Clement, Epistle No. IV

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Pseudo-Clement, Epistle No. IV, a forgery of the 9th century, was allegedly one of the major sources of the Anabaptist idea of community of goods. This thesis was proposed by the German church historian Hans von Schubert in a paper in 1919, in which this idea is followed up with great erudition. The epistle was believed to have been written by Clement, the first bishop (pope) in Rome, said to have been invested in his office by the Apostle Peter himself. The core of this epistle (in German translation) is contained in Sebastian Franck's Chronica of 1531, and runs as follows, "Read the fourth epistle (margin: of Clement, concerning the community of goods of the first Christians) addressed to the entire church in Jerusalem, describing how they practiced a common life and how everything was in common possession. Yet, evil arose and established in Christianity the 'mine' and the 'thine'; in fact private property came up." Clement was emphatically opposed to this and even quotes pagan wise men (philosophers) of Greece who had already recognized that it is but fair that all things should be held in common. Nobody has a right to claim possession of a thing that comes from God, as little as anybody may claim the sun, the air, and the elements. For as these things cannot be divided up, he says, so the other things cannot be parceled out either. All things are given (by God) for common use. He (Clement) then nicely alludes to Psalm 132:1 and to the practice of the first Christians, Acts 4 and Acts 5. (Franck, Chronica, "Vom Ursprung und Ankunft allerlei Irrsal im Amt der Messe," edited 1531, fol. 495; edited 1536, fol. 244.)

What shall be said about von Schubert's thesis? It is true that the Anabaptists read this passage; the Hutterites quote it in a great doctrinal book of 1547 (see Hutterite Article Book); and Pilgram Marpeck mentions it in his Vermahnung of 1542 (Gedenkschrijt z. 400-jähr. Jubiläum der Menn., 1925, 265). Von Schubert mentions Bernhard Rothmann's books, Bekenntnis von den beiden Sakramenten (1533) and Restitution christlicher Lehre (1534), which had strongly influenced the Münsterite experiment. Rothmann admits that he found the idea that the Lord's Supper means a brotherly community of all things in Franck's Chronica. (Franck and Rothmann knew each other in Strasbourg, 1530-31.) Rothmann's idea of a "restitution" of the apostolic church (including its communism) might also have been influenced by Johannes Campanus, who with great enthusiasm took up the ideas of the Chronica, above all that of restitution.

Von Schubert now undertakes an inquiry into the background of this frequently quoted passage from the Clement epistle. Step by step he proceeds from Franck to the Humanist Johann Sichem, who in 1526 had published the Latin text of this epistle, taking it from the so-called Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals (written ca. A.D. 850) where this letter appears for the first time. Here it stands as an admonition by the alleged first pope to the Christians not to deviate from the rules of the apostolic church in Jerusalem. He, Clement, a disciple of St. Peter, knows the apostles personally, and therefore it is his duty to enjoin upon every Christian obedience to the example of the apostles. The authority of Acts 2 and 4 is thus strengthened and emphasized. The roots of this forgery (it was a case of ecclesiastical politics) were found in the Pseudo-Clementine writings of the third century A.D. (in Rome), in which the communis usus omnium qua sunt in mundo is again defended. In fact, von Schubert proves that the idea is still older, and he finds Stoic and other philosophies of the ancients which to a certain extent may be taken as the very background of the theme (mainly Seneca is quoted).

The further details may be omitted here; it may suffice to recognize that through the activity of Humanists this strange source became known even to unsophisticated common people. But it would be erroneous to conclude with von Schubert that this one rather brief passage served as the main source of the idea of a Christian community of goods, whether in the form of the Münsterites (which von Schubert alone visualizes) or in that of the Hutterites. It may be correct that Rothmann discussed the subject with Franck and got some encouragement from him, but it is still a long way from an ideal to its bitter practice (as chiefly that of Münster). As for the Hutterites, even less contacts can be produced. In any case, Franck's Chronica was published long after the community of goods had been established by the Hutterites in Moravia (1528), based on a strict obedience to Scripture. The idea of sharing material possessions with the needy was indeed present among the Anabaptists in Switzerland and nearby South Germany, Tyrol, Austria, and Moravia from the beginning in 1525, so much so indeed that their enemies and persecutors (e.g., Zwingli) accused them of communism several years before the publication of the Chronica, or even the publication by Sichem in 1526. It is impossible that the idea came from Sichem.


Friedmann, Robert. "Eine dogmatische Hauptschrift . . . ." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1931): 234-236.

Schubert, Hans von. Der Kommunismus der Wiedertäufer in Münster und seine Quellen. (Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse ; Jg. 1919, Abh. 11). Heidelberg : Winter, 1919.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Clement, Epistle No. IV." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 27 Jan 2021.,_Epistle_No._IV&oldid=117966.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Clement, Epistle No. IV. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from,_Epistle_No._IV&oldid=117966.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 621-622. All rights reserved.

©1996-2021 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.