A variety of dissident movements within the church appeared and disappeared throughout the medieval period. Each sought to reform the church along various millenarian, moralistic, biblicistic, and anticlerical lines. In the wake of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) public calls for reform, groups of these kinds reappeared in Europe. Most of them referred to Luther as an inspiration, and they often associated themselves with Luther and his reforms.
In order to distance himself from these groups, Luther used the pejorative German word, Schwärmerei to describe and critique what he saw as their most fundamental error: that they would establish their respective churches on a foundation other than what he called, in the Smalcald Articles (1538), the “First and Chief Article” of the Christian faith: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and God’s Word alone. Moreover, because these opponents also represented forms of 16th-century protest against the Roman Catholic Church, they would cite him as a source of their teaching. His use of Schwärmerei, then, separates his reform proposal from the ideas and the implications of these groups. As a metaphor, Schwärmerei also vilifies Luther’s Protestant opponents as “swarms” of bees or locusts. The term not only links Luther’s opponents together, it also identifies their presence as unpredictable and hazardous. This usage clearly reflected the polemical discourse common in this historical period and contributed to the generally harsh persecutions of the groups in principalities ruled by Lutherans.
In a variety of ways, Luther’s Protestant opponents taught that believers were capable of knowing God directly (e.g., through spiritual experience or reason). Such knowledge was deemed necessary for a truly faithful and transformed life. Luther’s Protestant opponents, then, maintained that full membership in the church depended on their internal experience of the Holy Spirit, an experience that was to be shared ritually with the community as public witness to the Spirit’s work. Both the experience itself and the subsequent life of discipleship were deemed necessary by these groups in order for one to be a true follower of Christ.
For Luther, however, saving knowledge of God comes only through God’s chosen means of self-revelation: the Word and the sacraments. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins, therefore, is always mediated to believers from an external source—through preaching the Word of God and through the means of grace (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
In addition, these groups’ overemphasis on subjectivity left them vulnerable to abuse by their leaders. They could claim authority, based on their internal experiences, to dominate their followers with cult-like power. Luther believed this to be the dynamic at work in the disastrous “Kingdom of God” at Münster (1535), the Peasants’ War (1525), and the Wittenberg disturbances (1522).
For Luther, the Word alone, as God’s law and God’s gospel, provides the basis for the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. His opponents disagreed that such a foundation was sufficient for the church to be the church. Indeed, by the end of his career, the Reformer would describe nearly all of his opponents as Schwärmer—eventually even including the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church among their ranks.