Just as the specter of Jonestown brands anyone who tries to live communally today, a far more serious tragedy darkened the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century. Anabaptist radicals seized the city of Münster in February 1534, to create, by force, a “New Zion.” It was actually a reign of terror marked by enforced communism, forced “re-baptism,” polygamy upheld by the sword, and brutal enforcement of all laws, many by execution on the spot. The Münster commune lasted only a year, but its reverberations haunted Anabaptists for many decades. It was the charge always hurled at them, and it made Anabaptist the dirtiest name one could be called in Europe.
Anabaptists maintained then, and historians agree now, that the incident was entirely out of character for their movement, which is historically known for renouncing the use of the sword. Catholics and Protestants of that day, however, saw the incident as revealing the true nature of Anabaptism, if left unchecked. And to check it they devoted great energies in hopes of utterly destroying it. Most of the Anabaptists they killed didn’t resist them, believing, unlike the radicals of Münster, that they were to imitate Christ, the Lamb of God.
The persecution of the Anabaptists is one of the darkest episodes of European history. Accounts of it fill their record of the time, Martyr’s Mirror. The “New Zion” of Münster, however, was another mirror. It mirrored what was happening all over Europe!
Without justifying this evil, however, it must also be pointed out that the Münsterites simply were doing what was being done by Protestants and Catholics all over Europe which was the coercion of people toward a religious faith with the power of the sword. 1
Judged so evil that the bodies and skeletons of the leaders were displayed in cages for centuries, against whom do they bear witness? Against the few militant Anabaptists who used coercion, or against the society that hung them there for practicing the same coercion on a continental scale? The victors write the history and have the privilege of being the pot that calls the kettle black!