Over the course of his career, Gary Waite has published widely on Dutch Anabaptism, witchcraft, Jews and Muslims in Early Modern Europe and taught courses on the same at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. In March, I had a conversation with him, excerpted below, about how he sees these topics reflected in the modern QAnon movement.
On Anti-Semitism in Premodern Europe and in QAnon
GW: As an historian of anti-Semitism and its development, I see all of these things interconnecting in QAnon. It’s not that the members of QAnon or whoever is the leader of QAnon is aware of all of these predecessors, but they’re clearly continuing to shape how these people are thinking. And some of the some of the stuff in the Q Anon is hundreds of years old and goes back to the medieval anti-Semitic tropes of a vast global conspiracy of Jews plotting the overthrow of Christendom.
CM: Now with space Laser Tech.
GW: Now with space lasers and drinking the blood of children. They’ve just made it a more modern version with this extract from children’s blood that the celebrities of Hollywood, i.e., the Jewish conspiracy group, are supposedly consuming to extend their lives.1 Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian infants starting in the twelfth century in England and spreading from there to the continent and continuing on into the twentieth century. In case after case after case, a Christian child may go missing or someone says a child’s gone missing, it may not actually be a real child, and the Jews are rounded up and tortured into confessing that they have kidnapped his child, that they do this globally as an organized conspiracy against Christendom. They pick one place in Europe every year to kidnap a Christian child and that child stands in for Christ. And according to these Christians, that child represents Christ by virtue of its innocence, and therefore the Jews want to kill Christ over and over again. But they also want the blood of the infant for their various nefarious things, so they bleed it to ritually murder the child, and then they are almost always caught afterwards. Even the use of the of the blood is very similar to what I see in the QAnon propaganda, that fear that children are being kidnapped for their blood to extend the life of the drinker. It’s the same kind of argument made against Jews that they needed it to, not so much extend their life, but to remove the odor that they were apparently born with, to remove the horns that Jewish males were supposed to be born with and that sort of thing. Just absolutely bizarre beliefs that were taken seriously by Christians and led to the deaths of countless numbers of Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities. The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 was based largely on ritual murder accusations. The last known ritual murder accusation in Europe was in 1948 in Poland. So it even survived the Second World War and the Holocaust.2 So that’s just one strand.
How did that get to modern America to such an extent that parents, all these adults who joined QAnon think there’s a grand conspiracy against their children, even though the children aren’t disappearing in the numbers that are alleged? Well, it’s become part of—I won’t say subconscious, but I think it’s just wrapped up into the fabric of European/North American discourse and beliefs. It’s in fairy tales and it’s also there in a lot of Christian preachers who disseminate this kind of conspiratorial thinking. It’s kept alive in the propaganda of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century, in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still is a best seller in parts of the world. So all this stuff resides below the surface, all this anti-Semitism and all this conspiratorial thinking, and it just keeps popping up almost every generation we see a new variant, and this is just the latest one.
There’s also elements of racism in Q Anon. It arose when there was a black president in power and a lot of what’s been happening is a reaction against having a person of color in the highest office of the land. And of course—and this is one of the points I make in one of my books on Christian views of Jews and Muslims in the seventeenth century—one of the major determinants of how a population responds to others such as Jews or Muslims is the attitude and the statements made by those at the top, the political elite.3 And in the Dutch case, the Regents and magistrates of the realm said, “yeah, it’s okay to have Jews, they’re fine as long as they don’t cause any trouble, and we’ll start negotiating with Muslims” and they set a tone of acceptance of religious diversity, which included Mennonites and Catholics even to a point, and various others. Refugees started flooding into the Dutch Republic because of this and the magistrates said: “we will treat everyone equally, even though they are not all citizens, we will treat them as if they are.” And they said that about Jews. Jews could not be citizens, “but we will treat them as if they are,” and that really set a tone. So when I went through all of the propaganda and pamphlets and the news sheets and so on of the period, I found very little of the kind of anti-Semitism that you can see from the English side or the German side, and it’s the leadership at the top. And when you get a guy like Trump who believes in conspiracy theories, who’s got a racist, white supremacist streak through him, who loves to cater to the worst of American fears and anxieties, then of course you’re going to get all of these conspirators, white supremacists, racism suddenly coming back up to the surface where it had been suppressed beforehand. It’s people’s desire to know the future, to have someone to lead them in a way that they can feel confident in the future.
And the pandemic…Disease outbreaks almost invariably lead to targeting of others, typically the Jews. I just lectured this week on the Jews being targeted as responsible for disease outbreak in southern France in 1321, and the King of France used that to get money from the Jews. Then when the plague strikes in 1347, 1348, suddenly it’s the people who are saying the Jews are responsible and without any kind of organization they go to the Jewish communities and they burn them down. So this notion that others are to blame whenever there’s an epidemic of any kind is still with us, and I think that has really exacerbated everything. And it’s interesting, it’s nerve wracking to be an historian watching this stuff happening on the news every night. It is really, really strange. I like to study the past. I don’t want to live the same kind of stuff that I study though.
On QAnon and Early Modern Fears of the Devil and Witches
GW: I think Q Anon comes out of that particular form of American evangelicalism, which emphasizes the literal interpretation of prophecies and the Scriptures themselves, and especially the devil, or Satan…I know most modern people don’t believe the devil is real, but I think a lot of people still fear that there is this malign figure. And as Elaine Pagels wrote years ago in her book, The Origin of Satan, the devil was created by Christians in the way that we know him—there was Lucifer and Satan before in the Old Testament—but the devil that the Christians developed and that really became big in the later Middle Ages and in the early modern period is a creation of the need of Christians to target another group, the Jews, to prove to the Romans that it’s the Jews that deserve to be punished in AD 70 because of their father, the devil, and that Christians are distinct from it.4 And the devil plays that role. The devil allows one group to create a self identity that we are of the good, we are of God, you are of the devil. There seems to be a need for people to have these binary opposites so that we’re good and they’re evil, and so the groups that emphasize the reality of the devil—if you believe that the devil is real, as I said before, just about anything can be possible.
CM: And it allows you to say, if you have, you know family members or people you really love on the other side, it allows you to say “it’s not that they’re fundamentally evil. They’re taken over. It’s not them, it’s Satan.” And you need to try to rescue them.
GW: There were, even in the early modern period, as you know with the witch hunts, they identified two sets of victims of the devil—there were several, but two relating to witchcraft. One were witches who made a voluntary pact with the devil and therefore didn’t deserve any mercy. But there were those who were possessed by demons involuntarily, and therefore they were treated differently. So there were a lot of times when the jurists and the preachers and the medical personnel were trying to distinguish, is this person possessed by demons, and therefore we treat them with an exorcism? Or is this a person who’s made a pact with the devil? And we would like to think we don’t ask those questions anymore, but we do. In the Atlantic magazine just recently there was a long article on the rise of demonic possession and how the demand for exorcism in the United States is on the increase.5 And then this pandemic has simply escalated those anxieties that there is some malign thing out there that is causing this and we need to do something to protect ourselves and our children. And QAnon—every time I see all their signs saying that there are pedophiles who are drinking the blood of children I say here we go again, because in the witch hunts it was fears of what was happening to children, mysterious deaths of children, kidnapping of children, that led to parents and the authorities taking this very, very seriously, when otherwise they wouldn’t take these accusations seriously. I mean, these are learned people who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually came to believe that women were getting on broomsticks—I know this is part of the stereotype, but this is this is in court records and learned discourse—and flying to a distant Sabbath meeting (there’s the Jews again) to worship the devil and to cause harm to children.6 It is such a powerful force, this parental drive to protect children, that all you have to do is say “they are kidnapping your children, we need to do something and you can get people involved who would not normally believe this stuff because their children are at risk. You saw that with the ritual murder panics of the 1980s and 90s.7 It was like the witch hunts had come back, that there were these groups of Satan worshippers who were kidnapping children and ritually murdering them in front of other children and worshipping the devil. And you would say nobody would believe that, except dozens, hundreds of social workers, prosecutors, police, and so on did believe it. Because of the fear that this is involving children. So using leading questions they got children to answer in the right way that yes, they saw a child being ritually murdered and people were arrested and put on trial and jailed, including Canadians—Richard Klassen out in Saskatchewan about fifteen years ago won a wrongful prosecution suit against the government of Saskatchewan based on the testimony of children.8 And so when I look at that and then I look at the early modern witch hunts and the role of children in making confessions, it’s like we haven’t changed. The dynamic remains that if our children are threatened, it doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to the matter, we will go and defend them.
And in all the cases in the Satanic ritual abuse cases, in the investigation reports after the fact…they could not find any evidence that any of the children had actually gone missing. There’s no correspondence between missing children and the alleged events, no evidence that any children were being killed. And the same thing was happening in many cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My favourite example is the Spanish Inquisition’s one and only witch panic, started around 1610 when two of the three Spanish inquisitors got involved in listening to women who were saying that they had been to a witches’ Sabbath just across the border in France. And that snowballed as these two inquisitors took seriously the testimony not just of adults but increasingly of children. And they would interrogate the children in such a way, ask them leading questions. Of course the children are going to respond to that. And so they ended up with hundreds of children as part of this ongoing investigation, and everybody is concerned that their children are being taken to the witches’ Sabbath to be sacrificed to the devil. The third inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, joins them finally. This team was supposed to always be three inquisitors in a local investigation, and so he finally joins. At the start he was supporting it and then he began to rethink and said “wait a minute, what is the evidence here?” And the Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, emphasized hard evidence. If you’re going to convict someone of a crime like witchcraft, you need evidence. What kind of evidence do you have? A confession in your own words is it. Eyewitnesses? Well, the only eyewitnesses to someone going to a witches’ Sabbath would be somebody already at the witches Sabbath, therefore you’re a witch, therefore your testimony does not count. So there’s always a problem. So he said, “no, I’m going to conduct my own investigation.” He went back to the facts, he reinvestigated thousands of confessions and depositions, he went and he talked to all of the children, but without the leading questions, and he finally wrote up a report that he sent to the Suprema, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, saying “there’s not a single shred of evidence that there’s been any act of witchcraft or any abuse of children in all of this, I recommend we put a halt to it.” The Suprema agreed, and in 1614 it said release all the prisoners. There were about two thousand people waiting trial and burning on these charges and because this one guy had doubts about it and pushed against his fellows at great personal risk he saved them all.9 And that’s one of the things that I’m afraid has gone by the board with the whole fake news business and this whole not trusting experts and not trusting the media. How do you say “show us the evidence”? I’ve watched reporters asking QAnoners: “Where’s your evidence for all this?” Well, their answer is: “is there evidence that it’s not happening?” And this is how they work. So no, your belief in a conspiracy is not evidence, and yet, we’ve lost the ability to say we need hard facts, because facts are no longer taken at face value like they used to be just two years ago, four years ago, before Trump. So that’s a real problem.
On Connections Between QAnon, Apocalyptic Movements, and Early Anabaptism
GW: Another element [of QAnon] is this belief in prophecy. Q keeps making these prophecies as to when Trump will be revealed and there will be a great reckoning and each time it fails. As a scholar of sixteenth century Anabaptism that, of course, resonates with me because you’ve got all these Anabaptists who were caught up in this belief that Christ was coming any moment and they picked the dates and they set the location and they all waited and it didn’t happen. And so some of the members left—such seems to have happened with QAnon—and others remained and just revised the interpretations and the prophecies. And so these kinds of prophetic moments when you’ve got these expectations that build up and people devote themselves to it to such an extent, they can’t just walk away. It is very hard for someone who says “I believe in all this stuff: that Q is real, that Trump is the Messiah-President, that he’s going to be returned to power, and they invest in it so much that they go marching. They go to Congress, they invade the buildings, they do violence. And then to just say, “oh whoops, I was wrong . . . ”? The same thing happened with the Anabaptists. Psychologically it’s very difficult.
CM: I think there’s a real family relationship element to it as well. If you’ve torpedoed your marriage for this, or if your kids aren’t speaking to you anymore because of this, if it’s caused a real rift in your family, then that’s another dimension where it’s much too hard to say “I was wrong” and try to get back.
GW: That certainly happened with the Anabaptists. It divided families and you make these decisions to join and to follow, and then whoops, and you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost your livelihood, you’ve lost your property, you’re in jail or you’re running from the authorities. You see that for example in the group that was around David Koresh, the compound in Waco, Texas, there are still people who believe that he was the Messiah. And so one of my thoughts as I’m watching QAnon is I think we’re watching the rise of a new religious movement. It’s got all the same kinds of expectations and hopes and dreams, zeal, everything that you need and a Messiah-like figure and a Prophet who’s behind the scenes… So I’m expecting that Q will remain in some fashion as a new religious movement of some kind. The Americans are pretty good at creating these new religious movements. One of the examples that I use in teaching is the Great Disappointment in the 1840s in the States, with the Millerites. Miller was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could figure out precisely when Jesus was returning through close interpretation of Scripture. And so he got it down to a particular date and place and by the thousands the Millerites came out to watch for Jesus’ return. It didn’t happen. So many left, and Miller himself and others stayed and revised their interpretations. A lot of people were angry—if you look up the Great Disappointment, as this was called, you’ll see a lot of popular print stuff that was made satirizing these poor folk. Well, that Millerite movement is the foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.10 And David Koresh was a member of a branch group called the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. So even with all of the failed prophecies—and you could talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses prophecies here—people will continue to believe because, as you say, they’ve invested so much of their personal lives, so much of their identity in this group and in these beliefs. It’s very hard for people to walk away. So you’ve got the Great Disappointment in nineteenth century and then you have the David Koresh group. . . . The Mormons started as an end of the world group, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
CM: I find myself thinking a lot about the aftermath of Münster and how the Melchiorites disperse after that, and particularly thinking of the fairly large numbers who were successfully brought back into their regional churches in part due to, in the end, the concerted efforts of Tasch and Eisenberg, who had been Melchiorites and then decided to work somewhat covertly with the regional churches to facilitate this return. And of course, Lienhard Jost also then returns to the established church in Strasbourg. And I’m curious to know, when you study new religious movements, if you can think of other examples of this sort of successful reintegration and what some elements of that look like.
GW: Well, certainly it happened. It happened in in the Dutch side too. . . . You know this is one of the frustrations as historians working the Anabaptist field. We all know that so many people disappear from the record because they’re no longer part of the group. They’ve left it and therefore they’re not being arrested anymore, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t want to have brought them back into the courtroom just so I would have a record of their beliefs. Certainly in the Dutch scene David Joris played a major role in keeping some of the Münsterite Anabaptists within the movement, but he did so by moving them away from a sectarian or confessional identity and moving them towards spiritualism, which says religion is interior, the letter of Scripture isn’t as important as the spirit within, that sort of thing.11 But his movement was actually more long lived than we had thought even just a few years ago. There’s a new book out on the Reformation Movement in the region east of the Dutch border in Germany, where Joris was very active, and his name and his ideas are stamped throughout.12 And even with the Dutch Mennonites, who are Menno’s heirs, he kept fighting against this David Jorisism, the spiritualism, but he never succeeded, and so there’s an element of that that runs right through the Dutch Mennonites into the 17th century. There’s a sort of a two-word debate. For most people, I would say for most of these new religious movements, once there’s the crisis, once there’s the great disappointment, once there is the failure of prophecy, a lot of the followers sort of disappear from the record. We don’t know where they went. It’s those who remain within it and help shape it into something else that we know that they are there. How many of them go back to a mainstream church or two? I don’t really know.
Menno Simons worked diligently to bring these disillusioned Anabaptists into his orbit, and he succeeded. He and the other fellow preachers, Dirk Phillips, Adam Pastor and so on did get a lot of these people back into the Mennonite Church, which is the heir to the Anabaptists. But they didn’t succeed entirely. There are a lot of people who just abandon anything like Anabaptism. Ben Kaplan, for example, has shown that around 1600 in the Dutch Republic a large minority of people and in some places a majority people did not belong to any church.13 And I think this is part of this whole disillusioning experience of the real bloodshed and violence of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And not just the Anabaptist persecution and Anabaptist Münster, but also the Catholic versus Calvinist battles and the Civil War. And so there were a lot of people who just said “not joining any of them.” And this is noticed by observers who came to the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church is the public Church of the Realm, but not a formal state church. You don’t have to join it to be a citizen, to be a resident of the realm. The result is a lot of people decided not to. And so I think that there can be several different responses. Some people are successfully reintegrated into a more mainstream kind of church, a lot of people just drop away, and some people take an intentionally distinctive approach to religion. And in the Dutch Republic that was spiritualism, which really had a powerful impact on the mentality of people after the turmoil of the Reformation and Civil War.
CM: And even the more sectarian churches that do survive like the Mennonites, it’s a form of reintegration into society in a way to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the governing authorities rather than to view them as enemies to be overcome as soon as possible.
GW: Yeah, you need to make nice with the government and the Anabaptists found that a very difficult adjustment to make. And there’s always a sense that we are the persecuted people of God. It’s still a major force among some evangelical churches and other churches today. How do you know that you are God’s chosen people? Well, if you’re being persecuted, then that’s one of the signs as Jesus said. Problem is, if you’re not being persecuted, you have to find ways in which you can say that you are being persecuted. So saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas means we are being persecuted for faith—no you’re not!
The Mennonites did very well [in the Dutch Republic].14 You couldn’t be a Mennonite and be a citizen, and that’s okay. They didn’t mind that, they were happy to be an ignored minority. But they had all the economic rights and they could take on business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. I’ve seen some of the houses. Piet Visser has taken me on tours and it’s just incredible the wealth that these heirs of the Anabaptists achieved. They would join with the merchants of the East India Company, but their ships could not have cannons on them because they’re pacifists. But they would sail with the Dutch Reformed who had plenty of cannons on their ships. And some of them became fabulously wealthy. You’ve got artists galore, you’ve got writers of great fame in the Dutch Republic who are of this Mennonite heritage. By 1600 the Mennonites were a significant part of the population and really influencing things. Some cities, some towns in the Dutch Republic, in particular North Holland in the Waterland area are almost entirely Mennonites and the economic prosperity is just incredible. But that leads to the new problem. They then become the social equals of the elites. Why not just marry into the elites? Why not just join the elites? Why not just reconvert to the Reformed Church then you can have all the full formal memberships and citizenships and so on. And that’s what most of them did. So by 1700 the Mennonite population had really shrunk not by persecution, but by assimilation, by social, cultural, economic motivations that it’s actually nicer to just join with this side. So I imagine some of that will happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the QAnoners now that as far as I know all of their prophecies have failed. What are they gonna do next? Go back to your churches, I would think but I’m waiting to see is it going to continue? Are they going to start a separate or distinct quasi denomination or religion? I don’t know. This could be the beginnings of a new Mormonism or a new Seventh Day Adventism or something of that nature, that has elements of Christianity, but with this new Q conspiracy Donald Trump is Messiah thing.
1 Tarpley Hitt, “How QAnon Became Obsessed With ‘Adrenochrome,’ an Imaginary Drug Hollywood Is ‘Harvesting’ from Kids,” The Daily Beast, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-qanon-became-obsessed-with-adrenochrome-an-imaginary-drug-hollywood-is-harvesting-from-kids, 14 August 2020.
2 For more on ritual murder accusations, see Hannah Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).
3 Gary Waite, Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Discourse, From Religious Enemies to Allies and Friends (London: Routledge, 2018.)
4 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1996).
5 Mike Mariani, “American Exorcism,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/, accessed 21 April 2021.
6 For more on early modern witch hunts, see Gary Waite, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003); Gary Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
7 See Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1993).
8 Oliver Moore, “Klassen wins suit over malicious prosecution,” CBC News, 30 December 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/klassen-wins-suit-over-malicious-prosecution/article1170870/. The Supreme Court overturned this verdict in 2009. See The Canadian Press, “Crown not malicious in pressing Sask. abuse case: SCC,” CTV News, 6 November 2009, https://www.ctvnews.ca/crown-not-malicious-in-pressing-sask-abuse-case-scc-1.451422.
9 See Gustav Henningsen (Ed.), The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others on the Basque Witch Persecution (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
10 See David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
11 On David Joris, see Gary Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990); Gary Waite (Ed.), The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Second Edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
12 See Karin Förster, Das reformatorische Täufertum in Oldenburg und Umgebung (1535-1540): Unter des besonderen Berücksichtigung des Täufertheologen David Joris (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2019).
13 See Benjamin Kaplan, Reformation and the Practice of Toleration: Dutch Religious History in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
14 For more on Dutch Mennonite assimilation over time see Alastair Hamilton, Piet Visser, and Sjouke Voolstra (Eds.), From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).