The Reading Room

The Peasants’ War and Martin Luther

In 1524, rebellion broke out in southern Germany. The uprising, known as the Peasants’ War, grew out of demands for greater freedom for the serfs. It was not, despite its name, just a revolt by farmers. Serious thinkers advanced it, and they used the printing press to advance a list of principles. They relied heavily on Martin Luther’s advocacy for the conscience of the individual. To their dismay, Luther denounced them. The rebellion came to a disastrous end in 1525.
The revolt’s most important document was the Twelve Articles drawn up in Memmingen, which declared that “we are free and want to remain free.” It called for equality before the law, a reduction in compulsory labor, the return of land expropriated by feudal lords, the abolition of the inheritance tax, and the freedom to hunt and fish. 
Among the leaders was a preacher named Thomas Müntzer, who held that people could get inspiration directly from God, independently of scripture. He declared, “What is the evil brew from which all usury, theft, and robbery springs but the assumption of our lords and princes that all creatures are their property?” At first he followed Luther, but their disagreements led to intense hostility. 
Marxists have characterized the rebellion as one against property rights, but in fact it defended the peasants’ property rights, which the nobility had often violated with land seizures and confiscatory taxes. The Articles included a call for the restoration of common property, but this referred to the restoration of town lands that lords had seized for their own, not to the establishment of collective farms.
The peasants took Luther’s refusal to bow to authority at the Diet of Worms, launching the Protestant Reformation, as a model. Luther, however, drew a sharp distinction between freedom of conscience and freedom of action. He declared that the rebels had “called down God's dreadful and unendurable anger upon themselves by breaking their oaths and duties that they have sworn to the authorities.”
This dichotomy formed the beginning of Luther’s doctrine of the “two realms.” He held that nations could not be governed by the rules that applied to Christian communities. Secular rulers should not dictate religious beliefs but otherwise could decree whatever didn’t directly go against Christianity. This was, in a way, an early formulation of the separation of church and state, but his application of it varied greatly during his lifetime. In many cases, it limited restraints on rulers less than it limited their domain.
In 1523, two years after Worms, Luther wrote, “My good Lord, I owe you obedience with my life and goods. Command me what lies within the limits of your authority, and I will obey. But if you command me to believe or to surrender my books, I will not obey.” He observed that “Heresy is a spiritual thing; it cannot be struck down with steel, burned with fire, or drowned in water.”
In 1530, though, he added a major qualification: that “no one is compelled to believe, for he can still believe what he will; but he is forbidden to teach and to blaspheme.” He limited freedom of conscience to the inside of one’s head. When it came to the promotion of “blasphemous” ideas, “rulers are in duty bound to punish blasphemers as they punish those who curse, swear, revile, abuse, defame, and slander.”
Luther himself hadn’t just believed in private. Starting with his 95 Theses, he publicly challenged church authority and subsequently founded an independent church. The pattern he followed is a common one: Dissenters believe in freedom to challenge established ideas as long as they’re persecuted, only to reverse themselves once they reach a position of power.
Nonetheless, the events of the Peasants’ War marked significant steps toward the Enlightenment principles of human liberty. It was a precursor not to the Bolshevik Revolution, as is often claimed, but the American Revolution. The Twelve Articles declared: “Every peasant should be recognized as an autonomous being equal to any lord in the eyes of God.” In the Declaration of Independence, that became “All men are created equal.” Luther declared that “heresy cannot be opposed with violence,” even if he contradicted himself later. These steps didn’t lead directly to full religious freedom, but they helped to light the way.