False Prophecies, Errors, and the fading of the Pentecostal Movement within the Anabaptist Movement

A Pentecostal movement broke out from some Anabaptist groups as they strove to live the fullness of all that was available in the New Testament. (See XVI.2.5 Anabaptism had its own Pentecostal Movement.) However the Pentecostal aspect was short-lived. While at least some of the spiritual manifestations looked legitimate, there was clearly some error also, not the least of which was that some of the prophecies proved to be false. And some of the actions claimed to be spirit-led were outrageous. The rash actions of some of the Pentecostal Anabaptists groups eventually caused the movement to de-emphasize the regular practice of manifestations of the spirit.

Perhaps the first of these rash rushes into undisciplined spiritualism happened in 1525 in the town of St Gall in Switzerland. Balthasar Hubmaier had begun preaching there in 1523. Conrad Grebel, one of the fathers of the Anabaptist movement, came and persuaded many to join the movement in April of 1525. The movement became so popular within the town that the churches in the town were losing all their people and starting to suffer economic hardship. In opposition to these Anabaptists Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, wrote a letter in which he followed the reformed theological position on the covenantal meaning of baptism which promotes infant baptism as a replacement for Jewish circumcision of infants. In June of 1525 these Anabaptists, called the Brethren or the Swiss Brethren, were forbidden to meet further, and a special militia of 200 men was formed to ward off any attempt at revolt. Within the Brethren were both believers who took a dogged devotion to their stance on literal Biblicism while some others professed a spiritualistic outlook, claiming they were following the leadership of the spirit. Look at what Williams writes in The Radical Reformation as to what happened next:

“But if a stubborn legalism characterized the majority of the St Gall Anabaptists, a frenzied antinomianism took possession of enough of the others to give the whole movement notoriety. Over against the practice of daily excommunication and biblical literalism, we see the swift degeneration of a section of the population into a rank spiritualism that did not stop at burning in the oven the very words of the New Testament which, only a few years before, had been the objective of heroic studies in the face of magisterial opposition. The dictum that “the letter kills” induced these enthusiasts to destroy the written word and put their confidence in the vagaries of a spiritualism no longer restrained by Paul’s dictum about discerning of spirits.

In reading Kessler, who like Vadian, was originally well disposed toward the evangelical fervor of the brethren, one gets the impression of excesses on the fringes comparable to those of later revivalism. Some simulated little children in preparation for the kingdom, the imminent advent of which was discussed and calculated with enthusiasm. Group confession led to disclosures that alarmed spouses; children of seven and eight lay in a coma for hours, and there were other attempts at simulating death with Christ to the world. Glossalalia broke out. There was lewdness and unchastity and the extraordinary declaration of a deranged woman that she was predestined to give birth to the Antichrist, and there was a shocking fratricide by decapitation, perpetuated as God-willed by the killer and earnestly sought by the victim.
In this degeneration of the movement one seems to see beneath the lifted weight of centuries of ecclesiastical domination a squirming, spawning, nihilistic populace on its own, confused by the new theological terms of predestination, faith alone, Gelasenheit, and by the new biblical text seized upon with an almost maniacal glare. It is hard to find anything in common between this phase of St. Paul Anabaptism and the sober fervor and evangelical zeal of Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock.”[1]

This undisciplined spiritualistic mess happened early in the Anabaptist movement. It didn’t serve well on several fronts. One thing was that it gave a distorted extreme view of Anabaptism and started polarizing the populace at large against the Anabaptists. Another was that it, along with other error-filled “spirit-led” episodes that even escalated into violence, distanced the whole movement away from wholeheartedly embracing prophecy and the manifestations of the spirit.

A dramatic example of Anabaptist spirit-led movement and prophecy gone wrong is in the “the Kingdom of Munster.” Anabaptists Jan Mathijz and John Beuckelszoon declared the city of Munster the New Jerusalem in January 1534. In February they seized control of city hall and appointed Bernard Knipperdolling the mayor. They instituted a theocracy, and announced that from there they would conquer the world.

In response Franz de Waldeck, the regional brince bishop, laid siege to Munster. On Easter Sunday, Mathijsz prophesied an incredible victory along the lines of Gideon and his mighty men. He thus charged out in faith with just 30 men against the enemy forces. They were quickly killed, suffering indignantly including de Waldeck’s head being paraded on a pole and his genitals nailed to the city gate.

Amazingly, John of Lieden subsequently declared Munster “a city if a thousand years” with himself as king. He declared all property communal (communism), and instituted polygamy. Incredibly, he had to behead one of his 16 wives in the public square for some transgression.

The city was eventually overrun by, get this, a combined force of Catholic and Lutheran soldiers. (Even though the Protestants and Catholics were enemies they amazingly banded together against the Anabaptists.) In June 1535 the city was overtaken and within the next year the Anabaptist leaders suffered cruel torture ending in death. [2]

Melchior Hoffman, an Anabaptist leader in the Netherlands, documented some prophetic messages in pamphlets he distributed. Hoffman so believed in these prophecies that he put his life on the line to tragic results. Here is the story as recounted in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.

“This willingness to die Hoffman was soon to prove in prison. His thoughts were centered on the imminent end of the world. He was firmly convinced that he was called to take a part as Elijah in the return of Christ. He was confirmed in this idea by the prophecy of an old Frisian Anabaptist that he would lie in prison half a year, and would then at the head of his adherents lead Anabaptism to victory over all the world.
In an exalted mood he entered upon his trip to Strasbourg. In the spring of 1533 he arrived there. Now he no longer remained in concealment. To be sure, he avoided appearing in public meetings, and he tried to avert the suspicion that he was fomenting insurrection; but in the house of the goldsmith Valtin Duft where he was staying his adherents streamed together. The city council maintained silence, and tolerated this activity. For two months he was unmolested; then he himself approached the council as if to have himself arrested. In May 1533 he sent a letter to the council, with a booklet, Vom Schwert, which has been lost, explaining that the kingdom of Christ would begin in Strasbourg, but it would be preceded by a terrible slaughter of (unbelieving) men; he awaited the fulfillment of these events here, and until that time would go about with bare head and bare feet, taking only bread and water.
The council met the prophet’s desire, and in May 1533 had him arrested. Melchior Hoffman rejoiced. Now the awaited great time was at hand. Upon his imprisonment he thanked God (zur Linden, 322). Now his arrest was truly a mistake and a grave injustice, for insurrection and revolt were not to be feared from Melchior Hoffman. On the contrary, if anyone could have done so, he would have been able to direct the entire movement in Holland and Münster in peaceful paths.

Hoffman’s confinement was at first mild. His friends were permitted to visit him and receive from him oral instruction and written information. In May 1533 he had to undergo two hearings. He defended himself successfully against the charge of having seditious plans. His defense was approximately as follows: He did not claim to be a prophet, but a witness of the supreme God and an apostolic teacher. This honorable title did not apply to the regular preachers, for all of them preached themselves rich. He did not oppose the office of preaching as a matter of principle; but pastors should be chosen from the oldest and most honest, and these should be permitted to own a home to shelter poor traveling brethren. But an apostle may own no property; he must always be ready to go wherever God may send him to proclaim the Word; his preaching would contribute only to his poverty; for he would have to leave all his possessions in exchange for a constant prospect of stocks and pillory.”[3]

The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online gives another example of erroneous prophecy in this account on the same web page as above:

“In June of 1539 the four Strasbourg preachers (Bucer, Capito, Hedio, and Zell) conferred with Melchior Hoffman, as they thought with success. But in November the prisoner informed the Ammeister of the city, on bits of paper cut from books, that the city should provide itself with food and munitions, for there would be great suffering in the coming siege; he had received high revelations, which he could give the council if they would furnish him paper and ink. These were refused, and his remaining books taken from him.”[2]

In these examples, we have clear evidence of false prophecies as in each case they simply did not come to pass. The disastrous results of following such prophecies understandably led more and more of the remaining Anabaptists to steer clear of Anabaptists claiming to have guidance from prophecies and visions. Also that some of these prophesies advocated the use of force to take political power was instrumental in later Anabaptists taking a stand for Pacifism.

Before the reader assumes that all Anabaptist spiritual activities were wrong let’s re-examine the statements of Pilgram Marpeck. In evaluating the leading of the holy spirit Marpeck reviews some false teachings by prophets telling some to abandon baptism and holy communion (See XVI.2.5 Anabaptism had its own Pentecostal Movement.) He acknowledged that miraculous things were still happening, even people being raised from the dead. His conclusions included that the spirit is necessary and at work. He also said that the prophets need to be judged:

“Christ bids us to recognize prophets not by miraculous signs, but by their fruits (Mt 7) “ [4]

Marpeck exemplified the new, less politically rebellious and less inclined toward Pentecostalism type of Anabaptist that developed after some of the disastrous spiritualistic happenings like St Gall and Munster.

Successive generation of Anabaptists, somewhat like the generations after the original Apostles, became more regimented in living the new insights that the originators had gleaned in walking the true Christian walk while seeing less and less activity of the holy spirit.

[1] THE RADICAL REFORMATION, George Huntston Williams, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1962 p. 127-133
[2] THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY, David Bentley Hart, Quercus, London, 2007, p. 197
[3] Neff, Christian and Werner O. Packull. “Hoffman, Melchior (ca. 1495-1544?) .” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 28 March 2010. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H646.html.
[4] THE WRITINGS OF PILGRAM MARPECK, translated and edited by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, Herald Press, Scottdale PA, 1978, p. 51

©copyright 2010-2021 Mark W. Smith, all rights reserved. last edited 7/21/2021

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