Leyden, Jan Van

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LEYDEN, JAN VAN (Jan Beuckelson, John of Leiden; 15091536), Dutch religious leader. Jan van Leyden was a prophet who became notorious as "the king of New Jerusalem" in Münster, Westphalia. Very little is known about him, except for the few years in which he rocketed to world fame. His father was a deputy sheriff; his mother hailed from the vicinity of Münster. The city of Leiden in Holland was known for its cloth. When Jan became a tailor's apprentice, his future looked bright. However, by the time he could make a start, the Netherlands was hit by an economic depression that lasted for more than a decade. Leyden fled Leiden and lived in London for a while, then wandered along the coast of Europe.

In the meantime, the Reformation had begun to spread. Yet it was neither Lutheranism nor Zwinglianism, established by Swiss religious reformer Huldrych Zwingli (14841531) in Zürich, that would set the Netherlands ablaze, but Anabaptism. Anabaptism originated in middle Europe and was a refuge for people who had become disenchanted with aspects of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists believed that the End of Time was approaching and that they were to be admitted to God's chosen few by means of adult, not infant, baptism. It was Melchior Hofmann (c. 14951543/44), a German prophet, who in 1532 brought the new faith to the Dutch border. The Last Judgment, he prophesied, was to be held in Strasbourg, the city which God had chosen for his New Jerusalem (Revelations, 21:9). The Dutch responded enthusiastically and embraced Hofmann as their own prophet. The authorities, however, considered Anabaptism a dangerous heresy and sought to root it out.

Up to this time Leyden was not an Anabaptist. He had settled down after his journeys and opened a tavern in Leiden called The Three Herrings. There he performed in his own plays and satirized monks and priests. He had also been to Münster to hear a famous preacher, and even preached himself, but once back in Leiden he returned to his cheery plays. This all changed suddenly when Jan Matthijsz, the new prophet of the Dutch Anabaptists, knocked at his door. Leyden was rebaptized on 13 January 1534 and was sent by Matthijsz to baptize and organize believers in the new Israel at Münster.

The idea of going to Münster was probably Leyden's. None of the Dutch followers had ever seen Strasbourg, and after Hofman's first prediction about the date of Christ's Second Coming (end of 1533) did not materialize, they felt that since Hofman was wrong about the time, he probably was wrong about the location, too. However, there was no doubt about the reality of the approaching End of Time, so the Dutch followers began to look for cities themselves. Leyden was the first to arrive at Münster to prepare the ground for Christ's Second Coming. At this task he was very successful; in a matter of weeks he built up a huge following.

Soon it was known to Anabaptists everywhere, and especially in Holland, that "God's own people" were in Münster. On a snowy morning in February 1534 the Anabaptists, led by Matthijsz, drove out many of the Münsterites in order to make room for the thousands of newcomers. Ownership of private property and money were abolished and churches and monasteries destroyed. The Anabaptists were in a hurry to sanctify themselves because Jan Matthijsz had predicted the Apocalypse would occur at Easter. On that day he left the city unarmed, expecting the opposing forces to be crushed by the sword of the Lord. Instead, he was butchered before the eyes of his believers by the soldiers of the bishop of Münster, Franz von Waldeck. Leyden was Matthijsz's designated successor.

Leyden was now faced with a very difficult task. He had to try to restore the loss of faith among the people as well as fight Waldeck's soldiers. It was a race against the clock. The bishop grew stronger every day, but Leyden hoped his people would grow in holiness even more quickly, so that Christ would call the Last Judgment before the soldiers could conquer the city. To help achieve this, he invented all kinds of new measures, for one of which he became notorious: the "new marriage," or polygamy, for which Leyden has been derided as a disciple of lust ever since. But although he did not by any means eschew the pleasures of the flesh, his new institution of polygamy had a holy end: Of the 8,000 inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, 6,000 were female, and most people were without partners, many of them for more than six months by then. If he could not make monks out of his Israelites, he would make them polygamists, just like many of the Hebrew patriarchs of the Old Testament.

Jan had many wives. As a "second David," after becoming king, he took more. Several times a week he preached in the marketplace and administered justice. During the course of his reign, after keeping order became more difficult, death penalties became more frequent. But even under these circumstances, it was with his leadership that the city beat off two of Waldeck's attacks. When famine came, Leyden tried to mobilize support from Anabaptists in the Netherlands, but to no avail. On 12 June, 1535, the city fell by the act of a traitor. Leyden had to wait for half a year for his death, which came after prolonged torture. He and two of his companions were put in iron cages and hung high in the tower of the Lambertus Church of Münster. The cages still hang there.

See also Anabaptism ; Münster ; Reformation, Protestant ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. London, 1970.

Haude, Sigrun. In the Shadow of "Savage Wolves": Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s. Boston, 2000.

Panhuysen, Luc. De Beloofde Stad. Amsterdam, 2000.

Luc Panhuysen