Holy Horrors: Christian persecution of Anabaptists

(Image credit: Jan Luyken / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Although Catholics and Protestants were mortal enemies during most of the Reformation, they united to kill certain Christians for the crime of double baptism.

“A larger proportion of Anabaptists were martyred for their faith than any other Christian group in history—including even the early Christians on whom they modeled themselves,” British scholar Bamber Gascoigne wrote.

The Anabaptists rejected traditional infant baptism. They said baptism should be for thinking adults, so they rebaptized mature converts. When they first did so in Zwingli’s Switzerland in 1525, Protestant leaders of Zurich sentenced them to death, basing the verdict on the Justinian Code, which mandates execution for baptizing twice. The Swiss Anabaptists were ordered drowned—which was deemed a fitting end for those wanting immersion.

Despite the persecution, Anabaptism spread rapidly to the Low Countries and Germany. At the Diet of Speyer in 1529, both Catholics and Lutherans agreed to put Anabaptists to death. Martin Luther publicly affirmed the edict in 1531. Around Europe, many were drowned, burned, beheaded.

During the slaughter, one group of Anabaptists turned to bizarre behavior. They seized control of Munster, Germany, and banished all Catholics and Protestants who wouldn’t convert to the new faith. Outside the city walls, the bishop of Munster brought an army and began a siege. Inside the walls, Anabaptist leader John of Leyden proclaimed himself king of the New Zion, took several wives, and imposed the death penalty for numerous infractions. Historian Hendrick van Loon recounted:

“In that community of starving men and suffering children came the period of hallucinations when the populace suffered from a diversity of religious manias; when the marketplace was crowded day and night with thousands of men and women awaiting the trumpet blasts of the angel Gabriel. Then came the period of terror, when the prophet kept up the courage of his flock by a constant orgy of blood and cut the throat of one of his own queens.”

Finally the bishop’s army captured Munster and wrought vengeance. The Anabaptist leaders were tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies were hung in iron cages from a church steeple, where they remained for many years.

“Such leaders as had escaped the carnage at Munster were hunted down like rabbits and killed wherever found,” Van Loon added. Surviving fragments of the Anabaptist movement eventually became the modern Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterians.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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