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Militant Anabaptist?: A Look Onto the Munster Tragedy

By Bryan T. Klassen '99

The Reformation

Writing Objective: Pose a single focused question about some aspect of the Reformation and work toward an answer based on selected primary and secondary sources

For centuries, the tragedy of  Munster has been the sore-spot of Anabaptism.  Discrimination against the usually peaceful Anabaptists had long been justified by identifying the movement with the type of political upheaval associated with the Munster affair. What were the roots of this violent, revolutionary movement in Munster, and how’ closely tied was it to the Anabaptism that preceded it? The answer to this question has relevance today for those, like the Mennonites and Amish, who find their roots in the Anabaptist tradition. Minister, for centuries the scourge of Anabaptism. needs to be properly understood for Anabaptists to legitimize their roots.

How Can We Find Out?

In order to fully explore such a question, we must not only examine the Munster incident itself but also explore the nature of the Anabaptist movement which preceded the affair. To this end, both primary and secondary sources are employed. While primary sources offer the views of those with first-hand involvement in the Reformation era, secondary sources, with the perception that only hindsight can bring, can put the events into a broader perspective. Both are invaluable.

In 1527, after it became apparent that the diverse Anabaptist movement had a deep need to clarify its theology, a meeting of South German and Swiss Anabaptists was convened at Schleitheim, a small town on the Swiss-German border (Schleitheim 129). Out of this meeting was born a document that articulated the stance of Anabaptists on a number of issues. In our examination of the Munster affair, the Schleitheim Confession will serve as a valuable primary resource that will give a first-hand account of the beliefs that this group of Anabaptists generally agreed upon in 1527.

To explore the Minister affair itself, we will turn to various secondary sources that not only report on the events that transpired but also endeavor to explain them in the larger context of sixteenth-century Europe. The first of these sources. Smith’s Story of the Mennonites, was written by C. Henry Smith, a man from an Amish background who eventually found himself on the faculty at Goshen College in Indiana. This source, then, is sympathetic to the Mennonite cause and tries to distance the Munster affair from “mainstream” Anabaptism. Hans Jurgen-Goertz, author of The Anabaptists, is a German scholar of the religious and social aspects of the Reformation. His work seems very balanced in its approach: no bias is obvious. Though far from being hostile to their cause, Franklin Littell. in his book The Anabaptist View of the Church, is less sympathetic to the Anabaptists than are the other authors. It comes as to surprise to him that the Munster affair-was born from the ideas of Anabaptism.

What Happened at Munster?

Before exploring the exact relation between the Munster affair and the general Anabaptist movement, it is instructive to review the factual history of the event. This history begins with the man most responsible for bringing the ideas of Anabaptism to North Germany and the Netherlands — Melchior Hoffman (Jurgen 28). Traveling as a lay preacher through Livonia, Sweden, and Schleswig-Holstein, Hoffman fervently recruited for Luther’s cause, but he soon embraced new, apocalyptic ideas which, in time, alienated him from Luther s movement. Hoffman moved to Strasbourg where he came into contact with Anabaptists. He adopted their view of adult baptism, but his own apocalyptic ideas were too strong to allow him to assimilate into their faith; instead, he formed his own group in the city (29). Eventually, when Hoffman was threatened with arrest in Strasbourg, he lied to Emden in East Frisia. From this position, he spent the next few years constantly traveling throughout the provinces of northern Holland and East Friesland preaching both the Anabaptism that he had embraced and the apocalyptic message that he had come to believe in. Hoffman’s Anabaptism, the first widespread reform movement in the Netherlands, was iuunenselv popular with the people and his message soon won many converts (Smith 42).

Through one of Hoffman’s initial converts. Jan Matthijsz, a Haarlain baker, was himself converted to the cause. Matthijsz became an enthusiastic preacher with an even stronger apocalyptic focus than Hoffman. After extensive travel throughout the northern Netherlands, Matthijsz. in the spring of 1534, arrived in Miinster. the seat of a Catholic bishopric in Westphalia. Prior to his arrival, the city had accepted them. Lutheran faith under the leadership of Bernhard Rothmann and was fostering a movement of social democracy (44). When Matthijsz demanded recognition as an apocalyptic messenger, the city was receptive. They felt the kingdom of God was indeed at hand (Stayer 122).

By March of 1534, word had spread through northern Europe that Minister was the New Jerusalem at which the messianic age would soon arrive, and many set out by land or water to the city. In their attempts to gather the holy community together, the revolutionaries soon found it necessary to expel from the city those who would not be baptized (Littell 30).

Eventually, the Catholic bishop of Munster became determined to crush all revolt against his authority. He gathered a small army arid laid siege to the city. In April of 1534. Matthijsz was killed in air attempt to break through the siege lines and leadership of the revolutionaries passed to Jan van Leyden (Smith 46). As the months of the siege dragged on. Jan van Leyden laid claim to absolute authority, biblically supporting Ins position by identifying himself with the Old Testament King David (47). During van Lex den’s reign as supreme dictator, the “excesses” of the Munster affair reached their peak. Strict discipline was enforced, and countless Munsterites were summarily executed upon the word of Jan van Leyden alone. A “community of goods” was established and private property abolished. Even polygamy became widely practiced (47).

From winter of 1534 to spring of 1535. the revolutionaries’ situation became increasingly desperate. All contact with the outside world had been severed, disease was rampant, and near the end of 1 lie siege famine was so severe that the Munsterites’ daily diet was reduced to leather, leaves, and grass (Smith 48). By June of 1535. Munster could lake no more; betrayed from within, it was conquered by the armies of the Bishop. Still, the City had defended itself valiantly, withstanding sixteen months of siege and two assaults (Stayer 125).

The Bishop’s vengeance against the rebels was ruthless: all were slaughtered. The leaders, including Jan van Leyden, were put on a touring exhibit, severely tortured, publicly executed, and posthumously placed into iron cages suspended from the towers of St. Lambert’s Church of Munster. Their bones remained for years in public view, and the cages still hang from the tower to this day (Smith 48).

A Look at the Evidence

It would seem prima facie that the peaceful movement begun by Zwingli s estranged disciples was starkly different from the violent revolution at Munster. Evidence to support this intuition comes from the Schleitheim Confession. First, the church articulated by the Confession’s writers was voluntary in nature. Baptism was to be given only “to those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ . . . and to all those who with this significance request baptism of us and demand it for themselves [emphasis added]” (Schleitheim 131). In contrast, the rite of baptism was made compulsory by the Munster authorities.

Further, the Confession made clear that Christians should not take to “the sword” for their cause. “They wished to make Christ king, but he fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His lather. Thus shall we do . . . He himself forbids the employment of the force of the sword” (134). How different is this from the ideology of Matthijsz who fell that it was now the duty of the faithful to lake up the sword in behalf of die new kingdom to be established” (Smith 45)? Or from that of. Ian van Leyden who aspired to be not like Christ but rather like the Old Testament King David?

However, it must also be noted that some similarity, however slight, exists between the 1527 Anabaptists who gathered at Schleitheim and the Munster revolutionaries. Both stressed the importance of the separation of the believers from the unrighteous. According to the Confession, “a separation shall be made from the evil . . . which the devil planted in the \xorld . .. for truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad . . . and none can have part with the other . . . everything which is not united with our God and Christ cannot be other than an abomination which we should shun. . .” (Schleitheim 133). This statement, alone among the articles of the Confession, brings to mind the attitudes of Matthijsz and Ian van Leyden. Both were determined “to gather ‘the believers in a holy community separated from the unbelieving godless (Littell 30). Still, the separation envisioned by the early Anabaptists was the peaceful abstinence from the evils of the world while dial envisioned by the Munsterites involved a militant separation maintained through the bloodshed of the infidel.

So there is little doubt that Miuisterite “Anabaptism was at odds wit II the more conventional form, but how did the revolutionary version arise from the peaceful one? It may seem as if a turn toward violence was inevitable for a group so fixated on separating themselves from evil, but the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. As Hans Jurgen-Goertz argues, the reform movement in Munster developed independently of Anabaptism. Its true roots lie in the pre-Matlhijsz reform of the city. This reform was closely connected to the various guilds, who represented the interests of the commoners by attempting to loosen the grip of the Bishop over I heir personal and professional lives (Jurgen 29). Smith would agree with Jurgen-Goertz: he points out that during Minister’s initial reform (from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism) there \x as a concomitant move toward social democracy. “Religious and social reform were thus closely intertwined here from the first (Srrritlr 45). Smith goes on to provide even more direct evidence that the movement of Matthijsz was distinct from that of Hoffman. “That he thought himself about to inaugurate an entirely new movement, is evidenced by the fact that he insisted on re-baptizing all those who had already been initiated through the rite of baptism [by the previous reformers]” (45).

Franklin Littell has a slightly different view. He believes that there are Iwo vvavs in which the “creative tension between the “church anil the “world can be reduced. First, the dichotomy can be resolved by simply relaxing the boundary between the church and the world. This would be the wax of the magisterial reformers. Alternatively, the tension can be eliminated by “a theocratic attempl of the elect to gain control of the centers of power (usually by a revolution colored by intenseh apocalyptic preachment) and to govern the world as though it were the church'” (Littell 28). If this hypothesis is true, than any group unwilling to blur the boundan between the church and the world should soon feel the need lo assume worldly power. Because Anabaptism espoused a strict separation between the church and the world. Munster was inevitable.

It seems, though, that Littell’s hypothesis can be readily disproxen. The Mennonites (who arose after Munster) arrd their Amish offspring both uphold the notion of separating themselves from the things of the world, yet neither has attempted to assume power over the world. Littell’s two options for resolving this dichotomy are definitely valid, bin there seems to be a third option that he omitted: maintaining the distinction between the church and the world through a peaceful separation from it.

The Verdict

The overarching themes of the Schleitheim Confession, namely a voluntary community of believers, a refusal to yield worldly power, and a commitment to nonviolence, cannot be reconciled with the Munsterites1 coercive baptismal practices, their lust for power, and their readiness to lake up arms. Though both groups sought to separate themselves from the world, the natures of these separations remained fundamentally different.

The development of militant Anabaptism seems not to have resulted from the tenets of Anabaptism itself as much as from the pre-existing social and political situation in Munster. There is much evidence that the Munster reform was headed in a politically revolutionary direction even before Matthijsz -version of Anabaptism arrived on the scene.

Such a realization should not exonerate the Anabaptists from their participation in the Munster affair, for they played their part. However, peaceful Anahaptists need not feel that the debacle was simply a logical result of their underlying theology. Bather. Munster should serve as a warning: Anabaptists, zealous about their faith., must be acutely aware of how they channel their enthusiasm because misplaced zeal can lead to tragedy.

Works Cited

Jurgen-Goertz, Hans. The Anabaptists. Trans. Trevor Johnson. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Little, Franklin II. The Anabaptist View of the Church. Boston: Starr King Press, 1958.

“The Schleitheim Confession of Faith.” The Protestant Reformation. Ed. Hans. J. Hillerbrand. New York: Harper & Row. 1968.

Smith, C. Herrry. Smith’s Story of the Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press. 1981.

Stayer, James M. “Christianity in One City: Anabaptist Minister, 1534- 35.” Radical Tendencies in the Reformation. Ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand. Kirksville. MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1988.