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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 12 — Protestantism in Germany From the Augsburg Confession to the Peace of Passau

Chapter 2 — The German Anabaptists, or the "Heavenly Kingdom"

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Peace in the Church: in the World Distress – Its Four Great Rulers – Troubles of Henry VIIL – Mortification's of Francis I. – Labours of Charles V. – Griefs of Clement VII. – A Contrast – The Anabaptist Prophets – Matthias the Baker – The New "Mount Zion" – Morals of the Sect – Buckholdt the Tailor – The "Heavenly Kingdom" – Buckholdt the King of the "Heavenly Kingdom" – Nominates Twelve Apostles – Sends out Twenty-eight Evangelists – Their Instructions and Departure – Their Fate – Marriage Abolished – Minster, the Den of this Crew, Besieged and Taken – Buckholdt put to Death – Lesson.

IF the Church had rest, society around it was terribly convulsed – "on the earth" was "distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring." What miserable and distracted lives were those which were led by the tour great potentates that governed Europe! Cares, perplexities, and disappointments came crowding in upon them, and filled up every hour of every day of their outwardly brilliant:, but inwardly most unhappy existences.

Henry of England had commenced his great divorce. The delays and doublings of the Vatican kept him in a perpetual fume, and when at length his suit reached its final issue fix the Papal court, the haughty monarch was thrown into a paroxysm of rage, which shaped itself ultimately into a course of crime. His impetuous and choleric temper could as little brook the opposition he was meeting with from the Protestants of his own kingdom, who had thrown off Popery while he had thrown off only the Pope, and aimed at stepping into his vacant place in the consciences of his subjects.

Francis I. of France was every year becoming a guiltier and a more wretched man. His rival, Charles V., had robbed him of the laurels he had won in his earlier campaigns. To the anger and shame which his imprisonment in Madrid left rankling in his soul were added the loss of the Italian duchies, and the recent humiliating peace of Cam-bray. Francis gave himself no rest, if haply he might wipe out these disgraces and humble the haughty man who had inflicted them upon him. He intrigued to sow dissension between Clement and the emperor; he toiled to raise new armaments in the hope that. past defeats would be forgotten in the splendor of new victories; but all that he reaped from these harassing labors was only to add thereby to the weight of his subjects' burdens, and to the list of his own embarrassments and disappointments.

The career of Charles V. was outwardly more prosperous, but at the heart of his glory were labor and sorrow. Raised above all other men in point of worldly state, the emperor was in hourly terror of falling from the dazzling pinnacle on which he stood, and in order to maintain himself was compelled to have continual resort to fresh levies, new battles, and the expenditure of yet more millions of gold crowns, till at length the gulf was dug into which himself and his kingdom finally descended. Not to speak of Francis, who was a thorn in his side; nor of Clement, whose fickle alliance gave him little satisfaction, the emperor hold no faith in the order of things which he had established in Italy and Germany, and labored under continual apprehensions of his system falling in pieces around him. But worst of all he was: haunted by the spectre of Lutheranism, which a true instinct told him would one day rob him of his Empire; nor could he understand how it should happen that every time he raised his sword to make an end of that detested thing, the Turk unexpectedly presented himself, and seemed with menacing gestures to forbid the blow.

As regards the fourth great power of the age, Clement VII. of Rome, these were not times when Popes any more than temporal monarchs could sleep in peace. His ghostly empire was falling in pieces; kings and nations were escaping from under the tiara, and neither anathemas nor concessions – and both were tried by turns – could bring them back. Germany had revolted from its obedience; half the Swiss cantons had lifted up the heel of heretical pravity; Sweden and Denmark were going the same downward road, and England was following fast after them. There never before had been so unfortunate a Pontificate, and there have been few so anxious, perplexed, and unhappy Popes, though there have been many more vicious ones. Nor was Clement more happy in the sovereigns that remained with him than in those that had deserted him. The most Christian King of France and his most Catholic Majesty of Spain were fully as troublesome as useful to him. Instead of the two pillars of his throne, they rather resembled two colossal swords suspended above it, which threatened ever and anon to fall and crush it. Much artifice and management did it require on the part of Clement to poise the one against the other. At no time did the views and interests of all three coincide. On one object only were they able to agree – the overthrow of Protestantism; but even here their jealousies and rivalships prevented their acting in concert. Their conflicting passions drew them into a whirl of excitement and of war against one another, which wasted their years, burdened their treasuries, and devastated their kingdoms.

Compared with the spectacles we have been contemplating, how truly sublime the position of Luther and his fellow-Reformers! From their closets they wield a far mightier power than Charles and Francis do from their thrones. Not armies to ravage, but ideas to enlighten the earth do they send forth. By the silent but majestic power of truth they are seen dethroning errors, pulling down tyrannies, planting the seeds of piety and liberty, and nursing the infancy of arts and letters, and free States, which are destined to remain the fruit of their labors

and the monument of their wisdom when the victories of Charles and of Francis have been forgotten, and the fabric of their political greatness has mouldered into dust.

The Church of Germany, during these years of peace, extended on every side. All her great teachers were still spared to her. Luther, Melancthon, and the band of eminent men around them, still unbroken, were guiding her counsels and propagating her doctrines. By her side stood the League warding off the sword of Charles, or whoever might wish to attack her.

The timid found courage to avow their convictions, and ranged themselves on the Protestant side. Whole districts in Northern and Central Germany came over. Anhalt and Pomerania, Augsburg, Frankfort, Hanover, and Kempten were among the new accessions. This did not escape the notice of the emperor, but, meanwhile, it was not in his power to prevent it – he dared hardly show his displeasure at it.

The prosperity of these peaceful days was, alas! disturbed by a most deplorable outbreak of lawless passion and horrible fanaticism. We have already narrated the tumults and bloodshed of which the provinces of Upper Germany were the scene about a decade before, caused by the efforts of men who had espoused principles that converted the liberty of the Gospel into worse than pagan licentiousness. The seeds of these evils were still in the soil, and the days of peace brought them to the surface a second time. In 1533, two Anabaptist prophets – John Matthias, a baker of Haarlem, and John Buckholdt, a tailor in Leyden – with a body of their followers, seized upon the city of Munster, in Westphalia, [1] judging it a convenient spot from which to propagate their abominable tenets. They gave out that God had commissioned them to put down all magistracy and government, and establish the kingdom of heaven, which from its center in Munster, or Mount Zion, as they styled it, was to reign over all the nations of the earth. Matthias, the baker, was the first monarch of this new kingdom. His talent for enterprise, his acts of sanctity, and his fervid enthusiasm fitted him for his difficult but impious project. He abolished all distinctions of rank, proclaimed a community of goods, made all eat at a common table, and abrogating marriage, permitted a plurality of wives, himself setting the example, which his followers were not slow to imitate. [2]

Matthias, the baker, soon died, and was succeeded by John Buckholdt, the tailor. It was now that the new "heavenly kingdom" shone forth in all its baleful splendor. Buckholdt gave out that it was the will of God, made known to him by special revelation, that he should sit upon the throne of his father David, and discharge the august office of universal monarch of the world. He ordered a crown and scepter, both of the best gold, to be prepared for him; and he never appeared abroad without these insignia of his sovereignty. He dressed himself in the most sumptuous garments, had a Bible and naked sword carried before him, and coined money stamped with his own image.

He fell into a sleep of three days, and on awakening, calling for pen and ink, he wrote down on a slip of paper the names of twelve men of good family in Munster, whom he nominated heads of "the twelve tribes of Israel." He had a high throne erected in the market-place, covered with cloth of gold, where, attended by his officers of state, his guards, and his wives, of whom one bore the title of queen, he heard complaints and administered justice. [3]

He had, moreover, a body of missionaries, whose office it was to proclaim the "true doctrine." Twenty-eight of these men were sent forth to preach in the cities around, and to say that the "kingdom of heaven" had been set up at Munster; that John of Leyden had been commissioned by God to govern all the nations of the world; that the time was come when the meek should inherit the earth, and the wicked be rooted out of it; and that the most terrible judgments would fall on all who should refuse to enter the "heavenly kingdom." One only of these twenty-eight deputies returned to "Mount Zion," to tell what acceptance their message had met with.

Of the sending out of these missionaries Sleidan gives the following graphic description: – "One day," says he, "Buckholdt sounded a trumpet through all the streets, and commanded the citizens to meet him armed at the gate of the cathedral. When they came to the place of rendezvous they found a supper prepared. They are ordered to sit down, being about 4,000 of them; afterwards about a thousand more sit down, who were on duty while the first number were at supper. The king and the queen, with their household servants, wait at the table. After they had eaten, and supper was almost done, the king himself gives every one a piece of bread, with these words: Take eat, shew forth the Lord's death.

The queen in like manner, giving them a cup, bids them Shew forth the Lord's death. When this was over, the prophet before-mentioned gets into the pulpit, and asks them if they would obey the Word of God? When they all told him, Yes: It is the command of the Heavenly Father, says he, that we should send out about twenty-eight teachers of the Word, who are to go to the four quarters of the world, and publish the doctrine which is received in this city. Then he repeats the names of his missionaries, and assigns them all their respective journeys. Six are sent to Osenburg, six to Vardendorp, eight to Soest, and as many to Coesfeld. Afterwards the king and queen and the waiters sat down to supper with those who were designed for this expedition... After supper, those eight-and-twenty men we mentioned are sent away by night.

To every one, besides provision by the way, was given a crown in gold, which they were to leave in those places that refused to believe their doctrine, as a testimony of their ruin and eternal destruction, for rejecting that peace and saving doctrine which they had been offered. These men went out accordingly, and when they had reached their respective posts they cry out in the towns that men must repent, otherwise they would shortly be destroyed. They spread their coats upon the ground before the magistrates, and throw down their crowns before them, and protest they were sent by the Father to offer them peace if they would receive it. They command them to let all their fortunes be common; but if they refused to accept it, then this gold should be left as a token of their wickedness and ingratitude. They added 'that these were the times foretold by all the prophets in which God would make righteousness flourish all the world over; and when their king had fully discharged his office, and brought things to that perfection, so as to make righteousness prevail everywhere, then the time would be come in which Christ would deliver up the kingdom to the Father.'"

"As soon as they had done their speech," says Sleidan, "they were apprehended, and examined, first in a friendly manner, but afterwards upon the rack, concerning their faith, and way of living, and how the town (Munster) was fortified. Their answer was that they only taught the true doctrine, which they were ready to maintain with the hazard of their lives; for since the times of the apostles the Word of God was never rightly delivered, nor justice observed. That there were but four prophets, whereof two were righteous, David and John of Leyden; the other two wicked, viz., the Pope and Luther, and this latter the worst." [4]

Buckholdt combined the duties of missionary with those of universal sovereign. Not only did he press upon his preachers to exhort their hearers to use the liberty wherewith the Gospel had invested them, more especially in the matter of marriage; he would himself at times ascend his throne in the market-place, and turning it into a pulpit, would harangue the people on the propriety of following his example in the matter of taking to themselves more wives. This was surely an unnecessary labor, considering that the passions of the citizens were no longer restrained either by the authority of laws or by the sense of decency. In the wake of lust, as always happens, came blood.

Munster, the den of this filthy crew, stank in the nostrils of Papist and Protestant alike. It was a thing so supremely offensive and disgusting that it was not possible to live in the same country with it. No matter whether one believed in the mass or in Protestantism, this "heavenly kingdom" was more than either religion could tolerate; and must, in the name of that common humanity of which it was the reproach, be swept away. The princes of the Rhine Provinces in 1535 united their forces and marched against the city – now strongly fortified. They besieged and took it. Buckholdt was led about in chains and exhibited in several German towns. He was finally brought back to Munster, the scene of his grandeur and crimes, and there subjected to an agonising death. [5] The body of the prophet was – after death – put into an iron cage; and the dead bodies of two of his followers being similarly dealt with, all three were hung at the top of the city-tower, as a public spectacle and warning – Buckholdt in the midst, and on either side a companion.

Luther sought to make his countrymen understand the lesson taught them by these deplorable occurrences. The Gospel, he said, was the only safe path between two abysses. Rome by usurping authority over the moral law had opened one abyss, the prophets of Munster by abrogating that law had opened another. The Gospel, by maintaining the supremacy of that law, placed the conscience under the authority of God, its rightful Ruler, and so gave man liberty without licentiousness; and if the world would avoid falling headlong into the gulf that yawned on either hand, it must go steadily forward in the road of Protestantism. Rome and Munster might seem wide apart, but there was a point where the two met. From the indulgence-box of Tetzel came an immunity from moral obligation, quite as complete as that of the "heavenly kingdom" of the Anabaptist prophet of Munster.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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