Martin Luther and the Enthusiasts-Part I

“Christ finds not only Caiaphas among his enemies, but also Judas among his friends.” (Martin Luther, LW 40:66)

Martin Luther wrote this sentence in an open letter to Christians in Strasbourg to warn them against Dr. Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt’s teaching regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In this 1524 letter Luther depicted Karlstadt as a false teacher who had betrayed the basic teaching of the emerging Reformation at Wittenberg. In a few posts I will examine the main differences between the teachings of Luther and his early opponents from within his own circle regarding the external Word and the Holy Spirit. The two most significant opponents were Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer whom Luther identified as enthusiasts. (This word derived from the Greek words meaning ‘god within.’) The first post will be an historical overview of the events.

Andreas Karlstadt had been a theology professor at Wittenberg when Luther received his doctoral degree in 1512. Four years later Karlstadt, like Luther, began to promote the move away from late medieval scholastic theology to a greater focus on the Bible and Augustine of Hippo’s writings in the University of Wittenberg’s theological curriculum. However, despite an initial alliance, their doctrinal emphases in relation to justification and salvation began to diverge. When Luther was hidden away at Wartburg Castle (May 1521-March 1522), Karlstadt promoted a rapid reform of practice in Wittenberg. He rejected celibacy (and married a young woman), made drastic changes to the Divine Service, and promoted the removal images and crucifixes from all churches. Luther returned to Wittenberg in March of 1522 and preached his famous “Invocavit Sermons” regarding faith, love, and the implementation of gradual reform.

In 1523 Karlstadt rejected his academic degrees, began dressing like a peasant, and became the pastor of congregation in the small town of Orlamünde. Here Karlstadt implemented his own reform through removing images, rejecting infant baptism, and interpreting the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal only. Martin Luther opposed all these things publicly through a preaching tour of Electoral Saxony. Karlstadt’s teachings and actions led to his exile from Electoral Saxony by the fall of 1524. By this time, Karlstadt had preached and written tracts to promote his teachings and became acquainted with other reformers in southern Germany and Switzerland. Particularly, Karlstadt had impressed a group of preachers from Strasbourg (part of modern France). Luther responded to their inquiries with a letter in December of 1524. Simultaneously, Luther wrote Against the Heavenly Prophets by which he primarily sought to refute Karlstadt, however, Luther certainly had Thomas Müntzer in mind too.

Thomas Müntzer, a priest who initially supported Luther, was a preacher at Zwickau in 1520. Over the next two years he wandered to Prague and back to Saxony. During this time, he set forth a different understanding of the gospel than Luther and ended up in Allstedt in 1523. There he gained a loyal following as a pastor and a prophet. By 1524 Müntzer promoted the notion of using force to bring about his version of reform in society. For instance, his group destroyed a small chapel outside of Allstedt. Müntzer exhorted the princes to carry out a radical reform with him as their spiritual advisor. When they rejected this idea, he became more radical. During the Peasants’ War he joined with others in 1525 at Frankenhausen against the German princes’ troops. By this time he was prophesying the overthrow of the godless princes and the establishment of new godly kingdom. In May of 1525 the princes’ troops captured and later executed him.

Although Luther often conflated Karlstadt’s and Müntzer’s teachings, Karlstadt never promoted violence as a tool for religious or social reform. In fact, he attempted to sway the peasants away from violent revolution. Karlstadt even returned with his family to the environs of Wittenberg and seemed to have reconciled with Luther. In 1529 it became clear that Karlstadt still disagreed with Luther on the Lord’s Supper. By the end of 1530 he had embraced the reformation associated with Ulrich Zwingli. Karlstadt moved to Zurich where he served as a hospital chaplain. In 1534 he settled down as a professor of Old Testament and pastor at Basel, Switzerland. He died there in 1541. Clearly, he had rethought some of his more radical notions from the early 1520s, but his ideas were much closer to Zwingli and other Swiss Reformers than Luther.


Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis, 1990), 146-172.

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations 2nd Ed, (Oxford, 2010), 89-92, 130-150.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Martin Luther and the Enthusiasts-Part I — 6 Comments

  1. This is a very helpful post. Our posts on praise bands and funky conferences at Irvine get more attention but knowing the stuff written by Dr. Phillips is what keeps us from going down the praise band and psycho-babble paths.

    I am proud to say that we have two of Dr. Phillips’ students teaching at our day school and they are both knowledgeable confessional Lutherans and help us move the Reformation ball forward here in Naperville.

  2. Dr. Phillips,

    I am curious about Karlstadt’s rejection of infant baptism and the real presence. Would you attribute this to reason or is there some historical basis for this move. It seems to have just come out of nowhere with guys like K and Zwingli.

  3. An enjoyable and illustrative post, Dr. Phillips.

    I couldn’t help but ponder while reading this, about the potential linkages between the revolutionary tendencies of the Reformation enthusiasts, and the revolutionary tendencies of enthusiasts in our own day. Certainly within the established church, enthusiasts even within the LCMS seek to overrun whole congregations and districts, quite aggressively expunging any resistance to their vision-casting prophetic leaders.

    But even in society, looking at some of the lunatic fringe of enthusiasm, there are quite a few self proclaimed prophets and prophetic associations, that are heavily engrossed in the whole “prepper” subculture, appearing to prepare for a coming revolution… the poor nuts who died in Waco, Texas with their false prophet come immediately to mind, and I know there are lots more where they came from.

    It is good to remind people from time to time, that enthusiasm is dangerous, both to the Church and to society as a whole.

  4. Pr. Rossow,

    My understanding is that God told Zwingli in a dream that the Church had been wrong in its understanding and practice of Baptism for the previous 1500 years. (Someone please correct me if I am mistaken.) So, how can you argue with that?

    soli Deo gloria,

  5. I have never heard of the Zwinglian “I heard it in a dream from God” claim; but I do know how it should be responded to or argued against. Hebrews 1:1-2 refutes all claims of God still working through dreams and direct communication of any kind. This is an invention of the enthusiasts of Luther’s day and carried on by the charasmatics and pentecostals of our day. God spoke to and through Jesus. Once that was done, there were no more ways needed nor promised that He would speak to us. Zwingli is welcomed to tell us all what he dreamed, but not make it factual, no matter how real it might have seemed. I woke up from a dream once that was so real, I was almost fully convinced that I had the power to fly when no one was looking. Feeling something is real doesn’t make it so.

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