Melchior Hoffman’s Defense of Female Prophets

The relatively wide array of roles open to women in Melchiorite congregations—Anabaptist congregations found in the Netherlands and North Germany in the sixteenth century and founded by the itinerant apostle Melchior Hoffman—has long been recognized by scholars of early modern Anabaptism. As Arnold Snyder noted in Anabaptist History and Theology, “nowhere in the Anabaptist movement did women achieve and maintain as lofty a pastoral and leadership role as in the Strasbourg Melchiorite community.”1  Sigrun Haude, in her 1998 essay “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women” echoed the point and argued that “the greatest freedom enjoyed by women can be found in those Anabaptist groups that emphasized visions, prophecies, and the Spirit.”2 Hoffman did indeed emphasize visions, prophecies, and the Spirit. He believed, firmly, that he lived in the Last Days, a time in which God would pour out his Spirit on all people, men and women alike.3

After his arrival in Strasbourg in 1529, Melchior Hoffman encountered Lienhard and Ursula Jost, a married couple who had both had visionary and prophetic experiences over the course of the 1520s. He set out to disseminate their visions and prophecies through print (the Josts were illiterate, and had thus not been able to publish them themselves). Hoffman first published Ursula’s visions in 1530. This first edition of her visions, published by the Strasbourg printer Balthasar Beck, did not record her name, but instead referred to her simply as a Gottesliebhaberin, a feminine noun meaning “lover of God.”4 For Hoffman, the emergence of contemporary prophets such as Ursula and her husband Lienhard served as validation for his apocalyptic ideas. Hoffman’s ideas about prophecy and the work of the Spirit also shaped his views of how church hierarchies should be structured. In the afterword to the 1530 edition of Ursula’s visions he included a discussion of church offices and the gifts of the Spirit; Ursula, for instance, possessed the gift of prophecy but not the gift of interpretation.5


The title page to the 1532 edition of Ursula’s visions, published jointly with Lienhard’s prophecies and housed at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

In the 1530 edition of the visions, neither Melchior Hoffman nor Ursula Jost made an issue of Ursula’s gender. They simply took for granted that women could prophesy. In 1532, however, Hoffman offered a more systematic defense of female prophets in a foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions. This second edition, printed by Albert Paffraet in Deventer, appeared alongside an edition of Lienhard Jost’s prophecies and its survival at the Austrian National Library in Vienna was unknown to Klaus Deppermann, Hoffman’s most recent biographer.6 In his foreword, Hoffman acknowledged that “some are bewildered and angry that God works and lays out his plans through such a poor and simple little woman.”7 Hoffman contended, however, that this was not remotely novel, and that God had spoken to and through women since the beginning of the world.

To reinforce this point, Hoffman provided a list of women in the Old and New Testament through whom God had spoken or accomplished His purposes in other ways. His list was comprehensive, with a few exceptions—curiously, he omitted Huldah, whom the authors of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles explicitly identified as a prophetess.8 He began his list of biblical prophetesses and female servants of God with the women of Genesis: Eve, Sarah and Hagar (both of whom heard the voice of God), and Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, who became the mother of two people groups.9 Exodus provided the example of Myriam, Aaron’s sister, and Judges the stories of Samson’s mother, Jael (who defeated the general Sisera), and Deborah (who was not only a prophetess, but also a “great teacher of Israel”).10 Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child that the priest Eli mistook her for a drunk woman, went on to become the mother of a great prophet of Israel in 1 Samuel, and Judith and Esther both rescued the people of Israel in the books that bore their names.11 Finally, Hoffman highlighted the woman with seven sons in 2 Maccabees, whose sons died for the sake of God’s law and who ultimately gave up her own life “in a very manly way.”12

Unsurprisingly, Hoffman began the New Testament portion of his survey of biblical women with Mary the mother of Jesus, and he went on to list two other women from the beginning of Luke: Elizabeth, who recognized Christ while he was still in the womb, and the prophetess Anna, who recognized Him at the Temple.13 Mary Magdalene, he continued, became the first of Christ’s followers to see Him after the Resurrection and was tasked with spreading this good news to the apostles.14 The Samaritan woman met with Jesus and preached about him to her city in the book of John, and the daughters of the deacon Philip in Acts had the gift of prophecy.15 Hoffman ended this cast of characters with a reference to twelve Gentile prophetesses “reported in the histories”—a possible reference to prominent women from the early and medieval church, though the reason for the number twelve is not clear.16

Since the Bible explicitly called certain women prophetesses, the theoretical possibility of female prophets was undisputed among medieval and early modern Christians, even as many other ecclesiastical roles remained closed to women. Hoffman, however, went further than many of his contemporaries; he described the Samaritan woman’s actions as “preaching” (predigen) and used the word “teacher” (lerrerin) to refer to both Judith and Deborah.17 He did not directly acknowledge or attempt to reinterpret the Pauline command from 1 Timothy that women should remain silent in the churches, but instead mined other Pauline letters for support for his position. After all, had not Paul said in Galatians that all—male or female—were one in Christ? And had he not acknowledged in 1 Corinthians that women could prophesy, provided they did so in an orderly fashion? Moreover, Hoffman added, women could also take on the role of teaching, “if there were no enlightened men.”18

Ultimately, for Hoffman, God gave the gift of prophecy to all who hungered for truth and righteousness without regard for age, gender, or social station, as was made clear in Joel 2, which spoke of sons and daughters, old and young, manservants and maidservants as recipients of the Spirit of God.19 The only trait that disqualified a person from prophesying was pride and hardness of heart. Indeed, Hoffman acknowledged that there were many learned women (schriftgelerder weyber), who were better-educated and more prominent than Ursula, to whom God might have revealed Himself instead. However, despite their prestige, these women were unsuitable because they were proud and haughty.20

While Hoffman’s support of women such as Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock has long been known, the recently rediscovered foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions sheds further light both on the biblical examples Hoffman used to justify his support of women’s active leadership in Melchiorite communities and the boundaries he still placed on this leadership. The range of possibilities Hoffman envisioned for women in the church was wider than that afforded to them by many of his contemporaries. Ultimately, however, women were second to men even in Hoffman’s congregations, since the role of teaching was open to them only when no qualified men were present to fill it.

  1.   C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997), 321. 
  2. Sigrun Haude, “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women?” in Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1998), 318-319. 
  3. Cf Joel 2 
  4. Ursula Jost, Prophetische Gesicht un[d] Offenbarung der götliche[n] würckung zu diser letste[n] zeit (Strasbourg: Balthasar Beck, 1530), passim. 
  5. Melchior Hoffman, afterword to Jost, Prophetische Gesicht, fols. C vii r-v. 
  6. For the English version of Deppermann’s seminal biography, see Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman: Social Unrest and Apocalyptic Visions in the Age of Reformation, edited by Benjamin Drewery, translated by Malcolm Wren (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987). The survival of the 1532 edition of the Josts’ prophetic writings was briefly noted in Andrew Pettegree and Malcolm Walsby (Eds), Netherlandish Books: Books Published in the Low Countries and Dutch Books Printed Abroad Before 1601, Volume 1 A-J (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 753 and its contents were the subject of Jonathan Green, ‘The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions,’ in: The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015), 313-330. 
  7. Melchior Hoffman, foreword to Ursula Jost, Eyn wore prophettin zu disser letzsten zeitt (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. F4r. 
  8. For the story of Huldah, see 2 Kings 22:13-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-33. 
  9. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  10. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  11. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  12. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  13. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  14. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  15. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  16. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  17. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  18. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  19. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  20. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F3v. 

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

EMU Campus

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

European Anabaptist Women Make their Mark

Panel 8: Friday 10:30-noon

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

By Christina Moss, University of Waterloo

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

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

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

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

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

By Ben Goossen, Harvard University

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

Rachel Goossen presenting at “Crossing the Line.”

Gender Identities and Leadership

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

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

By Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University

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

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

By Irma Fast Dueck, Canadian Mennonite University

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

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

By Melanie Zuercher, Bethel College

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

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

“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


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.



  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.