by Patrick Friesen
ED note: Patrick Friesen is the new Development Coordinator at the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). For the last 13 years he worked in a variety of positions at Steinbach Bible College, including teaching Anabaptist History. The following article is his recent reflections on when Anabaptists created a violent government takeover. Look forward to more in MHV’s 2021 exhibit to open late May, 2021: “Mennonites at War”. This exhibit will cover a variety of stories and artefacts that involved Mennonites in war and their debate on violence and peace that has been going on for centuries.
History is often ugly. To ignore the ugly bits and glorify the triumphal parts leads to a distortion of the truth and a blindness to our own sorted past. The Dirk Willems story, as told now through a sculpture and garden at MHV, inspires the radical sacrificial love that leads to peace. But as you might expect, Anabaptists (of which Mennonites are a sub-group) possess their own ugly past of a radical nature as well. It is one that Mennonite historians have long tried to distance and discount. Remember Münster?
The events that happened in 1534 in the city of Münster remain a bloody stain on the history of Anabaptists. Bernhard Rothmann, described as an independent and eclectic theologian, gathered the support of guild leaders, and spread a prophetic vision by raising discontent among the people of Münster. Rothmann’s reformation attempts were spurred on by the apocalyptic preaching of Melchior Hoffman and the mobilization efforts of Jan Matthijs. Their vision of a new Jerusalem with Münster at the centre mobilized the Anabaptists of the surrounding territories. The once peaceful Anabaptist movement turned violent under the urging of their leadership, believing that this was the end of the world and that they had been appointed to bring about God’s judgement.
The bishop of Münster under the support of Lutheran and Catholic leaders responded to the insurrection and laid siege to the city for 16 months cutting off communication and supplies. During that time Matthijs predicted that Christ would return for judgement on Easter of 1534. When the prophecy didn’t materialize as predicted, he led a raid against those besieging the city. His subsequent death ushered in power struggles between the remaining leaders. Jan of Leyden assumed the kingship in preparation for the coming kingdom of God. As the siege went on many of the men of Münster either surrendered or died in the fighting leading Jan of Leyden to institute polygamy. Behind the façade of polygamy and the policy of ‘community of goods’ was the subjugation of women and the continued privileged excesses of those in power.
What had been a movement that renounced the use of the sword, upheld the value of all humanity, and stood against the conflagration of church and state, now bore the stain of a violent uprising. A movement born out religious zeal and a more public access to the written word decayed into an example that historians have used throughout the years to discredit the validity of the Anabaptist movement.
History does not so much repeat itself as it echoes off the canyons of time. While it may be tempting to rationalize and excuse the ugly parts of history, learning comes when we determine to listen to its warnings. If we listen carefully, we can hear the voices of the past urging us to do the radical work of sacrificial peace-making and non-violent advocacy for the marginalized.
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