8. Münster

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Although perhaps a majority of the early leaders of the radical Reformation opposed infant baptism, it was not until January 21, 1525, that the first re-baptism of an adult was performed in the circle of the Swiss Brethren in Zurich, when their leader, Konrad Grebel, baptized Georg Blaurock, exactly contemporary with the beginning of the revolution in Mühlhausen. In a few years everyone who took part in it would be martyred, but the Swiss Brethren remained communitarian pacifists, to survive and provide the first Mennonite immigration to America. In their early years they preached an apostolic community of goods. In practice, partly because this was a city movement of people variously employed in the world, such communalism usually took the form of voluntary poverty and a common fund. They were millenarians, but no more so than Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. The end of the world was coming soon, but its arrival was not imminent; and so their millenarianism took the form of an eschatological ethic — “Live as though the world were going to end tomorrow in all your dealings with your fellow men,” which is in fact the morality of the Sermon on the Mount.

After the debacle at Frankenhausen, the violent millenarianism of Thomas Münzer spread north and west into the Low Countries and Plattdeutsch-speaking Germany. The itinerant bookseller and printer Hans Hut escaped from the battle and spread the gospel of revolt through south Germany, but he was caught and executed almost immediately. Little conventicles of millenarian communal groups sprang up here and there in south Germany but were quickly suppressed. Many of them, like that led by Augustine Bader, rejected all rites and sacraments, possessed all things in common, lived in accordance with the guidance of the Inner Light, and awaited the end of the world. The most important leader was Melchior Hoffmann, an associate of Münzer in his early days. He made Strassburg his headquarters but the influence of his teaching, spread by something like an organized mission activity, both of himself and his disciples, was influential throughout Germany. He was primarily a millenarian, and the Melchiorites only took up the baptism of adults as a sign of sealing into the body of the elect. Although he personally did not believe in forcing the kingdom by violence, his followers became more and more revolutionary. At the same time the repressive measures of the authorities grew more severe. Hoffmann’s fervent eschatologism, preached at the risk of imprisonment or death, could not fail to elicit a defiant revolutionary violence. But in 1533 on the eve of the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Münster, Hoffmann was imprisoned in Strassburg and spent the remaining ten years of his life in prison.

Münster was one of several small ecclesiastical states in northwest Germany under the rule of a prince bishop, who was in fact often a layman. An important trading city, it suffered from a chronic severe tension between the claims of the prince bishop and the town council of merchants and guildmasters. Münster had recently gone through a time of floods, plague, local famine, and the class conflict resulting from the Peasants’ Revolt to the south; but though troubled, it had emerged with a considerable measure of civic democracy, and with power in the hands of the town council.

The most influential religious leader in the town was Bernt Rothmann. From 1531 to 1533 he had moved steadily leftward from evangelical Catholicism to Lutheranism, to the Zwinglian doctrine of the repudiation of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, to sympathy with the Melchiorites and the apostles of the Inner Light. Up to the last step he had carried the town council with him, and the city became officially Protestant with the Catholic Church confined to the cathedral, the monasteries, and the convents.

But when Rothmann and his followers refused to baptize the infants presented to them in church, the council rebelled and exiled them from the city and replaced them with orthodox Lutherans. Meanwhile, however, the city had been filling up with Melchiorite preachers from the Netherlands and wandering disciples of Thomas Münzer and other militant sectaries. Rothmann refused to leave and a month later — by January 1534 — he was back in control, with the Catholics in the cathedral and the Lutherans permitted to preach in the church of St. Lambert.

The city had been visited in the previous fall by Jan Bockelson (John of Leyden), who returned to Holland with the exciting news that the kingdom of the elect was about to be established in Münster. Jan Mattys, the Melchiorite leader in Amsterdam, had a revelation — that Melchior Hoffmann had misunderstood his own visions, and that Münster, not Strassburg, was destined to be the New Jerusalem. Early in January 1534 two apostles from Amsterdam, ordained by Mattys, arrived in Münster and immediately re-baptized Rothmann, his associate Henry Rol, and a number of other clergy. In the next eight days Rothmann and others baptized fourteen hundred citizens in private ceremonies in their homes. Shortly afterwards, Mattys himself and Bockelson arrived, preaching the most militant chiliasm and demanding a complete reorganization of the community; they converted Rothmann and his followers, including the mayor, Bernard Knipperdolling.

The town council attempted to resist. The bishop gathered a force of mercenaries nearby and offered to come to its aid, which the council rejected, but the citizens in a public mass meeting forced the council to retreat. A new election was held and Knipperdolling, a wealthy councilman and cloth merchant, was elected mayor. Knipperdolling had been a disciple of Sebastian Franck and, before the rise of Anabaptism proper, the two had journeyed to Sweden where they had been expelled by direct orders of the king for preaching the radical Reformation. Soon Bockelson had married Knipperdolling’s daughter Klara, and he and Mattys were in complete control of the city. From then on Rothmann was pushed into the background and functioned primarily as a theologian and apologist of the movement. He seems to have had a premonition of the apocalyptic future because he warned a friend of his to accept an appointment elsewhere than in Münster, for, said he, “things will not go well here.”

Mattys began to institute a community of goods and called for all wealth in money, jewelry, and precious metals to be brought in for a common fund. The council struggled to resist and passed by a narrow majority an order expelling the radical preachers from the city. The radicals were escorted to a city gate and evicted, went around the wall, and entered by another gate, where they were met and returned to their churches by a cheering multitude; and they then proceeded to denounce the minions of Antichrist from the pulpit. Catholics, Lutherans, and neutral people who wished to avoid trouble began to flee the city. Their numbers, over half the original population, were replaced by incoming saints. Mattys had sent out preachers all over the Netherlands and Low Germany to recruit citizens for his New Jerusalem, urging them to come swiftly, unencumbered with many possessions, for there was plenty for all the chosen. The monasteries and churches had already been looted when Mattys, to prevent further looting, requisitioned all private movable wealth and confiscated the property of those who had fled the city. Food was declared public property and all private stores confiscated and thenceforward distributed free. Houses also were declared public property, but families were allowed to continue in them as long as the doors were kept open day and night.

The prince bishop was quite short of money as a result of all this activity, for the wealth of the Church had been in the city. He had no credit. The Protestant nobility were not interested in restoring a Catholic lord and the Catholic nobility were mostly imperialists and the empire had been for years trying to take over the rule of Münster. In fact in its early days the emperor had even sent an offer of support to the Münster commune. As the social revolution proceeded, the prince bishop was able to frighten small loans out of some of the nearby rulers and nobility, hired mercenaries, and began, feebly at first, to attempt to invest the city. The comparatively long life of the Münster commune is due to the same cause as the random, scattered character of the engagements of the Peasants’ Revolt. The empire was in collapse and there was no such political entity as Germany, only an immense number of quarreling jurisdictions. The old feudal levies were impossible and the princes could rely only on armies of mercenaries and cadres drawn from those nobles who felt themselves directly threatened. Religious and imperial conflict made alliances difficult to form and almost impossible to sustain. A state, even as well organized as France and Britain were then, would have been able to mobilize sufficient forces to reduce cities like Münster in short order and crush revolt elsewhere.

Although they were slow to come to the aid of Prince Bishop Franz von Waldek, the rulers were quick enough to suppress the Anabaptists in their own territories with complete ruthlessness. In Amsterdam all participants in an attempt to seize the city hall were executed, and similar revolts elsewhere were put down in the same fashion. After Bernt Rothmann’s call to all Anabaptists to come to Münster, large numbers started to move on the city. They were hunted down on the roads, killed, or imprisoned. Three thousand men, women, and children who attempted to come by sea were captured and returned to the Netherlands. The indiscriminate killing had to stop for fear of depopulating the country. In spite of wholesale roundups of Anabaptists, a surprising number got through. The population of the city was completely changed. After those who refused adult baptism were expelled, the new arrivals were in the majority. Another equally significant majority was that of women, who formed possibly as much as two-thirds of the population, and who turned the streets and squares night and day into a continuous pentecostal revival, screaming, dancing, singing, and rushing about half-clothed with flowing hair, and falling in trances on the street.

Mattys had a sudden vision at one of the ceremonial banquets which had become an essential part of the cult of Münster, and the next day led a sortie of a handful of ecstatics against the army of the prince bishop. Jan Bockelson immediately seized sole power. He dissolved the new council because it had been chosen by men rather than God acting through himself; and he appointed a cabinet, subordinated to Bockelson, of the twelve elders of the tribes of Israel. In their name he issued a new code of law which made practically every crime, misdemeanor, fault, and defect of character a capital offense, ranging from treason and adultery to complaining and answering back one’s parents. Once law and the police to enforce it were established, Bockelson introduced polygamy, against the advice of even some of his cabinet. Forty-eight of the leading citizens revolted and imprisoned him, but the populace released Bockelson and the forty-eight were put to death. After a few more executions polygamy was established. Bockelson eventually acquired fifteen wives and Rothmann nine.

At this time Bockelson, with extraordinary ingenuousness, or was it ingenuity, opened negotiations with Philip of Hesse and Emperor Charles V. The latter responded by sending an emissary to meet with Rothmann. These negotiations fell through. After a drastic defeat of the besieging forces, when they attempted to invade the town at the triumphal mass banquet, Bockelson had himself crowned King of the People of God and Ruler of the New Zion. From then on he appeared always in ceremonial state, in royal robes made from the most sumptuous religious vestments, holding a golden apple pierced with two swords and surmounted by a crown which was symbolic of his rule of the world, and preceded and followed by sword-bearers. Knipperdolling suggested that he be appointed spiritual ruler while Bockelson acted as king in all worldly matters — the priestly and kingly messiahs after David and Melchizedek of apocalyptic Judaism. Bockelson did not take this suggestion very well and had Knipperdolling imprisoned, but he was unable to get along without him and soon released Knipperdolling and appointed him master of ceremonies and in fact second-in-command.

On the thirteenth of October Bockelson issued a call to the entire population to assemble in the cathedral square and march out to overwhelm the besiegers and welcome the imaginary army of Anabaptists coming from the Netherlands. When they were all assembled he announced that this was just a test of their loyalty and invited them all to a great messianic banquet. Tables were set up in the square and the whole population laughed and danced and sang while the king and queen and councilors served them, and at the end passed out sanctified bread and wine in holy communion. Bockelson then announced his abdication but Jan Dousentschuer, the limping prophet, immediately had a communication from the deity forbidding the abdication, and ceremoniously anointed and crowned Bockelson again, while the assembled people cheered.

Before he had become a religious leader, Jan Bockelson had been a writer of religious plays and pageants, and it has been said of him that he wrote and staged the Münster commune as a religious melodrama. Certainly he gave the people plenty of pageantry in the ceremonies of his court: open-air religious gatherings, communion, messianic banquets, and actual plays, still in this revolutionary situation based on the medieval mystery and miracle plays. One of his important acts was to tighten up the distribution of goods and food and, most important, to introduce a communism of production. Guild members whose work was essential to the life of the community were ordered to work without wages and contribute their products to the pool of goods from which all could take freely according to need. His entire program seems to have worked with little resistance. A few people were executed for hoarding and a few women for opposing the allurements of polygamy — he even decapitated one of his wives — but that was about all the objection to his communist measures. Many of his executions seem to have been motivated by his fondness for decapitation. He had a folkloristic conception of royalty — the king who is constantly shouting “Off with his head!” This attitude of course was shared by most of the populace. In fact the whole ideology of Münster as it emerges from the documents has a folklore quality about it, a combination of the legends of apocryphal Judaism, the peasant tales of the Grimm brothers, and the legends of the Middle Ages, underlying the theology of Anabaptism, which ceases to play an exclusive role. As the fall and winter wore on von Waldek slowly gathered money, allies, and mercenaries, and the siege grew even tighter. Emissaries were dispatched to raise help but they were all caught and executed except one, Henry Graess, who turned traitor and revealed the plan for mobilization points for relieving Anabaptist forces. Few responded. Those who did were cut down, but Graess himself who had returned to Münster was exposed and decapitated.

By spring the city was hungry. By June 1535 famine had set in. Women and children, except for Queen Divara and a few others, and the aged men, were sent out of the city. Von Waldek refused to allow them through his lines and they remained trapped between the walls and the besieging army until most of them were dead. This act of extraordinary cruelty was at the specific order of the archbishop of Cologne to whom von Waldek had appealed for advice.

It looked as if Münster might hold out through the summer when suddenly two men, Hans Eck and Henry Gresbeck, escaped from the city and betrayed one of the gates to the prince bishop. After a day-long battle of fiendish intensity the city fell and the invading army went through the town slaughtering most of the inhabitants. Bockelson, Knipperdolling, and Bernard Krechting, chief counselor of the king, were captured. Rothmann disappeared and was never found, dead or alive. For six months the three leaders were paraded about the country in cages. They were then brought back to Münster, tried, condemned, and literally tortured to death. Afterwards their bodies were placed in cages and hung from the tower of St. Lambert’s church, where they remained until the end of the nineteenth century, when the tower was rebuilt and only the cages were replaced. So ended the only communist commonwealth to be established in a regular State until the Russian Revolution — in Western civilization at least.

Thomas Münzer had lasted only a few days at Mühlhausen, and it is doubtful if any of his and Pfeiffer’s communizing measures had ever been made effective, nor were they at all central to his millenarian polity. The amazingly long endurance of Münzer was due to several factors. Both Burgomaster Knipperdolling and John of Leyden were remarkably skilled politicians and organizers, for all their fantastic language and ceremonies, and Rothmann was an apologist of unusual intelligence. They did not scruple to use the most extreme terror. It not only kept rebellious elements suppressed, but it unified and excited the majority of the population who consented to it.

Communism was not incidental to Bockelson’s millenarianism, nor was it merely “siege communism.” It was central. Mass adult baptism sealed the members into a covenant and mass communion kept them together. The sacraments were not primary. The community in which all things were held in common was. Every effort was made to intensify this sense of community. Life was melodramatized. Pageants, executions, vast messianic banquets, even the siege itself contributed to the exultation. If life in Tabor was exalted, life in Münster for most of its participants was ecstatic and entranced, a continuous agapê. There was little chance to pause and recollect oneself. If even the most convinced but sane Anabaptist had been able to pause and think for a few days he would have begun to suspect that he was not a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem but someone caught in a trap. Few were ever permitted to pause. They were swept on in a tide of revolutionary fervor tremendously augmented by myth-making.

There were positive gains to be made from the Münster experience, but few of them were ever realized. Most important was precisely the demonstration of the revolutionary commune as a dramatic, ceremonial cult. This was something that future revolutionaries would seldom be prepared to admit. Only Robespierre at the height of his power and the Bolsheviks in the first years of the Revolution and Civil War consciously adopted such a concept or practice. Undoubtedly there were things to be learned from the actual political economy of Münster but we know nothing about the subject. However, a surprising number of people escaped to turn up later in pacifist communal groups elsewhere and they probably brought some practical benefits from their experience.

To this day Anabaptism has never been able to live down Münster. The earlier persecutions were greatly intensified. The discovery of an Anabaptist conventicle, no matter how small, was greeted with horror by the authorities and the members were often executed out of hand. Nevertheless the movement was large enough to begin with, to judge by the large numbers who fled Münster and were turned back; and in the next few years it spread abroad and greatly increased. A political hysteria somewhat like McCarthyism in the twentieth century swept over Europe. The authorities saw Anabaptists everywhere and any unorthodox gathering not Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist was immediately labeled Anabaptist. English ecclesiastics swore that the whole south and east of England was swarming with Anabaptists. If so they came and went with scarcely a trace, and only a handful of emigré Germans and Dutchmen were caught and exiled or executed. As for the Anabaptist movement itself, from Münster on it became rigorously pacifist — which in fact in the majority of organized groups it always had been.