The period in which the Reformation arose was a time of unrest among the lower classes. The small farmers worked hard and had little hope for bettering their lives. They were taxed heavily to support the wealthy classes and the church.
Alliance of Shoes
At times, the peasants balked at the injustice of their lot. In 1493, German peasants plotted to overthrow the set order. They met together and agreed to only pay taxes they approved of and set a limit on priests’ salaries. They chose a peasant’s shoe for their symbol. This Alliance of Shoes was put down by force before it effected real change and the feeling of dissatisfaction lingered among the poorer classes.
Poor Conrad League
In 1514, the hatred of the poor toward the nobility and the clergy broke out again in the Poor Conrad[i] league. The rebellion started in Wurttemberg, fuelled by Duke Ulrich’s extravagant lifestyle and outrageous demands. The poor farmers had experienced two crop failures in a 5-year period and were unable to pay the increased taxes the duke demanded. Rather than cut back on his luxuries, the duke increased the cost of food to the peasants. He had the weights changed so that if a person purchased one kilogram of flour, he got less – maybe 700 grams – for the price of one kilogram. This sparked riots and the duke called his army to put down the rebellion. Being greatly out-powered by the duke’s armed forces, the peasants quietly disbanded. Their leaders were captured and beheaded.
Luther on Rebellion
The Reformation distracted Germany’s poor from their complaints for a time by the hope that came from the Gospel. Luther, who understood the peasants’ daily struggles, preached against rebellion, saying “God condemns it.”
March of the Peasants
Thomas Muntzer, a fanatical priest and university professor, who not only rejected the Roman Church’s authority but the authority of the Bible, as well, travelled through Germany and Switzerland stirring up the peasants. In July 1524 peasants in the Black Forest rioted when they were refused an evangelical preacher. In another place, thousands of peasants swarmed a small town to set free an imprisoned evangelical priest. Rebellion spread like wildfire.
In January 1525, the peasants published a list of demands which included the right to choose their own preachers, the abolition of slavery and taxes on inheritances, the right to hunt, fish and cut wood, and other demands. Each demand was supported by texts from the Bible. The peasants challenged Luther to correct them by Scripture.
Luther Blames the Princes
Luther wrote to the princes, holding them accountable for the uprising. “It is your clamors against the Gospel, your guilty oppressions of the poor,” he said that had instigated the revolt. He advised the rulers to address the fair demands of the peasants. Luther hoped this would stop the rebellion.
Luther Tries to Calm the Rebels
Luther also wrote to the peasants, telling them it was their Christian duty to be patient and not fight. He pointed them to Jesus, saying, “Christians fight not with swords or arquebuses (an early type of gun), but with sufferings and with the cross. Christ, their Captain, handled not the sword…He was hung upon a tree.”[ii]
The peasants would not be stopped. They marched from town to town, gathering rebels. Those who refused were banished. They destroyed castles and burned monasteries. Some nobles, afraid of the peasants, joined the rebellion.
The peasants demanded that the church give up its secular interests and stick to preaching the Word of God. They wanted the princes and knights to be their protectors. They called for standard weights and measures and one currency for the whole empire.
The turning point came at a battle in Wurtzburg where the peasants attacked the princes’ stronghold, Frauenburg Castle. The assault began at 9:00 pm and continued until 2:00 am. The princes threw bombs made from boxes filled with gunpowder. They poured boiling pitch over the walls and fired cannons.
After withdrawing from Frauenburg, the peasants were defeated by the imperial army. The princes and bishops retaliated against the beaten foe with cruel tortures and bloodshed. Some 50 000 lives were lost in the revolts.
One of the results of the uprisings was that Luther and the Reformation were blamed. This was a major set-back for Christians in affected places. Religious reforms that had begun were reversed. Public worship returned to its traditional Roman forms.
[ii] Ibid., 584