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The Münster Rebellion was an attempt by radical Anabaptists to establish a communal sectarian government in the German city of Münster. The city became an Anabaptist center from 1534 to 1535, and fell under Anabaptist rule for 18 months — from February 1534, when the city hall was seized and Bernhard Knipperdolling installed as mayor, until its fall in June 1535. It was Melchior Hoffman, who initiated adult baptism in Strasbourg in 1530, and his line of eschatological Anabaptism, that helped lay the foundations for the events of 1534–1535 in Münster.
After the German Peasants' War (1524/25), a second and more forceful attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster, in Westphalia (1532–1535). Here the group had gained considerable influence, through the adhesion of Bernhard Rothmann, the Lutheran pastor, and several prominent citizens; and the leaders, Jan Matthys (also spelled Matthijs, Mathijsz, Matthyssen, Mathyszoon), a baker from Haarlem, and Jan Bockelson or Beukelszoon, a tailor from Leiden, had little difficulty in obtaining possession of the town and deposing the magistrates. Matthys was a follower of Melchior Hoffman, who, after Hoffman's imprisonment at Strasbourg, obtained a considerable following in the Low Countries, including John of Leiden. John of Leiden and Gerard Boekbinder had visited Münster, and returned with a report that Bernhard Rothmann was there teaching doctrines similar to their own. Matthys identified Münster as the "New Jerusalem", and on January 5, 1534, a number of his disciples entered the city and introduced adult baptism. Rothmann apparently accepted "rebaptism" that day, and well over 1000 adults were soon baptised. Vigorous preparations were made, not only to hold what had been gained, but to proceed from Münster toward the conquest of the world.
The city was being besieged by Franz von Waldeck, its expelled bishop. In April 1534 on Easter Sunday, Matthys, who had prophesied God's judgment to come on the wicked on that day, made a sally with only thirty followers, believing that he was a second Gideon, and was cut off with his entire band. He was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for all in the city to see, and his genitals nailed to the city gate. John of Leiden was subsequently recognized as Matthys' religious and political successor, justifying his authority and actions by the receipt of visions from heaven. John of Leiden's authority grew, eventually proclaiming himself to be the successor of David and adopting royal regalia, honors and absolute power in the new "Zion". He legalized polygamy, and himself took sixteen wives. (John is said to have beheaded one woman in the marketplace for refusing to marry him; this act might have been falsely attributed to him after his death.) Community of goods was also established. Meanwhile, most of the residents of Münster were starving as a result of the year-long siege.
After obstinate resistance, the city was taken by the besiegers on June 24, 1535 and John of Leiden and several other prominent Anabaptist leaders were captured and imprisoned. In January 1536 John of Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and one more prominent follower, were tortured and executed in the marketplace of Münster . Their dead bodies were exhibited in cages, which hung from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church; the cages still hang there, though the bones were removed later.
The Münster Rebellion was a turning point for the Anabaptist movement. It never again had the opportunity of assuming political importance, the civil powers adopting stringent measures to suppress such agitation. It is difficult to trace the subsequent history of the group as a religious body, through changes in the names used and beliefs held.
The Batenburgers under Jan van Batenburg preserved the violent millennialist stream of Anabaptism seen at Münster. They were polygamous and believed force was justified against anyone not in their sect. Their movement went underground after the suppression of the Münster Rebellion, with members posing as Catholics or Lutherans as necessary. Some nonresistant Anabaptists found leaders in Menno Simons and the brothers Obbe and Dirk Philips, Dutch Anabaptist leaders who repudiated the distinctive doctrines of the Münster Anabaptists. This group eventually became known as the Mennonites after Simons. They rejected any use of violence, preached a faith based on love of enemy and compassion.
In August 1536 the leaders of Anabaptist groups influenced by Melchior Hoffman met in Bocholt in an attempt to maintain unity. The meeting included followers of Batenburg, survivors of Münster, David Joris and his sympathisers and the nonresistant Anabaptists (Williams, p. 582). At this meeting the major areas of dispute between the sects were polygamous marriage and the use of force against non-believers. Joris proposed compromise by declaring the time had not yet come to fight against the authorities, and that it would be unwise to kill any non-Anabaptists. The gathered Anabaptists agreed to the compromise of no more force,(Williams, p. 583) but the meeting did not prevent the fragmentation of Anabaptism.
Works of fiction
- Le prophète, an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer that highly fictionalizes the rebellion
- Q, by Luther Blissett ISBN 0-15-101063-3.
- Speak to Her Kindly: A Novel of the Anabaptists, by Jonathan Rainbow, ISBN 1-57921-590-4
- Toelle, Tom Toelle (1993). König der letzten Tage (King of the last days) (TV-series). Germany: unknown. – German historical mini-series that portrays the events of the Münster Rebellion.
- The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe describes the events of the rebellion
- The Abyss "L'Œuvre au noir", by Marguerite Yourcenar
- The Friends of God, by Peter Vansittart
- Perfection, by Anita Mason
- Rules for a Film about Anabaptists, film by Georg Brintrup, Germany 1975/76
- Die Wiedertäufer, a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
- Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, by Karl Kautsky
- The Friends of God (The Siege in the USA), by Peter Vansittart
- The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, by Anthony Arthur (ISBN 0-312-20515-5)
- Bockelson, by Fritz Reck-Malleczewen
- The Radical Reformation, by George Hunston Williams (ISBN 0-940474-15-8)
- The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn (Paladin, 1970)
- Narrative of the Anabaptist Madness: The Overthrow of Münster, the Famous Metropolis of Westphalia (Studies in the History of Christian Traditions; 132), by Hermann von Kerssenbroch. Translated with introduction and notes by Christopher S. Mackay. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2007; ISBN 978-90-04-15721-7).
- Freaks of Fanaticism and Other Strange Events (1891), by Sabine Baring-Gould (Gutenberg).
- Zürich: Seedbed of Radical Change offers a more in depth look at attempts to rehabilitate the Anabaptist label after Münster
- "Der wedderdoeper eidt" / oath of the Münster Anabaptists
- Münster Anabaptists in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online
- A History and Commentary on the "Kingdom of God" in Münster, this is a brief history and commentary from someone sympathetic to Anabaptism.
- BBC Radio 4. In Our Time: The Siege of Münster.
- "Prophets of Doom", Podcast by Dan Carlin