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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

In the history of Anabaptism in Muenster


Matthys did not long survive his coming to Muenster. On the evening of the 4th of April, as he sat at supper in a friend's house, he was observed to spend long minutes in brooding. At last, sighing heavily, he was heard to ejaculate, "Loved Father, not my will but Thine be done." He rose quietly from his seat, shook hands with all his companions, solemnly kissed each one; then left the house in silence, accompanied by his wife. Next day with about twenty companions he went out by one of the gates of the city, fell fiercely on the enemy, was overpowered by numbers, and received his death-stroke. A religious enthusiast and a singularly straightforward and courageous man!

His death depressed the defenders of Muenster greatly; but they were rallied by the persuasive eloquence of Jan Bockelson, the favourite disciple of the dead prophet. It was under the leadership of Bockelson--Jan of Leyden he was called--that the Town Council of Muenster was abolished; that twelve elders were chosen to rule the people; that Jan himself became king, and had his Court; that the old miracle plays were revived, etc. The only one of the many actions of this highly talented and eloquent young Dutchman which need concern us was the institution of polygamy, for which he seems to have been almost solely responsible.

Polygamy is the one dark stain on the Anabaptists of Muenster, and one that is ineffaceable. Not unnaturally, yet quite unjustly,

the fact of its institution has been used continually to blacken the character of the whole movement. It was an episode, a lamentable one, in the history of Anabaptism in Muenster; it had nothing to do with the brethren outside the town. The whole question presents difficulties which, with our present information, cannot be removed. That men whose whole past lives had been examples of the most correct moral behaviour, and who had been influenced by deep and earnest religious feelings, should suddenly (for it was sudden) have given the lie to their own previous teaching and to the tenets of every separate section of Anabaptism, that they should have sullied the last few months of an heroic and desperate defence within a doomed city by the institution of polygamy, is an insoluble puzzle.[629]

We are not now dependent for our knowledge of the Anabaptist movement on the writings of embittered opponents, or upon such tainted sources as confessions of martyrs wrung from them under torture. The diligence of archaeologists has exhumed a long list of writings of the leaders in the rising. They give us trustworthy accounts of the opinions and teachings of almost every sect classed under the common name. We know what they thought about all the more important matters which were in controversy during the sixteenth century--what they taught about Free Will, Original Sin, Justification, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and so on. We have clear glimpses of the kind of lives they led--a genuinely pious, self-denying, Christian walk and conversation. Their teaching was often at variance with the Romanist and the Lutheran doctrinal confessions; but they never varied from the moral life which all Christians are called upon to live. Their writings seldom refer to marriage; but when they do it is always to bear witness to the universal and deeply rooted Christian sentiment that marriage is a sacred and unbreakable union of one man with one woman. Nay more, one document has descended to us which bears testimony to the teaching of the Anabaptists within the beleaguered city only a few weeks before the proclamation of polygamy. It is entitled _Bekentones des globens und lebens der gemein Criste zu Monster_,[630] and was meant to be an answer to calumnies circulated by their enemies. It contains a paragraph on Marriage which is a clear and distinct assertion that the only Christian marriage is the unbreakable union of one man with one woman.[631]

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