Zwickau Prophets, the name given to three men, Nicholas Storch, Thomas Drechsel, and Marcus (Thomae) Stübner, who came to Wittenberg from Zwickau, Saxony (Germany), about Christmas time in 1521, professing a special message through their study of the Scriptures and through direct revelation from God through the Holy Spirit. They had been influenced by Thomas Müntzer, a Lutheran preacher in Zwickau from 1520 to April 1521, recommended by Luther, and had advocated to the textile workers of Zwickau, the proletariat of that industrial city, the establishment of a church of members filled with the Spirit and exercising the ban, equipped with revelation through the "Spirit," while God would destroy the unrighteous. "The laity must become our priests and prelates" was one of his slogans. Annemarie Lohmann, however, holds that it was Storch whose spiritualistic-Taborite ideas influenced Müntzer away from his Lutheran course into radicalism. The Zwickau prophets came with this spirit to Wittenberg and for a time exerted substantial influence even on Melanchthon and Amsdorf. Storch soon left Wittenberg to continue his agitation at other places for several years (e.g., 1524 in Strasbourg and Hof), while Stübner stayed longer and won a number of followers, among them Dr. Gerhard Westerburg and Martin Borrhaus. Then he too disappeared from the pages of history. Karlstadt, the leader at Wittenberg during Luther's absence at the Wartburg (April 1521 to March 1522), agreed on some points with the men from Zwickau but was not of their party.
No church nor movement was established by the Zwickau prophets, but as early as 1530 the theory arose, without any historical foundation to be sure, that Anabaptism was founded by Nicholas Storch in Zwickau. Melanchthon was apparently the first to make this assertion in a letter of February 1530 to Friedrich Myconius, in which he wrote of "Storch and his following, to whom the entire Anabaptist tribe owes its beginning," although he also had the Zwinglians originate in Storch: "Thus from one stork have arisen all those factions of Anabaptists and Zwinglians." Luther in his foreword to Menius' Von dem Geist der Wiedertäufer (1544) even connected the origin of the Anabaptists with Karlstadt and Zwingli.
The earliest writings of Switzerland and South Germany about and against the Anabaptists have nothing to say about a Saxon or Thuringian origin of the Anabaptists in 1521-22. Urbanus Rhegius of Augsburg, one of the very first to write against the Anabaptists (September 1527, Wider den Newen Taufforden), says nothing of the Zwickau origin of Anabaptism. Zwingli knows nothing of such an origin in his writings of 1525-27. In his first book of 1530, Von dem unverschämpten fräfel, Bullinger knows only that Anabaptism is a revival of the ancient heresies of Novatian, Auxentius, and Pelagius; not until his book of 1560, Der Widertöufferen Ursprung, the first chapter of which is titled "Von dem Ursprung des widertoufs, barlangend von Thomas Müntzern und dessen verkehrter ufrürischer leer," does he speak of its origin "down there in Saxony in 1521 and 1522," naming Storch and Müntzer. Sebastian Franck's Chronica (1531) reports only on South Germany. Nor does Johannes Gast of Basel show any idea of a connection of the Swiss and South German Anabaptists with Saxony and Middle Germany in his De Anabaptismi exordio (Basel, 1544). But all the later historiographers are agreed in their construction of history: the Anabaptist movement began with Storch and Müntzer. Thus Arnold Meshovius says in his Historiae Anabaptisticae (Cologne, 1617): "In my opinion Nikolaus Pelargus (Storch) . . . were some who were leaders (Karlstadt, Melanchthon, Gerhard Westerburg, Markus Stübner, Gabriel Zwilling, Borrhaus, Thomas Müntzer)." Of his "Seven Books" the first is devoted exclusively to Wittenburg and Zwickau. It is interesting to note that Meshovius reckons Melanchthon among the Anabaptist leaders, not without some justification if doubts concerning infant baptism are to be considered a mark of Anabaptism. To mention an author of the following century (almost any other would do as well) we cite Ehre-Gott Daniel Colberg, professor at the University of Greifswald, whose book was published in Leipzig in 1710, Das Platonisch-Hermetische Christentum begreifend die historische Erzählung vom Ursprung und vielerlei Sekten der heutigen fanatischen Theologie Unterm Namen der Paracelsisten, Weigelianer, Rosenkreutzer, Quäker, Wiedertäufer, Bourignisten, Labadisten und Quietisten. Chapter IX deals with the Anabaptists, and Section 2 has the heading, "Ursprung der Wiedertäufer. Glaus Storch, Thomas Müntzer, Heinrich Pfeiffer." J. C. Füssli in Beitrage zur Erläuterung der Kirchen-Reformation des Schweizerlandes (Vol. I, 1741: 109) reflects the position of the historiography of the time in his rejection of the attempt of the Dutch Mennonite historians (especially Schijn) to prove the Waldensian origin of the Anabaptists, saying, "Most historians agree that Anabaptism had its origin from Niclaus Storch and Thomas Müntzer. . . . We will hold with the majority that the Anabaptist sect had its origin from the above restless heads until something else is proved." Füssli knows that Sebastian Franck's Chronica (1531) knew nothing of the Saxon origin of Anabaptism but had it arise during and after the Peasants' War of 1524-25 and in the South; but he rejected this theory, especially because Bullinger in his Reformationsgeschichte had "proved" the opposite.
In the 19th century Johannes Hast is typical, the very title of his book betraying his position: Gechichte der Wiedertäufer von ihrer Entstehung zu Zwickau in Sachsen bis auf ihren Sturz zu Münster in Westfalen (Münster, 1836). Richard Heath called his book Anabaptism from its Rise at Zwickau to its Fall at Münster (London, 1895); but E. B. Bax, with a similar title, Rise and Fall of Anabaptism (N.Y., 1903), specifically rejects the Zwickau origin. Richard Bachmann titled his pamphlet of 1880: Nicholaus Storch, der Anfänger der Zwickauer Wiedertäufer. Examples could be taken at random to illustrate the continued prevalence of this theory in the 19th century and later. Karl Holl (Luther und die Schwärmer, 1923), Karl Heussi (Kompendium der Kirchengeschichte, 10th ed., 1949), and the modern editions of the main encyclopedias (Calwer Kirchenlexikon, 1941; Der grosse Brockhaus, 1935; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1936) continue the theory. C. A. Cornelius with his thorough work, Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs, Vol. II: Die Wiedertaufe (Leipzig, 1860), however, finally abolished it and placed the real origin in Zurich. Many important research scholars have followed him.
Under the designation "Anabaptist" the enemies of the Anabaptists of 1525 sought to include all who stood in opposition to the main line of the Reformation on whatever ground, i.e., the entire "left wing." After the Münsterite affair of 1535 the Protestant leaders were convinced that the Anabaptist movement was fanatical-revolutionary in essence, and was accordingly a threat to the existing socio-political order for both state and church. One cannot do justice to their attitude toward the Anabaptists without recognizing this fact. Roland Bainton's latest Luther biography makes this very clear.
In the 16th century the word "Anabaptists" denoted simply the enemies of the truth, opponents of God and His cause, the greatest threat to the existing order, the state, and Christendom. They ere considered to be a "devilish sect" of "satanic origin," to be mercilessly eradicated. This was the advice of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and others to their princes and city councils, and this was the procedure actually followed. (Philipp of Hesse was a notable exception.) The representatives of the church and the theologians and historians of later times apparently simply copied these concepts and if possible strengthened them, without considering the sources or the Anabaptists themselves. Nicholas Storch and Thomas Müntzer were the first to at tack the Protestant cause from within, and they rejected infant baptism; hence they must have begun the Anabaptist movement. No evidence of factual connections with the later real Anabaptists was needed.
Bender, H. S. "The Zwickau Prophets, Thomas Müntzer, and the Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review XXVII (1958): 2-16.
Lohmann, Annemarie. Zur geistigen Entwichlung Thomas Müntzers. Leipzig, 1931.
Wappler, Paul. Thomas Müntzer und die Zwickauer Propheten. Zwickau, 1908.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1050-1051. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Zwickau Prophets." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/Z953.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1959). Zwickau Prophets. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/Z953.html.