Monday, July 20, 2015

Jan Van Leiden and the Perils of the Reformation (Part 1)

I recently discovered a grim tale that I had not heard before.  It is a tale not often told, and yet history has not been able to let this tale go.  This is why I am so shocked I have yet to hear it.  This is a story you can make a modern day modern-day Mel Gibson movie, except it is really only missing a triumphant hero in the copious amount of characters involved in the tale.

I want to cite my primary source of the story to Dan Carlin's Podcast, Hardcore History.  The particular episode is called Prophets of Doom.  He names his sources during the episode and I highly recommend listening to his podcast- by and large great stuff!

The Tale:


By the year 1524, Europe is plunged into chaos and division.  Martin Luther has nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church, the Reformation is happening, and political divisions are growing.  By this time, the peasant revolt has occurred where around 100,000 peasants were killed as they were inspired by Luther's reforms and took up rakes and arms against the princes, even though Luther was hostile to the peasants for their fighting and even stated that they all deserved to die for their insolence.  Following this result, order is sought in what we know now as Germany.  In the city of Munster, you have the city split in half: Catholics and Lutherans.  Both sides obviously do not get along, and argue frequently.  The Prince Bishop, Franz Von Waldeck, is the one who is presiding over the city and trying to keep order between the two parties.

Around this time, the group known as the Anabaptists have begun to grow.  Anabaptists typically had a certain beliefs that differed from Lutherans of the day, but one of them was primarily that former Catholics and non Anabaptists needed to be re-baptized by a baptized Anabaptist in order to have a valid baptism in the eyes of God.  Another aspect of their teaching was complete equality amongst all individuals.  There should be no hierarchy, no governments to control the people, and no excessive possessions.  A famous preacher of this movement, and honestly the biggest propagator of the movement's ideas was the man Melchior Hoffman.  Hoffman wrote many tracts of the movement's beliefs and had them distributed in different cities.  Hoffman had been predicting in his day that Jesus Christ was going to return in Hoffman's lifetime and that Armageddon was near.  He prdeicted Christ to return during the year 1533 in Strasbourg, which obviously did not result in happening.

Even though Christ did not return, that did not mean his followers thought he was completely wrong.  Hoffman had simply interpreted the wrong date and place.  One day a follower of Hoffman waltzed right into the town of Muster, a man named Jan Matthys. In a relatively short time, Matthys begins preaching in the city of Munster about Anabaptist Christianity, and gains followers.  Before long, he has enough people followers that he decides that the city must be extinguished of heretics, both Lutheran and Catholic.  He first gives everyone in the city the opportunity to convert, or leave.  Most do, but some do not.  So the remaining citizens who did not convert, he had killed.  One thing Matthys has going for him is his direct line of communication to God.  At different times Matthys would start talking to God who was always speaking directly to Matthys clearly, and Matthys would have to relay the message to everyone else.  It was God's will that Matthys lead this revolt, and thus declare war against the Price Bishop Franz Von Waldeck.  It wasn't long before the Prince Bishop had the city under siege to stamp out this Anabaptist revolt.  Jan Matthys had recieved a vision from God, the he and his soldiers were to ride out into battle and destroy the Prince Bishops forces with God on their side.  They did just that, and lost.  The soldiers made an example of Jan Matthys by spilling his guts on the ground and cutting up his body.  Everyone in the city witnessed this and were mortified.  The Prince Bishop restablished the city council and things were to return to as before.

Except they did not return to normal...

Jan Matthys' number two man, a man named Jan Van Leiden, begins preaching in the town that God had now chosen him to replace Jan Matthys.  He claimed that Jan Matthys was arrogant and that God had indeed told him to go out and fight, but that he was to go alone and let God have all the glory, but because he did not God punished him with death.  Jan Van Leiden even marries Jan Matthys' widow to show that he has now taken up his old position.  Immediately the Anabaptist followers have their hope again.  God was still with them, and they were going to be blessed for their perseverance.  Over the course of time Jan Van Leiden gains the respect of the town and then announces his vision that God wants the city to be managed differently, and a new council is to be formed of members of Van Leiden's choosing.  A new council is established and Jan Van Leiden began running the city.

The sources them claim that a goldsmith was going around the city preaching that Jan Van Leiden was a type of super-prophet.  More than man and prophet, but less than God.  Eventually Jan and the council summoned the goldsmith, and the goldsmith told them that Jan was to be made King over the city.  The council were convicted of the truth of this message and thus made Jan Van Leiden their king.  Over the course of time, Jan had been caught in bed with women other than his wife, and it word began to circulate that Jan may not be keeping God's commandments.  One day Jan received a vision from God and told Jan to tell the council and his city dwellers: men were going to need to take up multiple wives.  God wanted men to have multiple wives like his dearest servants David and Solomon.  Before long, polygamy became legalized in the city and Jan Van Leiden married multiple women.  Many of these women had been former nuns who were told that God's main purpose for women was to be a tool for procreation and these women left the convent to fulfill God's ultimate "plan" for them.

It is easy to see how this was to end.  Eventually, the sieging forces made it into the city and the leaders of this Anabaptist rule were publicly tortured and killed and this was the end of Anabaptist revolt in Munster.  Not only did the Anabaptist movement lose their momentum in the city, but overall began to lose their influence in the rest of the Protestant revolution in Europe.

Anabaptists were the enemy to Protestant and Catholic alike, and vice versa.