Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.
The Peasant’s War in Germany
When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the chapel at the University of Wittenberg in October of 1517, he had no idea that he would be sparking a revolution. He merely wanted an academic discussion on ways to reform the church. He had no intention of starting his own movement. But things have a way of working in ways that we never intend. The church, at the time, was badly in need of improvement, and Luther merely wanted to help. The 95 Theses very quickly made their way around Germany and combined with the new invention of the printing press and an increasingly literate populace, Luther’s words had grown beyond even his influence.
16th century Germany was a brutish place. The peasants suffered under the boot of the upper classes. They toiled in harsh and dangerous conditions for very little pay, and were taxed nearly to the breaking point. Through the teachings of Martin Luther they found they no longer had to believe everything they were told, but felt they finally had permission to think for themselves. Luther had helped them to realize their own self worth and with that new knowledge, they began to question authority.
Throughout the history of the world, the ruling class has crushed the working class, all to varying degrees. And throughout history, when the peasants felt the oppressive thumb of their governments, they rebelled. It happened in the American Revolution, it happened often in France throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it happened in Rome, and in 1524-25 it happened in Germany. In the summer of 1524, an abbot had refused to let the villagers of the Black Forrest select their own preacher. Little did he know that that would be the spark that ignited the powder keg. On 19 July, the peasants rose up against their oppressors and quickly found support from neighboring townsfolk. By January of the following year, dozens of provinces and towns were in open revolt.
Martin Luther warned the peasants to cease and desist. He was appalled by their behavior, insisting that they were acting like heathens. He urged them to remember their Christian duty to be patient and not to fight, but by this time it was already well out of his hands. Luther also appealed to the princes; begging them to be merciful, arguing that the peasants’ demands were reasonable and fair. They had a list of only twelve; the freedom to choose their own preachers, the liberty to fish and hunt wherever they wished, the eradication of excess tithes, the abolition of slavery, that communal forests be returned to the people so they may use the timber and firewood, that they not be excessively overworked, inspections on housing to prevent property owners from overcharging rent, that crimes be judged according to merit and not at the judge’s whim, that communal meadows be returned back to the people, that nobility no longer withhold wages from the workers, and the abolishment of the inheritance tax. The twelfth and final article was a statement that all of their demands were based on godly principles, and that if it could be proven that anything was contrary to the word of God, then they would remove it.
The demands were fair, nevertheless, the nobility did not accede to their demands. The peasants designed their own flag; a tricolor of red, black, and white, which was their symbol to revolt. They walked through the countryside waving the flag and gathering guerrilla forces. Things quickly turned violent as they began looting castles and killing anybody who dared oppose them. They marched to the castle of Count Helfenstein, assassinating him, his wife, their baby, and all the count’s men, before burning the castle to the ground.
The army was finally brought in to squash the revolution, and the soldiers easily defeated the untrained peasants. The rebels’ body count began to rise, but nonetheless, despite battle after battle, they refused to surrender. Then, on 15 May, the army managed to surround the insurgents. They were unarmed, and their numbers, by then, had been decimated, but still they refused to give up. They believed that God was on their side. The Imperial army attacked and spared no one. Five thousand peasants were killed in the massacre.
The Hungarian Revolt of 1514
Martin Luther sought theological reform, and much social and ecclesiastical improvements were brought about through his teachings. Unfortunately, man can taint even that which is good and holy. A mere ten years prior to the Peasant’s War in Germany, the serfs in Hungary had their own revolt. 16 April, 1514, Cardinal Thomas Bakócz published a papal bull calling all able bodied Hungarians to join in the crusade against the Turkish infidels. The nobility had no wish to risk life and limb in a bloody war, but the serfs had nothing to lose. Joining the war would allow them to escape the crushing poverty of 16th century peasantry and flee the chains of feudal servitude. So they traded their plowshares for swords and took up the cross of the crusades, under the training of Transylvanian nobleman, György Dózsa.
The Hungarian king, Vladislaus II, had already made peace with the Turks, so the nobility took issue with the pope encouraging the serfs to abandon their agricultural duties to fight in a war that wasn’t even their own. Noblemen and lords attempted to use force to keep the peasants on their farms; including beating any who attempted to leave and threatening their families. Nonetheless, the workers refused to return, even as crops began to rot in the fields. Dózsa sympathized with his peasant army and was all to happy to help them rise above their stations. They had joined the crusades to leave their oppressive situations and had no intentions of ever going back.
The Hungarian lords protested the papal bull and complained to both King Vladislaus II and Cardinal Bakócz, who eventually relented. On 23 May, just a month after the original proclamation, the crusades were suspended and the serfs ordered back to their masters. It was too late, the die had been cast. The serfs, under Dózsa, took all the training that was meant for the Muslims, and turned it on their Christian masters. Their goal: eliminate all royalty. One hundred thousand peasants surged through the countryside; butchering their former masters, slaughtering the clergy, killing women, and children, and burning the mansions and crops of the ruling elite. Plagues of locusts haven’t been as destructive as these rebellious peasants.
Finally, the lords called another Transylvanian nobleman, this one János Zápolya, to lead an army against Dózsa and his band of rebels. Zápolya easily and brutally suppressed the uprising, bringing an end to the revolt on 15 July. The leaders of the revolt were viciously tortured to death and by October orders were drawn that the peasants receive no rights, and must work one day a week without pay to make up for the damaged crops. The revolution claimed the lives of seventy thousand peasants and noblemen. Zápolya, following the death of Vladislaus, was named king of Hungary in 1526 until his own death in 1540.
The Wat Tyler Rebellion
Violence is never the answer. We are blessed with the luxury of hindsight, especially in the Information Age. Had the Germans and Hungarians had access to historical records, maybe they could have learned from the past and saved countless lives, including their own. Tragically, they had no such well to drawn from and were disastrously unaware of the outcome of Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381. By the time Tyler, with the help of Jack Straw and John Ball, had amassed an army of peasants, there had already been local uprisings and a two-month rebellion by May of that year. Among their complaints was restrictive wage laws and a wildly unpopular poll tax of one shilling for every person over 15, a crippling amount for the poor laborers. To make matters worse, in an effort to pay for the long war with France, this was the third time in four years that such a tax had been issued. Those who couldn’t pay cash had to pay with seeds or goods.
Tyler’s army consisted of between sixty thousand and one hundred thousand guerrilla fighters. They likely made quite the scene when they marched into London on the second of June, demanding an audience with the king. The king refused to meet with them and thirty thousand men began to steal food and drink. Fueled now by liquid courage they began to riot. Angry, drunken peasants dragged foreigners into the streets to rob and kill them. A mob of men marched through the streets with the head of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thirty -two of the rioters were killed in the Duke of Lancaster’s wine cellar when the house burned down on top of them. The peasants destroyed tax records and destroyed any buildings which held any kind of government record.
Meanwhile, Tyler had managed to meet with the fifteen year old King Richard II on 14 June. The young king asked that the rebels leave in peace, and agreed to meet with their demands. Many peasants, pleased with their victory, left for home. Others stayed and continued to wreak havoc. Richard II, with his army in France, spent the night in hiding. The king’s advisors, angered by Tyler, and fearful of the destruction that could happen to the city, again met with Tyler. There, the Lord Mayor fatally wounded Tyler, while fifteen hundred of the rebels were executed. Richard gave a speech to the remaining rebels. What he said was lost to history, but whatever it was, it worked. The defeated army returned to their farms. Unfortunately, Richard was unable to keep his promises made earlier to them, stymied by his limited power. The poll tax, however, was withdrawn.
Such is history; a tragic series of unfortunate rebellions, uprisings, riots, and wars. None of this is God’s design. He created the world with visions of peace, and though the rest of the world may be violent, He has commanded His children to respond with mercy, justice, and love. The author of Hebrews, in chapter 12:14 wrote, “ Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” And in Romans 14:19 the apostle Paul wrote, “ Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
Christian Persecution Under Nero
Jesus instructed us to turn the other cheek and to love and forgive our enemies. The above examples of violent uprisings demonstrate what can happen when we ignore God’s command. Violence only begets more violence and justice and peace can only be brought about by love. Peter certainly understood that. He wrote the book of 1 Peter when Rome was under the command of Nero. Nero, the crazed emperor who reportedly fiddled while Rome burned. Nero, the megalomaniac who blamed Christians for anything that went wrong within his empire. Nero, who eventually would be the death of Peter himself.
Christians were more than a little concerned to be at the mercy of such an infamous emperor. They knew that they were in very real danger and they didn’t know if they should revolt, hide their faith, or stand strong. Peter wrote the Book of 1 Peter to offer the scared and suffering Christians reassurance and guidance. Peter was no stranger to tribulation, he himself had been flogged, imprisoned, and were it not for the miraculous escape detailed in Acts 12, he would have already been executed. But he also knew first hand that death was not merely the cessation of one’s sufferings, but the beginning of life. For he had personally witnessed the agony, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
In 1 Peter, chapter 1, Peter begins by praising the Christians for remaining steadfast in their faith and reassuring them that their faith is worth more than gold. The goal of their faith is the salvation of their souls. Salvation, that Peter assured them, they’d receive. He urged the Christians to be holy, to keep their minds on the grace that was given them by Christ himself. In verse 21 he reminds them that all mankind is like grass, and all glory is like flowers. Both will wither away, the only thing that will ever last is the Word of God.
The wise Peter urged his listeners to live in harmony and do good. By doing good they may be an example to the unbelievers. Peter, the man who had sliced the ear off the servant of a high priest, had transformed, through Christ, into a man now urging his readers to be sympathetic, compassionate, and humble. He well knew the dangers they faced, but reminded them that Christ died for the righteous and unrighteous. That Jesus was put to death in the body but made alive by the spirit. (1 Peter 3:18) Those who suffer for what is right are blessed.
All must seek and pursue peace, even in the face of evil. Peter, who had objected to the idea of Jesus’ suffering, now asked his readers to rejoice that they had the opportunity to suffer for Christ. (4:13) All that is on this earth is temporary, heaven is eternal. We should keep our eyes on that which is eternal. And finally, he admonished the Christians to be self-controlled and alert, to resist the enemy by standing firm in their faith and to remember that their brothers and sisters around the world were undergoing the same tribulations. “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (5:10)
Blessed are the Peacemakers
History has shown us at when the oppressed are given the chance, they behave in ways that are more brutish than their oppressors. Ultimately, they fail, and are once more crushed under the heel of those in charge. It doesn’t need to be that way. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously said that “ the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.” This appears to be true. People and governments are slowly evolving. No more are the ruling classes literally working the poor to death. Even revolutions need not be violent, as evidenced in Iceland over the past few years. When the market crashed in 2008 and banks and financial institutions the world over panicked, the people of Iceland rose up. Not with an iron fist, or cannons blazing, but though peace and the power of unity.
Peacefully, the Icelanders forced the bankers to resign. Peacefully, they ordered the resignation of the prime minister and members of the government. Then they simply held new elections. Unfortunately, the country remained in dire straits, so the citizens once again took to the streets. High level executives who were behind the crash were arrested, and a new constitution was drafted, one that prevented the country from falling into the snare of foreign loans. Through peaceful means, the Icelanders were able to effectively get their country back on track. No shots fired, no lives lost. Peter would be proud. God doesn’t ask us to roll over to injustice, but as Christians, we’re held to a higher standard. Had the English, Hungarian, and German rebels used peace instead of violence thousands of lives would have been saved, including their own. All the rebels were Christian men, yet none used the godly principles of peace and mercy. They paid for that mistake with their lives. We must fight for peace, but by peaceful means. For it is the peacemakers who will be called the sons of God.
-Peasant War (Germany), Earnest Belfort Bax
2011 Createspace Publishing
-Pessimist's Guide to History, Stuart Berg Flexner, Doris Flexner
-2008 Harper Collins Publishers
© 2017 Anna Watson
Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on December 18, 2017:
Thank you Threekeys,
You are correct. Indeed, it is human nature to hate who we fear, and those who oppress so. Luckily, with God all things are possible.
threekeys on December 18, 2017:
Interesting read Anna. Thankyou!
Yes the trick is, when we are aggressed upon by another, its twice as hard for the target/oppressed because they are now infected or inflicted with the hate of the oppressor and that hate turned against oneself. We instinctively cuss and want to hurt the oppressor. But we cannot do this. It defeat's the whole purpose of not colluding or cooperating to continue the cycle of hate or violence. We have to then start the recycling and resolvement of the vile, hate, infection in order to eventually become the harbringers of peace, joy and goodness, rather than the oppressors who divide and conquer. Not easy at all!