E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
ANABAPTISM outside Münster continued to make rapid progress during the siege. It is true that there was a continuance of the two cross-currents characterising the movement throughout the north-western territories, that of the earlier Hoffmannites, or Melchiorites, who still adhered to the doctrine of non-resistance, and that of Matthys and Bockelson, which not merely conceded the right of self-defence, but proclaimed that the millennial kingdom was to be established by the sword of the Saints themselves. From the spring of 1534 the latter had, however, obtained for the nonce a decisive predominance. The acquisition of Münster by the movement was the turning-point. But the prophets at the head of affairs in Münster were by no means behind-hand in missionary zeal. Not content to let things take their course, they at once began sending out agitators throughout Westphalia, the Netherlands and the Lower Rhine generally. In February 1534, Heinrich Roll and Jakob von Osnabruck went forth. Their main object in this case was to induce the Brethren to come to Münster, alleging that all Christians who entered Münster would have houses and beds placed at their disposal, that if private house-accommodation should not suffice, room would be found for them in the dispossessed religious houses. They predicted a terrible vengeance on the godless before Easter, and that the tenth man should not remain alive except in Münster itself, which, they said, was the city of the Lord and the New Jerusalem, where the Lord would provide for his own and all should have enough. Jakob, however, a hoofsmith by trade, was soon arrested and brought to Düsseldorf.
Numbers of letters were also sent out from those who joined the Münster community to relations and friends, urging them to repent of their sins and come into the fold of the Saints. Rothmann himself wrote enthusiastically to his friend Heinrich von Tongern, stating that all the things predicted by the prophets were being fulfilled. Heinrich was to persuade all he could to come and bring all their gold and silver with them. Manifestoes of a general character were also not wanting, one of these, (quoted by Keller, “Wiedertäufer,” p.148) after urging the commandment of the prophets that all should rise up and join the Saints in the New Jerusalem, proceeds: “Let none concern themselves as to husband or wife that are unbelieving, neither shall ye take such with you, nor unbelieving children who are disobedient and not under the rod, for such profit naught in the congregation of God.” After enjoining those who would come that they should encumber themselves with nothing save such money, clothes and food as were necessary for the journey, together with such arms as they might possess, the author of this appeal, who signs himself “Emanuel,” concludes: “Come all together a half mile from Hazelt at the Berg Kloster on the 24th day of March, towards mid-day. Be prudent in all things! Ye shall not come before the day named, but also not later, nor shall anyone be tarried for after the time appointed. Let none neglect to come. If any remain behind, I will be guiltless of his blood.” The manifesto entitled “Confessions of both Sacraments,” issued in October, 1533, by Rothmann and the other preachers, was also widely circulated in the neighbouring territory during the ensuing years.
But more important than this was the pamphlet or small book, published by Rothmann a year later, in October, 1534, entitled “Restitution, or the Setting up anew of just and wholesome Christian Doctrine, Faith and Life.” The world, declares Rothmann, has fallen from the truth, in that it has been misled by the papacy and by the so-called Evangelical teachers, but the time is at hand when Christ shall restore the world lost in sin, and this restitution or restoration of the world shall take place by means of the lowly and unlearned. “Look therefore,” he exclaims, “at that which was begun by Erasmus, Luther and Zwingli, but behold in Melchior, Jan Matthys, and here in our brother Jan of Leyden, in them who are quite unlearned, as this world counts learning, the truth has been gloriously made manifest.” In this work, which may be taken as an official pronouncement of the views of the Münster prophets and their followers, Rothmann proceeds, after expounding the doctrines of Anabaptism, to justify the ordinances the prophets had issued for the actual government of the new house of Israel. The Old Testament is represented as in no wise superseded, all its institutions remaining in their full force, as ideal forms of government and society, as much as ever. Christ is represented as King of Israel and of the whole world in a literal sense. Three chapters are devoted to the somewhat easy task of justifying polygamy from Holy Writ. Much space is devoted to refuting the dogmas of the hated “Evangelicals” followers of Luther and Zwingli justification by faith alone, predestination, etc., etc. Other chapters expound and justify, in the usual way by biblical quotation, the doctrine of the community of goods. Others again, more immediately important than all, emphasize the duty of the Saints to destroy the godless with the sword.
The book had indeed for its main object, to move the outside brethren to organise themselves for the relief of Münster. As a further inducement to this end, the joys of the people of God in the New Jerusalem are described. Thus in Chapter XII we read: “Not alone have we placed our goods in the hands of the deacons and lived thereon according to our need, but with one heart and one mind do we praise God in Christ and are well disposed to do each other all manner of service.” “All therefore which had heretofore served to self-seeking and to possession, such as buying and selling, labouring to procure money, due or usury, even eating and drinking with the unbelieving, oppressing the poor, that is the using our brethren and our neighbours that they shall work for us, that thereby we may fatten ourselves on their labour all these things and what further might destroy the love between us, in the love of Christ and the brethren, is quite fallen out of use by us, and, as we know, God shall utterly root out all such abominations. Therefore will we rather go to our death than again return thereunto, for we know that with such sacrifices the Lord is well-pleased. Know ye that no Christian or saint may please God who doth not in this wise hold all things in common, or at the least is in his heart well-disposed to do so.” The conclusion treats of the wonders wrought by God in the defence of Münster already, and winds up with an exhortation to the brethren to gird on the sword and undertake forthwith the glorious work of the final deliverance of the New Zion.
The foregoing book was followed, at an interval of two months by another smaller pamphlet known as “The little book of Vengeance,” which appeared in December 1534. This was also from the pen of Rothmann. Vengeance, it says, is at hand and will soon burst upon the powers of this world. After it is accomplished shall appear the new heavens and the new earth. “Dear brethren, the time of vengeance hath come upon us, God hath raised up the promised David and armed him to vengeance and punishment on Babylon with its people. Therefore, dear brethren, arm yourselves to the battle, not alone with the apostle’s weapons of patience in suffering, but also with the glorious armour of David, to vengeance, to the end that ye may, with God’s power and help, utterly root out the might of Babylon and all the godless world.” The pamphlet ends: “Look to it, therefore, dear brethren, that ye hasten to lay hold on this matter with earnestness and that ye betake yourselves in such great numbers as in your power lies to come under the banner of God. God, the Lord of Hosts, awaken in your hearts the power of His Spirit, arm you and His whole Israel according to His will, to His praise and to the increase of His Kingdom. Amen.”
Urbanus Rhegius answered the Anabaptists’ literature in a work which he probably wrote at the end of 1534, and which was directly intended to counteract the spread of the propaganda in Osnabruck, where matters were beginning at this time to look serious. It is entitled “De Restitione Regni Israelitici” and pretends to refute Anabaptism in a hundred and five articles or theses. Amongst other things Urbanus characterises as “a foolish and godless fable,” that hitherto had been the time of endurance, but that now was the time of vengeance. “For,” says he, “naught but dreams of such prophets and naught but a chatter contradicting the Scriptures are the three worlds, which they have divised to the end that they might establish their error, and of which the first was the age of sin from the creation of the world until the flood, the second the age of persecution and the Cross until our time, and the third the age of restitution and vengeance, in which all the godless are to be destroyed by the Anabaptists and a bodily kingdom of Christ established by them. This is an invention of the Devil to tear the sword from the hands of the Authority set up by God,” etc. (Bouterwek, I. pp.43-48.) It is doubtful whether this work, to which Luther contributed a foreword, had the effect of converting a single Anabaptist from the error of his ways, although doubtless the congregation of the Lutheran faithful derived considerable edification from the learned theologian’s confident refutation of the enemy.
Already early in the year 1534 various districts of Holland were strongly permeated with Anabaptism. Amsterdam was regarded by the Anabaptist saints as the centre of their creed in the Netherland countries, but Leyden, the Hague, Haarlem, and other places had considerable numbers of brethren within their walls. Deventer especially distinguished itself as the hope of the “Children of God,” the Bürgermeister himself having joined the sectaries. In Brabant, it is stated in a letter addressed from Antwerp to Erasmus of Rotterdam, there was scarcely a village or town where the torch of insurrection did not secretly glow. It is significant that the writer attributes the success of the new movement among the masses to the communistic doctrines involved in it.
In these countries also we find the same phenomena of religious exaltation, amounting in some cases to undoubted madness, as are recorded of the votaries of the movement by Kessler in St. Gallen, and which we know were to a greater or less extent its accompaniment everywhere. Thus in Amsterdam we hear of a meeting of seven men and five women in a private house belonging to Jan Siewerts, a cloth merchant, who was on a journey. One Dirk Snyder filled the role of prophet at this meeting, which appears to have been held at 3 a.m. Snyder lay down flat in the middle of the room for some moments, during which all were seized with fear and imagined that the house trembled. He at length rose up, and addressing one of those present, said: “I have beheld God in His glory and have spoken with Him. I have been ravished up to heaven and been carried down to hell, where I have seen all things. I tell thee the judgment-day approacheth and thou hast been damned for ever.” The man addressed fell on his knees and cried: “Father, have mercy on me.” Dirk after a pause then changed his tone, saying,: “The Father hath pity on thee and hath adopted thee as his child, so that thy sins are forgiven.” The next night the same persons, together with others, again assembled in the house. After preaching and praying had been carried on for four hours, the prophet Dirk proceeded to take off his clothes, which he threw in the fire that was burning on the hearth. Standing in the midst quite naked, he commanded the others, men and women, to do likewise, saying that all that came from the earth must be sacrificed in fire to God. He was strictly obeyed by all. Meanwhile the landlady of the lodging, probably alarmed by the fumes of burning garments, entered the room, whereupon the prophet, enjoined her in imperative tones to follow the example of the rest of the assembly. She too obeyed without a murmur. The prophet then ordered all to follow him out into the street, where they walked in procession, Dirk at their head, crying: “Woe ! woe! the vengeance of God, the heavenly Father, is upon you!” The citizens roused from their slumbers by the noise, repaired in arms to the market-place, under the impression that a hostile force had gained possession of the town. On seeing the Anabaptist fanatics, they arrested them all, save one woman who succeeded in escaping, but they steadily refused to put on clothes, alleging that truth was naked, and that its apostles must be so also. In this condition they reached the Rathhaus, where they were confined. Meanwhile flames broke out from the room where lay the burning clothes, and the door was broken open by the town authorities with blows from axes.
Next day, a house-to-house visitation was made, and many Anabaptists were’ seized, a respite of some days being granted them to enable those who would recant to do so and obtain a certificate from their priest. After the time was expired, the utmost rigour of punishment awaited them. Those concerned in the affair were all executed, with the exception of the one woman who has been mentioned as having escaped. The landlady of the apartment where the scene took place was hanged at her own door.
In February 1534, one of the brethren, a former priest, was arrested with others and put to the torture. Whilst on the rack he confessed as to facts connected with the spread of the movement and as to its meeting-places, a confession that cost the Anabaptists dear, as it gave the authorities the clues they wanted to serve them for the organization of a thoroughgoing campaign of persecution. Sweeping columns, averaging some twenty men each, were sent to scour the country districts. Whoever was in the least suspect was at once arrested. So great was the apprehension of resistance that the arrests were generally made at night, many being dragged from their beds. On the 20th March, 1534, the towns of Deventer, Campen and Zwolle received an Imperial order to adopt energetic measures to root out the dangerous elements they were harbouring. Hundreds of persons were arrested in these towns alone on a charge of Anabaptism. But throughout Holland the fiercest persecution was soon raging. By the end of March five hundred persons were in the dungeons of Utrecht and its neighbourhood. The summons by letter, broadsheet and messenger to come to the relief of Münster met with a ready response. Thirty shiploads of Anabaptists left the neighbourhood of Amsterdam on the 21st March, 1534 for the relief of “Zion.” They were well supplied with weapons and ammunition. In all there were nearly three thousand men, besides numerous women and children, and they had four banners. This was coincident with the great pilgrimage along the highways leading from Dutch territories to the famous Westphalian town. Numbers of the pilgrims were seized by the sweeping columns in small companies as they came in sight. As for the ships, a more sudden and cruel fate awaited them and their occupants. Five were scuttled and sunk, all on board being drowned. Of the prisoners taken alive, those supposed to be the leaders were executed and their heads fixed on poles along the highway, whilst their trunks were fastened to the executioner’s wheel in the public places of the towns. The women and children were in most cases sent to their homes.
On the 25th December, 1534, an émeute took place at Deventer, that stronghold of Anabaptism. The project seems to have been well planned, but was betrayed beforehand and therefore immediately crushed by the authorities. Three of the leading conspirators, among them the son of the Bürgermeister, were beheaded on the market-place. In January a real or imaginary conspiracy at Leyden was unearthed, the object of which was alleged to be to destroy the city of Leyden by fire. This conspiracy is stated to have been organised in the old house formerly occupied by Jan of Leyden. In any case the house was used for meetings of the Anabaptist body and sustained a siege at the hands of the authorities. Although the brethren seem to have made a valiant resistance, they were overpowered eventually by the forces of “order” and all put to death, the men being beheaded and the women drowned, according to the distinction usually made at the time in the mode of execution of the sexes. Bockelson’s first wife is said to have been one of those executed.
In almost every town in Holland, Brabant, Flanders and the other territories of these northwestern regions there were communities of Anabaptist saints, and in all of them at this time sympathy with the Westphalian Zion was keen and often practical. Ships were sent from other places besides Amsterdam, filled with men and munitions of war, round the north of Holland with a view of reaching Münster from that direction. But almost all were intercepted.
One of the emissaries from Münster, Jan van Geelen, who at the end of 1534 had originally been sent to Strasburg, appears early in 1535 again in the north-west. Towards the end of February we find him in Friesland, conducting a body of his co-religionists, some three hundred in all, including women and children, who were on their way to the Haven of the saints. On the 28th February they were caught up by one of the flying columns already alluded to as having been instituted at the behest of the Imperial authorities. The leader escaped, but the bulk of the rank and file were executed, the men by beheading and the women by drowning. Van Geelen next appears in Amsterdam, where he seems to have been connected with a plot for seizing the city. Early in May, the townhall (Stadhuis) was suddenly attacked by a body of Anabaptist rioters, but the Town Council was able to summon a force of well-to-do burghers. A regular battle ensued, in the course of which one of the Bürgermeisters lost his life. The conflict lasted many hours, the Anabaptists having succeeded in gaining possession of the municipal headquarters, though apparently not without great loss on their own side. Reduced to twenty-five in number, they held the building valiantly against the party of “order” outside, into whose ranks a continuous hail of bullets fell. At last, by dint of cannon and scaling-ladders the place was captured, but only twelve Anabaptists were taken alive. These were executed with diabolical cruelty shortly afterwards, while at the same time the bodies of their slain comrades were hanged by the feet to gallows erected in the central Market-place. Van Geelen himself, who sought refuge in the tower of the Stadhuis, was killed by a shot from one of the pieces of ordnance deployed on the Market-place.
Meanwhile, at Bolswaert, in Friesland, on the 28th February, the sectaries made themselves masters of an old monastery. More than three hundred persons took part in the affair. The monks were driven off and the building sacked. Next day the Governor of the Province, Joris Schenk, came and besieged the insurgents. Negotiations followed; he promised them pardon if they would lay down their arms and deliver up the ringleaders, but they refused, being resolved to live and die together. The siege that ensued was terrific; with six cannon the Governor made four assaults, but was beaten back each time. On April 7th, however, they were overcome. Not more than sixty were found alive, with seventy women and children. All the prisoners were taken to Leuwarde, where a number were sentenced to death.
Anabaptism was introduced into the town of Liege about the year 1533, by a glass-maker whose name is unknown. In Maestricht, Heinrich von Tongern, having been driven from the territory of Jülich towards the end of 1532 for Anabaptist doctrines, had taken up his residence in the house of a shoemaker. Here also a considerable congregation was recruited among the journeymen and poorer handicraftsmen. At the beginning of September 1534, a guildmaster, and a former Carmelite monk calling himself Hendrik van Hilversum, the latter being spoken of as the leader of the Maestricht Anabaptists, were arrested. This Hendrik was no other than Heinrich Roll, late of Münster, who before he came to Maestricht had been sowing the seed in Wesel. The wandering envoys from Münster were everywhere active throughout the winter and the following spring, strengthening old ties and instituting new ones, in the hope, vain as it proved, of organising a powerful force of enthusiasts to relieve Münster now so hardly pressed by the Bishop’s army.
In some towns it was resolved by the City Councils to order lists of strangers to be handed in day by day after the closing of the gates, while in many cases a strict curfew was introduced. The Duke of Cleves, finding his own and all the surrounding territories honeycombed with Anabaptist associations, holding everywhere open conventicles or secret meetings, ordered the authorities of each district to report the exact number of all landlords of places of public entertainment in their jurisdiction, and to compel them, under severe penalties, to report every meeting that came to their knowledge at which the rights of the existing spiritual and temporal powers were called in question. This edict, issued on the 3rd of April, 1534, was supplemented towards the end of the year by one signed jointly by the Duke and the Archbishop Hermann of Köln. In this, death without hope of pardon was made the punishment for rebaptism. It was circulated early in the new year throughout all the domains of the Duke Johann. Not alone the local authorities were compelled to see to its being made known, but the clergy were ordered to read it from the pulpit at intervals of four weeks.
The larger towns along the Rhine were not without their contingent of the new sectaries. Thus even in strictly Catholic Köln, in the autumn of 1534, we are told there were no fewer than seven hundred adherents of the new sect. In November, a number of executions took place in consequence of a warning issued in September by the Archbishop to the town authorities.
Turning back again to Westphalia, we find all the smaller towns showing indications of following the example of the chief town. Warendorf was ripe for the advent of the Münster emissaries in October 1534, but here the Bishop, by vigorous action, succeeded in suppressing the movement, executing the Münsterite apostles together with their leading followers. The town itself was humiliated and had to place itself at the Bishop’s mercy. The same thing occurred in Coesfeld, where the inhabitants were compelled to surrender Jan of Leyden’s missionaries to the Bishop’s officers, by whom they were cruelly put to death, having been carried in chains as a terrible warning throughout other towns of the diocese.
The Münsterites were particularly concerned to win over the town of Soest. This was a Hanseatic town possessing considerable liberties, but it was not free of the Empire, being subject to the jurisdiction of the Prince-Bishop. The prophet Dusentschur, who had drawn up the list of towns from which help might be expected, had placed Soest at the head of it. His hopes were based on the strong position of the Democratic party there. Reformation disturbances began there early in 1533. The abolition of the religious houses was demanded, together with the handing over of the buildings themselves to the Soest burghers. A secret league of the poorer citizens was formed against the Rath and the guild-masters who stood by the Rath. The latter succeeded in suppressing the movement and sentenced the leaders to death. Two thousand of the party of “order,” fully armed, occupied the Market-place. The “common man,” however, the poorer handicrafts men, the journeymen, and the town proletarians flocked thither and raised a great outcry. The women were specially conspicuous by their lamentations. One “honourable pious woman,” as she is termed, gave utterance, it is said, to a remarkable prophecy. Whilst the condemned were passing by, she cried out to them: “Dear friends, be content! God doth no wrong. Ye are not yet dead, and it shall yet be well with you!” Manfully, with head erect, they went to their fate, averring that they would live and die by the Gospel. The first victim knelt down to await the blow of the executioner. The blow fell, but only wounded the prisoner, who was able to, spring to his feet and wrench the axe from the executioner’s hand. When this was seen, a violent disturbance arose and the authorities dared not proceed with the executions. Next day, the City Councilroom was stormed by five hundred men and women demanding pardon for the prisoners, which the Rath thought it prudent to accord.
In November 1534, the Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony, who was conducting military operations for the Bishop round Soest, was present in the town, taking steps against the spread of the movement, and on the 17th December the City Council at his instigation issued a severe mandate, not only against Anabaptist themselves, but also against all harbouring such in their houses. The man who originally introduced Anabaptism into Soest was a certain Johann von Campen, a disciple of Melchior Hoffmann. He was an enthusiastic propagandist and worked with Hoffmann when he was in Holstein and also in Lübeck and Brunswick. As the Münster emissaries, prophet Dusentschur at their head, entered the town on the 8th October, 1534, they are said to have conducted themselves as if they were already masters of the place, openly preaching insurrection. The Rath repeatedly requested the Münsterites to leave, but received only defiant answers. At last, the heads of the Guilds and other leading personages were called together to the Rathhaus, and took oath to stand by the governing Council in the action it was about to take against the unwelcome visitors. On the 23rd October, sentence of death was passed on the apostles and immediately carried out. The disaffected population were thus cowed and the authority of the Rath was re-established. In Osnabrück, not far distant, similar events were taking place; but right away to the north, in Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Lüneburg, Wismar, and Rostock, the population seethed with excitement, and were strongly leavened with Anabaptist congregations and doctrines. Towards the east, the spread of the new teaching and of the net-work of Anabaptist organisation was felt in Brunswick, Hanover, and Magdeburg, to mention only the principal among the town-populations affected by them and by the contemporary events passing in Westphalia.
At this time, and throughout these northern regions, territories, and cities of Germany, there seems to have been an organisation involving much closer relations than had existed as a rule between the different Anabaptist communities in the south in the earlier periods of the movement. This was in all probability due to the new work initiated by Jan Matthys and so energetically carried on by his disciples. From various documents and protocols which have been preserved, it would seem that a large number of Anabaptist communities throughout the north had agreed to take their cue from Lübeck in the action they should adopt. They appear to have been waiting for Lübeck to follow the example of Münster, and the expectation that this would happen seemed at one time in a fair way of fulfilment. But from causes unknown to history, Lübeck did not imitate Münster. Threatening as matters looked, there was no actual rising. Keller is of opinion that the reasons may possibly be looked for partly in the external complications in which the Hanse town at this time had got entangled, and partly in a revulsion of feeling among the otherwise sympathetic population, on the ground of the alleged excesses that were taking place in Münster itself. As to the correctness of this view, it is impossible at present to decide.