Those Crazy Anabaptists: Europes first Marxists?
The Anabaptist tradition, today associated in the minds of most people with Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish-type groups, had a long history of revolutionary, coercive socialism based on their understanding of the Scriptures. Peter Walpot, in 1577, in his Great Article Book laid down the Biblical principles of community ownership of the means of production and consumption. Mennonite theologian John Yoder said:
Walpot’s treatise provides more systematic pastoral and ethical arguments where appropriate [for communal ownership]. Such are developed around the texts: “no man can serve two masters,” and “lay not up treasures for yourselves upon earth.” Even the Lord’s Prayer teaches community. Christ did not teach us to say severally, “give me my bread.” The Apostle’s Creed requires us to confess: “I believe in the communion of saints.” Jesus taught community by example, through the miraculous feeding of all who had come to him in the desert; and by doing it by means of the generosity of those who gave what they had. He called the rich young man to enter into that sharing. When the young man turned sorrowfully away, the disciples had learned how hard it was for the rich to enter the Kingdom.
It is obvious that the example of the Jerusalem Church is a powerful supporting argument.
...The Hutterite case would not be weakened if the first chapter of Acts were removed from the story: it is to be found in every other strand of the New Testament.
Yoder notes that Walpot treatise ended with a quote from the Theologia Germanica which pointed out that in Heaven there is no private property and for that reason people “are found content, true peace, and all blessedness.” It argued that if anyone claimed something as property they would be promptly cast into hell. Hutterties also said, “private property is the greatest enemy of love”. While many socialist, anti-liberal concepts find their root in Catholic doctrine it is also true that some of the most radical, socialist experiments (and some of the bloodiest) were rooted in early Reformationist communities.
Harold S. Bender, president of the Mennonite World Conference, lamented how the Anabaptists were perceived. He admits that one writer referred to them as “the Bolsheviks of the Reformation”. But even various socialist writers applauded the Anabaptists. Bender writes: “There are, for instance, the socialist writers, led by Kautsky, who would make Anabaptism either ‘the forerunner of the modern socialism” or the “culminating effort of medieval communism’.”
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in his book Leftism, quotes Carl Cornelius in regards to some of the Reformationists of the Anabaptist tradition:
The Zürich Doctrines were obeyed in the most uncompromising and radical form. Government offices, oaths and the use of arms were strictly outlawed. Nobody owned property. The stranger who asked for Baptism had to surrender all his earthly goods to the community but in the case of excommunication or banishment nothing was returned to him. Family life, which cannot be imagined without property, was replaced with a different order. The marriages, without consultation of the partners, were decreed and blessed by the Servants of the Word. The children soon after their birth were handed over to wet nurses and later placed in the common school house. Dressed and fed in an identical way, the adults lived according to their occupation in larger households under the supervision of a Servant of Necessity. The whole life moved, day in day out, within the narrowest limits. Any manifestation of personal independence or freedom led to banishment which meant to bottomless misery.
Those Christian traditions which preach a coming literal millennial rule of Christ on earth, mainly today’s evangelical and fundamentalist sects, are outside the mainstream tradition of Christian theology. But they are, perhaps, the dominant tradition when it comes to eschatalogical teaching today. Rothbard in his essay on Marxism as a religious concept talks about the concept of a literal Kingdom of God on Earth (KGE).
...one disturbing aspect of the KGE is the preparatory purgation of the host of human sinners. A second problem is what the KGE is going to look like. As we might imagine, KGE theorists have been extremely cloudy about the nature of their perfect society, but one troublesome features is that, to the extent that we know its operations at all, the KGE is almost always depicted as a communist society, lacking work, private property, or the division of labor. In short, something like the Marxian communist utopia, except run by a cadre, not of the vanguard of the proletariat, but of theocratic saints.
Throughout medieval history various Christian sects attempted to return to the New Testament concept of collective ownership of property. In the 1300s the Bishop of Strasbourg mentioned how a group calling itself Free Spirits, “believe that all things are common, whence they conclude that theft is lawful for them”. In the Fifteenth Century a group of calling themselves the Taborites, an off-shoot of the Hussite movement, tried to put communism into practice. They went one step further than most: “Everything will be common, including wives; there will be free sons and daughters of God and there will be no marriage as union of two — husband and wife.” In 1419 the Taborites instituted a communist society in Usti. With a common storage house supplies were quickly depleted as everyone had a motive to consume but no one had a motive to produce.
What Rothbard calls “theocratic Anabaptism” swept over sections of Europe. Thomas Müntzer, a scholarly theologian, was personally chosen by Luther to be a Lutheran minister in Zwickau. But Müntzer quickly was enamored with the old Taborite teachings. After several years of preaching he had collected a group of followers and in February 1525 took control of the town of Muhlhausen where he imposed a communist regime in the name of Christianity. Igor Shafarevich in his The Socialist Phenomenon described what happened, “...when anyone needed food or clothing he went to a rich man and demanded it of him in Christ’s name, for Christ had commanded that all should share with the needy. And what was not given freely was taken by force.” The princes of the realm were not particularly pleased and sent an army to wipe out Müntzer. The minister preached an impassioned sermon to his followers, mostly poor peasants, and as he proclaimed God’s divine protection a coincidental rainbow appeared in the sky. The superstitious peasants needed no other sign and marched into battle where some 5,000 of them died. Müntzer was captured and executed and his Christian communist regime came to an end.
But the demise of Müntzer did not mean the end of Christian communism. The Lutheran town of Münster was the site of the next experiment in New Testament economics. Rothbard recounts:
Münster was not destined to remain Lutheran for long, however. From all over the northwest, hordes of Anabaptist crazies flooded into the city of Münster, seeking the onset of the New Jerusalem. Anabaptism escalated when the eloquent and popular young minister Bernt Rothmann, a highly educated son of a town blacksmith, converted to Anabaptism. Originally a Catholic priest, Rothmann had become a friend of Luther and a head of the Lutheran church in Münster. But now he lent his eloquent preaching to the cause of communism as it had supposedly existed in the primitive Christian Church, with everything held in common, with no mine or thine, and each man receiving according to his “need.” Rothmann’s widespread reputation attracted thousands more in Münster, largely the poor, the rootless, and those hopelessly in debt.
The communist Christians of Münster, including Rothmann, then joined another sect of Anabaptists lead by Jan Matthys. Matthys proclaimed the end of the world, except for Münster which would become the New Jerusalem. Christians from all over Europe flooded into Münster to escape the destruction of the world. And with this influx of believers Bockelson emerged with complete control.
The first measure these Anabaptists put into effect was to cleanse the city of all unrepentant sinners by which they meant Catholics and Lutherans. Matthys originally wanted to execute them but was persuaded it might bring down the wrath of local princes. Any “sinners” left in the city were forcibly rebaptized and only those who refused were executed. Matthys had all the wealth of those expelled confiscated and placed into the common store-house where it would be doled out according to needs as determined by church deacons. When a blacksmith protested he was arrested and publicly executed by Bockelson himself as a warning.
Another measure, which had it taken place later in history would have been classic Marxism, was the abolition of money. Since the New Testament said money is the root of all evil these good Christians abolished private ownership of money. Instead it was collected and put in the hands of the Church which used it to hire “outside” workers. Food was also collectivized and rationed out by the Church. Communal dining-halls were created and private homes were declared public property open to the countless poverty-stricken immigrants seeking God’s kingdom.
Like many a good believer before him Matthys took his own religious beliefs seriously. When local princes placed an army around the town Matthys was convinced that God would liberate the town. Convinced of divine protection Matthys and some followers charged the army but were easily exterminated by the, no doubt, amused soldiers. Matthys’ accomplice in government, Jan Bockelson, got the town’s attention by running through the streets naked and then falling into a three-day trance. Like Stalin following Lenin, Bockelson proclaimed that any vestiges of community control were abolished and all power would be placed in his hands. A system of forced labor was instituted and all resistance was punishable by death. Marriage was only allowed between Anabaptists and polygamy was enforced as well. Bockelson soon had 15 wives himself, including the widow of Matthys. When some Church members resisted they were put to death and all dissent disappeared. After another revelation marriage itself was abolished. Soon Bockelson was proclaimed King of the World and lived in great luxury off of the wealth confiscated from the people of Münster. Bockelson used the town as a center to send out Anabaptist propaganda and was thus able to encourage small communist uprisings in much of the heartland of Protestantism. As the message of Christ spread the royal households decided to band together and put a stop to Bockelson. This time a siege was able to cut off the city completely. While the people starved the Church leaders continued to live in luxury still promising divine deliverance. As the siege took effect the people started rebelling. But the Church imposed absolute totalitarian rule and daily executions kept them from losing power. Eventually two town’s people betrayed weak spots in the defense of the town and the surrounding army penetrated the city and put an end to this Christian communist utopia. The town then converted back to Catholicism.
Note: At some point I would like to put down on paper information on the Taiping Rebellon led by Hung Hsiu-chuan, a convert of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. Hung organized the God Worshippers Society and also was the leader of the first communist movement in China in the mid 1800s. His movement waged war in 17 provinces and led to the deaths fo 20,000,000 people. Combine the moral views of Jerry Falwell, the economic views of Karl Marx and you will understand this religous/political movement. It strikes me interesting that the two earliest and bloddiest attempts at primative forms of communism were set up by break off sects of Christianity, first in Europe in the mid 1500s and then 300 years later in China under Hung.
Illustrations: The first image is Müntzer and the second Bockelson.