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When Anabaptists were terrorists

11.22. 2017 Written By: Lawrence Ressler 1,038 read

Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite University, Messiah College and Tabor College. He is currently professor of social work at Cairn University located in the greater Philadelphia area after serving a year as host at the International Guest House  in Washington, D.C,, with his wife Sharon. 

My daughter worked for several years as a school counselor in Kuwait, a Muslim majority country. One day, a 14-year-old student asked her, “Mame, why do Americans hate us so? Do they think we are all terrorists?”

Anabaptist Terrorists

When we look back in history as Mennonite Anabaptists, we focus mostly on our persecuted ancestors who we view as Bible-believing, peace-loving, community-minded followers of Christ who were harmless to society and not worthy of the pain, suffering and death they experienced at the hands of the government and religious leaders in the 16th century.

We tend to be less aware of the presence and influence of radicalized Anabaptists during that same time who embraced violent revolution and desired to establish what we today would call an “Anabaptist caliphate.” These radicalized Anabaptists were essentially terrorists who caused fear throughout Europe which contributed to the government’s intense persecution of our ancestors by the government leaders.

Three radicalized Anabaptist leaders were particularly infamous during the early Anabaptist years. They are names not generally familiar to us: Bernard Rothman, Jan Matthias and Jan of Leyden. In the same way that ISIS has been attempting to develop an Islamic state using horrific and violent means, Rothman, Matthias and Leyden became radicalized Anabaptists who were committed to developing a New Jerusalem using force and similar tactics.

While there was widespread unrest in Europe at the time, the German city of Münster became the center of the effort to develop this new state. Even today, three metal cages hang in Münster where the bodies of the deposed leaders were placed to rot after being tortured and executed. The cages were placed in a telling place, by the towers of St. Lambert’s Church. They were placed there as a reminder of the short, brutal and failed attempt of the radical Anabaptists to begin an Anabaptist state.

While the term Mennonite stands as a legacy to the peaceful teachings of Menno Simons and the enduring spirit of those who suffered greatly during the 16th century, the steel cages hanging from St. Lambert’s church are the legacy of Anabaptists who desired to bring about the kingdom of God using violent revolutionary means. As we struggle to deal with changing political environments, poverty and the rise of Muslim-affiliated terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, it is worth thinking about the impact and lessons we can learn from the revolutionary Anabaptists some 500 years ago.

The Context of Anabaptist Persecution

The Anabaptist movement began in the early 1500s, several decades after Christopher Columbus had made his “discovery” of a “new world.” The world order was changing and Europe was a very unstable place. The feudal society was falling apart and poverty was widespread. The Catholic Church, which had been the dominant institution in Europe for over a millennium, was corrupt and in decline. Martin Luther publicly challenged the Catholic Church in 1517, leading to what we now call the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptist Reformation began a few years later, begun in 1523 by individuals who believed Martin Luther was on the right track, but had not gone far enough.

Meanwhile, the simmering discontent of oppressed and desperately poor peasants began to erupt in 1524-25, somewhat like the Occupy Wall Street or One Percent movement in the United States a few years ago. The protests culminated in what is called the Peasants Revolt. Poorly armed peasants led an uprising and demanded economic and political change. An estimated 100,000 peasants were massacred by government forces who were determined to stop the protests. In 1527, the Vatican in Rome was sacked by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, creating a scramble for political power and greater instability.

While there were many perceived sources of unrest, the Anabaptist movement was viewed as a threat by both the political and the church leaders. In an effort to consolidate power and squelch the unrest in Europe, Charles V outlawed the Anabaptist movement in 1527 and ordered that all Anabaptists be exterminated. Depending on the location in Europe, some of the political and church leaders carried out the order and some did not.

Menno Simons did not join the Anabaptist movement until 1536, 13 years after it began. By the time Menno joined the Anabaptists, the perceived threat of and resistance to the Anabaptist movement was quite high.

The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster[1]

The city of Münster in northern Germany had historically been an independent and diverse city where Catholics and Protestants lived together in peaceful cooperation. Because of its open and more tolerant governing structure, Münster was a safe city where Anabaptists could live. They were even allowed to share in the leadership. As the Anabaptist movement began to grow, thousands of individuals sympathetic to the Anabaptists moved to the city.

The peaceful theology of the Anabaptists under the leadership Bernard Rothman, Jan Matthias and Jan of Leyden became radicalized and a vision of establishing an Anabaptist state emerged.

Anabaptist leaders in the city began an effort to take control of the governing structure. In 1533, the Anabaptist leaders consolidated their power and immediately drove out the Protestants and Catholics. Unlike the pacifist Anabaptists who had started the Anabaptist movement, these men opted to use violence and terror to achieve their goals of establishing an Anabaptist state. A few examples of their theocratic and brutal efforts illustrate the point.

In 1533, when the radicalized Anabaptists gained power, they ruthlessly drove out the Catholics and Protestants in the middle of winter. They evicted men, women and children from the city in bitterly cold conditions without adequate clothing and confiscated any food and valuables those fleeing tried to take. Mothers were denied even rags to keep their babies warm. Pregnant women were forced to leave and some were reported to have delivered their babies in the streets. Hundreds of peasants poured into the city to join the rebellion, only to have their possessions confiscated. The established churches were plundered by the Anabaptist leaders.

Jan of Leyden, the last of the leaders associated with the Münster rebellion, declared himself king in 1534, donned a scarlet robe and rode around the city on a white horse. He was especially ruthless as a ruler. Anabaptist converts whose commitment to the movement was suspect, for example, were forced into the cathedral and required to lay on the cold floor while they were chastised for their “uncertain devotion.” Oppressive laws were put in place. Crimes punishable by death were expanded to include blasphemy, attempts to flee, impurity, avarice, theft, fraud, lying and slander, idle conversation, disputes, anger, envy and disobedience to the elders.

To enforce the law, Leyden held two two-hour court sessions daily and offenders were routinely imprisoned and executed for violations. A blacksmith was executed in the public square for questioning the new laws. A young boy was executed when authorities thought he was trying to escape while herding cattle. One woman was executed for taking too much of the rationed meat.

Polygamy was instituted by Jan of Leyden and all women older than 15 were required to be married. While men could have as many wives as they wanted, one woman was executed for having two husbands. Women who refused marriage offers or conjugal rights could be beaten, imprisoned and executed. Some were. Jan of Leyden himself took on 16 wives. He is rumored to have executed one woman in public after she challenged his inhumane treatment of people.

The oppressive conditions led to several revolts inside the walled city. Those involved in one attempt to end the tyrannical rule of Jan of Leyden were forced to dig their mass graves and were summarily shot and buried.

Just as governments in our day have felt the need to step in and stop the development of terrorist movements such as ISIS, the government at that time believed it needed to regain control of the city of Münster. Since the city was so well-fortified, the government decided to lay siege and force the surrender of the leaders when conditions became desperate. Much like Aleppo and other cities in Syria during the war against ISIS, the humanitarian conditions deteriorated steadily in Münster and thousands of people faced starvation. When residents attempted to flee the city, they were often killed by government forces waiting outside the walls.

In the end, after the year-long siege and several failed attempts to take the city by force, the government was successful in breaching the walls and gained control. Jan of Leyden and the other leaders were tried, tortured with hot tongs applied to their bodies three times (as required by the law), and then executed. Their bodies were placed in iron cages hung from the church towers as an example to others of what would happen if they participated in such efforts.

Münster was not the only location where radicalized Anabaptists tried to establish earthly Kingdoms of God using force. One noteworthy effort, albeit smaller and shorter in duration, involved 300 men who took over a Dutch monastery known as Oldeklooster. What is particularly important about this situation is that Menno’s older brother, Pieter, who apparently had been radicalized by militant Anabaptists, is believed to be one the 300 men involved. Menno’s brother was either killed in fighting or executed by authorities afterwards. It is this incident that motivated Menno to finally leave the Catholic Church and join the Anabaptists, whom he saw as sheep without a shepherd – no doubt having his brother in mind.

Responding to the Culture and Politics of Fear

So why did the authorities hate our ancestors so?

The authorities did not hate the Anabaptists, they feared them, just as we fear Muslims in our day for the Muslim state some are working toward and the acts of terror caused by radicalized elements. The theological issues were a factor in the Anabaptist persecution, but it was perhaps the radical Anabaptists that justified the persecution. The authorities likely did not see all Anabaptists as terrorists, but they could not distinguish between those who were a threat and those who were not, just as our government seems unable to distinguish between peaceful and radicalized Muslims.

The politics of fear in Europe in the 1500s led leaders to choose between maintaining order and safety over possible harm to our peaceful ancestors; the same fear that is causing many Americans to support extreme efforts that will protect the United States over the harm done to Muslim individuals who may or may not be dangerous. In the heightened state of fear that existed then, like now, the authorities were more supportive of inflicting pain on innocent Anabaptists than to allow the movement to possibly grow.

Responding to Terror

While Menno and his followers would not take up arms against others, Menno soundly repudiated Jan of Leyden and the Münster rebellion and supported the government’s efforts to control those who were doing such evil deeds. He called on the government, however, to use the least violent means possible when doing so and pleaded with them to relax the efforts against those who were not radicalized.

What is most telling about Menno Simons and his followers is the fearlessness they demonstrated in the midst of the culture of fear that existed. This is not to say they were not concerned. With fear and trembling, Menno became an Anabaptist to help lead those seeking to follow Christ in the way of peace and away from the violence promoted by the radicalized Anabaptists. In the face of imprisonment, torture and death, the peaceful Anabaptists would not yield to fear though the potential for personal suffering was real and extreme.

So what can we learn and do?

Apply the Golden Rule: As a people who have experienced the oppression and harm that can result from acting out of fear, we can reflect on and apply the golden rule in the modern context. We can “do unto others as we would have had them do unto us.” We know how important it is to have a government that will differentiate between those who are violent and those who are nonviolent. We know how important is was for us to have governments who will provide a safe haven when people are forced out of their homes and homeland. We can encourage out leaders to do the same.

Reject the Politics of Fear: We, like the peaceful Anabaptists, can also reject the politics of fear that so easily tempts us to value our own safety and wellbeing as more important than that of those we fear. Menno Simons became an Anabaptist knowing full well he would pay a huge price for it, even to the point of arrest, torture and execution. He rejected the fear and joined the Anabaptists anyway. We can take inspiration and comfort from the example of overwhelming pain and suffering our ancestors experienced, even as they held firm to their commitment to love their enemies and to suffer for righteousness sake.

 Walk into the Future with Confident Resolve: We can take heed of the words of Jesus spoken to his frightened disciples just before his arrest, torture and crucifixion. To this frightened group he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). May we be among those who follow the way of Jesus in this day of fear. May our light shine before men that they may see our good works and give glory to the Father in Heaven.

[1] Much of the material is taken from Anthony Arthur’s book, “The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, St Martin’s Press, New York, (1999).

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