Sunday, April 8, 2012

Martin Luther's Mad Dogs

Eric W. Gritsch.  Reformer without a Church: The Life and Thought of Thomas Muentzer, 1488 [?] - 1525.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.

Hans-Juergen Goertz.  Thomas Muentzer: Apocalyptic, Mystic, and Revolutionary.  Trans. Jocelyn Jacquiery.  Ed. Peter Matheson.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993.

Peter Matheson, trans. & ed. The Collected Works of Thomas Muentzer. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988. 

"Truly, the person who has seen Muentzer may claim to have seen the devil incarnate in his very worst raging. Oh, Lord God, wherever such a spirit is abroad among the peasants, it is high time they were destroyed like mad dogs! For the devil too senses the Last Day, and so he stirs up the evil brew to show all the powers of hell at once."  Martin Luther, Ein brieff an die Fuersten zu Sachsen von dem auffrurischen geyst (quoted in Goertz, p. 8).

"One thing pleased me about Muentzer, that from the beginning he sided with the ordinary man, and not with the bigwigs."  John Agricola (in the character of Wolf Schwermer, quoted in Goertz, p. 9). 

I complain a lot about the LDS Church Education System here, so I am happy to be able to say something nice about it now.  Several years ago, before I left to serve a two-year mission in Spain, I attended a really good Institute class.  It was a class in the history of Christianity before Mormonism, with special emphasis on the Reformation and its aftermath.  Where most of the CES classes in scripture that I attended were shallow and boring (confusing fervent testimony with accurate understanding, and operating under the tacit presumption that all students are morons), this one was not.  I was actually interested in this class, which opened my eyes to a lot of information I had not encountered before.  It was really nice to learn something real at church, to come to class and get something other than the obligatory testimony book-ended by "faith-promoting" kitsch.  Even as a believing Mormon, I liked both breadth and depth in my religion: my faith was intellectually stimulating, challenging, and open--the same way my doubt has been.  This class was a breath of fresh air, and it provided my first introduction to Thomas Muentzer, sowing seeds in my mind that are still germinating today.

Thomas Muentzer reminds me a lot of Joseph Smith.  Muentzer participated in the Reformation alongside his contemporary Martin Luther, with whom he associated as a friend and ally before they quarreled over theology.  Preaching a Christian gospel that was at once mystic, anti-clerical, and apocalyptic (with a serious idea of founding heaven on earth), Muentzer anticipated many things in Mormonism.  Like Joseph Smith, he was ultimately put to death by people who found him obnoxious (and like Joseph Smith, he put up a real fight before they took him down: he was taken prisoner on the field at the Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured until he recanted, and ultimately put to death by the German nobility whose authority he threatened).  The one thing he did not do, as far as I can tell, is attempt to coerce young girls into marrying him using religious blackmail (though, like Luther, he went against the religious standard of his day by marrying a runaway nun).  To be honest, this actually makes him more attractive: in many ways, he is what I used to imagine Joseph Smith being--an upstanding moral iconoclast who championed the cause of the common man (weavers, miners, peasants) against that of the establishment exploiting him (Roman Catholic clergy, secular rulers in bed with Lutheran clergy).  Consider the following excerpts from the published work of both men.

Muentzer, "Prague Manifesto" (1521, German version)
"St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3[:3] that the hearts of men are the paper or parchment upon which God with his finger inscribes his immovable will and eternal wisdom. This script not being written in ink, no man can read it ... unless God himself opens the human mind.  This he does in his elect from the very beginning, so that they are no longer uncertain but have invincible testimony from the Holy Spirit" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 56).
Muentzer, "A Manifest Expose of False Faith" (1524, written against Martin Luther)
"If someone had never had sight or sound of the Bible at any time in his life he could still hold the one true Christian faith because of the true teaching of the spirit, just like all those who composed the holy Scripture without any books at all; and he could also be completely certain that he drew such faith from the undeceivable God, not from the cunning devil or from his own human nature" (quoted in Goertz, p. 143). 
Joseph Smith, "Try the Spirits" (editorial published 1 April 1842 in Times and Seasons) 
"If it requires the Spirit of God to know the things of God; and the spirit of the devil can only be unmasked through that medium, then it follows as a natural consequence that unless some person or persons have a communication from God, unfolding to them the operation of the spirit, they must eternally remain ignorant of these principles; for I contend that if one man cannot understand these things but by the Spirit of God, ten thousand men cannot; it is alike out of the reach of the wisdom of the learned, the tongue of the eloquent, the power of the mighty. And we shall at last have to come to this conclusion, whatever we may think of revelation, that without it we can neither know nor understand anything of God, or the devil; and however unwilling the world may be to acknowledge this principle, it is evident from the multifarious creeds and notions concerning this matter that they understand nothing of this principle, and it is equally plain that without a divine communication they must remain in ignorance" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1976], pp. 205-206). 
Like Smith, Muentzer believed in the supremacy of Spirit over Word (a standard trope in Christian mysticism, which Muentzer inherited from old medieval tradition).  For both men, the religious experience is fundamentally an individual encounter with God -- an experientia fidei that need not be mediated by external texts or creeds (though these may prove helpful: Muentzer used the Bible, and Smith did too, adding his own revelations as interpretive guides for the more ancient scripture -- modern equivalents for the ancient midrashim).  Both men had little good to say about the religious teachers of their day.

Muentzer, "Prague Manifesto" (1521, German version)
"For a long time, the world--confused by many sects--has had a tremendous desire for the truth, according to Jer. [4:4].  There were many, and there are still many today, who have thrown the bread, that is, God's word and letter, just as it is thrown to dogs. They have never broken it. Oh, mark it well! They have never broken it for the children. They have never explained the true nature of the fear of God; they have never let it instruct them to become the immovable children of God. This is why Christians--to speak the plain truth--have become poltroons, saying that God has seemingly been struck dumb and no longer speaks with the people. They think it sufficient to read it in books, and then to spit it out like a stork spits out frogs for its young in the nest. They are not like a hen who gathers her young to keep them warm [Cf. Matt. 23:37, 3 Ne 10:5, D&C 10:65, et al]. They refuse to let God's real, true, natural word--which lives in all men--to the hearts of men like a mother offering milk to her child. Instead, they behave like the prophet Balaam [Num. 23-23]; they carry the letter in their mouths, but their hearts are one hundred thousand miles away from it! ... I have taken in the knowledge of this unbearable and evil disease of Christianity through a most diligent study of the ancient church fathers. I have found out that the immaculate, virginal church became a prostitute shortly after the death of the apostles and disciples, due to the scholars who always wanted to be at the top, as Hegesippus and Eusebius testify in [Ecclesiastical History] Book 4, 22. Moreover, no general council, I discovered, ever presented the inviolable word of God. It was all a childish prank. God's will permitted all this so that the work of all men might be revealed. Yet the monkish clergy shall never represent the true church. Instead, the elect friends of God's word will be instructed in prophecy, just as St. Paul was, so that they might really experience how amiably God speaks with his elect. I will, for the sake of God, sacrifice my life in order to reveal this truth" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 57).
"It is the shepherds who just eat, drink, and desire rich parishes. Day and night they are driven by one single ambition: to gorge themselves with food and fiefs, as Ezek. 34[:2] says ... These servants of Satan want to sell a piece of scripture. Yet no man knows whether or not he is worthy of the spirit and love of God! Such is the poison that emerges from the abyss where the priests, these messengers of the devil, reside, filled with the spirit of whoredom and fraud, according to Rev. [3]. They drive away the sheep of God, so that the church is left without a face ... The time of harvest is at hand. That is why God himself has hired me to labor in his harvest. I have sharpened my sickle; my mind is honed for truth; and my lips, hands, skin, hair, heart, soul, body, and life curse unbelief. Christ will give his kingdom to the elect in a little while ... Thomas Muentzer wants to pray, not to a dumb, but to a speaking God" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 58).
Joseph Smith, History of the Church 1.1-5 (1838) = Joseph Smith History (published in the Pearl of Great Price)
"Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

"For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions ...

"While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture ...

"My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'"
 Joseph Smith, Revelation to His Father (1829) = Doctrine & Covenants 4
"Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.  Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work; for behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul; and faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.  Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen."
In theory, both Muentzer and Smith recognized that the kingdom of God made men brothers, exalting the common man and bringing down the rulers (no matter what their institutional affiliation: Muentzer was as much opposed to Lutheran authoritarianism in the end as to Catholic).

Thomas Muentzer, "Vindication and Refutation" (written against Martin Luther in 1524)
"O Doctor Liar, you wily fox. With your lies you have saddened the heart of the just man, whom God did not cause to grieve. For you have strengthened the power of the godless evil-doers, so that they could continue on in their old way. Therefore your fate will be that of the fox that has been hunted down; the people will go free and God alone will be their Lord" (quoted in Matheson, p. 350).
Joseph Smith, Prayer and Prophecies from Liberty Jail (1839) = Doctrine & Covenants 121:39-46
"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen.  No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile--reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.  Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever."
The irony of Joseph Smith renouncing authoritarian excess is not lost on me, by any means.  (Smith should have let the Nauvoo Expositor speak its piece unmolested: in keeping with the words offered here, he said "Amen!" to his own authority when he destroyed that press.  His courtship of Nancy Rigdon and Helen Mar Kimball also falls far short of the ideal he expresses here.)  And I see that there is a positive side to the conciliatory stance Muentzer condemns in Luther (who opposed revolution in the interest of keeping society from unraveling completely).  But when it comes down to the wire, I believe that society works better when people are equals (with nothing but their natural gifts and circumstances to make them stand out from the crowd, for good or ill).  As long as people are going to believe in God, I believe that the Spirit should prevail over the Word: both are often incoherent and idiotic, but the Spirit is more honest, since it recognizes that human interpretation of the divine (whatever that is) is transient, fleeting, subject to error (and proof: people find it easier to resist the Spirit than the Word, I think).

Even more important, I stand against authoritarian big-wigs using their accidental social clout to dictate to the little guy, telling him what to believe and where to put his hard-earned livelihood (in their pocket, naturally, so that they can build the world's most expensive shopping mall).  I aspire to a society where individuals encounter reality (God) for themselves and make their own decisions (imposing on one another by persuasion that does not include blatant lies or renounce reasonable compromise).

In short, the Mormonism to which I converted looks a lot like the Christianity of Thomas Muentzer.  It had its problems: the eschatology was bad, but that came straight from some of the dumbest portions of Scripture, portions which continue to addle the minds of Christians today.  But it was not entirely bad: it embraced revelation, innovation, and a radical identity between spirit and flesh (Muentzer and Smith both thought that Christian doctrine needed to be applied in the world as it exists now, that the current order of things should not be accepted as God's inalterable will: I agree).  When I wear the hat of the believing Christian, I still think in the tradition of Muentzer and Smith (particularly in their mysticism and their anti-clericalism / anti-authoritarianism).  The fact that they both ended up falling short of the high ideals they espoused does not mean that they offered the world nothing useful.  The fact that both of them led failed rebellions against the orthodoxies of their day does not mean that those orthodoxies were without fault.

I find Thomas Muentzer interesting enough that I may post more about him in time.

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