E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.
WESTPHALIA was swept by the reformation no less than other parts of the Empire. In the towns the same political and social causes of discontent existed as elsewhere, and the same agitations were taking place. That the ferment of the time was by no means altogether the outcome of religious zeal, as subsequent historians have persisted in representing it, was recognised by the contemporary heads of the official Reformation. Thus, writing to Luther, under date August 29th, 1530, his satellite, Melancthon, has the candour to admit that the Imperial Cities “care not for religion, for their endeavour is only toward domination and freedom.” As the principal town of Westphalia at this time may be reckoned the chief city, of the Bishopric of Münster. This important ecclesiastical principality was held “immediately of the Empire.” It had as its neighbours Ost-Friesland, Oldenburg, the Bishopric of Osnabrück, the county of Marck, and the Duchies of Berg and Cleves. Its territory was half the size of the present province of Westphalia, and was divided into the upper and lower diocese, which were separated by the territory of Fecklenburg. The Bishop was a prince of the empire and one of the most important magnates of north-western Germany, but in ecclesiastical matters he was under the Archbishop of Köln. The diocese had been founded by Charles the Great. The ferment within the principality, and especially in the chief town Münster, which had been suppressed in the spring of 1526 by the ecclesiastical authorities, and an attempt to revive which in 1527 had failed, was fanned anew into flame by the famine and pestilence that marked the year 1529. At harvest-time in that year the frightful pestilence known as the English “sweating sickness” broke over Westphalia. “It was a violent inflammatory fever, which after a short rigour, prostrated the powers as with a blow; and amidst painful oppression at the stomach, headache, and lethargic stupor, suffused the whole body with a foetid perspiration. All this took place within the course of a few hours, and the crisis was always over within the space of a day or night. The internal heat that the patient suffered was intolerable, yet every refrigerant was certain death." The devastation caused was frightful. In Dortmund, out of five hundred attacked in the first four days, four hundred and seventy succumbed. This instance seems to fairly well represent the average high percentage of deaths to cases. The harvest itself, during which the plague began, was exceptionally bad, and this, added to the general economic changes of the time, caused a special local rise in price, such as, in the words of a contemporary, “no man had ever known before.” The bushel of rye, which in the summer of 1529 had been three and a half (German) shillings, rose in less than a year to nine shillings. The harvest of 1530 was no better than that of the previous year, so that in 1531 the price of barley rose to fourteen shillings the bushel. The long threatened invasion of the Turks now seemed imminent, and throughout the empire extraordinary Turks’ taxes were imposed. These in some cases amounted to ten per cent of the total income. An Archdeacon of Dortmund, writing to his superior, states that “the misery is appalling and indescribable.”
Meanwhile the authorities of Münster, who had hitherto succeeded in keeping down any revolutionary movement,, were determined to stamp out all tendencies to innovation in Church or State so far as this was possible. But it was not possible in the long run. The renewed outbreak of reforming ideas was coincident with the time of calamity and scarcity above spoken of. Its occasion was the preaching of a hitherto unknown young priest at a church in the neighbourhood of Münster. Bernhardt Rothmann, for such was his name, had studied theology at the university of Deventer. He subsequently filled the post of schoolmaster, and in the year 1529 obtained the chaplaincy of the church of St. Mauritz, outside the walls of Münster. He soon seems to have acquired relations with the reforming party in the city and to have begun to preach heretical doctrines. The result was that he lost his post as chaplain for the time being. After a year and a day, however, he was allowed to return, but his views had acquired increased strength and consistency during the interval. Henceforward (the beginning of 1531) his church became the centre of a reforming movement. On the night of Good Friday, 1531, we are told, there were disturbances in the church on the part of Rothmann’s followers. Although the guildsmen and journeymen were the first to be attracted to him, it is sufficiently evident that he soon obtained influence among members of the town patriciate and even over certain of the Prince-Bishop’s Councillors. He ventured openly to allege that Bishop Friedrich himself was not unfavourable to his teaching, which may possibly have been true, for it was an open question with many of the spiritual potentates of the Empire at the time, whether to take sides with the Reformation and establish their power on a purely political basis, as secular princes — as Albrecht, Duke of Prussia, had done — or to throw their influence into the opposite scale, the maintenance of the status quo, political and religious. Rothmann’s preaching at first had the usual reformation colour. True religion consisted in faith in Christ and in the practice of brotherly love, rather than in the performance of outward rites and ceremonies, such as fasting, confession, hearing mass, etc. These doctrines did not necessarily imply a breach with the established Catholicism, but constituted what was called the Erasmian standpoint of many within the Church.
The time, however, had now come when the more decided and energetic of the malcontents with the current Church theory and practices were forced to take their stand with one or other of the schismatic reform Churches and sects. After a journey to Wittenberg, in the spring of 1531, Rothmann returned to Münster, in July, determined to overthrow the dominant Church doctrine and organization. This becoming evident, we cannot be surprised that the church of St. Mauritz was soon found closed against him. Not to be beaten, he tried preaching in the churchyard, but the Bishop, who, whatever may have been the case before, had by this time fully made up his mind to stand by the old order of things, had his countermand ready and issued an inhibition against the daring innovator. Driven from his quarters outside the walls, Bernhardt took up his residence within the city, where he was received by his friends with open arms. The agitation in Münster now had a religious leader and became so threatening that the Cathedral Chapter sought the intervention of the Emperor, who induced the Bishop at their instance to issue a mandate expelling the young preacher from the Münster territory. But the town authorities were either too weak or too unwilling to take the necessary steps for giving this order its effect, so Rothmann remained in Münster jealously guarded by his friends and the centre of an active party. The religious reformation in Münster now for the first time made common cause with the political discontent.
On January 23rd, 1532, Rothmann drew up his confession of faith, which the party immediately laid before the Rath with the prayer that it might be granted to any citizen to subscribe thereto. The response was not unfavourable, and on Sunday, February 18th, Rothmann gave his first public address to the city in the churchyard of St. Lamberti. A few days later, he was placed in possession of the church itself, and almost immediately after was appointed, by a decree of the Rath, first Evangelical preacher of the parish church which had been built out of municipal funds. At the same time, he was granted one of the guild-houses as his official place of residence.
The head of the democratic-municipal movement was Bernhardt Knipperdollinck, a cloth-merchant materially well-situated and an exceptionally able speaker and leader who, in addition to several other citizens of credit and renown, forsook his class-interests for the cause of justice to the common man. It is reported that as early as 1524 Knipperdollinck made a voyage on a Dutch ship with the subsequent Anabaptist, Melchior Rink, to Sweden, and visited Stockholm. The two men led an iconoclastic attack on the churches, only stopped by the direct intervention of the Swedish King. Knipperdollinck was a disciple of Melchior Rink in the earlier years of the Reformation movement, before the rise of Anabaptism properly so-called. The lower German territories, penetrated as they were by the great highway of the Rhine and thereby in easy communication with Switzerland and southern Germany, were in a favourable geographical position for feeling the effects of every new tendency among the reforming parties. It is highly probable that before the propagandist activity of Melchior Hoffmann and his followers, “the gospel of the common man,” as Anabaptism came to be called, had already been preached in these regions by journeymen and the smaller travelling traders. In any case the population of Westphalia was well prepared for revolutionary teaching, both political and religious. The town of Münster itself, like Köln, and the other larger cities of north-west Germany, had been deeply stirred by the events of the spring and summer of 1525, whilst, as above mentioned, 1527 saw an abortive attempt to revive them under the leadership of Knipperdollinck. But although up to the time of which we now write it had been possible to smother signs of incandescence in the inflammable material that abounded within the walls, the inflammable material remained the same and only awaited an effective kindling to burst out into conflagration.
Unsatisfactory as the new turn affairs had taken in Münster at the beginning of 1532 must have been to the Bishop and his Chapter, they were powerless to do anything in the then state of public feeling in the city, partially backed, as it was at least, by the municipal authorities. About two months after the presentation to the Rath of Rothmann’s Confession of Faith, however, Bishop Friedrich abdicated, and Münster received a new Prince-Bishop in the person of Erick of Osnabrück, on the 27th of March, 1532. Erick had the reputation of favouring moderate reforming tendencies. This being the case, the “moderate” party in Münster, who under Friedrich had maintained an attitude of at least passive opposition, at once ranged themselves on the side of their new temporal and spiritual lord. In consequence, an episcopal mandate on the 17th of April, 1532, directed against Rothmann and his followers, had the effect of inducing the Rath, together with the heads of the Guilds, to order Rothmann to cease his preaching until further notice. This order was the occasion of the first definite breach between the moderate and the extreme parties of the city. The commands of the Municipal authorities were answered in a document, dated 28th April, in which the “common man” announced his intention of holding by his chosen preacher at all costs.
The struggle having been thus begun, it remained to be seen which side would come out victorious in the immediate issue pending. Neither the Episcopal nor the Municipal authorities possessed adequate means for giving effect to their decrees, whilst the power of the town-democracy rose higher every day. In the meantime, on the 14th of May, Bishop Erick died, and for over a fortnight, pending the new election, the See remained vacant. The want of an over-lord proved favourable to the agitation.
On the first of June, a new Prince-Bishop was appointed in the person of Count Franz von Waldeck, formerly a Canon of Köln. His elevation and his whole career bound up his interests with his powerful Rhenish neighbours, especially with his spiritual superior the Archbishop of Köln, and these being important pillars of the Imperial and Catholic policy, it is not difficult to imagine on what side the power of Münster’s new lord was engaged. On the first of July, a revolutionary committee composed of thirty-six burghers was formed for the ostensible purpose of watching events in the interests of the democracy and of the new religious tendencies. Stormy meetings of citizens followed in one of the Guild-houses, at which various demands were formulated, the chief being that all the parochial churches should be handed over to Evangelical preachers. The Rath, feeling its position insecure, signed an agreement on the 15th of July, conceding the democratic demands, and on the 10th of August all the churches in the gift of the municipality were solemnly handed over to the new teachers. An injunction of July 12th, under the sign-manual of the Emperor Charles V, directing Bishop Franz to expel Rothmann and proceed against other disturbers of order with the utmost rigour, did not help matters. A mandate summoning the town to order and obedience was issued without result. The influence of the knighthood of the surrounding territory, warning and threatening the town, was then brought to bear, but all without avail. The burghers declared that they would rather lose worldly goods and even life itself than consent to surrender the true worship of God. Thereupon the Prince-Bishop and his advisers resolved upon resort to force of arms. Letters were sent out to the temporal and spiritual nobles owning allegiance to the See, enjoining them to forward all available assistance without delay.
In October overt action began inside the town on the part of the Bishop’s minions by the sequestration of the goods of the disaffected citizens and by indictment of the leaders of the movement. At the same time, communication between the different quarters of the town was cut off by chains placed across the streets, and other measures. It was also attempted to isolate the town itself. The citizens now saw that war was meant, and accordingly on the 25th of October the heads of the different city-wardships appeared before the Rath, demanding weapons and armour, which had to be accorded them. Immediately after, bodies of the Bishop’s horsemen and the surrounding knighthood appeared before the gates. Yet, notwithstanding these demonstrations, the Bishop did not venture at present to proceed to extremities. His preparations were not complete. He had neither men, arms, nor money enough. Add to this, the other smaller towns of the diocese skewed signs of beginning to grow restive. The Evangelical party was making great progress throughout the whole land. The town of Münster had, moreover, sent to Philip of Hesse, begging him to intervene. The Emperor, himself in sore straits owing to the Turkish war, had been obliged to make concessions to the Nürnberg Protestants.
Other reasons of policy combined to render it too dangerous for the Prince-Bishop to risk at this juncture calling down upon himself the hatred, if not the overt hostility, of all the Protestant interests of North Germany. The report that reached his ears of a proposal on the part of influential citizens that the town should hand itself over to Burgundy also increased his sense of the delicacy of the situation. The result was that negotiations were entered upon, and the intervention of the Landgraf of Hesse declined. At first, the chances of an understanding being arrived at seemed not unfavourable. The Bishop on his side, on October 29th, entered into a treaty of offence and defence with Evangelical Hesse.
As the negotiations were continuing, a number of spiritual and temporal nobles who were concerned therein had taken up their abode in the little township of Telgte, within the town-territory of Münster. The burghers now bethought themselves of using this circumstance for gaining a point of vantage over the Bishop, and on Christmas night about a thousand armed citizens of the town guard marched out and occupied the little town without resistance. Thus on the morning of the 26th of December the nobles assembled there found themselves prisoners in the hands of the people of Münster. This coup, however it may be judged from an ethical standpoint, was a highly politic one, since the town now possessed hostages of the first value, a fact that tied the hands of the aristocratic followers of the Bishop. It also gave Philip of Hesse a fresh opportunity of intervening, and in fact on December 29th an understanding was arrived at between Philip and Franz, in consequence of which Councillors were despatched from the court of Hesse to Münster. On the 8th of January, 1533, the new negotiations began, and Landgraf Philip promised the burghers to use his friendly offices for the formal admission of the town of Münster into the new Evangelical League of Schmalkalden. The result was that Franz and his Chapter had to give in, and by a charter, signed and sealed on February 14th, 1533, Münster was formally constituted an Evangelical town.
The other small towns of the principality, however, which had begun to follow the example of Münster, were not so fortunate, and the authorities were fairly successful in re-establishing the old order of things in them. But the agitation continued none the less, varied with stormings of churches and the like, not alone in the towns, but even in the country districts far and wide throughout Westphalia, so that eventually here also concessions had to be made. In the neighbouring Prince-Bishopric of Minden serious disturbances had taken place as long ago as 1529 and, as in Münster, a committee of thirty-six burghers had been appointed, whose first act was to set up an escaped monk as a reformed pastor in the church of St. Simeon. It is noteworthy that in this case the revolt was confined exclusively to “the common man,” the journeymen, and the town proletarians, for the guilds held steadily by the patrician Rath. But, this notwithstanding, with the assistance of the Evangelical Count Erich von Hoya the revolution was successful, and Minden became an Evangelical town. The wealthier religious foundations had in all cases to furnish heavy tribute to the municipal coffers, whilst in some the buildings were turned into almshouses and schools and the valuables they contained confiscated for civic use. In Herford similarly an ecclesiastical revolution had been effected. About the same time Lippstadt shewed signs of religious disaffection. In Soest, friction between the Council and the general assembly of the citizens had broken out two years before, in the summer of 1531. Here, however, the demands of the popular party were undisguisedly economic; the immunity of the clergy from taxation was to be abolished, they were to be forbidden to exercise any trade in the town, the general assembly of the citizens was to have control of the town government, and things of a like nature were claimed.
What strikes one in these revolts of the early years of the fourth decade of the century, as in those of 1525, is the almost precise similarity of procedure in all cases. One almost invariable feature of them is the establishment by the journeymen, poorer guildsmen, and town proletarians, of a committee of public safety in opposition to the patrician Rath, which sometimes received the support of the official — guild influence, and sometimes not, but which was usually, at least for the time being, successful in seizing the lion’s share of the executive power and in making the legitimate authorities subservient to its will. In most cases, the religious garb in which the movement so often clothed itself allows us plainly to see through to the deeper-lying social discontent which constituted its real substance. (Cf. Keller, “Wiedertaufer,” pp.102, 113.)
Bernhardt Rothmann, although at first at least outwardly Lutheran, early showed signs of divergencies in the matter of Church organisation from the orthodox Lutheran model. After his visit to Wittenberg in 1531, he repaired to Strasburg, where he was for a long while under the influence of the Zwinglian Kapitan, and here he was converted to the Zwinglian ideas. On his return, however, he seems to have concealed his change of view until his power was established with the reforming party in Münster. It was not till the summer of 1532 that he openly broke with the Lutheran standpoint and began to play tricks with the Sacrament. One of these tricks was the use in this connection of a kind of flat cake called Slule, owing to which he acquired the sobriquet of “Stuten Berndt,” Berndt being the shortened form of Bernhardt. He was found expressing strong opinions on the worthlessness of the ceremonial observance. His views in this respect, it soon became evident, went as far beyond the Zwinglian’s as the latter went beyond the Lutheran’s. He did not, however, meet with any strong opposition in Münster itself, although the Lutherans outside began to feel uneasy, and Luther’s jackal, Melancthon, wrote him an admonitory letter. The exact nature of the model intended by Rothmann for the new Münster Church organisation we do not know, but we may certainly conclude that it was mainly on Zwinglian lines.
After the treaty of peace between the town and its territorial over-lord, on the 14th of February, 1533, Münster became the centre to which religious and political malcontents flocked from all sides. At the same time, now that the opposition to the Catholic Church had been successful, the divergencies of the reform party with each other assumed, as was only natural, more importance. Differencies arose between Rothmann and the newcomers. Already in the summer of 1532 a preacher, by name Heinrich Roll, alias “Wassenberg,” whence his disciples are known as the “Wassenberger,” owing to his opinions had been driven out of the territory of Jülich and had sought refuge in Münster Roll, or “Wassenberg,” was a determined opponent of infant baptism. He was at first opposed on this point by Rothmann, although otherwise they worked together. By May, 1533, however, he had succeeded in gaining Rothmann over to his views.
The Lutheran party, headed by the Syndicus of the town, Van der Wieck, became now seriously disturbed at the direction their leading pastor’s teaching and practices were taking. They sent delegations to him, earnestly entreating him not to compromise the religious unity of the reform party by the discussion of these knotty and dangerous points of doctrine. Rothmann insisted on retaining his liberty of action. He and his partisans were next ordered to appear before the Rath, which summarily directed him to abstain from the promulgation of anti-Lutheran doctrines. It is reported that at the time he gave an undertaking to obey. But, however this may be, we find him a few days later denouncing infant baptism before his congregation with greater energy than ever. The head of the Münster Evangelical Church rightly thought himself strong enough to defy the Münster Council.
He and his partisans now proclaimed the thesis that in religious matters the final judgment rests with the general assembly of citizens. To point the moral of this, one of the Wassenberger party, who had made himself particularly obnoxious to the Lutheran Council by his violent onslaughts on the practice of infant baptism, was made assistant preacher in the church of St. Lamberti itself. Doctrines akin to those of Anabaptism, relative to mutual assistance and the duty of the division of worldly substance amongst believers also found favour with the preachers of St. Lamberti. The conflict continued in a sub-acute stage throughout the summer of 1533.It was made acute by an order of the Rath enjoining the Reformed pastors of the town to carry out the practice of infant baptism.
The matter was brought to a definite issue on September 7th, when the children of two Lutheran Councillors were brought to the church of St. Lamberti to be christened. Staprade, the assistant preacher, refused to perform the rite. Thereupon, as it would appear, Staprade himself, as a non-burgher, was expelled the city, while Rothmann and the other anti-Lutheran clergy were cited before the Council and threatened with deposition and expulsion. The latter now, in a letter dated the 17th of September, took up the gauntlet and renounced their allegiance to the Council, alleging that they were enjoined by Holy Writ to obey God rather than man. The Rath answered this move by deposing the signatories and closing their churches against them. Immense excitement seized the “common man” in consequence. So threatening did matters look indeed, that the Rath saw itself compelled to a measure of compromise. They consented to grant Rothmann under certain restrictions the church of Servetius. Rothmann now made himself conspicuous by a life of penitence, rigour, and zeal in works of charity, which increased his reputation as a Heaven-sent teacher day by day; Meanwhile the new theories of brotherly love, the surrender of worldly goods to poorer brethren, and the like, spread rapidly. Many well-to-do citizens literally fulfilled the injunction of selling all they had and giving to the poor, those possessing houses destroyed their rent deeds, creditors forgave their debtors what was owing them, and all who had embraced the new faith poured out their wealth in acts of charity. Rothmann now set up a printing-press in his house, from which pamphlets and broad sheets were issued and carried by various means into far distant territories, especially into those of the north-west.
From this time forward, the authority of the Rath diminished daily, whilst the influx of foreign elements into the city continued unabated. On November 6th an agreement was entered into between Rothmann’s party and the Council, by which the former agreed that certain of their preachers should leave the town, but that Rothmann should remain and the rank and file of his followers be unmolested. At the same time the Council took steps to import new “Evangelical” pastors after its own heart, to replace the deposed and exiled Rothmannites or Wassenbergers. The Council now seemed to be in a fair way of recovering its authority, when a sudden influx of the most fanatical and energetic of Anabaptist elements flooded the town and upset all its calculations. These were our friends the so-called Melchiorites, active partisans of Jan Matthys and his itinerant apostles. Within the last few weeks, the party of Matthys had grown to extraordinary dimensions, persecution had broken down the opposition of the non-resistants to Matthys’ propaganda of the sword, whilst the other Melchiorites, who awaited a sign from Heaven that the day was at hand, were made confident by the declarations of Matthys’ missionaries, who went forth after the manner of their New Testament exemplars in pairs and assured the wavering that the sign had already come, that Enoch had already appeared to announce the great day. Enoch, it is scarcely necessary to say, was none other than Jan Matthys himself, as to whose signs and wonders the wandering prophets were eloquent. Where-ever they came, new converts to Anabaptism in the sense of Jan Matthys were made. Communities, often with a numerous membership, were founded. Shepherds, or “Bishops” as they were now sometimes called, were appointed, and the apostles would pass on. The one topic of conversation along their track among the new converts, whether in the journeymen’s guild-room, on the highways or in the fields, was the imminent day of retribution when the mighty should be cast down from their seats and the man of low degree should be raised up, when the godless world should be smitten with a two-edged sword and the saints should reign for ever in the new Kingdom of God about to arise on the ruins of the kingdoms of this world.
Notwithstanding the success of the moderate party in Münster in getting rid of the recalcitrant pastors and in installing good evangelical Lutherans in their stead, there was one weak place in their position, and that was the retention in the city of the head and front of the offending movement, Bernhardt Rothmann. It was only too obvious that the city Council lacked the power or the courage to remove the most dangerous enemy of the order they aimed at establishing. The followers of Rothmann, reinforced by kindred spirits in the shape of Anabaptist strangers driven by persecution on the one side and fanaticism on the other from north and south, east and west, but especially from the west and north-west, who had sought a haven of refuge in the chosen city of Münster, soon took heart of grace. Rothmann himself developed an unpleasing activity in preaching his favourite doctrines in conventicles and otherwise.
On September 8th, 1533, a journeyman smith began openly to proclaim the doctrines of Anabaptism in the churchyard of St. Lamberti. The Rath, stirred by this to spasmodic action and seeing plainly that behind the young smith stood Bernhardt Rothmann, three days later plucked up courage to issue an order for expulsion against the latter, at the same time withdrawing from him the protection of the authorities, which in other words meant a sentence of outlawry. Rothmann coolly told the bailiff who brought him the decree that he stood in no need of the protection of these fathers of the city, that he was quite content to rely upon God and his disciples for all the protection he wanted. He now openly shewed his contempt for the town government by not only refusing to quit the city, but by beginning to preach again without any attempt at concealment. The answer of the authorities was the arrest, not of Rothmann himself but of the young smith whose preaching had given rise to the Rath’s action. This sufficed to raise a hornet’s nest. The day after the arrest, September 16th, about two o'clock in the afternoon, all the members of the smiths’ Guild assembled in their guild-room, and proceeded to the town-hall (Rathhaus), clamorously demanding the release of their colleague. As far as one can gather, the Guild-masters, no less than the journeymen, were to the fore in this action. So threatening was the attitude of the assembled smiths that the Council had to give way, with the result that Johann Schroeder, the imprisoned smith, after being handed over to them, was carried in triumph through the principal streets. On learning of the powerlessness of the authorities to enforce their decrees against the will of the popular party, the banished preachers ventured without further ceremony to return, and by the end of the year they were all back in the town. On New Year’s Day, 1534, Roll took possession of the pulpit in one of the city churches, once more to thunder out his invectives against Luther and all his followers.
Finally, on January 5th or 6th, two of the apostles of Jan Matthys entered the town, proclaiming that God had sent a new prophet on earth to herald the end of the dispensation of this world and the beginning of the millennium. They exhorted all, as they valued their salvation, to be rebaptized. Münster, they said, was to be the new Jerusalem where the saints were to reign in unity.and brotherly love, constrained by no law and no authority. God, they said, had revealed to his prophet that it was by means of the elect themselves, acting as his instruments, that his kingdom should be established. A rage for rebaptism seized upon all, the leaders no less than the rank and file submitting to it, Rothmann and Roll amongst the rest. Having effected their object and sewn the seed, the Dutchmen, a day or two later, passed on, but their advent had lain the train of all that followed. Münster had become Anabaptist; whole sections of the population went mad with excitement, citizens and strangers, guildmasters and journeymen, even monks and nuns, were swept into the whirlpool of fanaticism.
On the 13th of the month, the young enthusiast Jan Bockelson of Leyden arrived in Münster accompanied by a colleague, proclaiming themselves apostles of God through his prophet Jan Matthys. It was not the first time that Bockelson had been in Münster, having resided there for three months the previous year, and it was on his return to Leyden later in the summer that he received the call from the prophet of Haarlem, and began to devote, his life to the new propaganda. The young apostle was at this time twenty-five years of age, handsome in face and figure, and with an eloquence well-calculated to arouse enthusiasm. He soon had all the women of the movement at his feet, and became the foremost figure. Immediately he entered into relations with the leaders of the popular party, both on the religious and the political side, becoming intimate with Rothmann and Roll, and, above all, with the well-to-do burgher and cloth-merchant, Bernhardt Knipperdollinck,whose daughter he gained in marriage. The aims of Knipperdollinck were essentially political, but the interests of the political and religious revolutionists seemed now identical. Rothmann, Roll; and the earlier leaders now fell into the background. They had, it is true, no choice being left them, to make common cause with the new movement, and to allow themselves, whether they would or not, to be carried away with it. The popular party, the poor guildsmen, the journeymen, the floating population of proletarians and strangers, soon made it evident that they meant carrying matters alike in politics, in social relations, and in religion, to their logical conclusion. Rothmann seemed to have had a presentiment of the turn things would take some months before, when he advised a friend of his, through the latter’s wife, who sought his counsel, to accept an appointment elsewhere than in Münster, “for,” said he, “things will not go well here!”
From this time forward, the attempt to put the new doctrines in practice became more and more the vogue. Women played a prominent part in this new phase. Gold, costly vessels, and jewellery of all sorts were brought into the common fund. Meanwhile the immigration of outside elements continued. After a time Jan Matthys himself was summoned by Bockelson to take part in the foundation of the new millennial order of things. Matters were now plainly past the power of Rath or any other worldly authority, but it must not be supposed that the governing body of Münster surrendered without at least the show of a struggle. On January 8th, an attempt had been made by the Council to obtain satisfaction in the matter of the returned preachers, though nothing came of it but abortive negotiations. Serious differences now broke out within the governing body itself. A week later, however, a decree of expulsion was with some difficulty carried, and the preachers, with the exception of Rothmann himself, were conducted outside the walls by the city constables. But they were no sooner without the gate than they were met by a body of their friends, and brought back round the rampart of the town to another gate, at which they re-entered.
The authorities now appealed to the Bishop, who on January 23rd issued a mandate enjoining them in accordance with the Imperial edicts to root out the plague of Anabaptism that had infected the town, and threatening all who favoured Anabaptist doctrines with the ban of the Empire. But this episcopal blind thunder did not alter the course of events. The agitation continued unabated. At dusk on January 28th, an attempt to seize the town was made by the revolutionary party. Armed bands appeared at several points, closing the streets with chains and committing other insurrectionary acts, but the disturbance was damped down by the leaders of the movement, who, at a meeting held in Knipperdollinck’s house, decided that the moment for overt action had not arrived. On the 30th, the Council held a conference with the heads of the Guilds, the result of which was a decision to maintain personal freedom in matters of religion, but to resolutely discourage any attempts at provocation on either side.
The decisive step by which the Anabaptists proclaimed themselves in insurrection was taken on February 9th, 1534, when, at seven o'clock in the morning, five hundred armed Anabaptists suddenly seized the market-place and certain doors of the Rathhaus. The party of order quickly gathered together its forces. Evangelicals and Catholics stood shoulder to shoulder in the work of defending the old kingdom of this world in Münster, as represented by the Council and governing authorities, against the new kingdom of God as represented by the Anabaptist saints. All the streets and narrow lanes leading up to Ueberwasser Kirchhof were protected by ordnance. The towers of the Cathedral, the so-called “Mirror Tower” (Spiegel thurm) and other parts of vantage were garrisoned, and the wooden bridges leading over the river were torn down, with one exception. Meanwhile the streets were in a state of uproar. Enthusiasts rushed through them swinging weapons in the air and proclaiming the day of the Lord. On the other side, an urgent message was despatched to the Prince-Bishop. The latter promised, without prejudice to the rights and privileges of the town, to enter with a numerous body of cavalry and restore order, if the civic authorities would leave two gates open to him. But the Evangelicals were mistrustful of the Episcopal assurances, and with good reason feared that, if successful, the opportunity would be used for crushing the Reformation in Münster altogether. The Anabaptists now sent some horsemen to the principal armoury situated at the so-called Aegidi-gate to seize the cannon. The party of order, on hearing of this, immediately despatched fifty armed men to forestall them. These only succeeded in laying hands on one piece of ordnance however. Messages were now sent to the neighbouring villages, calling on the peasants to come to the assistance of order and Münster. Night coming on put an end for the moment to actual hostilities though not to the excitement in the town. The fanatics continued to parade the streets, women as well as men, singing, praying, and declaring that Heaven was opening and that a legion of angels was about to descend on the town to deliver the saints and root out the godless. But the cooler heads of the revolutionary party took care to place guards at the several positions occupied by them, at the various gates that they had seized, at the principal marketplace (Prinzipalmarkt) and the Rathhaus.
Similar measures were taken by the Evangelicals and Catholics, now united on behalf of the Council and government of the town. The rallying cry of the Anabaptists was “Father,” that of the Party of Order was “Christ.” At dawn, Knipperdollinck was arrested in the quarter of the town known as the “Ueberwasser,” by the second Burgermeister. Whilst endeavouring to raise the populace, he was incarcerated with twenty-five other Anabaptists in a tower on the city wall hard by. The belfry of the church of St. Lamberti now began to boom forth its call to arms and the streets to fill with excited crowds and to resound with the clashing of weapons. The two Burgermeisters, the Syndic, and several Councillors now hurriedly met in the Rathhaus, which the insurgents would seem to have evacuated, but the street in front of the Municipal buildings rapidly filled with armed rebels, clamorously demanding the release of their imprisoned brethren. The authorities temporised whilst their Catholic and Evangelical allies hurried up to defend the civic head quarters. The battle lasted for some hours, when the party of order was compelled to retreat. At this moment, the country people, who, in response to the summons of the previous evening, had since early morning begun to arrive, suddenly appeared to aid the defence. A report at the same time was spread that the Bishop with his men-at-arms was marching on the city: This circumstance, more than the arrival of the reinforcements, made the Anabaptists, who up to this time had had the best of the fight, willing to negotiate. This was probably further facilitated by the fact that the Chief Bürgermeister, Tylbeck, was known to be secretly sympathetic to their cause. The negotiations were opened, Tylbeck having replied to the Prince-Bishop’s messengers sent to apprise him of the coming of his over-lord, that he required no outside help for the restoration of order in the city. An agreement was come to by which freedom in religious matters was to be strictly maintained, whilst in secular affairs the lawful authority was to be obeyed. All prisoners were set free and a general amnesty proclaimed. Peasants who had come to assist law and order were regaled in the Rathhaus at the cost of the town, after which they returned home to their respective villages.
By the time this peace was concluded, the Bishop with his horsemen had arrived within striking distance of Münster. On hearing of the turn things had taken within the walls, he was furious, but, with the town closed against him, there was nothing for it but to go back. Tylbeck, it is alleged, with a view of keeping the matter in his own hands, had not communicated to his colleagues the letter he had received from the Bishop the previous evening, announcing his intention of entering the city with an armed force on the morrow. But it was perfectly evident that the Bishop, though for the moment compelled to desist from his intention, would never accept the “dogs’ peace,” as the party of order afterwards termed it, that had just been concluded. If it was to be maintained, the city would have to prepare for the eventuality of a siege at the hands of its Prince-Bishop. In view of this, large numbers of well-to-do burghers, who themselves disapproved of the arrangement that had been come to, left the city during the next few days.
On the other hand, the stream of Anabaptist immigration received a further and hitherto unparalleled impetus, not merely from the immunity that now seemed guaranteed under the shadow of St. Lamberti, but from the action of Knipperdollinck, through Rothmann, who by this time had become the mere instrument of the new prophets. Knipperdollinck and the prophets made Rothmann write a circular letter to the Anabaptist communities in other towns, couched as follows :-
“Bernhardt Rothmann, the servant of the Heavenly Father, to all His brethren who dwell among the heathen, health and divine blessing! Be it known to ye all that the Heavenly Father hath sent unto us certain prophets who proclaim the pure word of God with most marvellous gift of tongue and in the spirit of everlasting salvation! He who seeketh his everlasting salvation, let him forsake all worldly goods, and let him with wife and with children come unto us here to the New Jerusalem, to Zion, to the Temple of Solomon! Besides the treasure in Heaven it shall be requited to him tenfold in money and goods for that which he bath left behind him!” This letter was despatched by special messengers, far and wide, to a large number of towns, to almost all the towns of Westphalia, to Osnabrück, Soest, Wesel, etc. and to many other territories as well, as far as Lübeck and Hamburg. Heinrich Krechting, a local magnate of the town of Schoppingen, was the leader of a little body of the faithful to the new Zion. He and his party, who brought a baggage train with them, were seized at a small town two hours from Münster, where he was imprisoned. His son, however, succeeded in escaping, and hurrying to Münster brought back with him a body of a hundred and fifty Anabaptists, who liberated his father, and took him and his safely to the haven of the saints. Heinrich’s brother, Bernhardt Krechting, a pastor, soon afterwards arrived, bringing with him his congregation. Peter Schwering, a wealthy merchant, also led a body of followers from Coesfeld. For days the roads leading to Münster were crowded with Anabaptist pilgrims from every side, some alone with the staff in their hands, others in parties consisting of their families and friends, bringing with them waggons containing such of their household stuff as they could transport; large numbers mad with religious excitement, dancing and singing “Hosannah.” Holland and Friesland furnished the largest contingents among the pilgrims.
The peace had scarcely been concluded, when, as we are informed, (by hostile witnesses certainly) the women of the Anabaptist party began on a larger scale the pious orgies which had been going on at intervals for weeks past in Anabaptist circles of the city. Knipperdollinck’s wife and mother-in-law, it is stated, rushed, with black veils over their heads, up and down the streets, calling the women to repentance. The response was immense. Women flocked after them from all wards of the city through the streets to the chief market-place, their hair flying in the wind, their clothes disordered, and, in some cases, half naked. One eye-witness relates that they threw themselves on their faces on the ground, and tore their breasts, stretching their arms out so as to form a cross, whilst others lay on their backs, foaming at the mouth, staring up at the sky with a look of anxious expectation. They would then spring up, raving, grinding their teeth, and clapping their hands, invoking blessings and curses from Heaven at the same time. Groups would utter loud shouts, crying that Heaven would protect the New Jerusalem. Everything was counted by these female fanatics as a sign sent from Heaven; a stone appearing out of the snow that lay in the streets, a pool of blood proceeding from an ox recently killed in the slaughter-house hard by. All was miraculous, a token sent as an encouragement or a warning to the saints. Actual hallucinations were common. Some saw a great fire with blue and black flames descend from Heaven and cover the city; hysterical laughter and crying were heard on all hands. Ever and anon a group of men and women would be seen rushing through the streets shouting “Repent and be baptized! Slay the unbaptized heathen!” Suddenly the rays of the sun struck a newly-gilded weather-cock on one of the patrician houses of the market-place, dazzling the eyes of those who looked that way. The assembled women fell on their faces and, with folded hands, cried, “Oh! Father, Father, most excellent King of Zion, spare thy people!” Seeing the effect it produced, the weather-cock was removed by a sober-minded burgher, and the ecstasy of the crowd stopped at once. Within the next few days, the Burgermeister Tylbeck, who, while secretly sympathising with the Anabaptists, had remained nominally, the head of the constituted authorities of the city, went over openly to the revolutionary party. Rothmann, after having, as stated formerly, rebaptized himself, conferred the symbol on others, especially on the nuns who daily fled from the convents in the town.
Amongst those to arrive within the next few days was none other than the greatest of the prophets, the ci-devant master-baker of Haarlem, Jan Matthys himself, bringing with him his newly wedded wife, a beautiful nun from the Convent of St. Agnes in his native city. Matthys now for some time had been convinced that Strasburg, which he had formerly in accordance with his master, Melchior Hoffmann, deemed the destined seat of the New Jerusalem, had been rejected, and that the Divine choice had fallen on the capital of the great Westphalian bishopric. Matthys, in his character of the prophet Enoch, the head of all the prophets of the new gospel, on his arrival formally proclaimed Münster as the city revealed to him by God as the seat of the millennial kingdom, in the place of Strasburg rejected for its unbelief. Against the city of the saints, said he, the powers of this world would be able to achieve nothing.
One day, the chief market-place was filled with the faithful, come to hear an announcement of the great prophet. When Matthys appeared, he had with him two stone tablets w is placed on the steps of a well opposite the wall of St. Lamberti’s churchyard. He then announced to the awestruck multitude that he had just spoken with the Lord of Hosts, that the spirit of the living God was upon him, declaring that he was ordained to impart to them the will of God. This was, first and foremost, that he and Jan van Leyden (Bockelson) should instruct them in the pure and holy service of God, such as was proper to a chosen people. Matthys concluded with the adjuration, “Almighty be our doctrine and our power, and praised be the will of our Father, Who has sent us here to found the New Jerusalem, the city of Regeneration, the thousand years Kingdom, according unto His Holy pleasure!”
Life in Münster was relieved by travesties of the dispossessed cultus. A waggon would be drawn up on the market-place, dragged by six Anabaptists in the garb of the religious orders, the driver representing the Prince-Bishop in his robes, whilst a man in priestly garments sat in the waggon reading a parody of the Mass. The wagon was drawn through the streets surrounded by an excited crowd shouting, “Down with the Catholics! Down with the Evangelicals! Death to the heathen and to the godless!” The foreign elements produced by the recent immigration now considerably outnumbered the genuine burgher population, which was being daily diminished by withdrawals. The heads of the town government, finding themselves rapidly becoming powerless, fled. Tylbeck, as we have seen, went formally over to the Anabaptists, and his colleague, a patrician, and a chief pillar of the party of order escaped to a small town not far distant. The town Syndicus, Van der Wieck, left the city, with the intention of seeking an asylum in Bremen. He was, however, treacherously captured by men in the Bishop’s service, a few miles from Münster, and after being taken from one prison to another, was beheaded without trial, by the Bishop’s order. Van der Wieck was the leader of the orthodox Protestant party in Münster.
The town being now practically without a government, it was decided by the Anabaptist leaders to summon the inhabitants for the election of a new Council and officers. This was done, with the result, as was obvious beforehand, that a Council and Government, composed entirely of Brethren, was got together. The head Burgermeister, Tylbeck, notwithstanding his defection from the Party of Order, was not only not re-elected, but, which seemed rather hard, was for the time being thrown into prison. The leaders may conceivably have regarded him as a time-server, who trimmed his sails to the wind and whom it would not be safe to trust. In his stead, Bernhardt Knipperdollinck and his friend the master-tailor Kibbenbroick were chosen respectively to the posts of first and second Burgermeister. Ever since the unstable “Peace” of February 10th the town had been virtually in the control of the Anabaptist leaders After the election of the new Council on February 28th, it came formally into their hands and was definitely organized as an Anabaptist community. The reign of the Saints had begun; Anabaptism had reached its zenith as a political power.
Before proceeding to the history of the events that followed, we will now pause to consider the whole movement, in general survey, up to this turning-point in its fortunes. As we have seen it was the expression of tendencies which had been sporadic throughout the whole of the later Middle Ages, and which asserted themselves with renewed emphasis from the beginning of the Reformation. These tendencies were (1) the thoroughgoing carrying-out of the notion of the right of private judgment in matters of religion as opposed to authority; (2) the democratic idea of the equality of all Christians, the duty of the Brethren, the true followers of Christ, to possess as though they possessed nothing, in a word to hold all things in common; (3) the belief in the approaching advent of the end of the world, or of the millennium. All these tendencies were absorbed after 1525 into the new movement under its distinctive sign, rebaptism, or adult baptism. The latter served as a symbol for the paramountcy of private judgment in matters of religion as opposed to that of a hierarchical Church-organisation into which an infant was received without any act of will on its part. It was also a convenient token by which the elect, the Saints, definitely proclaimed themselves as separate from the world. The doctrine of non-resistance, which was so prominent in the Anabaptism communities up till the time that Jan Matthys obtained control of the movement in Holland and north-west Germany, for before his time even Melchior Hoffmann and his followers were content, like the rest, with non-resistance till the great day had arrived — was a natural result of the literal interpretation of many passages in the New Testament. And this leads us once more to advert to an important feature of the movement, its strange atmosphere of Bible-reading to the exclusion of all other literature. This was also characteristic of earlier analagous movements, but not to the same extent as with the Anabaptists. During the Middle Ages proper, the knowledge of letters and the means of reading were scanty, while for the most part portions only of the Hebrew Scriptures were accessible at all in the vulgar tongue. There had been more than one translation into German of books of the Bible before Luther’s, but it was Luther’s translation that first made the Bible as a whole a household book and a personal possession of the German-speaking peoples. Amongst the skilled artisans, journeymen and better situated peasants of the early sixteenth century, there were not a few who could read sufficiently to make out the text of the new German Bible, whilst those who could not read would form a circle round those who could, and the latter, from their coign of intellectual vantage, would not merely read, but would often expound, the text in their own fashion to their hearers. These informal Bible-readings became the chief religious function among the Anabaptists. This naive continuous and discursive study of the Old and New Testaments had its natural outcome in a population lacking almost all that constitutes what we now call education. Men and women read and re-read, heard and re-heard, pondered and re-pondered the text hallowed by its supposed divine origin, until they could think of nothing else. Soon they came to live in a dream-world, to re-live in their daily life and in the events of their own time, the narratives and prophetic visions of their one book. Destitute of all knowledge of history, save perhaps here and there an isolated fragment, there was no break for them between the biblical story and their own age. They, the Anabaptists, were the chosen people, who had come out of Babylon, renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil, prepared to meet the Messiah when he should descend from the clouds upon the earth to establish the millennial kingdom of which the Apocalypse spoke. It is difficult for us nowadays to throw ourselves back into the state of mind of these guileless people, whose beliefs were no mere pious opinions kept in a compartment by themselves, and not affecting their everyday thought and action. They were to them certainties as real and living as the world surrounding them, and hence of quite as much practical moment as the affairs of their trade or as a journey about to be undertaken.
We have further to bear in mind, not merely the ideas themselves, but the medieval background of thought that constituted their setting. No breath of criticism or disbelief in the modern sense touched them. The whole horizon of these simple folk was bounded by a supernatural view of the universe, now a more especially biblical supernaturalism, as it had before been the supernaturalism of the theory of the world and of man of popular mediaeval Catholicism. The idea of inspiration was ever present to them. The only conflict that might possibly arise in this connection was the conflict between the inspiration enshrined in the letter of Holy Writ and the inspiration that the inner light directly afforded to the soul of the individual believer. The Anabaptists, in perfectly consistent accordance with their Biblical-Christian theory of things, would admit no break in the conditions of revelation between biblical and primitive Christian times and the year of grace in which they then found themselves. Prophets were as possible in the third and fourth decade of the sixteenth century as they had been in the first century of the Christian era, or a thousand years before that era. Special revelation vouchsafed to the soul of the individual believer was as conceivable then as ever it had been, nay, was even likely to happen more frequently then than in years gone by, for did not all things point to the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies of Holy Writ, to the day being at hand when the Messiah should come with his legions of angels, preceded by Elias, to restore all things, to overthrow the kingdoms of this world with their principalities and powers, and establish the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, as the Metropolis of the world, the delight of all nations? Was it not written that the weak and the lowly should inherit the earth? and was it not now the poor handicraftsman and peasant who accepted the true word? Was it not out of the ranks of the poor and the lowly that the new prophets were being called, to whom were vouchsafed the latest revelations of the will of the Father?
That, in a mental and moral atmosphere dominated by these beliefs, hysteria and actual insanity should be rife was only to be expected: the mind of whole sections of the population over a vast area of territory was hypnotized, and it needed not much that individuals, especially women, from out the masses held under control by the dominant beliefs, should completely lose their mental balance and become raving maniacs. Of course the stress of the economical circumstances consequent on that breaking up of the mediaeval conditions of life, to which we have so often referred throughout these studies of the social side of the Reformation in Germany, was largely responsible for the sudden ascendency obtained by these views over the poorer populations of such extended territories, an ascendency which resulted in the focussing of the movement in one town, and in the remarkable events of the years 1534 and 1535 that followed. The political and economic aspirations of the democracies, especially of the German cities, called forth by the pressure of circumstances, readily and naturally clothed themselves in a religious or theological garb, whilst the religious aspirations themselves seemed to demand political and economic revolution as the conditions of their fulfilment.
The effect of the arrest of Melchior Hoffmann in Strasburg the previous year was considerable in these northern territories of the Empire, not merely among his actual disciples, numerous as they were, but amongst the susceptible and sympathetic population generally. The Brethren, who in pursuit of their handicraft had wandered north, related in their southern dialect with what confidence Hoffmann, on being thrown into prison, had thanked God that the hour had struck, had raised his hand to Heaven, and sworn by the living God that he would neither drink water nor eat bread till the time had arrived when he could with outstretched finger point to him who had sent him. They brought with them tracts that Hoffmann had written during his confinement and had succeeded in smuggling out of the prison to his adherents. Hoffmann had predicted that he would be seized and imprisoned by the godless. His prophecy had come true. He had also predicted that he should be speedily released and be caught up in the clouds to join the Lord and return with him in glory to judge the earth. “Oh, Saints of God,” he wrote from his prison, “raise your heads, your hearts, your eyes, your ears. Your salvation is before the door. All the plagues have been fulfilled save that of the seventh angel of vengeance.”
Throughout the winter of 1533-1534 the tracts of Hoffmann were to be found in the hands of the popular party in Münster, and were earnestly studied. But the doctrines of Hoffmann contained, as compared with those of Matthys, a considerable non-resistance element. The notion that it was the duty of the elect to bear the evils God inflicted upon them, and to resist not those in authority, but to await the day of vengeance that would come in its good time, was still the predominant doctrine among the Melchiorites of Westphalia until the coming of the apostles of Jan Matthys early in January, 1534. Essentially the Anabaptism of Holland, Friesland and Westphalia was identical with the Anabaptism of Moravia, the Tyrol, and southern Germany, as that was with the original doctrine as held and preached by the little pioneer community of Zürich constituted by Konrad Grebel and his friends. But there was one theory prevalent in the north-west, chiefly owing to the teaching of the two Melchiors, Hoffmann and Rink, (if we are to regard them as two persons) which was viewed with disfavour by most of the earlier communities of southern and south-eastern Germany, and this was the theory of the imminency of the second advent of Christ and of the millennium. This innovation, for the most part peculiar to the Anabaptists of the north-west, was not only not held by their brethren of the south, but was even on occasion strongly combated by them. And, as it turned out, this apocalyptic point of view, notwithstanding the apparent identity of doctrines otherwise, was destined to form a crucial line of demarcation between the earlier Anabaptism of the third decade of the century, which had its principal seat in south-eastern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and the later Anabaptism of the fourth decade, which prevailed mainly in Holland, Friesland, Westphalia, and the north-west generally. From the belief and expectation of the immediate advent of a day of vengeance, out of which would arise the reign of the saints on earth, it was but a step to the conviction that Providence would work his purposes through the human agency of the elect themselves. Melchior Hoffmann had prophesied his own imprisonment, his liberation, and the end of the age for the year 1533. The first of these prophecies proved correct, but the others disappointed the expectation of the many thousands of Melchior’s followers. As the year 1533 became autumn and as autumn faded into winter, and yet there was no sign of the anxiously awaited catastrophe, doubts must have arisen in the minds of many as to the infallibility of Hoffmann’s interpretations of the signs of the times.
Doubts transformed themselves in the active and energetic mind of the master-baker of Haarlem into the conviction that the Saints themselves must take to the sword, that the time of enduring, forbearing, meekness and suffering was past, and that it was his mission to shew them the new way of vengeance and the destruction of the godless, by which they should accomplish the will of God, work out their own salvation and inaugurate the millennial reign. The success so rapid and so extraordinary of his followers the apostles he sent forth into all the neighbouring lands, confirmed him in the belief of his divine mission. The wonderful reports brought to him of the events in Münster, of the victories gained by the elect over worldly authorities, of the zeal that inspired the whole population, at last left no doubt in his mind that Münster was the chosen city. This conviction once forced upon him, his course became clear. He, the prophet, specially chosen of God to prepare the way for Him, must depart without delay to this new city of God to take the lead in the work of vengeance and regeneration.
1. Hecker’s “Epidemics of the Middle Ages,” p. 181.
2. Keller, “Wiedertäufer,” p. 291.