Ep. 3 Debacle at Münster: Mennonites go off the rails

Some people say the persecution of the Anabaptists was more severe than that of the first Christians by the Romans. Louis and Wilhelm, co-Dukes of Bavaria in 1527 sent death squads to roam the heart of Europe looking for Anabaptists. When they were found, Anabaptists were given two choices: recant and be beheaded or don’t recant and be burned at the stake. According to the Global Anabaptist/ Mennonite Encyclopedia Online: “Steadfast and willing to endure the supreme sacrifice, most of the martyrs went to their death with cheerful countenance and with a prayer on their lips. Men and women, occasionally children, were unwavering in their loyalty to their faith.”

But not all Anabaptists went quietly into the fire or whatever torture had been proscribed for them. Anabaptists were convinced that the apocalypse was just around the corner and they were preparing for the Millenium, a period of a thousand years during which Jesus returns to earth. After that, it’s hell-fire for sinners. Anabaptist prophet Melchior Hoffman nailed down the time and place where the
Apocalypse would occur: Strasbourg, 1534. Hoffman prophesied the Christians would defeat the ungodly in a bloody battle which would initiate the Second Coming of Christ. Just to be on the safe side, Strasbourg city officials gave Hoffman a tiny cell in a tower overlooking the street, where he spent the last ten years of his life bleakly singing songs and preaching to the people on the street below. With Hoffman in seclusion people began to realize Christ wasn’t coming to Strasbourg after all, but Münster seemed a possibility.

Münster, Germany was a city which practiced a measure of religious tolerance and for the outlawed Anabaptists it became a haven. In a rare display of cooperation among enemies, Catholics and Lutherans sat on city council along with businessmen and artisans. It was easily the most religious city in all of the land with a towering cathedral, ten grand churches, seven convents, four monasteries and four charitable foundations. But for all this religious tolerance, it was also a city of tension. Religious institutions paid no taxes and contributed no assistance to the military protection of the city. On their garden plots, convents and monasteries harvested produce to be sold in the market in competition with the peasant farmers in the region. “They engaged in active competition with the businessmen and artisans of the city: the nuns were busy at their looms, weaving tapestries and fabrics, and the brothers made furniture and tools in their shops.”[1]

Anabaptists began to flock to this city of 9,000 people and upset the balance with their radical ideas and ecstatic demonstrations. They eventually expelled both the Catholics and the Lutherans and established a communal, polygamist Shangri-La whilst waiting for the impending end of all time. The revolt was led by Jan Matthys, a baker from Haarlem, Netherlands who named Münster the New Jerusalem. With the opposition driven out, Anabaptists controlled the city. Under Matthys, all property was communally held. Deeds of ownership held no value. Anyone who did not want to be re-baptized was free to leave the city and several hundred did so. There followed three days of re-baptizing the remaining population.


Bishop of Münster, Franz von Waldeck

Jan Matthys

Jan Matthys

Bishop of Münster, Franz von Waldeck surrounded the city with his troops and waited. Caught up in the spiritual fervor of the times Matthys saw himself as the latter day Gideon. On Easter Sunday, April 5, 1534, he took a small party of his best men on a dangerous mission as the residents watched from the city walls. As a suicide mission he achieved total success – they were all killed when his group of a dozen men was run down and slaughtered by 500 of the bishop’s mercenaries. Matthys’ head was paraded on the tip of a pointed stick for all to see and his genitals were nailed to the city gates.

Jan van Leiden, Matthias’ second in command, now became “King of Jerusalem” ruling the city in extravagant splendor while the people suffered from the blockade. With only 2,000 men in a city of 9,000 inhabitants, van Leiden believed allowing men to marry

MEV-10015845 - © - Mary Evans Picture Li
JAN BEUCKELSON or BOCKELSON also known as JAN VAN LEIDEN Dutch religious leader (Anabaptist)

more than one wife, would protect women from unwanted sexual predation. And that was during his most lucid moments. Van Leiden is supposed to have had a harem of 16 wives, one of which, Elisabeth Wandscherer, he murdered himself for her complaining about his luxurious lifestyle while the city suffered in desperate straits.[2]

The bishop made several attempts to recapture the city. On August 28, 1534 the Münsterites repelled 8,000 of his soldiers, killing 3,000.[3] Van Leiden celebrated his short-lived victory by running naked through the street until he collapsed in heap in front of the mayor’s house. Not that van Leiden’s celebration was out of the ordinary in this strange and dangerous place.

“They leaped into the air ‘as if they wanted to fly,’ especially the women, who let their hair down and opened their garments or threw them away entirely, and flung themselves in the street in the shape of the cross, rolling in pig- and cow-dung.”[4]

“Men and women raced about in circles, foam spilling from their lips: ‘Nothing could have been more frightful, more insane, more comic.’”[5]

Food supply became the overriding problem of Münster, the surrounding countryside had been occupied and pillaged by the Bishop’s forces, who by late 1534 had closed the siege and prevented any supplies reaching the city. Famine broke out in the city, causing a high number of casualties, especially amongst the children and elderly citizens of Münster.[6]



Bishop Waldeck actually built another wall all the way around the city to starve out the rebels, so now there were three walls around the city. By 1535 the end of all time was certainly at hand, but only for the “King of Jerusalem” and his Münsterites. Expected reinforcements from the Netherlands did not arrive. Van Leiden tried to negotiate a settlement with a local Protestant prince, but the prince answered by sending his troops to the bishop’s camp. Now things were unravelling quickly. In April 1535 the “parliament” of the Holy Roman Empire threw its support behind the bishop who demanded the unconditional surrender of Münster. In June van Leiden released any citizens who wished to leave: they were slaughtered as soon as they neared archbishop’s troops. Near the end of June, von Waldeck’s men slipped into the city via an unguarded gate and a house-to-house street battle ensued. When it was over, 200 barricaded Anabaptists came out of hiding when they were offered safe passage out of the city. They were also killed immediately – it was that kind of a time.

Van Leiden and the other Anabaptist leaders, curiously, were captured alive. They were paraded throughout the province of Westphalia, put on show in the various market squares and tortured.[7]munster-rebellion

On January 22, 1536, Jan van Leiden, the “King of Jerusalem” [and the other Anabaptist leaders] were executed in the town-square in Münster, in presence of the [bishop] and his allied princes. The dying bodies of the three Anabaptists were put into cages which were pulled up on the spire of the Lamberti Church in Münster, as an exemplary warning to all religious and political heretics.[8]

It is a measure of the significance of this event that when you look up at the spire of St. Lamberts Cathedral in Münster, Germany, you can still see the cages there today. Münster was a turning point for the status quo in Germany. Never again did the Anabaptists strike out in open rebellion at Lutheran or Catholic opponents. Peasants who had believed in and died for Martin Luther had been put in their place.

St lamberti cages today

St. Lamberts Cathedral in Münster, Germany today.

For two or more centuries to come the economic and social situation of the German peasantry would not improve dramatically, while the urban commoners would hardly participate in the increasing wealth and political importance of the cities.[9]

Menno Simons, an astute and educated man surviving to old age in dangerous times, could not have been untouched by the Münster rebellion. His own brother and members of his own congregation were executed for their part in the attempted takeover of a Catholic monastery in Holland at the same time as the Münsterite catastrophe was winding down to its gory conclusion.

Menno Simons

Menno Simons

It is now generally agreed that Menno initially was a Melchiorite, that is, a follower of Melchior Hoffman, and that he called the Münster Anabaptists “brothers” but broke decisively with them over the use of force to bring in the kingdom of God.[10] Scholars have long agreed that Menno was not the founder but the organizer of the Dutch Mennonites; beyond that almost every question about him has been a matter of debate from his own time to the late 20th century.[11] Whether the Münster events confirmed his pacifism or drove him to it remains a question. What is not in question is when Menno said true Christians turn the other cheek, he really meant it:

“I tell you firmly that in the gospel lifestyle helping others with the sword is forbidden to all true Christians.”

“[We know] nothing of a sword or deadly weapon, nor have we ever known one, this is something no one can deny. We who follow the example of Christ in all patience, our possessions and our life are easily wiped out with an hypocritical word, but every day unconquerable steadfastness we stand defenseless, without any resistance, like sheep led to the slaughter while we are delivered to the sword, water and fire in droves.”

“Christ did not want to be protected by Peter’s sword, should a Christian therefore protect himself with a sword? Christ wanted to drink the cup which the father had given to him, should it therefore not be valid for a Christian to drink the cup Christ had to drink?”[12]

Once again the standard for Christian behavior was set too high for mortal man yet Mennonites would adopt this standard and fail to meet it to varying degrees in each of the places where they lived.

Persecution and martyrdom not only marked their identity as Christians, however, they legitimated their status as true believers. Mennonites wore them as badges of distinction.[13]

Menno himself travelled from one cell of believers to another acting as a catalyst for the various groups. He had left the Catholic faith and was baptized in 1536 and immediately became a hunted man.

Menno had a price of two thousand guilders on his head and those who gave him food or shelter, read any of his books or even spoke with him paid for their kindness with their lives. Tjaard Renicx of Kimswerd for example, was executed in January 1539 for having sheltered Menno. In June 1549 Klaas Jans was executed because Menno had stayed overnight in his house.[14]

In 1579 Dutch citizens were granted freedom of religion, and although Mennonites were not of the preferred religion, they were tolerated. Quietly and together they maintained their lifestyle under the radar until it was safe to come up for air.

“… during the 17th century Mennonites were able to participate fully in the rapidly flourishing economy. Thanks to their high moral standards, they obtained a generally respected reputation as honest, hardworking artisans and merchants. Within a few generations they managed to achieve the status of wealthy citizens, thanks to their share in trade and industry.

They began to make their first move as the republic ended up in a major crisis, in 1672. In this year of disaster, national defense had to clear the decks for action in great haste, as France and England were threatening the nation. The richest Mennonites were summoned to provide the state with cheap loans. Thanks to their millions, their loyalty would not be questioned again. ”[15]

Mennonites had been denied access to the guilds so many became merchants and financiers, and became heavily involved in cultural and political life.

Soon, the Mennonites … became closely involved in patriotism. Inspired by developments in America and France, this movement disputed the Regent’s elite corps of viceroys. They didn’t hesitate to take up weapons in the process, thus giving up the old Mennonite principle of being defenseless.[16]

* * *

Holland’s surviving Mennonites rose quickly among the ranks of the economic elite, they traded in lumber, fish and whales, and financed their shipbuilding and distilleries with their own banks. [17] They lived in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Emden, Hamburg, Danzig, and Königsberg and other places which had begun to tolerate them[18] and they put their wealth on display in ostentatious homes along the River Vetch in an area which became known as Menistenhemel (Mennonite Heaven).[19]

Many other Mennonites could not wait for religious freedom to save them. They tended to leave the settled areas and drifted east into the dark swamps of the Vistula River lowlands. Among these Mennonites were Gerhard’s ancestors.



[1] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 13 e-book edition.

[2] http://www.executedtoday.com/tag/jan-van-leiden. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[3] http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=anabaptist_commune_munster. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[4] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, by, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 36 e-book edition.

[5] Arthur, Anthony, The Tailor-King The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, by, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1st edition September 1999, 1st e-book edition April 2011, page 36 e-book edition.

[6] Komenos, The Anabaptist Commune of Münster 1534 -1535, http://www.allempires.com/article /index.php?q=anabaptist_commune_munster. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[7] Komenos, The Anabaptist Commune of Münster 1534 -1535, http://www.allempires.com/article /index.php?q=anabaptist_commune_munster. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[8] Komenos, The Anabaptist Commune of Münster 1534 -1535, http://www.allempires.com/article /index.php?q=anabaptist_commune_munster. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[9] Komenos, The Anabaptist Commune of Münster 1534 -1535, http://www.allempires.com/article /index.php?q=anabaptist_commune_munster. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[10] Krahn, Cornelius and Dyck, Cornelius J., “Menno Simons (1496-1561),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 18 Feb 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Menno_Simons_(1496-1561)&oldid=131368.

[11] Ibid.

[12] From The Complete Works of Menno Simons, as quoted in Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith and Economics, edited by Calvin Redekop, Victor A. Krahn, Samuel J. Steiner, Chapter 3, Russian Mennonites, Property and the Sword by Jacob Loewen, footnote page 64.

[13] Friesen, Abraham, In Defense of Privilege: Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War I (Perspectives on Mennonite Life and Thought), Kindred Productions, January 1, 2006, pg 351

[14] http://www.mennosimons.net/life.html, Copyright © Machiel van Zanten. Accessed Feb 18, 2016

[15] Visser, Piet,  Menno Simons and the Mennonites – a troubled history, The Menno Simons routes, Walks, bicycle and car routes in an area of rich cultural history, Buijten & Schipperheijn Recreatief – Amsterdam, 2008, http://www.livingwaterschurch.ws/Books/books/Simmons%20Menno/ MennoSimonsRoutes_English.pdf, accessed September 1, 2017.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Fretz, J. Winfield and Calvin W. Redekop. “Business.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 Feb 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Business&oldid=102119.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Urry, James, Wealth and Poverty in the Mennonite Experience: Dilemmas and Challenges, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol 27 (2009).

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