The Munster Rebellion 1534

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Historical drawing of the execution of the leaders of the Munster Rebellion. In the background the cages are already in place at the old steeple of St. Lambert’s church.

In Batavia’s Graveyard, Mike Dash tells us that Jeronimus Cornelisz was most probably raised in an Anabaptist home in Friesland, an area where at the time a fifth of the population could be named as adherents. Although later Anabaptists earned a reputation as both pious and peace-loving, the early history of the Anabaptists in Holland was marred by plots of civil revolution that resulted in thousands of deaths. When the Anabaptist leader Melchior Hoff-man was imprisoned in Strasburg, his disciple Jan Matthys assumed authority and declared that Christ was returning imminently to establish his earthly kingdom in the Westphalian city of Munster. Anabaptists from throughout the country flocked to Munster, overthrew the established government in 1534 and expelled all those who refused to accept their bizarre theology. Likening himself to Gideon, Matthys was killed on a military venture in 1534 when he chose to take only thirty soldiers with him. He was followed by John of Leiden, who declared himself King and established polygamy, marrying sixteen wives, one of whom he personally beheaded in the marketplace.

When the Munster Rebellion was finally put down after almost two years, the civil authorities dealt mercilessly with the Anabaptists, executing men, women and children as though intent upon purging a plague. The Anabaptists were finished as a political movement, but it is the theological descendents that may have figured into the Batavia Mutiny. The non-violent stream of Ana-baptism which had never embraced the Munster extremes, fell under the leadership of Simon Menno whose followers became known as Mennonites. Menno, a Friesian himself, opposed violence and revolution and, in time, the stigma of the Munster Rebellion fad-ed.

But not all of the Anabaptists adopted the Mennonite views. Dash relates the history of a group of Munster radicals under the leadership of Jan van Batenburg, “who saw nothing wrong in robbing and killing those who were not members of his sect.” When Batenburg was caught and executed, his followers continued to terrorize citizens along the Dutch border until 1580, when they decided to go underground in Fries-land and blend in with the local Mennonites. This was fifteen years before Cornelisz was born.