Today in Odd History: Anabaptist Radicals Declare Muenster the "New Jerusalem" (February 27, 1534)

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Anabaptist Radicals Declare Muenster the "New Jerusalem" (February 27, 1534)

Jan van LeydenToday in Odd History, a group of revolutionary Anabaptists who had seized the German city of Muenster declared it "The New Jerusalem." They then proceeded to institute a theocratic rule that became ever-more oppressive and abusive, until an army led by the exiled Bishop of Muenster succeeded in retaking the city. The rebellion was over less than 18 months after it began; it accomplished nothing except to confirm the most dire suspicions of those who considered even peaceful Anabaptists to be dangerous heretics.

The Anabaptist movement was part of the wave of religious reform that swept across Europe in the 16th century. The term itself came from the Greek anabaptizein, to baptize again, and referred to the movement's practice of adult baptism. Since the Catholic Church and the mainstream Protestant churches baptized infants, most adults in Renaissance Europe had already been baptized. According to Anabaptist belief, however, infant baptism was not authorized by Scripture; only an adult could make the choice to accept salvation. Thus, they began "re-baptizing" followers, or so it appeared to outsiders, who used the term mockingly. Although Anabaptists lacked the political and doctrinal unity that characterize true sects, they can be classified into three general subgroups. Contemplative Anabaptists, such as Hans Denck (c.1500–1527), believed that divine grace was a purely personal matter, and that any formal organization of true Christians would be an artificial condition. Evangelical Anabaptists, such as the followers of Jacob Hutter and Menno Simons, were pacifists, who lived simply and communally, and insulated themselves from the world. This branch of the movement was arguably the most successful: Despite centuries of persecution, Hutterite, Mennonite, and Amish communities still thrive in the modern world. The Anabaptists at Muenster, however, were of the third category. They were revolutionary Anabaptists, determined to bring about the End Days and the Thousand Year Reign of Christ by force if necessary.

In 1530, the Anabaptist movement caught fire in Strasbourg, where a furrier named Melchoir Hoffman began to preach a millenial doctrine that predicted the imminent return of Christ. He was imprisoned after three years of weekly sermons, accompanied by waves of adult baptism and proclamations that God had chosen Strasbourg as the New Jerusalem, but his message had spread far beyond his home city. In Haarlem, Jan Matthys, a baker who perceived himself to be the heir to Melchoir's spiritual authority, suddenly announced that he was, in fact, Enoch, the second witness of the Book of Revelation. He gathered a group of followers, and sent them out to carry his word into the countryside. Jan van Leyden (sometimes identified as Jan Bockelson) and Gerard Boekbinder went to Muenster, where they found Bernhard Rothman already preaching Anabaptist sermons. Matthys took this as a sign. He declared that Muenster, not Strasbourg, was the site of the New Jerusalem, and took his followers there to ensure the prophecy.

Matthys's horde arrived in early February 1534. Jan van Leyden and Bernard Knipperdolling took to the streets, preaching the Apocalypse. Hysteria gripped the city. People began speaking in tongues, and experiencing visions. As word spread, Anabaptists began flooding into the city, while Catholics and Lutherans scrambled to get out. On February 23, Matthys climbed the pulpit and announced that Muenster could not truly become the City of God until it had been thoroughly cleansed. He called for the baptism of every adult in the city, and for the execution of any who resisted. Knipperdolling, possessing a more rational mind, convinced him to merely exile dissenters, rather than killing them. For the next three days, Matthys's army dedicated itself to baptizing the ungodly, while the Bishop of Muenster applied himself to building seigeworks around the town.

 

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