The early Anabaptists' emphasis on accepting Jesus' life and teachings as a model for daily life, discipleship, led to various unpopular conclusions. Perhaps the most controversial was the view held by most Anabaptist groups that they should give up the use of violence.

"The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves...  All killing has ceased with them"

Conrad Grebel in Kropf, p. 137

These Anabaptists believed that Jesus taught and lived a life of non-resistance, where he did not resist evil and was willing to suffer as a result. They understood suffering as part of the cross that believers were asked to bear when modeling their lives after Jesus. This understanding was based on biblical passages calling for believers to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies;" the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 was especially important. Therefore, they refused to enter the army and did not defend themselves with force.

Other Reformers Disagreed

Many reformers argued with the Anabaptists about their rejection of violence, often using Old Testament texts where God appears to condone and even command warfare to back their position. The Anabaptists argued that Jesus was the key to interpreting the entire Bible. Thus, when there appeared to be disagreement within the text itself, they believed that Jesus' actions and words held the most weight.

This emphasis on non-resistance proved extremely unpopular with the governing authorities, especially given the events of the time. Conflicts between Reform leaders and Catholic leaders had the potential to erupt into violence, and both sides wanted citizens willing to fight for their side. Also, the "barbarian hordes" were at the door of Vienna, and threatened to conquer "Christian Europe." This commitment to non-resistance was another important factor leading to the persecution of early Anabaptists.

Münster Revolt

Main Street and St. Lamberti tower in Munster (11 Kb): "Faith of our Fathers," slide 150; photo by Jan Gleysteen
Main Street and St. Lamberti's Tower:  Jan Gleysteen photo
"All of you who would fight with the sword of David and also be servants of the Lord, consider these words... If he is to be gentle to all men, how can he then hate and harm them? .. If he is to instruct in meekness those that oppose, how can he destroy them?"

Menno Simons, 1535 in Haas, p. 180

This rejection of violence was not true of all Anabaptists, however. Probably the most famous exception reached its climax in the German city of Münster, from 1533-1535. Convinced that the end of the world was coming, a baker named Jan Matthijs orchestrated the election of an Anabaptist town council in Münster. Claiming the city to be the "New Jerusalem," the leadership encouraged Anabaptists persecuted elsewhere to join their movement. Other Reform groups soon set siege to the city, and Matthijs was killed during what he believed to be the "last battle."

At this point John of Leiden took over leadership and claimed to be King David reincarnate, preparing the world for Christ's second coming. Nonetheless, the end of the world did not come, the city was recaptured, and the leaders of the revolt were executed. After their death city officials hung their corpses from a local tower in three cages in order to discourage other would-be rebels. Cages still hang from the St. Lamberti tower today as reminders of this revolt.

Cages on St. Lamberti tower (10 Kb): "Faith of our Fathers," slide 151; photo by Jan Gleysteen
Cages on St. Lamberti tower in Munster:  Jan Gleysteen photo

For all intents and purposes, this branch of Anabaptism was eliminated with the defeat of the city. Following the events at Münster, the Anabaptist groups appeared to solidify their views on non-resistance. In fact, Menno Simons joined the Anabaptists and presented a more developed peace position partially in response to these events.

Elements of the "end times" excitement remained, as some of these people were incorporated into the ongoing movement. The events at Münster certainly did not help the Anabaptists' plight. It made rulers even more suspicious of them and allowed authorities to justify the persecution of other Anabaptists.

Although many Mennonites in Canada pride themselves on the church's stance on peace, many people in Germany still have only heard of "Anabaptists" in connection with these events at Münster. For them, the "Anabaptists" were a group of working class revolutionaries who were stamped out in the 16th century. 

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman