Over here in the Protestant sector of Christianity, we tend to talk about the Reformation in hushed, reverent tones. We want to talk about romantic things like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the castle door at Wittenberg, the pounding of his hammer echoing through the church and shaking the very foundation of Western civilization. We rarely talk about the other things that got nailed to doors as a result.
Like, for instance, at least one guy’s genitals.
Maybe I should back up for a second. This week’s story takes place in Münster, Germany, in 1534 — a mere 17 years after Luther (allegedly) nailed his theses up. Luther hadn’t originally intended to set theology and politics on fire throughout the Holy Roman Empire (which was what fancy people called Germany at the time), but that was exactly what he had done. Letting the peasants read and interpret Scripture for themselves had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the idea quickly ran aground when it became clear that no one could agree on what the heck Scripture meant about anything. Indirectly, this led to the smörgâsbord of Protestant flavors you can now choose from the next time you’re church-shopping; more immediately, it led to civil war.As soon as we tore down the old pope, we got busy setting up new mini-popes.
From 1524 to 1525, the peasants had been revolting (even more so than usual); Luther had responded by shrugging and basically saying, “Eh, both sides have good points, so let’s murder those peasants real good.” After the nobility had carefully followed these instructions, it became clear that someone needed to restore order, and they decided to try theocracy again, since that had worked out so well the first couple of times. So anyway, in Münster, there was general agreement they needed to be following the teachings of Christianity — the only problem was, whose version?
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Münster was controlled by a relatively moderate Lutheran hegemony; by 1534, however, radical Anabaptists had seized power. (You may know Anabaptism as the Christian offshoot that eventually gave rise to the Mennonite and Amish traditions; in the sixteenth century, however, Anabaptists were just as likely to punch you in the face as they were to sell you affordable handmade furniture.) The Anabaptist contingent was led by one Jan Matthys, who had solved the whole no-one-can-agree-what-the-Bible-means problem by claiming he received direct revelation from God, like some sort of better-dressed Benny Hinn. Under Matthys’s leadership, Münster was declared the “New Jerusalem,” all sacred images in the city were destroyed, private property was abolished, and believer’s baptism was made compulsory, because apparently irony hadn’t been invented yet.
This all went pretty well for everyone, until Münster’s expelled Catholic bishop, Franz von Waldeck, decided that he had really liked being bishop and kind of wanted to be bishop again. He raised an army and laid siege to the city, which is a warfare tactic that pretty much always starves people, but tends to starve them especially well when private property has been outlawed. It was at this point that Matthys received his last-ever revelation from God, and it was a doozy: He was commanded to ride out with a couple dozen men and single-handedly defeat von Waldeck’s massive army.
That whole plan went over about as well as you might expect. On Easter Sunday, 1535, Matthys and his skeleton crew found themselves mercilessly slaughtered, and Matthys’s head was soon on a pike, because that was just how you showed people you meant business in 16th-century Europe. His severed genitals were also nailed to the city gate, because, well, how often do you get the chance to nail someone’s genitals to a gate? When an opportunity like that presents itself, you have to go balls-to-the-wall.
(Note: For anyone who thinks I just made a vulgar joke, and is thinking about getting your local Lifeway to pull this article off of its shelves, please refer to this piece about how the expression “balls to the wall” is actually a reference to fully opening the throttle of an aircraft. And get your mind out of the gutter. Seriously, you need Jesus.)
In any case, with Matthys out of the picture, his protégé, Jan of Leiden, conveniently began receiving his own divine revelations, so, yay for him, I guess? He declared himself the new King David, presumably because he had skipped over the parts of the Bible where it says Jesus is exactly that thing I just said, and he made polygamy not only legal but compulsory, and please, God, don’t let President Trump be reading this article and taking notes right now. Leiden himself took 16 wives, because that was obviously the whole point of legalizing polygamy, and he also executed a 17th woman who refused to marry him, just like they do on The Bachelor.
As a reminder, while all this marryin’ and executin’ was taking place, the city was still under siege, and eventually Leiden’s promise of all the sex you can sex lost out to the fact that people were starving. Münster finally surrendered to Bishop von Waldeck’s troops in June of 1535, and Leiden and two of his followers were publicly flayed alive before having their tongues ripped out and being stabbed through the hearts with red-hot knives, because 16th-century Germany was a million times more metal than you’ll ever be. Then their bodies were put in cages and hung from the church steeple, because, hey, after all that iconoclasm, they had to decorate the place with something.
At this point, I should probably tell you that, while all of this story is taken from the historical record, at least some of that record is probably exaggerated, at least a bit. The old saying about history being written by the winners is true, and the only primary sources on the Münster Rebellion are Catholic — all of whom would obviously have had every motivation to make the Münster Anabaptists look as bad as possible, both to assert their own authority and to justify the horrific public execution.
Still, it’s undeniably striking — isn’t it? — that it took a mere 17 years to go from “there is no authority by Scripture alone” to “I’m receiving direct revelation from God.” As soon as we tore down the old pope, we got busy setting up new mini-popes, because actually wrestling with the ambiguities of Scripture is hard, you guys.
It’s way more fun to establish sex communes and dismember people. As we all know from experience.
Image: Peripatetic Curmudgeon