Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532

By Martin Brecht; James L. Schaaf | Go to book overview

III

Prophets, Enthusiasts,
Iconoclasts, Fanatics, and
the Peasants' War

The disappointing fact that the gospel did not immediately triumph led to a crisis of the Reformation in the period following the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther himself bitterly noted the political resistance of the Catholic princes. Some of his followers were even more offended than he that the new organization of the church was proceeding so slowly even in evangelical territories. They also failed to see any fruits of the new faith in the way congregations acted. Moreover, the Reformation preaching of freedom had also awakened expectations of reforms and an improvement in social conditions that now were not being fulfilled.1 After Luther's return from the Wartburg, the conflict with Karlstadt and those who, like him, wanted to implement the new reformatory order immediately, was not pursued, but rather repressed. The overdue confrontation was thus only postponed and in 1524 and 1525 broke out vehemently on a broad front, seriously threatening the Reformation.

Luther used different names for the opponents in his own camp. Inasmuch as they, like the Zwickau prophets, appealed to immediate heavenly revelations, he not unjustifiably identified them with the Zwickauers and called them prophets. As early as 1523 he applied the vague term "enthusiasts" (Schwärmer) to those who did not understand the gospel as a comfort for one's conscience—but rather in a carnal way—and who used it to foment disturbances.2 This expression, taken from the activity of bees, was occasionally used in the ancient church in reference to confused spirits who were out of touch with reality. For example, the preacher Bartholomew Krause in ölsnitz completely abolished confession and the mass in September 1523. Luther had him ordered to proceed "cleanly," that is, to preach Christ first and abandon his "enthusiasm." When Krause went to the point of inciting his congregation to use force, Luther demanded that the local council and the elector remove him, and, if necessary, imprison him.3 As Krause's case shows, enthusiasm was a widespread and complicated problem, one that was not limited at all to Karlstadt and his few followers. For those who destroyed

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