Am I the only one who thinks that it’s about time we all stopped feeling ashamed about Münster?
I know that I’ve talked before about our remarkable Mennonite ability to hold a 500-year grudge but this one takes the cake because none of us really know what happened — and we’re still embarrassed.
Not that we think about it all that often. There’s only so much time a single group can spend in a state of perpetual shame.
I was recently reminded of the events at Münster and our collective shame when I listened to episode 5 in the “Just Plain Wrong” podcast. In case you can’t remember, that’s the one where the Mennobrarians discussed a historical romance novel set among the 16th-century Anabaptists, some of them in Münster. (If you haven’t discovered this podcast yet, make a little note to go and find it and binge listen to the first season after you have finished reading all I have to say about Münster.)
The podcasters failed to mention how little is actually known. But they nailed it on how Mennonites all react with shame when confronted with that little corner of our past.
Here’s what we know:
In 1534, a group of Anabaptists gained power in the city of Münster after winning the majority of town councillor seats. Anabaptists then held onto power for about a year and a half.
“Good for them!” you might be thinking.
What a remarkable achievement given that Anabaptists were facing persecution almost everywhere those years.
If you were thinking that, you are most definitely not a Mennonite. Or at least not one who has had even a basic education in Anabaptist history
Every good Mennonite knows that there are only two appropriate responses to the word “Münster:”
- you can hang your head in shame and humiliation
- you can deny that the Münster Anabaptists were real Anabaptists and disavow any connection to them
Our reaction is at least partly because it didn’t end well for the Münster Anabaptists. I suspect that we Mennonites would react a lot differently had the little Anabaptist city-state been allowed to evolve on its own. Who knows what might have happened to our little urban refuge had its denizens just been allowed to discover the errors in their prophesies without having to stave off the wolves at their gates?
Alas, that is not what happened.
The intrepid Anabaptists were barely into their little experiment in civic governance when the Bishop of Waldeck mustered an army and besieged them. He eventually conquered the city, slaughtered the Anabaptists and hung the bodies of three of their leaders in cages outside the Münster cathedral for all to see.
Which was a pretty nasty thing to do and you’d think we’d all have a big hate-on for the war-mongering bishop and his Mikado-esque view of justice and have sympathy for the hapless Anabaptists.
Perhaps it is our insistence to love our enemies that lets the bishop off the hook. We have no scriptures telling us to love our spiritual ancestors so the Münster Anabaptists cannot escape our judgement. Especially when their prophesies did not come true and their theology was a little different from ours today.
These Anabaptists were a bit different from those who had drawn up the Schleitheim Confession a couple hundred miles to the south and a lot of Mennonites are more comfortable with the seemingly less emotional version of Anabaptism, the ones who at least were not known for mis-predicting the future.
I think it is fair to say that if we were magically thrown back to the sixteenth century, most of us modern Mennonites would feel pretty uncomfortable hanging out with the Munster Anabaptists. They would strike us as weird — even weirder than everyone else we ran into on our little time-travelling vacation. Though maybe not as much weirder as we imagine.
That’s because the Münster Anabaptists were people drawn, not only to the idea of adult baptism, but also to the gifts of prophesy speaking through the poor, illiterate, and female among them. The Anabaptists weren’t all poor and they weren’t all rich but they were pretty open to the idea of a radical re-organization of society. They were people who heard a message of liberation from the social bonds that fettered them and thought that new and exciting things were about to happen. Maybe even an Apocalypse.
Yeah, well. For all their going down in history with a reputation for super oddness, those early Anabaptist town councillors had some pretty mundane concerns those first few days in Münster. For one, they needed to find a way to house and feed all of the Anabaptist refugees who rushed to Münster once word got out that it was safe, and also maybe the place to be for the end of the world. Famously, the vast majority of the asylum seekers were Anabaptist women, presumably fleeing their families as well as the various governments persecuting them for their faith.
For another, they had to prepare for war because everyone knew that the nasty bishop wasn’t actually going to just leave them alone.
The Münsterites found the resources they needed for the newcomers by bringing in a “community of goods” regime and kicking out all the non-Anabaptist neighbours who didn’t want to get re-baptized and give up their stuff. It was a controversial move — other Anabaptists mused from afar that it wasn’t right to force people to choose between adult baptism and losing their home. But the people arriving in Münster, having been dispossessed of their own homes for refusing to give up their Anabaptism might have seen it differently.
At any rate, things got weird after the Bishop started to lay siege on the poor city. But then, I was always taught that war causes all sorts of bad things.
And anyway, it’s hard to know just how weird everything became because almost everything that we know comes from hostile witnesses and propaganda meant to discredit and disparage the Münsterite Anabaptists. That’s because when the Bishop of Waldeck conquered Anabaptist Münster, he didn’t leave a lot of them alive. The bishop had his own reasons for wanting it clear to everyone that his actions were absolutely, totally, no-question-about-it, justified. After all, the Anabaptists had been legally elected to power in the city and bishops weren’t actually supposed to attack cities just because they didn’t like the religious ideas of the government.
Some Mennonites don’t think that we should ever be involved in civic governance. Those Mennonites can look at Münster and call it a cautionary tale to remind all of us that we should never run for mayor or class president or anything of the sort. But most of us are OK with Mennonites occasionally being aldermen and captains of the PTA. Or at least an Oberschulze from time to time when duty makes its call known to us.
Me? I want to see the Bishop of Waldeck finally recognized as the villain of the story and I call on all my Mennonite peers to have a bit of compassion for our Münsterite forebears. We don’t know much about them really and they might have been a little bit odd. But, well, who among us isn’t?
I am even prepared to raise a glass in their honour.