“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.