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From Reformer to Revolutionary – Thomas Müntzer, Sermon to the Princes (July 13, 1524)

Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489-1525) was a priest and early ally of Martin Luther. After Münzter began pushing a more radical agenda, however, the two had a falling out. In 1521, Münzter was expelled from Zwickau and fled to Prague. In 1523, he became a pastor in Allstedt in Thuringia, where he married a former nun. Later that year, he produced the first completely German liturgy. The following year, Müntzer produced this text, the Sermon to the Princes. In it, he implored secular authorities to advocate a radical reformation of society and not to content themselves with Luther’s conservative agenda. In 1525, Müntzer became a leader of the Peasants’ War in Thuringia and was beheaded after the battle of Frankenhausen (May 1525). His memory haunted the German Protestant movement for decades. Müntzer’s Sermon to the Princes, his best-known work, is a fiery piece of utopian apocalypticism that drips with a sense of imminent divine judgment. He was a teacher of what is called “the spiritual Gospel,” which, in contrast to the written Bible, is inscribed on a Christian’s heart by the Holy Spirit.

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An Exposition of the Second Chapter of Daniel
Allstedt, July 13, 1524*

Firstly. The text of the aforementioned chapter of prophecy of the prophet Daniel will be recounted and translated and thereupon the whole sermon will be set forth in harmony with the text, as follows.

It is known that poor, ailing, disintegrating Christendom can be neither counseled nor aided unless the diligent, untroubled servants of God daily work through the Scriptures, singing, reading, and preaching. But therewith the head of many a pampered priest will continuously have to suffer great blows or [he will] miss out in his handiwork. But how ought one otherwise to deal with him at a time when Christendom is being so wretchedly devastated by ravenous wolves, as it is written in Isaiah (ch. 5:1–23) and in Ps. 80 (vs. 9–14) concerning the vineyard of God? And Saint Paul teaches how one should exercise oneself in singing divine praises (Eph. 5:19). For just as in the times of the beloved prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the others, the whole congregation of the elect of God had become so utterly implicated in the way of idolatry that even God could not help them but had to let them be led away captive and punish them in the midst of the heathen to the point where they once again recognized his holy name, as it stands written (Isa. 29:17–24; Jer. 15:11; Ezek. 36:8–12; Ps. 89: 31–38) so, no less is it true in the time of our fathers and our time, that poor Christendom is even more deeply obdurate and the more so for having the unspeakable semblance of the divine name with which the devil and his servants adorn themselves (Luke 21:5; II Tim. 3:5; II Cor. 11:13–15).

Yea, so nicely that the real friends of God are thereby misled; and even with the diligence of the most intense application, they are scarcely able to detect their error, as Matthew (ch. 24:24) clearly shows. This is what the simulated sanctity and the flattering absolution of the godless enemies of God accomplish. For they say the Christian church cannot err, even though, in order to protect against error, it should be continuously edified by the Word of God and held free of error.** Surely [the true church] should also acknowledge sin through ignorance (Lev. 4:13 f.; Hos. 4:6; Mal. 2:1–7; Isa. 1:10–17). But that is indeed true. Christ the Son of God and his apostles and indeed, before him, his holy prophets began a real pure Christianity, having sown pure wheat in the field, that is, [they] planted the precious Word of God in the hearts of the elect as Matthew (ch. 12:24–30), Mark (ch. 4:26–29), and Luke (ch. 8:5–15) have written, and Ezekiel (ch. 36:29). But the lazy, neglectful ministers of this same church have not wished to accomplish this and maintain it by dint of diligent watchfulness; but rather they have sought their own [ends], not what was Jesus Christ’s (Phil. 2:4, 21). For this reason they have allowed the harmfulness of the godless vigorously to take over, that is, the weeds (Ps. 80:9–14). For the cornerstone, here [Dan. 2:34 f., 44 f.] indicated, was still small. Of this Isaiah (ch. 28:16) [also] speaks. To be sure, it has not yet come to fill the whole world, but it will soon fill it and make it full, very full. Therefore the prepared cornerstone was in the beginning of the new Christianity rejected by the builders, that is, the rulers (Ps. 118:22 f. and Luke 20:17 b.). Thus I say the church since its beginning has become in all places dilapidated, up to the present time of the “divided”*** world (Luke 21:10; Dan. 2:35; I Esdras 4:45). For Hegesippus**** (and Eusebius) in [Ecclesiastical History] IV, 22, concerning the [early] Christian church, declares that the Christian congregation did not remain a virgin any longer than up to the time of the death of the disciples of the apostles and soon thereafter became an adulteress, as had indeed already been prophesied by the beloved apostles (II Peter 2:12–15). And in the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 20:28–31a) Saint Paul said to the shepherds of the sheep in clear, translucent words: Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall ravenous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.

[ . . . ]

* The full title is: Exposition of the second chapter of Daniel the prophet preached at the Castle of Allstedt before the active and amiable dukes and administrators of Saxony by Thomas Müntzer, minister of the Word of God. [All footnotes were taken from: Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by G.H. Williams and A. M. Mergal (Library of Christian Classics Series). The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1957, pp. 49-70.]
** Here Müntzer sets over against the authoritarian view of the historic church his own conviction as to the Gathered Church of the elect saints, ever renewed and corrected by the living Spirit and Word.
*** The reference is to the feudal age in which power is divided between lords temporal and lords spiritual, symbolized by the feet of the multimetallic statue.
**** Church historian Hegesippus lived in Rome in the third quarter of the second century. His five books of memoirs of the church in the form of historical polemic against Gnosticism are preserved only in fragments in the larger History of Eusebius of Caesarea.

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