words by: Marcus A. Yoder
One of the more tragic events in the early Anabaptist movement is what happened in the German city of Münster in 1534-1535. Bernhard Rothmann (1495-1535) was a talented author who began to preach a strong evangelical doctrine in the early 1530s. By 1533, he was preaching and writing of the need for a believer’s baptism and other Anabaptist ideals. Around the same time, a charismatic young Dutch Anabaptist leader named Jan Van Leyden (John of Leyden) visited Münster and began to teach that the city was to become the “New Jerusalem,” and that Anabaptists should move to the city. In this city, said Leyden, a great battle to eradicate the wicked unbelievers would happen after Christ’s return. Many Anabaptists from the Netherlands moved to the city.
In early 1534 the civil government of the city broke down and Jan Mathijs, Rothmann, and Leyden proclaimed themselves the leaders of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. The Catholic Bishop—who was also the prince of the city—appealed to both Catholic and Protestant authorities to restore order. In a very rare event, the Catholics and Protestants joined forces and laid siege on the city. The city of Münster, whose population was around nine thousand, suffered greatly as the siege tightened and food and other necessities of life became scarcer. Mathijs, the self-proclaimed leader, proposed “cleansing” the city of all who refused adult baptism, and he proposed killing all Lutheran and Catholics who remained. Ultimately, those who did not embrace this compulsory baptism were forced to leave the city during a vicious sleet and winter storm, with Mathijs admonishing them as they left.
On the morning of April 5th, 1534, Jan Mathijs claimed special revelation that he alone should go out and fight the Bishop’s forces who were besieging the city. He was finally convinced to allow twelve other men to go with him. On Easter Sunday morning in 1534, Mathijs and the twelve other men rode out into the face of the armies and all thirteen were hacked to death.
After Mathijs’ death, Jan van Leyden immediately claimed power and had himself crowned as King David. He immediately instituted polygamy and married Mathijs’s widow. Women were forced to marry whether they wanted to or not, and in several cases men were killed so their “widows” could be remarried to leaders of the city. There were many other abuses of power during this time. Many of the people of the city were afraid and a few escaped. In June 1534, two men left the city and told the Bishop’s force how to gain entrance.
The following day, the Bishop’s forces broke down the gates and entered the city. In a pitched battle the citizens of Münster stood no chance against the trained armies of the Bishop. All the men in the city except three principle leaders (including Leyden) were killed. Three thousand women were asked to renounce their baptism and leave the city or face death. Most fled the city. Leyden and the two other leaders stood a short trial and were executed. Their bodies were hung in cages on the cathedral spire in the city as a reminder that to break the social and civic order was punishable by death. Today, three cages still hang from the cathedral spire in the modern city of Münster to remind the citizens of their history.
Nearly five hundred years later in the present world of religious pluralism and multiculturalism, we look back into a world that was much different than our own. The most pressing danger in the Western world today, at least according to most standards, is terrorism. Whether home-grown or imported, most people fear the strength of religious followers that have little regard for their own lives for the sake of their way. Hanging over Europe in the early modern years is that same deep fear. The Turks and other Islamic armies were pressing into western Europe from the Middle East, and from within Europe came this threat of “home-grown” terrorists willing to kill and die for their own ways. The effect of Münster was for many Europeans to equate Anabaptists with anarchy, which is seemingly what Matthijs intended when he stated, “We preach the separation of the world. The state is to be used to destroy the state.” Münster became the haunting specter of the disorder of what would happen if the church and state were separated. The constant dark memory of this would hang over Europe and be used for years to come to persecute Anabaptists. As Diarmaid MacCulloch states, “peaceable, inoffensive Anabaptists were burned and harried because of what John of Leyden had done.”
The beliefs and views of the radicals of Münster is certainly not that of many of the other Anabaptist in this era. Most were distinctly interested in separating church and state. It also ensured that the center of Anabaptism began to put much more focus on the separation of church and state. The Anabaptists after Münster turned from militancy to a political quietism that eventually led to their migration to Russia and immigration to the New World. One could argue that Matthijs and his followers should not be considered Anabaptists, they certainly were not orthodox or even the majority, yet at the same time they followed some of the other tenets of Anabaptism such as adult baptism. It is also logical that at its core, Anabaptism could not sustain a kingdom such as Münster with its view of the free church and its two-kingdom theology. A militant, magisterial church could not be built on their kingdom theology.
While it would be easy for us to suggest that these were not Anabaptists, the truth is that in the eyes of the European world they were considered Anabaptists. The debacle of the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster would haunt Europe and western Christianity to today. What we do with the “problems” of our history is as important as what we do with the good. If we do not learn from stories and events, it is possible that we could repeat them. The Anabaptist theology and belief system is not designed to engage the world on a civil and governmental level. If we follow that route, we run the risk of creating an “Anabaptist Kingdom” like Münster. What we must do is work to build the kingdom of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. His kingdom, whose primary weapons are love and repentance will ultimately prove more powerful than any army or earthly weapons.
If you wish to read more about this, see chapters twelve and thirteen in Cathedrals, Castles and Caves: the Origin of the Anabaptist Faith, written by Marcus Yoder and published by JPV Press. This publication along with others like it, are available through the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. If you would like to know more about the history of our people, please visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. We offer guided tours of “Behalt” – a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means “to keep” or “remember.” We are open Mon-Sat 9:30-4:30. You can find us at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information.
Marcus A. Yoder is the executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center and the Ohio Amish Library. He is also the author of Cathedrals, Castles, & Caves: The origins of the Anabaptist Faith.