Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.
And our Sunday school class has come to an end. In many ways, I think I have saved both the best and the worst for last. I think I could argue that this is also the most important. If I were to ever write a book about the Anabaptists, a large part of it would be about this topic. And that is not because we have a lot to learn from these excluded groups. In fact, there probably isn’t much, at all, that we can directly learn from them. But I believe that these groups are a sort of mirror. They teach us a lot about ourselves, about what we are afraid of, about the violent tendencies which we still are trapped within.
Let’s begin with why I see this as so important. On the top of my to-do list for the winter, is to read and then write an article about a book you have heard me reference many times before, Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist. It just released its 5th anniversary edition. I want to critique the book first by talking about the Anabaptists who were actually naked, the ones who took off their clothes and ran around the city of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, these Anabaptists never would make his book because they stood for very little that Murray believes the earliest Anabaptists stood for. Which is quite funny because these Anabaptists were some of the earliest of the Anabaptists! (1534-5).
This article will most likely never get published. There really isn’t a place for it. However, in it I want to argue that Mennonite exclusion of people today is tied to how we tell our history. For the last few hundred years, you can say the entire quest for the Anabaptist vision has centered on creating a history “without spot or wrinkle.” Without spot or wrinkle is a familiar term which Mennonite churches have long used to describe their mission. What does that phrase mean? I’m convinced that we also want to tell our history in the same way. Anything which can be, that does not fit or is an aberration to the vision we long for is excluded or conveniently forgotten. Written off as not really Anabaptist. I think there is a strong connection about how we tell our story and how we embrace people on the periphery of our faith. Historiography is after all always a theological enterprise. And so the desire to present a unique, monolithic Mennonite faith forces us to desire a monolithic present. So if we want to change how our church excludes people, then I think one place to begin is by retelling our history and our story to include those who we want to exclude. And I get why we want to exclude some of these people!
This exclusionaristic way of telling history is nothing new. It is not something which Mennonites came up with recently, though it is something we have been very good at perpetuating. I’m convinced that this desire goes back to Munster. As I showed in an earlier Sunday school class, Mennonites have tried to distance themselves from anything that could be tied to the horrors which happened there. Some Mennonites in Hamburg, even argued that Mennonites weren’t descendants for Anabaptists so they wouldn’t be lumped together.
Like I said this is nothing new. Hans de Ries’ History of the Martyrs, for instance, jumps from 1533 to 1536, skipping the ‘Münster years’ and the Anabaptist martyrs associated with this “aberration”. It also skips all other martyrs not associated with Munster during this time period, just in case. Van Braght’s Martyrs’ Mirror goes to curious extremes by editing the birthplace of Peter Jansz. (executed in 1549 in Amsterdam). According to his verdict, Peter was born ‘in Lunickhusen in the county of Münster’ (tot Luninckhusen in den gestichte van Munster), but in Van Braght ‘in the county of Munster’ was replaced by dots.10 Apparently seventeenth-century Anabaptists had the idea their history should also be “without a spot or wrinkle”.
So that is what today is all about, recovering what we have longed excluded. It is my hope that these stories, someday help the Mennonite church today be less exclusionary and more inclusive.
That is by far the most important thing I have to say. And I believe that throughout this Sunday school class you have already been introduced to a number of excluded Anabaptists. The first class I talked about the Sabbatarians – those Anabaptists who believed in adult baptism but also believed that the Ten Commandments and the Law trumped the new Testament and the Sermon on the Mount. The ones who worshipped on Saturday not Sunday. These Anabaptists believed in capital punishment against those who violated the Decalogue. They also served in magisterial offices and were also known as the sword bearers. These Anabaptists lived mainly in Moravia and northern Hungary.
And we already talked about the Davidjorists. So today I would like to introduce you to a few more. Now i’m sure that I’m missing quite a few. I’m not trying to purposefully exclude any of the excluded Anabaptists. And hopefully over time we will begin to uncover more of their stories.
Here is a story about one of the most crazy Anabaptists – Margret Hottinger, from Zollikon. If you remember, Zollikon is a little town just miles away from Zurich. Here is where Conrad Grabel, Felix Mantz, and the rest fled Zurich too and performed mass baptisms in January 1525. Zollikon was really the first Anabaptist community. The Hottingers belonged to the lower middle class of peasants and the clan around the village was extensive. It is impossible to unravel all the Hottinger family connections.
We do know that she comes from a family of radicals. Her father was one of the first disrupted sermons and demolished icons in the land of Zurich. He longed to see change for the peasants. Her uncle was banished for destroying a public crucifix and he as arrested and martyrs in 1524 – he today is called the first martyr of the evangelic faith in Switzerland. Her brother too was a leader within the Zollikon Anabaptist movement.
Yet of them all, Margret was perhaps the most stubborn. She was arrested in late 1525 for being baptized again as an adult. And for six months she asked that people prove to her that infant baptism is correct. Her testimony kept getting stronger and stronger. The authorities didn’t want to kill her but they didn’t know what to do with her. Finally, a group of Anabaptists convinced her to state that she had erred just so that she could be released.
In 1526, Margret traveled to the nearby city of St. Gall. Now, let me be clear, all of the information about her activities in St. Gall was presented by someone hostile to the Anabaptists. After she was released, Margret joined a community of prophetic, charismatic Anabaptist women. This is what Kessler chronicles: “There arose in the city a wild and arrogant group of women of the Anabaptists, particularly one young woman from Zollikon named Margret Hottinger… who lived a disciplined way of life so that she was deeply loved and respected. She went so far as to claim that she was God. Many other Anabaptists believed this and defended it against opponents, protecting and sustaining it with the words of Christ. … Margret undertook to speak of things that nobody could understand, as if she were so deeply raised up in God that nobody could comprehend her speech…
While I highly doubt that she claimed to be God. I do think he shows us a picture of a group of prophetic young women. And this group of women led by Margret was weird. We read tales of them taking literally the injunction to become like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven. So they sat naked on the group, playing with toys and allowing themselves to be washed like children. One woman got her brother to kill a man by the sword by telling him that if it was not God’s will then the sword would not penetrate his skin. And the weirdest tale yet: One night during a gathering, Two companions of Margret’s companion became infected by the Holy Spirit, falling on the ground and raving. After lying for two or three hours unconscious, one of them declared that she had heard God’s living voice. This woman; with others, subsequently entered houses and workrooms, calling upon all to meet outside the town at a given place. Here the woman, Frena Bumenin by name, announced that she was destined to give birth to the Antichrist, and thereupon proceeded to divest herself of her clothing, and finally stood naked before the assembled crowd. In the night she rushed forth, notwithstanding that it was mid-winter, with frost and snow on the ground, and plunged into the neighbouring brook. At last she was arrested and brought back into the town, shrieking continuously the while that the day of the Lord was at hand.
I wish I could say that this was the only one of these Anabaptist women communities, however, during the early years they sprung up all over Switzerland and Southern Germany. It appears that they are one of the groups that the Schliethim Confessions speaks out against in 1527.
Why not continue on the theme of weird. The Anabaptist groups of Thuringia. If you remember, Thuringia is one of the places where peasant’s revolt erupted. The fiery prophet and peasant revolt leader, Thomas Muntzer pastored numerous cities in Thuringia. Many of the Anabaptists who came from this area had ties to him.
We know very little about the Anabaptists in Thuringia. Prior to Kat Hill’s recent dissertation, the last study of Anabaptists in the region was Paul Wappler in 1913. So you could say that all the Anabaptists in Thuringia are excluded Anabaptists. Kat Hill argues that this exclusion is intentional because it thwarts most contemporary accounts of Anabaptism. There was no room or interest to study these violent Saxon radicals who maintained a very different agenda from most.
I’m still trying to piece together some of these odd groups of Anabaptists in Thuringia. But one who you probably never have heard about is the Blood Friends. Or the Blutsfruende. The Blood Friends arose in the early 1530’s in northern Thuringia. The Blood Friends were convinced that Christ had made humanity completely free of sin through his sacrifice. Somehow, they developed the idea that there was only one sacrament – the sexual communion of fellow believers. They saw this as their way of participating in communion. They drew upon well-established traditions which linked sacramental worship to the marriage of the Lamb of God o his bride the church. They insisted that sexual, physical communion was the only way of partaking in the mystical body of Christ. One of their members exclaimed: “this is their sacrament, they think nothing of another; the sacrament of the altar is nothing but simple bred and wine.”
In 1551, a group of Blutsfreunds were arrested in Muhlhausen. And as you might guess, many of the questions centered on their sexual relationships. They claimed they were trying to create sexual experiences free from lust. Whenever they came together for the Christierung, the rite could be performed with anyone there. Most often it was the women, not the men, who picked their partner. The married couples who were active in this group all insisted that this only brought their marriage closer. It does appear that all sex was between men and women. Though that wasn’t really a question which the authorities thought to ask. This group lasted for almost 40 years throughout Thuringia
And the Blutsfruends while the largest, was not the only Anabaptist group with these views. The Dreamers of Uttenreuth were discovered in 1531 and they claimed to be inspired by the Spirit which told them when and with whom they should have sexual relations.
Anabaptism was a movement which questioned the sacraments of the Catholic Church. So it is only natural that it also questioned the volatility of marriage and sexual union.
Also in Thuringia there was a group of Anabaptist arsonists led by the “beggar king” Melchior Stoer. This group seemed to be full of hundreds of transient beggars who were baptized as adults and called themselves Anabaptists. They went by the name Mordbrenner. These Anabaptists had a code word – Jubi so that they could recognize one another. Over the table they passed knives to one another with the sharp end pointing towards the receiver. Stoer had the shape of the cross cut into his hair and claimed that his group inscribed religious signs on their bodies. Often when you were baptized in this group, you were branded somewhere on your body. This group torched dozens of smaller villages in Thurgia and Hessen. If they wouldn’t have been tracked down and executed in 1536, they had plans to burn down Erfurt and Naumburg. (They also did many unfathomable acts to children and women which shall not be mentioned…)
If you remember when I created the chart of different Anabaptist groups after Munster, I charted 4. The Munsterites, The David Jorists, the Mennonites, and the Batenburgers. I purposefully skipped over the Batenburgers and said that I would save them until today.
The Batenburgers were led by Jan van Batenburger. Jan van Batenburg was the illegitimate son of a Dutch nobleman. He accepted the mantle of Gideon, the deliver of God’s people at a meeting of radical Anabaptist leaders at Groningen in April 1535. The group hoped that Batenburger would be a replacement for Jan van Leiden. By that time, they recognized that the kingdom of Munster was failing.
The Batenburgers are sometimes called the Anabaptist terrorists. They robbed churches and cloisters so that they could raise funds to re-establish the kingdom of God in some city. There were at least several hundred men in his brigade at any one time. Members were required to swear oaths of absolute secrecy. Many died during initiation which was purposefully painful to ensure that they would be able to resist torture if ever captured. Not once did a follower ever recant and that is why we know very little about all their activities. Batenburg taught that ever man and everything on earth was owned by God. They also maintained that they were God’s chosen children. In followed that everything on earth was thus theirs to do with as they pleased.
There was nothing wrong with making a living robbing infidels which they meant anyone who was not a member of their sect. Indeed killing infidels was pleasing to their God. Like the radical Munsterites, they held views that all people and all goods were to be held in common. At the end of 1537, Batenburg was arrested and was executed in 1538.
After Batenburg’s death, a remnant group of guerrillas was led by Cornelis Appelman. Appelman’s group was known for its ideological poverty. Appelman was even more extreme than van Batenburg. He gave himself the title of “The Judge.” He killed any of his followers who refused to join his criminal activities or proved themselves lax in killing, robbing, or committing arson. He preached and practiced polygamy with the belief that women were the ones who could leave their marriages as long as they married someone else higher in the hierarchy. Appelman murdered his own wife when she refused him permission to marry his own daughter. After the judge’s death in 1545, many other small cells continued to exist for decades. The last of this groups lasted into the 1580’s. A remnant is believed to found their way into Friesland where they were eventually absorbed into the Mennonite church.
One final group. I’m not sure if they are Anabaptist or not. But that is the point. It is hard to tell where the boundary lines exist and if they do exist, then what these lines mean. This group had many Anabaptist minded people and also many people who ascribed to other non-conformist groups. It is probably safer to say that it started mainly out of Anabaptist minded people and that it drifted away from them as the group migrated to England. However, many future Mennonites came out of this group. And that is the group called the Family of Love.
The family of Love was founded by Hendrik Niclaes. Niclaes born in 1502 was a doubter of established religion from a very young age. At just eight, he voiced doubts about current views on Christ’s atonement. When his dad took him to see a Franciscan to help persuade hiss on, the Franciscan at first told Hendrik to not be worried at such theological quiddities. However, when Niclaes wouldn’t let his doubts go, the Franciscan ordered his father to flog his son. After this, he learned to keep all doubts to himself. But from a very young age he believed in the importance of toleration and the belief that faith cant be ordered or commanded.
Hendrik, like his father, was a merchant, and a very successful one at that. He settled in Amsterdam in 1531 and there he first met different Anabaptists. He was attracted to these pious people who strove to live in the righteousness and blessedness of Jesus Christ who had followed their conscience and risked breaking off from the Catholic Church. At around 30, he was arrested on suspicion for being one of these pious people, however, they found nothing suspicious with him so the authorities released him.
It wasn’t until 1540 that Hendrik lef Amsterdam and founded the Family of Love. He moved to the important port town of Emden, where he continued being a merchant while also secretly establishing this community. Because he was a trusted and revered merchant, he was able to hide the fact that he was a non-conformist for 20 years before he was finally run out of Emden.
Hendrik was a spiritualist. His theology strongly resembled that of Hans Denck who we met in South Germany. He prioritized the spirit of God over scripture and believed that baptism was the act where man became godded or part of Christ. It was a spiritual act that joined us to Christ’s death so that we could then follow Christ into death. He definitely saw faith as something very individualistic. He really had little interest in building a visible community.
The Family of Love strongly advocated nonviolence. They also believed that Christians must live pious lives. There’s was a faith of Nicodemians. Those who belonged worshiped at churches and did their best to fit in with society. Thus, the family of Love was an invisible church. The family of love also didn’t like practices or any other activities that seemed intolerant to some.
Hendrik’s family of Love was extremely hierarchical. At the head was the highest bishop – himself or his successor followed by seven orders of priests. Interestingly, women could be priests but they could not advance beyond the lowest of the priestly orders. His church was full of feast days, some traditional like the birth of John the Baptist. They also had other feast days like the death of Hendrik Niclaes and the anointing of the elders. They also practiced the jubilee, that every 50 years no one was to work.
The family of love was a movement which attracted some of the greatest humanists of the 17th century. It was also full of merchants and other scholars. At that time, liberal humanists were rarely entirely safe. The family of Love provided them with a community to exchange ideas and support one another. The aim was to obtain peace, to introduce some sort of harmony and concord which would enable the world to world to better pursue truth and they also longed to provide each other with assistance. In Antwerp, we visited the house of the printer, Christopher Plantin, one of the most important printers in the entire world. If you are ever in Antwerp, I strongly recommend you visit his house which is now a museum. He probably is the most famous person who belonged to the Family of Love and we know Antwerp turned into the groups biggest hub. I’m convinced that many of the merchants and intellectuals who moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam to escape the war belonged to the family of love before joining Mennonite communities there.
After war broke out in Belgium and Antwerp stopped being a hub, the family of Love moved headquarters to England. Here there weren’t many Anabaptists so they slowly drifted away from some Anabaptist beliefs. Ultimately the movement until the mid 18th century when it simply folded into the much larger Quaker movement.
Today, I know I haven’t mentioned everyone like the Loyists of Antwerp. And I’m almost positive that somewhere in my notes I have bits of information on a few other small groups. My goal today and really throughout much of my studies is really to show that the search for origins of Anabaptism is really a futile exercise, one that has led Anabaptism astray because it forces us to make decisions about the boundaries of the movement – and this is just another project of exclusion. I’m tired of the desire to classify and categorize everything because Anabaptist simply can’t exist within this approach.
At the most, we can say that Anabaptism was a dynamic and mutable movement. One that progressed very differently in different places with different people. Many of the ways it progressed are horrendous. However, they also remind us just how radical of a break Anabaptism was with society. And what I find really interesting is that Anabaptism never needed any one thing to tie it all together. I wonder what would happen today if we stopped trying to make the Mennonite church fit nicely together and just let it develop and grow in many different ways.