Selections from the Visions of Lienhard Jost

The survival of the visions of the Strasbourg prophetess Ursula Jost (or rather, the first edition from 1530) has long been known to scholars of sixteenth-century Anabaptist history. Klaus Deppermann, in his 1979 biography of Melchior Hoffman, devoted several pages to the Strasbourg prophets and Ursula visions, and Lois Barrett’s 1992 PhD dissertation examined Ursula’s visions in greater detail and translated them into English for the first time.[1] While Deppermann, Barrett, and other scholars of Anabaptism in Strasbourg were aware that Lienhard Jost had played a prominent role in the Melchiorite movement in Strasbourg and that Hoffman had printed an edition of his prophecies, they believed that those prophecies were no longer extant. Recently, however, Jonathan Green brought to the attention of the scholarly community the survival of an edition of Lienhard’s prophecies (together with a second edition of Ursula’s visions) at the Austrian National Library in Vienna.[2] The edition, printed by the Deventer printer Albert Paffraet, who also printed the works of David Joris, offers a wealth of new information on Lienhard Jost. [3]

While Ursula’s visions offer only scant biographical details, Lienhard’s prophecies are related in an autobiographical format. The account focuses particularly on early 1523 (when Lienhard spent two months involuntarily hospitalized in Strasbourg, since the authorities believed him to be insane) and late 1525 (when Lienhard experienced a resurgence of prophetic revelations and attempted to prophesy publicly again and especially to convince the Strasbourg reformer Mathis Zell of his legitimacy).

Below are two chapters from Lienhard’s prophecies in English translation, both relating events from 1523. The third chapter recounts the events that led to Lienhard’s hospitalization (and calls to mind another infamous sixteenth-century Anabaptist episode, when seven men and five women—known collectively as the naaktlopers—ran naked through the streets of Amsterdam).[4] The nineteenth chapter takes place near the end of Lienhard’s confinement.

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Title page of the 1532 edition of Lienhard’s visions.

The Third Chapter [5]

After I had shown this, as mentioned above, to the lords and leaders of the city of Strasbourg and passed on the message, in the night the glory of the Lord surrounded me one more time and spoke to me forcefully in my heart: Well, up! You must go there stark naked and unclothed. The Mord Glock must be rung before it is day.[6]

That same hour I had to wake, and I could not stay according to my preference. And I said to my wife: Ursula, I must go out stark naked, as I was told. When I came out onto the streets of Strasbourg in the open air, my arms immediately moved apart from each other and I went from there [so quickly] that I cannot know whether I remained on the ground or not.

That same hour my mouth opened and I had to speak and yell at the top of my voice: Murder upon murder! The child in its mother’s womb must and shall be terrified before the word of the Lord comes to pass. Murder once again! If the rulers and lords only know that their princely clothes will be removed from them before God and the world, that they might seek God again, they would all cry along with me: murder upon murder!

But after this the child in its mother’s womb will rejoice again and there will be much peace for all who have been sad.

In this midst of this aforementioned crying out I was snatched in this state, naked, and captured by my neighbours and handed off to the aforementioned city councillor Herrto Ludwig, and he handed me over to the hospital the next morning and recommended me to its overseer.

 

The Nineteenth Chapter[7]

This place shall have a bishop, so that he might observe the Lord’s supper. His eyes shall be sharp. He will carry around across the land the banner of godly righteousness and will faithfully teach the idle to work. And those little bees that he finds tired out from work he shall lead into the houses of God and there let them rest and feed them with the word of God. He will shield his little sheep from the approach of the rapacious wolf. Such a man is worthy to observe the Lord’s supper.

After this the glory of the Lord urged me to celebrate Mass and I was obedient and did this until [the point when] the Lord Jesus said with his disciples the word of thanksgiving, and, at the call of the glory of the Lord, I had to take the little pitcher and sing these words:

Holy holy holy is the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Come to the table of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is made holy through Him.

Proclaim the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us. He has rescued us from eternal death, rejoice over this you children of Israel.

Rejoice, rejoice, and rejoice greatly. Savour the bread of our Lord Jesus Christ, that was given for us. Savour the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, that was poured out for us.

In this speech I had to lift up the little pitcher above itself. Then the glory of the Lord opened itself in the little pitcher and swept over me and then my heart said: Is this the mirror of God? Then it was answered to me through the glory of the Lord.

I am a light for the children of God and food for the soul and way to the righteousness of the body.

I will feed in eternal life he who acts mercifully. But the mirror of God is man.

As you eat this bread, you should not pray to stone and wood, but you should bow before your rulers, who have been established for you by God.

But the mirror of God is man, who is next to you and around you. Look at this mirror from bottom to top, and so you will see that a master workman created you and him. You shall look after him and have mercy on him and, when you feed him, God will give you in your heart his free shield, so that you do not become a mirror of the world. As you act mercifully, God will lead you from one freedom into another, all the way to eternal life.

Those who were around me in the hospital chamber did not believe these things. Then the glory of the Lord said to me: you must perform a miracle for them. And they all looked at me to see what I would do. And I said: O God eternal Father, my doing and undertaking is nothing, but Your will be done. Then I had to take the little pitcher and turn it around and upside down, and no liquid ran out of it.

Then those who were around me answered all together: Now we see that you are a sorcerer, and Lucifer your father, and your power comes from the devil.

Then I said to them: if this power is from the devil, then why do I not speak his word? I have the Word of God, and you incite the word of the devil and his work, from one midnight to another. My words are from God and cause you pain, and your words that are from the devil cause me pain. If my power is from the devil, why do your words not please me?  Since I see that you do not want to believe me, I will not speak with you anymore until you speak with me.

Then began the woe and lament of those who were around and next to me in the hospital chamber, and they were greatly overwhelmed until the third day

On the third day one of them came to me and to my bed and said: Lienhard, when you are sad, we are also sad. How does this happen? Then I said, I already told you that you should let me do what I do. What I do and allow is not from me, but from God. When I go out from among you, out of this hospital and prison, you will all be glad.

But in these aforementioned three days I lay in such distress and agony as can scarcely be described.

And I also in those days noticeably felt the wounds on Christ in my hands and feet and side, and a tangible reminder (deckzeichen) was given to me on my right foot, and in this the glory of the Lord spoke through me to those who were around me: watch! This wine must now be spilled in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.[8]

And the glory of the Lord moved me, so that I had to spill the little pitcher of wine, with which I had held Mass and performed a miracle.

And I poured it onto my bed. Then the glory of the Lord said in me: this wine will flow across the width of the earth, and after this time all things will grow sufficiently. Wine, oil, and fruit will be sufficient. Then you will live in peace and you will lie in the sunshine, and there will be such an abundance of sufficiency that the grapes will hang over your mouths.

Then the time of the Lord will approach. Think on this: the Lord is not far away and will come to wake us from the dead and to save us.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman: Soziale Unruhen und Apokalyptische Visionen im Zeitalter der Reformation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 178-186; Lois Barrett, “Wreath of Glory: Ursula’s Prophetic Visions in the Context of Reformation and Revolt in Southwestern Germany, 1524-1530” (PhD diss., The Union Institute, 1992).

[2] Jonathan Green, “The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015): 313-330.

[3] On Paffraet, see Paul Valkema Blouw, “Printers to the ‘Arch-Heretic’ David Joris” in Dutch Typography in the Sixteenth Century: The Collected Works of Paul Valkema Blouw (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 508-509.

[4] On the Naaktlopers, see Samme Zijlstra, Om de Ware Gemeente en de Oude Gronden: Geschiedenis van de Dopersen in de Nederlanden, 1531-1675 (Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2000), 135-136.

[5] Lienhard Jost, Ein Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey des Linhart Josten van Stroßburg, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. B3r. See also http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ169334206

[6] The Mord Glock was a silver bell in the Strasbourg cathedral used to warn the people of Strasbourg of crisis or sedition. See Philippe André Grandidier, Essais Topographiques et Historiques sur l’Église Cathédrale de Strasbourg (Strasbourg: Levrault, 1782), 242-243.

[7] Jost, Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey, fols. E1R-E2r.

[8] Lienhard’s account of the wounds on his foot calls to mind Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata (tangible signs of the wounds of Christ on hands and/or feet), a famous event that inspired many imitators—particularly women—well into the early modern period. On the stigmata in late medieval and early modern mysticism, see Stephen Haliczer, Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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

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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. 

On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

Note: The following is a conversation about the theological and ecclesiological uses of Anabaptist history from the perspectives of an early modernist and a modernist

By Christina Moss and Ben Goossen

CM: When the two of us presented on a panel together in June at the Crossing the Line conference at Eastern Mennonite University, one of the recurring themes during the discussion that followed was the ways in which contemporary Anabaptists engage with Anabaptist history. My own period of study, the sixteenth century, encompasses the beginnings of Anabaptism, so it continues to hold a lot of interest for the spiritual descendants of those first Anabaptists. But of course, Anabaptism is a dynamic tradition and has continued to evolve since the sixteenth century. Ben, your research has focused more on Anabaptists in the modern era. How have you found that contemporary Anabaptists engage (or perhaps fail to engage) with more recent Anabaptist history?

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The ongoing influence of Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, despite extensive scholarly critique, represents the entanglement of history and theology in Anabaptist communities.

BG: That was a great discussion! One of the insights I have continued to ponder is your comment that Reformation-era Anabaptists lived during a radically different time that, if we are honest with ourselves, may not actually have that much bearing on our twenty-first century context. In my work, I have tried to trace some of the reasons why modern (i.e. nineteenth- and twentieth-century) Anabaptist church leaders, historians, and lay persons have attached such importance to Reformation history.[^1] Frequently, the answer seems to be a search for a “usable past,” in which sixteenth-century stories are brought to bear on more contemporary challengescrises of faith, external threats, shrinking congregations, etc. I might venture that for modern Anabaptists, the study of Reformation history has disproportionately been about modern issues. So in that sense, I would say that truly understanding either modern or early modern Anabaptism would first require deconstructing how we talkand have talked in the pastabout the Reformation. But you’re the sixteenth-century expert; where would you say the historiography falls on this point?

CM: I’ll admit to being much more familiar with how historians talk about sixteenth-century Anabaptists than how contemporary Anabaptist churches and theologians deal with that legacy, but from what I’ve seen there’s definitely a gap, though perhaps there wasn’t always. The dominant narrative in the mid-twentieth century was that cast by Harold Bender in his essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” Bender argued that Anabaptism was a logical culmination of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. He distinguished between the “original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism,” or “Anabaptism proper,” and “the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand.”[^2] The Bender school of Anabaptist history provided churches and theologians with a usable past, but from a historiographical standpoint it was roundly critiqued because it marginalized so many different expressions of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Later seminal works like James Stayer’s Anabaptists and Sword and Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann’s article “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” emphasized the diversity of early Anabaptism, both in terms of theological views and geographical points of origin.[^3] Currently, some historians working on sixteenth-century have confessional commitments of their own and others don’t, but all would agree on their responsibility to explain the beliefs of their subjects as accurately as possible, regardless of whether those views are theologically relevant for contemporary Anabaptists.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think that churches shouldn’t look to the past for theological inspiration. Certainly, as we seek to be faithful in our own context, we can learn from others who sought to be faithful in theirs. But I do think we need to be really careful about it, and honest with ourselves. Often, as people of faith, we approach church history having already made up our mind about a theological question and seeking antecedents in order to validate our position. Take the question of women’s ordination, for instance. There are some truly fascinating women in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and they are well worth studying, but even the most permissive Anabaptist groups wouldn’t have practiced women’s ordination the way we do in MC Canada and MCUSA churches today. Melchior Hoffman, who enthusiastically affirmed the callings of both male and female prophets, allowed for the possibility that women might also serve as teachers if no qualified men were present.[^4] As notable as this concession was for its time, reluctantly allowing women to serve as a “Plan B” is not a suitable approach to women in ministry for the twenty-first century church. Where legitimate antecedents do exist, they’re certainly worth highlighting to emphasize that there is, and has long been, room in our theological tradition for the views we’re trying to advance. However, our theological forebears weren’t infallible, and, if we sincerely believe that a theological position is worth advocating for, we should do so regardless of whether or not it has precedent, without trying to reshape the theology of our spiritual forebears to better fit our views.

In fact, I believe that reflecting on our theological tradition’s fallibility is perhaps one of the most crucial ways churches can and should engage with church history. Ben, I know that your work has touched on this quite a bit. Could you speak to that here? What does it look like for Anabaptist churches to reckon with our spiritual forebears’ fallibility, and to do so well?

BG: Perhaps we should pull a few theologians into this conversation. It strikes me that history as practiced by Anabaptists has probably always been theological in nature. For many conservative groups, history writing has in the past and continues today to offer an acceptable alternative to more “worldly” disciplines like philosophy and theology—which, in my opinion, makes it a kind of philosophy or theology par excellence. Meanwhile, those of us influenced by or working in the wider academy would, I think, tend to join other professional historians in seeing the practice of history as a means of tracking power relations in the past, often for purposes of altering them in the present. All historians do this according to a guiding (often changing) set of ethical or moral standards; and Anabaptist historians—like practitioners of other religious traditions—might see these standards as emanating specifically from their theological worldviews.

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Images and narratives about Reformation-era Anabaptists, such as this etching from Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, have held different resonances among Anabaptist communities over the centuries.

I like your notion of reckoning with past fallibility as a source for spiritual inspiration in our own time. This way of evaluating history both takes seriously the discipline’s fundamentally ethical character and also avoids purely laudatory accounts. That still leaves the question, however, of how to decide what to praise and what to lament. Here I’m thinking of David Weaver-Zercher’s excellent new book, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History, which examines how Anabaptists of various stripes have read and interpreted Thieleman van Braght’s famous seventeenth-century martyrology over the past four centuries.[^5] Weaver-Zercher persuasively argues that despite vastly different contexts and hermeneutics, Anabaptist readers have consistently seen the Martyrs Mirror as a tool for measuring their own communities’ faithfulness (understood in different ways), against the faithfulness of Reformation-era Anabaptists. Such a practice already depends on the construction of a theologically-grounded narrative dichotomy, which in this case presents Anabaptist martyrs as heroic and their Catholic and Protestant persecutors as fallen.

So I think the issue is less whether our histories—scholarly or popular—should or should not emphasize past fallibility; they do so inherently. Rather, the more significant question might be how closely that fallibility is associated with historical actors with whom we might be inclined to identify, especially “spiritual forebears,” as you put it. Displacing fallibility exclusively or mostly onto others can be appealing, but doing so tends to render the actions of our historical role models unimpeachable, in turn making it difficult to criticize the male-dominated gender relations of the early Anabaptists, to pick up on your example, or to recognize how contemporary discourses of peacemaking, discernment, and process can disadvantage LGBTQ members today. For me, one the basic purposes of Anabaptist history is to recognize when Anabaptism as a denomination or identity is invoked to disadvantage or marginalize others. Often, Anabaptism as an idea is so positively connoted in our minds—or in the minds of historical actors—that preserving its honor, unity, or very existence takes precedence over advocating for the needs of women, queer folks, people of color, or any other number of people. Thus I see recent work around gender, labor, and race by Felipe Hinojosa, Stephanie Krehbiel, Tobin Miller Shearer, and Janis Thiessen, among many others, as vitally important in the task of keeping us skeptical and honest about a faith we have chosen and a past we have not.[^6]

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Recent scholarship on Anabaptism in both the early modern and modern periods, such as this edited collection, owe much to non-Anabaptist historians.

In some ways, that brings us back to theology. Christina, I’d be fascinated to know how early modernists like yourself navigate disciplinary boundaries and even professional relationships within the discipline of history, where some practitioners identify as religious and others do not. I’m also wondering what sources Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians of the Reformation have drawn upon to develop the moral-theological lenses that they use and have used to evaluate past actions and events—scripture, revelation, arguments and texts developed during the sixteenth century?

CM: In my experience, the scholarly relationship between scholars of different religious affiliations (or non-affiliations) who study early modern Anabaptism has been really fruitful. We bring different questions, interests, and perspectives to the material at times, but we learn so much from each other. The field has been incredibly enriched both by historians who are rooted in contemporary Anabaptist communities and historians who aren’t. For instance, we know quite a bit more about Spiritualists and apocalyptically-minded Anabaptists thanks to the work of scholars who don’t belong to contemporary Anabaptist faith communities. If anything, I see less tension between Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians than has sometimes existed between Anabaptist historians and Anabaptist theologians. The debate between Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder after the release of Anabaptist History and Theology comes to mind.[^7] Essentially, Weaver argued that Snyder had written a skewed historical survey of sixteenth-century Anabaptism that “[opened] the door to the accommodation of violence rather than seeing the rejection of violence as theologically normative.”[^8] Snyder, however, pointed out Weaver’s critique was historically insubstantial, since he failed to demonstrate from the sources how Snyder’s reading was skewed.[^9]

Personally, as someone who is both an active member of a faith community and a historian, I try as much as possible to separate out my historian and theologian hats. As a historian, my job is to be as faithful as I can to the source material—treatises, letters, court records—and to represent the views of the people I study as clearly and accurately as possible. It’s only after I’ve done that work that I can bring out my inner armchair theologian and start asking questions like “Is this a useful model for the Church today?” or “Does this Scriptural interpretation have the potential to lead to human flourishing?” The latter question gets at the heart of the moral/theological lens I’ve personally come to adopt when sifting through approaches to faith and Scriptural interpretation, but that’s highly individual and different scholars and people of faith often come in with different considerations.

BG: Your suggestion that our understanding of early modern Anabaptism has been enriched by dialogue with historians of various (or no) faith traditions is fascinating. It rings true to me for the modernist period as well. Non-Anabaptist scholars have done vital work to situate modern Anabaptist history within larger trends and contexts, often showing that Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and others are not really as unusual or disconnected from the world as we’d sometimes like to think, but thereby also helping to make true instances of uniqueness all the more significant. More broadly, the integration of modern Anabaptist history into Marxist scholarship, gender analysis, or the so-called social and cultural “turns,” to name only a few important examples, has been possible only because of broader developments emerging from many voices across the academy and beyond. Each of these intellectual and methodological movements has further allowed us to see Anabaptist history as multiple, contested, and endlessly interesting. 

I’d like to thank you, Christina, for initiating this conversation, which I think demonstrates how dialogue between early modernists and modernists—like exchange between disciplines or across religious lines—can illuminate anew topics we thought we knew well. I’d be excited to see more such discussions in the future, and of course I look forward to reading more of your ongoing work and to thinking about how it can inform modernists’ thinking and writing about Anabaptist history. 

CM: Thank you so much for your willingness to take part in this conversation! It’s so important to keep having these discussions, both as historians and as members of faith communities.

Christina Moss is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Waterloo studying Anabaptist prophets in sixteenth-century Strasbourg. Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

 

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: The Universal Boundaries of Silence and Voice

The Universal Boundaries of Silence and Voice

Panel 21: Saturday 1:30-3

“Expected Decorum/Silence and Speaking Out: Experiences from KMT”

By Esther Mugahachi, Kanisa la Mennonite Tanzania

  • Esther Mugahachi, director of Grace and Healing Ministry and a bishop’s wife, talked about her experiences in the Tanzania Mennonite Church and the struggle of Mennonite women in Tanzania to find a platform.
  • She identified several boundaries the Mennonite women in Tanzania face, both cultural (inside and outside the Church) and personal. Culturally, women are expected to be submissive and to keep quiet in order to protect their husband’s reputation and ministry. Personally, they often struggle with low self-esteem and discouragement.
  • She shared changes that have already happened in the Tanzania Mennonite Church: women (including Esther) have begun to receive theological education, to work with children and people with HIV/AIDS, and to offer pastoral Sister Care workshops to other women. She also shared changes that still need to happen: women need to be heard, not only seen, men need to learn gender sensitivity, and the Constitution of the Tanzania Mennonite Church needs to officially recognize women’s ordination.

 

“Empowering Girls and Women with Education”

By Pamela Obonde, Kenya Mennonite Church

  • Pamela Obonde, the coordinator of women for Kenya Mennonite Church, spoke about her own experience as a Mennonite woman in Kenya and the ways in which she is using her NGO skills to empower women in the Kenya Mennonite Church.
  • She spoke of the boundaries Kenyan Mennonite women face, including traditional cultural and biblical narrative of women’s inferiority, lack of access to education, limited economic opportunities, underrepresentation in church leadership, and a lack of older female mentors.
  • She also spoke of the work that needs to be done to transcend those boundaries, work she has already begun to do: training workshops to teach women their constitutional rights, workshops to train women for participation in the Church, and engagement with the scriptural texts that have been used to subdue women. She also spoke of the comprehensive educational efforts she has begun, through which women learn literacy, entrepreneurial skills, and their inherent worth and dignity.

 

“Ages and Ages Hence: A Conservative Mennonite Woman’s Hidden Desire for Education”

By Hope Nisly, Fresno Pacific University

  • Hope Nisly’s paper, delivered in her absence by Anne Hostetler of Goshen College, spoke of Nisly’s mother Edith Swartzendruber Nisly, the education she received as part of her conservative Mennonite community, and the further education she wished she could have received.
  • Edith’s community decided that she had to stop high school after grade nine. Ultimately, Edith remained within her community, but she eventually admitted to her children that she wished she could have gone on to college and studied mathematics. In her later life, this wish manifested as a recurring dream, in which Edith began college as a senior and was always pleased to finally attend.
  • Nisly notes that stories of women who leave to pursue new opportunities are told, but those of women like Edith, who chose to stay but the lost opportunities, come to light more rarely.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

“Overcoming Barriers and Building Empowerment: Stories of Anabaptist Women in India” by Cynthia Peacock

Cynthia Peacock, Banquet.jpg

Cynthia Peacock, the second keynote speaker at Crossing the Line, gave a warmly received talk on the achievements and challenges of Anabaptist women in India. Cynthia spoke from her decades of ministry experience in India, first with Mennonite Central Committee in India and then with the Mennonite World Conference. She began her talk by describing a challenge faced during her work: how could she, and the women she worked with, build bridges across the boundaries they encountered?

She shared stories of two women in India who served as role models early in her work. The first, Pandita Ramabai, was a high-caste Hindu woman who converted to Christianity and became a Bible translator and worked to uplift women of lower caste. The second, Mother Teresa, was someone Cynthia worked with personally, as part of her work with MCC in Calcutta. Cynthia shared stories of how Mother Teresa fearlessly overcame boundaries and asked government officials for support of her relief work.

Cynthia then went on to tell stories of some of the setbacks she and other Indian Anabaptist women encountered as they tried to take on more active roles in their churches and denominational structures. For example, she and a group of women spent three years working on a constitution for an independent women’s group within the Anabaptist church hierarchy in India. They had received some support from male church leaders, but when the leadership changed they were completely unsupportive of the endeavor, and even physically destroyed the copy of the constitution the women had brought to the meeting.

She also spoke of her efforts to provide Anabaptist women in India with theological training. These efforts did not always have the full support of male church leaders. In one instance, Cynthia and other women tried to organize a women’s conference, and the male official in charge of a final logistical detail failed to fulfill his responsibilities, which caused the conference to be postponed indefinitely.

In addition to stories of setbacks, she told of women’s successes as they played more active roles in churches. Cynthia’s own church grew from a five-member house church to a much larger church with a Sunday School serving over a hundred children, in large part because the women of the congregation were free to use all their gifts in service of the church. The women in her church organize programs, preach, lead worship, and have an important voice in matters of church governance.

She ended by sharing how she had overcome barriers in her own life. God’s help, and the help of supportive friends, have strengthened and empowered her through the difficulties she has faced over the course of her own life. With God’s help, she overcame fear and shyness and began to share her story as she ministered to other women. She gave glory to God for all that has happened in her life. Indeed, she concluded, John 5:5 and Philippians 4:13 have proved true in her life. Apart from God, she could do nothing, but she can do all things through Him who strengthens her.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Mathilde Monge’s Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694: A Review

In the historiography of early modern Anabaptism, the imperial city of Cologne and its surrounding areas have long been understudied. The multivolume Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer  series, a valuable repository of reprinted primary sources on sixteenth-century Anabaptist topics, contains no volumes on Cologne, and the 2007 Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 included only four references to Cologne, slight attention compared to that paid to nearby Amsterdam or Strasbourg.1 Sigrun Haude’s In the Shadow of Savage Wolves contains a chapter on the Cologne authorities’ response to religious dissenters2  before and after the Anabaptist takeover of Münster, but much work remained to be done on the history of Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent communities in Cologne.3 Mathilde Monge’s 2015 monograph Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Community in Motion: The “Societies of Christian Brothers” in the Northern Rhineland: Julich, Berg, Cologne Circa 1530-1694), published in Geneva by Droz, goes a long way towards filling that lacuna.des-communautés-mouvantes

Monge’s book is wide in scope, both geographically and temporally. She looks not only at the city of Cologne and its territories, but also the adjacent duchies of Jülich (Juliers) and Berg, and her research covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than stopping in the mid to late 1500s. In fact, this wider geographical focus enables the longer time scale, since dissidents with Anabaptist leanings residing in Cologne proper had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the seventeenth century.4

The monograph is divided into eight chapters; Monge deals with accusations of heresy as a means of exclusion, the prosecution of heresy as a pastoral task, the practice of denunciation by heretics’ neighbors and associates, how the Christian Brothers fit into sixteenth-century Christianity, the local and international networks to which Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent persons in the Northern Rhineland belonged, the rituals and practices they used in worship, the ways in which they were integrated into the broader social fabric, and finally the groups’ eventual dissolution by the end of the seventeenth century.

Monge grapples, as all historians of early modern Anabaptism must, with the complications inherent in studying a religious group (or rather, groups) whose label was not freely chosen, but was rather imposed on them by governing authorities. Even sixteenth-century Christians who received baptism as adults did not self-identify as Anabaptists—the subjects of Monge’s study simply referred to themselves as Christian brothers and sisters—and a far larger number of Christians questioned the practice of infant baptism, even if they did not go so far as to undergo believers’ baptism themselves, or even refuse to baptize their children. The question of identifying which sixteenth-century Christians were “truly Anabaptist” is thus fraught with difficulty, and Monge sidesteps it altogether. She treats Anabaptism in early modern Cologne not as a religious group with clearly defined boundaries and membership requirements, but rather as a relational phenomenon; those designated Anabaptist received their label as a result of their relationships with the governing authorities and with other heretics. 5

While Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent groups in the early modern Northern Rhineland did not have a single uniform theology and practice, Monge nevertheless uncovers several recurring themes in inquisitorial records: refutation of infant baptism (this rejection, Monge argues, was of greater importance to the Cologne authorities than the act of re-baptism itself), rejection of Catholic sacraments (with the exception of modified forms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and belief in a Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology among them.6 Monge’s work on the Societies of Christian Brothers of the Northern Rhineland is an important addition to the historiography of sixteenth-century Anabaptisms and other non-Magisterial Protestantisms, and I can only hope that an English translation, which would make it accessible to a greater number of North American undergraduates, will be forthcoming.

Footnotes:


  1. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), passim. 
  2.  In the Catholic imperial city, this was a label that encompassed not only Anabaptists but also Lutherans and Sacramentarians as well. 
  3. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s (Boston: Humanities Press, 2000), 39-69. 
  4. Mathilde Monge, Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Geneva: Droz, 2015), 48; 223. 
  5. Monge, 7. Melchior Hoffman taught that Christ had not received his human flesh from Mary (since her flesh, like all human flesh, was corrupted by sin), but rather brought his own flesh from heaven. For more information on Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology, see Sjouke Voolstra, Het woord is vlees geworden : de Melchioritisch-Menniste incarnatieleer (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1982.) 
  6. Monge, 112; 115; 120. 

“They Hear and Believe [Her] As They Do God”: Barbara Rebstock and the Strasbourg Melchiorites

In April 1534, Strasbourg’s Wiedertaüferherren, a committee of magistrates charged with investigating the city’s Anabaptists, questioned and ultimately expelled the Flemish Anabaptist Franz von Hazebrouck. Von Hazebrouck revealed that, while in Strasbourg, he had stayed in the home of a pious woman; in fact, this woman had drawn him to the city in the first place. Rumours of her had reached von Hazebrouck’s home in the Low Countries. She was a prophetess and was even said to work miracles, and he travelled to Strasbourg to meet her for himself. The woman in question was Barbara Rebstock, the wife of the weaver Hans Rebstock and a prominent figure among the followers of Melchior Hoffman who lived in Strasbourg (on the Kalbsgasse, known today as Rue des Veaux). 1

Kalbsgasse

The street in Strasbourg where Barbara Rebstock once lived,  as seen today via Google Street View.

Unfortunately, we know far less about Barbara Rebstock’s life, ministry, and prophetic utterances than we might wish to. Unlike her counterpart Ursula Jost, another prominent Melchiorite prophetess (and, along with her husband Lienhard, the subject of my own doctoral dissertation), Rebstock did not leave behind a corpus of prophetic writings. The records that do survive, however, most of which are gathered in the four volume Alsace subseries of the Quellen zur Geschichte der Taüfer, suggest that Rebstock filled a highly influential leadership role among the Strasbourg Melchiorites. In 1533, when the disgraced Anabaptist Claus Frey left his wife and declared Elisabeth Pfersfelder to be his true spiritual spouse, Rebstock (along with Melchior Hoffman and Veltin Dufft, another Melchiorite leader) chastised him and condemned his infidelity and bigamy.2 In June 1533, while discussing possible sanctions against the recently imprisoned Hoffman and his followers, the Strasbourg city council noted that Rebstock led an Anabaptist meeting in the city, and, as Lois Barrett notes in her chapter on the Strasbourg prophetesses in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, Barbara was even called an “elder in Israel.”3

Perhaps the clearest evidence of Rebstock’s influence in Melchiorite circles come from the writings of the Dutch Anabaptist David Joris. After the fall of Münster, the Melchiorites were in disarray and, since Hoffman’s imprisonment prevented him from actively leading the far-flung Melchiorite groups, a series of men attempted to take on the mantle of leadership in his stead. Joris arrived in Strasbourg in 1538 and met with a group of local Melchiorites, including Barbara Rebstock, Lienhard Jost, Peter Tasch, and Johan Eisenburg, in an attempt to convince them to accept his leadership. Joris’ efforts were unsuccessful, in large part due to Rebstock’s intervention. For most of the debate, she seems to have merely listened to the men, but when she did speak the Strasbourg Melchiorites paid attention. In the middle of the debate, she asked for permission to speak, since she felt compelled by the Spirit to voice a word of caution; “some who are here desire to pluck the fruits of our tree before they are ripe,” she warned, “therefore the Lord warns us that no one speak further, for they will account for it.”4 Joris rebuked her and argued that she had not properly understood his message, and the Strasbourg Melchiorites immediately came to Rebstock’s defense, praising her piety and ability to hear from God.5 The conversation stalled, and ultimately Joris’ overtures toward the Strasbourg Melchiorites did not produce the result he desired. In the introduction to his account of the disputation, Joris noted, somewhat bitterly, that the Strasbourg Melchiorites listened to the words and prophecies of Barbara Rebstock “as they do God,” possibly an exaggeration but nevertheless a testament to her influence.6

Rebstock’s visions and prophecies must have been numerous, but very few of them have survived. When the Strasbourg city council questioned her in 1534, she mentioned recurring visions of cataclysmic weather involving large amounts of snow and rain.7 Indeed, cataclysm and impending judgment appear to have been prominent themes in her visions—a 1537 collection of several visions by Strasbourg Melchiorites included Rebstock’s prophecy that, if Strasbourg did not better itself, it would be reduced once again to a village.8 The fullest account of visions possibly by Rebstock occurs in Obbe Phillips’ Confession, an account of his experiences as an Anabaptist written shortly before 1560, after his recantation. Phillips’ account describes the rise of the prophetesses Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock in Strasbourg, who “dealt with many remarkable visions…and could predict what deception would arise.”9 He also described a few visions by one of the two prophetesses: a vision of a swan swimming in a river, which was interpreted to legitimize Melchior Hoffman’s identification with Elijah, one of the two witnesses of Revelation, and a vision of a youth serving a chalice to an assembly of Melchiorites, which was interpreted as evidence that Cornelis Poldermann was Enoch, the second witness of Revelation.10 However, there are inconsistencies in Phillips’ account that cast some doubt on this attribution. He also attributes another vision to the same prophetess, a vision of Melchior Hoffman’s severed head on the Strasbourg wall, when in fact this was one of Lienhard Jost’s visions from the 1532 Deventer edition of Lienhard and Ursula’s prophecies.11

Historians of early Anabaptism have repeatedly noted the expanded role of women in Melchiorite circumstances, which was in many ways a remarkable phenomenon. Hoffman enthusiastically defended the ability of women as well as men to hear from God, and pointed out that there was a long and storied history of biblical women filling prophetic roles.12 The surviving details of Rebstock’s life, while scant, point to the importance of her role. However, they also showcase its limitations. Whether the visions Obbe Phillips recounted were Barbara Rebstock’s or not, they illustrate one of the central functions of the Melchiorite prophets: legitimizing Hoffman’s own apostolic role (and, to some extent, that of his associate Poldermann). Ultimately, it was Hoffman and other male apostles who decided which prophets, male or female, had truly heard from God.

 

Footnotes:


  1. Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 8. Elsass II. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1533-1535 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1960), 300. 
  2. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 13. 
  3. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 110; Lois Y. Barrett, “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 282. 
  4. David Joris, “The Strasbourg Disputation, 1538” in The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, translated and edited by Gary Waite (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1994), 198. 
  5. Joris, 198-199. 
  6. Joris, 185. 
  7. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II¸ 304. 
  8. Marc Lienhard, Stephen F. Nelson, and Hans Georg Rott (eds.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 15. Elsass III. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1536-1542 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1986), 111. 
  9. Obbe Phillips, “A Confession” in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 211. 
  10. Phillips, 212. 
  11. Phillips, 212. 
  12. Melchior Hoffman, introduction to Ursula Jost, Eyn Wore Prophettin zu disser Letzsten Zeitt, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fols. F 4 r-v.