Stuart Murray Williams
The Great Anabaptist Disaster
More than any other incident in the history of the Anabaptist movement, the events of 1534-35 in the North German city of Münster persuaded their contemporaries and later generations that the movement was dangerous. Until quite recently, historians pointed to this incident as representative of the whole movement and indicative of what would have happened all over Europe if the movement had not been forcibly suppressed. Popular accounts of Anabaptism still denigrate the movement in this way, even though historians now acknowledge that this incident was far from typical and was utterly disowned by most Anabaptists at the time and since. It is, however, part of the story and those who are drawn to the Anabaptist vision need to engage with this and ask what can be learn from this disastrous aberration.
June 25th is the date on which the so-called ‘Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster’ finally fell to the besieging forces, who engaged in widespread slaughter within the city. Perhaps this is an appropriate date to reflect on this tragic incident and what we can learn from it.
In response to a supposed revelation, Jan Matthys, a Haarlem baker, assumed leadership of the movement associated with the Anabaptist evangelist, Melchior Hoffman, and sent out ‘twelve apostles’ to evangelise and baptise. Hoffman had prophesied that the return of Christ was imminent and that Strasbourg was the site of the New Jerusalem. Among the places they visited was Münster, where their positive reception convinced Matthys that Hoffman had been right that the New Jerusalem was imminent, but wrong about its location: Münster, not Strasbourg, was the chosen site.
A group of Anabaptists, many of them from the Netherlands, won the support of the local electorate and issued a call to Anabaptists everywhere to make their way to Münster and become citizens of the New Jerusalem. Thousands attempted to reach the city, although most were turned back by the authorities.
Münster was quickly surrounded by troops under the command of the local bishop. Two failed assaults were followed by a blockade to starve the town into submission. Matthys led a desperate breakout, believing that God would surely deliver him, but he was killed.
He was succeeded by Jan van Leiden, a young tailor, who set himself up as a Davidic king. With the support of Bernhard Rothmann, the main theologian of the movement, he instituted sweeping and violent reforms, using Old Testament legislation as his mandate, introduced polygamy, mandated capital punishment for minor offences, and awaited the predicted descent of the New Jerusalem.
After a prolonged siege, Münster was finally captured and its inhabitants were massacred. The bodies of the tortured and executed Anabaptist leaders were displayed in cages on the church tower.
Münster was an unmitigated disaster for the Anabaptist movement, not only in Germany and the Netherlands but throughout Europe. The suspicions and accusations levelled against the movement by its adversaries seemed now to be confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. Severe action was clearly justified against those who claimed to be peaceful but were in fact violent revolutionaries, ready to strike whenever an opportunity presented itself.
The temptation faced by descendants of the Dutch Anabaptists and others who are concerned to redress this perceived historical imbalance and rehabilitate the Anabaptist movement is to fail to deal seriously with the events at Münster as one expression of the diverse Anabaptist phenomenon.
Responding to Münster
One response is to attempt to dismiss Münster as an event which involved only a small part of one branch of the Anabaptist movement. It is certainly true that Swiss and South German Anabaptists were not involved and that a significant number of Dutch and North German Anabaptists also refused to respond to the call to come to Münster. But when the Münsterite leaders sent out messengers to rally support, thousands of Anabaptists attempted to reach the besieged city and were prevented only by the intervention of armed troops.
Nor was Münster the only place where Anabaptists attempted to take control or resorted to violence. Attacks on the monastery of Oldeklooster in Friesland and on the city hall in Amsterdam were as ill-judged as the activities in Münster, but indicate that elsewhere in the Netherlands those who did not make the journey to Münster were willing to operate in similar ways. Nor did the collapse of the Anabaptist cause in Münster spell the end of Anabaptist ideas about establishing the kingdom of God by force. Although most Anabaptists turned away from this option, a sizeable group under the leadership of Jan van Batenburg continued to pursue similar policies.
An alternative response to the events at Münster is to acknowledge that significant numbers of Anabaptists were involved and attracted to this violent option, but to argue that this was not a true expression of Anabaptism. It is certainly true that Münster represents a minority position within the sixteenth-century movement and a position from which the emerging Anabaptist-Mennonite movement disassociated itself in the following decades. Münster is not regarded as a legitimate expression of Anabaptist principles. But this approach requires us to read back later settled convictions into an earlier period. It may be more legitimate to regard Münster as a component within the early Anabaptist movement which resulted in clarification of the principles which later became distinctives of the Anabaptist tradition.
Münster, though a tragic and ill-advised venture, was of quite limited scope in terms of the numbers affected (although its impact on the Anabaptist movement was profound). But the violence perpetrated by the Catholic and Protestant authorities throughout Europe to promote their interests was widespread, systematic and represented another expression of the same crusading mentality which lay behind the events at Münster. Indeed, the events in Münster can be interpreted as an Anabaptist attempt to operate at a political level in the way that their Catholic and Protestant opponents were, employing violence in order to establish religious principles.
Perhaps the most distinctive aberration from normative Anabaptism at Münster was the adoption of Old Testament models and practices. Elsewhere, debates between Anabaptists and their Catholic or Protestant opponents are punctuated by complaints by Anabaptists that Old Testament practices were being defended at the expense of New Testament principles. It is ironic that where Anabaptists adopted the hermeneutics (and the political tactics) of their opponents they most incurred the wrath of these opponents. Münster raises the age-old issue of how one differentiates between revolutionary violence and state-sponsored violence.
However tempting it may be to those who are inspired by the Anabaptist vision to ignore or dismiss what happened at Münster, it is more helpful, as well as more honest, to remember this incident and learn from it.
It is important to recognise the appeal of Münster and similar ventures to movements which comprise the poor and disenfranchised, which are suffering persecution, and which are fired by eschatological hopes. The temptation to escape into security, to attempt to bring in the kingdom of God by force, to take revenge on persecutors and to take steps to establish a new society is understandable, albeit an option doomed to failure.
Other movements have succumbed to the same temptations. Just as Anabaptism had its revolutionary wing at Münster, so too:
- The Donatists in North Africa in the fifth century had many supporters among the Circumcellions, a band of freedom fighters inspired by both religious and nationalist motives.
- The essentially peaceful Waldensians were on occasions protected by armed bands who resisted invaders and assassinated opponents.
- The Hussite movement divided into factions, one of which endorsed revolutionary violence and proclaimed the arrival of the New Jerusalem in a similar manner to the Münsterites.
- Much more recently, the siege of a compound occupied by the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, ended in multiple deaths.
Perhaps, then, the anniversary of the fall of Münster presents an opportunity to ponder these recurring tendencies among groups who are inspired by a vision of a better society and who long for the return of Christ and the arrival of the New Jerusalem. And an invitation to lament the misguided leadership, sectarianism and violence that ensues. And a challenge to embrace an eschatological vision that is radical, holistic and hopeful, which inspires commitment and practical action, but does not pre-empt the coming of God’s kingdom.
On this day, we lament
The arrogance of self-appointed prophets
The carnage caused by unaccountable leaders
The dangerous misuse of Scripture
The recourse to religiously motivated violence
The suffering of all those who were misled
The reputational damage to the gospel
The failure to learn from history
On this day, we remember
That we cannot build God’s kingdom but only seek it
That the New Jerusalem is a gift from heaven
That we do not know the time or the hour
That we are called to seek the peace of the city
A Poem and an Exercise
Doug Gay, a minister in the Church of Scotland, wrote a powerful poem several years ago in which he envisaged the New Jerusalem descending on the city of Glasgow and imagined the impact of this. Drawing on the imagery and language of Revelation 21-22, he composed ‘The Prophet’s Speech’ (which was subsequently included in Alternative Worship, edited by Doug and Jonny Baker).
I saw a vision – it was last Thursday at eleven o’clock in the morning.
I was standing on the Necropolis, looking down over the city
and the cold blue autumn sky broke open over my head
and the Spirit of God breathed on my eyes, and my eyes were opened:
I saw Glasgow, the holy city, coming down out of heaven
shining like a rare jewel, sparkling like clear water in the eye of the sun
and all the sickness was gone from the city
and there were no more suburbs and schemes
no difference between Bearsden and Drumchapel.
I saw the Clyde running with the water of life
as bright as crystal
as clear as glass
the children of Glasgow swimming in it.
And the Spirit showed me the tree of life
growing on Glasgow Green.
I looked out and there were no more homeless people
there were no women working the streets
there were no more junkies up the closes
HIV and AIDS were things of the past
there were no more racist attacks
no more attacks on gay people
no more rapists
no more stabbings
no more Protestants and Catholics
no more IRA graffiti, no more Orange marches
because there was no more hate
and I saw women walking safe at nights
and the men were full of passion and gentleness
and none of the children were ever abused
because the people’s sex was full of justice and joy.
I saw an old woman throw back her head
and laugh like a young girl
and when the sky closed back her laughter rang in my head
for days and days
and would not go away.
This is what I saw, looking over the Gallowgate,
Looking up from the city of death
and I knew then that there would be a day of resurrection
and I believe that there will be a day of resurrection.
An exercise that has helped many groups and individuals involves reading and reflecting on this poem and then creating a version for their own city, town, village or neighbourhood. This might be a poem, some creative writing, a story or a piece of art.
1. Anthony Arthur: The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster (St Martin’s Press, 1999)
2. C. Arnold Snyder: Anabaptist History and Theology (Pandora, 1995)
3. Walter Klaassen: Living at the End of the Ages (University Press of America, 1992)
4. Jonny Baker and Doug Gay: Alternative Worship (SPCK, 2003)