THE ANABAPTISTS OF MUNSTER
How many kinds of Baptists are there today? Are all Baptists in the true sense of the Word, who call themselves Baptists? Are there radical groups who call themselves Baptists? We all know that there are many gathered under the Baptist flag today who are not real Baptists and many who are quite radical. It is often the case that all Baptists are judged as being radical because some are.
Thus it was with the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. There were many radicals among them who were not true Anabaptists. The actions of the radicals often stigmatized all the Anabaptists. Such was the case of the "Madmen of Munster." Madmen they were and not true Anabaptists at all.
W. A. Jarrel
W. A. Jarrel, in his most excellent book, quotes several historians as to the diversity among those called Anabaptists. It is necessary that we understand this if we are going to look at the Munster disorders. Following is a quote from Jarrel:
"There were several kinds of Anabaptists at the time of the Munster troubles. Says Hase: "These Anabaptists ... were ... a class of enthusiasts resembling each other, but very unlike each other in moral and religious character... Some of them were persons who renounced the world, and others were slaves of their own lusts; to some of them marriage was only an ideal religion communion of spirit; to others it resolved itself into a general community of wives; some did not differ from the reformers with respect to doctrine, but others rejected original sin and the natural bondage of the will, denied that we are to be justified by the merits of Christ alone, or that we can partake of his flesh and maintained that our Lord's body was from heaven, and not begotten of the virgin."
Mosheim: "It is difficult to determine, with certainty, the particular spot which gave birth to that seditious and pestilential sect of Anabaptists.... It is most probable that
several persons of this odious class made their appearance at the same time in different countries.... The first Anabaptists doctors of any eminence were, almost all, heads and leaders of particular sects. For it must be carefully observed, that though all these projectors of a new, unspotted and perfect church were comprehended under the general name of Anabaptists, on account of their opposing the baptism of infants, and their rebaptizing such as had received the sacrament in childhood in other churches, yet they were, from their very origin, subdivided into various sects which differed from each other in points of no small moment. The most pernicious faction of all those that composed this motley multitude, was that which pretended that the founders of the new and perfect church, already mentioned, were under the direction of a divine impulse, and were armed against all opposition, by the power of the working miracles. It was this detestable faction which began its fanatical work in the year 1521, under the guidance of Munzer, Stubner, Storck and other leaders of the same furious complexion, and excited the most unhappy tumults and commotions in Saxony and other adjacent countries."
They were called Anabaptists, not because they were the same denomination, but solely because they rejected all baptisms not administered by themselves. Just as all immersionists of the United States are often, in books and newspapers, classed as Baptists, though radically different. Some who believed in infant baptism were classed as Anabaptists.
Says Dr. Ludwig Keller, the Munster archivist, a Lutheran, than whom there is no higher authority on this subject: "The name Anabaptist, which is used to designate alike all the South German societies, generally awakens the conception of a party of homogeneous and of like religious views. The conception, however, is an entirely erroneous one."1
The Munster Disorders
Now that we have seen that there were many different groups, even radicals, that were called Anabaptists, we are ready to see what the Munster disorders were.
Remember: All Anabaptists were charged as being of like-mind with those of Munster by the Catholics and many of the Reformers. The Anabaptists of Munster were of the very radical sort. A quote from John Henry Kurtz explains the "Munster Affair":
"Rottman had for some time embraced the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord's Supper; his next step was to reject infant baptism. In a disputation with some theologians of Hesse, he was defeated. Nevertheless, he managed to remain in the city, and to strengthen his party by gathering in Anabaptist elements from other pages. On the festival of the Three Kings, 1534, the prophet John Mathys, a baker of Harlem, and his ardent apostle, John Bockelson, a tailor of Leyden, came to Munster. The populace, especially women, crowded to their preaching. Rottman, and a few other preachers, at once joined them. Their adherents soon multiplied in such an extent, that they thought they might bid defiance to the council. During an insurrection, the council was so weak and forbearing, that it made a treaty which secured to them legal recognition. Anabaptist fanatics then poured into Munster from all directions. After a few weeks they had the preponderance in the council. Mathys, the prophet, announced it as the will of God, that all unbelievers should be driven from the city. This was done, Feb. 27, 1534. Seven deacons divided the effects they left behind, among the believers. In May, the bishop laid siege to the city. By this means the disorder was at least confined to Munster. After having destroyed all the images, organs, and books (only saving the Bible,) the fanatics introduced a community of goods. Mathys, who imagined himself called to slay the besieging foe, fell during a sally by their sword. Bockelson took the prophet's place. In accordance with his revelations the council was deposed, and a theocratic government of twelve elders, who let themselves be inspired by the prophet, was established. That he might marry the beautiful widow of Mathys, Bockelson introduced polygamy. The still surviving moral sense of the citizens in vain resisted this enormity. Those who were dissatisfied rallied around Mollenhok, a blacksmith, were defeated, and all condemned to death. Rockelson, proclaimed king of the whole earth by one of his
co-prophets, set up a splendid court, and introduced the most heinous abominations. He claimed authority to inaugurate the Millenium, sent out twenty-eight apostles to spread his kingdom, and appointed twelve dukes, to govern the earth as his vicegerents. Meanwhile the besieging army failed in an attempt to storm the city (Aug. 1534); had not help arrived from Hesse, Treves, Cleve, Mayence, and Cologne, they would have been compelled to raise the siege. All they could do was starve out the city, and this plan was succeeding well. But on St. John's eve, 1535, a deserter led the soldiers to scale the walls. After a stubborn struggle, the Anabaptists were over powered. Rottman plunged into the thickest part of the fight, and perished. King John, with his governor, Knipperdolling, and the chancellor, Krechting, were captured, pinched to death with red-hot tongs, and then hung up at the tower of St. Lambert's church in iron cages. Catholicism, in an absolutely exclusive form, was restored."2
Common sense should dictate that those described in Kurtz's History were not Anabaptists of the ordinary sort. If ever a person was adverse to war and murder it was the Anabaptists. They were also the people of high morals. It cannot be found where Anabaptists advocated polygamy. This part of their madness, these madmen of Munster probably got from Luther. Ten years before this time Luther had written: "'The husband must be certified in his own conscience and by the word of God that polygamy is permitted to him. As for me, I avow that I cannot set myself in opposition to men marrying several wives, or assert that such a course is repugnant to the Holy Scriptures.’ About the same time he preached his famous sermon on 'Marriage,' which chastity may well pass in silence, beyond this one expression: 'Provided one has faith, adultery is no sin.'"3 These "Madmen of Munster" were not true Anabaptists.
The Anabaptists of those days opposed the Munsterites. Menno Simons opposed them. Harold S. Bender writes the biography of Simons in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin. In that biography Bender writes: "But finally a far more serious 'break' into his parish occurred when certain ones of the 'sect of Munster' reached Witmarsum and 'deceived many pious hearts in our village.' This occurred sometime in the year 1534, for the revolutionary kingdom of Munster was not set up until February of that year. The grievous error of the 'perverted sect of Munster,' as Menno repeatedly called them, was a very serious matter to Menno…the fight against this fanatical movement with every weapon at his command was Menno's chief concern in the years 1534 and 1535...."4
Some of Menno's own words about the men of Munster were: "My soul was much troubled, for I perceived that though they were zealous they erred in doctrine.... I did what I could to oppose them by preaching and exhortations, as much as in me was. I conferred twice with one of their leaders, once in private, and once in public, but my admonitions did not help.... I also faithfully warned everyone against the abominations of Munster, condemning king, polygamy, kingdom, sword, etc."5
Again and again, the martyrs in Martyr's Mirror disowned the "Madmen of Munster." Let me here give the words of J. M. Cramp. Some of what he says is taken from Martyr's Mirror.
"It is observable, also, that the Baptist martyrs of this period frequently and indignantly rebutted the calumny cast upon them, and maintained that they were not answerable for the disgraceful doings at Munster and other places."
"They also asked him (Brother Dryzinger, A. D. 1538), if it were true, that if we should become numerous, we would rise up against them and strangle them, if they would not join us? He told them, 'If we did so, we should be no Christians, but only such name.'"
Speaking of the word of God, Hans, of Overdam (martyred A.D. 1550), said, "That is our sword; it is sharp and two-edged. But we are daily belied by those who say that we would defend our faith with the sword, as they of Munster did. The Almighty God defend us from such abominations!"
"Were they not your people," said the lad, of the governor of Friesland, to Jaques Dosie, "that disgracefully and shamefully took up the sword against the magistrates at Amsterdam and Munster?" "Oh, no, madam," Jaques replied; "those persons greatly erred. But we consider it a devilish doctrine to resist the magistrates by the outward sword and violence. We would much rather suffer persecution and death at their hands, and whatever is appointed us to suffer."
I will only remark, in conclusion, that the history of these transactions has been written by enemies. We live in an age of impartial historical criticism. It is not improbable, therefore, that discoveries will yet be made which will enable future historians to tell the tale of the so-called Anabaptists of Munster much more clearly and fully than their predecessors.
"At any rate, this is certain, that the atrocities and impurities perpetrated at Munster were not more justly traceable to Baptist sentiments than the massacres of the Waldenses and the enormities of the Inquisition would be to Paedobaptism."6
Hardly a doubt exists that the true Anabaptists denounced and opposed the “madness” of the men of Munster. All of their own writings and testimonies give voice to their opposition to the disorders at Munster.
It is not just the Baptist historians who disavow true Anabaptist connection to the "Madmen of Munster." Many non-Baptist historians clear the true Anabaptists of the whole incident. Following are a few quotes from them.
"The fanatical Anabaptists were universally taken as typical, and to this day when Anabaptism is mentioned it is supposed to be the equivalent of absurd interpretation of Scripture, blasphemous assumption, and riotous indecency. Munster, was, however, only the culminating point of
fanaticism engendered by persecution, and Anabaptism in itself, strictly interpreted, is not responsible for it."7
Vedder lists some non-Baptists writings upon this subject. "Cornelius, the able and judicial historians of the Munster uproar, says justly, 'All these excesses were condemned and opposed wherever a large assembly of the brethren afforded an opportunity to give expression to the religious consciousness of the Anabaptist membership.' Fusslin, a conscientious and impartial German investigator, says: 'There was a great difference between Anabaptists and Anabaptists. There were those amongst them who held strange doctrines, but this cannot be said of the whole sect. If we should attribute to every sect whatever senseless doctrine two or three fanciful fellows have taught, there is no one in the world to whom we could not ascribe the most abominable errors.'"8
Much has been made of Munster; to this day, especially with men with a sacralist hangover, it affords an easy dismissal of all that the Stepchildren lived, and died, to achieve. But Munster was far from being typical of Anabaptism as such. As that great historian Tonybee has said, "Munster was 'a caricature of the movement.' Or to quote Professor Gooch once more, 'the tragedy of Munster drew attention to a phase of the movement that was far from typical of its real nature? Munster must be dealt with as the lunatic fringe of anabaptism.'"9
A whole movement should never be judged by one or two fanatics. A whole family should not be judged by one black sheep. The Anabaptist movement should not be judged by the Madmen of Munster. Actually, they were not true Anabaptists at all. I would like to refer my readers to the article on Anabaptists in William Cathcart's Baptist Encyclopedia. It is a long article and cannot be given here. He gives information aplenty on the whole Munster affair.
Notes on Chapter 27
1 Baptist Church Perpetuity or History, pages 216-217.
2 Church History, Volume 2, pages 80-81.
3 Baptist Church Perpetuity or History, page 228.
4 The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, page 9.
5 The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, pages 669-671.
6 Baptist History, pages 256-257.
7 The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, Volume 1, page 163.
8 A Short History of the Baptists, page 180.
9 The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, page 237.
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