Sexual Violence in the Deep Anabaptist Past

This post includes descriptions of sexual violence.

AH Post_102617

“An excerpt from the Zurich marriage court scribe’s transcription of Verena Tanner’s testimony, presented on October 9, 1630. StAZH, E I 7.5, #95.”

Verena Tanner and Anna Nägeli met Jakob Zehnder during separate visits to his home in early 1630. Both women were active in Anabaptist communities in the territory governed by the city republic of Zurich, Nägeli residing near the town of Hirzel where the family of Hans Landis, the last Swiss Anabaptist to be killed by Zurich’s city council, had a farm. They had traveled for some distance around or across Lake Zurich to Zehnder’s home in the settlement of Waltenstein, near Winterthur, as patients seeking medical treatment for illness.

Zehnder, like a significant number of fellow Swiss Anabaptist doctors, barber surgeons, and midwives, was a respected medical practitioner, who viewed the practice of medicine as a “special burden and gift of God,” a means to live out a divine call to service.1 Zehnder’s reputation, apparently well-established among local Anabaptists, surpassed the boundaries of his nonconformist religious community. The authorities’ investigation into his healing practices revealed nothing but dedicated and principled competence. In 1634, for example, the local Reformed minister testified that,

[o]n different occasions, [he] had seen Zehnder linked with very evil harm, but [Zehnder] had used nothing other than appropriate natural remedies, and he generally admonishes his patients earnestly [that] they should fervently ask and call on the loving God [that] he might wish to make the medicine successful, so that it might function and they might return to their previous health, for without God’s blessing, the external remedy is futile and for nothing. Subsequently, they inspected his printed and written books, herbs, spices, oils, etc., which were great in number, but found no spells, crucifix, characters, or any other similar superstitious things and [Zehnder] had vigorously asserted from his heart that he always [held that] all consecrations, witchcraft, dark magic, etc., things which were highly forbidden in God’s word, were an enemy, and indicated further [that] it was indeed his custom that he administers all remedies in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If he failed in this or engaged in idolatry, it was an unconscious sin of his, for he attributes no power to words, but all effects to the love of God. If one asks if he avoids these forbidden arts in localities in Your Graces’ possession, in St. Gall, in the Netherlands, etc., where he sends remedies at his own cost, nothing of the kind is found.[^2]

Yet, contrary to the pastor’s claims, the way that Zehnder practiced medicine was not benign, at least not for women. In October 1630, the doctor found himself jailed in the Wellenberg tower by order of Zurich’s council, on the evidence of testimony provided to the city’s marriage court by Nägeli and Tanner.2 They alleged that Zehnder had sexually harassed and assaulted them, respectively, in his house. Nägeli reported that Zehnder had taken advantage of his proximity to her as he applied a remedy to her diseased finger in order to pressure her to marry him. Initially attracted by this proposal because of Zehnder’s standing, means, and her own desire to be married, Nägeli accepted a gift from him. However, she soon became suspicious of Zehnder. On numerous occasions, he tried to convince her to sleep with him “as if she were his wife,” even though she had not exchanged vows with him. She verbally repelled him, accusing him of being afflicted with the vice of lust. Zehnder responded by dismissing these accusations as “worldly” slander, insisting that God protected his people from the work of the devil. Nägeli was unmoved, eventually returning the money Zehnder had given her after hearing that he had begun a sexual relationship with a woman in a nearby village and engaged in other abusive behavior.

The details of Verena Tanner’s earlier interaction with Zehnder shed light on what had frightened Nägeli. One evening a few months before, in the doctor’s home, Zehnder had subjected Tanner, who was suffering from a “painful illness,” to similar appeals to marry him. He told her that God had informed him directly that she had been sent to him as a spouse and twice spoke a marital vow aloud, which Tanner did not reciprocate. Later in the evening, Zehnder extinguished the light, approached Tanner uninvited, threw her on a bed, and raped her. She experienced physical and psychological pain, motivated in part by her uncertainty over whether Zehnder would fulfill his marriage vow. In the morning, Zehnder forced Tanner into further sex acts, which he now claimed had medicinal benefits, and insisted that she remain silent about what had happened. When Tanner returned to Zehnder’s home three weeks later, he attempted to justify his actions by insisting that the two were now married and that she held high esteem among God’s people. This manipulation did not convince Tanner to pursue a relationship with the doctor, who redirected his attention towards Nägeli.

Zehnder appears to have avoided serious sanctions for these offenses. As a result of his identity as an Anabaptist, Zehnder’s activities were subject to intense scrutiny by Zurich’s government over the course of his adult life. The documentary evidence that resulted suggests that the doctor had a track record of abusive behavior towards women. In 1618, for example, a case against Zehnder presented to the marriage court after the death of his first wife featured accusations by a female patient against the doctor quite similar to those presented by Nägeli. Yet, when Zurich’s authorities punished Zehnder—and they did so on a number of occasions, usually through fines and property confiscation that threatened to leave him and his family in ruin—it was on account of his withdrawal from the common civic and religious life of the Reformed parish, not his sexual crimes. Even then, Zehnder was often protected from the consequences of his religious nonconformity by local officials and neighbors who valued his medical skills. In the case described here, Zehnder accepted the content of Tanner’s and Nägeli’s accusations. Yet, although the terms of the punishment meted out against him are not extant, we know he was free again soon thereafter.

The reaction of the region’s Anabaptist community is more difficult to ascertain. Nägeli reported that, after initially encouraging her to show interest in Zehnder’s proposal, the “brethren” had counseled her against betrothal. Anabaptist leaders in the southwest of Zurich’s territory must have harbored suspicions about Zehnder despite the geographic distance that separated them from him. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence suggests that he maintained his place among the community’s membership. For example, he kept in close communication with a regional Anabaptist leader into the early 1640s. Various factors may have allowed this. Firstly, the exigencies of survival in a hostile social and political environment meant that Anabaptists were forced to rely on the scarce human resources (such as medical practitioners) available to them in networks of affinity. Secondly, the sparseness of the Anabaptist population in the area where the doctor lived suggests that the communal structures within which discipline might have been imposed on Zehnder were weak or absent. Finally, imbalances of power within the community based on the involved parties’ gender and professional status likely affected processes of discipline among Anabaptists, as they did in so many contemporary cases adjudicated by the city’s secular court.3 Whatever the reasons, local Anabaptists appear to have failed to ban Zehnder from their midst, as they did with other sexual offenders connected to their communities.4

As I write, tens of thousands of women are sharing stories online of their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault under the #metoo hashtag. For a long time, but especially in the past few years, women have revealed the extent of trauma wrought by sexual violence perpetrated by men within the church and in society more broadly. So, perhaps surprise will not accompany feelings of sadness and anger provoked by this account of what Jakob Zehnder did to Verena Tanner and Anna Nägeli and his avoidance of meaningful sanctions. Still, since the deeper Anabaptist past often serves as a well for ideas and stories that shape contemporary Anabaptist traditions, today it seems fitting to lift this story out for consideration. Two Anabaptist women, victims of a man who exercised authority within their religious community, courageously took the opportunity provided to them by a secular court to denounce their perpetrator and defend their sexual integrity.5 The content of the account narrated here relies largely on the details they decided to share, the framing they selected to recount their experiences. As a result, we know that it happened to them too.


  1. For more on this healing and medical culture among Swiss Anabaptists, see Hanspeter Jecker, “Im Spannungsfeld von Separation, Partizipation und Kooperation: Wie täuferische Wundärzte, Hebammen und Arzneyer das ‘Wohl der Stadt’ suchten,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 21-33. 
  2. The following account is based largely on Nägeli’s and Tanner’s testimonies, which are recorded in Staatsarchiv Zürich (StAZH), E I 7.5, #95. 
  3. For more on the way gender shaped prosecutions of sexual crime in Zurich, and early modern Europe more generally, see Francisca Loetz, A New Approach to the History of Violence: ‘Sexual Assault’ and ‘Sexual Abuse’ in Europe, 1500-1800, trans. Rosemary Selle (Leiden: Brill, 2015), especially 25-160. 
  4. For more on seventeenth-century Swiss Anabaptist practices of communal discipline, especially in cases of sexual offenses, see my “‘Ihr hand dergleichen Leuht auch under Euch’: Gemeindedisziplin unter Zürcher Täufern im siebzehnten Jahrhundert,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 34-46. 
  5. In an early modern European context, a single woman’s sexual integrity was a precondition for full participation in society, impacting her marriage prospects and family’s social standing. Tanner did later marry, as documented in records from 1640 detailing the confiscation of her and her husband Uli Öttiker’s property by Zurich’s authorities. StAZH F III 36b, 20. 

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: European Anabaptist Women Make Their Mark and Gender Identities and Leadership

EMU Campus

“Crossing the Line; Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” was hosted by Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

European Anabaptist Women Make their Mark

Panel 8: Friday 10:30-noon

“The Role of the Prophetess: An Opportunity to Cross Boundaries?”

By Christina Moss, University of Waterloo

  • In the first paper for the European panel, Christina Moss presented work from her ongoing dissertation, entitled “‘Your Sons and Daughters Shall Prophesy’: Visions, Apocalypticism, and Gender Among the Strasbourg Prophets, 1524-1539.”
  • Moss focused on the early female Anabaptist prophets Barbara Rebstock and Ursula Jost, emphasizing their prominent role in Reformation-era Strasbourg, including their influence on the leader Melchior Hoffman.
  • While radicals like Melchior Hoffman scoured scripture to find justification for supporting female preachers, detractors such as David Joris wrote polemics against such gender non-conformity, charging that in Strasbourg, “They hear and believe [Barbara Rebstock] as they do God.”

“Austrian Anabaptist Women of Status: The Case of Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider’s Family, 1527-1550,”

By Linda Huebert Hecht, Waterloo, ON and Hanns-Paul Ties, Bozen, Italy

  • Historian Linda Huebert Hecht—whom readers may know as co-editor of Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers—presented on work that she has been conducting with Hanns-Paul Ties, a doctoral candidate in sixteenth-century art history at the University of Basel.
  • Hecht began her presentation by asking what influence the Renaissance may have had on the Radical Reformation. She then revealed that the most prominent artist of the period in Tyrol, now in southwestern Austria, was an Anabaptist named Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider, famous for frescos, oil paintings, and ceramics.
  • By painstaking examination of court records, Hecht and Ties have followed the lives of six women associated with Riemenschneider, three of whom were likely Anabaptists. Multiple individuals in the household faced arrest (due to a denunciation by their maid), but were not immediately tortured, since their judge had himself been influenced by a radical preacher.

“‘By the Hand of a Woman’: Antje Brons and the Origins of Mennonite History Writing,”

By Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My presentation drew on research for my recently published book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, focusing particularly on the nineteenth-century German Mennonite historian, Antje Brons.
  • Brons was likely the most widely-read Mennonite woman of the first four hundred years of Anabaptist history, and during her day she was widely recognized as the author of the first comprehensive history of the Mennonite church, published in 1884.
  • Tracing the reception of Brons’ book in Germany and the United States, I argued that her work was successful not in spite of her gender, but rather because she successfully aligned her project with contemporary notions of German nationalism and gender propriety.
Rachel Goossen, Panel 13

Rachel Goossen presenting at “Crossing the Line.”

Gender Identities and Leadership

Panel 13: Friday 1:30-3:00pm

“Finding a Home: LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders and Denominational History,”

By Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University

  • This panel on LGBTQ identities opened with a paper from Rachel Waltner Goossen about queer women in church leadership positions. She interviewed women who have either remained Mennonite, switched denominations, or layered affiliations since coming out.
  • Goossen conceived of this project while research the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church, which revealed a substantial exodus of talented female leaders to other denominations. She spoke of this as a “legacy of loss” for Mennonites.
  • Queer interviewees and conversation partners emphasized their calling to serve as well as their love of Anabaptist communities, while also highlighting the institutional and interpersonal violence they experienced because of their sexual orientation.

“Wisdom on the Edges: Hearing the Voices of LGBTQ Women in Mennonite Church Canada,”

By Irma Fast Dueck, Canadian Mennonite University

  • Speaking from a Canadian perspective, Irma Fast Dueck raised similar themes in her discussion of a listening tour conducted with Darryl Neustaedter Barg among LGBTQ individuals affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada.
  • Dueck showed clips from these interviews, which were filmed and edited to create a 30-minute video, entitled Listening Church, intended for use in adult Mennonite Sunday School classes.
  • Interviewees responded to three questions: 1) What is your experience in the church? 2) Why is the church important to you? And 3) What wisdom do you have for the church’s ongoing discernment process? The film is moving – please watch it!

“‘Love to All’: Bayard Rustin’s Effect on Attitudes toward LGBTQ Issues in South-Central Kansas Mennonites,”

By Melanie Zuercher, Bethel College

  • Opening with the well-known story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Bethel and Goshen Colleges in 1960, Melanie Zuercher revealed that Bayard Rustin traveled among Kansas Mennonites a decade earlier.
  • Rustin was black, gay, and Quaker, and he was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although he faced discrimination for both his race and sexual orientation, Rustin credited his Quaker background as the source of his activism.  
  • Zuercher’s research suggests that although Rustin’s 1950 visit to Bethel College and area churches did not predispose local Mennonites to be more favorable toward queer identities, it did build bridges to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

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. 

Perception, Reality, and Anabaptist-Muslim Solidarity

In a 2016 multinational survey Ipsos MORI, a United Kingdom and Ireland-based market research company, examined the disconnect between perception and reality in forty different countries in six different continents. The survey asked respondents to estimate figures such as the percentage of their nation’s inhabitants who report being happy, the percentage of homeowners, the percentage of their GDP that the country spends on health, and more.1 One particular aspect of the survey caught the attention of the Guardian: the respondents’ perception of the percentage of Muslims in their country. The respondents greatly overestimated how many Muslims lived in their country; European respondents were often off by a factor of as much as 4 (France’s average guess was 31%, compared to the actual figure of 7.5%), while North American respondents’ guesses were even further from reality (in the U.S., where Muslims represent 1% of the population, the average guess was 17%).2 These inflated perceptions of the size of the Muslim population in Western countries likely both fuel and are fueled by alarmism surrounding the so-called “Muslim takeover” of the West, though the actual statistics lend no credence to the narrative of a takeover.graphic-for-anabaptist-historians-article

As a historian of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, the idea of a misunderstood and oft-maligned religious minority, whose numbers are thought be much larger than they actually are and whose rise is thought to pose a demographic threat, is very familiar to me. It is far more difficult to make an exact demographic breakdown of Europe in the sixteenth century than in the present day. Moreover, religious identification is further complicated by the fact that Anabaptists operated largely underground in the sixteenth century, and the term Anabaptist itself was used primarily as an epithet rather than a form of religious self-identification. Nevertheless, while Anabaptists formed significant clusters in several regions, their overall numbers in German and Dutch-speaking lands (where the movement primarily took root) were undoubtedly relatively small. In his 1972 monograph Anabaptism: A Social History, Claus-Peter Clasen analyzed the numbers of reported Anabaptists in early modern Switzerland, Austria, and South and Central Germany, and concluded that they were numerically insignificant; even in the city of Ausgburg, which had the largest Anabaptist congregation in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s, the Anabaptists comprised only 1.2% of the city’s population.3 On the basis of his quantitative analysis, Clasen concluded that “the Anabaptist movement was so insignificant that it is misleading to use the term Reformation at all” and that “[the Anabaptist movement] cannot be called more than a minor episode in the history of sixteenth-century German society.”4

Clasen’s analysis drew criticism from other Reformation scholars. The accuracy of his numbers is difficult to gauge, and he omitted the Netherlands entirely from his quantitative analysis, despite the presence of a vibrant Anabaptist movement in the region. However, regardless of the accuracy of his numbers, Clasen forgot to account for the fact that the historical significance of religious minority groups rests less on their actual numbers than on their perceived numbers and the threat their contemporaries believe them to pose. As Sigrun Haude persuasively argued in In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s, “numbers are only part of the story…[Anabaptists] had a bearing on the era through their sheer existence and perceived menace.”5 The numerous anti-Anabaptist edicts issued at both the imperial and the municipal level from the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in 1525 and throughout the sixteenth century attest to how seriously Protestant and Catholic authorities took the threat of Anabaptist growth.

Other parallels between the experience of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and twenty-first century Muslims in the West come to mind. Both groups are and were far from ideologically homogeneous, yet members of both groups are and were frequently conflated with their most radical and dangerous co-religionists. Critics such as Lambertus Hortensius, whose Tumultus Anabaptistae (Anabaptist Tumults) circulated in various Latin, Dutch, and French editions well into the seventeenth century, printed and disseminated lurid tales of Münsterite violence and sexual excess long after Anabaptist groups with revolutionary impulses had largely disappeared.6 Then as now, feared religious minorities faced the difficult challenge of attempting to assimilate while still staying as true as possible to their religious values, even as the general public often made false assumptions about these values.

It is a lonely and at times dangerous path to be a visible part of a religious minority that members of the public and even lawmakers perceive as a threat to the status quo. The many stories of early modern Anabaptist martyrs attest to this, as do examples of modern Islamophobic laws and acts of violence. As people who are intimately acquainted with their religious forebears’ history of persecution and marginalization, modern-day Western Anabaptists are in a unique position to empathize and stand in solidarity with other religious minorities as they face public suspicion and hostile political administrations. This is already happening in many ways, as the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States and Canada works to welcome Syrian refugees in partnership with local Mennonite congregations and even Hutterite colonies.7 2017, with the new incoming administration in the United States, the upcoming federal elections in Germany and France, and a contentious Conservative leadership race underway in Canada, poses new challenges for Muslims and other religious minorities in the West. Particularly in light of the events of the last week, including Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the tragic shooting at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec by far-right nationalist Alexandre Bissonette, solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities is needed more than ever. It is my hope that more and more Anabaptists will commit to standing in the gap and becoming the sorts of allies their forebears might have wished for.

 

Image Source:

Duncan, Pamela. “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows.” Theguardian.com.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows (Accessed 10 January 2017)

 

Footnotes:


  1. Ipsos MORI, “Perceptions Are Not Reality: What the World Gets Wrong,” Ipsos-mori.com, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3817/Perceptions-are-not-reality-what-the-world-gets-wrong.aspx, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  2. Ipsos MORI; Pamela Duncan, “Europeans Greatly Overestimate Muslim Population, Poll Shows,” Theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2016/dec/13/europeans-massively-overestimate-muslim-population-poll-shows, accessed 10 January 2017. 
  3. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 27. 
  4. Clasen, 29; 428. 
  5. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation During the 1530s (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 150. 
  6. See, inter alia, Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1548); Lambertus Hortensius, Oproeren der Wederdoperen: Geschiet tot Amsterdam, Munster, en in Groeningerlandt (Amsterdam: Samuel Imbrechts, 1660); Histoire des Anabaptistes: Contenant Leur Doctrine, Les Diverses Opinions qui les divisent en plusieurs Sectes, les Troubles qu’ils ont causez et enfin tout ce qui s’est passé de plus considérable à leur égard, depuis l’an 1521 jusques à present (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702). 
  7. Meghan Mast, “Hutterite Help: A Refugee Sponsorship Story,” MCCCanada.ca, https://mcccanada.ca/stories/hutterite-help-refugee-sponsorship-story, accessed 17 January 2017.