5.2.1. The Zwickau Prophets

5.2. THE APOCALYPSES OF THE RADICAL-ANABAPTIST REFORMATION

5.2.1. The Zwickau Prophets

One of the weirdest apocalyptic manifestations of the German Radical Reformation was the triad of the weaver prophets in the city of Zwickau. The leader, Nikolaus Storch, was an illiterate weaver who turned into a prophet of the latter days after he had divine revelations.442 Little is known about his two lieutenants, Thomas Drechsel and Markus Stübner; the latter seems to have pretended that he had the gift of mind reading. The three were not clerics, but laymen influenced by the ideas of the Brethren of the Free Spirit.443 They preached equality between men, the community of goods and rejected infant baptism. According to them, faith is a necessary requirement for baptism, and infants are not capable of having faith – this doctrine taking the generic name of “Anabaptism.”

The three enjoyed a tremendous success among the common people of Zwickau. But, in order to avoid being convicted by the local clergy, in December 1521 they ran to Wittenberg. While Luther was being at Wartburg, the Zwickau prophets arrived in Wittenberg around Christmas and began to preach. Andreas Karlstadt, the spiritual leader of the city in Luther’s absence, was taken by surprise by the new doctrine. He agreed with some of the views of the newcomers, but he refused to entirely accept Anabaptism because he felt that it was a theological trap. Instead, Melanchthon and his colleague Nikolaus von Amsdorf were utterly impressed. After ardent discussions carried out on the 27th of December, the scriptural arguments regarding the illegitimacy of infant baptism left a profound impression on Luther’s friend, at the time a young and inexperienced teacher of theology. Neither he nor Von Amsdorf was capable to refute the Anabaptist argument based on Mark 16:16: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned.”

Melanchthon noticed the logic of Anabaptism and took into account the possibility that the newcomers were indeed God’s messengers. In the same day he sent word to Luther and Johann Frederick I, Duke of Saxony, asking for advice.444 The legitimacy of infant baptism and the claim of direct communion with God were serious and potentially dangerous matters; Stübner, for example, affirmed that, in the light of a marvelous conversation with God, he was preaching only what God had expressly indicated him to preach. It is true that throughout the whole Bible, starting from Noah and ending with John, God directly spoke to his prophets. But Christian tradition says that the apostles of Jesus were the last people who communicated with God. Hence, in the 16th century the claim of a direct communication with the divinity was treated as heresy. At Wittenberg, the Zwickau prophets depicted themselves as the prophets of the last days, while the Anabaptist doctrine took the form of God’s last warning for redemption.445

Friedrick I and Luther were very reserved about these intruders. In his early writings Luther had promoted zero tolerance toward deviant religious positions and especially against those who pretend divine revelations. Through a letter from January 1522 he advised Melanchthon to investigate how these prophets behave or what they felt during their meetings with God. Luther in fact suggested a comparative test taking the Bible as a reference point, where all the prophets who met God described the experience as being disturbing and incredibly frightening; God is a fire that consumes you. Those who pretend divine revelations and talk nice, calm, with zeal and in detail must not be taken seriously. Luther also said to his friend to see if these individuals had done anything to prove that they were not, on the contrary, inspired by Satan. The inability to distinguish between divine revelation and devilish deceit was …


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