On the Emden Kirchenrat, and Naming Anabaptists

An important set of sources for understanding Anabaptism in Emden are the Kirchenrat records, which were edited by Heinz Schilling in the 1980s. Though the Kirchenrat itself was established in 1544, the records did not begin for another decade due to the interruption of the Interim.1 Looking for inhabitants called before the consistory and labelled as some variation of “Täufer,” we can identify Reformed community members flirting with marginal beliefs and navigating life in Emden as it assumed its full height as a refugee city. These records begin after the rapid expansion of the city in the mid-1550s, following the influx of Dutch Calvinist refugees, and demonstrate a need to police the edges of the reformed community–precisely because there were a variety of nonconforming believers in the city.2

A few examples will give texture to this source. Johan van Bellen first appeared in the records on 15 November 1557. Subjected to instruction regarding his nonconforming beliefs, the “doepers” were identified as a source of these errors.3 Moreover, and incriminatingly, he had at least three unbaptized children. Van Bellen was something of a troublemaker; he recurred repeatedly in the records of the consistory, and was admonished for both his beliefs and actions.4 Though he was not always identified as holding Anabaptist sympathies, he was clearly an outsider – and he expressed this in a rare bit of direct speech: “So Menno Simons’ sect does not want me and you do not want me and the papists do not want me . . . ”5 Lacking any true institutional affiliations, he was brought before the consistory in an attempt to bring his religious and lifestyle choices under the aegis of a stabilizing authority.

It is important to note that the consistory differentiated between generalized “Anabaptists” and those Mennonites, Jorists and others who were identifiable as belonging to a particular nonconformist community. On 26 July 1557, we see concern that one Severin Koperslager belonged to what must have been a small but persistent community of Jorists.6 Because David Joris himself, or some of his followers, had taken to announcing the coming of the “third David” by the later 1540s, the accusation was that Severin “knew another savior.” Severin is thus forced to gainsay David Joris and denounce him as a “spirit of the devil.” Most interestingly, however, no mention is made of “Anabaptists” or baptism at all, suggesting some separation between a larger understanding of Anabaptism and these individual charismatic groups. There are two later references to suspected Jorists; one mentioned as a “Davidiorismo” in February of 1559, and one who may be a papist or a libertine or belong to the “David-Joris” group.7 Again, neither of these accusations accompany anything like a denunciation of Anabaptism, and suggest a separate category has formed for the purposes of communal discipline.

In March of 1559, the two groups arose in conversation during the same day of consistory testimony8 In a discussion about bookbinding and publishing, Cornelis Benninck mentioned the need to address Mennonite writing in Holland, while Adrianus de Kuper presented two pamphlets he wrote against “de wederdopers.” Though representatives of these groups were not present to defend themselves, the separation of one from another seems significant. That the consistory would attempt to limit Mennonite publishing or publish treatises against marginalized beliefs is not surprising, but the careful deployment of these contested categories seems significant for decision making within the Reformed church court system.

These few pieces of the Kirchenratsprotokolle, then, might be read as merely the continuation of an increasingly sophisticated deployment of terms. The church council both took up and further populated the categories which we have seen in the official correspondences of the 1530s and 1540s, and it is certainly worth further study to determine how discourses between secular and religious authorities intertwined during this period. Yet the development of these distinctive categories proved operational for the Emden Kirchenrat, who associated particular beliefs or behaviors with certain Anabaptist groups and treated suspected individuals accordingly. That the church council found these categories to be meaningfully different may reflect a more intimate knowledge of these groups, or perhaps an increasingly codified understanding of exactly who these groups contained and what these groups believed. The creation of categories became useable knowledge, and altered the lives of individual nonconformists when authorities began to differentiate rehabilitation and punishment accordingly.


  1. Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP.
  2. A 2001 article by Samme Zijlstra examined some Anabaptists and spiritualists who came before the consistory, and focused on the theological differences that motivated conversions between members of the dominant Reformed church and these smaller, marginalized communities; Samme Zijlstra, “Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and the Reformed Church in East Frisia,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review (Jan. 2001, Vol 75:1), 57-73.
  3. KRP I:10.
  4. KRP I: 75, 80, 83, 115, 120, 126, 128.
  5. KRP I: 141.
  6. KRP I: 3.
  7. KRP I: 71; 125.
  8. KRP I: 78.

1 thought on “On the Emden Kirchenrat, and Naming Anabaptists

  1. Your interesting piece raises questions that the anthropologist Roger Keesing raised some years ago. This is the distinction between a category and a group. He was discussing social systems but his idea could easily be applied to religious history. Keesing pointed out that not all systems assumed to constitute groups were actually groups but were, in fact, merely categories that were not formed into organised groups. To put it another way, not all categories are/were groups but most groups were also, or were identified as a category. Added to this are complicating factors including who produced the categorical identification and why and, in the long time, how a category so formed, came to be adopted by the followers of a group even when it may originally have had a negative meaning by those who formulated it. So those identified as followers of Luther became Lutherans; followers of Calvin, Calvinists and Menno, Mennonites.

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