Campanus, Johannes (ca. 1500-1575)

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Johannes Campanus, one of the leading minds of the "left wing" of the Reformation in the Lower Rhine area (duchy of Jülich), leaning toward a spiritualistic interpretation of Christian thought, thus belonging to the group of "spiritual reformers" (like Sebastian Franck or Bünderlin). Rembert evaluated Campanus thus: "Campanus impressed upon the entire movement in Jülich the stamp of his spirit. He was the driving force and spiritual leader until displaced by Menno Simons and his followers, who turned the movement into a "different direction" (Rembert, Karl. Die “Wiedertäufer” im Herzogtum Jülich: 265). His influence upon Bernt Rothmann, the theological leader of the Münsterites (1533-1535), was strongly suggested by Karl Rembert but there is no proof of any direct connection. He was not an Anabaptist, though some of his thoughts were suggestive of Anabaptist tenets. Rembert was inclined to interpret Campanus as a sort of free-lance Anabaptist, while Dunin-Borkowski claimed that his thoughts on baptism were definitely not Anabaptist. Campanus belonged to the group of humanistically trained theologians (upon whom Erasmus had some influence) who between 1520 and 1535 shifted so much in their position from Catholicism to Lutheranism, then into the direction of Anabaptism (untheological, Biblical Christianity), and finally to a free and near gnostic Christianity. Campanus was never an aggressive promoter of his ideas; he was more the "idealistic" (that is, unrealistic) scholar and dreamer, and as such less offensive to the nobles of the Rhineland than the consistent and practical Anabaptists. He was never the leader of an organized group. His significance for Mennonite history rests chiefly upon ideas expressed in his one major book, the Göttlicher und Heiliger Schrift/vor vielen Jahren verdunkelt und durch unheilsame Lehr und Lehrer (aus göttlicher Zulassung) verfinstert/Restitution und Besserung. Anno 1532 (8°, 170 pages; existent in two copies). This book was extensively discussed and described by Karl Rembert (Wiedertäufer, 242-264), and Dunin-Borkowski (see Bibliography) also gives large excerpts (113-115).

Between 1520 and 1530 Campanus was unhesitatingly an admirer of Luther. But neither the latter nor Melanchthon was willing to go along with Campanus' unorthodox Bible expositions and his interpretation of doctrines and ordinances. In fact, it is most probable, as Rembert has shown, that the condemnation of the "new Samosatenes" (that is, Anti-Trinitarians) in the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 was directed specifically against the teachings of Campanus. In 1531, Sebastian Franck sent a lengthy epistle to Campanus welcoming the spiritual kinship between himself and Campanus (Hegler, 264-267). In the duchy of Jülich the Lutheran Reformation was not fully carried out until the 1540s. For that reason Campanus could continue his literary activities and correspondence unmolested, in spite of Melanchthon's repeated request to have him arrested (letters to the court chaplain K. Heresbach). But when (1553) the Servetus case exploded (the publication of his book against the Trinity, and the subsequent burning at the stake in Geneva), the excitement of the new Protestant orthodoxy regarding all "liberal" theology was felt even as far as Jülich. Campanus, always suspect of some confused interpretation of the doctrine of Trinity, was put under arrest (though apparently an easy one) for the next 20 years, to be released only shortly before his death. Many a theologian, Lutheran and Catholic, tried to bring him back to orthodox teachings, but it was in vain. He remained the old "idealist" all the while, leaning in his last days even strongly to some sort of chiliasm as Melchior Hoffman had done (namely, believing in the imminence of the end of the world).

Campanus' major book, Contra Totum Post Apostolus Mundum (about 1530), seems to have been lost. We know but the shortened German version of 1531 (see above). Regarding baptism, which is said to stand in the very center of his teaching (Rembert, 353 if.), he claimed rightly that knowledge and understanding had to precede baptism. He then explained baptism as a covenant comparable to that between bride and bridegroom. But since he neglected to argue in Anabaptist fashion against infant baptism, or to establish a special ordinance for adult baptism, his presentation remained theoretical, unrealistic, and visionary. He believed in the freedom of the will; hence justification came through faith and works. He taught that a true Christian should not seek litigation and should never go to court. Government was permitted by God for the sake of the ungodly. Obviously, some of these thoughts approached Anabaptist positions. And yet, on the whole, Campanus did not belong at all to the camp of the Anabaptists proper because of his utterly unrealistic or unconcrete type of Christianity.

Regarding the idea of Restitution Rembert claimed that Campanus was the very originator of this term, central indeed for the entire "Left Wing" of the Reformation. "For 1400 years," he wrote in 1531, "the true church has not existed. But now the time of restitution has come" (Rembert, 244). We know three renowned books bearing in their title this term "restitution": Campanus' work of 1531 (approvingly mentioned by Sebastian Franck in his Chronica of 1536), Bernt Rothmann's pamphlet of 1534, the programmatical book of the Münsterite experiment, and finally Michel Servetus' Restitutio Christianismi of 1553, with its strictly Anti-Trinitarian purpose or bias.

The contact between Campanus and the Münsterites is rather obscure. According to Rembert, Campanus had much influence upon the so-called Wassenberg preachers who later turned Münsterite. From them Rothmann may have learned the ideas of Campanus. Rembert claimed that the latter was the very father of the Münsterite idea of "restitution," and that "no doubt Campanus was known to Rothmann." However, Campanus provided no reaction to the Münsterite events, and he seemed to have been quite unconcerned with this experiment of restitution and its failure. According to Rembert, the two booklets by Campanus and Rothmann were in many regards very similar and of like organization.


The only genuine and thorough work of research regarding Campanus was done by Karl Rembert:

Rembert, Karl. Die "Wiedertäufer" im Herzogtum Jülich. Berlin, 1899.

Rembert, Karl. "Campanus, Johannus." Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Hege, Christian and Christian Neff, eds. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 317-324 is an excerpt.

Other Sources

Bax, W. Het Protestantisme in het Bisdom Luik. The Hague, 1937: I, 43-45, 317-325.

Dunin-Borkowski, St. von. "Quellen zur Vorgeschichte der Unitarier des 16. Jahrhunderts." in 75 Jahre Stella Matutina. Feldkirch, Austria, 1931: 113-115 discusses Campanus' main book, chiefly from the angle of his "ditheism."

Hegler, A. Geist und Schrift bei Sebastian Franck. 1892: 50-53, 264-267 dealls with Franck's epistle to Campanus of 1531.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1953

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MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Campanus, Johannes (ca. 1500-1575)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 12 Apr 2024.,_Johannes_(ca._1500-1575)&oldid=120931.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Campanus, Johannes (ca. 1500-1575). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from,_Johannes_(ca._1500-1575)&oldid=120931.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 499-500. All rights reserved.

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