Only by observing with what devout enthusiasm some of our contemporaries adopt economic heresies can we understand the fervor with which pious rebellious minorities followed, even to the stake, one or another turn of the religious revolution in the sixteenth century.
The most radical of the new sects took the name of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer, Again-Baptizers) from its insistence that baptism, if given in infancy, should be repeated in maturity, and that still better it should be deferred, as by John the Baptist, till the mature recipient could knowingly and voluntarily make his profession of the Christian faith. There were sects within this sect. Those who followed Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer denied the divinity of Christ: He was only the most godly of men, Who had redeemed us not by His agony on the cross but by the example of His life.47 Denck exalted the individual conscience above the Church, the state, and the Bible itself. Most Anabaptists adopted a Puritan severity of morals and simplicity of manners and dress. Developing with rash logic Luther’s idea of Christian liberty, they condemned all government by force, and all resistance to it by force. They rejected military service on the ground that it is invariably sinful to take human life. Like the early Christians, they refused to swear oaths, not excepting oaths of allegiance to prince or emperor. Their usual salutation was “The peace of the Lord be with you”—an echo of the Jewish and Moslem greeting, and a forerunner of the Quaker mode. While Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox agreed with the popes on the absurdity of religious toleration, the Anabaptists preached and practiced it; one of them, Balthasar Hübmaier, wrote the first clear defense of it (1524).48 They shunned public office and all resort to litigation. They were Tolstoyan anarchists three centuries before Tolstoy, and a century after Peter Chelcicky, from whom they may have derived their creed. Consciously or unwittingly inheriting the doctrine of the Bohemian Taborites or the Moravian Brethren, some Anabaptists proclaimed a community of goods;49 a few, if we may credit hostile chroniclers, proposed a community of wives.50 In general, however, the sect rejected any compulsory sharing of goods, advocated voluntary mutual aid, and held that in the Kingdom of Heaven communism would be automatic and universal.51 All the Anabaptist groups were inspired by the Apocalypse and the confident expectation of Christ’s early return to the earth; many believers professed to know the day and hour of His coming. Then all the ungodly—in this case all but Anabaptists—would be swept away by the sword of the Lord, and the elect would live in glory in a terrestrial paradise without laws or marriage, and abounding in all good things.52 So hopeful men steeled themselves against toil and monogamy.
The Anabaptists appeared first in Switzerland. Perhaps a pacifistic Christianity had seeped in from the Waldenses of southern France and the Beghards of the Netherlands. Here and there, as in Basel, a few intellectuals sponsored the idea of a communistic society. Communistic passages in More’s Utopia may have stirred the scholars who gathered around Erasmus there. Three members of that circle became Anabaptist leaders: Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz of Zurich, and Balthasar Hübmaier of Waldshut—just across the border in Austria. In 1524 Münzer visited Waldshut, Carlstadt came to Zurich, and an Anabaptist sect formed in Zurich under the name of “Spirituals” or “Brethren.” It preached adult baptism and the coming of Christ, rejected Church and state, and proposed an end to interest charges, taxes, military service, tithes, and oaths.
At this time Ulrich Zwingli was winning the Great Council of Zurich to his Protestant views, which included the control of religion by the secular authorities. He pleaded with the “Brethren” to relax their antipathy to the state, and to practice infant baptism; they refused. The Council summoned them to a public disputation (January 17, 1525); failing to convert them, it decreed that the parents of unbaptized children must leave the town. The Anabaptists denounced the Council, called Zwingli an old dragon, and paraded the streets crying, “Woe to Zurich!”53 Their leaders were arrested and banished, which enabled them to spread their doctrines. Saint-Gall and Appenzell took up the movement; Bern and Basel were stirred by it; Hübmaier won nearly all Waldshut to his views. In Appenzell 1,200 men and women, accepting literally the words of Christ—“Take no thought what ye shall eat”—sat down and waited for God to come and feed them.54
The apparent success of the Peasants’ War in the spring of 1525 promoted these conversions, but its failure encouraged the propertied classes in the Swiss cities to repressive measures. The Council of Zurich arrested Manz (July), then Grebel, then Hübmaier, and ordered that all obstinate Anabaptists “should be laid in the tower,” kept on bread and water, and “left to die and rot.”55 Grebel did; Manz was drowned; Hübmaier recanted, was freed, recanted his recantation, and undertook to convert Augsburg and Moravia; Hätzer was beheaded at Constance for Anabaptism and adultery. Protestant and Catholic cantons showed equal energy in subduing the sect, and by 1530 nothing remained of it in Switzerland except some secret and negligible bands.
Meanwhile the movement had spread like a rumor through South Germany. A zeal for evangelistic propaganda caught the converts, and turned them into ardent missionaries for the new creed. In Augsburg Denck and Hübmaier made rapid headway among the textile workers and the lower middle class. In Tirol many miners, contrasting their poverty with the wealth of the Fuggers and Hochstetters who owned the mines, took up Anabaptism when the Peasants’ Revolt collapsed. In Strasbourg the struggle between Catholics and Protestants allowed the sect to multiply unnoticed for a time. But a pamphlet of 1528 warned the authorities that “he who teaches that all things are” to be “in common has naught else in mind than to excite the poor against the rich, the subjects against the rulers ordained by God.”56 In that year Charles V issued a mandate making rebaptism a capital crime. The Diet of Speyer (1529) ratified the Emperor’s edict, and ordered that Anabaptists everywhere were to be killed like wild beasts as soon as taken, without judge or trial. An Anabaptist chronicler, perhaps exaggerating, reported the result in the mood of early Christian hagiographers:
Some were racked and drawn asunder; others were burnt to ashes and dust; some were roasted on pillars or torn with red-hot pincers.... Others were hanged on trees, beheaded with the sword, or thrown into the water.... . Some starved or rotted in darksome prisons. Some who were deemed too young for execution were whipped with rods, and many lay for years in dungeons.... . Numbers had holes burnt into their cheeks.... The rest were hunted from one country and place to another. Like owls and ravens, which durst not fly by day, they were often compelled to hide and live in rocks and clefts, in wild forests, or in caves and pits.57
By 1530, says the contemporary Sebastian Franck, 2,000 Anabaptists had been put to death. In one Alsatian city, Ensisheim, 600 were executed. In Salzburg those who recanted were allowed to have their heads cut off before being placed upon the pyre; the unrepentant were roasted to death over a slow fire (1528),58 Anabaptists composed touching hymns to commemorate these martyrdoms; and most of the hymn writers became martyrs in their turn.
Despite these killings the sect increased, and moved into northern Germany. In Prussia and Württemberg some nobles welcomed the Anabaptists as peaceful and industrious farmers. In Saxony, says an early Lutheran historian, the valley of the Werra was filled with them, and in Erfurt they claimed to have sent forth 300 missionaries to convert the dying world. In Lübeck, Jürgen Wullenwever, who was accused of Anabaptism, briefly captured control of the city (1533–34). In Moravia, Hübmaier made progress with his moderate doctrine, which explained communism not as “common property,” but as holding that “one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked, for in truth we are not masters of our possessions, but stewards or dispensers only.”59Hans Hut, fired by the teachings of Münzer, won the Anabaptists of Moravia away from Hübmaier by preaching a full community of goods. Hübmaier retired to Vienna, where he was burned at the stake, and his wife was thrown bound into the Danube (1528).
Hut and his followers established a communist center at Austerlitz, where, as if foreseeing Napoleon, they renounced all military service, and denounced every kind of war. Confining themselves to tillage and petty industry, these Anabaptists maintained their communism for almost a century. The nobles who owned the land protected them as enriching the estates by their conscientious toil. Farming was communal among them; materials for agriculture and handicraft were bought and allotted by communal officers; part of the proceeds was paid to the landlord as rent, the rest was distributed according to need. The social unit was not the family but the Haushabe, or household, containing some 400 to 2,000 persons, with a common kitchen, a common laundry, a school, a hospital, and a brewery. Children, after weaning, were brought up in common, but monogamy remained. In the Thirty Years’ War, by an Imperial edict of 1622, this communistic society was suppressed; its members accepted Catholicism or were banished. Some of the exiles went to Russia, some to Hungary. We shall hear of them again.
In the Netherlands Melchior Hofmann, a Swabian tanner, preached the Anabaptist gospel with exciting success. At Leyden his pupil Jan Matthys rose to the conclusion that the advent of the New Jerusalem could no longer be patiently awaited, but must be achieved at once, and, if necessary, by force. He sent out through Holland twelve apostles to announce the glad tidings. The ablest of them was a young tailor, Jan Beuckelszoon, known to history as John of Leyden, and to Meyerbeer’s opera as Le Prophète.Without formal education, he had a keen mind, a vivid imagination, a handsome presence, a ready tongue, a resolute will. He wrote and staged plays, and composed poetry. Coming upon the writings of Thomas Münzer, he felt that all other forms of Christianity than that which had gained and lost Mühlhausen were halfhearted and insincere. He heard Jan Matthys and was won to Anabaptism (1533). He was then twenty-four. In that year he accepted a fatal invitation to come and preach in Münster, the rich and populous capital of Westphalia.
Named from the monastery around which it had grown, Münster was feudally subject to its bishop and cathedral chapter. Nevertheless the growth of industry and commerce had generated a degree of democracy. The assembled citizens, representing seventeen guilds, annually chose ten electors who chose the city council. But the well-to-do minority provided most of the political ability, and naturally dominated the council. In 1525, enthusiastic over the peasants’ uprisings, the lower classes presented thirty-six “demands” to the council. A few of these were granted, the rest were humored with procrastination. A Lutheran preacher, Bernard Rottman, made himself the mouthpiece of discontent, and asked Jan Matthys to send some Dutch Anabaptists to his aid. John of Leyden came (January 13, 1534), and soon Jan Matthys himself. Fearing insurrection, the “party of order” arranged to have Bishop Franz von Waldeck enter the town with his 2,000 troops. The populace, led by Matthys, Rottman, and John of Leyden, fought them in the streets, drove them out, and took martial control of Münster (February 10, 1534). New elections were held; the Anabaptists won the council; two of their number, Knipperdollingk and Kippenbroick, were chosen burgomasters; the exciting experiment began.
Münster found itself at once in a state of war, besieged by the Bishop and his reinforced army, and fearful that soon all the powers of order and custom in Germany would unite against it. To protect itself against internal opposition, the new council decreed that all non-Anabaptists must accept rebaptism or leave the city. It was a cruel measure, for it meant that old men, women carrying infants, and barefoot children had to ride or trudge from the town at the height of a German winter. During the siege both sides executed without mercy any persons found working for the enemy. Under the stress of war the council was superseded by a popular assembly and an executive Committee of Public Safety, in both of which the religious leaders were supreme. Matthys died fighting in an abortive sortie (April 5, 1534), and thereafter John of Leyden ruled the city as its king.
The “communism” that was now set up was a war economy, as perhaps all strict communism must be; for men are by nature unequal, and can be induced to share their goods and fortunes only by a vital and common danger; internal liberty varies with external security, and communism breaks under the tensions of peace. In peril of their lives if they fell short of unity, inspired by religious faith and inescapable eloquence, the besieged accepted a “socialist theocracy”60 in the desperate hope that they were realizing the New Jerusalem visioned in the Apocalypse. The members of the Committee of Public Safety were called “the elders of the twelve tribes of Israel,” and John of Leyden became “King of Israel.” Perhaps to give, in the minds of the simple, some helpful dignity to his precarious office, John, along with his aides, clothed himself in the splendid garments left behind by wealthy exiles. Enemies further accused the radical chiefs of eating abundantly while the besieged population neared starvation; the evidence is inconclusive, and leaders always feel an urgent obligation to keep well. Most of the confiscated luxuries were distributed among the people; “the poorest among us,” wrote one of them, “now go about sumptuously attired”;61 they hungered in magnificence.
Otherwise the communism of Münster was limited and tentative. The rulers, according to a hostile witness, decreed that “all possessions should be in common,” 62 but in truth private property continued in practically everything except jewels, precious metals, and the booty of war. Meals were taken in common, but only by those engaged in defense of the town. At these meals a chapter was read from the Bible, and sacred songs were sung. Three “deacons” were appointed to supply the necessities of the poor; and to secure materials for these charities the remaining well-to-do were persuaded or compelled to yield up their superfluity. Land available for cultivation within the city was assigned to each household according to its size. One edict confirmed the traditional dominion of the husband over the wife.63
Public morals were regulated by strict laws. Dances, games, and religious plays were encouraged, under supervision, but drunkenness and gambling were severely punished, prostitution was banned, fornication and adultery were made capital crimes. An excess of women, caused by the flight of many men, moved the leaders to decree, on the basis of Biblical precedents, that unattached women should become “companions of wives”—in effect, concubines.64 The newly attached women seem to have accepted the situation as preferable to solitary barrenness. Some conservatives in the city protested, organized a revolt, and imprisoned the King; but their soldiers, soon besotted with wine, were slaughtered by the resurgent Anabaptist soldiery; and in this victory of the New Jerusalem the women played a virile role. John, released and re-enthroned, took several wives and (say the hostile chroniclers) governed with violence and tyranny.65 He must have had some genial qualities, for thousands gladly bore his rule, and offered their lives in his service. When he called for volunteers to follow him in a sortie against the Bishop’s camp, more women enlisted than he thought it wise to use. When he asked for “apostles” to venture forth and seek aid from other Anabaptist groups, twelve men tried to get through the enemy’s lines, were all caught, and all killed. One fervent woman, inspired by the story of Judith, sallied out to assassinate the Bishop; she was intercepted and put to death.
Though many Anabaptists in Germany and Holland repudiated the resort of their Münster brethren to force, many more applauded the revolution. Cologne, Trier, Amsterdam, and Leyden murmured with Anabaptist prayers for its success. From Amsterdam fifty vessels sailed (March 22 and 25, 1535) to carry reinforcements to the beleaguered city, but all were dispersed by the Dutch authorities. On March 28, echoing the Münster uprising, an Anabaptist band captured and fortified a monastery in West Friesland; it was overcome with a loss of 800 lives.
Confronted with this spreading revolt, the conservative forces of the Empire, Protestant as well as Catholic, mobilized to suppress Anabaptism everywhere. Luther, who in 1528 had counseled lenience with the new heretics, advised in 1530 “the use of the sword” against them as “not only blasphemous but highly seditious”;66 and Melanchthon concurred. City after city sent money or men to the Bishop; a diet at Worms (April 4, 1535) ordered a tax on all Germany to finance the siege. The Bishop was now able to surround the town and effectively shut off all its supplies.
Facing famine and deteriorating morale. King John announced that all who wished might leave the city. Many women and children, and some men, seized the opportunity. The men were imprisoned or killed by the Bishop’s soldiers, who spared the women for divers services. One of the émigrés saved his life by offering to show the besiegers an undefended part of the walls. Under his guidance a force of Landsknechts scaled them and opened a gate (June 24); soon several thousand troops poured into the town. Starvation had so far done its work that only 800 of the besieged could still bear arms. They barricaded themselves in the market place; then they surrendered on a promise of a safe-conduct to leave Münster; when they had yielded up their arms they were massacred en masse. Houses were searched, and 400 hidden survivors were slain. John of Leyden and two of his aides were bound to stakes; every part of their bodies was clawed with red-hot pincers, until “nearly all who were standing in the market place were sickened by the stench”; their tongues were pulled from their mouths; at last daggers were driven into their hearts.67
The Bishop regained his city and augmented his former power; henceforth all actions of the civil authorities were to be subject to episcopal veto. Catholicism was triumphantly restored. Throughout the Empire the Anabaptists, fearing for their lives, repudiated every member guilty of using force. Nevertheless many of these pacifist heretics were executed. Melanchthon and Luther advised Philip of Hesse to put to death all adherents of the sect.68 The conservative leaders felt that so serious a threat to the established economic and political order should be punished with an unforgettable severity.
The Anabaptists accepted the lesson, postponed communism to the millennium, and resigned themselves to the practice of such of their principles—of sober, simple, pious, peaceful living—as did not offend the state. Menno Simons, a Catholic priest converted to Anabaptism (1531), gave to his Dutch and German followers such skillful guidance that the “Mennonites” survived all tribulations, and formed successful agricultural communities in Holland, Russia, and America. There is no clear filiation between the Continental Anabaptists and the English Quakers and the American Baptists; but the Quaker rejection of war and oaths, and the Baptist insistence on adult baptism probably stem from the same traditions of creed and conduct that in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland took Anabaptist forms.69 One quality nearly all these groups had in common—their willingness to bear peaceably with faiths other than their own. The theology that supported them through hardship, poverty, and martyrdom hardly accords with our transient philosophy; but they, too, in their sincerity, devotion, and friendliness, enriched our heritage, and redeemed our tarnished humanity.*