Reformation in Zwickau

Thomas Müntzer and his time in Zwickau

During the first half of the 16th century the church invested quite a lot of effort to foster the people’s obsession with the afterlife. Most of them wanted to get salvation as quickly as possible to rescue their souls from purgatory after death. This fact was used by the church: The believers had to give financial support for altars, burial services or the care of the sick and elderly. In a word: the sale of indulgences was a booming business. Those kind of “services” were also well-known in Zwickau, an economically strong and populous town at these times. However, the citizens of Zwickau had quite different social statutes meaning that not everyone was able to pay for his or her salvation. 

As early as February 1519 Georgius Agricola, a teacher at Zwickau’s Latin school, published a paper in which he strongly condemned this situation. He analogously wrote: Provided that a soul could only be rescued by means of paying for salvation, poor people would be truly unfortunate as they would never be able to whitewash themselves; and consequently would suffer in purgatory forever. 

The evangelist Egranus (St. Mary) and the Gray Friar Myconius publicly spoke against the sale of indulgences as well, therewith fortifying the citizen’s defensiveness towards Rome.

The beginning of the Reformation in Zwickau

When Egranus started his voyage to the south of Germany in 1520, the town council of Zwickau asked the young reformer Thomas Müntzer to come to Zwickau and preach at St. Mary’s, as suggested by Martin Luther. Right from the beginning with his first sermon at Zwickau the young man attacked the Franciscans in a way his predecessor would never had done it. The situation got worse and worse over the following months.

Finally the conflict culminated in summer 1520. An electoral commission suggested to dismiss Müntzer and reinstate Egranus as preacher of St. Mary’s Cathedral. But instead the town council continued to protect and defend Müntzer.

In September 1520 Müntzer was offered to become the new preacher of another church in Zwickau, St. Catherine. The town continued its attempts to get back Egranus for St. Mary.

By virtue of Thomas Müntzer during the years 1520/21 the situation between the citizenship of Zwickau and its town council worsened. This also happened due to a changed social structure of this parish. Especially clothiers and other master craftsmen, their journeymen and maidservants, apprentice boys as well as non-locals listened regularly to Müntzer and his sermons. He mainly preached in front of the lower and middle class. When Egranus came back to Zwickau, he and Müntzer argued heavily with each other, thus fueling the citizenship’s growing radicalization even more.

Above of that the plague broke out repeatedly during these days. The Black Death was commonly interpreted as God’s punishment, intensifying discussions regarding school, church and social politics once more. After Niklas Hofer, a pastor from another parish in Zwickau, was said to have branded the believers of St. Catherine as heretics, the citizenship of Zwickau unleashed its fury on him. From his pulpit Müntzer called up for retaliation; as a result Hofer was almost stoned to death. When the town council rejected any social demands of the clothiers, the riots reached a new peak. Against this background a radical group under the leadership of Nikolaus Storch — the Zwickau prophets — gained strength. And the situation between these two rivaling blocks should not calm down anymore.

Hardened fronts — the Reformation spreads

After the former mayor Dr. Erasmus Stüler (called Stella) had died in April 1521, the Zwickau town council was taken over by moderate forces. They finally dismissed Thomas Müntzer on April 16 of the same year in order to ensure public safety. Egranus left Zwickau as well.

Nikolaus Hausmann, belonging to the moderate block, became the Zwickau’s first Protestant parson in 1521. He himself interrogated the members of the Zwickau prophets. But their leader, Nikolaus Storch, and further members escaped a verdict by leaving Zwickau.

On March 16, 1522 an angry mob attacked the Grünhain monastery.

Thereupon the council invited Martin Luther to come to Zwickau. Between April 30 and May 2, 1522 the Reformer preached four times at Zwickau. In doing so he strengthened the moderate forces under mayor Hermann Mühlpfort, Laurentius Bärensprung and town clerk Stephan Roth.

Together with parson Nikolaus Hausmann these men modernized church life as well. By 1525 any Catholic ceremonies had finally been abolished; the Reformation was enforced in Zwickau. During the following years the town council aimed to consolidate its power. To that it was important to obtain the right to solely appoint parsons and preachers — against the will of parish and sovereign. Upon the recommendation of Nikolaus Hausmann Luther asked John, Prince Elector of Saxony (1525-1532) — also known as John the Steadfast — to order a visitation of all churches and schools. The first article of this visitation protocol said that neither the parson nor the town council should have the right to interfere into the other’s business. This conflict was the reason why the friendship between Luther and the Zwickau town council ultimately came to an end.