1571: Anneken Hendriks, cursed Mennonist

Add comment November 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anneken Hendriks was martyred in Amsterdam as an Anabaptist.

She was about 53 years old and illiterate, and had come to Amsterdam from Frisia. Considering her outlaw faith could have done better than to move in next to the underbailiff. He soon apprehended his neighbor for “having forsaken the mother, the holy church, now about six years ago and having adopted the cursed doctrine of the Mennonists, by whom she had been baptized on her faith.”

That’s per the Martyrs’ Mirror catalog of Protestant martyrdoms. For the 1685 edition of this volume, Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken favored poor Anneken Hendriks with one of his grisly illustrations.

Anabaptists — practitioners of adult baptism — were heavily persecuted in the Low Countries and throughout Europe, particularly after right-thinking folk were shocked by the short-lived Anabaptist commune at Muenster. Anneken Hendriks, sure enough, had by the words of the sentence against her “not been for six or seven years at confession, or at the holy, reverend sacrament, but went to the meetings of the cursed sect of Mennonists or anabaptists, so that they have even held secret meetings or assemblies at her house.” She also threatened traditional marriage by “marrying” her husband “by night, at a country seat, after the manner of the Mennonists.”

Our source here notes that Anneken Hendriks was tortured by rack and strappado for the names of other Anabaptists. She refused to divulge any, but she was chatty enough on the way to her burning — warning her former neighbor that God would punish him if he kept up the Judas act, and spurning her Catholic would-be confessors — until they stuffed her mouth with gunpowder to still her heretical tongue.

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1571: Hans Haslibacher, Bern Anabaptist

1 comment October 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anabaptist Hans Haslibacher was martyred in Bern, Switzerland.

Haslibacher (German link) joined the oft-suppressed movement in 1532 and quickly established himself as one of the most energetic proselytizers in the Emmental in Bern canton.

Condemned at last in 1571 after a lifetime of arrests, he was honored in a 32-stanza anonymous poem “Das Haslibacherlied” (German) alleging that Haslibacher prophesied that his death would be marked with three signs:

  1. His head when struck off would spring into a hat and laugh aloud;
  2. The sun would turn blood-red;
  3. The town fountain would spew blood.

According to the poem, all three prophesies came to pass … and “the hangman too was heard to say: / ‘Tis guiltless blood I’ve shed today.”

The Swiss Anabaptists are noteworthy as the confessional ancestors of the present-day Amish: the latter sect is named for 17th century Bern canton Anabaptist Jakob Ammann, who was the leader of one faction in a 1693 schism within the Swiss Anabaptist community.

Fortunately (though not for this here site) that schism emerged too late in the day for a classic religious martyrdom. Hans Haslibacher, in fact, was the last Anabaptist put to death for his faith in Bern.

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1536: The Münster Rebellion leaders

11 comments January 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Bernhard Krechting, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and Jan van Leiden were chained to stakes in the Münster public square, tortured with flesh-ripping tongs for more than an hour, killed with daggers thrust into their hearts, and their remains hoisted in cages in the city cathedral as a warning against any kindred misbehavior in the future.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jan van Leiden et al being put to death in Münster. In the background, the Lambertuskirche spire shows the three cages in which the victims’ remains were gibbeted.

And the point was taken: the appalling deaths of these men also marked the death of early Anabaptism’s pretensions to secular political power.

These three unfortunates were the top surviving leaders of the Münster Rebellion, a revolution that turned that city into an Anabaptist commune for more than a year.

Just a few years before, southern Germany had been shaken by an apocalyptic peasant rebellion led by Thomas Muntzer, a sort of proto-Anabaptist.*

Though northern Germany was spared that particular maelstrom, that same religious tension and social discontent soon blew a hyperborean wind.

In the early 1530s, “Melchiorites” — Anabaptist followers of radical preacher Melchior Hoffman — proliferated rapidly among workers of the long-prosperous but now-waning Hanseatic territories in northern Germany and the Low Countries.

And these converts did not intend the meek example of evangelical martyrdom. They meant to rule.

In 1535, Democratic-Anabaptist types stormed the Amsterdam city hall; in a separate action, others seized and fortified a Friesland monastery before being overrun. An allied movement, less theologically distinct, won temporary control of Lübeck in 1533, before being expelled by force of arms.

Only in Münster did the Anabaptists realize the full flower of their project, albeit for a very brief period of time. Winning power over the course of the year 1533 by dint of internal politicking, energetic recruitment, and fortuitous imperial distraction, Münster Anabaptists booted out the 1% and started turning the place into a visionary “New Jerusalem.”

Among those visions, the most notorious was polygamy (pdf), introduced by Jan van Leiden when he inherited leadership after the charismatic firebrand Jan Matthys died in a sortie against a siege in April 1534. The story has it that van Leiden wanted to marry Matthys’s attractive widow Divara, though whether motivated by considerations of the loins or legitimacy is up to the reader’s good conscience.

There’s quite a controversial historiography surrounding their polygamous turn: while contemporary enemies were pleased to ascribe it to libertine devilries, German Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky vociferously defended the Münster Anabaptists — arguing that they resorted to polygamy for social stability when the gender disparity in the city had fallen past 3:1 owing to the vicissitudes of war.

And war, as Kautsky noted, was the commune of Münster’s essential condition, just like that of Paris.

Community of goods was the basis of the whole Baptist movement. For its sake the great fight was waged at Münster. It was not, however, the chief factor in determining the character of the Münster Baptist government, that factor being the siege. The town was a great war-camp; the demands of war took precedence of all other matters, and sentiments of freedom and equality were active only in so far as they were compatible with military dictatorship.

After a year and more under siege, Munster finally succumbed to Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck.

Jan van Leiden, by this time dignified the “King of Jerusalem”, was taken along with two of his chief aides and designated for this superlative punishment (many others less exalted faced less exalted executions, too).


For decades after the execution, the Anabaptists’ remains rotted publicly in cages on the tower of St. Lambert’s — like these still displayed there to this day. (cc) image from Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.

For Anabaptists as a whole this catastrophe commenced a long period of persecution and reckoning. But from such travails would the movement leave its mark. Indeed, it was also in January 1536 that a young Dutch priest named Menno Simons accepted adult baptism … and began a religious career that would make him the founding namesake of the Mennonites.

Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast treats the Münster rebellion here.

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1554: David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius, Anabaptist martyrs

Add comment February 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Anabaptists David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius were burned at the stake in Ghent.*

Looks like it hurt.


In the year 1554, there was imprisoned at Ghent, in Flanders, for following Christ and living according to God’s commandments, a young brother named David, who, when examined, freely confessed his faith. Being asked what he thought of the sacrament, David said, that he considered it nothing else than idolatry. Then a priest said to him, “Friend, you err greatly, that you so readily confess your faith, for it will cost you your life, if you do not change your mind in time.” Thereupon David sweetly replied, “I am ready to shed my blood for the name of Christ, even though it should be here in this place; for God is my salvation, who will keep me, and preserve me from all evil.” The priest said, “It will not be as good as though you were put to death secretly here in this place; but you will be burnt publicly at the stake, for an everlasting reproach.” He was then brought into the court, where he was condemned to death, and his sentence was read, namely, that he had fallen from the true faith into heresy, and was therefore, according to the imperial edict, sentenced to be strangled and burned. David said, “No one will ever be able to prove by the Scriptures, that the faith for which I must now die is heresy.”

There was also sentenced to death with him a woman named Levina, who rather forsook, not only her six dear children, but also her temporal life, than her dear Lord and Bridegroom Jesus Christ. Arriving on the scaffold, David attempted to kneel down in order to offer up his prayer to God, but he was prevented, and they were immediately driven away to the stakes, standing at which, David said to Levina, “Rejoice, dear sister; for what we suffer here is not to be compared with the eternal good that awaits us.” (Rom. 8:18) When about to offer up their sacrifice, both exclaimed, “Father, into thy hands do we commend our spirits.” A little bag of gunpowder was tied to each of them, whereupon they were strangled and burned. But there happened a manifest miracle of God; for though they were completely burned, and the fire was as good as extinguished, David was seen to move his head, so that the people exclaimed, “He still lives.” The executioner seized the fork, and thrust it three times into his bowels, so that the blood flowed out; yet even after this he was still seen to move, hence, the executioner threw a chain around his neck, and bound him to the stake, and thus broke his neck.

Thus these two valiantly fought their way through, firmly trusting in God, who did not let them be confounded, since they had firmly built their building upon the only foundation; wherefore they shall never perish, but abide forever.

Martyrs Mirror

* The very birthplace of the then-sitting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

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1529: Ludwig Haetzer, Anabaptist

Add comment February 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1529, Biblical translator Ludwig Hätzer (or Haetzer, or Hetzer) had his head lopped off with a sword in the town square Konstanz (Constance) where he had first been ordained a priest. The charge against him was adultery … but his real crime was his Protestant radicalism.

Haetzer, a Hebrew scholar, was of that first generation of church reformers who pushed dangerously beyond the reforms intended by more respectable types like Luther and Zwingli.

The latter actually took Haetzer under his wing in 1523 for his erudite denunciation of religious imagery, and tapped him to help translate the Old Testament.

But Haetzer started rolling with wilder-eyed types like Michael Sattler and getting thrown out of cities and the like. The young priest’s own thinking evolved over the 1520s towards a rejection of infant baptism, and sacraments, and marriage.

There was also a sect among them the members of which wished, together with all things else, to have their wives in common; but they were soon suppressed by the other Brethren of the community, and driven out. Many inculpated Hut and Hätzer as leaders of this sect. If this be true, these men at all events atoned for their sin.

According to Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History, Haetzer was even the first divine to publicly denounce boozing — in a German treatise available free online, On Evangelical Drinking.

He wasn’t opposed to all corporal diversions, however.

Protestant authorities in Constance arrested him for living in sin with Anna Regel.

After his execution for sexual impropriety, anti-Trinitarian writings were discovered and judiciously destroyed; this biography claims that some Unitarians view him as their proto-martyr.

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1525: Thomas Müntzer, prophet of the Peasants’ War

9 comments May 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.

Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.

Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.

When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”

This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.

Muntzer became adopted into the Marxist pantheon sufficiently to grace East Germany’s five-mark bill.

That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.

Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.

[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*

In this detail view of East German artist Werner Tübke’s weird panorama of the Battle of Frankenhausen, a crestfallen Müntzer realizes divine aid is not forthcoming.

Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”

So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.

Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.

* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.

** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.

† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”

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1536: Jacob Hutter, Anabaptist leader

4 comments February 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1536, the namesake of a major Anabaptist strain “gave a great sermon through his death” by fire at Innsbruck.

Jacob (or Jakob) Hutter, a hatmaker from the south Tirol, became the leader of a thriving Anabaptist community in Moravia where he shocked authorities with adult baptism and managed the heretics’ affairs so smoothly that the heirs of those who survived the hard years ahead still call themselves Hutterites.

Hutter pulled multiple fractured and sometimes fractious Anabaptist groups together and instilled structure that arguably saved these communities from extinction. (More about this in Hutterite Society.)

His effective evangelism only heightened the persecution of the Habsburgs, who exasperatedly reported on “more than 700 persons” executed or expelled, adding that the re-baptizers “have no horror of punishment but even report themselves; rarely is one converted nearly all only wish to die for their faith.”

Hutter himself was so pursued that he had to take his leave of his community, by that time expelled en masse and living as vagrants;* he did not long outlive his return to his native Tirol. He was captured there, hauled to Innsbruck, and tortured for three months before suffering public burning at the express directive of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

* Hutter’s letter of remonstrance to a governor during this period makes affecting reading; this excerpt is from The Anabaptist Story:

Now we are camping on the heath, without disadvantage to any man. We do not want to wrong or harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk of life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity. We do not hesitate to give an account of our conduct to anyone. But whoever says that we have camped on a field with so many thousands, as if we wanted war or the like, talks like a liar and a rascal. If all the world were like us there would be no war and no injustice. We can go nowhere; may God in heaven show us where we shall go. We cannot be prohibited from the earth, for the earth is the heavenly Father’s; may He do with us what He will.

Here‘s a German site all about Jakob Hutter.

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1527: Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr

3 comments January 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Anabaptist Felix Manz was trussed hand and foot and shoved into the Limmat in Zurich — the first martyr of the Radical Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made theologians of everyone without a concomitant social embrace of religious pluralism, it wasn’t long before men who would have been fire-eating heretics in Catholic eyes a decade before were turning their swords on one another for deviation from their own new orthodoxies.

As the Martyrs Mirror put it,

this was also the century in which Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God’s holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church

They also have retained with the papists, the swearing of oaths, the office of secular authority, war against enemies, and sometimes also against each other, etc.

In Zurich, former Zwingli follower Felix Manz (sometimes spelled Felix Mantz) co-founded a splinter group of Anabaptists and picked a fight with city hall over adult vs. infant baptism.

Zwingli has been dinged by many a true believer then and now for his compromises, but the man had a city to run and better reason to worry about the movements of nearby Catholic armies than an endless disputation over baptism. When the city had had enough, it declared drowning for adult baptism (“rebaptism,” to its opponents). Water for water, see?

Manz got first in line. (He wouldn’t be the last.)

Zwingli’s eventual successor recorded the scene.

As he came down from the Wellenberg to the fish market and was led through the shambles to the boat, he praised God that he was about to die for His truth. For Anabaptism was right, and founded on the Word of God, and Christ had foretold that His followers would suffer for the truth’s sake. And the like discourse he urged much, contradicting the preacher who attended him. On the way his mother and brother came to him, and exhorted him to be stedfast; and he persevered in his folly, even to the end. When he was bound upon the hurdle, and was about to be thrown into the stream by the executioner, he sang with a loud voice: “In manus Tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” (“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”) And herewith was he drawn into the water by the executioner, and drowned.


Felix Manz drowned in the Limmat.

If this dispute seems rather shallow cause for spilling human blood, it’s part of a fathomless theological debate only now becoming water — ahem — under the bridge.

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1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

6 comments May 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Dirk Willems paid the penalty for a famous act of charity.

Willems was condemned by the still-ascendant Catholic church as an Anabaptist, but escaped prison.

Fleeing a pursuer across a frozen pond, Willems had an opportunity to make good his escape when his persecutor crashed through the ice. But he turned back to save the drowning man:

One good turn did not deserve another: the man arrested Willems, and the compassionate Protestant found himself burned to death* this day at Asperen.

Hundreds of Anabaptists suffered similar fates, many of them registered in the Martyrs Mirror (available online here). But Dirk Willems’ story has always been one of the most affecting and popular with the Mennonite communities who trace their lineage to the Anabaptists:

[W]hen he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

(Bygones, tyrannous papists: last year, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his romish persecutor.)

Few are the faiths that lack a martyrology, but notwithstanding the incendiary language of our 17th-century source, the place of martyrs (“Dirk Willems warns Mennonites not to expect to be rewarded for good works — a sharp contradiction to the American gospel of success”) and the right way to commemorate them without stoking confessional hostility occupy unusually nuanced places in Mennonite thought.

* The burning came off badly, the Martyrs Mirror records:

[A] strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times, “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire.

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