Anabaptists and the “Kingdom of God”
Anabaptist in Munster
As mentioned in the article on Thomas Muntzer, many of the Anabaptists were Millenarians. They believed that the radical upheavals in the Church and the State were signs that God was purifying His church and that the return of Christ was imminent. While throughout the Medieval period the Church and State were separated but cooperative entities, many of the Millenarians believed that now Christ and the Church would reign. The Church would replace all forms of government. Some also saw the return of the office of prophet and apostle.
Many of the common people believed that both the King and the Pope were oppressive. The State and the Church pressed the people for monetary contributions in the form of taxes and tithes. The State and the Church could order the conscription of the common people to fight in holy conflicts or wars. Both the clergy and the rulers had privileges that the average person could not avail and many of them wanted to see the overthrow of the existing system and a new order of rule.
John of Leiden was one such person. He had heard the fiery sermons of Melchoir Hoffman(1) from Revelations 20, who said that Christ was purging His church and judgment would soon come upon the unbelievers. John Matthys was a baker who believed he had been anointed by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the prophecies of Hoffman. Matthys later claimed to be the witness Enoch, from the Book of Revelation. After being Baptized by Matthys, John of Leiden was sent as an “apostle” to spread the message around the Netherlands. In time, John became frustrated with patience and prayer and began to advocate the use of force against all unbelievers.
Munster: The New Jerusalem
In 1534, John came to Munster in Westphalia, Germany. He joined with the local Anabaptist preacher Bernhard Rothman. It is important to note that the Anabaptists were self-appointed preachers. The previous year, Rothman and his followers had pressured the city council to grant religious freedom in the city. This allowed them to be free from the constraints of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran Church.
A month after Leiden came to Munster, John Matthys also arrived. Matthys had taught that the world would be destroyed but that the city Munster would be a city of refuge from the judgment of God. He predicted that Jesus would return on Easter. End-time hysteria had gripped some of the people of Munster.
Soon there was a revolt that overthrew the city council as well as the bishop. Matthys quickly took control of the city. The Anabaptist leaders said that all the Roman Catholics and Lutherans were to be considered enemies of God. Rather than killing them as Matthys wanted, they were expelled from the city. All remaining members of the city were ordered to be baptized.(2) Those who were members of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran Church fled the city. Others who were sympathetic to the radicals came to Munster. The city was to operate as a commune with everyone sharing all goods. All books were burned and those accused of being demon processed were killed.
Polygamy was also instituted. This came about because Matthys had ordered that all women were to be married but there were more women in the city than men. Historical accounts vary but it is recorded that Leiden had 12 to16 wives. These measures were meant to establish Munster as a theocracy, like the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.
Fall of the City of Refuge
The overthrow of the local government, expelling of the religious leaders, executions, destruction of property, and polygamy cause those outside the city to see the Anabaptists as anarchists. Franz Van Waldeck, the bishop that was thrown out of Munster, assembled an army to siege the city. Matthys decided that he would attack the army outside the walls. He told his followers that God had empowered them to win. Matthys's attack on the army of Waldeck was a disaster. He was killed and decapitated. His head was placed on a pike to discourage the people of Munster. John of Leiden assumed his place as prophet. In a matter of months, John instituted began to act like a dictator. He went so far as to declare Munster as the “New Jerusalem” and crown himself as the king.
Waldeck's siege continued. And after a few successful defenses, the city finally fell to the Bishop's army. John was arrested and tortured to death by the Roman Catholics. After execution, the bodies of the executed Anabaptists leaders Jan van Leiden, Bernd Knipperdollink and Bernd Knechting were put on display in three metal cages on the front of St. Lambert's church. The cages remain there to this day. It was the actions of Matthys and Leiden at Munster that caused the mainstream Reformers to be highly suspect of all Anabaptists.
(1) After three years, Melchoir was arrested and imprisoned to silence his preaching that was considered seditious. Those who continued to follow his ideas were called Melchoirites.
(2) This was considered to be a “rebaptism” by the Lutherans and Roman Catholics whom both practiced infant baptism.