(German city painted by Sebastian Münster (1488-1552), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
An Unbelievably Bizarre Anabaptist Rebellion
During the 1530s, a strange occurrence blandly labeled the Münster Rebellion broke out in the city of Münster, within the region of Westphalia (modern northwest Germany). For the multiple-year rebellion, Münster was basically turned into a theocracy ruled by a group of over-zealous Anabaptists—an extreme Protestant Christian sect disliked at the time by both Catholics and other Protestants. In the case of the Münster Rebellion, however, religious debate turned into religious oppression, and a battle of theology devolved into bloodshed and war.
By 1532, the city of Münster was a diverse Christian community. It’s population included Catholics, Lutherans and a growing population of Anabaptists. The latter group was under the spiritual guidance of a man named Bernard Rothmann. Like the city he lived in, Rothmann also had a broad religious background—before becoming an Anabaptist, he was a Lutheran and a Zwinglian. Now, however, he found himself as the leader of a large Anabaptist population. As the Anabaptists of the surrounding German regions continued to be persecuted by Catholic and Protestant domains alike, more and more Anabaptist refugees found shelter in Münster.
By 1533, the influx of Anabaptists into Münster had made them a powerful faction in their newly adopted city. The Catholics and Lutherans who were in charge of the city soon found that the Anabaptist population was so great that law and order could not be enforced. Once the original inhabitants of Münster had this realization, many of the Catholics and Lutherans fled the city. Yet, as always, some inhabitants decided to stay in their homes even though disaster was closing in on their city.
As the Anabaptist population increased in Münster, they had enough power to elect one of their own to city leadership in 1534. His name was Mathijs, and he quickly went to work making Münster an Anabaptist theocracy. Soon after being elected, Mathijs horrifically wanted to put all of the city’s non-Anabaptist residents to death, but his advisers convinced him that exile was the more politically astute option. Even so, when one blacksmith reportedly questioned Mathijs’ abrupt decree, the newly elected Anabaptist leader quickly sentenced him to death.
Once Mathijs was in power, he began constructing a city-state based on his extreme interpretation of the Bible and apocryphal texts not found in the canon of the Church. He forbade the use of currency and ended the recognition of personal property. Apparently, no one was required to empty their homes, but doors were required to be unlocked at all times. When word spread that Mathijs had exiled his religious rivals, executed public dissenters, and set up an Anabaptist regime, the local Catholic bishop of the region raised an army and besieged the city of Münster.
Though Mathijs may seem like the main villain of this story, his reign only lasted for six months. He died in a skirmish against the forces mustered by the bishop. The worst was yet to come. Most of the bizarre and disturbing occurrences of the Münster Rebellion were brought about by Mathijs’ successor—Jan of Leiden.
Jan claimed that he was a prophet of God, and he used his prophetic authority to make Mathijs’ Anabaptist city-state even more extreme. As Jan of Leiden fended off attacks from the besieging army, he began giving himself grand names, including ‘king of righteousness’ and ‘ruler of the new Zion.’ As his sense of grandeur increased, he began imposing drastic changes on Münster. In an escalating reign of terror, Jan of Leiden began executing people deemed to be sinners—the term ‘sinner,’ however, was a broad and flexible description. Anyone who blasphemed, showed dissent, expressed disobedience (to parents or the regime), acted lewdly, or simply complained about the status quo could have faced Jan of Leiden’s executioners.
The most infamous change that Jan of Leiden brought about in Münster was the legalization of polygamy. Around fifty people were reportedly executed after protesting against the implementation of polygamy, and women who refused to join in polygamous marriages were imprisoned. When one of Jan of Leiden’s wives voiced her own doubts about the direction Münster was being led, Jan had her beheaded and then had her corpse trampled by horses.
The madness of the Anabaptist regime controlled by Jan of Leiden, combined with famine imposed by the blockade of the besieging army, drove many of the Anabaptist rebels to despair. As the morale of the rebel forces shattered, deserters began to spill out of the crazed city. As the story goes, two deserters who had fled Münster gave the besieging army the breakthrough it needed. The former rebels provided the bishop’s army with much needed information, including the weak points in the defenses of Münster. By June 25, 1535, the army of the bishop broke into the city and massacred most of the rebels.
Three of the Anabaptist leaders were captured in the final battle, including Jan of Leiden. On January 22, 1536, they were publicly tortured and executed, with their ripped, burned and lacerated corpses displayed in iron cages.
- The European Reformations (Second Edition) by Carter Lindberg. Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.