Understanding history is not merely an exercise in nostalgia or intellectual curiosity. History holds profound significance for Christians today. Studying the past provides invaluable insights into the events that have shaped the course of society and the church. When we study the events and individuals that have influenced the church throughout the centuries, we can gain a deeper understanding of present-day dilemmas. Furthermore, the positive examples in church history can inspire us through the unwavering devotion and resilience of those who have gone before us.
One captivating (although lesser known) chapter in church history is the sad tale of the Münster Rebellion. This compelling story unfolds as a complex narrative, blending religious zeal, political turmoil, and the pursuit of the utopian ideals of a kingdom on earth. When we unravel the lessons embedded within this tragedy, we find a few key takeaways that are worthy of contemplation.
Although there is much to say concerning the Münster Rebellion (there are books written on this issue), we will limit ourselves to a brief summary and survey of the events. It is a sad part of church history, a demonstration of the oft-abused relationship between faith and power, the dangers of fanaticism, and the perils of having an over-realized eschatology.
What is the Münster Rebellion?
The Münster Rebellion took place in the 16th century within the walls of Münster, a city in present-day Germany. It unfolded against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that aimed to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. While some Reformers sought to bring the teachings of the Catholic Church closer to Scripture, there were others who believed that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. These radical Reformers, known as Anabaptists, advocated for more changes within the church. For example, the Anabaptists believed that baptism should follow an individual’s profession of faith, a stance that went against the traditional acceptance of infant baptism by most Reformers.
At the city of Münster, a group of radical Anabaptists gained control with the support of citizens who shared their ideals. In 1534, under the leadership of Jan Matthys and later Jan van Leiden, they took over the city council and transformed Münster, believing that it was to be the New Jerusalem of Christ’s coming kingdom. They sought to create a society governed solely by their interpretation of the Bible. An unhappy Protestant and Catholic coalition responded by besieging the city and eventually capturing it through much bloodshed in June of 1535, ending the year and a half occupation.
What were the Theological Beliefs of the Anabaptists at Münster?
The leaders in Münster based their theological beliefs in Anabaptism. As mentioned earlier, Anabaptists rejected the practice of infant baptism and emphasized the significance of believer’s baptism. Although that is the belief that Anabaptists are most well-known for, they also advocated for a separation of church and state, envisioning a spiritual community governed by believers who willingly embraced and followed the teachings of Christ.
In Münster, the leaders embraced a radical interpretation of their beliefs, pushing them to an extreme that went well beyond standard Anabaptist of that time. They believed that their city had been specifically chosen by divine providence to become a tangible representation of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Jan Matthys, the leader of the movement, taught these revolutionary ideas through his own interpretation of Scripture, as well as mixing in supposed visions from God. Matthys advocated for a form of communal living, where all property was to be shared among the entire populace. The final result was communal ownership, resembling a form of early communism. However, unsurprisingly, those in charge lived a bit of a better life than the commoner, often feasting like the kings they thought they were.
Jan Matthys prophesied the imminent arrival of the apocalypse, emphasizing the need for urgency and fervor among his followers. The belief in an impending cataclysmic event served as a catalyst for radical action and a sense of divine purpose. Consequently, the city of Münster became a hub of intense religious fervor and communal living, attracting a considerable number of individuals who were drawn to the promises of God’s kingdom coming to “the New Jerusalem” of Münster. However, the Protestants and Catholics were not pleased by how crazy Münster was becoming, so they attacked Münster, eventually killing Jan Matthys.
Following Matthys’s death, Jan van Leiden assumed leadership and further intensified the cultic regulations imposed on the citizens of Münster. Van Leiden labeled himself a Davidic King and introduced the practice of polygamy, justifying it through his interpretation of biblical figures such as Abraham and David.
Why is the Münster Rebellion Important to Remember Today?
The Münster Rebellion holds immense historical and contemporary relevance, offering valuable insights into Christian extremism and how a Christian community can be well-intentioned, but their errant biblical interpretation can bring about a disastrous representation of Christianity. Here are a few important takeaways as to why this story is important to remember.
First, the Münster Rebellion serves as a poignant reminder that good intentions alone are not enough to ensure positive outcomes. The leaders of the rebellion believed they were pursuing a divine mission and striving for a just society. However, their radical interpretation and implementation of their interpretation of Scripture led to disastrous consequences, including violence and suffering. This cautionary tale underscores the importance of critically evaluating one’s intentions against Scripture.
Second, the Münster Rebellion highlights the crucial role of correct biblical interpretation. The leaders of the movement in Münster relied on their interpretation of Scripture to justify their actions. However, their skewed understanding of the Bible led them astray, resulting in tragic practices. This historical event underscores the need for the correct application of the grammatical-literal-historical hermeneutic. Without a correct approach to reading and interpreting Scripture, there is always higher likelihood for misinterpretation (and thus misapplication).
Third, the Münster Rebellion underscores the dangers of merging church and state, ironically contradicting the original stance of the Anabaptists who stood against such a union. The events at Münster witnessed the city’s leaders intertwining their religious fervor with political power, resulting in a highly volatile and oppressive environment. This serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining a clear separation between the church and political governance.
Finally, the Münster Rebellion reminds us of how people often judge an entire religion based on the actions of a few misguided representatives. The radical and violent nature of the Anabaptists in Münster shaped the perceptions of the rest of the world as to who the Anabaptists were and what they stood for. Even to this day, the cages still stand atop St. Lamberti Church in Munster. Long ago, these cages contained the executed corpses of the leaders of the Münster Rebellion were kept as a memorial to what the Anabaptists were capable of (and what the consequences would be). Of course, many Anabaptists were appalled by the actions at Münster, but just like the fly in the ointment, the few rogue Anabaptists gave disastrous press to not just Anabaptists, but even many of the Reformers as well.
The Münster Rebellion remains an intriguing and significant event in history. This lesser known event holds many helpful points to consider. It reminds us that good intentions alone are not sufficient. We also must recognize the importance of correct biblical interpretation. If the Anabaptists of Münster had interpreted Scripture correctly, there would have been no Münster Rebellion. We also see the dangers of misapplied eschatology. In a day where we see more and more people allowing eschatology to become the doctrine which consumes everything else, this ought to be a significant warning. Furthermore, we should be reminded that wherever sinful humans have seized power, it becomes corrupted. This is human nature and there is no avoiding that. May this small story from church history continue to stand as a warning for us.
Timeline of Events at Munster
1533: Jan Matthys, a radical Anabaptist preacher promotes the idea of establishing a New Jerusalem in Münster.
January, 1534: Matthys’s disciples enter Münster and introduce adult baptism, baptizing over 1000 adults. The followers take control of the city, expelling the current bishop, Franz von Waldeck, and establishing their own government.
1534-1535: The city of Münster undergoes radical social and religious transformations. The Anabaptists abolish private property, institute communal living, and implement a strict code of conduct based on their interpretation of Christian principles.
Early 1534: The siege of Münster begins, as Catholic and Protestant forces surround the city in an effort to regain control. The Anabaptists within the city face internal dissent and increasing hardships.
April 1534: Jan Matthys dies during a failed attempt to attack the besieging forces with just 12 men (he envisioned himself as a new Gideon). Jan van Leiden, a charismatic leader, takes control of the movement. He implements polygamy so there are no unmarried women, and crowns himself the new “King David.”
1535: Despite the siege, the Anabaptists continue to resist. They believe in the imminent return of Jesus and reject surrender even in the face of starvation and disease.
June 24, 1535: The besieging forces breach the city’s defenses and capture Jan van Leiden and other Anabaptist leaders.
January, 1536: Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and one more leader are publicly executed in Münster. Their bodies are displayed in iron cages as a warning to others.
The aftermath of the rebellion sees a period of harsh repression against Anabaptists in the region.
Other Resources on the Münster Rebellion
James White’s Lecture on the Münster Rebellion
Photo from: Warwick House – https://books.google.com/books?id=ywIHAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q&f=true The illustrated history of the world, for the English people, Volume 2. Public domain.