E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.

Chapter IV.
Melchior Hoffmann and the Revolutionary Movement.

WE have seen that in central and southeastern Germany Anabaptists continued to maintain, barring isolated individuals here and there, the attitude of non-resistance and the voluntariness of association that characterized it from the first. The fearful waves of persecution which successively swept over it succeeded at length in partially checking its progress. The only sections of this part of the Empire in which it succeeded in retaining any sort of effective organization was in the Moravian territories, where the reforms and discipline originated by Jacob Huter, continued and developed by his successors. Here the Anabaptist doctrines in their earlier form continued to flourish in spite of attempts to stamp them out by persecution. The Moravian communities, owing to their comparative immunity from persecution, and still more to their better internal organization, continued to send out apostles to other parts of Germany. On the other hand, their existence had more effect in destroying the power of Anabaptism in other parts of the Empire than their missionary zeal had in extending its sphere of influence. There was a continuous drain of stalwarts in the faith from other parts of Germany to Moravia. These came singly and in companies from all the districts of central, southern, and eastern Germany. The organization became more closely knit together, whilst the concentration of industrious peasants and handicraftsmen in the communities settled in these regions had the inevitable result of raising them to a condition of material prosperity that made them the envy of their neighbours. Of this, however, we shall speak more at length in a later chapter.

Meanwhile a movement had sprung up in western and northern Germany, following the course of the Rhine Valley, that effectually threw the older movement of southern and eastern Germany into the background. These earlier movements remained essentially religious and theological, owing, as Cornelius points out (Vol. II. p.74), to the fact that they came immediately after the overthrow of the great political movement of 1525. But although the older Anabaptism did not itself take political shape, it succeeded in keeping alive the tendencies and the enthusiasm out of which, under favourable circumstances, a political movement inevitably grows. The result was, as Cornelius further observes, an agitation of such a sweeping character that the fourth decade of the sixteenth century seemed destined to realise the ideals which the third decade had striven for in vain.

The new direction in Anabaptism began in the rich and powerful Imperial city of Strasburg, where peculiar circumstances afforded the Brethren a considerable measure of toleration. Strasburg stood, ecclesiastically, at the head of the Zwinglian party in the Empire. In this way Strasburg had special connections with most other parts of Germany. At the head of the Strasburg theologians stood Martin Butzer and Wolfgang Kapitan, Kaspar Hedian and Matthias Sell. Although closely united with the, Churches of northern Switzerland, Strasburg differed from other towns that had also adopted reformed doctrines, in that it had no all-powerful personality within its walls ready to give the signal for the official reformation to close its ranks definitively against those holding extreme doctrines. There were not wanting preachers who urged such a course, but the City Council maintained an independent attitude and declined to give them ear when they suggested that the secular arm should step in and punish opinion. The ecclesiastical leaders themselves, moreover, although generally adopting the Zwinglian position, maintained a certain independence of attitude, and were, as a rule, averse to theological wrangling when this took the form of irreconcilable polemic.

It was in the year 1526 that the Anabaptist preachers first appeared in Strasburg. Towards the end of the same year Denck and Hatzer arrived and energetically carried on the new propaganda. The usual disputations followed, and, although no severe measures were taken, there were not wanting some fines and expulsions, but so mild was the regime of the authorities that many even of those expelled returned unmolested in a few weeks. Only once, during the sitting of the Reichstag of Speyer in 1529, did the Rath allow itself to be drawn into a harsher view of the case, some of the sectaries being imprisoned and a few even put to the torture. Among these was Reublin, who on his release from prison was expelled the town and threatened with drowning should he come back. But the Rath before long returned to its old course of impartial toleration. After Reublin’s expulsion Pilgram Maarbeck became the leader of the movement.

The semi-official heads of the Strasburg reformation were by no means at one among themselves as to doctrine, some of them even approaching Hans Denck’s views on theological questions, notably on those of infant baptism, of the near approach of the millennium, or the end of the world, although it is true they at the same time repudiated re-baptism, voluntary communism, and other tenets of the sect. Kapitan especially went great lengths in this direction. The want of a strong personality, the want of unity of purpose in such leaders as these, gave the official reformation in Strasburg a permanent stamp of weakness. Under these circumstances Anabaptism naturally grew to a point at which it, rivalled the former in influence. But up to this time the movement had nevertheless been conducted on the old theological lines.

The man who gave the impulse in the new direction was Melchior Hoffmann, by trade a skinner, from the Imperial city of SchwäbischHall. Carried away, first by the general Reformation ferment, and afterwards by the Anabaptist agitation, early devoting himself to preaching, he consistently refused all material recompense for his labours, basing his practice on that of the Apostles. The speciality of Hoffmann’s preaching would seem to have been from the first the strong emphasis with which he dwelt on the signs of the approaching end of the world. A man of little education, but of strong imagination, his reading of the Bible afforded him material for the construction of original and glowing pictures of the “last things” and the reign of the saints. In these he seemed to voice the half-conscious thoughts and imaginings of countless numbers among the humbler folk in that age of newly-awakened Bible-reading, and of social change that presented itself to the mind in the theological garb then forming part of the average man’s intellectual constitution.

Hoffmann had travelled much, especially in northern Germany, and had even visited Sweden, having been for a time preacher to the German colony in Stockholm. He had been at an earlier period of his career a companion of Karlstadt. Returning from northern Germany, he arrived in Strasburg probably in the early summer of 1529. He does not appear to have joined the Anabaptist body long before this, if at all. A year previously we find him still standing in relation with Luther, who writes concerning him that “he means well, but is rash and allows himself to be carried away.” On the other hand, Hätzer, soon after his arrival in Strasburg, writes to Zwingli praising him as an able combatant for the Zwinglian doctrine in Zeeland, Sweden, Denmark and Holstein. Before long, however, Hoffmann came out in his Anabaptist colours. It was most probably in Strasburg that he was re-baptized and formally joined the sect. Henceforward he regarded himself and was regarded by his followers as a specially ordained prophet to console the elect and call the unregenerate world to repentance. Yet, notwithstanding Melchior’s ecstatic visions and theories respecting the millennium and the last judgment, he did not at first actively oppose himself to the nonresistance doctrine till then general among the Brethren.

An interesting question arises as to the identity of Melchior Hoffmann with Melchior Rink, alluded to in a previous chapter. For the identity, may be urged the fact that both Melchiors are described as skinners, both are said to have been natives of Schwäbisch-Hall, while Johann van Leyden in his statement before his judges alleges that Hoffmann had also gone under the name of Rink. Moreover, we repeatedly find the two names mentioned as working at the same time and place. On the other hand, the latter circumstance does not always tally, as Rink is spoken of as at Marburg in August 1529, at the time that Hoffmann was supposed to be in Kiel. This circumstance has induced Dr. Ludwig Keller (“Geschichte der Wiedertäuffer,” p.128) to conclude that Rink was a separate person. “There remains at present nothing for it,” he says, “but to assume that Rink and Hoffmann were two persons, who in the year 1530 laboured in common for the cause of Anabaptism.” The close resemblance of the view as well as of the movements of the two men (if such we may suppose them to have been) is in any case curious. Rink, like Hoffmann, was a great partisan of the theory of inward illumination and prophecies. They are both reported to have taught that Christ “was not born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary.” The mildness and magnanimity of Rink’s character is admitted even by hostile witnesses. Hoffmann does not seem to have remained long in Strasburg after his re-baptism, but to have gone north again. He is reported as working in company with Rink in the late autumn of 1529 at Emden in Friesland, but the success of the cause in that place appears to have been more attributed to Rink than to Hoffmann, — at least, the name of Rink is the more prominent. Among the converts here made was one Johann Volkert, who shortly after went to Amsterdam, where he founded a community that became the centre of an Anabaptist movement throughout the Netherlands. This part of the history of Anabaptism, owing to the secrecy with which the propaganda and organization was surrounded, remains obscure; what is known on the subject being almost entirely taken from the confessions of Brethren when on their trial and under torture. From these we learn of congregations founded at Liège, Maestricht and Aachen. These had their own judges to decide disputes among members of the body, and contemptuously refused to recognise the authority of “the godless” as they termed the temporal powers. In spite of persecutions here as elsewhere, the sect spread rapidly after the year 1530 in Friesland, Holland, the Austrian Netherlands, and generally along the valley of the Rhine. We find Hoffmann in the year 1531 ministering to the brethren at Amsterdam. It is conjectured that he shortly afterwards visited Münster. In any case the new movement in the north made rapid strides. There is little doubt that at this time, if not from, the beginning, it had come entirely under the influence of Hoffmann.

Some time after his reception into the Anabaptist body at Strasburg, Hoffmann, while in most other points accepting the prevalent doctrines of the Brethren, broke entirely loose from the doctrine of non-resistance, maintaining, in theory at least, the right of the elect to employ the sword against the worldly authorities, “the godless,” the “enemies of the saints.” It was predicted, he maintained, that a two-edged sword should be given into the hands of the saints to destroy the mystery of iniquity, the existing principalities and powers, and the time was now at hand when this prophecy should be fulfilled. The new movement in the north-west, in the lower Rhenish districts, and the adjacent Westphalia, sprang up and extended itself, therefore, under the domination of this idea of the reign of the saints in the approaching millennium and of the notion that passive non-resistance, whilst for the time being a duty, only remained so until the coming of the Lord should give the signal for the saints to rise and join in the destruction of the Kingdoms of this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Hoffmann’s whole learning seems to have been limited to the Bible, but this he knew from cover to cover. It is difficult at this time to conceive the enthusiasm with which all, but especially the poorer classes, provided they could read at all, threw themselves into Bible-reading. The appearance of the Lutheran translation produced a revolution. The handicraftsman on his bench and the peasant in his field would have their Bibles, over which they pored. Whole books would be learned by heart. For the common man there was no other reading save the Bible and popular theological tracts or pamphlets commenting thereon or treating current social questions in the light of Biblical story and teaching. The followers of the new movement in question acquired the name of Melchiorites. Hoffmann now published a book explanatory of his ideas, called “The Ordinance of God,” which had an enormous popularity. It was followed up by other writings amplifying and defending the main thesis it contained.

The Melchiorite communities of the north-west, for the rest, were similar in character to the Anabaptist communities of southern and southeastern Germany. Whoever joined the Brotherhood vowed to live conformedly to the will of Christ, to abjure the world and its ways, and to regard his fellow-believers as brothers and sisters. He promised to deem his worldly goods as a trust held for the Brethren, to give all his superfluity to the poor, and to adopt a modest and simple costume. The Bible was read and commented on, and the ceremony of bread-breaking assiduously observed. Outwardly these communities seemed to have the same peaceable character as those of south Germany and Moravia, and in fact the notion of vengeance ultimately to be effected by the sword appears at first to have been left very much in abeyance. The carrying of weapons was discouraged, and the returning of good for evil was inculcated. It was ominous, however, that Melchior Hoffmann was acclaimed as the prophet Elijah returned according to promise.

Up to 1533, Strasburg continued to be regarded as the chief seat of Anabaptism, so far at least as the movement along the Rhine and the adjacent countries was concerned. The new doctrines continued to be energetically and openly preached and their following numerous. Melchior himself regarded Strasburg as the new Jerusalem from which the saints should march out to proclaim the new Kingdom. After his propagandist journey in the north he accordingly returned to Strasburg, where his passionate oratory stirred the handicraftsmen and town-proletariat to its depths. He proclaimed the end of the year 1533 as the date that would see the coming of the Lord, and the inauguration of the reign of the saints. The excitement among the poorer sections of the town population consequent on Hoffmann’s preaching grew so intense that a popular rising was feared. The prophet himself was in consequence arrested and imprisoned in one of the towers on the city wall. Crowds, however, assembled on the other side of the moat, so that they might perchance catch a glimpse of their leader, when lo! he appeared at the grated window and from thence succeeded in throwing his voice across the moat to repeat his warnings and prophecies. All the Apocalyptic plagues, said he, had been fulfilled, save the vengeance of the Seventh Angel, Babylon was falling and they were on the threshold of the new kingdom of righteousness and peace.

When Hoffmann returned from the northwest to Strasburg a large number of his disciples followed him in the belief that Strasburg was to be the home of the saints, the New Jerusalem, whence they were to go forth, conquering and to conquer, and in truth at this time the great Imperial city swarmed with the Anabaptist faithful. But Hoffmann’s confidence in a speedy release from his confinement was not realised. It must not be supposed that .the Melchiorite party embraced the whole of the Anabaptist body in Strasburg, as it may be said to have done in the lower Rhenish districts. There was a considerable opposition party among the Strasburg Brethren. In the end, however, Hoffmann’s party triumphed, as much from the effect of his startling successes in the Netherlands, and the north-west generally, as from the arguments of his supporters, or the force of his own eloquence.

Towards the close of 1533, in spite of the Melchiorite agitation and of the visions and prophecies of the Melchiorite prophets and prophetesses, so zealously interpreted by the new Elias, the Anabaptists, numerous as they were, shewed no signs of acquiring the mastery of the city either by the force of persuasion or of overt insurrection, while at the same time the town authorities began to give unmistakable indications of using stronger measures than heretofore. It began to be whispered abroad among the Brethren that Strasburg was after all not destined to be the New Jerusalem, but that the Lord had rejected it because of its unbelief, whilst all eyes were turned to the astounding successes of the party in the northwest, and especially to the great Episcopal City of Münster in Westphalia, where events were developing with astounding rapidity, and the conviction gained ground every day on all hands that not Strasburg, but Münster was ordained to be the seat of the future Kingdom of God. Hoffmann had prophesied on his return to Strasburg early in the year-and of the sincerity of his belief there is no reason to doubt-that he would be seized and imprisoned for six months, at the end of which time the Saviour would return to claim his inheritance and free his servants from their chains. But things turned out quite otherwise. Poor Hoffmann, who, by his enthusiasm, eloquence, and power of organization, had created the great movement in the north-west, never again recovered his liberty. He died in his dungeon ten years later. They could not keep him from writing. Deprived of paper, he found means of scratching his inspirations on the margins of the devotional books allowed him. Deprived of these, he succeeded in inscribing his thoughts on his linen.

During the Middle Ages, the Netherlands and districts of the Lower Rhine had ever been a favourable soil for heresies and quasi-heresies in which the theory of a common life and the community of goods formed an essential part. There it was that the Beghards flourished most, there the “Brethren of the Common Life” had their most prosperous communities. But by the end of the fifteenth century, the premature economic development and political circumstances had combined to create a strong centralized Government there, which was not favourable to the success of popular movements, religious or political. The Hapsburgs, to whom the power of the extinct house of Burgundy in these countries had reverted, and who held the seventeen provinces under their centralized sway as part of the Spanish monarchy, were a strong support of the Catholic power and the Papal pretensions, which they found indispensable for their own purposes. Irregular forms of religious enthusiasm, no less than the orthodox Lutheran or Zwinglian reforming tendencies, were put down with an iron hand. But revolutionary views, though driven underground, were not altogether wanting; especially among the guilds of journeymen-weavers. Hither also the doctrines of Melchior Hoffmann were carried, though they made little overt progress, owing to the adverse political conditions.

It was not Flanders and Brabant that became the head-quarters of Anabaptism; it was to Holland, and more especially to Amsterdam that the Brethren flocked. From Amsterdam and other Dutch towns Melchiorite missionaries went forth in all directions through the neighbouring territories, preaching the new word, proclaiming the approaching advent of Christ and his Saints to reign over the world in righteousness, to cast down the mighty from their seats and to raise up them of low degree. The principal organizer of this missionary movement was one Jan Matthys, a master-baker of Haarlem, who speedily acquired the leadership of the Anabaptist party in Holland owing to his strong personality and persuasive powers. The Brethren saw in him a new and Heaven-sent prophet to whom was delegated, by God himself, authority to confer apostleship. The doctrines of Matthys were practically identical with those of Melchior Hoffmann, with the difference that the revolutionary side with Matthys broke all bounds, and the notion of a Holy War in the literal sense was placed in the forefront of his teaching. What with Melchior was prophecy of what was about to happen became with Matthys a direct incitement to revolt as a religious duty. With him there was to be no delay. It was the duty of all the Brethren to shew their zeal by at once seizing the sword of sharpness and mowing down the godless therewith. In this sense Matthys completed the transformation of Anabaptism begun by Hoffmann. Melchior had indeed rejected the non-resistance doctrine in its absolute form, but he does not appear in his teaching to have uniformly emphasized the point, and certainly did not urge the destruction of the godless as an immediate duty to be fulfilled without delay. With him was always the suggestion, expressed or implied, of waiting for the signal from Heaven, the coming of the Lord, before proceeding to action. With Matthys there was no need for waiting, even for a day, the time was not merely at hand, it had already come. The same causes, the dislocation of the economic conditions of mediaeval life and the rise of the earlier forms of modern capitalism (described at length in “German Society at the close of the Middle Ages” and recapitulated in Chapter I. of “The Peasants War”) — causes which immediately led up to the Peasant revolt, and on its bloody suppression to the rapid spread of the earlier Anabaptism with its political quietism and its despondent doctrine of non-resistance — these causes, now that the memory of the great defeat and the despair following it, had faded somewhat from the minds of men, led to the natural man reasserting himself and to renewed hopes of his being saved in this world by his own action. Add to this that the Dutch and Low-German populations of the north-west had either not suffered at all from the results of the rebellion of 1525 or only to a very limited extent, as compared with those of southern and southeastern Germany, and were therefore more or less virgin soil from a revolutionary point of view.

Notwithstanding some opposition at first to his new departure, Jan Matthys soon succeeded in gathering around him a number of enthusiastic disciples. If Melchior Hoffmann had been Elijah and if he were lost to them by the machinations of the godless, was not Jan Matthys Enoch, who should follow in his steps and bring his work to a conclusion? Among Matthys’ most intimate followers was Jan Bockelson from Leyden. Bockelson was a handsome and striking figure. He was the illegitimate son of one Bockel, a merchant and Bürgermeister of Soevenhagen, by a peasant woman from the neighbourhood of Münster, who was in his service. After Jan’s birth Bockel married the woman and bought her her freedom from the villein status that was hers by heredity. Jan was taught the tailoring-handicraft at Leyden, but seems to have received little schooling. His natural abilities, however, were considerable, and he eagerly devoured the religious and propagandist literature of the time. Amongst other writings the pamphlets of Thomas Münzer especially fascinated him. He travelled a good deal, visiting Mechlin and working at his trade for four years in London. During this period he probably saved a little money, and returning home married the widow of a seafaring man. He now set up in trade on his own account and seems to have travelled as far as Lisbon on business affairs, but business apparently was not his vocation and he speedily became bankrupt. He then threw himself with ardour into the Anabaptist agitation, coinciding as it did with views that had always enlisted his sympathies, and, scarcely twenty-five years old, he was won over to the new propaganda of Jan Matthys.

Kerssenbroek, a courtly chronicler of the movement, alleges that Bockelson, whom he sneers at as a tailor and stage-king, had from youth displayed a certain literary faculty and had written plays which he had produced “for money.” Bockelson had nothing in him of the asceticism characteristic of so many of his Anabaptist co-religionists. Matthys was now head of the Anabaptist communities in Holland and the adjacent territories. These were more homogeneous in theory and more closely federated than those in south-eastern Germany that dated from the earlier years of the movement, and he soon managed to carry things entirely his own way.