I Wish I'd Been There .
With this issue we begin
a new series. The consulting editors of the Mennonite Historical Bulletin respond
to the questions: What is the one event in Anabaptist-Mennonite
history you wish you could have witnessed
-- and Why?
Coup d'etat at Münster
by J. Robert Charles
A coup d'etat through seizure of city hall, expulsion of those
who refused (re)baptism, daily arrivals of desperate refugees
from across the Netherlands, 18 months of armed resistance to
the Catholic bishop and his besieging forces, the "king
of the New Zion" Jan van Leyden appointing 12 elders and
holding court from a throne erected on the market square, the
community of goods, polygamy........
My fascination with the ill-fated Anabaptist "New Jerusalem"
of 1534-1535 in the Westphalian city of Münster -- used
ever since by opponents to discredit the whole Anabaptist movement
and to justify repressive measures against it, lamented ever
since by Mennonite apologists as the source of "incalculable
harm to the cause of the loyal Anabaptism and Mennonitism"
(N.van der Zipp) -- originated 25 years ago.
In those heady days of draft resistance, Vietnam War protests,
and Art Gish's The New Left and Christian Radicalism,
any attitude or demeanor with a non-bourgeois, revolutionary
cachet, far from horrifying undergraduates such as I, actually
commended itself. When it came time to choose a research topic
for Walter Klaassen's Left Wing of the Reformation course at
Conrad Grebel College -- and a classmate had already picked Thomas
Müntzer -- I was instinctively drawn to Münster.
I remember my odd satisfaction, as a restless twenty-year-old,
in learning about some truly quirky and marginal members of my
religious family tree, branches my Mennonite elders had seemed
overly eager to prune. And I remember my satisfaction as budding
historian in fitting the Münster personalities and developments
into the life cycle of revolutions suggested by Crane Brinton
in his classic The Anatomy of Revolution. Several years
later, my wife and I visited Münster and saw still hanging
from the tower of St. Lambert's church the cages in which the
corpses of Jan van Leyden and two other leaders were displayed
following their executions in January 1536.
Could I really pass up an opportunity to take in--though not,
mind you, necessarily join in, now that I'm a respectable, middle-aged
family man and scholar--all this and more eccentric Anabaptist
behavior? Not a chance.
--J. Robert Charles teaches history at Goshen College
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January, 1996