Münster Anabaptists

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1957 Article

Münster (Muenster) Anabaptists are also called "Münsterites". Münster, capital (1955 population, 150,000; 2005 population, 270,176; coordinates: 51° 57′ 46.6″ N, 7° 37′ 43.3″ E) of Westphalia, Germany, has a university, has been a bishop's see since the 8th century, and became a member of the Hanseatic League during the 13th century. The buildings in the center of the city revealed its bloom during the Middle Ages until World War II, when 90 per cent of them were destroyed. Most famous among its churches are the cathedral (1225), St. Ludger (1200), St. Martin (14th century), and the Gothic St. Lambert (14th century). The population of Münster is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Reformation of Münster

In 1532-1535 Münster became a center of radical Anabaptism, in which many persecuted religious and social reformers found refuge. Peculiar economic, social, and religious conditions in the city brought this about. The city was ruled by a city council and the bishop, who had his own court. The fact that Münster was a member of the Hanseatic League speeded up the participation of the guilds of the city in public affairs. At the time of the Reformation, the guilds participated in the government, leaving the common people in the background. When Luther's reformation spread, his ideas were brought into the city by merchants. The cathedral school of Münster spread Humanism. Early religious reformers were Johann Glandorp and Adolf Clarenbach. By 1524 the religious reform movement was assuming definite forms. The Peasant Revolt of 1525 stirred the masses of Münster, who began to demand improvements in economic, social, and religious conditions. Criticism was directed against some monasteries which were creating strong competition for the weaving industry. By 1527 Bernhard Knipperdolling had become the leader of the masses.

In 1531 the religious unrest of the city received stimulation and guidance from Bernhard Rothmann, a former priest who had visited Wittenberg and Strasbourg, and was in touch with the reformers of these centers. He preached the Lutheran message. When the authorities wanted to stop him, he was protected by the powerful guilds of the city. During the same year he published a confession of faith which reveals no fanatic influences. This gave direction to the masses. On 18 February 1532 the Lambert church was taken over by his followers. By 10 August of that year all the churches except the cathedral were occupied by evangelical ministers: Brixius of Norden, Henric Rol, Gottfried Stralen, P. Wertheim, and G. Nienhoven. The guilds and the common people were taking over and the council and bishops were losing out. Rol and Dionysius Vinne, representatives of the Wassenberg reform movement who had arrived at the end of 1532, furthered the religious activities of the city. Early in 1533 Heinrich Staprade and Johann Klopreis, also Wassenberg reformers, arrived. The reform movement of Münster gradually divided into two major camps: the conservative Lutheran group and the democratic Sacramentarian wing which was ready to accept Anabaptist ideas.

Anabaptism in Münster

Melchior Hoffman, who had spread Anabaptist beliefs and practices in East Friesland and the Netherlands since 1531, also secured followers in Münster. Thus far there had been severe criticism of Catholic and some Lutheran practices, but with the preaching and practice of believers' baptism the representatives of the radical reform movement of Münster introduced a new motto and symbol. On 7 and 8 August 1533, a religious discussion was held between the Wassenberg representatives adhering to Anabaptist ideas and Catholic and Lutheran ministers. Those favoring Anabaptist innovations were ordered by the city council to have their children baptized. Rothmann was removed from his office. On 8 November 1533 his Bekentnisse van beyden Sakramenten Doepe vnde Nachtmaele . . . was published. In addition to his name, it bore the signatures of Rol, Klopreis, Vinne, Staprade, and Stralen, dated 22 October 1533. Concerning baptism this confession says it "is dipping into water, which the candidate desires and receives as a true sign that he has died to sin, been buried with Christ, and arises in a new life, henceforth to walk not in the lusts of the flesh, but obediently according to the will of God" (Keller, 131). This booklet prepared the way for the practice of baptism upon confession of faith.

On 5 January 1534, Bartholomeus Boeckbinder and Willem de Cuyper, representatives of Jan Matthijs of Haarlem, who had been baptized by Melchior Hoffman, appeared in Münster. They baptized Rothmann, Klopreis, Vinne, Rol, Stralen, and Staprade. Now Jan van Leyden and Gerrit Boekbinder appeared in Münster. Gradually peaceful Anabaptism grew into a caricature. Rothmann wrote Eyne Restitution .. . which appeared October 1534, in which he urged a restitution of the apostolic church. On 9 February 1534 the city hall was seized, and on 23 February Bernhard Knipperdolling became mayor of Münster. On 27 February all those who refused to be baptized were expelled from the city. Johann Lenning and Theodor Fabricius, who had been sent to Münster by Philipp of Hesse to restore the evangelical order, had to leave without accomplishing their task. Münster became the refuge of all persecuted, desperate people and the "New Jerusalem" of radical Anabaptism. Evangelists spread the news that the Lord had chosen Münster to establish His kingdom on earth. Particularly many of the sorely oppressed Dutch Anabaptists, who were suffering severely under Catholic authorities, considered this a God-sent message. Many sailed from Amsterdam and other cities across the Zuiderzee en route to the "New Jerusalem." Most of them were arrested and returned to their homes, or imprisoned, many being put to death. Others were prevented by the magistrate from leaving their home communities. Nevertheless, large numbers succeeded in reaching Münster.

Meanwhile, Bishop Franz of Waldeck, the ruler of the territory, had begun the siege of the city. Already before this event the original Anabaptist principle of nonresistance had been weakened through the fanatical view that the "children of Jacob" would be actively engaged in helping God punish and annihilate the "children of Esau," at the time of the establishment of the kingdom of God. On 4 April 1534 Jan Matthijs, a fanatical representative of this view, was suddenly seized by a foolhardy inspiration to go outside the city walls with a few followers to disperse the besieging army, as in the days of Israel. He fell in this attempt. Jan van Leyden took his place in the city, cleverly exploiting the situation. He appointed 12 elders and gave them authority in the city. Early in 1534 he published a tract entitled Bekentones des globens und lebens der gemein Criste zu Münster (Confession of Faith and Life of the Church of Christ at Münster), which was sent to Philipp of Hesse. In December 1534 Rothmann published an appeal to take up arms in revenge and in defense of the church of Christ at Münster (Eyn gantz troestlick bericht van der Wrake unde straffe des Babilonischen gruwels . . .). A unique episode in the drama of Münster was Hille Feicken who sacrificed herself in an attempt to kill the bishop as Judith had beheaded Holofernes in Israel. She was captured and put to death.

In addition to armed resistance, two new characteristics were soon promoted by Jan van Leyden. One of them, not entirely unknown in Anabaptist history, was the principle of community of goods. Marxian writers like K. Kautsky (Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus, 3rd ed., Berlin, 1947), and scholars like Hans van Schubert have investigated and presented the basis and the purpose of this institution of community of goods. Schubert (Der Kommunismus der Wiedertäufer in Münster und seine Quellen, Heidelberg, 1919) attempted to trace the idea of the community of goods back to early Christian writers and Plato. One has the feeling that it is hard to establish an unbroken line of this principle from Plato to the Münsterites. The Bible-reading Anabaptists, interested in the restitution of the early Christian church, found enough information and inspiration in the Jerusalem church, in which community of goods was practiced. In their attempt to establish a "New Jerusalem" they simply imitated the pattern before them.

More complicated is the reason for introducing polygamy. Jan van Leyden introduced it against the judgment of some of the more serious ministers such as Rothmann, Rol, and Klopreis. It probably was originally an impulse of the "king of the new Zion." On the other hand, in the "New Jerusalem," the capital of the "New Israel" in which the children of light were fighting the children of darkness, according to the pattern of Israel in the Old Testament, "King David" could with the same justification introduce this Old Testament practice. In addition to this, it served at the same time as a social welfare practice since the number of men continued to decrease during the siege of the city. One of Jan van Leyden's wives was "Queen" Divara, the widow of Jan Matthijs; another wife was the daughter of Bernhard Knipperdolling.

The New Testament beliefs of the Anabaptist movement of Swiss background were transplanted to Strasbourg, where the Lutheran lay evangelist Melchior Hoffman became superficially acquainted with them. In Münster they were transformed through the fanaticism of Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leyden into a carnal Old Testament-oriented earthly "kingdom of God." Not much of the early vision, spirit, and essence of Anabaptism were retained. Naturally it is hard to distribute a proper balance of the blame for this development. The ruthless persecution which Anabaptists underwent in the Low Countries could produce only fanaticism among people without true leadership, seeing no way out.

Anabaptist cages at St. Lambert's church.
Photo taken by Rüdiger Wölk, Münster, Germany.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jan van Leyden found some opposition. Rol and some others who did not agree with Jan van Leyden had left Münster in the spring of 1534. A revolt led by Heinrich Mollenhecke was brutally suppressed. On 31 August 1534 a second powerful attack of the besiegers was repulsed after which Jan van Leyden was proclaimed "king of the New Zion" by Johann Dusentschuer (Jeremiah 23:2-6; Ezekiel 37:21). Jan had a throne erected at the market square where he held court. Anybody who opposed the dictator was crushed. One of Jan van Leyden's ambassadors was Jan van Geelen, who traveled through the Netherlands recruiting followers for the "New Jerusalem" at Münster, distributing Rothmann's latest book, Van der Wrake (Concerning Revenge), and trying to create "Zions" in the Netherlands at Amsterdam and Bolsward. Jan van Leyden sent out 27 apostles, including Vinne, Klopreis, Stralen, and Slachtscaep, most of whom were put to death. The expected help from the Netherlands could not reach Münster, although individuals succeeded in getting into the city. Jan van Leyden with a small male population managed to keep the enemy outside the walls. The aged and ill were sent outside the city in order to preserve the meager supplies. Finally on 25 June 1535 the bishop's army gained entrance through betrayal from within. Heinrich Gresbeck led a group through a gate into the city. Jan van Leyden, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and Bernhard Krechting were cruelly tortured, displayed in various parts of the country, and put to death on 23 January 1536. Their corpses were hung on the tower of St. Lambert's church. The cages are still hanging on the same tower. Most of the male population were put to death; only a few, e.g., Hinrich Krechting managed to escape. Rothmann evidently also escaped, although no trace of him was ever found.

After 1535

Scholars do not agree what the future religious affiliation of Münster would have been if the Anabaptist catastrophe had not occurred. The Catholic writer Tücking states that without the will of the bishop the Reformation would not have succeeded in Münster nor any other place. Ludwig Keller, on the other hand, states that if it had not been for the Anabaptists, the city of Münster would have remained evangelical like some of the neighboring cities. Brune says that it is a tragedy that Hermann von Wied, Duke of Cleve, and Franz von Waldeck, who later favored the Reformation, prevented it at this time. Although it is true that Protestantism was suppressed in the city of Münster and other places of Westphalia during the Catholic Counter Reformation, it is nevertheless likely that the result would not have been very different if the Münster tragedy had never occurred. Wherever possible, the Catholic Church took advantage of any situation to gain lost ground and to fortify its position. The Münster incident was used by the Catholics to defeat not only Anabaptism, but also Protestantism in general, while the reformers used the Münsterite label for all Anabaptists, including the peaceful wing. Even modern Protestant scholarship has not fully overcome the effects of this prejudice.

Protestantism, and with it Anabaptism, indeed experienced a setback in Münster and the surrounding territory, from which it never fully recuperated. It is, however, wrong to assume that Anabaptism immediately died out in the province of Westphalia after 1535. As in some other places Anabaptism continued in Westphalia for many decades. Numerous smaller and larger congregations existed. Among them were Dortmund, Osnabrück, Soest, Minden, Coesfeld, and Lemgo. Gradually they disappeared. Since they could exist only as an underground movement, information concerning these congregations is scarce. In a recent study, Der Kampf um eine evangelische Kirche im Münsterland, Friedrich Brune has presented the history of the struggle of the Protestant church in and around Münster. This book also contains valuable information pertaining to the courageous small Anabaptist groups. In his report regarding the Catholic attempts to exterminate Protestantism during the Counter Reformation, he relates that in 1612 Bishop Ferdinand was particularly interested in converting the numerous Anabaptists. Brune states that at this time Anabaptists were by no means a dangerous revolutionary or fanatical sect. The people called them "Tibben," while they themselves addressed each other simply as brethren, Christians, or church of Christ. They were pious, industrious, and reliable citizens and highly honored by their neighbors. They were found in the following cities in 1612: Warendorf, Freckenhorst, Harsewinkel, Beelen, Bocholt, Ahaus, Ottestein, Wessum, Wüllen, and Vreden. Even one of the Catholic priests of Warendorf was an Anabaptist sympathizer. Severe measures of the Counter Reformation necessitated the emigration of these Anabaptists to Gronau, Emden, Hamm, Emmerich, Winterswijk, or Zutphen. (Brune, 55, 122.)

Brune believes that many who had been attracted by the Münsterite movement did not really share the radical views promoted by the leaders, and returned to a sane evangelical Biblical Christianity, and that it is an error to mention only the sobering effect of catastrophe on misled radical Anabaptists, since many of the Anabaptists of Westphalia had nothing to do with this radicalism. Many of those called Anabaptists should be classified as evangelical Christians because "it is a fact that on the whole gradually in the time of sobering and quietness some of the Anabaptists joined the Evangelicals, above all in later times the Reformed Church" (p. 56).

Münster in the Press

No other topic of the Reformation and particularly the Anabaptists has received as much attention throughout the centuries as the Anabaptists of Münster. Opponents of the movement in the Catholic and Protestant churches, scholars and journalists in all groups, fiction writers and artists, have through more than four centuries found this subject a fertile field. Even today novels and dramas dealing with some phase of the Münsterite movement appear almost annually.

During the beginning of the Anabaptist movement of Münster, Bernhard Rothmann and his coworkers published a number of writings as mentioned above. Correspondence between representatives of the Münsterite movement and the chief Reformers, such as Melanchthon and Martin Luther, has been published (Bahlmann, 122). Immediately after the collapse of Münster numerous reports were published under the usual name Newe Zeittung : which the tragedy of Münster was described. Bahlmann lists at least 20 of these pamphlets in his bibliography for 1535 (p. 142). Among the early reporters on the Münster tragedy was Urbanus Rhegius, who wrote De Restitutione regne Israelitici . . .(1536), which was reprinted and also translated into German (Bahlmann, 155). He had previously written Widderlegung der Münsterischen . . . (Wittenberg, 1535). Very popular was Warhafitige historie, wie das Evangelium zu Münster angefangen, vnd darnach durch die Widderteuffer verstöret . . by Henricus Dorpius, which was published in 1536 and reprinted in the same year with a preface by Bugenhagen at Strasbourg. It was again published and edited by Friedrich Merschmann at Magdeburg in 1847. C. A. Cornelius claimed that Fabricius actually wrote the book or furnished the main source of information. Even though presented from a biased point of view this source is very valuable because of its early date. The [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Amsterdam Mennonite Library]] has a Dutch translation of it in manuscript form (see Corvinus).

Another early writer was Antonius Corvinus, who wrote Acta: Handlungen . . . (1536) and De miserabili Monasteriensium Anabaptistarum obsidione . . . (1536). (The tract of 1536 entitled Waarachtige Historie . . . mentioned in the Corvinus article, was not written by Corvinus but by Dorpius. See above.) Konrad von Heresbach of Cleve reported his observations to Erasmus in two letters, which were used to produce a tract entitled Konradi Heresbachii J. C. Historia Anabaptistica . . . which went through a number of editions (see Heresbach). Justus Menius wrote Von dem Geist der Widerteuffer, with a preface by Luther (1544).

Lambertus Hortensius wrote Tumultuum Anabaptistarum . . . (Basel, 1548), of which numerous editions and translations appeared, particularly Dutch. Hortensius presents a detailed though somewhat biased account of the events in Münster. Most of the editions are illustrated.

J. Sleidanus wrote De statu religionis .. . (1555), which appeared in numerous Latin editions and in German translation. Heinrich Bullinger wrote among other things Der Widertöufferen ursprung . . . (Zürich, 1560). G. Nicolai translated the book and added to it what he deemed necessary for readers of the Low Countries. It was published at Emden in 1569. (Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica VII, 667.)

Hermann Hamelmann, a Lutheran minister of Oldenburg, wrote Historiae renati evangelii . . . around 1570, in which he relates important information and data although presented in a somewhat biased manner. The book was first published at Lemgo in 1711. In 1913 Kl. Löffler published Hamelmann's Ref ormationsgeschichte Westfalens (Latin). Hermann von Kerssenbroick, who attended the cathedral school in Münster at the time when the Anabaptist movement started, later wrote two books: Anabaptistici furoris Monasterium . . . (which was copied by hand. In 1730 and 1750 inadequate editions appeared, in 1771, 1900, and 1929 German editions were published) and Belli Monasteriensis contra Anabaptistica . . . (Cologne, 1545).

The only actual witness living in Münster during the Anabaptist reign who survived to write an account of it was Heinrich Gresbeck, who caused the downfall of the kingdom by showing the bishop's army how to enter the city. His Bericht von der Wiedertaufe in Münster was published by C. A. Cornelius in Die Geschichtsquellen des Bistums Münster II (Münster, 1853). B. N. Krohn published Geschichte der fanatischen und enthusiastischen Wiedertäufer . . . (Leipzig, 1858) and compiled over 50 volumes of material which was destroyed in Hamburg during World War J. H. Ottius treated the Münsterites in Annales anabaptistici . . . (Basel, 1672).

Since 1800 scholars have paid considerable attention to the Anabaptists of Münster. Among those who have made substantial contributions in this field of investigation during the 19th century we name H. Jochmus, J. Hast, H. A. Erhard, H. F. Jacobson, D. Harting, J. C. Fässer, K. Ziegler, K. Hase, M. Goebel, H. Kampschulte, K. Rembert, H. Detmer (for titles of their contributions, see Bahlmann, "Die Wiedertäufer zu Münster. Eine bibliographische Zusammenstellung," pp. 167-70, Zeitschrift f. v. Geschichte u. Alterthumskunde, Münster, 1893).

The most important contributors in this field of research, who introduced a more objective method of investigation during the past centuries, were C. A. Cornelius, Ludwig Keller, and Joseph Niesert. These men not only freed the account of the usual preconceived denominational notions about the Anabaptists, but they also made available most of the sources on the subject. Niesert published Beiträge zu einem Münsterischen Urkundenbuche I (Münster, 1823) and Münsterische Urkundensammlung I (Coesfeld, 1836). Cornelius published Berichte der Augenzeugen über das Münsterische Wiedertauferreich (Münster, 1853) and Die niederländischen Wiedertäufer während der Belagerung Münster; 1534 bis 1535 (Munich, 1869). Keller published some sources in his Geschichte der Wiedertäufer . . . (Münster, 1880) and Die Gegenreformation in Westfalen und dem Niederrhein (3 vv., Leipzig, 1881-95).

Especially Cornelius and Keller were instrumental in introducing an objective scholarly method of research not only on the Münster Anabaptists but on Anabaptists in general. Among the writings of Cornelius, the following should be mentioned: Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs . . . (Leipzig, 1855) and Historische Arbeiten vornehmlich zur Reformationszeit (1899). Keller wrote the book already referred to, Geschichte der. Wiedertäufer . . . (Münster, 1880); Zur Geschichte der Wiedertäufer nach dem Untergang des Münsterschen Königreichs (1882); Die Wiederherstellung der katholischen Kirche nach den Wiedertäuferunruhen in Münster 1535-37 (1882). Other scholars who made valuable contributions during the past century were Johann Döllinger in his Die Reformation . . . (3 vv., 1848); Leopold Ranke, Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (3 vv.); Paul Bahlmann, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Kirchenvisitation im Bistum Münster 1571-73; W. E. Schwarz, Die Akten der Visitation des Bistums (Münster, 1913).

During the 20th century some outstanding contributions have been made in the realm of further investigation by Friedrich Brune in Der Kampf um eine evangelische Kirche im Münsterland, 1520-1802 (Witten, 1953) which presents valuable information on the Anabaptists in Westphalia after 1535. The book has an up-to-date bibliography on the Protestant movement within Westphalia. Heinrich Detmer made numerous contributions regarding Rothmann, etc. Klemens Löffler wrote Die Wiedertäufer zu Münster 1534-35 (Jena, 1923), which constitutes an eyewitness account based on Kerssenbroik, Dorpius, and Gresbeck. Hugo Rothert published Westfälische Geschichte (Vol. II, 1950) and Der Kampf um Münster 1531-35 (1925), which discusses the Anabaptists. Hans von Schubert investigated the basis of the Münsterite communism in Der Kommunismus der Wiedertäufer in Münster und seine Quellen (Heidelberg, 1919). Ernst Reichel wrote Die Vorstellungen der Münsterischen Wiedertaufer über ihr Verhältnis zur Welt und zu ihren Mitmenschen (Tübingen, 1919). H. Rothert's Das Tausendjährige Reich der Wiedertaufer zu Münster, 1534-55 (Münster, 1948) was published the second time.

Melchior Hoffman, the initiator of North German and Dutch Anabaptism, has received considerable attention during the last decades. The most recent study was made by Peter Kawerau on Melchior Hofmann als religioser Denker (Haarlem, 1954). As the title indicates, it is an attempt to reconstruct the theological content and the basic religious concern of the writings of Hoffman. Writers who previously dealt specifically with Hoffman were A. Hulshof, Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden to Straatsburg (Amsterdam, 1905); W. I. Leendertz, Melchior Hofmann (Haarlem, 1883); F. O. zur Linden, Melchior Hofmann, ein Prophet der Wiedertäufer (Haarlem, 1885). In addition to these writings, all major books on Dutch Anabaptism deal with Melchior Hoffman. The writings of Hoffman were published in Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica V (Hague, 1903). Rothmann's Restitution was published in Flugschriften aus der Reformation VII (Halle, 1888), and his Bekentnisse van beyden Sacramenten and Van erdesscher unnde tytliker gewalt were published with introduction by Detmer and Krumbholtz, in Zwei Schriften des Münsterischen Wiedertäufers Bernhard Rothmann (Dortmund, 1904). Detmer wrote Johann von Leiden . . . (2 vv., Münster, 1903-4).

The relationship between the Münsterites and the peaceful Anabaptists has always been a controversial subject from the time of the writings of Menno Simons against Jan van Leyden to the present. Many have written about it. The opponents of the Anabaptists emphasized the similarities between the fanatical Münsterites and the Biblical Anabaptists, while the Mennonite writers denied or minimized the relationship between the two. Kautzky and others have claimed that Anabaptism was a revolutionary movement and not a religious reformation. E. B. Bax in Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (London, 1903) concludes that the Anabaptists were "the forerunners of Modern Socialism, and, as such, let us spare them a passing tribute of recognition:" Gabriel d'Aubarede wrote in a similar vein in La Revolution des Saints (1946).

In 1917 Karel Vos published an article on this subject in Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, to which W. J. Kühler responded in the same yearbook in 1919. They continued their controversy in De Gids of 1920 and 1921. Kühler presented his final views in his book, Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de zestiende eeuw (Haarlem, 1932). He maintained that the Biblicist type of Anabaptism, with the exception of the practice of adult baptism, had existed in the Netherlands before Melchior Hoffman's coming in 1531, that the Münsterite development was a deviation from the Anabaptist Biblical line, and that Menno Simons and others continued to promote true Anabaptism. Vos claimed with Kautzky that Anabaptism was primarily revolutionary; after the tragedy of Münster it became a "peaceful" movement. John Horsch entered this discussion when he wrote "Is Dr. Kühler's Conception of Early Dutch Anabaptism Historically Sound?" (MQR VII, 1933, 48-64, 97-126). The most recent publication on the Münster Anabaptists is that by A. F. Mellink, De Wederdopers in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (Groningen, 1954). The author follows the Kautzky-Marxian line, considering the whole problem as an economic struggle of the desperate masses who used a religious vocabulary to state their needs.

One of the urgent and significant tasks in Anabaptist research is to investigate the following questions objectively. To what extent does Münster Anabaptism contain original Anabaptist views? Which of the ideas and practices of the fanatical Anabaptists were caused by local conditions in Münster and the Netherlands? It is one-sided to present the Münster struggle purely as an attempt of the lower classes toimprove their economic status. On the other hand, it is also one-sided to dissociate the Münsterite radicals from all Anabaptist ties. Münster Anabaptism is unthinkable without the social and economic developments of the city as well as the preaching of Luther's message by Rothmann and others. Only on this soil could the Lutheran lay evangelist Melchior Hoffman and the fanatical Jan van Leyden plant their seed successfully. This does not give the Catholic Church of Münster any reason to wash its hands in innocence regarding the tragedy of Münster. These conditions, including those created by the church, were a part of the background for the tragedy.

A recent striking discovery has been made which shows that Pilgram Marpeck's Vermanung of 1542 is largely a revision of Rothmann's Bekenntnisse van beyden Sacramenten of 1533 (Frank Wray, "The Vermanung of 1542 and Rothmann's Bekenntnisse," Archiv fürr Reformation-Geschichte 47 (1956), 243-251).

Münster in Fiction, Drama, and Art

In the realm of literature and art the Münster Anabaptists have proved very attractive. Before World War I three dissertations were written on the topic of the Münsterite Anabaptists in German literature. Hermann Bitter wrote Der monsterschen ketter bichtbok (Münster, 1908); Wilhelm Rauch wrote Johann von Leiden, der König von Sion, in der deutschen Dichtung (Leipzig, 1912); and Hugo Hermsen, Die Wiedertäufer zu Münster in der deutschen Dichtung (Stuttgart, 1913). Hermsen lists six publications in this area by contemporaries and 21 novels and dramas from 1777 to 1904. August E. Scribe wrote the opera Le Prophéte with music by Meyerbeer (Paris, 1849), which was translated into German.

Some of the most significant novels and dramas along these lines up to the mid-20th century were the following: Bernhard Kellermann, Die Wiedertäufer von Münster (drama) (Berlin, 1925); F. Reck-Malleczewen, Bockelson (Berlin, 1937); H. Specht, Heil'ge Feuer (Nordhorn); H. S. Rehm, Das tausendjährige Reich (Rothenfelde, 1925); Ludwig Wegmann, König im Käfig (Münster, 1935); F. Dürrenmatt, Es steht geschrieben (drama) (Basel, 1945); H. Midler-Einigen, Die Menschen sind alle gleich (Bern, 1946); F. Th. Czokor, Der Schlüssel zum Abgrund (Hamburg, 1955); H. Paulus, Die tönernen Füsse (Bonn, 1953); Ypk fan der Fear, De breugeman komt (Drachten, 1953); B. Stroman, Obbe Philipsz (Hilversum, 1935); G. Hoogewerff, De Zwaardgeesten (The Hague); M. Jacobse, De drie kooien (poems) (Kampen, 1947).

In the realm of art the Münsterite incident has also been popular. The most significant contemporary artist to deal with the subject was Aldegrever, who produced paintings and etchings of the most significant leaders. His works have been reproduced by Geisberg in Die Münsterischen Wiedertäufer und Aldegrever (Strasbourg, 1907). George Tumbült in Die Wiedertäufer (Leipzig, 1899) deals at great length with the objects of art pertaining to the Münsterite Anabaptists. H. Schmitz in his book Münster (Leipzig, 1911) also devotes a chapter to the Münster Anabaptists in art. The catalog of an Anabaptist exhibition of 1935 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary contains much information about art and other items pertaining to Münsterite Anabaptists. The title is Die Wiedertäufer. Katalog der Ausstellung des Landesmuseums der Provinz Westfalen in Münster i.W. in der Galenschen Kurie, August-November 1935 (illus.). The most significant modern artist dealing with the subject is Joseph Sattler, whose 30 etchings pertaining to the Münster Anabaptist kingdom are reproduced in Die Wiedertäufer (Berlin, 1895). Ida C. Ströver, "Die Wiedertaufer in Münster," in Westfälische Kunsthefte IV (1933) contains 35 drawings. Some of the emergency bank notes (Notgeld) circulated in the city of Münster during the inflation of 1922-23 depict Jan van Leyden and the history of the Münsterites.

A question which needs investigation is the course of Anabaptism in Westphalia after 1535. Brune has given a good account of what happened to the Protestant movement and indicated the way regarding the Anabaptists. Keller has also done some work regarding the Anabaptists. The archives of Westphalia, particularly the records of the Church inspections of the Counter Reformation, partly published, contain much information. Local archives of places where Anabaptists lived also furnish information. Much of the source material has been made available by Niesert, Keller, Cornelius, and the annual publication, Zeitschrift für vaterländische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde; Die Geschichtsquellen des Bistums Münster. The most important archives are the Staatsarchiv Münster and Bischöfliches Diözesanarchiv of Münster. The most comprehensive bibliography of the Münster Anabaptsts can be found in Bahlmann, "Die Wiedertaufer zu Münster" (Zeitschrift f. v. Gesch. u. Alterthumskunde 51, Münster, 1893); Klemens Löffler, "Zur Bibliographie der münsterischen Wiedertaufer" (Zentralblatt f. Bibliothekswesen 24, 1907); F. Brune, Der Kampf um eine evangelische Kirche im Münsterland, 1520-1802 (Witten, 1953) 181-187; K. Hase, Das Reich der Wiedertäufer, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1860), 146-174; K. W. Bouterwek, "Zur Literatur Geschichte der Wiedertaufer . . . ," Ztscht d. Berg. Geschichtsvereins I (1863); Realencyklopädie f. prot. Theologie u. Kirche 13, 539. Hans Schiedung, Beiträge zur Publizistik und Bibliographic über die Münsterischen Wiedertäufer (dissertation, Münster 1934) does not deal with bibliography. Most of the books mentioned in this article are found in the Bethel College Library, Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA), and the Amsterdam Mennonite Library. (ML III, 185 f.) -- Cornelius Krahn

Münster Anabaptists in the Netherlands

Not only in the city of Münster but also outside the city Jan van Leyden had a large number of adherents, particularly in Holland. They had been won over to the revolutionary principles by the propaganda of Münster, e.g., by Rothmann's Van der Wraecke. Besides this, conditions in Holland in 1534 promoted this course: growing persecution, economic conditions such as unemployment and famine in many cities, and finally the declining kingdom. Most of the Dutch Anabaptists were disciples of Melchior Hoffman and eagerly shared his chiliastic views, and when the expected kingdom of God failed to come on earth, this fact, added to the other adversities, psychologically prepared the soil for the luxuriant germination of the seeds of sedition and insurrection sown by the Münster emissaries like Jan van Geelen. Many of the Dutch Anabaptists abandoned their peaceful principles and the Biblical faith. Revolts and assaults took place (March 1535) at Oldeklooster near Bolsward, Friesland, and on the town hall of Amsterdam (10-11 May 1535). The Anabaptists had apparently planned attacks on Leiden, Woerden, The Hague, Oudewater, and other towns; Benschop, IJsselstein, and Poeldijk were important centers of revolutionary activity, and a number of the Amsterdam Anabaptists also held the Münsterite views. After the fall of Münster, June 1535, most of these revolutionary Anabaptists returned to peace, as for example Jan Matthijs van Middelburg and Jan Smeitgen; but others desperately persisted in their rebellious ideas. Of this group after the death of Jan van Geelen, Johan van Batenburg became the leader; hence they were often called Batenburgers. Even after his death (Vilvoorde 1538) the revolutionary Anabaptists did not yet die out. Until 1544 their adherents were active in the Netherlands. Hundreds of them were put to death.

Karel Vos and following him A. F. Mellink are of the opinion that until ca.1544 the Dutch Anabaptists were nearly all of the revolutionary type, a gathering of the poor, unemployed, illiterates, in short "the dregs of the population" (Vos in De Gids, 435, 436, 441 f., 448; Mellink, 419), and that with a few exceptions the Dutch martyrs between 1531 and 1540 were revolutionaries (Vos, DB 1917, 169 ff.). Vos and Mellink also consider the Dutch Mennonites in general, even Menno Simons, to have sprung up from the Münsterites (Vos, Menno Simons, 36-42). Vos accused de Hoop Scheffer and Kühler of falsifying history for reasons of "Mennonite prudery," by refusing to accept the descent of Mennonitism from Münsterism (Vos, in De Gids, 434). And Mellink (Wederdopers, 367, 419) even exceeds Vos by claiming that all history as written by Mennonites is falsification, from van Braght to Kühler.

This theory has been well refuted by Kühler and others. It should be pointed out that a number of outstanding leaders of the Dutch Anabaptists, such as Jacob van Campen, Jan Paeuw, and Paulus van Drunen, definitely rejected Münsterite doctrines, that among the Anabaptists in Belgium (Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges) there are few traces of sympathy with Münster, and that both Menno Simons and Dirk Philips wholeheartedly repudiated Münsterism. Already in his Foundation Book of 1539, Menno sharply criticized in unambiguous terms such Münsterite doctrines as the "sword" and polygamy.

After the Münster episode the rulers and governors of many countries in Western Europe found a strong motivation for the persecution of the Anabaptists. Though they mostly were well aware of the fact that there were peaceful as well as revolutionary Anabaptists, neither ecclesiastical nor temporal authority attempted to make a distinction between them—hence the increase of persecution in Holland, where thousands were put to death. In Germany the events of Münster were also made a pretext for severe suppression of the Anabaptist-Mennonites.

Catholic, Lutheran, and especially Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) historians dealing with Anabaptist-Mennonite history never tire of telling the story of Münster, and in spite of better information by open-minded and neutral historians like Gottfried Arnold historians have continued to recent times to assert that as the Swiss-German Mennonites are the spiritual descendants of Thomas Müntzer, the Dutch Mennonites are the children of Münster (see Historiography). Guy de Brès, one of the first opponents of the Mennonites in writing, warned the governments against them. Now, he says, they are peaceful and law-abiding, sweet lambs, but they may soon be wolves, rebellious again, as they have formerly been. This insinuation, copied and expanded by a large number of Calvinist authors, who until the 18th century felt themselves obliged to caution against "Mennonite boldnesses," has frequently been the cause of annoying and even harsh measures by the magistrates against the Mennonites. For this reason Galenus Abrahamsz and Herman Schijn published their writings, energetically denying the Münsterite descent of the Mennonites and refuting their Calvinist opponents. Thus Münster and Münsterism in many ways caused incalculable harm to the cause of the loyal Anabaptism and Mennonitism, which, as Neff says (ML III, 186), "were able to maintain themselves to the present only by their endurance and faithful adherence to Biblical concepts."  -- Nanne van der Zijpp

1990 Article

Anabaptist governments ruled Münster, the major city of Westphalia, (Germany) for 16 months from February 1534 to June 1535, under continuous siege by the bishop of Münster, who received military assistance from both Catholic and Lutheran rulers. During the siege the Anabaptists instituted a harsh internal regime based on community of goods and polygamy, and attempted with some limited success to win military assistance from Anabaptists in Westphalia and the Netherlands.

Recent research on Münster Anabaptism has focused on the preconditions for the Anabaptists' coming to power in Münster and on the social composition of the fraction of the Münster citizenry that rallied to Anabaptism.

The Reformer of Münster, Bernhard Rothmann, was an independent, eclectic theologian who borrowed heavily from Swiss and South German sources. He would have preferred a non-Lutheran magisterial Reformation similar to those in the Swiss cities. But Münster's Reformation, ratified by the Treaty of Dülmen, February 1533, obligated it to the Lutheran Augsburg confession. Rothmann responded to the attempts of Lutheran theologians at Wittenberg and Marburg to force him and Münster into Lutheran orthodoxy by opening the city to the influence of the sect of Melchior Hoffman, the major leader of Anabaptism in North Germany and The Netherlands. Melchiorite Anabaptism was distinguished by an idiosyncratic Christology focused on the divinity of Christ and by the charismatic authority of apocalyptic prophets. Hoffman had begun to administer believers' baptism in 1530, but suspended it again in 1531 in response to the execution of some of his Dutch followers. The leading early Melchiorite influence in Münster was that of the Wassenberg preachers, led by Heinrich Roll. By summer 1533 they won Rothmann to open advocacy of adult baptism. Rothmann and the Wassenberg preachers authored the Confession of the Two Sacraments in November 1533. Roll brought it to The Netherlands, where the aspiring Melchiorite prophet, Jan Matthijs of Haarlem, used it to justify his reinstitution of adult baptism at the end of 1533. Jan Matthijs' emissaries came to Münster in January 1534 and baptized Rothmann, the Wassenberg preachers, and their followers. The Confession of the Two Sacraments was a classic peaceful Anabaptist statement, recognized as such by Pilgram Marpeck when he made it the basis of his Vermahnung of 1542, the most fundamental expression of the Marpeck congregations.

Fateful for the course of the Münster Reformation was Rothmann's success in winning about half of the town's elite of notables, the leaders of the guilds, to support his radical theology. The Münster council supported Lutheranism, but Lutheranism in Münster was shallowly rooted, based on little more than the political necessity for the town to maintain the support of the powerful Schmalkaldic League. The authority of the council collapsed dramatically on 9-11 February 1534, when, accompanied by the vision of three suns in the sky, the previously nonviolent Anabaptists took arms at the instruction of their prophets. This rescue from their enemies was for the Münster Anabaptists an experience of God's intervention in history, an otherwise inexplicable deliverance like that of the Israelites crossing through the Red Sea.

Responding to the events in Münster, apocalyptic excitement swept over all estates in Westphalia and The Netherlands. The Anabaptist assumption of power temporarily lent Jan Matthijs uncontested charismatic authority. His call for Netherlanders to hurry to Münster in March 1534, if they wanted to escape God's vengeance, provoked a mass response. Socially, Münster Anabaptism does not seem to have exercised a disproportionate attraction for the poor. Reinforcing literary evidence about rich participants in the trek of March 1534, is Karl-Heinz Kirchhoff's study of Anabaptist property-holders native to Münster. They appear to have had a distribution of wealth very similar to that of the Münster citizens who opposed Anabaptism. And, despite the introduction of community of goods, the Anabaptist leaders tended to be people who had been well-to-do in the old order.

The Dutch Melchiorites began to doubt the militant prophets of Münster with the failure of Jan Matthijs' prediction that the world would end at Easter 1534. Instead, he was slain in battle that day. The rule of Jan of Leyden from Jan Matthijs' death to the fall of Münster was a desperate struggle for survival. Although Jan of Leyden claimed universal kingship, his authority among Melchiorites was in decline, as indicated by the rise of Jan van Batenburg; a new "promised David," to oppose him.

Reality and appearances were at odds in Münster Anabaptism. Behind the appearance of community of goods was the continuing privileged status of an elite. Behind the polygamous reordering of marriage was the officering of the female majority by men. A few small uprisings in The Netherlands, concluded by an utter fiasco in Amsterdam, were the only fruit of Rothmann's grand proclamation of a worldwide crusade for vengeance on the godless. Münster's authority was already waning after Easter 1534 and, after Münster fell, the majority of Melchiorite Anabaptists turned away from polygamy and a physical kingdom towards the peaceful leadership first of David Joris and then of Menno Simons. -- James M. Stayer


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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Nanne van der Zijpp
James M. Stayer
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius, Nanne van der Zijpp and James M. Stayer. "Münster Anabaptists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 21 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=M%C3%BCnster_Anabaptists&oldid=161085.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius, Nanne van der Zijpp and James M. Stayer. (1987). Münster Anabaptists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=M%C3%BCnster_Anabaptists&oldid=161085.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 777-783; vol. 5, pp. 606-607. All rights reserved.

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