The story reads a lot like Waco and the Branch Davidians in 1993, only it was the spring of 1534 in the city of Münster (located in what is today the west-central region of modern Germany). Hundreds of Dutch-speaking Anabaptists-mainly artisans, peasants, and shopkeepers-converged on the city. They were united by their common opposition to infant baptism and the sacraments. But they were also driven by a primal fear forged on the anvil of torture and by an eschatalogical conviction that Münster was to become the New Jerusalem, the site chosen by God for the re-establishment of his kingdom on earth.

In the months that followed, the so-called Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster quickly degenerated into a morass of religious fanaticism and excess. Jan van Leyden-the David Koresh of the sixteenth century-appointed himself the king. He instituted a reign of terror that included polygamy (he took for himself no fewer than 12 wives), the elimination of private property, forced baptisms of the city's non-Anabaptist inhabitants, and armed preparations for a glorious final battle in which the elect gathered in Münster would vanquish the godless.

But in the summer of 1535, the New Jerusalem of Münster met with a violent demise. Armies of the Catholic Bishop von Waldeck first besieged, then stormed the city, and the sordid affair came to a bloody and violent conclusion.

For most North Americans, Waco-type images are not their first impression of today's Mennonites, the spiritual heirs to the early Anabaptists. Instead, when most of us think of Mennonites, images of their Amish cousins come to mind: a hardworking, honest, and rural people, committed to a quiet sober life of humility, simplicity, service and, above all, to Christian pacifism; ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.