Medieval and Early Modern Echoes in QAnon: A Conversation with Gary Waite

Over the course of his career, Gary Waite has published widely on Dutch Anabaptism, witchcraft, Jews and Muslims in Early Modern Europe and taught courses on the same at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. In March, I had a conversation with him, excerpted below, about how he sees these topics reflected in the modern QAnon movement.

On Anti-Semitism in Premodern Europe and in QAnon

GW: As an historian of anti-Semitism and its development, I see all of these things interconnecting in QAnon. It’s not that the members of QAnon or whoever is the leader of QAnon is aware of all of these predecessors, but they’re clearly continuing to shape how these people are thinking. And some of the some of the stuff in the Q Anon is hundreds of years old and goes back to the medieval anti-Semitic tropes of a vast global conspiracy of Jews plotting the overthrow of Christendom.

CM: Now with space Laser Tech.

GW: Now with space lasers and drinking the blood of children. They’ve just made it a more modern version with this extract from children’s blood that the celebrities of Hollywood, i.e., the Jewish conspiracy group, are supposedly consuming to extend their lives.1 Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian infants starting in the twelfth century in England and spreading from there to the continent and continuing on into the twentieth century. In case after case after case, a Christian child may go missing or someone says a child’s gone missing, it may not actually be a real child, and the Jews are rounded up and tortured into confessing that they have kidnapped his child, that they do this globally as an organized conspiracy against Christendom. They pick one place in Europe every year to kidnap a Christian child and that child stands in for Christ. And according to these Christians, that child represents Christ by virtue of its innocence, and therefore the Jews want to kill Christ over and over again. But they also want the blood of the infant for their various nefarious things, so they bleed it to ritually murder the child, and then they are almost always caught afterwards. Even the use of the of the blood is very similar to what I see in the QAnon propaganda, that fear that children are being kidnapped for their blood to extend the life of the drinker. It’s the same kind of argument made against Jews that they needed it to, not so much extend their life, but to remove the odor that they were apparently born with, to remove the horns that Jewish males were supposed to be born with and that sort of thing. Just absolutely bizarre beliefs that were taken seriously by Christians and led to the deaths of countless numbers of Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities. The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 was based largely on ritual murder accusations. The last known ritual murder accusation in Europe was in 1948 in Poland. So it even survived the Second World War and the Holocaust.2 So that’s just one strand.

How did that get to modern America to such an extent that parents, all these adults who joined QAnon think there’s a grand conspiracy against their children, even though the children aren’t disappearing in the numbers that are alleged? Well, it’s become part of—I won’t say subconscious, but I think it’s just wrapped up into the fabric of European/North American discourse and beliefs. It’s in fairy tales and it’s also there in a lot of Christian preachers who disseminate this kind of conspiratorial thinking. It’s kept alive in the propaganda of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century, in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still is a best seller in parts of the world. So all this stuff resides below the surface, all this anti-Semitism and all this conspiratorial thinking, and it just keeps popping up almost every generation we see a new variant, and this is just the latest one.

There’s also elements of racism in Q Anon. It arose when there was a black president in power and a lot of what’s been happening is a reaction against having a person of color in the highest office of the land. And of course—and this is one of the points I make in one of my books on Christian views of Jews and Muslims in the seventeenth century—one of the major determinants of how a population responds to others such as Jews or Muslims is the attitude and the statements made by those at the top, the political elite.3 And in the Dutch case, the Regents and magistrates of the realm said, “yeah, it’s okay to have Jews, they’re fine as long as they don’t cause any trouble, and we’ll start negotiating with Muslims” and they set a tone of acceptance of religious diversity, which included Mennonites and Catholics even to a point, and various others. Refugees started flooding into the Dutch Republic because of this and the magistrates said: “we will treat everyone equally, even though they are not all citizens, we will treat them as if they are.” And they said that about Jews. Jews could not be citizens, “but we will treat them as if they are,” and that really set a tone. So when I went through all of the propaganda and pamphlets and the news sheets and so on of the period, I found very little of the kind of anti-Semitism that you can see from the English side or the German side, and it’s the leadership at the top. And when you get a guy like Trump who believes in conspiracy theories, who’s got a racist, white supremacist streak through him, who loves to cater to the worst of American fears and anxieties, then of course you’re going to get all of these conspirators, white supremacists, racism suddenly coming back up to the surface where it had been suppressed beforehand. It’s people’s desire to know the future, to have someone to lead them in a way that they can feel confident in the future.

And the pandemic…Disease outbreaks almost invariably lead to targeting of others, typically the Jews. I just lectured this week on the Jews being targeted as responsible for disease outbreak in southern France in 1321, and the King of France used that to get money from the Jews. Then when the plague strikes in 1347, 1348, suddenly it’s the people who are saying the Jews are responsible and without any kind of organization they go to the Jewish communities and they burn them down. So this notion that others are to blame whenever there’s an epidemic of any kind is still with us, and I think that has really exacerbated everything. And it’s interesting, it’s nerve wracking to be an historian watching this stuff happening on the news every night. It is really, really strange. I like to study the past. I don’t want to live the same kind of stuff that I study though.

Anderson Cooper interviews a former QAnon supporter.
Image source: https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2021/01/30/anderson-cooper-former-qanon-supporter-special-report-sot-ac360-vpx.cnn

On QAnon and Early Modern Fears of the Devil and Witches

GW: I think Q Anon comes out of that particular form of American evangelicalism, which emphasizes the literal interpretation of prophecies and the Scriptures themselves, and especially the devil, or Satan…I know most modern people don’t believe the devil is real, but I think a lot of people still fear that there is this malign figure. And as Elaine Pagels wrote years ago in her book, The Origin of Satan, the devil was created by Christians in the way that we know him—there was Lucifer and Satan before in the Old Testament—but the devil that the Christians developed and that really became big in the later Middle Ages and in the early modern period is a creation of the need of Christians to target another group, the Jews, to prove to the Romans that it’s the Jews that deserve to be punished in AD 70 because of their father, the devil, and that Christians are distinct from it.4 And the devil plays that role. The devil allows one group to create a self identity that we are of the good, we are of God, you are of the devil. There seems to be a need for people to have these binary opposites so that we’re good and they’re evil, and so the groups that emphasize the reality of the devil—if you believe that the devil is real, as I said before, just about anything can be possible.

CM: And it allows you to say, if you have, you know family members or people you really love on the other side, it allows you to say “it’s not that they’re fundamentally evil. They’re taken over. It’s not them, it’s Satan.” And you need to try to rescue them.

GW: There were, even in the early modern period, as you know with the witch hunts, they identified two sets of victims of the devil—there were several, but two relating to witchcraft. One were witches who made a voluntary pact with the devil and therefore didn’t deserve any mercy. But there were those who were possessed by demons involuntarily, and therefore they were treated differently. So there were a lot of times when the jurists and the preachers and the medical personnel were trying to distinguish, is this person possessed by demons, and therefore we treat them with an exorcism? Or is this a person who’s made a pact with the devil? And we would like to think we don’t ask those questions anymore, but we do. In the Atlantic magazine just recently there was a long article on the rise of demonic possession and how the demand for exorcism in the United States is on the increase.5 And then this pandemic has simply escalated those anxieties that there is some malign thing out there that is causing this and we need to do something to protect ourselves and our children. And QAnon—every time I see all their signs saying that there are pedophiles who are drinking the blood of children I say here we go again, because in the witch hunts it was fears of what was happening to children, mysterious deaths of children, kidnapping of children, that led to parents and the authorities taking this very, very seriously, when otherwise they wouldn’t take these accusations seriously. I mean, these are learned people who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually came to believe that women were getting on broomsticks—I know this is part of the stereotype, but this is this is in court records and learned discourse—and flying to a distant Sabbath meeting (there’s the Jews again) to worship the devil and to cause harm to children.6 It is such a powerful force, this parental drive to protect children, that all you have to do is say “they are kidnapping your children, we need to do something and you can get people involved who would not normally believe this stuff because their children are at risk. You saw that with the ritual murder panics of the 1980s and 90s.7 It was like the witch hunts had come back, that there were these groups of Satan worshippers who were kidnapping children and ritually murdering them in front of other children and worshipping the devil. And you would say nobody would believe that, except dozens, hundreds of social workers, prosecutors, police, and so on did believe it. Because of the fear that this is involving children. So using leading questions they got children to answer in the right way that yes, they saw a child being ritually murdered and people were arrested and put on trial and jailed, including Canadians—Richard Klassen out in Saskatchewan about fifteen years ago won a wrongful prosecution suit against the government of Saskatchewan based on the testimony of children.8 And so when I look at that and then I look at the early modern witch hunts and the role of children in making confessions, it’s like we haven’t changed. The dynamic remains that if our children are threatened, it doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to the matter, we will go and defend them.

And in all the cases in the Satanic ritual abuse cases, in the investigation reports after the fact…they could not find any evidence that any of the children had actually gone missing. There’s no correspondence between missing children and the alleged events, no evidence that any children were being killed. And the same thing was happening in many cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My favourite example is the Spanish Inquisition’s one and only witch panic, started around 1610 when two of the three Spanish inquisitors got involved in listening to women who were saying that they had been to a witches’ Sabbath just across the border in France. And that snowballed as these two inquisitors took seriously the testimony not just of adults but increasingly of children. And they would interrogate the children in such a way, ask them leading questions. Of course the children are going to respond to that. And so they ended up with hundreds of children as part of this ongoing investigation, and everybody is concerned that their children are being taken to the witches’ Sabbath to be sacrificed to the devil. The third inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, joins them finally. This team was supposed to always be three inquisitors in a local investigation, and so he finally joins. At the start he was supporting it and then he began to rethink and said “wait a minute, what is the evidence here?” And the Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, emphasized hard evidence. If you’re going to convict someone of a crime like witchcraft, you need evidence. What kind of evidence do you have? A confession in your own words is it. Eyewitnesses? Well, the only eyewitnesses to someone going to a witches’ Sabbath would be somebody already at the witches Sabbath, therefore you’re a witch, therefore your testimony does not count. So there’s always a problem. So he said, “no, I’m going to conduct my own investigation.” He went back to the facts, he reinvestigated thousands of confessions and depositions, he went and he talked to all of the children, but without the leading questions, and he finally wrote up a report that he sent to the Suprema, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, saying “there’s not a single shred of evidence that there’s been any act of witchcraft or any abuse of children in all of this, I recommend we put a halt to it.” The Suprema agreed, and in 1614 it said release all the prisoners. There were about two thousand people waiting trial and burning on these charges and because this one guy had doubts about it and pushed against his fellows at great personal risk he saved them all.9 And that’s one of the things that I’m afraid has gone by the board with the whole fake news business and this whole not trusting experts and not trusting the media. How do you say “show us the evidence”? I’ve watched reporters asking QAnoners: “Where’s your evidence for all this?” Well, their answer is: “is there evidence that it’s not happening?” And this is how they work. So no, your belief in a conspiracy is not evidence, and yet, we’ve lost the ability to say we need hard facts, because facts are no longer taken at face value like they used to be just two years ago, four years ago, before Trump. So that’s a real problem.

On Connections Between QAnon, Apocalyptic Movements, and Early Anabaptism

GW: Another element [of QAnon] is this belief in prophecy. Q keeps making these prophecies as to when Trump will be revealed and there will be a great reckoning and each time it fails. As a scholar of sixteenth century Anabaptism that, of course, resonates with me because you’ve got all these Anabaptists who were caught up in this belief that Christ was coming any moment and they picked the dates and they set the location and they all waited and it didn’t happen. And so some of the members left—such seems to have happened with QAnon—and others remained and just revised the interpretations and the prophecies. And so these kinds of prophetic moments when you’ve got these expectations that build up and people devote themselves to it to such an extent, they can’t just walk away. It is very hard for someone who says “I believe in all this stuff: that Q is real, that Trump is the Messiah-President, that he’s going to be returned to power, and they invest in it so much that they go marching. They go to Congress, they invade the buildings, they do violence. And then to just say, “oh whoops, I was wrong . . . ”? The same thing happened with the Anabaptists. Psychologically it’s very difficult.

CM: I think there’s a real family relationship element to it as well. If you’ve torpedoed your marriage for this, or if your kids aren’t speaking to you anymore because of this, if it’s caused a real rift in your family, then that’s another dimension where it’s much too hard to say “I was wrong” and try to get back.

GW: That certainly happened with the Anabaptists. It divided families and you make these decisions to join and to follow, and then whoops, and you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost your livelihood, you’ve lost your property, you’re in jail or you’re running from the authorities. You see that for example in the group that was around David Koresh, the compound in Waco, Texas, there are still people who believe that he was the Messiah. And so one of my thoughts as I’m watching QAnon is I think we’re watching the rise of a new religious movement. It’s got all the same kinds of expectations and hopes and dreams, zeal, everything that you need and a Messiah-like figure and a Prophet who’s behind the scenes… So I’m expecting that Q will remain in some fashion as a new religious movement of some kind. The Americans are pretty good at creating these new religious movements. One of the examples that I use in teaching is the Great Disappointment in the 1840s in the States, with the Millerites. Miller was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could figure out precisely when Jesus was returning through close interpretation of Scripture. And so he got it down to a particular date and place and by the thousands the Millerites came out to watch for Jesus’ return. It didn’t happen. So many left, and Miller himself and others stayed and revised their interpretations. A lot of people were angry—if you look up the Great Disappointment, as this was called, you’ll see a lot of popular print stuff that was made satirizing these poor folk. Well, that Millerite movement is the foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.10 And David Koresh was a member of a branch group called the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. So even with all of the failed prophecies—and you could talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses prophecies here—people will continue to believe because, as you say, they’ve invested so much of their personal lives, so much of their identity in this group and in these beliefs. It’s very hard for people to walk away. So you’ve got the Great Disappointment in nineteenth century and then you have the David Koresh group. . . . The Mormons started as an end of the world group, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

CM: I find myself thinking a lot about the aftermath of Münster and how the Melchiorites disperse after that, and particularly thinking of the fairly large numbers who were successfully brought back into their regional churches in part due to, in the end, the concerted efforts of Tasch and Eisenberg, who had been Melchiorites and then decided to work somewhat covertly with the regional churches to facilitate this return. And of course, Lienhard Jost also then returns to the established church in Strasbourg. And I’m curious to know, when you study new religious movements, if you can think of other examples of this sort of successful reintegration and what some elements of that look like.

GW: Well, certainly it happened. It happened in in the Dutch side too. . . . You know this is one of the frustrations as historians working the Anabaptist field. We all know that so many people disappear from the record because they’re no longer part of the group. They’ve left it and therefore they’re not being arrested anymore, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t want to have brought them back into the courtroom just so I would have a record of their beliefs. Certainly in the Dutch scene David Joris played a major role in keeping some of the Münsterite Anabaptists within the movement, but he did so by moving them away from a sectarian or confessional identity and moving them towards spiritualism, which says religion is interior, the letter of Scripture isn’t as important as the spirit within, that sort of thing.11 But his movement was actually more long lived than we had thought even just a few years ago. There’s a new book out on the Reformation Movement in the region east of the Dutch border in Germany, where Joris was very active, and his name and his ideas are stamped throughout.12 And even with the Dutch Mennonites, who are Menno’s heirs, he kept fighting against this David Jorisism, the spiritualism, but he never succeeded, and so there’s an element of that that runs right through the Dutch Mennonites into the 17th century. There’s a sort of a two-word debate. For most people, I would say for most of these new religious movements, once there’s the crisis, once there’s the great disappointment, once there is the failure of prophecy, a lot of the followers sort of disappear from the record. We don’t know where they went. It’s those who remain within it and help shape it into something else that we know that they are there. How many of them go back to a mainstream church or two? I don’t really know.

Menno Simons worked diligently to bring these disillusioned Anabaptists into his orbit, and he succeeded. He and the other fellow preachers, Dirk Phillips, Adam Pastor and so on did get a lot of these people back into the Mennonite Church, which is the heir to the Anabaptists. But they didn’t succeed entirely. There are a lot of people who just abandon anything like Anabaptism. Ben Kaplan, for example, has shown that around 1600 in the Dutch Republic a large minority of people and in some places a majority people did not belong to any church.13 And I think this is part of this whole disillusioning experience of the real bloodshed and violence of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And not just the Anabaptist persecution and Anabaptist Münster, but also the Catholic versus Calvinist battles and the Civil War. And so there were a lot of people who just said “not joining any of them.” And this is noticed by observers who came to the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church is the public Church of the Realm, but not a formal state church. You don’t have to join it to be a citizen, to be a resident of the realm. The result is a lot of people decided not to. And so I think that there can be several different responses. Some people are successfully reintegrated into a more mainstream kind of church, a lot of people just drop away, and some people take an intentionally distinctive approach to religion. And in the Dutch Republic that was spiritualism, which really had a powerful impact on the mentality of people after the turmoil of the Reformation and Civil War.

CM: And even the more sectarian churches that do survive like the Mennonites, it’s a form of reintegration into society in a way to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the governing authorities rather than to view them as enemies to be overcome as soon as possible.

GW: Yeah, you need to make nice with the government and the Anabaptists found that a very difficult adjustment to make. And there’s always a sense that we are the persecuted people of God. It’s still a major force among some evangelical churches and other churches today. How do you know that you are God’s chosen people? Well, if you’re being persecuted, then that’s one of the signs as Jesus said. Problem is, if you’re not being persecuted, you have to find ways in which you can say that you are being persecuted. So saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas means we are being persecuted for faith—no you’re not!

The Mennonites did very well [in the Dutch Republic].14 You couldn’t be a Mennonite and be a citizen, and that’s okay. They didn’t mind that, they were happy to be an ignored minority. But they had all the economic rights and they could take on business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. I’ve seen some of the houses. Piet Visser has taken me on tours and it’s just incredible the wealth that these heirs of the Anabaptists achieved. They would join with the merchants of the East India Company, but their ships could not have cannons on them because they’re pacifists. But they would sail with the Dutch Reformed who had plenty of cannons on their ships. And some of them became fabulously wealthy. You’ve got artists galore, you’ve got writers of great fame in the Dutch Republic who are of this Mennonite heritage. By 1600 the Mennonites were a significant part of the population and really influencing things. Some cities, some towns in the Dutch Republic, in particular North Holland in the Waterland area are almost entirely Mennonites and the economic prosperity is just incredible. But that leads to the new problem. They then become the social equals of the elites. Why not just marry into the elites? Why not just join the elites? Why not just reconvert to the Reformed Church then you can have all the full formal memberships and citizenships and so on. And that’s what most of them did. So by 1700 the Mennonite population had really shrunk not by persecution, but by assimilation, by social, cultural, economic motivations that it’s actually nicer to just join with this side. So I imagine some of that will happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the QAnoners now that as far as I know all of their prophecies have failed. What are they gonna do next? Go back to your churches, I would think but I’m waiting to see is it going to continue? Are they going to start a separate or distinct quasi denomination or religion? I don’t know. This could be the beginnings of a new Mormonism or a new Seventh Day Adventism or something of that nature, that has elements of Christianity, but with this new Q conspiracy Donald Trump is Messiah thing.


1 Tarpley Hitt, “How QAnon Became Obsessed With ‘Adrenochrome,’ an Imaginary Drug Hollywood Is ‘Harvesting’ from Kids,” The Daily Beast, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-qanon-became-obsessed-with-adrenochrome-an-imaginary-drug-hollywood-is-harvesting-from-kids, 14 August 2020.

2 For more on ritual murder accusations, see Hannah Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).

3 Gary Waite, Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Discourse, From Religious Enemies to Allies and Friends (London: Routledge, 2018.)

4 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1996).

5 Mike Mariani, “American Exorcism,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/, accessed 21 April 2021.

6 For more on early modern witch hunts, see Gary Waite, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003); Gary Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

7 See Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1993).

8 Oliver Moore, “Klassen wins suit over malicious prosecution,” CBC News, 30 December 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/klassen-wins-suit-over-malicious-prosecution/article1170870/. The Supreme Court overturned this verdict in 2009. See The Canadian Press, “Crown not malicious in pressing Sask. abuse case: SCC,” CTV News, 6 November 2009, https://www.ctvnews.ca/crown-not-malicious-in-pressing-sask-abuse-case-scc-1.451422.

9 See Gustav Henningsen (Ed.), The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others on the Basque Witch Persecution (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

10 See David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

11 On David Joris, see Gary Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990); Gary Waite (Ed.), The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Second Edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

12 See Karin Förster, Das reformatorische Täufertum in Oldenburg und Umgebung (1535-1540): Unter des besonderen Berücksichtigung des Täufertheologen David Joris (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2019).

13 See Benjamin Kaplan, Reformation and the Practice of Toleration: Dutch Religious History in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

14 For more on Dutch Mennonite assimilation over time see Alastair Hamilton, Piet Visser, and Sjouke Voolstra (Eds.), From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).

Some Reflections on Early Anabaptists and the Creeds

This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.

Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3

The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.

The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.

The text of hymn 2 in the Ausbund, as printed in Lancaster in 1856 by Johann Baer and Sons.

Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8

The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.


1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.

3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.

4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.

5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.

6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.

7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.

8 Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC

Public Nudity and Prophecy in Early Anabaptism: The Cases of Lienhard Jost and the Naaktlopers

On the 10th of February, in 1535, the Melchiorite Anabaptist Hendrick Hendricks Snyder addressed a group of seven men and five women and prophesied to them of God’s impending wrath. Then he cast off first the weapons and then the very clothes he wore, and threw them into the fire.[1] The other men and women followed suit and burned all their clothing as well. The group then ran into the city, shouting “Woe, woe, woe! Divine wrath, divine wrath, divine wrath!” Unarmed and small in numbers, the naaktlopers or “naked walkers” were easily captured by the Netherlandish authorities. They refused clothing even as they were escorted to prison, citing their intention to proclaim the “naked truth.”[2] All the men involved in the incident, and some of the women, were sentenced to capital punishment as a result of their involvement, and the authorities in Amsterdam were motivated to enforce imperial edicts against Anabaptism more stringently than they had before.[3]

The naaktlopers’ demonstration provided ample fodder for polemicists who sought to warn their readers about the dangers and excesses of Anabaptism. A little more than a decade after the incident, in 1548, the Dutch humanist and Catholic priest Lambertus Hortensius published a scathing account of Anabaptism in the Low Countries. Hortensius’ account circulated in several editions well into the seventeenth century and in several countries. A Dutch translation appeared in 1667, and in 1702 a French adaptation was published. The Dutch and French editions came accompanied with a striking woodcut of the incident, intended to further shock the audience and convince them of Anabaptism’s ridiculousness, if not its nefariousness.

1702 woodcut
A woodcut featuring the naaktlopers from the 1702 French edition of Lambertus Hortensius’ anti-Anabaptist polemic, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=Ei-qGw_urRUC

For Hortensius and his translators, the naaktloper incident provided prime evidence of just how ludicrous Anabaptism was, and how deluded and unreasonable its followers were. Their descriptions of the event alternated between ridicule and pity for the persons involved. “Since these people were full of nothing but visions and each one considered himself a prophet, when the mood seized them, one could see them committing completely strange and ridiculous acts,” wrote Hortensius’ French translator. He went on to describe their decision to cast off their clothes and walk around Amsterdam naked as “one of the most ridiculous [ideas] that could befall the imagination.”[4] For these early modern polemicists, the naaktlopers, with their immoderate excess and their willingness to perform every strange idea that came into their heads, perfectly encapsulated the failings of Anabaptism. More recent histories of Anabaptism have largely recounted the story of the naaktlopers as part of the general uproar surrounding the establishment of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster, but have largely treated the public nudity aspect of the story as a curious but isolated incident.

The naaktlopers, however, were not entirely unique among their coreligionists. The third chapter of Strasbourg prophet Lienhard Jost’s visions reveals that he engaged in public nudity as a prophetic act, just as the naaktlopers did. Lienhard recounted that, one night, he felt the Spirit of God tell him to rise immediately, disrobe, and run through the streets of Strasbourg naked in order to sound the Mord Glock—the alarm bell located in Strasbourg’s cathedral. He rose immediately and ran through the streets of Strasbourg, shouting the following prophetic utterance: “Murder upon murder! The child in its mother’s womb must and will be terrified before the word of the Lord comes to pass . . . if the lords and rulers of the city only knew 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…but after this the child in its mother’s womb will rejoice again, and all those who have been sad will find peace.”[5] Like the naaktlopers, Lienhard’s actions resulted in his capture. However, given the relative tolerance of Strasbourg’s magistrates toward religious dissenters, he met with a much lighter sentence—he was brought to Strasbourg’s hospital, where he was deemed insane and moved to an asylum. He remained there for a few months until his release.

This is the only incidence of public nudity in Lienhard’s visions, but it nevertheless is not out of place. In his 2015 article on Lienhard’s prophecies, Jonathan Green notes the prevalence of clothing-based imagery. Lienhard counsels his audience to throw off their stinking clothes in order that God might clothe them, although he quickly clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual, not physical terms.[6] Green also notes the performative nature of Lienhard’s visions in general. Lienhard was not content to merely share the words of God, but instead frequently contrived an object lesson. He chewed and then spit out bread in order to demonstrate his rejection of “idolatrous masses,” and he poured wine on his bed and watched it spread as a symbol of how a God-sent abundance of good things would soon spread across the earth.[7] Lienhard’s own experiences of God were multi-sensory. He not only saw and heard God’s messages, he felt and tasted them. Since his experience of divine revelation that was so arresting and all-consuming, it is unsurprising that Lienhard would attempt to replicate aspects of this experience for his audience.

It is impossible to establish with certainty whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and the rest of the naaktlopers were familiar with Lienhard’s prophetic career, but it seems distinctly possible, and perhaps even likely. Melchior Hoffman assiduously disseminated their visions and prophecies among his followers. In 1533, his associate Cornelijs Poldermann testified to Strasbourg’s Protestant preachers in a letter that the whole Netherlands were full of the Josts’ books—an obviously hyperbolic claim, but one that nevertheless speaks to the popularity the Josts’ visions enjoyed among Hoffman’s followers in the Low Countries.[8] Thus, Snyder and his compatriots may well have read Lienhard’s visions, or at least been apprised of their contents if they could not read them themselves. Their cries of woe even echo Lienhard’s cries of “murder upon murder,” although Lienhard went further and promised God’s eventual mercy after announcing impending judgment. He also tied nakedness to the casting off of superfluous wealth, and the historical record does not say whether any of the naaktlopers made a similar connection.

Whether or not the naaktlopers drew their inspiration from Lienhard, however, the practice of public nudity as a prophetic act has a long-established place in the Jewish and Christian canon. In Isaiah 20, God commanded Isaiah to remove the sackcloth and ashes he had previously worn to prophesy and instead to prophesy completely naked for a period of three years as a portent of God’s impending judgment on Egypt.[9] Isaiah’s display is the only divinely sanctioned instance of post-Garden of Eden public nudity in the Bible—Noah’s drunken exhibitionism in Genesis earned the patriarch and his son divine censure—but it is not, for all that, an aberration.[11] The Old Testament prophets frequently engaged in visually arresting, often shocking and bizarre displays as a means of reinforcing God’s message. Early modern Christians in search of a more recent example could point to Saint Francis of Assisi, who made a public display of his rejection of his parents and his upbringing by publicly casting off his clothing before the Bishop of Assisi. This incident had a powerful hold on the imaginations of medieval Christians; it was not only recounted in many of St. Francis’ vitae, but also became the subject of several different artistic depictions of the life of Francis in late medieval and Renaissance-era European churches and chapels.

It is difficult to ascertain just how much Lienhard Jost and the Amsterdam naaktlopers knew about the biblical and medieval prophets and saints who came before them. Lienhard Jost was an illiterate peasant labourer, and the educational status of Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers is not known. It is probable that they never had the opportunity to study the biblical text in much detail or read saints’ vitae for themselves. Nevertheless, they may well have become acquainted with some of these examples through preaching, ecclesiastical artwork, or oral tradition. Elements of Lienhard’s account suggest that he may have, consciously or unconsciously, drawn inspiration from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is true that he never mentioned Francis by name and he frequently derided the Catholic mass as idolatrous and clerical celibacy as an abomination. Even so, however, there are some striking points of similarity between the life of the Strasbourg prophet and that of the Italian mendicant. Lienhard’s motivation for running around Strasbourg naked bears a strong resemblance to the Francis’ motivation for disrobing in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi. For both men, the casting off of clothing represented an emphatic rejection of wealth and opulence. In Francis’ case, he rejected the wealth and opulence to which he had been born and which his family still enjoyed. In Lienhard’s case, though he himself was not endowed with much wealth to cast off, he physically enacted the spiritual renunciation he expected from Strasbourg’s ruling class. Another event in Lienhard’s life also mirrored that of St. Francis: in pondering the wounds of Christ, Lienhard received a physical reminder of these wounds on his right foot, which calls to mind Francis’ reception of the stigmata, a famous event that inspired many imitators—particularly women—well into the seventeenth century.[12]

The surviving accounts of the naaktlopers are far less detailed than Lienhard’s description of his visions, and make it difficult to say with certainty even what their motivation was for running into Amsterdam unclothed—whether it was a warning of God’s impending wrath, a reminder of humanity’s vulnerability, or a call to cast off worldly wealth and greed—let alone what people in biblical or church history served as their inspiration. Nevertheless, regardless of whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers consciously imitated Lienhard Jost or Francis of Assisi or the prophet Isaiah in their public display of nudity, their actions, while shocking (and purposefully so), were not an aberration. Lienhard Jost and the naaktlopers’ decisions to disrobe publicly form part of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of prophecy as a public performance, designed not only to share the word of the Lord, but also to communicate his message to the people visually through the use of striking physical displays and object lessons. The word had become flesh in Jesus, and, in a lesser way, it became flesh again and again through his messengers.


[1] Samme Zijlstra, Om de ware gemeente en de oude gronden: Geschiedenis van de dopersen in de Nederlanden, 1531-1675 (Leeuwarden: Fryske Akademy, 2000), 135-136.

[2] Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Amsterdam: Henricus Laurentius, 1636), 55.

[3] Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 148.

[4] Lambertus Hortensius and François Catrou, Histoire des Anabaptistes (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702), 106.

[5] Lienhard Jost, Ein Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey des Linhart Josten van Stroßburg, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. B3r.

[6] 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): 324.

[7] Green, 324-325.

[8] 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), 213.

[9] Isaiah 20:1-6.

[10] Genesis 9:20-23

[11] See Julian Gardner, “A Minor Episode of Public Disorder in Assisi: Francis renounces his Inheritance.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 68:2 (2005): 275-285.

[12] Jost, Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey, fols. E1v-E2r. 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).

Considering Seventeenth-Century Schutzgeld

The collection of Schutzgeld, or ‘protection money,’ had begun in the East Frisian city of Emden shortly after the city’s revolt against Count Edzard II in 1595. The first extant records date to 1601 and detail the amount owed by each Mennonite and Jewish household within the newly autonomous (and predominantly Calvinist) jurisdiction. (For a bit more on the earliest Schutzgeld records in Emden, please see my post from November 27, 2018.) But only a few registers of this particular tax remain for the city of Emden. We have documentation from the years 1601, 1602, 1626, 1638, 1737 and 1749. There are a few additional documents from the eighteenth century in which Schutzgeld was recorded from both across the county and within the city of Emden, but only compelled from Jews – a development that illustrates the increasingly disparate paths made for Mennonites and Jews in this area of the empire. But even with those additional accounts, we can see the records that remain are the exception rather than the rule. Today, I’ll examine the two sets of records from the mid-seventeenth century.

The 1626 Emden Schutzgeld records [Fig. 1] were clearly functional, as owed amounts were crossed out and replaced, red scratches along the edge denoted fulfilled obligations, and the slim bound booklet generally displayed marks of use and wear.1 The obligations were divided among 22 different geographic sections, named companies, each with a corresponding responsible captain. These captains were not Mennonites, but the leaders of the city or night watch – a communal obligation that this tax exempted Mennonites from performing. The numbers in these ‘companies’ varied from as few as one man or household (Dirck Simons, in Hindrich Busert’s company, who owed 3 Emden gulden) to as many as 19. There are 175 names overall, of which 19 were noted as Jews. Another 3 names were stricken from the record; as two of the three names stricken were widows owing only 1 gulden, it seems likely that these were either the recently dead or the benevolently omitted. Unlike the Schutzgeld records from a quarter-century before, however, none are here designated as ‘paupers’ and thus exempt from payment.

That leaves 153 paying Mennonite households, 9 of which were headed by widows and 3 of which appear to have been headed by underage sons. The density and prosperity of the Mennonite community in Emden held steady in the quarter century between 1602 and 1626. The total amount remitted by that Mennonite community came to 654 Gulden and 5 Schap – an amount figured through an informal sum on the back of the well-worn booklet itself.

The 1638 Schutzgeld records [Fig. 2], by contrast, are much cleaner and show no evidence of their use as a working document – but also include no amounts at all.2 There is no indication of amounts owed, the vagaries of collection, or indeed that money exchanged hands at all. This, then, is a list that named Mennonites and Jews, but shares little else in common with the list from just 12 years prior. This lack of consistency could perhaps be evidence for haphazard or even intermittent collection within the city of Emden, but it is more likely that this document represented a different stage in the process than the worn document of 1626. Additionally, the helpful numbering along the left edge of this document drops off in the middle of the second page, after ‘40,’ which confirms further that this is merely a draft of a later, more useable register.

There are 21 companies in the 1638 record, and a total of 176 names – almost no movement in the overall number of marginalized residents sharing this tax. However, the number of Jews has dropped significantly for such a small population, from 19 to 11. That leaves a modest increase in the number of Mennonite households, now at 165 and up from 153 in 1626. Of those 165 households, a steady number – 8 now, in comparison with the 1626 count of 9 – are widows. For the first time, a ‘doctor’ appears in the register: a ‘Doctor Eilde’ residing in the company of Captain Eggo Hermans. Without amounts, however, it’s hard to tell how prosperous this Mennonite doctor was – or indeed, whether the fortunes of the community had changed in aggregate.

Four captains’ names remain the same from the 1626 collection to that of 1638, a comparison that allow us to consider the nature of community change. The company of Viet Hindricks grew from 5 to 10 in those twelve years, and only two of the names remained the same: Nonne Aggen and Johan Jacobs ‘Flet,’ neither of whom appear in the index of the city archive. In Herman Gerrits’s company the growth was more modest, from 11 to 13, but a full seven of the names remained the same. This was perhaps a younger set of taxed households, and an area of the city with more Jewish inhabitants (4 were designated as Jews in both 1626 and 1638). The company of Jeldrich Taken grew from 7 to 12, with 4 names remaining the same. The number of Mennonites shrunk in the company of Johan Horstman, from 7 to 5, and there are two instances of family name matches but no individual persons who appear on both records.

These comparisons are more suggestive than anything. Twelve years represents perhaps half of a generation, and the 1638 records leave open the question of economic growth, prosperity, or burden. Schutzgeld was presumably a yearly tax, as it replaced watch service that was continuous for other male adults, but the lack of sources leaves confusing caesura in the historical record. What the remaining Schutzgeld sources continue to attest to, however, was the bureaucratic grouping of Mennonites and Jews together within the city of Emden. These religious minorities were nameable, even when the names given by governmental authorities were imprecise, and they were thus taxable. These were communities who continued to live and worship despite a lack of official toleration documents, and it is in this way that economic instruments must be read as crude (and inherently unstable) religious settlements. Informal toleration through taxation and through other one-time compulsory payments – for dikes, for military expenses, or just to balance the books; what older historiography has rightly labeled ‘extortion’ – provided both plausible cover and continuing threat for both Mennonites and Jews in early modern Emden.


  1. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 45-52.
  2. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 95-98 and 101-103.

Relaunched: The Classics of the Radical Reformation Series

83415202_653579875468216_6692021859958915072_nThe Classics of the Radical Reformation Series is published under the auspices of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Institute for Mennonite Studies and overseen by a reference council of scholars from Canada and the United States, a group I joined in 2018.  Since the 1970s, the series has existed “to offer in the English language, scholarly and critical editions of the primary works of Reformers of the Radical Reformation…also intended for the wider audience of those interested in Anabaptist and free church writers of the sixteenth century.”[1] The first nine volumes, published from 1973 to 1999, were published by Herald Press, while the remaining five volumes, which first appeared between 2001 and 2017, were published by Pandora Press. The series included the writings of such prominent sixteenth-century figures as Pilgram Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Andreas Karlstadt, and David Joris, as well as collections organized by genre (confessions of faith) and loose geographical networks (Swiss Anabaptism and South German/Austrian Anabaptism). They have proved an indispensable resource for both academics (I cited multiple volumes in my doctoral dissertation) and interested pastors and laypeople.

As some of the older titles fell out of print, however, it has become increasingly difficult for those without borrowing privileges from well-stocked university libraries to access the full series. In the interests of making all the volumes accessible to a new generation of readers, the entire series was republished by Plough, the publishing house of the Bruderhof, in late 2019. Plough marked the republication of the series with a November 23rd launch in San Diego, during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature.[2] The first nine volumes, originally published by Herald Press, also have updated prefaces (from the author where possible, and otherwise from top scholars in the field).

The following volumes are now available from Plough: [3]

  1. The Legacy of Michael Sattler (edited by John H. Yoder, with a new preface by C. Arnold Snyder)
  2. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (edited by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Rempel)
  3. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (edited by Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Roth)
  4. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (edited by Leland Harder, with a new preface by Andrea Strübind)
  5. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, with a new preface by Brian Brewer)
  6. The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568 (edited by Carnelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, with a new preface by Piet Visser)
  7. The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris (edited by Gary K. Waite, with a new preface by the editor)
  8. The Essential Carlstadt (edited by E. J. Furcha, with a new preface by Amy Nelson Burnett)
  9. Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (edited by John J. Friesen, with a new preface by the editor)
  10. Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)
  11. Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition 1527–1660 (edited by Karl Koop)
  12. Jörg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle (edited by John D. Rempel)
  13. Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists 1529–1592 (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)

We hope that this re-launch will prompt new interest in the CRR series and that it will continue to be useful both inside and outside academia.

[1] “Classics of the Radical Reformation series,” Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, accessed 14 January 2020 https://www.ambs.edu/ims/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

[2] “Beyond Capitalism,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/events/2019/beyond-capitalism-san-diego-2019

[3] “Classics of the Radical Reformation,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/books/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

1577 in 1947

My dissertation focuses on the early modern period and addresses the economic experiences of nonconformists in the northwestern Holy Roman Empire. One piece of twentieth-century evidence, however, demonstrates how economic strength became a rhetorical pose necessary for later Mennonites—a pattern familiar to any minority group that must justify its continued existence to a wider community. This short nineteen-page pamphlet, The Cultural Achievements of the Mennonites in East Frisia and the Münsterland, written and published by Pastor Abraham Fast of Emden in 1947, began by explaining the common experience of Mennonites in what was now northwestern Germany: “In East Frisia and the Münsterland the Mennonites were, from the beginning, much less a segregated non-resident settlement community than later in the eastern part of the Empire or further in Russia.”1 This ‘integration’ was made easier by what Fast described as “blood and language,” common membership in a so-called “Saxon-Frankish-Friesian tribe” as those in the East Frisian and Westphalian communities to which they immigrated.

Predictably, in a publication dedicated to an elder of the Mennonite community in Gronau, Fast was effusive about the positive role Mennonites had played. This was both genuinely celebratory and an expedient means of justification; Fast argued that Mennonites had a small but nonetheless integral role as “economically and spiritually a good leaven for this region.” He dug into the archives to evidence this claim, pulling sources from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before turning to his main concern: the “most recent 150 years” of Mennonite history in the area (indeed, Fast gives quite a detailed industrial history of a number of textile firms). 2

My concern, of course, is his use of evidence from the early modern period. Fast highlighted the irony of sixteenth-century economic toleration: “This fact is simply appealing when one observes how the sharpest memories of the edicts against the Mennonites fade, while at the same time [they were] negotiating with these forbidden heretics over leases, money borrowing or even gifts for the princely court.”3 This ironic use of ‘heretic’ (‘Ketzer’) is striking. Most importantly for Fast, however, was the clear economic advantage to business dealings with Mennonites even as they were singled-out for religious nonconformity. Fast went on to argue that authorities recognized this advantage early on, and sought to bring Mennonites into these territories despite religious difference.

Fast, remarkably, harkened back to the same 1577 letter from the Emden council about which I wrote about a few months ago, and quoted from the complaint by Emden authorities that Anabaptists were taking up the most prominent houses and prominent roles in the wider business and merchant community. It is notable that Fast was here comfortable quoting from a letter that only ever referred this group as Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer) – and one in which their social position was made explicitly analogous to that of Jews. Fast went on to quote from a protection letter from 1688, in which authorities warned that the expiration of Mennonite protections would have a significant financial strain on the area, and to quote extensively from a 1708 petition by a governmental official in Norden who expounds upon the necessity of Mennonites for the larger community there – and especially for the poor.4

In his sparse use of early modern evidence, Fast meant only to set the stage for the more impressive economic achievements of Mennonites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the addition of the letter from 1577 does two unique things. First, it uses a hostile account as evidence for prosperity—the latter two pieces of early modern evidence appear to be neutral if not complimentary, while the 1577 letter was clearly pejorative. And secondly, it naturalizes the economic strength of the Mennonite community; it has always been so, and the community’s industriousness has paved the way for its inclusion.

Similarly, Fast listed a number of western Münsterland industrial concerns begun by Mennonites – most of which had been founded only during the nineteenth century, but which had grown out of a tradition of Mennonite weaving and cloth-trading that began in the early modern period.5 The relative wealth of Mennonites compared to wider society was a commonality amongst Mennonites in both East Frisia and the Münsterland, evidenced by the saying “only rich people belong to the Mennonites.”6 This pride in the relative wealth of the community is certainly a prominent theme of Fast’s pamphlet, and he noted that Mennonites gave generously to the poor of other confessions, as well as contributed significantly more to school taxes.

But Fast acknowledged some differences between the two communities, in a striking paragraph that closed his pamphlet:

“Worth mentioning, however, are the following peculiarities. In contrast to the families from Emden and Norden, the Münsterlanders did not appear on the political stage. But they built up all the more zealously as entrepreneurs that which gives public life its basis and its freedom of movement: the economy. On the other hand they revered, as did the East Frisian Mennonites, a religious inwardness and the free cosmopolitanism associated with it, as had always belonged to the tradition of these communities. Most of the above-mentioned, significant business founders in East Frisia and the Münsterland and their successes have put their forces at the service of local communities as church councilors and as deputies in the service of the Association of the German Mennonites, where the community in Emden shaped the spiritual center of the whole group and still shapes it until today.”7

But if Mennonites would eventually find themselves wealthy, and protected by that wealth – however reliable this ebullient pamphlet was – it took round and rounds of negotiation in the early modern period to establish their homes in communities such as Emden, Norden and Leer.


  1. Abraham Fast, Die Kulturleistungen der Mennoniten in Ostfriesland und Münsterland (1947), 3. An editorial note on the inside of the front cover indicated that the text had been prepared in 1939 but its publication had been delayed by the Second World War.
  2. That same editorial note indicated that he used a number of well-known nineteenth century works to gather this evidence, particularly J.P. Müller, Die Mennoniten in Ostfriesland.
  3. Ibid., 3-4.
  4. Ibid., 4-5.
  5. Ibid., 13.
  6. Ibid., 7-8.
  7. Ibid., 18-19.

Anabaptists and Jews in Emden, before Schutzgeld

In January of 1577, the mayor and city council of Emden drafted a letter to Count Edzard II.1 Complaining primarily about the boldness with which Anabaptists went about both their religious and secular business in Emden, the letter nevertheless began with condemnatory descriptors for both Anabaptists and Jews. Grouping together two religious communities that were variously tolerated in the city, council members noted their aim in the letter’s opening paragraph: “and particularly to report on the seductive sect of the Anabaptists, and the vile, blasphemous Jews.”

They certainly reported in detail on the behavior of local Anabaptists. Though they named no leaders or even members, the council accused them of living “in the noblest houses,” gathering indiscriminately in public, and joining together to create business associations (which must have been profitable, to buy or rent such prominent houses); indeed, the council seemed to identify open prosperity as the foremost offense. They quickly tied that charge to a parallel accusation of “public conventicles, holding and preaching their seductive false doctrine in great considerable numbers . . . by which they seduced many simple hearts, also honest people.” This was particularly problematic for the city council as these preachers also regarded all authority as suspect. The council characterized the reach of these condemnations as totalizing: “And they hold as a principal piece of their heretical doctrine that all authority is damned and cannot be saved, that the evangelical preachers of this and all reformed Christian churches, officers and preachers are devils.” Anabaptist preaching, in other words, had all the necessary ingredients to subvert the current social order. Fervor was increasing, and with it a distrust in authority.

This did not, the council argued, bode well for the general peace. Pointing to the examples of “Münster, Amsterdam in Groningen and West Frisia,” the council warned that enabling Anabaptists “brought forth well-identifiable fruit.”2 A later paragraph explicitly referenced the danger of repeating the “riotous” events of the Kingdom of Münster, but this admonition appears to have been stricken from the final copy.3 While frantic appeals to the specter of Münster were a common trope of anti-Anabaptist polemic across the empire, the historic connections between Emden and Münster – not least of which was the millenarian preaching and teaching of Melchior Hoffmann – added texture to a letter saturated with fear.

The council finally addressed their accusations against Jews in the second-to-last paragraph of this draft, one completed in a different hand and presumably added at a later date. The first author, then, had not managed to address the Jews he had slandered in his opening salutation. Furthermore, this late charge against the Jewish inhabitants of Emden was both brief and vague by comparison. The council complained about the presence in Emden of “daily more Jews, and their usury (which, like cancer, daily eats away and spoils everything).”4 Though the number of Jewish inhabitants of Emden certainly may have been increasing at this time, the lack of specifics is not terribly convincing. Moreover, the charge of usury was perhaps the most ubiquitous in Christian polemics against Jews. A more generalized anti-Semitic aside can barely be imagined.

So why were Anabaptists and Jews grouped together in this plea? Perhaps the council was attempting to condemn both communities by an association with the other. This letter and others written in January of 1577 would, over the course of the next year, convince Enno II that a disputation would be the best way to counter the spread of Anabaptist teaching and rid the city of unrepentant Anabaptist sympathizers. Yet the disputation of 1578 did not, in fact, convert or drive away the majority of Anabaptists or self-defined Mennonites. Their residence in the city would continue to be disputed – resulting, over two decades later, in the institution of a specialized protection tax (Schutzgeld) collected from both the Anabaptist and Jewish communities. It is clear from this letter that secular authorities in Emden had long been thinking about these two groups as connected, even as little evidence exists of meaningful connections between the communities themselves. The Emden city council had begun to populate its own imaginary of the marginalized, an imaginary which endured to structure the taxed toleration of both Anabaptists and Jews in Emden for over two hundred years.


  1. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 12-14.
  2. Ibid., 12-13.
  3. Ibid., 13.
  4. Ibid., 13.

Archive Spotlight: The Thomas A. and Katherine (Gingrich) Brady Collection

This past semester I had the privilege of spending a few months looking through a new collection donated to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, housed in the Milton Good Library at Conrad Grebel University College. The collection is a gift from Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Katherine Gingrich Brady. Thomas Brady, the Sather Professor Emeritus of History at UC Berkeley and his wife Katherine, an expert paleographer, have spent decades studying the history of the Reformation(s) in Strasbourg and Reformation-era politics more broadly.1 During that time, they gathered a wealth of early modern primary sources on microfilm, which they have now donated to Conrad Grebel University College. The collection promises to be a great resource for scholars interested in the late medieval/early modern history of Strasbourg and politics in the Reformation era.

The Grande-Ile, the heart of Strasbourg’s old town, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Many of the buildings first erected in the medieval and early modern periods are still standing there today. Photo by the author.

The city of Strasbourg is of particular interest to scholars of early Anabaptist history, both for the number and diversity of Anabaptists it attracted and the relatively mild punishments Anabaptists and other religious dissenters faced there. While Strasbourg’s Anabaptists alone numbered as many as 2000 in 1530—a substantial minority of the city’s population—only two Reformation-era non-conformists received a death sentence from Strasbourg’s magistrates: Claus Frey, who practiced bigamy, and Thomas Salzmann, who called Christ an imposter.2 As the spiritualist chronicler Sebastian Franck put it, “he whom one hangs elsewhere, one drives out of Strasbourg with rods.”3 While some scholars have attributed Strasbourg’s relative tolerance for dissent to the irenicism of its reformers—and Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, and Mathis Zell were certainly less quick to burn bridges than many of their contemporaries—Brady has argued convincingly that the primary impetus for toleration came from Strasbourg’s magistrates, who sought peace and order more than they sought conformity.4 While few of the documents in the collection deal directly with Anabaptists, the primary sources the Bradys donated shed light on the inner workings of Strasbourg politics and the history of the city leading up to and during the Reformation era, all of which helps to illuminate the context in which so many sixteenth-century Anabaptists managed to survive and even thrive to some extent.

The majority of the microfilms in the collection contain copies of documents housed in the Archives de la ville et de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg municipal archives, which also house the Archives de St. Thomas, dedicated to Strasbourg church history), the Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin (the regional archives for the Lower Rhine), and the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg university library, which houses a substantial collection of premodern manuscripts and rare books). Other microfilms include copies of documents from a number of other European and North American libraries and archives, including the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Weimar Staatsarchiv, the Danish Royal Library, the Newberry Library, and the Harvard University Library. The contents of these documents include multiple late medieval and early modern chronicles of Strasbourg history, large amounts of sixteenth-century correspondence from Strasbourg’s Reformation-era political and religious leaders (including the entire Thesaurus Baumianus, a collection of nineteenth-century copies of the Strasbourg reformers’ correspondence), sixteenth-century notes from Strasbourg Senate meetings (particularly focused on the years of the Schmalkaldic War), and many other treasures. For scholars interested in Reformation-era religion and politics, the collection promises to yield the raw material for several fascinating projects.


  1. Among Professor Brady’s best-known books are Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520-1555 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995), and German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  2. John David Derksen, From radicals to survivors: Strasbourg’s religious nonconformists over two generations, 1525-1570 (Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & de Graaf Pub., 2002), 53; Camill Gerbert, Geschichte der Strassburger Sectenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation, 1524-1534 (Strasbourg: Heitz & Mundel, 1889), ix.
  3. Cited in Bodo Brinkman and Berthold Hinz, Hexenlust und Sündenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007), 181.
  4. Brady, Ruling Class, 247n43.

Early Modern Anabaptists: Syllabus Draft

This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions. 

Expected Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
  • Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
  • Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
  • Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form

Assignments

Class Participation (15%)

Writing Assignments: Historiographical Workshops (20% each)

1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)

Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects. 

2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)

Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.

3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)

Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices. 

Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)

Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected. 

Course Texts

  • C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
  • Other readings listed in course schedule below

Course Schedule

I. Origins

1. Introduction

  • Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes

2. Context

  • Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
  • Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5

3. Polygenesis

  • Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
  • Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11

4. Spread and Development

  • Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
    • Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
  • Sept. 26 – Conversion
    • Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.

5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?

  • Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
    • Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
  • Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest

II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures

6. Authority and Gender

  • Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
    • Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
  • Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
    • Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
  • Oct. 22 – Münster

7. Communication

  • Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9 

8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”

  • Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
    • Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
  • Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest

9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence

  • Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
    • Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings, 92-99
  • Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
    • Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345

10. Identity Formation

  • Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
    • Readings: Ausbund, number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
  • Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
    • Reading: Troy Osborne,  “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218

III. Continuing Anabaptist Traditions

11. Historiographical Workshop #3: “New Directions”

  • Nov. 19 – A Short Historiography of Anabaptism
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
  • Nov. 21 – New Approaches
    • Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6

12. Continuing Anabaptist Tradition

  • Nov. 26 – Genealogies: Visit to “Growing Family” Exhibition at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College
  • Nov. 28 – Global Anabaptisms
    • Reading: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), chapter 5