Entitled Millennials

645px-Melchiorhofmann Christoffel van Sichem
Melchior Hoffman, presumably after his reduction to apocalyptic parakeet. Photo Credit: Christoffel van Sichem

Like many groups before them, some Anabaptists now believed that the Christian apocalypse was imminent, and they needed only to wait a short while longer before the judgement of their Lord descended. One of this new generation of Anabaptists actually claimed to know when and where the end of the world would start. It would be in Strasbourg, in 1534, and he planned to lead his flock there in time for their glorious ascension. It was a message Melchior Hoffman took across the Low Countries and the Baltic region as he walked barefoot and humble from town to town. One of his Dutch converts was a middle aged baker named Jan Matthias.[1] He would have been a large man, with built muscles from a career of physical labor.

Matthias would ultimately take over leadership of Hoffman’s flock when everything went predictably wrong. In 1533 Hoffman returned to Strasbourg to wait out the end of the world, and was immediately arrested by the understandably worried city elders. As his followers were scattered, Hoffman was surprisingly spared an agonizing death and spent the remaining decade of his life lamenting to passersby from a Strasbourg prison tower.

Now leading the northern Anabaptists, Matthias decided that his old master had been wrong on a few counts. Violent resistance was acceptable and necessary, and the place and the year of the apocalypse had been incorrect. The world was now going to certainly end in Münster, 1535.[2] Certainly if what Matthias was hearing from a young friend inside the city was true, then Münster was looking more apocalyptic by the day.

Named after the old word for “Monastery”, the small city of Münster in Nordrhine Westfallen was an oddity even in the Holy Roman Empire. It was part of a Prince Bishopric, under the control both spiritually and temporally in 1532 of Bishop von Wiede. For a city of just under 10,000, it had a remarkable nine major churches and one cathedral, but was actually administered by a mostly bipartisan town council headed by the local guilds. The Peasant’s War had rattled von Wiede badly, and he had agreed to some serious concessions and the council’s leadership as a compromise to keep the region from boiling over. While he had walked some of them back since, the city was a place where Lutherans and Catholics could live and worship alongside one another with only a minimum of persecutions flinging around. It was also the home of a young man named Hermann von Kerssenbrück, who was around 13 when the trouble started. Born to a Catholic family, Kerssenbrück would later grow up to be a schoolteacher and church rector in Münster. The scars of this childhood trauma stayed with him, and almost thirty years later he would write one of the only eyewitness records based on his own memories, research, and subsequent interviews.

The travels of Melchior Hoffman. This helps provide a sense of scale for Anabaptism’s growing scope. And also just how many established cells may have been seeded by Hoffman across the region. Photo Credit: Nord Nord West

The other major account of our subsequent events is provided by a cabinet maker and soldier named Henry[3] Gresbeck. Though originally from Münster, Gresbeck now lived outside the city and had only planned on stopping for a few weeks in early 1534 to care for his mother. The timing proved fateful, and Gresbeck found himself trapped in the city for the long haul. Gresbeck would find himself forced by events time and again, and ultimately played a major role in ending the siege. If Kerssenbrück’s personal recollections represented the expulsion and fall of old Münster, Henry Gresbeck’s contributions to Report of the Eyewitnesses of the Anabaptist Kingdom in Münster (Berichte der Augenzeugen über das münsterische Wiedertäuferreich) is the fractured anecdotal story of a normal man doing what he had to in order to survive in the mad world of new Münster.[4] Both men devote much of their narrative energies towards fobbing off blame for the resulting nightmare on foreigners from the lowlands. Gresbeck in particular would also go to great lengths to obfuscate his own role in the proceedings.

In 1531, Bernard Rothmann came home and set Münster down the path to Anabaptism.[5] His first stop in the city was a brief one, just enough time to lead an angry mob on a statue and tomb smashing rampage through some of the Catholic churches. After the outrage had died down a bit, he sidled back into Münster in 1532, this time for good. Surprisingly given the whole iconoclasm bit, Rothmann was actually given a pulpit to speak from and began to work as a preacher. To Kerssenbrück, it didn’t take long for Rothmann to spill out all of the “poisonous beliefs that had been festering inside of him”.[6] It’s unclear to most historians when Rothmann formally went over the invisible line between Lutheran radical and Anabaptist, but over time his sermons began to feature comments that drew their listeners to the evils of private property, or the oddity of infant baptism. Whether he was actually evolving in his beliefs or just too cautious to voice them openly, Rothmann appealed to both open Anabaptists and also many of the more disgruntled Lutherans. Slowly but surely, he began to lay the groundwork for the  coming storm.

[1] Or Jan van Mathijs.

[2] In Gresbeck’s telling, Jan claimed to see visions of Jerusalem, Strasbourg, and Münster in the skies. A trio of holy places blessed for the End times. Or a nice way of linking past folly to present leadership.

[3] Or Heinrich. But like our growing inventory of Jans we will be bowdlerizing the names of everyone for the sake of our (mostly!) English readership.

[4] While Kerssenbruck’s narrative was translated into English, Gresbeck’s remains in the original Westphalian blend of German and Dutch. The author tackled the challenge as best he could in the first draft. Translator Christopher Mackey was kind enough to provide a copy of his fantastic translation in time for the revised edition. The author is beyond grateful to Dr. Mackey for his humor, eye for detail, and confidence in Frisian.  The Berichte itself is an exhaustive record of primary sources from the 19th Century compiled by C.A. Cornelius.

[5] Gresbeck hilariously refers to Rothmann as “Stutenberent”, a bit of German wordplay that roughly translates to “White Bread Bernie”.

[6] Arthur 16.


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