On Naming Early Modern Anabaptists

What ‘Anabaptism’ means in an early modern document is often ambiguous – a problem which is only compounded when looking at secular bureaucratic sources. Who did early modern authorities think they were dealing with, or talking about, when they issued mandates or negotiated tolerance?

The study of early Anabaptism in Emden is stymied by a paucity of documents. More thorough record-keeping, or record-storing, coincided with the later influx of Dutch Reformed refugees in the 1550s.1 One of the earliest extant documents is a letter dated 12 May 1534, in the midst of the crisis of the Kingdom of Münster but concerning baptisms happening within Emden itself.2 Sent by East Frisian Count Enno II and addressed to the chief magistrates of Emden, it offered an “admonishment” against the continued existence of Anabaptists in the city.3 The letter uses the catch-all term of “wider doper,” but does not identify any leaders of, or even adherents to, this movement. This general reprimand thus suggests either that the leaders’ identity should have been obvious to the magistrates, or that perhaps Enno had only a vague understanding of the matter.

A hybrid document concerning the nearby city of Oldenburg, however, indicates that individual charismatic leaders were indeed traveling through the surrounding area during the 1530s, even if they were not immediately identifiable to authorities. A nineteenth-century excerpt and copy of an eighteenth-century edition of a text, this document was originally assembled by seventeenth-century theologian Gottfried Arnold. This nesting doll-like document nevertheless presents “David Joris’s singular life,” described in the nineteenth-century introduction as originating from a “very old Dutch-language written manuscript.”4 Arnold’s work was undoubtedly some sort of pastiche, as the excerpt included in this document is actually the sixteenth-century “Anonymous Biography of David Joris,” available in translation and edited by Gary K. Waite.5 Waite suggests in the introduction to this piece that the author may well have been Joris himself.6

Joris’s biography describes an Oldenburg still in turmoil following the violence and upheaval of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. A number of refugees from Münster had found some toleration in Oldenburg, which Waite attributes to an ongoing feud between the Bishop of Münster and the rulers of Oldenburg.7 Joris was ministering to the local Anabaptist and spiritualist congregation, and pushed his claim on authority through an interpretation of signs and mystical interventions that occurred during their discussions – including an incident where a Bible belonging to the Münsterites fell off a table.8

Joris’s reputation would certainly grow in East Frisia. A letter from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, again addressed to the chief magistrates and city council of Emden, directly addressed the disruption and unrest that imperial authorities expected from Anabaptists in general and Jorists in particular.9

Dated 15 October 1543, it began by greeting the relatively recently widowed Countess Anna von Oldenburg, who assumed the regency of East Frisia following her husband Enno’s death in 1540. The imperial letter expressly demanded the “confession of Anabaptists and other agitators,” which the emperor believed Anna had the power to arrange and compel. Charles identified the ‘ringleader’ as David Joris himself, and requested Joris’s writings, along with the names of other prominent members and journeymen.10 This letter thus establishes the fragmenting groups of ‘agitators’ under charismatic leadership as a phenomenon legible to authorities. Although shielded by official inaction, the followers of Joris as well as other Anabaptists and dissenters existed on the margins of legal residence.

The specifics of naming and differentiating amongst these marginalized religious groups became almost immediately important. Menno Simons arrived in Emden in late 1543 or early 1544 and advocated on behalf of his followers in front of the newly appointed Zwinglian pastor, Jan Łaski. Menno and Łaski had a number of “semipublic” discussions and debates over theological points, and despite significant differences Menno and his followers continued to enjoy some sort of toleration in Emden. Łaski was the first to use the term ‘Mennisten,’ in 1545, apparently as part of a larger scheme to separate these more moderate Anabaptists from their potentially violent brethren.11 When his attempts to debate and persuade these ‘Mennonites’ failed, however, Menno and his followers were ordered out of East Frisia – though many remained.12

By 1556, however, perhaps not coincidentally corresponding with the largest influx of Dutch Calvinist immigrants and the pressures of the Interim, Countess Anna found herself at least performing an insistence on tighter residential controls. In an edict dated 10 January 1556, Anna identified both David Joris and Menno Simons as leaders within the larger frame of Anabaptism.13 Within the text of the edict itself she separates out the “Mennonites, Davidites, Batenburgers, and other damned sects” who were ordered to leave within fourteen days or face punishment.14 The inclusion of the Batenburgers – a violent remnant of the Münsterites who most probably were no longer extant – is curious, and again highlights the problem of bureaucratic knowledge. The boundaries between these groups were recognized by authorities, but only in so far as they cohered as outsiders who were variously tolerated in the city of Emden.


  1.  For secondary reading on Emden, see especially Andrew Pettegree, Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), as well as a recent chapter by Timothy G. Fehler, “Coexistence and Confessionalization: Emden’s Topography of Religious Pluralism,”in Topographies of Tolerance and Intolerance: Responses to Religious Pluralism in Reformation Europe, ed. Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Victoria Christman (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 78-105. 
  2.  Stadtarchiv (StA) Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 1-2.
  3.  StA Emden, Nr. 415, 1: “wir offtmals ein vermanu[n]g doen latenn als der wider doper halben” 
  4.  Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv (NLA) Oldenburg, Slg. 10, Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 1r-3v.
  5.  Gary K. Waite, The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris:1535-1543 (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1994). The section that is reproduced in the Oldenburg manuscript runs from pp. 66-70.
  6.  Ibid., 32: “Joris clearly played a major role in the formulation of the anonymous account.”
  7.  Ibid., 302, fn. 94.
  8.  NLA Oldenburg, Slg. 10 Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 3r; Waite, The Anabaptist Writings, 69.
  9.  StA Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 3-4.
  10.  Ibid., 3: Wir schreiben hieneben der Edler unserer lieben Andechtigen Anna gebornen zu Oldenburg und Grauin zu Ostfrisen wittib Das Sy uns die vrgicht der widerteuffer vnd anderer Anfruerischen […] Aber volgendenen widerums auskomen sein mit sambt amer verzaichnus der Namen Irer Mitverwandten vnd gesellen, desgleichen Ires Haubts vnd Redelfuerers Joristen Glaßmachers Buecher zuschicken solle Inhalt vnsers schreibens.”
  11.  George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 732-734.
  12.  Pettergree, 33. 
  13.  NLA Aurich, Rep. 4 BII d Nr. 1, 2: “Vnnd wi dan befindenn, dat bouen alle vnnse vorigenn Mandata vnnd vtgegangene gebot breue, der Wedderdoperie also Menno Simons vnnd David Joris vnnd anderenn secten anhegiche”
  14.  Ibid., 2: “dat so alle vnnd jder [illeg.] sienn Mennonisten, Davidianen, Baterberger, vnd andere vordampn secten”

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