Westerburg, Gerhard (d. 1558)

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Gerhard Westerburg (d. 1558), for a short time an Anabaptist leader in the region of Cologne, Germany. He attached himself to various movements at different places, always however in the sincere desire to improve religious, political, and social conditions. He was the son of a patrician family, born probably at the end of the 15th century, studied at the University of Cologne (in the Bursa Montana) 1514-15 and at the University of Bologna 1515-17, devoting himself to general cultural as well as legal studies. At Cologne he secured the M.A. degree, and at Bologna the degree of doctor in both civil and ecclesiastical law. A trip to Rome introduced him to the evil conditions of the church at the top.

Westerburg was introduced to the Reformation by Nikolaus Storch of Zwickau, whom he entertained in his home and whom he then accompanied to Wittenberg, where he met Martin Luther and Martin Cellarius in 1522. Through Storch he became acquainted with the emerging opposition to infant baptism. Soon he was attracted to Andreas Karlstadt in Wittenberg and then in Orlamünde, whose teachings concerning the Lord's Supper he adopted, and whose sister he married. He even moved to Jena in the neighborhood of Orlamünde in 1523-24 to be nearer to him. He began his literary career as an enthusiastic advocate of Karlstadt's views in 1523 with an eight-page pamphlet entitled Vom Fegfeuer, which was the occasion for his nickname "Dr. Fegfeuer." He was expelled from Saxony along with Karlstadt in the autumn of 1524, and in October of that year he appeared in Zürich and Basel, bringing several pamphlets written by Karlstadt on the Lord's Supper, baptism, etc., which he gave to a printer in Basel for publication. All were printed, except the pamphlet against infant baptism. At this time Westerburg became acquainted with Conrad Grebel and his circle in Zürich, and Felix Manz is known to have secured a quantity of the Karlstadt pamphlets in Basel and distributed them in Zürich.

In the spring of 1525, when Karlstadt was becoming involved in the Peasants' War during his stay in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Westerburg appeared in Frankfurt am Main as the leader both of a Reformation group and of a little civil rebellion, the latter in assistance to the peasants who were at that time moving to the north and were seeking sympathy in the cities. The forty-two "Frankfurt Articles" were based on a brief draft of eleven articles which had probably been prepared a week earlier (13 April) by "several Christian brethren of the city of Frankfurt and Sachsenhausen," which means a group led by Westerburg. The forty-two articles, which included religious, political, and social demands and represented the desire of the lower classes in the city and its suburbs to improve their economic and political lot, were focused on a program of improving the entire life of the city on the basis of the Gospel. They were moderate demands, and in no sense radically revolutionary. For the general forward movement in the cities of West Germany, their significance is comparable to that of the Twelve Articles for the Peasants' War. Except for these Twelve Articles, they were the only set of articles of this sort printed and they became the model for similar statements in various other towns and cities. In this manner they promoted the spread of the movement as far south as Speyer and as far north as Münster and Osnabrück. The articles were accepted by the Frankfurt city council, although they were the occasion of much confusion and many difficulties in the city. It must, however, not be forgotten, as Steitz (p. 95) says, that these articles revived the Reformation movement in Frankfurt which had been begun in 1522 through the sermons of the preacher Ibach, but which had come to a standstill because of the defeat of the Imperial Knights, who had assumed the protectorate of the movement.

At this time Westerburg lived in Frankfurt with his wife and child in the home of Hans Brommen in Gallengasse. After the defeat of the peasants he was expelled from the city in the middle of May on the very day of the battle at Zabern. He thereupon returned to Cologne, but again ran into difficulties. He reports his experiences of this time in a booklet of 56 pages, printed at Marburg in 1533 by Franz Rhode, in which he describes "how the learned men of Cologne, doctors of divinity and heresy hunters, in March 1526 condemned and damned as an unbeliever Dr. Gerhard Westerburg on account of his teaching regarding purgatory." But the lawyer Westerburg succeeded in securing for himself such a favorable decision by the imperial governmental office in Esslingen in the same month that in spite of published attacks against him, among others by Johannes Cochlaeus, his university comrade in Italy, he could continue his residence seven years longer in Cologne. He was not spared attacks by the city council and the Elector, and he could not take part in the trial of Adolf Clarenbach and Peter Fliesteden and could only witness their execution on 28 September 1529.

Now Westerburg, his brother Arnold, and their two wives became Anabaptists, and in a short time Westerburg became the very soul of the Anabaptist movement in Cologne. Enthusiastically he watched the development of the left wing of the Reformation, in which he had years before become deeply interested. He was immediately drawn by the "New Jerusalem" arising in Münster, with its professed purpose to create a new social order based on the pure teaching of the Gospel. In Münster as well as in Cologne several Anabaptists testified, after they had been condemned to death, that the two Westerburg brothers were intimately connected with the Anabaptist movement in Cologne and Münster, Gerhard and Arnold having gone to Münster in the winter of 1534, where they were rebaptized by Heinrich Roll in Knipperdolling's home. Westerburg did not remain long; by Fastnacht he was back again in Cologne diligently promoting the Anabaptist movement. On 15 February 1534, in his house in the Herzogstrasse, he baptized the glazier Richard von Richrath, as well as his own wife. Later he baptized Michael, the servant of a canon of Aachen (born in Brabant), also Peter, the brother of Richard von Richrath. Accompanied by Richard he went to Mors, where he sought to win converts for the new way. But when he was notified by the bailiff that he would not be tolerated in the district of Mors he returned to Cologne without having baptized a single person.

The Anabaptist congregation in Cologne at first developed vigorously, but Gerhard Westerburg soon fled the city, although his brother Arnold continued steadfast and suffered both in Cologne and in exile for the Anabaptist cause. A minute in the record of the city council of Strasbourg dated 22 April 1534, states that Roll in the company of Westerburg preached and baptized in the house "zum gerten fisch." In Cologne, however, on 7 November 1534, Richard von Richrath, a second glazier named Gothard, and Johann Mey, a blacksmith, were executed, the first burned at the stake at Galgenberge, the last two beheaded in the Junkern churchyard.

Although no information is available concerning Westerburg during the years 1535-41, he apparently left the Anabaptists to join the Reformed Church at this time. Later he did not like to remember this Anabaptist interlude. In 1542-43 he appeared in Königsberg at the court of Albrecht, Duke of Prussia, and later in Emden. He also spent some time in East Friesland under the protection of Countess Anna. According to a report that is probably not altogether reliable, which appears in the "Ostfriesisches Predigerdenkmal" of Reershemius, he served in his last years as preacher in Neustadt-Goedens and died there in 1558.


Archiv für Frankfurts Geschichte u. Kunst V. Frankfurt, 1872: 1-215.

Bender, H. S. Conrad Grebel c.1498-1526, the Founder of the Swiss Brethren Sometimes Called Anabaptists. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1950: 180 f., 122 f., 123, 192, 258 f., 273.

Brecher, Adolf. [A Biography] Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 42. Leipzig, 1897: 182-84.

Corpus Reform, Opera Melanchthoni V: 41.

Ennen, Leonhard. Geschichte der Stadt Koln IV. Cologne and Neuss, 1875: 337-53.

Franz, Günther. Der deutsche Baurenkreig, 4th ed. Darmstadt, 1956: 228-30.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. IV.

Hulshof, Abraham. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1527 tot 1557. Amsterdam, 1905.

Nippold, Friedrich. Review on Gerhard Westerburg in Jenaer Literaturzeitung III (Jena, 1876): 385-90.

Rembert, Karl. Die "Wiedertäufer" im Herzogtum Jülich. Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899: 18, 33 ff., 45, 62, 65, 81, 114, 116, 157 ff., 216 ff., 232, 265, 319, 332, 381, 475, 476.

Steitz, Georg Eduard. Dr. Gerhard Westerburg, der Leiter des Bürgeraufstandes zu Frankfurt a. M. im Jahre 1525.

Tschackert, Paul. Urhundenbuch zur Reformationsgeschichte des Herzogthums Preussen III. Leipzig, 1890: 17 et passim.

Author(s) Ernst Crous
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Crous, Ernst. "Westerburg, Gerhard (d. 1558)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 29 Jul 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Westerburg,_Gerhard_(d._1558)&oldid=61980.

APA style

Crous, Ernst. (1959). Westerburg, Gerhard (d. 1558). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Westerburg,_Gerhard_(d._1558)&oldid=61980.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 93. All rights reserved.

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