We are coming upon the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church that looked more like a castle. This act was just that – a symbolic act. The actual work of resisting the corruption of the church and its abuses of power, its theological arrogance and secrecy, its matchless wealth and endless displays of it, the resistence was years in the making. And it would be years in the continuing.
What’s also clear Martin Luther was the only reformer, and some argue not even the most significant. The Reformation is full of figures whose name most would not know, figures that nonetheless are intriguing, complex, and powerful, figures that were influential but now are lost to history.
Andreas Karlstadt was such a figure. He is also a figure that is a great example of what to do when ambitions and hopes and dreams went unrealized and shattered even.
Karlstadt was like Luther a professor and priest teaching at Wittenberg University in Germany. He soon joined Luther in his stand against the Catholic Church. But soon Karlstadt grew a little more ardent when it came to the question how far do we move away from the Church as it exists with its corrupt power-politics and theology. He would come to disagree with Luther in this regard. Karlstadt wanted radical change from top to bottom. Karlstadt’s radical stance amounted to the first seeds in what would become known as the Radical Reformation which both the Catholic church and Luther agreed was a step too far.
The Radical Reformation in actuality became more important to America. Those early immigrants who made their way here were Anabaptists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists. Our young country’s development happened thanks to children of the Radical Reformation.
Still, Andreas Karlstadt is an all but forgotten father of the Radical Reformation.
Anyway, here are some of his views that really changed the conversation and became central to the Radical Reformation and to scores of churches to this day:
- He rejected the use of clerical vestments, choosing to wear the garb of a peasant even in the pulpit. I wear sneakers and dress casually in the pulpit in his honor, actually. He also rejected being called Father Karlstadt, preferring simply Brother Karlstadt.
- He called for clerical matrimony, himself marrying. Being happily married for some 23 years and counting, I am thankful for this.
- He rejected the use of any images – crucifixes, Mary icons, etc. – or overt displays of wealth or even art outside simply crafter wooden pews, pulpits, and structure.
- He rejected the practice of infant baptism, instead calling for adult baptism for those freely able to express Christian belief
- He called for Baptism by immersion
- He called for the minister to expound on scripture in a low-key, meaningful way and for the laity to discuss it in turn.
- He called for the church to be responsive to the people’s needs and in solidarity with the plight of the common people.
- He believed Communion was simply a way to remember Jesus and not about the body and blood sacrifice per se.
Karlstadt for a short time ministered a church in the small town of Orlamunde where he enacted all of these reforms. At this church, he officiated the first Reformed communion service.
All of this was a bridge too far for Luther and for Ulrich Zwingli, the other twin tower of the Reformation. It led to ongoing debate between liberal reformer Luther and radical reformer Karlstadt.
When the Peasant Wars arose, Luther felt the heat tremendously. He was blamed for stirring up the masses with his talk of protest and reform. He passed the buck and relieved some pressure by blaming the radicals, namely Karlstadt and another radical reformer named Thomas Muntzer. But Karlstadt, unlike the by-any-means-necessary, including violence, Muntzer was a pacifist who did not condone violence in his advocacy of the peasant class. That did not stop Luther. Karlstadt received the brunt of Luther’s blame and pressure. He was removed from the pulpit, was exiled in no uncertain terms
Things got pretty hard for Karlstadt. So hard that when farming did not suffice in supporting himself and his family, he resorted to street vending to get by.
To end his exile, Luther demanded a published apology for his radical stances, even though the apology was not really true. But even that did not settle the matter. Karlstadt was still despised by the Catholic church and viewed suspiciously by Luther and his supporters. His farming and street vending life wasn’t over.
Imagine yourself in Karlstadt’s peasant shoes. Once a professor and priest with prestige and power. Once standing side to side with Luther and toe to toe with Catholic church leaders countering Luther. Once an important voice in the beginnings of a movement quickly changing the world. Now selling goods on the street and farming to survive.
His name in history followed suit. No one knows his name. Few will mention him as we celebrate the 500th year of the Reformation.
What do you do when all your youthful dreams and ambitions are now memories and unrealized? What do you do when your heart cries out like Terry Malloy in the film On The Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody.”
Karlstadt in the remainder of his life gives us one way to respond, an admirable way, a Jimmy Carter kind of way.
Karlstadt fled the scene and moved to Switzerland and returned to ministry. He ministered to people living lives not unlike his. He took his perceived nobodiness, saw that it mirrored the poor and the peasants around him and in the pews. He joined them, ministered to them while walking beside them. He pastored not just in peasant clothes but in actual solidarity, as one of them, born of the same heartache and hurt.
Karlstadt exemplified this in his death too. He died on Christmas Day 1641 after being infected with the bubonic virus during the time of the Bubonic Plague. He gave his life ministering to the dying. “No greater love than this, than a man lay down his life for a friend.”
Yes, this world tends to not long remember these kinds of act that do not reward with fame or fortune. History is written by the winners about the winners.
Thankfully, heaven goes first to those who gave away their life, who emptied their self for the sake of another. And one of the tasks of the church is to remember kindness and sacrifice in a world that forgets these things.
As for us, amid our own real hurts and unrealized hopes, we are presented with the same all around us. We are in turn moved by God, perhaps with an inner voice that says “Go to it. Give of yourself for the sake of others.” Go to it, Terry Malloy. Yes, you are sad about what could have been, but go help bring down the criminal racket around ruining the neighborhood. Yes, Jimmy Carter, you’ve lost the presidency and are heartbroken, but go build homes for the homeless even at 92, even if you are fighting cancer, even if the risk is dehydration and collapse. Yes, Andreas Karlstadt, yes, you are not Martin Luther nor remembered much in history, but go, stand with the poor and minister to the sick.
Yes, we may be sad. Yes, we may be weary. Yes, we may be hurt or horrified or heartbroken. But let us go and see the same in others all around us and walk the journey together. This is how hope – lasting hope, heavenly hope – is secured.