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The Peasants And The Anabaptists
by [?]

Germany, in great part, under the leadership of Martin Luther, had broken loose from the Church of Rome, the ball which he had set rolling being kept in motion by other hands. The ideas of many of those who followed him were full of the spirit of fanaticism. The pendulum of religious thought, set in free swing, vibrated from the one extreme of authority to the opposite extreme of license, going as far beyond Luther as he had gone beyond Rome. There arose a sect to which was given the name of Anabaptists, from its rejection of infant baptism, a sect with a strange history, which it now falls to us to relate.

The new movement, indeed, was not confined to matters of religion. The idea of freedom from authority once set afloat, quickly went further than its advocates intended. If men were to have liberty of thought, why should they not have liberty of action? So argued the peasantry, and not without the best of reasons, for they were pitifully oppressed by the nobility, weighed down with feudal exactions to support the luxury of the higher classes, their crops destroyed by the horses and dogs of hunting-parties, their families ill-treated and insulted by the men-at-arms who were maintained at their expense, their flight from tyranny to the freedom of the cities prohibited by nobles and citizens alike, everywhere enslaved, everywhere despised, it is no wonder they joined with gladness in the revolutionary sentiment and made a vigorous demand for political liberty.

As a result of all this an insurrection broke out,–a double insurrection in fact,–here of the peasantry for their rights, there of the religious fanatics for their license. Suddenly all Germany was upturned by the greatest and most dangerous outbreak of the laboring classes it had ever known, a revolt which, had it been ably led, might have revolutionized society and founded a completely new order of things.

In 1522 the standard of revolt was first raised, its signal a golden shoe, with the motto, “Whoever will be free let him follow this ray of light.” In 1524 a fresh insurrection broke out, and in the spring of the following year the whole country was aflame, the peasants of southern Germany being everywhere in arms and marching on the strongholds of their oppressors.

Their demands were by no means extreme. They asked for a board of arbitration, to consist of the Archduke Ferdinand, the Elector of Saxony, Luther, Melanchthon, and several preachers, to consider their proposed articles of reform in industrial and political concerns. These articles covered the following points. They asked the right to choose their own pastors, who were to preach the word of God from the Bible; the abolition of dues, except tithes to the clergy; the abolition of vassalage; the rights of hunting and fishing, and of cutting wood in the forests; reforms in rent, in the administration of justice, and in the methods of application of the laws; the restoration of communal property illegally seized; and several other matters of the same general character.

They asked in vain. The princes ridiculed the idea of a court in which Luther should sit side by side with the archduke. Luther refused to interfere. He admitted the oppression of the peasantry, severely attacked the princes and nobility for their conduct, but deprecated the excesses which the insurgents had already committed, and saw no safety from worse evils except in putting down the peasantry with a strong hand.

The rejection of the demands of the rebellious peasants was followed by a frightful reign of license, political in the south, religious in the north. Everywhere the people were in arms, destroying castles, burning monasteries, and forcing numbers of the nobles to join them, under pain of having their castles plundered and burned. The counts of Hohenlohe were made to enter their ranks, and were told, “Brother Albert and brother George, you are no longer lords but peasants, and we are the lords of Hohenlohe.” Other nobles were similarly treated. Various Swabian nobles fled for safety, with their families and treasures, to the city and castle of Weinsberg. The castle was stormed and taken, and the nobles, seventy in number, were forced to run the gantlet between two lines of men armed with spears, who stabbed them as they passed. It was this deed that brought out a pamphlet from Luther, in which he called on all the citizens of the empire to put down “the furious peasantry, to strangle, to stab them, secretly and openly, as they can, as one would kill a mad dog.”