Münster Commune

city of Münster
city of Münster

The Münster commune is a bizarre chapter in the history of the Reformation. Lasting slightly over a year beginning in 1534, it involved some revolutionary Anabaptists who took over the city of Münster and instituted a new order while defending against besieging troops.

In 1533, a Lutheran named Bernard Rothmann, a former Roman Catholic priest, succeeded in bringing Lutheran control to the city of Münster, a good-sized city in northwest Germany. Rothmann, who had only been Lutheran since 1531, became more convinced of the Anabaptist beliefs and in May 1533 formally renounced infant baptism.

Later that year, he began preaching in favor of primitive Christianity, interpreted to mean sharing of all goods in common and living a simpler, morally upright life. This caused much controversy with those citizens continuing to hold Lutheran beliefs.

The success of Rothmann drew other Anabaptists flocking to the city, increasing the tension between the merchants and guildsmen in the town and those emigrating from other places in Germany and the Netherlands. In early 1534, Rothmann and nearly 1,400 others were rebaptized in Münster.

Around this same time, there was a heightened expectation by more radical Anabaptists of the end of the world described in the book of Revelation in the Bible. Associated with this were the rise of many so-called apostles and prophets ready to prepare the people for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

In February 1534, Jan Matthys (Matthijs) and Jan Bockelson, immigrants from the Netherlands, ran through the streets of Münster crying for all people to repent of their sins. This caused a mass hysteria, ending in an armed revolt against the town council (still predominately Lutheran).

The town council did not act aggressively, instead continuing to allow the Anabaptists their freedom. Many Lutheran citizens, concerned that the town would revolt, departed. This event, coupled with the continuing stream of immigrants, resulted in the town’s becoming Anabaptist.

On February 27, 1534, armed groups of men, led by Jan Matthys, went through the city, driving out all those not Anabaptist, calling, “Get out, you godless ones and never come back, you enemies of the Father.” By early March, the town was completely Anabaptist, with forcible rebaptizing of all those not already declaring themselves Anabaptist.

Matthys, Bockelson, and Rothmann, along with a leading merchant named Knipperdollinck, took over the control of the city. They declared that all possessions were to be held in common, threatening the wrath of God and public execution against those who withheld possessions from the community. After three days of prayer, Matthys appointed seven deacons to administer these goods.

All of this activity did not escape the notice of the Roman Catholic prince-bishop of Münster. While he did not live in the city and failed to get the support of those in the town in the early days of the conflict, the problems in Münster concerned the other princes enough to allow him to raise funds for troops to besiege the city.

By mid-March 1534, the city was somewhat ineffectively besieged. In early April, Matthys, believing God would give him power over the besiegers, went out with a band of troops, but he and all the troops were killed immediately.

Matthys’s death gave opportunity to Jan Bockelson to strengthen control over the town. Though the son of a tailor, Bockelson was an effective organizer and had, if anything, a more radical approach than Matthys.

In May 1534, Bockelson ran through the town naked and then sat silent for three days. He then prophesied that God had a new plan and organization for the town, with himself as chief apostle and 12 elders.

A morally strict code was at first enforced, but eventually the lack of men in the town (and probably Knipperdollinck’s very attractive daughter) led Bockelson, who was already married, to declare that God had ordained polygamy. Bockelson eventually married 15 wives, and many other men took multiple wives. This caused many problems in a few short months, resulting in an increasingly loose approach to sexual relations.

In August 1534, an attack by the bishop’s forces was effectively fought off by the town militia. Bockelson took the opportunity to declare himself the king of Münster, and the short-lived kingdom began. Bockelson appointed many immigrants as his councilors and had a gold-covered throne placed in the market square.

He thought of himself as a new King David and dressed in magnificent robes and held court with his equally well dressed counselors. At the same time, a reign of terror began for any of those who opposed the king and his counselors.

By January 1535, the blockade of the town was increasingly effective. A time of famine followed, though the king and his court managed to escape it for the most part by requisitioning supplies. In March, the king predicted that the town would be saved by Easter, but when this day passed, he quickly asserted it was a spiritual salvation and continued to proclaim the imminent return of Christ.

Finally in June of 1535, aided by some residents, the forces of the prince-bishop invaded the town, killing Rothmann during the battle. The deposed king and Knipperdollinck were put to death by torture after the king was hung in a cage and then led around the town on a chain.

While a few smaller Anabaptist uprisings occurred after this, most Anabaptists distanced themselves from these more radical uprisings and somewhat in reaction would disavow any kind of military role for their followers in future generations.