John of Leiden

views updated May 29 2018

John of Leiden

The Dutch Anabaptist John of Leiden (1509-1536) led the Anabaptist attempt to establish by force a "kingdom of God" in Münster, Germany. His excesses unfairly discredited all Anabaptists in the eyes of contemporaries and of succeeding generations.

Also known as Jan Beuckels or Bockelszoon, John was born in a village near Leiden. He practiced various occupations, including those of tailor, merchant, and innkeeper. In November 1533, having been baptized by John Matthys of Haarlem, John became a follower of Anabaptism. He grew quite active in this religious movement and was sent by John Matthys to various parts of the Netherlands as an apostle for this faith. His views at that time were the conventional and generally peaceful Anabaptist ones of the need for the faithful to pray and await the coming of the kingdom of God. But he gradually abandoned those principles in favor of calling the faithful to use the sword against all unbelievers in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth.

In January 1534 John of Leiden took up residence in the episcopal city of Münster in Westphalia, Germany, near the Dutch border. Although he was very active in the revolt that overthrew the bishop and city council, it was John Matthys, who had arrived in Münster in February 1534, who took over power and began the establishment of the kingdom of God. Under his direction, Münster was purged of the "godless," or nonbelievers, and communism of goods, based on biblical texts, was introduced. Matthys, however, was killed in April 1534, and John then replaced him as the new Anabaptist leader in Münster, gaining supreme power by July 1534. Although he effectively coordinated the defense of the city against the army of the bishop of Münster, who had laid siege to the city, his ambition and fanaticism soon led him into more radical behavior. In July 1534 he introduced polygamy, a step that created much opposition. In order to maintain his position, he became increasingly ruthless in the exercise of his power. In September he had himself crowned king of the New Jerusalem. After this, John lived in an increasingly unreal world, parading around Münster in lavish regal costumes and promising his followers to lead them miraculously to the defeat of the besieging army. He managed, however, to keep the city from falling to the episcopal army until June 25, 1535.

John of Leiden was then arrested, sentenced to death, and executed with horrible tortures on Jan. 22, 1536. His brief reign had tragic consequences for Anabaptism, since contemporaries identified all Anabaptists with the radical variety in Münster. Such an identification led to a constant persecution of Anabaptists by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics.

Further Reading

For a brief account in English relating John of Leiden's role in the Münster affair see Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought, 1450-1600 (1968). See also Ernest Belfort Bax, Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (1903; repr. 1966), and John Christian Wenger, Even unto Death: The Heroic Witness of the Sixteenth-century Anabaptists (1961). □