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Martin Luther and peasants’ rebellion

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500 years ago a preacher called Martin Luther sparked a movement which loosened the grip of the church on society. Dave Sewell argues this was about more than just theology
Issue 2579
Some armies had tens of thousands of peasants
Some armies had tens of thousands of peasants

Five hundred years ago a German preacher and academic wrote a list of disagreements with a church procedure. He may or may not have pinned it to a door.

It sounded the starting gun for decades of civil wars, inspiring revolts and counter-revolutionary bloodshed that changed Europe forever.

That’s because Martin Luther’s 95 Theses arrived at a pivotal moment in European history, when two different models of society were vying for supremacy.

On one hand was the old world of feudalism. A land owning military aristocracy exploited peasants who were often “bonded” to their estates, and held the whip-hand over kings who relied on their might.

They ruled together with the Catholic church—a sprawling, parasitic superpower whose teachings and personnel provided the ideological glue that bound that society together.

On the other hand was a new world of unbonded peasants, developing towns, rich merchants and more powerful monarchs.

At its heart was a novel way of making money. Products could be made to sell at market, not just to meet immediate needs.

Wars could be fought with mercenary armies hired out of tax revenues, not just with a hereditary caste of knights.


The Reformation that Luther began is generally described now as a religious conflict, and in its own terms it was.

But in a society that drew all its legitimacy from religion, debates about the direction of society took a religious form. And those with the education to debate ideas were usually priests—who often had more in common with their parishioners than the rich pope.

Religion was more than just a mask. But it gave expression to deeper forces.

As the Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky argued, immediate economic grievances—over rents and taxes, for example—could be expressed in secular terms.

It was the more radical movements that most needed religious justification.

Asking why barons could oppress peasants in the first place, or why the church had power over monarchs, meant questioning a society supposedly created by God.

Luther’s theses attacked the practice of selling “indulgences”. By buying these certificates—or through “good works” that usually meant giving money to the church—the rich could reduce their punishments in the afterlife.Luther argued that such forgiveness for sins could only come from God. This was an attack on the church’s right to prop up the elite and suck up wealth.

Arguments from other reformers challenged the church’s privileged place in society.

Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877
Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877

This new religion gave theological support to the new middle class and the princes who in practice ruled the fragmented German empire.But—to Luther’s horror—it also spoke to exploited peasants and labourers.

Middle class artisans, traders, clergy and students rose up in the towns and cities of the southern German empire.

They fought with the aristocrats for control of town councils, and used them to push back the church’s privileges and seize its wealth.

Because Luther had the support of much of the population and some of the princes of the fragmented empire, he was able to survive defying both the emperor and the pope. This spurred more people into rebellion.

Two thirds of the empire’s cities went over to the new religion, something Luther put down to the power of the divine will.

He constantly warned his followers to “take heed and follow the authorities”—even when those authorities called for his execution. But they often took matters into their own hands, attacking clergy or seizing church property.

The unrest in the towns gave a focus to a much deeper resentment in the countryside. Local peasant revolts had simmered for decades, and Luther’s Reformation gave them the legitimacy to generalise.


Peasant armies tens of thousands strong attacked monasteries and castles, and in some cases managed to link up with—and radicalise—the movement in the towns.

These rebels drew up lists of demands that combined religious reform with challenges to the lords’ power over the peasantry.

This didn’t just horrify the old order of feudal nobility and church, but also the new elite. When the princes sent their armies to slaughter the rebels by the thousand, Luther egged them on.

He wrote that the “murdering, thieving hordes of the peasants” “must be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, covertly and overtly, by everyone who can, just as one must kill a mad dog.”

Other priests rallied to the revolt, most famously Thomas Muntzer.

His congregation were clothmakers in Saxony, where a powerful mining industry had driven economic development and the growth of an embryonic working class. They were the movement’s most radical edge, and Muntzer gave it a voice.

His sermons and writings raged against rule by the rich. In one pamphlet, Muntzer argued for an early form of communism—and for struggle to make it possible.

“It is an article of our creed, and one which we wish to realise, that all things are in common, and should be distributed as occasion requires, according to the several necessities of all,” he wrote.

He called for princes and barons to be beheaded if they had a problem with this. After Muntzer’s execution, the last and most radical holdout of the movement began to implement moves in this direction.

This was the town of Munster, where a radical government of the Anabaptist sect withstood a long siege from the whole might of the German Empire.

The sect’s defining belief was that people should be baptised into Christianity as consenting adults, not helpless infants. Where Luther’s reforms challenged the pope, this challenged the state too. It meant ending the power of monarchs to decide the religion of the people.

The “New Jerusalem” they established in the town eliminated private property in gold and silver. And as far as the siege allowed the poor were “through God’s mercy, become as rich as the Burgomasters, or the wealthiest in the town.”

Food supplies and land were redistributed, and “community houses” set up to feed the many ordinary citizens—women as well as men—who fought to defend the town.

But these moves were always limited, both by circumstance and by the Anabaptists’ contradictory ideology that sought to appeal to different classes.

And they died along with thousands of Anabaptists in the slaughter that finally toppled Munster.

Throughout the peasant wars, those who the authorities didn’t kill in battle were put to death brutally and publicly to deter others—drowned, butchered or burned alive.

Munster’s “king” Jan van Leyden was dragged with two of his supporters around Germany in iron collars and tortured.

The radical “Peasant Reformation” was defeated partly through treachery and its own naivety.

Too often peasant leaders believed they could negotiate in good faith with barons and princes, and agreed to ceasefires before being brutally killed.

But it was also because social power of the poor was only a fraction of what it would later become as capitalist development forged a working class.

The urban middle class “burghers”, the wealthy merchants and the pro-reform princes feared the poor more than they resented the church.

They betrayed the peasants and labourers they had inspired, and in doing so undermined their own movement.

Some areas saw a return of Catholic rule, others Protestant princes who were no better.

But the church never regained its place at the top of European society, and feudal rule never regained its coherence.

The Reformation in Germany triggered another in France. In the Netherlands it led to the Thirty Years War and the emergence of modern Europe’s first republic.

In England it helped prompt the power grab by Henry VIII that began to reshape the state.

The theological debates behind the Reformation serve today only as flimsy excuses for sectarian bigotry.

But the revolts that were associated with them were powerful examples of class struggle.

Further reading:
Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages by Graham Mustin in International Socialism Journal
The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels
A Peoples History of the World by Chris Harman
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