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July/August 2007

Discover more articles from this issue.

Freedom Challenge

When our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they designed a government that, at the time, was a unique government. Since that time, it has...

The Revolutionary

Scholars have long argued the extent of Luther's influence on the outbreak of revolution among the German peasants in 1524-1525. Those who would give him...

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege

The theme of this book is the rise of public religiosity that has been orchestrated by a small group of "theoconservative" intellectuals. It is Mr....

Obedience to a Higher Law

Over the years in our struggle for liberation in South Africa we learned one very important lesson, and that is that when people of different races and...

A Necessary Conversation

Religious liberty is more than the freedom to believe. It is also the freedom to let believe. Religious liberty is more than the freedom to evangelize....

Affirming Freedom

The Sixth World Congress organized by the International Religious Liberty Association was its first world congress organized in Africa, and the biggest...

The Right to Freedom of Expression

According to United States District Court Judge Norman Mordue, the Liverpool Central School District in Upstate, New York, violated fourth grader...

The Devils and Religious Expression

Cathy Raddi is a live-and-let-live kind of woman. Shy, she doesn't like to make waves. She's a turn-the-other-cheek Christian. After all, that's what...

Matters of Faith

What is faith? What is religion? These questions are not as easily answered as you think. Faith—Jesus told His disciples that there would not be...

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Published in the July/August 2007 Magazine
by Nicholas P. Miller

Scholars have long argued the extent of Luther's influence on the outbreak of revolution among the German peasants in 1524-1525. Those who would give him significant blame for it point to his intemperate remarks against institutional authority of the day, his arguments for spiritual equality, and his elevation of the individual conscience over spiritual and civil authorities. But others point to his 1522 opposition to the Zwickau Prophets and Andreas Karlstadt as an example of his early stands against populist movements that opposed or challenged civil authority by force.1 Indeed, it is hard to read Luther's writings between 1520 and 1525 and take seriously the view that he directly or indirectly promoted civil revolt.

On the contrary, Luther is more fairly accused of elevating the status of the prince at the expense of the church as well as the individual, at least in civil matters. His 1520 Address subordinates the church in civil matters. His 1523 discourse on the Secular Authority made clear that the civil sword was firmly in the hands of the civil magistrate, who was not to be actively opposed, even when overreaching and tyrannical. Even in religious matters, which he acknowledged were outside the civil ruler's legitimate oversight, he taught that spiritual "outrage is not to be resisted, but endured."2 Duly constituted civil rulers were not to resist their unjust and ungodly superiors.3 All this was written more than a year prior to the events directly leading to the Peasants' War. These events began unfolding in the summer of 1524 in southwest Germany.4

As the revolt spread, Luther wrote to clearly distinguish his reforms from the populist uprisings advocated by the peasants. In May of 1525 he released a tract aimed at both the rulers and the peasants, pointing out the excesses and abuses of both sides, and calling for restraint by the princes and submission by the peasants.5 He systematically outlined how the peasants' claims diverged from his gospel teachings. But he also insisted that the civil rulers should not punish the peasants for wrong beliefs, but only for sedition. "No ruler," Luther wrote, "ought to prevent anyone from teaching or believing what he pleases, whether gospel or lies. It is enough if he prevents the teaching of sedition and rebellion."6

A month later, after the peasants had engaged in greater bloodshed, he wrote a tract whose title betrayed its target and its polemical tone—Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. In this pamphlet, he criticized the religious aspirations and leadership of the peasants, particularly fingering Thomas M

Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.

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