“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.