When Religious Belief Meets Social Movement: The Münster Rebellion

Article by Amy Calladine. Edited by Claire Stratton. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.

Münster

In 1534, the German city of Münster played host to a remarkable and unparalleled occurrence. Amidst the confusing religious climate of Reformation Europe, a radical fringe of the Anabaptist movement took hold of the city in a desperate bid to build a ‘New Jerusalem’. Although short-lived, the creation of the Kingdom of Münster is a convincing example of the potential for belief to be both dynamic and transformative, posing a concrete challenge to many traditional, often sociological, arguments which paint religion as the ultimate inhibitor of change.

The word ‘Anabaptist’ quite literally references a belief in the sole legitimacy of adult baptism – the refusal to accept the authority of any Christian baptised without consent as an infant. Naturally, these were radical ideas to hold in an age steeped in the power and traditions of an established church. Anabaptists were also known to possess a core of enthusiastic, apocalyptic preachers who were more than happy to voice their criticism of corrupt, state religion and the ills of contemporary society. It wasn’t long until these so-called ‘re-baptisers’ and their followers were quickly perceived as a threat to the maintenance of political, social and spiritual order. It is perhaps unsurprising then that adherents were robbed of the agency to name themselves, the title of ‘Anabaptism’ being conceived originally as a slur – an umbrella term used for those that the state deemed imminently dangerous.

With the severity of state-endorsed persecution reaching new heights in the 1500s, vast numbers of believers were forced to move across much of Europe, searching for a sympathetic rule which would tolerate their marginalised faith. Münster became one such outpost, attracting hoards of Anabaptists from the Holy Roman Empire – along with crowds of curious onlookers – who amassed to hear prophesies of the fast-approaching final judgement. Significantly, the north-western German city was to play a central role.

By February 1534, Münster had become the formal epicentre of radical Anabaptism after the old bishop was driven out of the city cathedral. Those who refused rebaptism were ousted, with events reaching their zenith when Dutch tailor, Jan van Leiden, declared himself ‘King’ and established a royal court in imitation of the Biblical patriarchs of old. From this point on, a unique social experiment was instigated which sought to create an independent commune of believers closed off from the world outside the city walls. Amongst some of the more creative implementations were the abolishment of fiscal economy, introduction of polygamy and the redistribution of material goods – a unique brand of sixteenth-century socialism.

Jan Van Leiden

Jan Van Leiden

For a short while then, Münster represented a trial-ground for new methods of social organisation. Spiritual belief intersected with political government to transform the lives of a community utterly devoted to change. Any rigid division which posits social movements and religious belief as polar opposites is effectively blurred when brought into focus with Anabaptist Münster.

So what was to become of this exceptional society of believers? Defended against siege for sixteen months, in June 1535, the walls were finally breached and the leaders executed as heretics. The steel cages used to encase the corpses of the ringleaders remain to this day, tethered ominously to the stone walls of the old cathedral and standing as evidence of the acute level of threat posed by the brief, but climatic, reign of van Leiden and his compatriots.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, the more bizarre elements of the story accompanied its bloody conclusion to produce a convenient warning against the perils of unfettered religiosity. Still, to disregard the Münsterites simply as crazed zealots on a skewed religious mission is to miss the point somewhat.

Steel Cages, in which the bodies of executed Anabaptists were displayed

Rather than inhibiting social transformation, the Münster rebellion ultimately encouraged its dynamic and vigorous realisation. Through the instigation of new forms of communal organisation, broken lines of social practice were redrawn alongside the expansion of mental (and spiritual) horizons. In removing themselves from the bulk of ‘conventional’ society, the Münsterites demonstrated a desire for social encapsulation – one of the defining features of many New Religious Movements. (Just think of all those hippie ‘cults’ in the sixties who ‘dropped out of’ western modernity and lived together in remote woodland communes!) In a similar way, Münsterites articulated their dissatisfaction with conventional life through the physical instigation of a reactionary alternative. Crucially, all of this was internalised as part of a conspicuously spiritual world-view. In this way, any generalisations about religion as a purely conservative force seem extraneous and clumsy. Instead, it becomes clear that social transformation and religious belief can occupy the same mental space. In overturning traditional modes of government with dynamism and originality, the Münster Anabaptists proved that intense religiosity doesn’t have to result in the fierce safeguarding of the status quo, but is equally capable of transforming itself alongside social reality.

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“Everything Christian brothers and sister have belongs to one as well as the other. You will lack nothing… God won’t allow you to go wanting. Everything will be common. It belongs to all of us.”

Bernhard Rothmann, a communal reformer who inspired part of the Munster Anabaptist movement.

The historian Hans Jurgen-Goertz believed Jan Van Leiden saw his new kingdom as a revival of the original apostolic Christianity.

Reports written by Anabaptist critics claim Jan Van Leiden took sixteen wives.

Anabaptism flourished among peasants and artisans. In many areas it shifted towards a predominantly peasant movement, but in places like Munster and the Low Counties craftsmen outnumbered peasant believers.

Anabaptism professed simplicity and openness in the sharing and worshipping of religion. Sermons took place alongside roadsides, barns and taverns. Many converts felt they could trust this open and inclusive worship. The focus on community and common land meant Anabaptism was linked with criticism of government.

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