“The Rise of Dutch Anabaptism, Munster, and the Aftermath” – November 8, 2015


Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

For the most part, the first six weeks have centered on the south. These are the areas in which we Mennonites are more familiar. The Anabaptist groups which arose here tended to be the more peaceful kind, the quiet in the land, these are the groups of Anabaptists which most of the Mennonite scholars have traditionally lauded and used to promote a contemporary Anabaptist vision. For the next few weeks, we are going to be headed to the North, to less familiar terrain, and yet, I believe it to be more helpful terrain. For these Anabaptists tended to find refugee in cities, they had to navigate how they were accommodating to the cities and states which they found themselves in, and they tended to be a bit more progressive and interested in the world around them. From what I hear, Mary Sprunger’s talk gave a great glimpse of this world.


However, the rise of Dutch Anabaptism starts in a familiar place – Strasbourg. If you remember that class a few weeks ago, Strasbourg was a peculiar place because it harbored a plethora of different Anabaptist groups. And the one that I pretty much passed over, is in my opinion, the most wacky Anabaptist group within the city – the one that centered around the figure of Melchior Hofmann.


Hofmann was a furrier by trade, and it was through Luther that Hofmann was introduced to the Protestant reformation. We don’t know all the details of this conversion, but by 1523 we know that he was preaching in Livonia, where he caused quite a bit of trouble. After this, Hofmann hopped around from city to city, preaching and spreading the Gospel. He was solidly in the Lutheran camp until 1528 when Luther believed that Hofmann’s view on the Lord’s supper was too similar to Zwingli’s. He also didn’t care too much for Hofmann’s eschatology.


In 1529, right when a number of Anabaptists began flocking to Strasbourg, so did Hofmann. Here he was received with open arms. And quickly Hofmann became active in a community today known as the Strasbourg prophets which was lead by two of the most influential Anabaptist women – Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock. These two women had a history of the most spectacular apocalyptic visions where they typically portrayed God coming as liberator and judge in a cataclysm of destruction. They believed that Strasbourg would be the New Jerusalem and that God was now preparing for 144,000 witnesses who will prove victorious over the Emperor. The world was ending sometime in the year 1533. And somehow this group came of this opinion, that Melchior Hofmann was the true Enoch, the last true preacher of the word in Germany. His mission was to gather a congregation of saints who would be able to welcome Christ at the Second Coming.


Melchoir and these prophetic women were not enthusiastically liked by most Mennonites in Strasbourg, and they were even less liked by the city’s authorities. In April 1530, Hofmann demanded that the city assign a city church to his group of Anabaptists. Instead, the city decided that they should imprison him and charge him with the crime of equating the Emperor with the apocalyptic dragon. Hofmann was able to escape Strasbourg before they could imprison him. Soon after, he fled to Emden, in northern Germany. This is where his gathering campaign would begin.



Stephanie and I were able to spend about four days in Emden, not only because this is where Dutch Anabaptism began but also because it was one of the most important port towns in the world during the 16th century. Emden today is a small quant town, of around 80,000. In the 16th century, it was a booming port of 30,000, about 5x larger than Amsterdam. We often miss how important of a city it was because it is no longer important today.

Hofmann arrived in Emden in late May of 1530 and quickly his apocalyptic message and his teachings on the sacraments and, in particular, adult baptism were embraced by many. He was able to preach at the city church, and in one day, he baptized more than 300 people. His presence caused quite the stir. He was quickly asked to leave but before he did, he sent out a number of missionaries to spread Hofmann’s views all over Fresia and the Netherlands. Quickly, the Anabaptists in this region were sought out by the government and executed. When, one of Hofmann’s missionaries was put to death in the Hague with ten of his followers in December 5, 1531, Hofmann ordered that the practice of adult baptism should be suspended until 1531. Anabaptists would lurk and continue spreading their beliefs in the dark, while waiting for the end of the world to come.


One last interesting story about Hofmann before we move onto the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster. In early 1533, Hofmann encountered an old man who prophecized that he would spend six months in prison in Strasbourg before then leading his apostolic preachers out into the world to herald the Second Coming. So quickly Hofmann returned to Strasbourg and sure enough he was then imprisoned, however, not for six months, but for the rest of his life. For ten full years. However, imprisonment did not phase him. It only made him more confident that Strasboug would soon be the the site of the Second Coming, where God’s banner of truth and justice would be unfurled.

As you can guess, Hofmann’s return to Strasbourg only heightened the anticipation for all his disciples. Expectations were high, and when nothing much happened in 1533, his disciples were confused. They were losing confidence. And this also means that the situation was ripe for something else to happen.


This brings us to the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster. I don’t want to spend too much of our time on what actually occurred in Munster. This may sound odd, but part of the problem surrounding Munster is that we only have three histories about what happened at Anabaptist Munster, all of which claim to be eyewitness accounts, however, all of them have questionable motivations. The most valuable account stems from a Benedict Arnold Munsterite, a turncoat named Heinrich Gresbeck, who near the end of the siege, guided the army to a weak point in the cities defenses, in order to gain his property back after the siege. While he was in Munster during part of its Anabaptist days, he was far removed from the Anabaptist ruling circles and he tried his best to distance himself from what happened there.

The second account we now know was written by someone who claimed to be a citizen of Munster, but in reality was a Lutheran pastor who was present at the interrogations and executions of a number of Anabaptists after the siege. And lastly, the massive chronicle most referenced today was written by the rector of the Munster cathedral school in the 1570s. While he grew up in Munster, he fled the city in the beginning of 1534 with most of the other Catholics. The author was part of the Catholic restoration party, who sought to blame the Munster debacle on the Protestant rejection of hierarchical authority. His book was called the narrative of the Anabaptist madness. All three of these sources are incredible important, because each shows how far people went to use Munster as a way of securing the evil reputation of the Anabaptists. However, none can be trusted as historically trustworthy.


But really, for our purposes, what happened at Munster is far less important than how the world perceived what happened at Munster. But I still think it is important to briefly note some of the highlights of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster.


Unlike many of the other cities where Anabaptists formed communities, Munster was not a free-city. And that means the city was overseen by a Catholic Bishop. Importantly, the rulers of this area didn’t really care that much about the religious wars happening all around. They didn’t have a strong alliance to either Catholicism or Lutheranism. And this tended to make reformation in Munster and the surrounding areas, a bit more complicated.

However, unrest and efforts for reformation started very early in Munster. There were a few individuals who used the peasant revolt which broke out elsewhere to push for reforms in Munster in 1525. And unrest during this time led to some small changes which lessened the power of the cathedrals. This paved the way for future changes within Munster.

In 1530 we meet one of the most important figures which pushed for Reformation and later Anabaptism in Munster – Bernhard Rothmann. He became chaplain of a small church just outside of the city walls and each Sunday a number of people walked outside the city to hear him. At this point, Rothmann was just protestant. He borrowed from Luther. He borrowed from Zwingi. He borrowed a bit from the Anabaptists. And in 1531, the bishop and the catholic church pressured the city to exile him. But this exile didn’t last very long. The citizens of the city demanded Rothmann be returned unless the city could prove that he was preaching things that were not of the Word of God.

Well now, instead of being called to a church outside of the walls of the city, one of the largest city churches called Rothmann to be one of its pastors. And later in 1532, the city also called new evangelical preachers for four other of its bigger churches. At this point, only the largest and oldest church remained Catholic. All other churches belonged to some branch of the reformation. And around this time, Rothmann and a few other evangelical preachers no longer interpreted the Lord’s Supper in a Lutheran manner and also began rethinking infant baptism.

Well at the end of 1532, the bishop tried to have all the evangelical preachers expelled. He initiated a small siege of the city. However, the city, and mainly those who were Anabaptist minded, responded to this small siege by taking up arms. Around 600 townspeople carried out a successful surprise attack on the prince’s troops. And this led to the bishop signing a treaty with the city allowing all the churches but the cathedral to be evangelical. This was a major win for the evangelical parties. At the time, they were content to make Munster into a mini-Strasbourg.


Each year, during lent, the city of Munster held elections for the city council. And in 1533, the city overhauled the council, the majority elected were reform minded. It was split fairly evenly between Lutheran minded and more radically minded individuals. During the summer, some of Melchoir’s disciples decided to visit the city. They were impressed and immediately began to wonder if Munster might be the New Jerusalem they expected, not Strasbourg.

At the beginning of January 1534, when the end of the world had not come and the Anabaptists were looking to make sense of everything, the leader of the Anabaptism in the Netherlands, Jan Matthijs, send two of his apostles to Munster to initiate adult baptisms in the city. Apparently, about 1400 people, or a quarter of the adult population accepted adult baptism in that first week after their arrival. The bishop didn’t like these developments much. He demanded that all person responsible for initiating these baptisms to be arrested.

The Anabaptists however didn’t stop pushing forward. It particular it was the women of Munster who took a leading role in preaching and pushing the apocalyptic fervor within the city.

February 10th, 1524 was a turning point for the Anabaptists. In the midst of the crisis, signs in the heavens appeared. A rare phenomenon ow called parhelia happened, which is a tripping of the sun. Today this almost never happens, but it may have been more common when the winters were much colder. Well the anabaptists took this as a sign from God and this raised the eschatological temperature another notch.

Around this time, large bands of peasants started to arrive in Munster. Anabaptists from elsewhere flocked to the city. This meant that there were more bodies available to fight, if the bishop tried to retake the city. That seemed to hold the bishop back for a bit. Instead, the bishop began making preparations and recruiting mercenaries to initiate a long siege to take over the city.

Well in 1524, much like next year, Lent happened really early and this mean that elections happened in February, right after the sign in the heavens. Not surprising, the Anabaptists won in a landslide. It was clear, with all these Anabaptists flocking to the city, that they had a strong majority position. So, for the most part, the Catholics, and some Lutherans left. They didn’t want to be seen as Anabaptists, in case a war broke out. Some 2000 people left. But still around 5500 of the native population remained. Including those who migrated to the city, of the 7500 people in the city, about 5000 were adult women. I have my own theory about this which I expounded a few years ago, about how women saw Anabaptism as a way of breaking free from the bounds of marriage. But all these women would later create a new problem.


I mention all this to highlight that the Anabaptist rise to power in Munster came relatively nonviolently. It wasn’t done by force and it was mainly done by people who belonged to Munster. And I don’t see any reason that Munster had to end the way that it did.

After the Anabaptists did rise to power though, that is where the details get a little bit more murky. I want to speed things up and just give a few details. In January, right after the adult baptisms began, the citizens of Munster voluntarily gave up their possessions and remitted debts. In March, the city council decided to formally abolish all property. Rothmann preached: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”


We know that several people were executed for holding back part of their money and possessions. Others were executed who said opposed any of the actions of the leaders or the council. At it was sometime near the end of February when the bishop initiated a siege against the city – trying to stop all goods and people from entering and leaving the city.

It is important to introduce two of the most important Anabaptists who arrived in Munster in early 1534. Jan van Leiden and Jan Matthijs. Jan Matthijs is known as the chief prophet. It is safe to say that both individuals were slightly deranged. Soon after arriving Matthijs became the primary prophetic voice that led the city. Van Leiden was second in command. Matthijs prophecized that the Second Coming would happen on Easter of 1534.

In March, thousands, perhaps five thousand Anabaptists attempted to make their way to Munster to be part of this Anabaptist kingdom. The vast majority never made it. They were thwarted by the authorities in the Netherlands and sent back home. And on Easter, when the Second Coming did not occur, Jan Matthijs attempted to force it to happen. He along with a small band set forth to do battle with the the bishop’s superior army. He quickly was killed.


The death of Jan Matthijs precipitated a major apocalyptic crisis. People began to question if the promises of divine deliverance may have been mistaken. But they had no choice to continue on, and the rule of Jan van Leiden began. He called himself – the new David.

It is hard to really trust any accounts about Jan Van Leiden. But sources state that he was extremely violent and pushed the Anabaptists to become more militant. And amazingly, under his rule, the Anabaptists were able to repulse numerous assaults by the bishop to take the city. It was in July of 1534, when he introduced polygamy in the city. It is still unknown exactly why this was initiated, but part of it had to be because he feared the women uprising against all the men. Not all the men agreed with the decree of polygamy. About 200 tried to revolt. Those that did were either killed or imprisoned.

It is pretty amazing, but the siege lasted until June 1535. Only then, with the help of a deserter, were they able to overrun the defenses of the Anabaptists. Around 80 men were executed during this year by Jan van Leiden for opposing his rule.

Only a few women, those tied to the leaders were executed, but the majority were spared. On January 22, 1536 the most important leaders were executed in front of city hall in Munster. Their dead bodies, were bound in a standing position, and they were hung in iron cages from St. Lambert’s tower. It is said that their bodies did not completely decompose until the 1800s. The cages remained hanging over St. Lambert’s church until WW2 when most of the church was destroyed. Even today, when you visit Munster, replica cages still hang to remind the people of the horrors which happened there almost 500 years ago.


Though Munster was the largest, it was by no means the only incident like this which happened in the Netherlands at the time. In Amsterdam for example, in 1535, a group of men and women rand along Amsterdam’s streets, naked proclaiming: “that they had been sent from God to communicate the naked truth to the godless.” Today these individuals are called the nakedloopers. I’m actually in the process of writing a short article about them. Around easter of 1535, there were uprisings by Anabaptists to overtake the cities of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and in Frisia at Oldeklooster. All were unsuccessfull and in each, almost all were killed. Importantly, Menno Simon’s brother appears to be one individual involved in the violent uprising at Oldeklooster, this was probably one reason why his form of Anabaptist would later deviate completely from the use of the sword. Though Munster was definitely the biggest and also the easiest example to use against the Anabaptists. And the stories about Munster only made what happened there, sound even worse.


It is safe to say that Munster changed everything for the Anabaptists. And I believe that its affects continue to linger on in how we tell our stories about ourselves and how we see the rest of the world. Out of necessity, we have had to do everything that we can to get as far away from the horrors of Munster. In a few weeks, we will be looking at the Mennonite community in Hamburg. And here, they went out of their way to say that they were no Anabaptists. They had no relation to what come before. They did this to distance themselves from Munster. Because for centuries, when people heard the word Anabaptists, what they pictured was Munster. So many called themselves Doopsgezinden or baptism minded, as a way of trying to redefine themselves. And the number one reason that the Anabaptists were persecuted in the middle of the 16th century, and also kicked out of many cities, was because governments couldn’t harbor any possible link to this atrocity.


Throughout the 16-18th century, pictures of munster and the other similar uprisings appeared everywhere to remind Europeans of the possibility of revolt. It appears to be so bad, so hard for Mennonites to escape this event, that there appears to have been a book written some 65 years after Menno’s death, a forgery of course, called the blasphemy of Jan of Leiden. If you are really interested, you can see a dozen or so popular images used against the Mennonites on Michael Driedger’s website “The dutchdissenters.net.”


It is safe to say that Mennonites strongly contributed to the vilification of Munster’s Anabaptists. We accepted anit-Munster rhetoric as factual, because sometimes that is easier then fighting preconceived notions. And as Michael Drieger points out, these accounts became a cornerstone of many Mennonite’s own public definitions of group identity. We instead stressed a form of Mennonite identity that centered on being the opposite of them. This only contributed to the perpetuation of the meme of Munster.


I don’t want to underestimate the fact that these Anabaptists were victims of a propaganda campaign. Sigrun Haude spent years tracking the local, regional, and imperial stories about Anabaptists and Munster. She notes that “Anabaptists, together with the Turks, were the great enemies of the sixteenth century Holy Roman Empire and Munster displayed the worst example of this heretical movement yet. As representations of them in the daily press and in learned writings reveal, the Anabaptists conjured up images of the criminal and the vagabond, the foreigner and the rebel, the devil’s handmaiden and the blasphemer, the insurrectionist and the barbarian. A polyphony of fears, some more powerful than others, converged in the Anabaptist.”


And throughout the next few hundred years, and even today, these Anabaptists continue to be used to incite fear, anger, and hatred. For example, in English during the Civil War in the 17th century, writers who opposed the rise of the baptists, went out of their way to linking their movement to these seditious heretics of the early 17th century.


The History of the Anabaptist madness continues today. For example, in 1937 a novel by the young German author, Fritz Reck Malleczewen expressed his deep frustrations with the young National Socialist dictatorship in Germany. In his example, Jan van Leiden is an early Fuhrer who leads his followers into a disastrous political adventure. A few years later, the German-American political philosopher tried to connect Hitler’s prophetical nature to the Anabaptist wing of the reformation.


When the horrors of Waco happened in 1993, guess what it was often compared to – a reenactment of Munster. As Y2k approached, and people thought the end of the world was near, the Munster cultists grew and produced two volumes of tales about the rise and fall of Anabaptist Munster. I mentioned in my sermon a few weeks ago about the cult horror film where the dead Anabaptists resurrect as vampires today to terrorize the city once again. And just last year, there were a serious of articles which compared the rise of ISIS to the Anabaptists in Munster. The serious concluded by arguing that the crimes of Jan van Leiden are occurring once again. There is no indication that the meme of Anabaptist madness will disappear anytime soon. Though luckily today, we arent still being punished for it.


Today, it is important for us to remember and stress that Munster’s Anabaptists were not monsters. Their leaders were not diabolical. They were simply fairly ordinary sixteenth century men and women who found themselves in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances. Their opponents were an army of mercenary solders, led by a prince-bishop, who, as part of his strategy, spread vicious accusations against them. It is not surprising, that citizens of Munster, individuals who were born and grew up in the city, were compelled to defend their city. The violence of Munster, makes sense more as a response, often quite desperate, to the escalating threats of the siege armies. It was more a reaction to the worsening of conflicts. In scale and quality, the officially sanctioned violence of the bishop outstripped the real but comperatively minor violence that took place inside Munster’s walls over 16 months of siege. The meme of Anabaptist madness was a way of covering up the bishop’s cruelty and violence.