Selections from To The Assembly of the Peasantry, Anonymous, in The Radical Reformation, ed. Michael G. Baylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 104-107.
This anonymous work, authored around May 1525, introduces one of the key tensions in Anabaptist thinking: the perfection of the Christian life, and its relation to the public good. The Anabaptist community exemplifies the way that Christ has meant to order the world, without need of authority, wiling to give to all who have need, paying taxes as a form of public love. But what happens when the community of faith is governed by public figures who exemplify Nero more than David, Satan more than Christ?
The imagery of the final paragraph envisions a defensive intransigence against government evil, and even countenances the possibility of violence as a defensive maneuver against a wicked government. This piece in particular raises the question of how to bring together commitments of the church as the vision of what life is meant to be and a world which opposes and suppresses that vision of public life as being for the sake of the poor.
Chapter One: “True Christian Faith Needs No Human Authority”
As a basic proof of this, we have taken from divine law and Scripture three mighty and irrefutable sayings, which the gates of hell with their entire knighthood are not able to destroy. First, Matthew 7:12: “Everything that you wish people to do to you, do the same to them,” etc. Second, Matthew 22:39, 37: “Yes, God equates brother love with his love for mankind…which should come from the whole mind, the whole heart and soul.” Third, St. Paul wrote to the Galatians 3:28: “Here is neither lord nor servant…We are all one in Christ, thus indeed one”, and to the Ephesians 4: 15-16: “One shall be a limb of the other, to make one body from us all, under the head, Jesus Christ.”
But then it is certainly true that the death of any single member is the ruin of the others. In truth as soon as death ensnares one limb, there is no remission for the whole, until it spoils the other members as well. Therefore all the limbs bear an implanted capacity to love and suffer with one another; but above all, they have been created not for suffering but for salvation and love. This is the intention of St. Paul in Romans 13:8, on taxes, customs, etc, where he says, “You do not owe anything to anyone except that you should love one another, for love is the fulfillment of law. But how all the commandments of God are fulfilled with love will follow quite clearly in the third chapter.
Chapter Two: “Only the Unchristian Way of Life Requires Human Authority”
The carnal, unchristian, lustful life and its power rule so strongly in us and damn the Christian spirit in us so completely that from our youth on we are inclined to evil, as was heard above from Genesis 8:21. We are inclined to pride, avarice, sensual pleasure, etc. and what flows from these same evils. And we are so drowned in an unchristian essence that all love and fear of God, and also brotherly loyalty, are extinguished in us. And so true Christian faith has been torn from our hearts. Each considers how he can take advantage of the other with all disloyalty. Thus, we are not unjustly called fake Christians, for in our hearts Christ is completely denied.
The torturing punishments of hell are never so terrible that they would drive us from evil if there were no temporal fear and punishment. Thus it follows—but not from the nature of the Christian faith that authority must be maintained, so that the unchristian are condemned by it and the pious are protected. In sum, as St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:9: “I know that no law has been ordained for the pious but only for the wicked.” And again in Romans 13: “The powers that be are not to be feared by the good, but by the wicked.”
Chapter Three: The Obligations of a Christian official, be he prince, pope, or emperor
Each pious person, illuminated with true Christian faith and love, considers justly and takes to heart that God is no respecter of persons—so Paul in Romans 3. It is the same for all—shepherd, pope, emperor, or bath-house keeper. Where there is no Christian brotherly heart, someone’s crown, shield, or helmet will not ennoble him before God. Second, each authority shall be established to rule with God himself (for God is the lord), and each authority holds office as a steward of God….In sum, we all belong to God in body and soul. And each authority, be it spiritual or temporal, has been established only to tend God’s lambs…But now it is certain that teach territory or city must have a common fund with which to build roads and bridges, to protect the territory and always to protect the common good, which we presently have a great need for. And what Christian would oppose this? And how would not give, out of brotherly love, the required part of his wealth in order to protect himself and to maintain his wife and children? Whoever was not drive by brotherly love to make his contribution for this cause would have to be a coarse kind of person…In sum, each authority should collect taxes, customs fees, etc., in no other capacity than as a loyal, dear foster-peasants, how uses his budget for the benefit of the poor and orphans. It is thus clear that subject is obliged to pay taxes, customs, etc., out of brotherly love. In the same way, the authorities or powers should take taxes and customs from the ir brother Christians only out of brotherly love, and in order to use them in the interests of their subjects….
Chapter Four: “On False and Unlimited Power, Which One is Not Obliged to Obey”
All the popes, emperors, kings, etc, who puff themselves up in their own estimation above other pious poor Christians, claiming to be a better kind of human—as if their lordship and authority to rule others were innate—do not want to recognize that they are God’s stewards and officials. And they do not govern according to his commandment to maintain the common good and brotherly unity among us. God has established and ordained authority for this reason alone, and no other. But rulers who want to be lords for their own sake are all false rulers, and not worthy of the lowest office among Christians…Therefore whichever prince or lord invents and sets up his own self-serving burdens and commands, rules falsely, and he dares imprudently to deceive God, his own lord. Where are you, you werewolves, you band of Behemoths, with your financial tricks, which impose one burden after another on the poor people? This year a labor service is voluntary, next year it become compulsory. In most cases this is how your old customary law has grown. In what “dementia” or “camouflage” did God, your lord, give you such power that we poor people have to cultivate your lands with labor services? But only in good weather, for on rainy days we poor people see the fruits of our sweat rot in the fields. May God, in his justice, not tolerate the terrible Babylonian captivity in which we poor people are driven to mow the lords’ meadows, to make hay, to cultivate the fields, to sow flax in them, to cut it, comb it, heat it, pound ti, and spin it—yes, even to sew their underpants on their arses….Did God give them such power? On the peak of what monk’s cowl is it written? Indeed their authority is from God. But so remotely that they have become the devil’s soldiers and Satan is their captain….
Chapter Seven: “Whether A Community May Depose Its Authorities or Not?”
Now to the heart of the matter! God wants it! Now the storm bells will be sounded! Now the truth must come out, in this time of grace (Luke 19:11), even if the cliffs should speak…All the lords who issue selfish commands stemming from the desires of their hearts and their willful unjust heads, and who appropriate for themselves—I will remain silent about their plunder—taxes, customs, payments, and what similarly serves the common fund for the protection and maintenance of the common territory, these lords are in truth the real robbers and the declared enemies of their own territory. Now, to knock people such as Moab, Aga, Ahab, and Nero from their thrones is God’s highest pleasure. Scripture does not call them servants of God, but instead snakes, dragons and wolves…Therefore, it is not wholly out of place to consider whether it would now be desirable for the Turks to be lords over us, in the hope that they would allow the gospel to be preached to us freely and without hindrance. For now we are so violently robbed of it by the most powerful ones and their henchmen, because of their greed and pomp, that we poor people are not only ruined in body and goods, which would be tolerable, but indeed, our souls would be lost if we now followed and obeyed them….
Chapter Eight: “In what Form a Community May Depose Its Lords”
…But if the lords always want to be lords and to treat you poor people in the most arbitrary way, contrary to the divine laws which I have discussed above, then follow Solomon and bravely assemble now! Arm yourselves in the spirit of the bold oxen and steers, who gather together staunchly in a ring with their horns outward, not with the intention of rebelling, but only to defend themselves against the ravaging wolves. In truth, if a wolf is attacking them, he does not get away without cracked ribs, even if he escapes with his life. Thus you dear brothers, do not engage in this insurrection in order to get rich with other people’s property, or your hearts will turn false. Victory will bring you nothing good. You should hate greed as the devil hates the cross! Come together only for the sake of the common peace of the land and to practice Christian freedom! Be united in your goal!