Lloyd Pietersen on the lessons from Münster (1534)

It was wonderful to have Lloyd Pietersen with us for a couple of days last week. Lloyd thumbnailWhile he was here, he took a couple of sessions with our undergraduates discussing Anabaptist hermeneutics and the Schleitheim Confession (1527). On Monday evening he presented an illustrated paper on the lessons that can be learnt from Münster 1534-1535.  In it, he explored how a marginal group, who espoused pacifism, could give rise to an event that ended in so much bloodshed and violence… and what might its lessons be for us today?

Anabaptist Apocalypticism, Sex and Violence:          Lessons from Münster

Dr. Lloyd Pietersen

Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception
25th April 2016

(Full text of paper available to download below)
Deutschlands letztere drei Jahrhunderte, oder: des deutschen Volkes Gedenk-Buch an seiner Väter Schicksale und Leiden seit drei Jahrhunderten, etc, by LUBOJATZKY, Franz. Original held and digitised by the British Library
By Franz Lubojatzky. Original held and digitised by the British Library

In this lecture I shall briefly rehearse the origins of sixteenth century Anabaptism before turning to a summary of the events leading up to Münster. After describing the events at Münster between 1534-1535 I shall examine the role of apocalypticism on the movement and finally reflect on some more contemporary examples of apocalypticism, sex and violence and ending with some cautionary comments on Donald Trump.

Portrait of Jan van Leiden as King of Münster by Heinrich Aldegrever
Portrait of Jan van Leiden as King of Münster by Heinrich Aldegrever

Lloyd charted the beginnings of the movement from 1525 when a group of radicals, previously associated with Zwingli, broke away to form (what would later become known as) the Anabaptists. Focusing on the North German/Dutch strand, Lloyd noted that this group were particularly informed by the apocalyptic ideas of Melchior Hofmann. Lloyd then showed how this apocalyptic worldview prepared the ground for their taking control of Münster in 1534, where under the rule of Jan van Leiden, they proclaimed it as the ‘New Israel.’ Declaring himself to be ‘king’, van Leiden modelled the city on the Old Testament reinstituting polygamy (van Leiden taking 16 concubines in addition to his ‘leading’ wife – who was the widow of his predecessor, Jan Matthijs).

The violence that was so closely associated with the apocalyptic worldview also influenced the initial pacifism of this group. Lloyd described how incrementally the pacifist doctrine (as stated in the Schleitheim Confession, 1527) was renegotiated, beginning with the idea that although Christians would be part of the end-times war in which unbelievers would die violently, they would not wield the sword (Melchior Hofmann). This meant that, although Christians should not bear arms, it was the unequivocal right of the Government to do so. This was then ‘re(de-)fined’ by Bernhard Rothmann and, later, Matthijs who argued that God would use Christians as his instruments of justice to bring about the destruction of the wicked.

After that the Lord will pour his wrath out on the head of the godless and he will not stop until he has finished everything that he has in mind. He will make the godless despair and take their power from them. He will strengthen the hand of David and will instruct his fingers for the battle. God will make for his people bronze claws and iron horns. They will make plowshares and hoes into swords and spears. They shall choose a captain, fly the flag, and blow the trumpet. They will incite an obstinate and merciless people against Babylon. In everything they will repay Babylon with her own coin, yes, in double measure. These are the plans which the Lord has made against Babylon and the whole earth and his hand will be stretched out against all the heathen. For when the Lord of hosts decides something, who will be able to prevent it? Smoke will arise from the north. No one will be able to withstand his power. And what will the envoys of the heathen be able to bring for satisfaction? But God will fortify Zion and the poor of his people will be able to depend on her.

Rothmann, Concerning Vengeance, 1534

Lloyd argues that there were six ingredients that combined in making this violent cocktail.

  1. The Anabaptists had the rare opportunity of taking control over a city
  2. Those who now controlled the city were convinced that the violent end of the world was imminent
  3. Because the city was under siege (by the Catholic army), the apocalyptic dualism of persecutor/persecuted and evil/righteous was being ‘played out in front of their eyes’
  4. There was an uncertainty concerning unfulfilled/failed prophecy which created instability and a climate suitable for reinterpreting them
  5. The arrival of a charismatic leader who could instigate immediate action
  6. The teaching of Rothmann had begun a process of ‘redefining’ the tenet of pacifism

Lloyd concluded the presentation with a look at the combination of charismatic religious figures with apocalyptic groups (or those who share an end-time worldview) in recent history. Whilst stressing that the events at Münster are very different, Lloyd noted that:

I am not implying any sexual impropriety in connection with NAR but I am very interested in the rhetoric that is being used and the fact that leading representatives of NAR churches have the ear of prominent USA Republican politicians. There are clear links too between some branches of NAR and the National Rifle Association. The combination of a charismatic leader, an apocalyptic world view and a community that considers itself beleaguered either by widespread secularism and/or the rise of militant Islam could still have tragic consequences in the future.


Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during a campaign event for Trump at the Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center in Ames, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016. Palin endorsed Trump for president. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during a campaign event for Trump, Jan. 19, 2016. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

Lloyd has generously given us permission for us to make available the full text of his talk here. It can be downloaded by clicking on the link below:

Lessons from Munster by Lloyd Pietersen 25.04.16



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