Lessons From a Violent Theocracy – Historian Paul Ham on his latest book

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Photo credit (right): Mark Friezer

When a group of Dutch Anabaptists wandered into the German town of Münster in 1534, the wary eye of Europe followed them. Small in size, this cult was the equivalent of a mosquito carrying a strain of belief that threatened the rest of Christendom and sucked it into an eighteen-month siege, drawing blood on all sides. Award-winning historian Paul Ham tells the story of the rise and fall of this cult in his latest book, New Jerusalem.

“The story gripped me,” Ham told Collage. “I’m fascinated by religious history and I may be wrong in this, but I’m detecting an extraordinary upsurge in religious fanaticism in our era. That driving force of a distinction between religions seems to be coming back to drive conflict.

“As we’ve seen recently, declaring war in the name of a faith, or a little reading of one’s holy book, has returned with a vengeance in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century.

“It’s no coincidence that George W. Bush referred to the Iraq War as a Neo-Crusade and in coming years we could also see that America becomes a quasi-theocracy in all but name.”

In 1534, the Anabaptists sect known as the Melchiorites established a theocracy in both name and practice, declaring the town Münster the New Jerusalem. They believed that the end times would begin there and God would descend to judge humanity. This theocracy would last only briefly, having enraged the rest of the Christian world, which besieged the city for over a year.

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Engraved portrait of John of Leiden by Northern Renaissance painter, Heinrich Aldegrever 

During the siege, the Melchiorites’ once noble ideals dissolved in a reign of terror. The cult’s leader, John of Leiden, became increasingly tyrannical, imposing oppressive laws that were justified by scripture.

“Anyone who crossed him or refused to obey his decrees would be beheaded or severely punished,” Ham said.

Citing the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply, Leiden introduced polygamy into a town in which there were three times as many women as men. 

“By and large the married men obeyed Leiden and took wives. Some men had four of five wives. Leiden himself had sixteen wives, and of course chaos erupted because there were women who refused to marry fat old drunken men who insisted by dint of their power in Münster that they should have conjugal rights over a sixteen-year-old or fourteen-year-old girl.

“It became progressively more sinister as the last few women left were being chased down the streets, the men demanding that they sleep with them. It got progressively darker to the point that girls were being forced to marry and have sex with very old men, and it became increasingly sickening.”

The rest of Europe was held in thrall by the stories coming out of Münster. As the siege continued, Ham pointed out there were “people literally starving and malnourished on the one hand and then a small elite gorging themselves on the remaining food and degenerating into pretty much – I suppose you couldn’t use any other word than orgy.”

Although this depravity naturally takes centre stage, Ham explained that it was important to remember that the initial beliefs of the Melchiorites were not so abominable.

“I think that what one should seriously consider here is that the Münster Anabaptists were not freaks. They were zealous, but not fanatics in the same way that we might imagine a sect or a cult today. They weren’t some sort of bizarre aberration. They were highly educated men and women. They were an extrapolation of much of the logic of Luther’s reformation. They were projecting a literal truth onto elements of the Bible, but they also took Christ’s message to heart and they believed in what Christ had said in his famous Sermon on the Mount which in essence is that Christianity is about charity and compassion, and the early years of Anabaptism were marked by extraordinary compassion and charity for one another and for their fellow man.”

It was those early years of compassion and charity, along with a redefined relationship with God, that had attracted so many people to Anabaptism in the first place. Discussing the faith’s initial appeal to women, Ham said that it offered a liberating alternative to the colossus of the religious marketplace, Catholicism.

“Anabaptist women for the first time felt that they, more than any other faith at the time, had a direct relationship with God. They felt they were speaking directly to Christ when they were praying. And so inside Münster you had this extraordinary rapidly rising number of women, particularly young women, to the point that they outnumbered men by about three to one. They were drawn by the charisma of the leadership of the Anabaptists, but also by this freedom to address and pray directly to Christ about one’s own soul, about one’s own condition and about one’s own sins.”

This direct relationship with God was a welcomed replacement to visiting priests for confession and paying for pardons, which Ham described as “basically an outrageous tax on the poor, dressed up as a meal ticket to paradise.” He encouraged us not to forget that part of the Melchiorites’ story.

“I think one should look at belief, systems of belief, with an open mind, and try to enter into what they were trying to do before it all went so horribly wrong.”

Why did it go so horribly wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in using scripture for political ends, the kind of hijacking of religion that is not unfamiliar today. Ham pointed out that the story of Münster had many parallels to our current political climate, to fanaticism and scriptural justification around the world, including in Trump’s America.

“Faith underpins so many actions by governments. That’s a truism obviously, but when you wage war in the name of God or when you declare yourself to be a Christian soldier on a crusade, when you shriek ‘Allahu Akbar’ and mutilate or blow up scores of people in the name of your faith, what has driven that person to actually take that position? Why are they so fanatically possessed by their faith?

“Cynics would argue that they’re simply the outriders of a monolithic movement which seeks economic suppression in guise of religious devotion or sheer gangsterism, as we’ve seen in Northern Ireland. It’s the same in Putin’s Russia, a kind of gangster regime, which justifies itself according to Orthodox Christianity today.

“I think that theocratic longing is in the minds of many of the men in power in America at the moment. You just have to look at what Jeff Sessions said to justify the separation of parents and their children on the Mexican and American border. He used Romans 13, St Paul’s letter to the Romans, which states that people should obey the Government of the day and not rebel or oppose the authorities. This is taken completely out of context obviously. John of Leiden used the same words to justify his regime. There’s a direct line in the minds of the two religious men, and Romans 13 has been used to justify tyranny and cruelty to people for hundreds of years. The book has all kinds of resonances to what’s happening today.”

Paul Ham will be discussing New Jerusalem in Adelaide later this week. You can book a place at one of his free talks here and here.

Daniel McLean

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