MUENSTER 465 YEARS LATER
by John A. Lapp
On the United States election day, November 7, 2000, Alice
and I were privileged to have a guided tour of this famous city
of the Anabaptist past. Stefan and Sylvia van Delden of nearby
Gronau organized and hosted our tour. In 1534-35 some radical
Wiedertaufer took over the city from the Catholic Prince-bishop
Franz von Waldeck. Now the city museum has a fine exhibit entitled
The Kingdom of the Anabaptists which opened September
17 and will continue until March 4, 2001.
The exhibit includes several large works of art and a few
manuscripts from some of the principal players in this sixteenth-century
drama. There are portraits, some from the sixteenth century.
The most important portrait is the 1535 drawing of Jan van Leiden
drawn by Heinrich Aldegrever, which is on loan from the British
Museum in London. There are artifacts from the time representing
the Anabaptist cause and the militant response. Our guide, a
University of Muenster history student, emphasized getting past
the extensive mythology that surrounds this event in order to
understand the lasting and widespread effect of their (Anabaptists)
rule within Europe and up to the present day. The Anabaptist
protest focused attention, she said, on the principle that then
governed Europe, the eagle over the crucifix. Her interpretation
of this event began with agitation for church reform beginning
in 1525 by the poor and the working classes and the role of influential
business leaders alongside the religious reformers. The exhibit
notes the story of exile, torture, and martyrdom including replicas
of the infamous cages still hanging from St. Lamberts Church
tower, which held the corpses of three revolutionary leaders.
While there are few references to Mennonites in the exhibit,
the fact that most Anabaptists were peaceful is noted. Historians
point out how the pacifism of Menno Simons and his colleagues
was in part a response to the bitterness of the Muenster tragedy.
On September 27, ten days after the opening of the exhibit,
the city of Muenster dedicated a piece of street sculpture entitled
Wasser in Muenster by a city artist, Adolph W. Knuppel.
Knuppels earlier sculpture highlighted the Peace of Westphalia
signed in the statehouse in Muenster in 1648 which ended the
thirty-year war of religion in central and western Europe. Now
Knuppel designed a relief sculpture embedded in the brick pavement
of the main Market Street. These sculptures are located in front
of what is believed to have been the residence of Bernard Knipperdollink,
a business leader and later mayor who supported the Muenster
Anabaptists. City historians surmise that the first public believers
baptism took place on this street. The simple structure is a
glass cylinder that holds water from an old Muenster well and
from the River Jordan. The water of holy baptism mixed with the
water of this particular place symbolizing that the Gospel and
Anabaptism are not outside history but integral to the life of
Muenster, Westphalia, Germany, Europe, the world. Knuppel told
us the sculpture is in the form of a cross suggesting that new
life and pain go together. Water, also in the words of the artist,
is a symbol of change. Anabaptism was a challenge to the established
pattern of religion and politics. The words 1534 Wieder
Taufer are painted on the street. The dove of peace connects
Wasser in Muenster to the artists other work
recalling the Peace of Westphalia.
On September 27 when this sculpture was unveiled, the water
was poured into the container by the Catholic bishop, the lead
Protestant pastor, a Baptist pastor, the mayor, and the head
of the chamber of commerce a classic illustration of art
as a means of healing the stain of history.
Muenster has on several occasions as recently as the early
1980s recognized the events of 1534-35 in their city history.
This may be the first time the city, its historians and leaders
have seen the positive impact of Muenster Anabaptism. The passage
of time, changing circumstances, and imaginative artists help
us see the past in fresh ways.
John A. Lapp is Executive Secretary Emeritus
of Mennonite Central Committee and is currently the coordinator
of the Global Mennonite History Project for Mennonite World Conference.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January 2001