Friday, October 12, 2007

The Anabaptist Kingdom of Muenster

If you travel to Muenster, Germany and visit St. Lambert’s Church, you will notice three cages hanging from its steeple. Why would three cages be hung from a Church steeple? I’m glad you asked.

It was 1530 and a former follower of Martin Luther, who had left after forming his own unique beliefs, was stirring the people of Strasberg up with his preaching. His name was Melchior Hoffman, and he proclaimed that the end of the world would come in 1533, the righteous leaders of Strasberg would exterminate the godless in the city, and that Strasberg would become the “New Jerusalem”. As you can imagine, the leaders of the city were not overly happy with his message and banished poor Melchior from the city.

Melchior Hoffman was a member of the group known as the Anabaptists. Most people think of there being two groups: the Catholics and the Protestants during the early 16th century, but that’s not entirely true. There was a third group, the Anabaptists, whose distinguishing belief (trying to keep it simple here) dealt with the nature of baptism. While the Protestants (think Luther and Zwingli) held to the belief that the Bible is the sole authority (Sola Scriptura), the Anabaptists believed that they just held to it a tad tighter. And where the Protestants wanted to "reform" what they saw as corruption in the Chruch, the Anabaptists in general didn't recognize that there was Church at all, let alone one to reform. They believed that they were reaching back, uncovering "true" Christianity and that not only were the Catholics way off, but the Protestants were as well.

A quick bit of background on Anabaptist understanding of baptism. The Anabaptists believed that only adult baptism was valid, and believe that it was completely symbolic. Their argument was that if we are saved by faith alone, and infants did not have the ability to have faith, what sense did infant baptism make? Baptism should be a sign of someone making a faith commitment. Because of this belief, they interpreted New Testament Baptism passages in a very different way than Catholics or Reformers. The Anabaptists argued that while parallels could be drawn between circumcision and baptism, there was no mandate in scripture for it.

If you didn’t get that distinction don’t worry, it’s not that important (mabey another post?). All you need to know is that the three groups: Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists did not share the same beliefs or much love.

OK, back to the story. As Melchior Hoffman began to baptize adults, who began to baptize adults, who began to … the group began to be seen as a treat by the authorities. In 1531, a number of Anabaptists were executed as heretics, and as a result Melchior Hoffman called for all adult Baptisms to cease for a period of 2 years.

Hoffman was also arrested at this time and spent the remaining 10 years of his life in prison. The story may have ended there, but one of the people Hoffman had baptized earlier was a charismatic young man named Jan Matthys.

With the end of the world quickly approaching (remember Hoffman’s 1533 prediction), Jan Matthys called for baptisms to resume seeing no other way to reach the 144,000 believers called for in the Book of Revelation.

But 1533 came and the end of the world had not come as Hoffman predicted. Jan Matthys told his followers that it wasn’t because Hoffman was wrong about the end, it was because he was wrong about taking a passive stance rather than an active role. According to Matthys, it wasn’t the government leaders’ job to wipeout the godless; it was their duty. While Hoffman was a pacifist, willing to lend support to the extermination but not take part in it, Jan Matthys was more than willing to role up his sleeves and lend a helping hand.

Jan Matthys, now setting up shop in Muenster, declared that the city of Muenster and not Strasberg was now God’s new choice to be the “New Jerusalem”. And to add a little excitement to it all, he declared that God would pass judgment on the godless at Muenster in Easter of 1534.

And so with the stability of the city beginning to fade, and the preaching that soon God would pass judgment on the “godless”, people who were not entirely sure they would fall in to the category of “godly” (Catholics and Protestants) decided to pack up and move from the city. Most of those who decided to leave for a while until the craziness passed were the men of the city. Their wives stayed behind since the laws at that time made it impossible to take land from women.

So in 1534, with most non-Anabaptist men leaving and large number of Anabaptists immigrating into the city to be part of the upcoming “big show”, the city council (to this point solidly Lutheran) was taken over legally by the Anabaptists, and the ruling Bishop of the city was driven out of the town. But the Bishop and his soldiers (they had such things then) did not go far. Unhappy with the treatment they received, they laid siege to the city and blocked any supplies from entering and leaving the city.

With everything falling into place, the people of the city began to refer to themselves as “Israelites” and the city as “New Jerusalem”. Jan Matthys now introduced the idea of a community of goods and all property of all citizens who left (sorry ladies, there’s a new sheriff in town) was confiscated and all food was made public. People could keep what they had, but they were required to leave their houses unlocked at all times. The use of money was eliminated, and all resourced were now pooled for the common good. No longer was there any idea of private property, everything was owned by the public.

One day, convinced and prophesying that God would protect him, Matthys rode out to meet some of the Bishops troops who were laying siege to the city. Charging right into a group of opposing soldiers, Jan Matthys proved a poor prophet and was made quick work of by the soldiers. The soldiers placed his head on a pole for the entire town to see, and did other really, really bad things to his body.

And the story may have ended there (sound familiar), but on of the people Matthys had baptized earlier was a charismatic young man named Jan van Leyden. The story goes that after Matthys’ death, van Leyden is said to have run through the streets naked, foaming at the mouth, and speaking incoherently before collapsing and remaining unresponsive for 3 days. Van Leyden claimed that God revealed many things to him during these three days, and things in Strasberg were going to change. Oh were they ever.

After a few victories over the bishop’s armies, van Leyden had himself anointed “King of Righteousness” and the “King of Zion” – the absolute prophet and ruler of the city whose word was equivalent to God’s. Any resistance to his rule was ruthlessly suppressed.

Van Leyden then instituted polygamy in the city. He used the Old Testament to justify it (like all great nut jobs), but it was well known that van Leyden had a desire for Matthys’ young widow. But aside from lust (van Leyden had 16 wives!!!), polygamy did serve a practical purpose in the city. It helped deal with a the ratio of women to men in the city being about 3 to 1, and also was seen as a way to increase the population of the city to 144,000 (required for the beginning of the end).

At this point, a few people became a little unhappy with the “direction” the city is moving. Van Leyden, a master of persuasion, had all resisters are executed (men) or imprisoned (women). One of these “unhappy” people was one of van Leyden’s 16 wives. In a “women belong it the kitchen” moment, van Leyden publicly beheaded her himself and trampled on her body.

And so 1534 fades into 1535, the city’s food supply is fading, and still no end of the world. The population begins to grow disillusioned with the whole “New Jerusalem” thing, and the Bishop’s forces march in and take back the town. The Kingdom of Muenster had rose and fell in 18 months.

Jan van Leyden and his merry men were tortured and killed (you didn’t expect anything else). Their bodies were placed in three iron cages (you didn’t forget how this looooong post started did you?) and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.

Reminding everyone that 1 wife is enough; 16 will get you killed and hung in an iron cage.
Have a great weekend!

3 comments:

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Whoa. My head hurts. It's amazing how society can fall so quickly. Especially when communists and crazies are involved!

Obie said...

Excellent post. Just found this after listening to Dan Carlins Hardcore History podcast.

Funny how history seems to repeat itself...Hitler, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and now . . .

Unknown said...

It's pretty good, this post...this compliment coming from a determined non-believer - me. (Well if I have any religion at all it emanates from the likes of Spinoza)
But you have your facts correct as far as I can tell...with the exception perhaps that it is not clear whether Van Lyden's execution of one of his 16 wives was fact or "after-the-fact" fiction.
Still an interesting movement despite its excesses. But then this was an age of excesses no? You leave out the Inquisition under way in this period and the horrors it produced and the Lutheran response which was every bit as factional and sectarian..As were the Anabaptists.
It is also true, as I assume you know, that the conclusions that the early Anabaptists drew from the Munster experiment was a renunciation of violence (among the more enduring sects that survived - Amish, Mennonites, Huttites, etc).
My interest in this, has more to do with the rise of Dutch commerce in the 16th century and its struggle against the Spanish Hapsburgs, but there is no way to understand that particularl cruel century tensions which so dominated the period.
One final question, don't you think it a little excessive that nearly 400 years after the execution of Munster Anabaptists that the cells from which they were hung above the church remain until today.
Again thanks - it was, for the most part - an interesting, accurate blog entry
Rob Prince/Colorado Progressive Jewish News... robertjprince.wordpress.com