not tolerate the revolutionary movement among the lower classes led by Müntzer: “The Reformation radicals were involved in national revolts that heralded the era of the burger democracy; they all represented a lower-class opposition to the revolts of bourgeois reformers. The radical `fear of God' expressed the autonomy of lower-class revolt.”13 If it is over-hasty to insist that the controversy was either solely theological or solely political, it is important, however, to understand how Luther in his day evaluated the conflict both theologically and politically.

  A critical investigation of Luther's programmatic sermons and writings published during the crucial decade of 1522 to 1532 is warranted if one is to discern where Luther stood vis a vis the radicals, many of whom had at one time supported him. Was this theological threat to Luther's reformation also a disruption of the political and social order of the German nation? Would the whole process of reformation be destroyed by the Anabaptist threat? Such an investigation must observe not only the ideological content of Luther's writings but more importantly the tone of the attacks in order to sense his feelings toward the radicals of his day.14

 The Context of Luther's Opposition

  The writings which will be examined arise out of pivotal events of the decade 1522 to 1532. In January 1522, Luther, who had been outlawed by the Emperor Charles V, was still hidden away in the Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach; nevertheless, he was aware that certain radical prophets from Zwickau had appeared in Wittenberg at Christmastide 1521 and that drastic changes had taken place under the leadership of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, canon of the collegiate church and senior professor of theology at the University. To forestall further uproar, Luther, against the advice of the Elector Frederick the Wise, reappeared in Wittenberg March 6, 1522. From March 9 to 17, Luther assailed the rabble with his Eight Sermons at Wittenberg.15

  At this time both Karlstadt (who was subsequently expelled from Wittenberg) and Müntzer tormented Luther with their preaching. After his expulsion from Wittenberg, Karlstadt settled in Orlamunde where he preached against the necessity of the sacraments and withheld baptism from infants. On July 13, 1524, Müntzer harangued Duke John of Saxony and his son John Frederick from the prophecies of Daniel. Müntzer also questioned the necessity of the sacraments. By October Karlstadt, once again on the move, visited Strassburg where he made known his sacramentarian opinions to Martin Bucer, John Oecolampadius and others, who wrote to Luther for his judgment on the issues. His swift response came in the Letter to the Christians of Strassburg in December 1524. That same month Luther had also penned his Letter to the Princes of Saxony to counteract Müntzer's diatribe before them.

  Before the end of 1525, the first rebaptisms of the Reformation had taken place among Ulrich Zwingli's radical disciples in the canton of Zurich; the Anabaptists were outlawed in Zurich; the peasants were defeated at Frankenhausen; Müntzer, their spiritual leader, was executed; and Luther had published a long polemic Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525) written primarily against Karlstadt, as a follow-up to the Letter to the Christians of Strassburg.

By 1528, the Reformation had virtually triumphed in Basel, Berne and Strassburg, and Anabaptist activities increased in these parts. To deal with the obvious outward disagreement with the Anabaptists, Luther published a tract Concerning Rebaptism (1528). The following year at the Imperial Diet of Speyer the Emperor's appeal for unity was met with a “protestation” by the followers of Luther. At the same time, Protestants and Catholics agreed together to support a revival of the ancient Justinian law which imposed the death penalty for the crime of rebaptism.

  Attempts at unity between Luther and Zwingli, who met at Landgraf Philip of Hesse's castle at Marburg later that year, came to nought over the meaning of the Sacrament of the altar. From Luther's perspective, Ulrich Zwingli was also heterodox on the sacrament. In 1530 the German Protestants, excluding Zwinglians and Anabaptists, formed the League of Schmalkald to resist attempts by the Catholic emperor to enforce religious uniformity. Within two years, for political reasons, the emperor granted certain concessions to the Lutherans, but their position was far from secure.

Since sedition could lead to the revocation of these concessions, Luther felt constrained in 1532 to defend law and order in Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers.16 An analysis of these writings should provide a picture of Luther's attitude toward a variety of radicals he insisted were a constant threat to his reformation. In a paper of this length detailed analysis of everything Luther wrote against the radicals is not possible; therefore, only the documents cited above will be used to comprehend his mood and the major conclusions to which he came. Although it seems that Luther was not fully aware of everything the Anabaptists taught, he could be aroused when certain Enthusiasts confronted him in the person of Karlstadt, the Zwickau prophets or Müntzer, or when queried by the citizens of Strassburg. Though he was less familiar with Balthasar Hübmaier and others he referred to as “corner preachers,” “infiltrators,” “rabble preachers,” “messenger of the devil” and other equally ominous labels, he disliked the spirit he perceived to be in them.

 Andreas Karlstadt

  Andreas Karlstadt had been a colleague of Luther at Wittenberg and had preceded Luther in the debate with John Eck of Ingolstadt at Leipzig where Eck easily demolished Karlstadt. When it came time to debate issues within the new reforming movement, Karlstadt's intellect was no match for Luther's. Referring to some of the doctrines about which Karlstadt had written, Luther observed,

Not a single one of these items has been properly treated by Dr. Karlstadt, for he has not the ability, as I now can see from his writings. . . . For it is a mean art, of which my rascal is capable, to destroy images, deny the sacrament, and decry baptism. This never makes anyone a Christian. I must say that he is a coarse devil who hurts me but little.17

  In another pamphlet Luther insisted, “Dr. Karlstadt has fallen from the Kingdom of Christ and has suffered shipwreck with respect to faith” (I Timothy 1:19). “Dr. Karlstadt actually is a gentile and has lost Christ.”18 He refers to him as a “stupid spirit.”19 His work “is not the work of a good spirit but of a vengeful devil, by which indeed Dr. Karlstadt is possessed.”20 “Therefore though I have not said that Dr. Karlstadt is a murderous prophet, yet he has a rebellious, murderous seditious spirit in him, which if given an opportunity would assert itself.”21 Luther attacked the personality of Karlstadt and concluded that he had smashed Karlstadt's arguments with the hammer of his own logic. Whatever the case may be, Karlstadt's arguments continued to be used by contemporary radicals and spiritualists. Perhaps Karlstadt also possessed a mystical bent and a seditious spirit but not to the extent of many contemporaries.

 Thomas Müntzer

  Among Luther's more mystical adversaries was the mystic and spiritualizer Thomas Müntzer, a man without the discipline necessary to complete a formal education, having been what is today called a “non-student.” Perhaps he possessed a sharp intellect; nevertheless, he was no match in understanding or dialectic for Luther. When Luther challenged Müntzer to a debate, the latter instinctively declined the offer. Luther observed:

In his book he offers to appear before a harmless assembly, and stake his life and soul upon it, but he will not appear and give answer for himself in a closed session before two or three. . . . What kind of spirit is this that is afraid of two or three and will not appear in an assembly that might imperil him? I can tell you he smells the roast. He has been twice in my cloister at Wittenberg and had his nose punched.22

  Luther seems convinced that Müntzer was either a coward or totally unable to defend his opinions cogently. One cannot altogether blame Müntzer for avoiding “the roast” or not wanting “his nose punched” whether or not his offer to appear before a “harmless assembly” was sincere.

 Balthasar Hübmaier

  In contrast, Balthasar Hübmaier had doubtless weathered numerous academic debates. Although the theologian, a one-time university professor at Ingolstadt, stands in sharp contrast academically to Müntzer, he fares no better. As far as Hübmaier and his book on baptism (1525) was concerned, Luther snapped, “I have deemed it unnecessary to answer his kind of book. For who can stop the mouths of all people, even of all devils? I have long ago found that if I stop one mouth of the devil, he opens ten others, and the lie grows constantly greater.”23

 The Zwickau Prophets

  Even more devilish than Hübmaier were the Zwickau prophets, who were closely associated with Karlstadt in the mind of Luther. These image-breaking, rabble prophets appeared to Luther to have destroyed peace and overthrown law and order, which he held in high regard. How could he have anything in common with these iconoclasts? Luther felt the idols needed to be removed from men's hearts first; these “rebellious spirits” felled every image in sight that men might not be placed in danger of idolatry. All “infiltrators” or “corner preachers” who disregarded parochial law and order increasingly disturbed Luther.

These “rebellious” and “seditious spirits” needed to be suppressed before their “poison” and “high sounding sacrilege” overran the land and the whole cause of the reformation was lost. If they persisted there would be “no end to the process of intrusion and division, until soon nothing would be left of the Church on earth.”24 The rabble began to preach in fields or wherever people could be gathered, some doubtless advocating the abolition of the pulpit. Referring to this phenomena Luther said, “We had better keep our custom in preaching since it more than the other will keep order among our stupid folk.”25 Clearly Luther had little appreciation for these unordered attempts at lay witness and the accompanying difficulties; moreover, he was certain that if these radicals were not restrained, the common folk were likely to get out of control.

Theological Issues

 “This Is My Body”

  The main theological point on which Luther took issue with these assorted radicals concerned the sacraments. Luther had so construed “sacrament” that the seven medieval sacraments were reduced to two; elements of the other five sacraments of the medieval Church were allowed to linger but in a subordinate role to the two genuine sacraments. In the Letter to the Christians of Strassburg three questions came to the fore: the real presence in the Eucharist, baptism of infants and the use of images in worship. On these points the radicals took exception to Luther's teachings. What Luther might purify they intended to radically reinterpret or obliterate completely. For the Anabaptist and other sacramentarians no substantial presence of Christ's body existed from or in conjunction with the accidents of the sacraments. The celebration of the sacrament might include a spiritual presence but not a literal physical presence.

  Luther mercilessly attacked Karlstadt whom he considered an inane exegete and an allegorizer. He mocked Karlstadt's explanation of tauta and touto and insisted that “This is my body” grammatically referred to the bread, “yet this stupid spirit presumes to instruct the Greeks.”26  

Let us take the rogue by the throat. We have already thoroughly and convincingly proved that Dr. Karlstadt's touto must refer to the bread, when Christ says, “Take eat, touto or this is my body, which is given for you.” When St. Paul also uses touto and says, “This is the body which is broken for you,” it too must refer to the bread. So the text requires that this bread be the body which is broken.27

  Luther taught that there were three parts to every sacrament: (1) the external and material sign; (2) the internal and spiritual significance; and (3) faith which applied and used both of these. These people denied the internal and spiritual significance and through faulty exegesis made it a mere remembrance. That they might emphasize faith did not impress Luther since their denial of its first two aspects tended to make their “faith” a matter of works which denied the place of grace.28

 Baptism and Faith

  On the question of baptism, the Anabaptists had a disagreement which was far more obvious. They insisted that baptism must not be administered to passive infants who were unable to believe and unaware of the significance of the act. Rather baptism should be reserved for confessing adults who voluntarily requested it. Infant baptism is not a New Testament baptism at all but a superstition which arose later in the medieval Church, according to the Anabaptists; consequently, they were not rebaptizing but simply baptizing upon genuine confession of faith. A child of eight days, they said, could not make the necessary profession of faith. Luther objected:

Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments. . . . We have indeed overthrown monasteries, mass-priests, and clerical celibacy, but only by showing the clear and certain scriptural arguments against them. Had we not done this, we should truly have let them stand as they previously existed.29

  Luther argued that a child could have faith; moreover, it was not necessary to have this faith prior to baptism. Furthermore, the Anabaptists were wrong; children may believe.

  Luther strongly argued that the early Church baptized its children as a sign of the covenant. He also argued that children can believe and demonstrated this from the example of John the Baptist who leaped in his mother's womb.30 

If they were to act rightly according to their own peculiar logic they should be urging a rebelieving, not a rebaptizing. For baptism is by the Word and ordinance of God and dare not be opposed to it or other than it is, while faith may be otherwise than it is (if it is not present). So really they should be “Anabelievers” and not Anabaptist, if they were right, which, of course, they are not.31

  Faith must not chronologically precede baptism to be genuine. For faith doesn't exist for the sake of baptism, said Luther, but baptism for the sake of faith. “When faith comes baptism is complete. A second baptism is not necessary.”32 True baptism consists of the water and the Word. “Don't look at the water and see if it is wet, he said, but rather that it has with it the Word of God. It is a holy, living, heavenly, blessed water because of the Word and commanded of God, which is holy.”33

  Even as an adult there could not always be certainty of authentic faith; thus, there was a possibility of numerous baptisms based on “faith” which could develop into a ridiculous situation. “Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can base baptism on certain faith,” he claimed.34 

On the other hand, we cannot prove that children do believe with any Scripture verse that clearly and expressly declares in so many words, or the like, “you are to baptize children because they believe.” Whoever compels us to produce such a statement has the upper hand and wins, for we cannot find such words. But sincere and sensible Christians do not require such proof. The quarrelsome, obstinate rebellious spirits do in order to seem clever. But on their side they can produce no statement which says, “You are to baptize adults but not children.” We are however persuaded by many good reasons to hold that child baptism is right and that children do believe.35

Luther appears to be greatly indebted to Augustine's analysis of the arguments employed eleven centuries earlier by the Donatists.  

In brief, such arguments once led the Donatists to separate themselves and to rebaptize, when they saw how unholy some were who preached and baptized. They began to base baptism on the holiness of men, though Christ had based it on his Word and commandment. This is also the attempt of our rebellious spirits, . . . the foes of the sacrament.36

The Anabaptists, Luther insisted, were thoroughly refuted by reason, history and Scripture; they should not be so hasty to overturn long-standing practices.

 Removal of Images

  Similarly the attack on images seemed to echo the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century. Luther felt images might be used and could actually help some immature believers to grow in faith. Furthermore, the wanton destruction of church property was definitely wrong. First remove the images from the hearts of the people and the images in the church will mean nothing; do not remove the images from the hearts of the people and their physical removal from the church building avails nothing, Luther argued. Although he had originally planned to remove them himself in due course, it seems Luther allowed their continued presence a bit longer to demonstrate that the image in itself could do no harm.

  Making reference to his previous removal of abuses, he noted that he simply preached and let the Word do its work. “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. . . . I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. . . . I did nothing; the Word did everything.”37 The fanatics thought they had to take matters into their own hands, but they were wrong. On this issue, as with the sacraments, their blunders were caused by their deductions and faulty exegesis. On the whole these Enthusiasts were incapable of doing valid exegesis.

Proper Hermeneutics

  Luther stressed the nature of proper interpretation of Scripture in his attacks on the “mischievous Enthusiasts.” In their hermeneutic he detected an allegorizing he disliked; in contrast, his own hermeneutics were based on the natural sense of the text of Scripture which sets his methodology apart from the spiritual exegesis of the Enthusiasts. He accused them of being mystical spirits who could find things in the Scriptures which were not there. “You must rest upon a strong clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test,”38 he said. However, their interpretation too often depended on the allegorical method. “In this manner even the great teacher Origen played the fool, and led St. Jerome and many others astray with him.”39

  They also read their ideas into the Scriptures. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” for the Anabaptists, meant believe first and then subsequently be baptized. “I say they are guilty of a great presupposition,” retorted Luther. The word order did not of necessity establish chronological priority.40

  Luther accused them of educational inferiority and exegetical inability. “For neither among the papists nor among these rebellious spirits do we find men who can handle and interpret Scripture as skillfully as do those on our side by the grace of God.”41 At the time he probably was correct. He said, “Dr. Karlstadt has not the ability . . .” and of the German radicals, with whom Luther was acquainted, Karlstadt was one of the best educated. Hunted and exterminated as they were, Anabaptists soon lost most of their theologically trained leadership. They certainly controlled none of the universities; moreover, many were not interested in formal education. They could get along with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit within. This type of anti-intellectualism must have sorely distressed Professor Luther, but even this was not the most serious issue separating him from the radicals.

Law and Order

Corner Preachers and Infiltrators

  At this point, consider the issue which most profoundly agitated Luther: the legal question, the apparent disregard which these radicals had for the established order. Luther believed in spiritual freedom; however, an individual, though free to believe as he would, must not violate or upset the territorial status quo. Luther affirmed, “We should allow everyone to believe what he wills. If his faith be false, he will be sufficiently punished in eternal hell-fire. Why then should we martyr these people also in this world, if their error be in faith alone and they are not guilty of rebellion or opposition to the government?”42

  These corner preachers, on the other hand, preached where they were not invited and wherever opportunity was afforded. 

I have been told how these infiltrators worm their way to harvesters and preach to them in the field during their work, as well as to the solitary workers at charcoal kiln or in the woods. Everywhere they sow their seed and spread their poison, turning the people from their parish churches. There you see the true print and touch of the devil, how he shuns the light and works in the dark. Who is so dull, as not to be able to discern that these are messengers of the devil?43

  They felt constrained to communicate their gospel to the needy whom they found everywhere. Those in authority certainly would not invite these “rabble preachers” into their parish pulpits. The parish system having been established, the uninvited rabble preachers had no right to preach; it is against the law and they must be silenced. “So we say, either demand proof of a call and commission to preach, or immediately enjoin silence and forbid to preach, for an office is involved—the office of the ministry.”44 The Anabaptists might maintain their calling, but an ecclesiastical commission to preach was unavailable to them.

  Luther's severest charge against the radicals seemed to be on the point of sedition. He charged that these “mischievous Enthusiasts” did not respect law and order and they should have been punished. If these “rebellious spirits” resorted to force, they should have been suppressed by force, for such treasonous spirits should not have gone unpunished. “It is proper for officials, judges, and those concerned with government to be certain of their right to suspect these infiltrators not only of false teaching, but also of violence and revolt, realizing that the devil occupies the driver's seat in these people.”45

  Perhaps Luther had not conversed with many Anabaptists like Hübmaier nor had he read many of their writings; nevertheless, he knew Karlstadt and Müntzer. He had a deep-down feeling about their common beliefs and what could happen if these sorts were left unchecked. “We see among them,” argued Luther, “The natural fruit of the devil, namely, that some of them on account of rebaptism desert wife and child, house and land, and will recognize no authority.”46 He himself had begun a spiritual revolution and he would not tolerate these radicals to ruin it; he would resist all impending uproar.

  Certainly not all the Enthusiasts were alike and many were peaceful, law-abiding citizens with no intention of creating an uproar; nevertheless, Luther concluded that resistance to legally constituted authority was implicit in their doctrines. Was he correct in his judgment that the political implications of their teachings were potentially destructive of the existing order? “The doctrine of the inwardly disciplined but externally free `apostolic' church” of the Anabaptist appeared subversive to him.47 These infiltrators and rabble preachers were disrespectful of law and order, ignorant of theology and apparently fanatically revolutionary in their intent. Unless checked these seditious persons would destroy the entire political and social structure of the Empire.


  Anabaptists were convinced that magisterial reformers like Luther had stopped short in the needed reconstruction of the Church, according to their reading of the New Testament. They intended a radical reconstruction of primitive Christianity as they found it in the Bible. They hoped to raze the medieval structure to the ground and completely begin anew. Luther, who had an abiding appreciation for tradition, concluded that this was neither possible nor desirable; rather he intended to conserve the best aspects of his Christian heritage. The old order needed to be purified but not uprooted. He knew the Church Fathers and in his dispute with these “mischievous Enthusiasts” had employed the arguments of the great Latin Father Augustine. The Anabaptists, who possessed a certain kinship to the Donatists, of which most were probably unaware, had little appreciation for tradition; consequently, “they act contrary to accepted tradition.”48 Furthermore, as for Hübmaier and his people, Luther offered, “I am not sure what they do believe. For the devil is mad and talks so wildly and stirs up so much confusion that absolutely no one knows what he believes.” In any case, it was best to silence these radicals even without a clear perspective on their specific views.49

  Luther observed their “ignorance,” “crudity,” “vio-lence,” “revolt,” “high-sounding sacrilege,” “secretiveness,” “poison,” but had to say, “I am not sure what they do believe.” He saw them as “infiltrators,” “crude,” “factious,” “rebellious spirits,” “devil rebels,” “messengers of the devil” and “rabble preachers,” and felt constrained to oppose them. Above all, their doctrines were less dangerous than the seditious spirit and implicit threat to the political and social order therein; therefore, strong measures needed to be taken against them. Luther spared no efforts to differentiate his teachings from those of nearly everyone whose theology diverged from his; to him such divergence indicated exegetical incompetence, confederation with the devil, or both.

Was Luther simply convinced that no one but he understood the gospel accurately and that all his antagonists were necessarily reprobate? Was Luther merely an uncharitable, insecure person bent on the extermination of all nonconformity? Friend and foe alike might abhor his harsh assaults, but unless one can appreciate Luther's concern for the accurate proclamation of an authentic gospel and the peace and order needed for its proclamation and accompanying reformation, one cannot comprehend his feelings. If more irenic persons were disconcerted by this apparent severity, they certainly recognized that the courageous professor of Wittenberg who initiated the Protestant Reformation in Germany presumed that it could be undone. There can be no doubt that Martin Luther believed that he must do whatever was necessary to preserve the gospel unadulterated against all adversaries.50


1Alliance Life (February 14, 1996), 30.

2The English word radical has to do with the root of an issue. “1. of or pertaining to roots or origins . . . 2. thoroughgoing or extreme . . . 3. (often cap.) favoring drastic political, economic or social reform. The English word radical comes from the Latin radicalis “having roots” (Random House College Dictionary, 1089). In this the Renaissance was radical; it sought to return to the classical roots of European civilization.

3Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 266.

4Robert A. Baker, A Summary of Christian History (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959), 227-228.

5In terms of the political and social structures of the day, one may generalize about the major reformers and their supporters. The Lutheran reformation was supported by territorial princes. The reformation in the Swiss cantons came through the town councils; this was a middle-class reformation. The English reformation was through the kings and queens and their parliaments (The king-in-parliament reformation). The status quo and the later Catholic reformation was supported by emperors, kings and nobility. In contrast, the radical reformation was primarily a movement among peasants, although many peasants remained faithful to the old church or simply accepted the faith imposed upon them by their rulers.

6Luther before the Diet of Worms.

7The term “left-wing” was applied to the so-called Anabaptists by Roland Bainton (“The Left-Wing of the Reformation,” Journal of Religion 21 [April, 1941], l07ff). George H. Williams (The Radical Reformation [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960]) prefers the term “radical.” James Stayer suggests that as a working definition the term Anabaptist “embraces only those sects which in the eyes of their enemies rebaptized persons already baptized as children (or groups like the Batenbergers with an immediate historical connection with these sects)” (Anabaptists and the Sword [Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1972], 21). Also see James M. Stayer, “The Swiss Brethren: An Exercise in Definition,” Church History, 47 (June 1978), 174-195. Although Karlstadt, Müntzer and Zwingli did not rebaptize, at one time or another each questioned the efficacy of infant baptism. In the 16th century such a person would have been considered among the Anabaptists, although Luther more often called them Schwarmer. See John S. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), 5-6. For the current status of Anabaptist studies see “Problems of Anabaptist History: A Symposium” with Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Carter Lindberg, John S. Oyer, William Klassen, Kenneth R. Davis, Werner 0. Packull, James M. Stayer in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (July 1979), 174-218. The symposium was held on October 27, 1978, in St. Louis, Missouri, sponsored by the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference.

8Compare The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John Christian Wenger, with a biography by H.S. Bender (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1956) in one volume, with Luther's Works, published by Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press (1956 ff.), over 60 volumes to date. “The Anabaptists” observes William R. Estep, “possessed no one theologian whose word became supreme among them. For one thing, no early theologian lived long enough. Balthasar Hübmaier, for an example, lived only four years after publishing his first reformatory work. All the initial leaders, with the exception of Wilhelm Reublin, were dead within five years” (Anabaptist Beginnings [1523-1533]: A Source Book, ed. William R. Estep, Jr. [Philadelphia, PA: Nieuwkoop, B. DeGraaf, 1976], 3). Harry Loewen writes: “There was a time when the story of Anabaptism was either ignored by historians or else distorted because it was seen through the eyes of the mainline reformers, the enemies of the movement. This has changed” (Luther and the Radicals: Another Look at Some Aspects of the Struggle between Luther and the Radical Reformers [Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University, 1974], 9). For a concise summary of Anabaptist historiography up to 1955, see “Anabaptist,” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, ed. Harold Bender et al. (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955-59), 1:113-16, and “Radical Reformation,” Ibid, 4:242-44. See also Jack Bigane and Kenneth Hagen, Annotated Bibliography of Luther Studies, 1967-1976 (St. Louis, MO: Center for Reformation Research, 1977); Hans J. Hillerbrand, Thomas Müntzer: A Bibliography (St. Louis, MO: Center for Reformation Research, 1976); Bibliography of Anabaptism, 1520-1630 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1962); and A Bibliography of Anabaptism, 1520-1630: A Sequel—1962-1974 (St. Louis, MO: Center for Reformation Research, 1975). Recent German works include: Hans-Jürgen Goertz, ed., Radikale Reformatoren (Munich, Germany: C.H. Beck, 1978); Abraham Friesen and Hans-Jurgen Goertz, Thomas Müntzer (Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1978); and Richard van Dulmen, Reformation als Revolution: Soziale Bewegung und religioser Radikalismus in der deutschen Reformation (Munich, Germany: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1977).

9Christ of Windhorst, “Luther and the `Enthusiasts': Theological Judgments in his Lecture on the First Epistle of St. John (1527),” Journal of Religious and History 9 (December 1977), 348.


11Ibid., 339, 343, 345.

12Ibid., 347.

13Andrew W. Drummond, “Thomas Müntzer and the Fear of Man,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 10 (November 1979), 71.

14Mark U. Edwards contends that in two ways “Luther sharpened the differences between himself and his evangelical opponents. One was by his claiming special authority, and on this basis attempting to get those who were unsure or who did not fully understand the disagreement or its significance to accept his position. The second way was by maligning his evangelical opponents, and thus by raising doubts about the validity of doctrine espoused by such evil men.” Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975), 199.

15All citations are taken from Luther's Works (cited as LW), edited by Conrad Bergendoff, Helmut Lehman and Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press), volumes 40 (1958) and 51 (1959). The full title of individual writings will be given the first time it is cited, with the volume and page numbers, thereafter an appropriate abbreviation and only the page number will be used. Although the quotations have been taken from the Philadelphia edition (LW), the writer has compared these with the critical edition of Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Herman Böhlaus Nachfolger, [1883-]) to be cited as WA with appropriate volume and page number.

16More complete consideration of the events of 1522 to 1532 along with a discussion of Luther's relationship to the German Anabaptists is found in Edwards (Luther, especially chapters two through four).

17Letter to the Christians at Strasbourg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524, LW, 40:67; Eyn brieff an die Christen zu Strassburg widder den schwermer geyst, WA, 15:393.

18Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525, LW, 40:139-140; Wider die himmlischen Propheten von Bildern und Sacrament, WA, 18:121-22.

19LW, 40:164; WA, 18:153.

20LW, 40:204; WA, 18:194.

21LW, 40:204; WA, 18:72.

22“Letter to the Princes of Saxony concerning the Rebellious Spirit,” 1524, LW, 40:52; Ein Brief an die Fursten zu Sachsen von dem aufruhrischen Geist, WA, 15:2l3-14.

23Concerning Rebaptism, 1528, LW, 40:229; Von der Widdertauffe an zween Pfarherrn. Ein brieff Mart. Luther, WA, 26:145.

24Infiltrating and Clandestine Preachers, 1532, LW, 40:386; Ein Brieff D. Mart. Luthers von den Schleidern und Winckelpredigern, 1532, WA, 30.3.520.

25Ibid., LW, 40:393.

26Heavenly, LW, 40:164; WA, 18:153.

27Ibid., LW, 40:209; WA, 18:l99.

28Windhorst, 345.

29Rebaptism, LW, 40:241; WA, 26:155-56.

30Ibid., LW, 40:242; WA, 26:156.

31Ibid., LW, 40:261; WA, 26:172-73.

32Ibid., LW, 40:246; WA, 26:160.

33Ten Sermons on the Catechism, November 30 to December 18, 1528, on Baptism, LW, 51:183; Katechismuspredigten, WA, 30.1.111.

34Rebaptism, LW, 40:241; WA, 26:155.

35Ibid., LW, 40:254; WA, 26:166.

36Ibid., LW, 40:250; WA, 26:163. Luther offered six reasons why it was correct to insist on infant baptism: (1) “Child baptism derives from the apostles and has been practiced since the days of the apostles” (Ibid., LW, 40:254; WA, 26:155); (2)“Just as God has established that Christians in all the world have accepted the Bible as the Bible, the Lord's Prayer as the Lord's Prayer and faith of a child as faith, so also he has established child baptism and kept it from being rejected while all kinds of heresies have disappeared which are much more recent and later than child baptism. This miracle of God is an indication that child baptism must be right” (Ibid., LW, 40:255; WA, 26:167); (3) “. . . during all the time children were being baptized, he has given great and holy gifts to myriads of them, enlightened and strengthened them with the Holy Spirit and understanding of Scripture, and accomplished great things in Christendom through them” (Ibid., LW, 40:256; WA, 26:168); (4) “. . . if the first, or child, baptism were not right it would follow that for more than a thousand years there was no baptism or any Christendom, which is impossible” (Ibid., LW, 40:256; WA, 26:168); (5) Children were brought to Jesus, entire households were baptized and John the Baptist had faith in the womb; (6) “. . . since God has made a covenant with all heathen through the gospel and ordained baptism as a sign thereof, who can exclude the children?” (Ibid., LW, 40:257; WA, 26:169). Yet to all these arguments the Anabaptists with their passion for proof texts would insist that Luther show them where Christ and the apostles commanded it, for the Church now and for nine centuries was in error. In the light of the Didache and other primitive church documents it might be more difficult today to state the case as strongly as Luther and Augustine did: “And, as St. Augustine writes, child baptism has come from the Apostles. So the Anabaptists proceed dangerously in everything” (Ibid., LW, 40:245; WA, 26:159).

37Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522, LW, 51:77. Acht Sermon D.M. Luthers von im geprediget zu Wittemberg in der Fasten (in this text Luther argues he could have caused “great bloodshed,” but he let the Word do the work); LW, 51:77; WA, 10.3.18-19.

38Ibid., LW, 51:80; WA, 10.1-2.22-23.

39Heavenly, LW, 40:190; WA, 18:180.

40Rebaptism, LW, 40:239; WA, 26:154.

41Ibid., LW, 40:250; WA, 26:l62.

42Rebaptism, LW, 40:230; WA, 26:146.

43Infiltrating, LW, 40:384; WA, 30.3.518.

44Ibid, LW, 40:386; WA, 30.3.521.

45Ibid., LW, 40:385; WA, 30.3.520.

46Rebaptism, LW, 40:230; WA, 26:146.

47Williams, xxix.

48Rebaptism, LW, 40:245; WA, 26:159.

49Ibid., LW, 40:261; WA, 26:173. Contemporary writers have attempted to put these radicals into clearer perspective. For an early effort see Franklin H. Littel, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origin of Sectarian Protestantism (Boston, MA: Star King Press, 1958).

50Edwards, 202.

Editorial: A Mighty Dear Hyphen to Me!

A.B. Simpson as and the Modern Faith Movement, Paul L. King

Saving Faith in the Gospel of John, David K. Huttar

Opposition to Radical Reformation: Martin Luther Against Anabaptist and Radicals, Harold P. Shelly

Putting God to the Test: An Examination of Biblical Data, John V. Dahms

The Contribution of Cultural Anthropology to Missiology, Norman E. Allison

Separation Anxiety Disorder in a Missionary Child: Theoretical Considerations and Intervention Strategies, Mark D. Bullock

Patterns of Spiritual Direction, James A. Davies

An Effective Deliverance Methodology: Then and Now, Gerald E. McGraw

Dangers in the Deliverance Ministry, K. Neill Foster

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

About the Authors

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