Melchior Hoffman’s Defense of Female Prophets

The relatively wide array of roles open to women in Melchiorite congregations—Anabaptist congregations found in the Netherlands and North Germany in the sixteenth century and founded by the itinerant apostle Melchior Hoffman—has long been recognized by scholars of early modern Anabaptism. As Arnold Snyder noted in Anabaptist History and Theology, “nowhere in the Anabaptist movement did women achieve and maintain as lofty a pastoral and leadership role as in the Strasbourg Melchiorite community.”1  Sigrun Haude, in her 1998 essay “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women” echoed the point and argued that “the greatest freedom enjoyed by women can be found in those Anabaptist groups that emphasized visions, prophecies, and the Spirit.”2 Hoffman did indeed emphasize visions, prophecies, and the Spirit. He believed, firmly, that he lived in the Last Days, a time in which God would pour out his Spirit on all people, men and women alike.3

After his arrival in Strasbourg in 1529, Melchior Hoffman encountered Lienhard and Ursula Jost, a married couple who had both had visionary and prophetic experiences over the course of the 1520s. He set out to disseminate their visions and prophecies through print (the Josts were illiterate, and had thus not been able to publish them themselves). Hoffman first published Ursula’s visions in 1530. This first edition of her visions, published by the Strasbourg printer Balthasar Beck, did not record her name, but instead referred to her simply as a Gottesliebhaberin, a feminine noun meaning “lover of God.”4 For Hoffman, the emergence of contemporary prophets such as Ursula and her husband Lienhard served as validation for his apocalyptic ideas. Hoffman’s ideas about prophecy and the work of the Spirit also shaped his views of how church hierarchies should be structured. In the afterword to the 1530 edition of Ursula’s visions he included a discussion of church offices and the gifts of the Spirit; Ursula, for instance, possessed the gift of prophecy but not the gift of interpretation.5

image1-17

The title page to the 1532 edition of Ursula’s visions, published jointly with Lienhard’s prophecies and housed at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

In the 1530 edition of the visions, neither Melchior Hoffman nor Ursula Jost made an issue of Ursula’s gender. They simply took for granted that women could prophesy. In 1532, however, Hoffman offered a more systematic defense of female prophets in a foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions. This second edition, printed by Albert Paffraet in Deventer, appeared alongside an edition of Lienhard Jost’s prophecies and its survival at the Austrian National Library in Vienna was unknown to Klaus Deppermann, Hoffman’s most recent biographer.6 In his foreword, Hoffman acknowledged that “some are bewildered and angry that God works and lays out his plans through such a poor and simple little woman.”7 Hoffman contended, however, that this was not remotely novel, and that God had spoken to and through women since the beginning of the world.

To reinforce this point, Hoffman provided a list of women in the Old and New Testament through whom God had spoken or accomplished His purposes in other ways. His list was comprehensive, with a few exceptions—curiously, he omitted Huldah, whom the authors of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles explicitly identified as a prophetess.8 He began his list of biblical prophetesses and female servants of God with the women of Genesis: Eve, Sarah and Hagar (both of whom heard the voice of God), and Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, who became the mother of two people groups.9 Exodus provided the example of Myriam, Aaron’s sister, and Judges the stories of Samson’s mother, Jael (who defeated the general Sisera), and Deborah (who was not only a prophetess, but also a “great teacher of Israel”).10 Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child that the priest Eli mistook her for a drunk woman, went on to become the mother of a great prophet of Israel in 1 Samuel, and Judith and Esther both rescued the people of Israel in the books that bore their names.11 Finally, Hoffman highlighted the woman with seven sons in 2 Maccabees, whose sons died for the sake of God’s law and who ultimately gave up her own life “in a very manly way.”12

Unsurprisingly, Hoffman began the New Testament portion of his survey of biblical women with Mary the mother of Jesus, and he went on to list two other women from the beginning of Luke: Elizabeth, who recognized Christ while he was still in the womb, and the prophetess Anna, who recognized Him at the Temple.13 Mary Magdalene, he continued, became the first of Christ’s followers to see Him after the Resurrection and was tasked with spreading this good news to the apostles.14 The Samaritan woman met with Jesus and preached about him to her city in the book of John, and the daughters of the deacon Philip in Acts had the gift of prophecy.15 Hoffman ended this cast of characters with a reference to twelve Gentile prophetesses “reported in the histories”—a possible reference to prominent women from the early and medieval church, though the reason for the number twelve is not clear.16

Since the Bible explicitly called certain women prophetesses, the theoretical possibility of female prophets was undisputed among medieval and early modern Christians, even as many other ecclesiastical roles remained closed to women. Hoffman, however, went further than many of his contemporaries; he described the Samaritan woman’s actions as “preaching” (predigen) and used the word “teacher” (lerrerin) to refer to both Judith and Deborah.17 He did not directly acknowledge or attempt to reinterpret the Pauline command from 1 Timothy that women should remain silent in the churches, but instead mined other Pauline letters for support for his position. After all, had not Paul said in Galatians that all—male or female—were one in Christ? And had he not acknowledged in 1 Corinthians that women could prophesy, provided they did so in an orderly fashion? Moreover, Hoffman added, women could also take on the role of teaching, “if there were no enlightened men.”18

Ultimately, for Hoffman, God gave the gift of prophecy to all who hungered for truth and righteousness without regard for age, gender, or social station, as was made clear in Joel 2, which spoke of sons and daughters, old and young, manservants and maidservants as recipients of the Spirit of God.19 The only trait that disqualified a person from prophesying was pride and hardness of heart. Indeed, Hoffman acknowledged that there were many learned women (schriftgelerder weyber), who were better-educated and more prominent than Ursula, to whom God might have revealed Himself instead. However, despite their prestige, these women were unsuitable because they were proud and haughty.20

While Hoffman’s support of women such as Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock has long been known, the recently rediscovered foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions sheds further light both on the biblical examples Hoffman used to justify his support of women’s active leadership in Melchiorite communities and the boundaries he still placed on this leadership. The range of possibilities Hoffman envisioned for women in the church was wider than that afforded to them by many of his contemporaries. Ultimately, however, women were second to men even in Hoffman’s congregations, since the role of teaching was open to them only when no qualified men were present to fill it.


  1.   C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997), 321. 
  2. Sigrun Haude, “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women?” in Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1998), 318-319. 
  3. Cf Joel 2 
  4. Ursula Jost, Prophetische Gesicht un[d] Offenbarung der götliche[n] würckung zu diser letste[n] zeit (Strasbourg: Balthasar Beck, 1530), passim. 
  5. Melchior Hoffman, afterword to Jost, Prophetische Gesicht, fols. C vii r-v. 
  6. For the English version of Deppermann’s seminal biography, see Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman: Social Unrest and Apocalyptic Visions in the Age of Reformation, edited by Benjamin Drewery, translated by Malcolm Wren (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987). The survival of the 1532 edition of the Josts’ prophetic writings was briefly noted in Andrew Pettegree and Malcolm Walsby (Eds), Netherlandish Books: Books Published in the Low Countries and Dutch Books Printed Abroad Before 1601, Volume 1 A-J (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 753 and its contents were the subject of Jonathan Green, ‘The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions,’ in: The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015), 313-330. 
  7. Melchior Hoffman, foreword to Ursula Jost, Eyn wore prophettin zu disser letzsten zeitt (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. F4r. 
  8. For the story of Huldah, see 2 Kings 22:13-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-33. 
  9. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  10. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  11. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  12. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  13. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  14. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  15. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  16. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  17. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  18. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  19. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  20. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F3v. 

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