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From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century


7. The Radical Reformation, Thomas Münzer

8. Münster

9. Anabaptists, Hutterites


7. The Radical Reformation, Thomas Münzer

The Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, when it came, was certainly a revolution, but it was a revolution within society, within the dominant culture, and within the general process of history of Western civilization. The Reformation dissolved the hierarchical nature of feudalism and shattered its web of interlocking rights and duties. It released the frozen assets tied up in ecclesiastical property — over one-half of the agricultural land of Western Europe and probably a greater proportion of its portable wealth. It abolished all the legal sanctions and the customs which kept the economy static. It sanctioned usury and permitted the lender to take any interest he could get. It did away with the guilds’ suppression or control of competition amongst their members. In the Middle Ages the peasantry had clearly defined rights and duties, sanctioned by immemorial custom and by law — but so had the lord of the manor, and he in turn had his responsibilities and privileges in relation to his overlord, and so on up the ladder to emperor and pope. With the Reformation the peasant, who at first expected to gain a vague but wonderful freedom from the new social morality preached by the young Luther, found himself being reduced to the status of a serf, with no rights and, instead of duties, the naked compulsion to hard labor.

By the end of the Middle Ages society had become top-heavy with charitable organizations of all kinds which cared for the redundant unemployed, or at least kept them off the labor market. With the seizure of wealth of the Church, only a tiny fraction of these institutions were revived under private or State auspices and the absorption of the labor surplus necessary to a static economy ceased. From then on until the present day legislators would fulminate against “sturdy rogues” and “welfare chiselers.” The Poor Laws of post-Reformation Europe, where they exist, all have one assumption in common — poverty is the fault of the poor and indigence is a vice. Theoretically the old fealties of the Middle Ages were replaced by a structure of contracts between individuals, man and man, or “legal persons,” juridical individuals; but since the bulk of the population did not in fact enter into contracts of any kind, what resulted was progressive atomization. Medieval man was saved as a member of the body of Christ, the Church, which literally incorporated its members. Luther’s Christian was saved alone, by an individual act of faith, and so his relationship to the deity was one of an utterly contingent atomic instant devoid of self-sufficiency upon God’s absolute omnipotence and self-sufficiency.

Calvinism introduced only a change of emphasis. If God had predestined an elect to salvation, and all other men to damnation from the beginning of time and regardless of their merits, this elect did not form a community, because its membership was unknown and unknowable. One would think that this would have led to complete antinomianism, the abandonment of all morality. Quite the contrary, all that man could do was behave as though he belonged to the elect and hope for the best. Calvin’s extreme asceticism so circumscribed man’s behavior that he could do little else but work hard, save money, and invest it. Luther’s was a religion of free enterprise, Calvin’s of capital accumulation. In such a system as the Calvinist theocracies of Geneva, Huguenot France, Scotland, or New England, the poor were convicted prima-facie by their situation. Every member of the elite might not be a member of the elect, but the poor, and especially the indigent poor, obviously were not. The incompetent, the wastrel, the drunkard, and all those who lived only for pleasure rather than profit were self-evidently damned.

Although the three great reformers were to make much of an appeal to the Bible — “only by faith, only by the Bible,” said Luther — to the apostolic age, and to the fathers of the Church, their theology was in fact derived directly from St. Augustine and the medieval scholastics. Their insistence on salvation by faith and predestination represents only slight changes of emphasis, if that, from the teachings of the most orthodox scholastics. It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century in England in the Anglican Church that there begins a serious attempt to construct a theology based on the Fathers and the testimony of the united Church of the ecumenical councils. For the reformers the Church was coterminous with the State, just as it was for the Catholic theologians, and Church and State played only slightly different roles in the exercise of power. The difference was that the Church no longer had final authority — as personified in the pope. At first the ultimate appeal was to Luther himself. The other leaders of the German Reformation deferred always to his final decision — as in the case of Zwingli’s doctrine of the Eucharist; and in the question of relations with the Utraquist church of Bohemia and the surviving Taborites, and with the first Swiss Brethren; and regarding disciplinary problems such as those raised at the beginning of the career of Thomas Münzer; and finally, of course, in the matter of Luther’s notorious condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt.

In practice most religious problems were met by the secular State, the town councils, the local lords, and ultimately the princes and dukes of the conglomeration of petty states and small kingdoms that made up the German empire, an overarching political community which was beginning to collapse under the blows of the universal conflict engendered by the Reformation. Once the principle was established of cujus regio, ejus religio, “as the ruler, so the religion,” without which Middle Europe would have broken down in a war of each against all, spiritual authority was in fact vested no longer in the emperor or in an abstract secular power, but in the chance circumstances of the petty courts of Germany.

The religion of the Anabaptists and the radical Reformation was the exact opposite in almost every case of Luther’s. Thomas Münzer at Mühlhausen and Frankenhausen and the apocalyptic Anabaptist commune at Münster were attempts to establish the millennial kingdom as a secular imperium, but for all their notoriety they were atypical and involved relatively few previous members of Anabaptist groups. Recent Mennonite and American Baptist historians have stressed the ancient roots of Anabaptism and the continuity of the sixteenth-century radical reformers with similar sects throughout the Middle and Dark Ages back to the time of the apostles. They are essentially right.

The Reformation with its seeming, but quite transient, advocacy of freedom of speech, released and made public radical dissent, which had been there all the time, and briefly permitted widespread proselytizing by preachers whose doctrines were subversive of the Reformation itself, even more than they were subversive of Roman Catholicism. The record would indicate that until the Reformation the Roman Church had probably ignored most of the strange cults that flourished in the Middle Ages, unless they gave scandal or insisted on giving notice, much as it had dealt with the concubinage of the clergy. In later years the extreme sectarians and the Roman Catholics were often to form a united front against a Protestant church and state, as witness the close friendship between William Penn and James II.

Radical sectarians did not just appeal to the traditions of the Church before it was coopted by Constantine; they strove to reinstate it totally in faith and practice, as a saving remnant within a doomed world. They were indifferent to the conflict of power of emperor and pope, Luther and prince, because they did not believe in worldly power as such. They were indifferent to laws regulating competition and the taking of interest because they did not believe in what would later be called “political economy” at all. They strove to achieve the self-sufficient economy of a closed subculture, a communism of both production and consumption. In most cases circumstances did not permit this, but they always advocated an apostolic community of goods, the shared responsibility for the physical welfare of all members; and in the early days they often practiced a communism of consumption while earning their bread at jobs in the world. Deeply influenced by Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, whom most of their theologians read, they looked on the process of salvation as the progressive deification of man in community rather than the forensic “justification” of the individual before the judgment seat of God by faith in the sacrifice of Christ — they believed in at-one-ment rather than atonement, the Christ life rather than his sacrifice, in communion rather than Mass. So they were Anabaptists (twice-baptizers) opposed to the baptism of unconscious infants or immature children. For them baptism was a divine sealing of the awakened soul into the community of the elect, a conscious act by which the individual turned from the world and embarked on the spiritual pilgrimage toward divinization in company with the beloved community.

Although practically all Anabaptists were millenarians in the sense that they looked forward to the coming of the kingdom in the indefinite future, they thought of themselves not as the army of the apocalypse to whom it had been given to usher in the last days, but as waiters on the advent of the Lord. The two most famous episodes in the early history of Anabaptism did not arise out of the main body of the movement but were generated independently.

Thomas Münzer was not an Anabaptist at all, or at least the questions of when and why to baptize were of no importance to him; and he gave contradictory answers at various times in his career. Nor until his last days at Mühlhausen did he preach community of goods, and his only definite statement on the subject was made in his final confession after torture and before execution.

Münzer was born in Stolberg of a well-to-do family in the Harz Mountains and educated at Leipzig and Frankfurt. He seems to have visited Luther sometime around 1519 and to have spent his school years in earnest study and seeking, profoundly troubled by the apostasy of the established Church. That same year he became father confessor to a nunnery at Beuditz and with the security and leisure that his position gave him spent over a year of intensive study reading Josephus, the church history of Eusebius, St. Augustine, the acts of the general councils and those of Constance and Basel, and the mystical writings of Suso and Tauler. He began to correspond with the leading reformers, most of whom were five to ten years older than he. The next year he was recommended as a preacher to St. Mary’s Church at Zwickau to replace temporarily the pastor, John Egranus. At first he appeared to be just another of the young apostles of Luther who were springing up all over Germany and immediately got himself in a violent controversy with the local Franciscans.

Zwickau in those days was one of the largest cities in Germany, three times the size of Dresden. It had been a prosperous textile center but with the development of silver mines in the nearby mountains, the weaving trade had declined and many weavers were unemployed. The city had taken on a boom-town character with the severe local price inflation typical of mining towns, the radical polarization of classes with great wealth at the top and poverty and mass unemployment at the bottom. Zwickau was just over the border from Bohemia and had been a center of Taborite agitation in the previous century; and small clandestine groups of Picards had survived to be gathered up and organized into an open movement known as the Zwickau Prophets by Nicholas Storch, the descendant of a once wealthy and powerful family forced into bankruptcy by the mine owners. When Münzer arrived Storch had made himself the leader of an extreme pentecostal, chiliastic sect of religious revolutionaries, often unemployed weavers like himself.

The violence of Münzer’s sermons against the Franciscans got him into trouble with the city council and the congregation of St. Mary’s and with, when he returned, John Egranus, and he was forced more and more into the arms of Storch. Eventually he left the upper-class St. Mary’s and became the pastor of St. Katherine’s, with a large congregation of miners, poor weavers, and unemployed. At St. Katherine’s Münzer became quite consciously a pastor of the poor. He ceased to be an orthodox Lutheran and became an apocalypticist like Storch and spent more and more of his time addressing the conventicles of the Prophets. The city council grew increasingly antagonistic. In the spring of 1521 Münzer was asked to leave Zwickau. Luther in the meantime had withdrawn his support.

Münzer went to Prague, where he was welcomed enthusiastically as one of the new Lutherans and invited to preach in the churches. His sermons were not Lutheran; he had not only become a full-fledged chiliast, but his language had grown extraordinarily violent, abusive, and gross, and his claim to be appointed by God to gather in the elect for the final armed struggle before the millennium was presented in terms outrageous even for those days. The sophisticated citizens of Prague had heard all this one hundred years before and were not impressed.

Münzer left, disillusioned with the Bohemians. Before he left, in imitation of Luther, he nailed a manifesto to the doors of the principal churches. It summarizes his leading ideas which were to guide him for the rest of his life, but the violence and incoherence of the language are its most notable features. During 1522 he wandered about with no regular employment. He visited Luther in Wittenberg, whom he seems to have annoyed, but who may have used his influence to get Münzer a position as pastor of St. John’s Church in the small town of Alstedt in Saxony. There he gave his first sermon on Easter Day 1523.

The sixteen months or so that Münzer spent in Alstedt were the quietest and most productive of his brief career. He married a former nun, Ottilie von Gersen. The next Easter day she presented him with a son. He began, quietly enough for him, as a spokesman for the orthodox Reformation, albeit an emotional and eccentric one. He had apparently decided to move cautiously and with a certain amount of duplicity, but his tempestuous sermons soon made him the most popular preacher in the entire district. People came from all around to hear him. He wrote and celebrated the first Eucharist in the German language and later published a complete prayer book with liturgies for communion, baptism, marriage, communion of the sick and funerals, and the public confession of sin before communion. His prayer book promised to be widely adopted, but after his involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt it was condemned by Luther who, however, did not scruple to imitate it three years later. The most impressive thing about Münzer’s liturgies is their total lack of his usual coarseness and violence. On the contrary they show an exceptional poetic and devotional sensibility.

As time went on Münzer revealed more and more of his apocalyptic message and presented himself openly as the chosen man of God. At the same time he began the secret organization of a revolutionary army. The League of the Elect started out by raiding, looting, and burning convents and monasteries in the neighboring countryside. Within a short time he was recruiting for his league in an ever-widening circle of communities in Thuringia. As they became noised abroad his activities began to worry Frederick, the elector of Saxony, and his brother Duke John, who were supporters of the Reformation, and Luther, with whom his correspondence became more and more eccentric and incoherent. Münzer also got in a violent quarrel with the local lord, the Count of Mansfeld. Meanwhile he was issuing a steady stream of pamphlets, each one more radical than the last. Frederick decided to investigate and sent Duke John, his son John Frederick, his chancellor, and various other officials to Alstedt. They invited Münzer to preach before them at the castle and on July 13 he delivered what has been called the most extraordinary public utterance of the Reformation era.

Basing his sermon on the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel, Münzer announced the immediate oncoming of the war between the forces of the Devil and the League of the Elect which would usher in the millennium, and appealed to the visiting princes to join him as leaders of the army of the saints. He envisaged a new reformation with its capital in the little town of Alstedt, being spread by the word, first through Saxony, then all Germany, then throughout the world. It would be a kingdom of the elect held in unanimity, obtained by the simple method of killing everybody else. He ended by threatening his noble listeners with extermination if they did not join him. Nothing shows the intellectual turmoil of the age better than Münzer’s confidence that Duke John would accept his ideas.

The sermon was printed and circulated. Duke John returned to confer with Elector Frederick, who at first was prepared to tolerate Münzer’s fanaticism as long as it did not pass over into overt action. Münzer persisted in baiting both Luther and the rulers. He was called to Weimar and examined, where his claims to be leader of the last age and his bloodthirsty language became even more extreme. He returned to Alstedt, still confident that he had won over the Saxon court. Frederick, Duke John, and Luther began to exert pressure on the town council of Alstedt to expel him from the city. Suddenly, on the night of August 7, 1524, he left Alstedt, leaving behind his wife and children and all his possessions.

Münzer spent the autumn and winter in travel, first to Mühlhausen, where the militant Anabaptist Henry Pfeiffer had organized his own League of the Elect and was attempting to take over the city. Münzer immediately took over the leadership from Pfeiffer, superimposed his own apocalyptic program, raised a demonstration, and attempted to drive the mayor and council from the city. The nobles and a company of mercenary soldiers dispersed the crowd and expelled Münzer and Pfeiffer.

Münzer went on to Nuremberg to visit his friend John Hut, who published Münzer’s most violent, incoherent, and abusive pamphlet against Luther, an utterance of almost continuous hysterical anger. The Nuremberg authorities confiscated and destroyed all but a very few copies, arrested the printer, and expelled Münzer and Pfeiffer. Münzer went to Switzerland seeking allies amongst the Swiss Brethren, and even visited John Oecolampadius, the orthodox Zwinglian reformer. He also visited Balthasar Hübmaier in the Waldshut over the border in Germany, an Anabaptist leader only slightly less militant than Münzer, everywhere seeking allies and attempting to rouse the people for his revolution. Neither leaders nor people were impressed, and the pacifist Swiss Brethren were profoundly shocked. Münzer returned to Mühlhausen. Pfeiffer had already come back and the radicals had gained control of the city. Münzer revitalized and armed his league, expelled its opponents, and placed in office a new council to which both he and Pfeiffer declined to belong. Meanwhile the Peasants’ Revolt had reached Thuringia and Münzer was ready, not just to join but, he imagined, to take it over.

It should be understood that although Münzer is often called the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt, he in fact had nothing to do with it. The revolt in Mühlhausen was an entirely separate action with quite different objectives. As the Reformation proceeded in the destruction of the social and economic relationships of feudalism, the peasants of Germany had taken Luther’s professions of freedom at face value and had looked forward to a society of independent yeoman farmers and free laborers, with a money economy. The old social relationships had no sooner been done away with — from the top — than the nobles and magnates began a forcible enserfment of the peasantry, a quite different status from that of the medieval peasant who had both rights and duties. Post-Reformation serfdom was much like the Russian version, a servile status close to slavery.

As the upper classes began to close them in, peasantry all over south Germany began to rebel. From the beginning of the sixteenth century sporadic revolts broke out every year somewhere, usually under the leadership of a former soldier, Joss Fritz, and with a widespread secret organization called at first the Bundschuh after the peasant’s clog, and later Poor Konrad. These were not small riots, but battles involving as many as five thousand armed peasants. By 1525 local actions and riots had coalesced to full-scale war in the Tyrol, Austria, and southwest Germany.

By this time Luther, who had originally been neutral and blamed both peasants and rulers, was denouncing the peasants and urging the nobility on to the kill, in language at least as unbridled as ever was Thomas Münzer’s. “The only way to make Mr. Everyman do what he ought,” said Luther, “is to constrain him by law and the sword to a semblance of piety, as one holds wild beasts by chains and cages . . . better the death of all the peasants than the princes . . . strangle the rebels as you would mad dogs.” And when rebellion had been suppressed by wholesale massacre “all their blood be upon me,” said Luther, who then proceeded to a theological justification of the new serfdom.

The demands of the peasants were simple, consistent, far from millenarian, scarcely religious, and certainly not communist. They demanded the abolition of the remnants of feudalism and of the new measures which were forcing them into serfdom, the disestablishment of the Church, a drastic reduction of taxes, the reinstatement of common rights in pastures, woodlands, and free hunting and fishing. There was nothing subversive of the new social order inaugurated by the Reformation. On the contrary, it was the return to a semi-feudalized capitalism, with the crushing of the Peasants’ Revolt, which held back German development for three hundred years.

Thomas Münzer was not interested in the practical problems of the peasantry and working class. In all his writings he shows no evidence of even being aware of them. He was interested only in the millennium, and on his return to Mühlhausen he began feverishly to prepare to usher it in. Couriers were sent in all directions to gather forces wherever the League of the Elect had members, or where Münzer had formed conventicles of his disciples. Alstedt, Zwickau, Mansfeld, were called upon for troops. As in Tabor a century before, footloose ecstatics and revolutionaries, when the news reached them, headed for Mühlhausen. Nicholas Storch arrived at the head of his own little army. At this point Münzer, Pfeiffer, and Storch may have introduced community of goods, though whether on principle or as a form of siege communism, or simply communism of a besieged town, it is impossible to tell. The subject is only mentioned in passing in Münzer’s final confession.

During the first week in May the peasant army, eventually to number between eight and ten thousand, had gathered at Frankenhausen, a town which had been taken over by revolutionary Mühlhausen. On the eleventh Münzer arrived at the peasant camp and began to organize the army of the apocalypse. It is significant that he brought only three hundred of his own followers from Mülhausen and that Pfeiffer remained behind, opposed to the alliance of the city of the apocalypse with the army of the peasants. Meanwhile Duke John, who had become elector on the death of his brother on the fourth of May, and other neighboring princes had raised an army under the command of Philip, Landgraf of Hesse, who immediately marched on Mühlhausen.

On the fifteenth Philip attacked with possibly five thousand troops equipped with artillery, and with two thousand cavalry, neither of which the peasants had. Philip offered peace if they would surrender Münzer; but after an impassioned speech by Münzer himself, who promised to catch the cannon balls in his cloak, and implied that those who had complete faith would be immune to the bullets, a rainbow, the symbol emblazoned on their flag, appeared in the sky, and the peasants refused. Philip’s artillery opened fire while the peasant army was singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus” and drove the peasants back against the charge of the cavalry while his infantry attacked from the other two sides. Completely surrounded, the peasants were cut to pieces. Five thousand were killed on the battlefield, six hundred captured, and the rest fled into the Thuringian forest. Philip’s army lost six men.

The moment the attack began Münzer ran away and hid in an attic in Frankenhausen. The soldiers discovered him lying in bed with the covers pulled over his head. He claimed to be a sick man who had nothing to do with the revolt; but he had been unwilling to abandon his papers and these betrayed him. He was brought to Philip and turned over to his enemy, Count Ernest of Mansfeld, who had him tortured most of the night. In the morning Münzer signed a confession which named all of his confederates and in which he claimed to have begun his revolutionary career in an underground group in Halle when he was a boy.

A ducal army captured Mühlhausen, which put up no resistance but begged for mercy, on May 24. On May 26 Pfeiffer, most of the members of the “eternal council,” and Münzer were beheaded in the city square. Münzer recanted and received communion according to the Catholic rite but could not remember the Nicene Creed. Pfeiffer refused and died defiant. The city of Mühlhausen was fined forty thousand gulden (over half a million dollars). Its status as a free city was abolished and it never recovered its prosperity.

The battle of Frankenhausen marked the end of the Peasants’ Revolt, although the next year was spent in mopping up operations, trials, executions, and minor massacres of the demoralized peasants all over south Germany and Austria. Luther published an exultant pamphlet, A Terrible Story and Judgment of God Concerning Thomas Münzer. Münzer’s papers fell into the hands of Philip of Hesse and George of Saxony who deposited them in the archives of Marburg, Dresden, and Weimar.

Four different Thomas Münzers were to survive in history. To the orthodox Protestants he would be the typical Anabaptist who had only pushed the doctrines of radical sectarianism to their logical conclusion. But the Anabaptists had already mostly become pacifists, and their pacifism was only intensified by Münzer and the Münster commune a few years later. Thus they repudiated him as a completely aberrant fanatic with no real connection with the main body of the movement. For the Roman Catholic historians Münzer had simply worked out the inevitable consequences of Protestant individualism, and Mühlhausen was only a slightly more extreme example of the Reformation’s attack upon law and order. In 1850 Friedrich Engels published The Peasants’ War in Germany and Münzer became a revolutionary saint, a position he has never lost. Marxian historians call him the ideologist of the Peasant War, the first political cosmopolitan. Engels said that his religious philosophy touched atheism and his political program touched communism. Karl Kautsky in his Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation and Ernst Bloch in Thomas Müntzer als Theologe der Revolution, both portray Münzer as a fully developed, although primitive, ideologue of revolutionary communism. He is a popular hero in East Germany. Many books have been written about him, streets and squares named after him. Engels’s version of his story is taught to school children and his face appears on postage stamps. In recent years research in sources unknown to Engels has made it possible to draw a fairly accurate picture of the real Thomas Münzer.


8. Münster

Although perhaps a majority of the early leaders of the radical Reformation opposed infant baptism, it was not until January 21, 1525, that the first re-baptism of an adult was performed in the circle of the Swiss Brethren in Zurich, when their leader, Konrad Grebel, baptized Georg Blaurock, exactly contemporary with the beginning of the revolution in Mühlhausen. In a few years everyone who took part in it would be martyred, but the Swiss Brethren remained communitarian pacifists, to survive and provide the first Mennonite immigration to America. In their early years they preached an apostolic community of goods. In practice, partly because this was a city movement of people variously employed in the world, such communalism usually took the form of voluntary poverty and a common fund. They were millenarians, but no more so than Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. The end of the world was coming soon, but its arrival was not imminent; and so their millenarianism took the form of an eschatological ethic — “Live as though the world were going to end tomorrow in all your dealings with your fellow men,” which is in fact the morality of the Sermon on the Mount.

After the debacle at Frankenhausen, the violent millenarianism of Thomas Münzer spread north and west into the Low Countries and Plattdeutsch-speaking Germany. The itinerant bookseller and printer Hans Hut escaped from the battle and spread the gospel of revolt through south Germany, but he was caught and executed almost immediately. Little conventicles of millenarian communal groups sprang up here and there in south Germany but were quickly suppressed. Many of them, like that led by Augustine Bader, rejected all rites and sacraments, possessed all things in common, lived in accordance with the guidance of the Inner Light, and awaited the end of the world. The most important leader was Melchior Hoffmann, an associate of Münzer in his early days. He made Strassburg his headquarters but the influence of his teaching, spread by something like an organized mission activity, both of himself and his disciples, was influential throughout Germany. He was primarily a millenarian, and the Melchiorites only took up the baptism of adults as a sign of sealing into the body of the elect. Although he personally did not believe in forcing the kingdom by violence, his followers became more and more revolutionary. At the same time the repressive measures of the authorities grew more severe. Hoffmann’s fervent eschatologism, preached at the risk of imprisonment or death, could not fail to elicit a defiant revolutionary violence. But in 1533 on the eve of the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Münster, Hoffmann was imprisoned in Strassburg and spent the remaining ten years of his life in prison.

Münster was one of several small ecclesiastical states in northwest Germany under the rule of a prince bishop, who was in fact often a layman. An important trading city, it suffered from a chronic severe tension between the claims of the prince bishop and the town council of merchants and guildmasters. Münster had recently gone through a time of floods, plague, local famine, and the class conflict resulting from the Peasants’ Revolt to the south; but though troubled, it had emerged with a considerable measure of civic democracy, and with power in the hands of the town council.

The most influential religious leader in the town was Bernt Rothmann. From 1531 to 1533 he had moved steadily leftward from evangelical Catholicism to Lutheranism, to the Zwinglian doctrine of the repudiation of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, to sympathy with the Melchiorites and the apostles of the Inner Light. Up to the last step he had carried the town council with him, and the city became officially Protestant with the Catholic Church confined to the cathedral, the monasteries, and the convents.

But when Rothmann and his followers refused to baptize the infants presented to them in church, the council rebelled and exiled them from the city and replaced them with orthodox Lutherans. Meanwhile, however, the city had been filling up with Melchiorite preachers from the Netherlands and wandering disciples of Thomas Münzer and other militant sectaries. Rothmann refused to leave and a month later — by January 1534 — he was back in control, with the Catholics in the cathedral and the Lutherans permitted to preach in the church of St. Lambert.

The city had been visited in the previous fall by Jan Bockelson (John of Leyden), who returned to Holland with the exciting news that the kingdom of the elect was about to be established in Münster. Jan Mattys, the Melchiorite leader in Amsterdam, had a revelation — that Melchior Hoffmann had misunderstood his own visions, and that Münster, not Strassburg, was destined to be the New Jerusalem. Early in January 1534 two apostles from Amsterdam, ordained by Mattys, arrived in Münster and immediately re-baptized Rothmann, his associate Henry Rol, and a number of other clergy. In the next eight days Rothmann and others baptized fourteen hundred citizens in private ceremonies in their homes. Shortly afterwards, Mattys himself and Bockelson arrived, preaching the most militant chiliasm and demanding a complete reorganization of the community; they converted Rothmann and his followers, including the mayor, Bernard Knipperdolling.

The town council attempted to resist. The bishop gathered a force of mercenaries nearby and offered to come to its aid, which the council rejected, but the citizens in a public mass meeting forced the council to retreat. A new election was held and Knipperdolling, a wealthy councilman and cloth merchant, was elected mayor. Knipperdolling had been a disciple of Sebastian Franck and, before the rise of Anabaptism proper, the two had journeyed to Sweden where they had been expelled by direct orders of the king for preaching the radical Reformation. Soon Bockelson had married Knipperdolling’s daughter Klara, and he and Mattys were in complete control of the city. From then on Rothmann was pushed into the background and functioned primarily as a theologian and apologist of the movement. He seems to have had a premonition of the apocalyptic future because he warned a friend of his to accept an appointment elsewhere than in Münster, for, said he, “things will not go well here.”

Mattys began to institute a community of goods and called for all wealth in money, jewelry, and precious metals to be brought in for a common fund. The council struggled to resist and passed by a narrow majority an order expelling the radical preachers from the city. The radicals were escorted to a city gate and evicted, went around the wall, and entered by another gate, where they were met and returned to their churches by a cheering multitude; and they then proceeded to denounce the minions of Antichrist from the pulpit. Catholics, Lutherans, and neutral people who wished to avoid trouble began to flee the city. Their numbers, over half the original population, were replaced by incoming saints. Mattys had sent out preachers all over the Netherlands and Low Germany to recruit citizens for his New Jerusalem, urging them to come swiftly, unencumbered with many possessions, for there was plenty for all the chosen. The monasteries and churches had already been looted when Mattys, to prevent further looting, requisitioned all private movable wealth and confiscated the property of those who had fled the city. Food was declared public property and all private stores confiscated and thenceforward distributed free. Houses also were declared public property, but families were allowed to continue in them as long as the doors were kept open day and night.

The prince bishop was quite short of money as a result of all this activity, for the wealth of the Church had been in the city. He had no credit. The Protestant nobility were not interested in restoring a Catholic lord and the Catholic nobility were mostly imperialists and the empire had been for years trying to take over the rule of Münster. In fact in its early days the emperor had even sent an offer of support to the Münster commune. As the social revolution proceeded, the prince bishop was able to frighten small loans out of some of the nearby rulers and nobility, hired mercenaries, and began, feebly at first, to attempt to invest the city. The comparatively long life of the Münster commune is due to the same cause as the random, scattered character of the engagements of the Peasants’ Revolt. The empire was in collapse and there was no such political entity as Germany, only an immense number of quarreling jurisdictions. The old feudal levies were impossible and the princes could rely only on armies of mercenaries and cadres drawn from those nobles who felt themselves directly threatened. Religious and imperial conflict made alliances difficult to form and almost impossible to sustain. A state, even as well organized as France and Britain were then, would have been able to mobilize sufficient forces to reduce cities like Münster in short order and crush revolt elsewhere.

Although they were slow to come to the aid of Prince Bishop Franz von Waldek, the rulers were quick enough to suppress the Anabaptists in their own territories with complete ruthlessness. In Amsterdam all participants in an attempt to seize the city hall were executed, and similar revolts elsewhere were put down in the same fashion. After Bernt Rothmann’s call to all Anabaptists to come to Münster, large numbers started to move on the city. They were hunted down on the roads, killed, or imprisoned. Three thousand men, women, and children who attempted to come by sea were captured and returned to the Netherlands. The indiscriminate killing had to stop for fear of depopulating the country. In spite of wholesale roundups of Anabaptists, a surprising number got through. The population of the city was completely changed. After those who refused adult baptism were expelled, the new arrivals were in the majority. Another equally significant majority was that of women, who formed possibly as much as two-thirds of the population, and who turned the streets and squares night and day into a continuous pentecostal revival, screaming, dancing, singing, and rushing about half-clothed with flowing hair, and falling in trances on the street.

Mattys had a sudden vision at one of the ceremonial banquets which had become an essential part of the cult of Münster, and the next day led a sortie of a handful of ecstatics against the army of the prince bishop. Jan Bockelson immediately seized sole power. He dissolved the new council because it had been chosen by men rather than God acting through himself; and he appointed a cabinet, subordinated to Bockelson, of the twelve elders of the tribes of Israel. In their name he issued a new code of law which made practically every crime, misdemeanor, fault, and defect of character a capital offense, ranging from treason and adultery to complaining and answering back one’s parents. Once law and the police to enforce it were established, Bockelson introduced polygamy, against the advice of even some of his cabinet. Forty-eight of the leading citizens revolted and imprisoned him, but the populace released Bockelson and the forty-eight were put to death. After a few more executions polygamy was established. Bockelson eventually acquired fifteen wives and Rothmann nine.

At this time Bockelson, with extraordinary ingenuousness, or was it ingenuity, opened negotiations with Philip of Hesse and Emperor Charles V. The latter responded by sending an emissary to meet with Rothmann. These negotiations fell through. After a drastic defeat of the besieging forces, when they attempted to invade the town at the triumphal mass banquet, Bockelson had himself crowned King of the People of God and Ruler of the New Zion. From then on he appeared always in ceremonial state, in royal robes made from the most sumptuous religious vestments, holding a golden apple pierced with two swords and surmounted by a crown which was symbolic of his rule of the world, and preceded and followed by sword-bearers. Knipperdolling suggested that he be appointed spiritual ruler while Bockelson acted as king in all worldly matters — the priestly and kingly messiahs after David and Melchizedek of apocalyptic Judaism. Bockelson did not take this suggestion very well and had Knipperdolling imprisoned, but he was unable to get along without him and soon released Knipperdolling and appointed him master of ceremonies and in fact second-in-command.

On the thirteenth of October Bockelson issued a call to the entire population to assemble in the cathedral square and march out to overwhelm the besiegers and welcome the imaginary army of Anabaptists coming from the Netherlands. When they were all assembled he announced that this was just a test of their loyalty and invited them all to a great messianic banquet. Tables were set up in the square and the whole population laughed and danced and sang while the king and queen and councilors served them, and at the end passed out sanctified bread and wine in holy communion. Bockelson then announced his abdication but Jan Dousentschuer, the limping prophet, immediately had a communication from the deity forbidding the abdication, and ceremoniously anointed and crowned Bockelson again, while the assembled people cheered.

Before he had become a religious leader, Jan Bockelson had been a writer of religious plays and pageants, and it has been said of him that he wrote and staged the Münster commune as a religious melodrama. Certainly he gave the people plenty of pageantry in the ceremonies of his court: open-air religious gatherings, communion, messianic banquets, and actual plays, still in this revolutionary situation based on the medieval mystery and miracle plays. One of his important acts was to tighten up the distribution of goods and food and, most important, to introduce a communism of production. Guild members whose work was essential to the life of the community were ordered to work without wages and contribute their products to the pool of goods from which all could take freely according to need. His entire program seems to have worked with little resistance. A few people were executed for hoarding and a few women for opposing the allurements of polygamy — he even decapitated one of his wives — but that was about all the objection to his communist measures. Many of his executions seem to have been motivated by his fondness for decapitation. He had a folkloristic conception of royalty — the king who is constantly shouting “Off with his head!” This attitude of course was shared by most of the populace. In fact the whole ideology of Münster as it emerges from the documents has a folklore quality about it, a combination of the legends of apocryphal Judaism, the peasant tales of the Grimm brothers, and the legends of the Middle Ages, underlying the theology of Anabaptism, which ceases to play an exclusive role. As the fall and winter wore on von Waldek slowly gathered money, allies, and mercenaries, and the siege grew even tighter. Emissaries were dispatched to raise help but they were all caught and executed except one, Henry Graess, who turned traitor and revealed the plan for mobilization points for relieving Anabaptist forces. Few responded. Those who did were cut down, but Graess himself who had returned to Münster was exposed and decapitated.

By spring the city was hungry. By June 1535 famine had set in. Women and children, except for Queen Divara and a few others, and the aged men, were sent out of the city. Von Waldek refused to allow them through his lines and they remained trapped between the walls and the besieging army until most of them were dead. This act of extraordinary cruelty was at the specific order of the archbishop of Cologne to whom von Waldek had appealed for advice.

It looked as if Münster might hold out through the summer when suddenly two men, Hans Eck and Henry Gresbeck, escaped from the city and betrayed one of the gates to the prince bishop. After a day-long battle of fiendish intensity the city fell and the invading army went through the town slaughtering most of the inhabitants. Bockelson, Knipperdolling, and Bernard Krechting, chief counselor of the king, were captured. Rothmann disappeared and was never found, dead or alive. For six months the three leaders were paraded about the country in cages. They were then brought back to Münster, tried, condemned, and literally tortured to death. Afterwards their bodies were placed in cages and hung from the tower of St. Lambert’s church, where they remained until the end of the nineteenth century, when the tower was rebuilt and only the cages were replaced. So ended the only communist commonwealth to be established in a regular State until the Russian Revolution — in Western civilization at least.

Thomas Münzer had lasted only a few days at Mühlhausen, and it is doubtful if any of his and Pfeiffer’s communizing measures had ever been made effective, nor were they at all central to his millenarian polity. The amazingly long endurance of Münzer was due to several factors. Both Burgomaster Knipperdolling and John of Leyden were remarkably skilled politicians and organizers, for all their fantastic language and ceremonies, and Rothmann was an apologist of unusual intelligence. They did not scruple to use the most extreme terror. It not only kept rebellious elements suppressed, but it unified and excited the majority of the population who consented to it.

Communism was not incidental to Bockelson’s millenarianism, nor was it merely “siege communism.” It was central. Mass adult baptism sealed the members into a covenant and mass communion kept them together. The sacraments were not primary. The community in which all things were held in common was. Every effort was made to intensify this sense of community. Life was melodramatized. Pageants, executions, vast messianic banquets, even the siege itself contributed to the exultation. If life in Tabor was exalted, life in Münster for most of its participants was ecstatic and entranced, a continuous agapê. There was little chance to pause and recollect oneself. If even the most convinced but sane Anabaptist had been able to pause and think for a few days he would have begun to suspect that he was not a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem but someone caught in a trap. Few were ever permitted to pause. They were swept on in a tide of revolutionary fervor tremendously augmented by myth-making.

There were positive gains to be made from the Münster experience, but few of them were ever realized. Most important was precisely the demonstration of the revolutionary commune as a dramatic, ceremonial cult. This was something that future revolutionaries would seldom be prepared to admit. Only Robespierre at the height of his power and the Bolsheviks in the first years of the Revolution and Civil War consciously adopted such a concept or practice. Undoubtedly there were things to be learned from the actual political economy of Münster but we know nothing about the subject. However, a surprising number of people escaped to turn up later in pacifist communal groups elsewhere and they probably brought some practical benefits from their experience.

To this day Anabaptism has never been able to live down Münster. The earlier persecutions were greatly intensified. The discovery of an Anabaptist conventicle, no matter how small, was greeted with horror by the authorities and the members were often executed out of hand. Nevertheless the movement was large enough to begin with, to judge by the large numbers who fled Münster and were turned back; and in the next few years it spread abroad and greatly increased. A political hysteria somewhat like McCarthyism in the twentieth century swept over Europe. The authorities saw Anabaptists everywhere and any unorthodox gathering not Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist was immediately labeled Anabaptist. English ecclesiastics swore that the whole south and east of England was swarming with Anabaptists. If so they came and went with scarcely a trace, and only a handful of emigré Germans and Dutchmen were caught and exiled or executed. As for the Anabaptist movement itself, from Münster on it became rigorously pacifist — which in fact in the majority of organized groups it always had been.


9. Anabaptists, Hutterites

For years after the fall of Münster the Anabaptists were a hunted people. They had been persecuted enough before. Now Protestants, Catholics, and almost all the states of Middle Europe united to exterminate them. This was no small task. There was a significant number of Anabaptists in Switzerland, where the movement had been born only ten years before; in the Austrian Tyrol, on the Italian side of the Alps, in Moravia, Silesia, Danzig, Poland, southwest Germany and the Lower Rhineland, the Rhone Valley, and Picardy in France; and in Belgium and the Netherlands where, until the arrival of Calvinism and the struggle for freedom from the empire, Anabaptism was the principal form taken by the Reformation.

In spite of the great numbers of people who had attempted to come to the relief of Münster from the Netherlands, militant chiliasm was not at all typical of Dutch Anabaptism. The majority were pacifists who, if they were millenarians at all, had already begun to etherealize that item of their belief. Most of them were deeply influenced by the parallel movement of the Spiritualizers, who placed little stress on baptism and holy communion, or had abandoned the sacraments altogether. In the years to come Spiritualizers, Sebastian Franck, Caspar Schwenkfeld, Hans Denk, Valentin Weigel, and the rest, down to Jakob Boehme, were the favorite reading matter of the reorganized and reformed Anabaptists — who would come to be called Mennonites. Under the blows of relentless persecution the movement divided into three parts: pacifists, who refused oaths, military service, and public office, but who rejected communism; those who were both pacifists and communists; and the surviving militant chiliasts who mostly would literally die out under persecution.

Menno Simons was born in Friesland, the son of a peasant, trained for the Roman priesthood, and was ordained in 1524. From the beginning he seems to have been a Catholic evangelical and early rejected the doctine of transubstantiation. His brother Peter died fighting while attempting to lead a band for the relief of Münster. Menno was profoundly shocked by the violence on both sides at Münster. At the height of the subsequent persecutions he resigned his priesthood. He went underground and spent the rest of his life as a wandering preacher and organizer with a price on his head, hunted by the authorities, but always protected by the faithful. In due course he was able to turn what had been a movement of independent and often antagonistic conventicles into a church somewhat loosely organized — both communists and non-communists were included — but organized nonetheless, and disciplined by congregational excommunication — the “ban.”

Menno gathered up and systematized the theology of Anabaptism and although his ideas were not universally accepted they provided from then on a normative, central nucleus. In ten years Anabaptists generally were beginning to be called Mennonites. As the century wore on the use of the ban, which had originally been a unifying principle, led to splits and schisms over the practice of “hard ban” or “soft ban,” divisions which still today in America separate the various bodies of “plain people.” However, these divisions did not prevent the Mennonites from presenting a united front to the world.

In 1577 as Protestantism in the Netherlands was becoming more and more Calvinist and the country was battling for freedom from the empire, William of Orange was able, as a condition of his leadership, to push through the Estates General a guarantee of religious freedom throughout the Netherlands, and there at least persecution came to an end. In the course of time Dutch Mennonites would become wealthy and accepted as part of the establishment and would finally permit their members to accept public office and, in some cases, participate in war. The original strict pacifist communitarian tradition, although not communism itself, would survive amongst the American Mennonites.

But in the years immediately after the fall of Münster it was not easy for the hunted Anabaptists to practice communism. The militants, under the leadership of John of Battenberg, one of the leaders who had escaped from Münster, went underground. They practiced no public ceremonies of baptism, communion, or the agapê but scrupulously attended the Catholic Church. They practiced polygamy as best they could and held their goods in common and augmented the common fund by looting churches and monasteries. Battenberg was caught and executed in 1538 but the movement survived in the Low Countries for another five years. Those who rejected polygamy, violence, robbery, and nudism were more or less united by David Joris, an artist, poet, and hymn writer. Better read than most of the surviving Münsterites, he was deeply influenced by the apocalyptic “three kingdoms” prophesies of Joachim of Fiore and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and of the contemporary Spiritualists. The followers of Joris carried on an active propaganda in southeastern England. Their ideas had much to do with determining the character of the English radical Reformation from then on. The principal influence, however, came through the purely Spiritualist movement originating from Henry Nicholas — the Family of Love. David Joris took refuge in Basel and led his movement by correspondence and missioners. He was one of the few Anabaptists to die peacefully in bed, in 1556. After his death some of his followers accused him of keeping a harem and other gross immoralities, and his body was dug up and burned. Small communist groups survived here and there in Switzerland and the Low Countries for another generation but most emigrated to safety.

Since 1528 a communist sanctuary had been preparing in Moravia. In 1526 Jacob Hutter arrived in the colony at Nicolsburg, which was under the patronage of the twice-baptized Lord of Liechtenstein. Hutter was a violent millenarian and a violent communitarian, but he was also a “violent pacifist.” He split away from the Anabaptist community, the majority of whom were followers of the more conventional Balthasar Hübmaier, who in 1528 in the course of this disputation was caught and burned to death in Vienna. Hutter went on to meet martyrdom himself, but his pacifist, communist group, under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann and Philip Yaeger, set up their own community. After a winter-long, peaceable discussion, Lord Liechtenstein asked them to leave. They decided to move to Austerlitz in Moravia, and in the words of the Hutterite Chronicles:

Therefore they sought to sell their possessions. Some did sell, but others left them standing so, and they departed with one another from thence. Whatever remained of theirs the Lords of Liechtenstein did send after them. And so from Nicolsburg, Bergen, and thereabouts there gathered about two hundred persons without [counting] the children before the town [of Nicolsburg]. Certain persons came out . . . and wept from great compassion with them, but others argued. . . . Then they got themselves up, went out, and pitched . . . in a desolate village and abode there one day and one night, taking counsel together in the Lord concerning their present necessity, and ordained [geordnet] ministers for their temporal necessities [dienner in der Zeitlichenn Notdurfft]. . . . At that time these men spread out a cloak before the people, and every man did lay his substance down upon it, with a willing heart and without constraint, for the sustenance of those in necessity, according to the doctrine of the prophets and apostles [Isaiah 23.18; Acts 2.4-5].

On that outspread robe in the spring of 1528 were laid the foundations of the longest-lived communist society the world has yet seen. Leonhardt von Liechtenstein escorted them to the borders of his principality and begged them to stay. He had threatened to defend his Anabaptist refuge with arms against Vienna, and the leaders answered him, “Since you promise to resort to the sword, even to protect us, we cannot stay.” They sent couriers ahead to the von Kaunitz brothers, Lords of Austerlitz, who replied that the Hutterites were welcome, even if their numbers were a thousand. After three months on the road they were welcomed enthusiastically — there was already a colony of radical members of the Bohemian Brethren there. In a short time they had built houses and started to farm and work at their crafts. They brought with them a twelve-point program for a practical religious communism which had been developed for a group of Anabaptists in Rattenburg and this document survives in the Hutterite Chronicles and their first constitution. Soon refugees began to arrive from Switzerland, the Low Countries, and especially the Tyrol. The latter must have been in the majority because today the ceremonial as well as the familiar “little language” is an old Tyrolese dialect, although since then the Hutterites have been forced to wander over two hemispheres.

During the next five years the communist Anabaptists everywhere were given over to sectarian splits and expulsions too complicated to describe briefly; but in 1533 Jacob Hutter, who had been called in by various groups, including those at Austerlitz, as a mediator, brought his own followers from the Tyrol and inaugurated a movement for reunion and federation which for the next two years carried all or almost all before it. At the beginning of the persecutions which accompanied the Münster commune he and his wife were caught and repeatedly tortured. Hutter did not succumb under the most fantastic cruelties to the besetting temptation of all revolutionaries to discuss their doctrines with their captors, much less to reveal the names of his comrades, or any secrets of the movement. He remained silent in the face of the agents of the Devil. The authorities wished to behead him in secret; but Ferdinand, who was Archduke of Austria, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, refused, and he was publicly burned on February 25, 1536. He was caught in the town of Klausen in the Tyrol.

After Münster Ferdinand demanded that all Anabaptists be expelled from all territories subject to the Austrian throne. In many places they were expelled and they hid out in the forests and mountains until the storm of persecution had passed; but the Moravian nobles seem to have protected them, and as soon as Ferdinand’s attention was distracted elsewhere, they were re-established in their former colonies. During these years under the leadership of John Ammon the Hutterites began a missionary activity to central Europe. They sent out apostles, four-fifths of whom were martyred, to Danzig, to Lithuania, to Venice, to Belgium.

One of the most active of the missionaries was Peter Riedemann, who, in and out of prison, began to develop a systematic theology and social order for the Hutterites. On the death of Ammon in 1542 he was elected leader, although he was being held in prison, very loosely it is true, by Philip of Hesse. By this time incidentally, the Hutterites had come to call their leaders bishops, although these bore little resemblance to members of the Catholic episcopacy. Leonard Lanzenstiel had been appointed by Ammon as his successor and Riedemann and Lanzenstiel shared the leadership until 1556 when Riedemann died in a new colony of Protzko in Slovakia, and his place was taken by Peter Waldpot, one of the greatest of the Hutterite leaders, who died in 1578.

Over a generation had gone by, and communist Anabaptism had become a successful polity, prosperous, seldom troubled any more by sectarian contentiousness, and with outlying colonies in Slovakia and Bohemia. The core of the movement, those directly under the administration of Waldpot, numbered as many as thirty thousand adults. From the beginning in Austerlitz they had realized that a communism of consumption was not enough and had organized workshops, little factories of craftsmen, and work brigades and communal farms, with detailed manuals for the different trades. They established their own schools (the first nursery schools and kindergartens) with grades up through adolescence. Higher education they rejected, as they still do, as unnecessary to the welfare of the community, and as distracting from the love of God and the love of neighbors. But their elementary schools were the best in Europe in their day. Child care was socialized. The children usually lived in the schools and were visited by their parents. Each Hutterite colony had an active, careful public-health program. The villages were not only clean and neat but their hygiene and sanitation were unparalleled. Marriages seem to have been arranged by the collaboration of the elders, the community, and the individuals and were commonly very successful. Of all Anabaptist groups, or for that matter of all communists and pacifists whatever, the history of the Hutterites is singularly free from sexual scandals.

With a system of production and distribution far better organized than anything else at the time the colonies grew wealthy. Since they believed individually in living in “decent poverty” they soon accumulated considerable surpluses, particularly after the colonies were permitted to sell their products to Gentiles. These surpluses were invested in capital improvements and in the subsidizing of new colonies, a necessity, as it still is today, because of the high birth-rate, and low death-rate, in those days due to their exemplary public health. The Hutterites had discovered a dynamic, continuously expanding economy of the type that Marx would later diagnose as the essence of capitalism, but this was a communist economy and it was based on a very high level of peasant prosperity, the source of its accumulation of capital. In other words the Hutterites in their little closed society solved the contradiction in capital accumulation and circulation which in different forms bedevils both the Russians and Americans today.

The golden age of the Hutterites lasted until 1622, when the Moravian nobles, who had been their patrons, were forced by the Church and empire to expel them from their estates. They scattered, finding refuge in Slovakia, Transylvania, and Hungary. Their harassment increased during the Thirty Years War when the imperialists were able to obliterate the Utraquist Church of Bohemia and drive the Czech Brethren underground. By the eighteenth century communism of production had necessarily been abandoned and community of goods was practiced only in the form of a common welfare fund, but the Hutterites still wore their traditional costume and held to their manner of worship.

In 1767 a decree was issued, upon the urging of the Jesuits, who had led in the persecution, that all Hutterite children in Hungary, including Transylvania, should be taken from their parents and raised in orphanages. The Hutterites fled to Rumania and found themselves in the midst of the Russo-Turkish War. In 1770 the Empress Catherine invited German Pietists and Anabaptists to settle in the Ukraine and there for a time we can leave them. They would develop, deteriorate, revive, and emigrate at last to the United States and finally Canada, where they would flourish as never before. We will return to them when we come to discuss modern communalism, of which they are incomparably the most successful practitioners.

During the last half of the sixteenth century there were isolated survivals and sporadic revivals of communism amongst groups of Anabaptists and Spiritualists. Community of goods endured as an apostolic ideal amongst Swiss and Czech Brethren who were no longer able to practice it, to be revived for a while when some of them migrated to America. There were communist colonies in the once-powerful Unitarian Church of Transylvania.

The only community that can be compared with those of the Hutterites was that of Rakow in Little Poland northwest of Cracow. Founded in 1569 by Gregory Paul, it attracted Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and Unitarian leaders from all over Poland, Prussia, Lithuania, Silesia, and Galicia, the whole northeast of central Europe, which in those days, before the Counter-Reformation, seemed to be turning to the radical Reformation. One of the most remarkable features of the radical Reformation in this territory was the very large number of the nobility who were converted, freed their serfs, sold their land, distributed their goods to the poor, and took part as equals in the communism of Rakow — in that order of frequency. That is, many only freed their serfs, and only a few came to Rakow, but nonetheless a good number of the most powerful nobles were sympathetic toward Anabaptism.

The Rakovians sent a delegation to the Hutterites in Moravia, proposing to affiliate with them and learn their methods. The Rakovians were impressed by Hutterite efficiency and prosperity, but they rejected their Trinitarianism and were offended by what they considered their arrogance, intolerance, and conceit. At this time, to judge from the Polish testimony, the Hutterites believed that “anyone who owns a house, land, or money, and does not bring it to the community, is not a Christian but a pagan and cannot be saved.” To the Rakovians communism was not a condition of salvation but simply the counsel of a more perfect apostolic life.

The Hutterites on their part objected, of course, to the Unitarianism of the Poles, but surprisingly, not very strongly. More important by far were practices that would seem to us trivial. The Hutterites baptized by pouring, the Poles by immersion. But more important still was a class difference. The Hutterites were peasants and workers whose education, though sound, was limited to the Bible and a few spiritual writers. They were offended by the Poles’ aristocratic manners, their “cold hearts,” their knowledge of languages, their Latinized names, and their refusal to submit outright to Hutterite authority. Peter Waldpot went so far as to demand that the Poles be rebaptized by the Hutterites. Correspondence and visits went on for two or three years but at last the Rakovians gave up hope of affiliation with the Hutterites. The overtures had all been one way and even after negotiations had been broken off the Poles still occasionally visited the Hutterite colonies. There is no record of any Hutterites visiting Rakow.

Out of the Polish radical Anabaptism was to come Faustus Socinus, one of the major theologians of the entire Reformation period, who had migrated to Poland from Italy. He elaborated a fully developed system in which Unitarianism, pacifism, community of goods, baptism by immersion, and all the major tenets of Polish Anabaptism and Spiritualism were rationally interrelated in a systematic philosophy which was at the same time consistently evangelical. When the Polish Brethren were driven out of Poland and found refuge in Holland they came to exert both in doctrine and practice considerable influence on the more radical Dutch Mennonites and through them on the development of the movement in England and America. In Poland the Counter-Reformation led by the Jesuits did its work thoroughly and the communalist Polish Brethren are extinct.

As a footnote it should be pointed out that the basic difference between the Hutterites and almost all other Christian sects, orthodox or heterodox, was that the society of the Hutterite colonies was what modern theorists would call a “shame culture,” fundamentally unassimilable by the “guilt culture” of Christianity and rabbinical (as differentiated from Hasidic) Judaism.

Copyright 1974. Reproduced  by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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