Tell me if this sounds familiar: a man says he’s a prophet by virtue of visions he’s had. He believes the original church of Jesus Christ needs to be restored, and that people need to be re-baptized in order to be true followers of Christ. Part of the restoration includes bringing back polygamy as lived by some people in the Old Testament. He believes Zion needs to be built up and talks about the New Jerusalem. He says the millennium is coming soon where Jesus will destroy his enemies and reign on earth with his true believers. Sounds a lot like Joseph Smith, right? All of those things apply to Joseph Smith, but they also apply to Jan van Leiden, a leader of the Anabaptist rebellion of 1534-1535 in Münster, Germany.
I spent two years in Germany as a missionary for the LDS church, but I had never heard of the Anabaptist rebellion until recently when I listened to the excellent podcast “Hardcore History: Prophets of Doom.” Apparently this is a story much more well-known in Germany and Holland. In the 1500’s, Martin Luther was revolutionizing religion by saying everyone should be able to read the Bible for themselves. He wanted to reform the Catholic church because he thought the Catholics had strayed from what the Bible actually says. Some people didn’t think Martin Luther went far enough, which turned into the Radical Reformation. People believed there was a Great Apostasy (I think I’ve heard of that before) and that the Catholic church no longer represented God’s kingdom on earth. One group that was part of the Radical Reformation were the Anabaptists, which means “one who baptizes again”. They didn’t believe in infant baptism, so that their followers who would have been baptized as infants needed to be baptized as adults.
In 1534 Anabaptists lead an insurrection to control the city of Münster, Germany. The leader was Jan Matthys, who was regarded as a prophet by his followers. Jan Matthys had had a vision that the apocalypse would soon come and that Münster would be the New Jerusalem. Anyone outside of the city walls would be destroyed. But before that happened, the city needed to be cleansed of unbelievers. Lutherans fled the city, while Anabaptists gathered into the city. This didn’t go over very well with Franz van Waldeck, the Roman Catholic bishop of Münster. He started a barricade and siege of the city to try to restore his control.
Matthys preached that the people should live communally (United Order, anyone?) and demanded everyone turn in their money and possessions. Those who didn’t fall in line were threatened with death, so they had no choice but to go along with it. He also burned all the books in the city except for the scriptures. Eventually he said God told him it was time to attack the bishop’s forces outside the walls, and that God would protect him and grant a glorious victory. He rode with just a few other soldiers, and they were quickly killed by the bishop’s large army. Matthys’ head was put on a spike and his genitals nailed to the city door.
Jan van Leiden took up Matthys’ mantel of prophet. Like Matthys, van Leiden also claimed to have had visions. He instituted polygamy and used the Old Testament and his prophetic calling to justify it. As Matthys, van Leiden preached that the Anabaptists in Münster would prevail. The prophecies never came true, though. After a year-long siege, the Catholics prevailed and van Leiden and two others leaders were brutally and publicly tortured and executed.
Fortunately Joseph Smith was nowhere as violent as Matthys (although Joseph did have the Danites, but that’s another story). So how are Joseph Smith, Jan Matthys and Jan van Leiden prophets of doom? All of them prophesied that the millennium was coming soon, and that their enemies would be destroyed by an apocalypse. The Book of Mormon is very apocalyptical: both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed in a kind of genocidal apocalypse, and the Book of Mormon prophesies that if the gentiles don’t repent, the seed of Joseph (the Lamanites, i.e. the American Indians) will rise up and destroy the gentiles. Joseph Smith also dictated modern prophecies that Matthys and van Leiden might have been proud of:
D&C 29:14-19 (emphasis added):
14. But, behold, I say unto you that before this great day shall come the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall be turned into blood, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and there shall be greater signs in heaven above and in the earth beneath;
15. And there shall be weeping and wailing among the hosts of men;
16. And there shall be a great hailstorm sent forth to destroy the crops of the earth.
17. And it shall come to pass, because of the wickedness of the world, that I will take vengeance upon the wicked, for they will not repent; for the cup of mine indignation is full; for behold, my blood shall not cleanse them if they hear me not.
18. Wherefore, I the Lord God will send forth flies upon the face of the earth, which shall take hold of the inhabitants thereof, and shall eat their flesh, and shall cause maggots to come in upon them;
19. And their tongues shall be stayed that they shall not utter against me; and their flesh shall fall from off their bones, and their eyes from their sockets;
It’s interesting to see how history repeats itself. Did Joseph Smith know the history of the Anabaptists, or was he unaware of the way his beliefs and actions were echoing those who came 300 years before? It’s fascinating how many parallels there are between the Anabaptists and not just the Mormons, but other sects of the Second Great Awakening and the Restoration Movement: people had visions that gave them legitimacy as prophets, they reinstituted what they considered to be Jesus’ original organization in order to overcome the Great Apostasy, they practiced polygamy in the name of God and prepared for the world’s destruction and the triumph of God’s people.
It’s tempting to believe modern prophets of doom would not find a willing audience, but in more recent times we’ve seen the likes of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Warren Jeffs. I hope one day everyone will realize the world isn’t going to end in an apocalypse. Instead, it’s up to us to make the most of the world we live in. God isn’t going to do it for us. If anything like a millennial peace is going to happen, we will be the means of bringing that peace and prosperity to the world.