Anabaptists

From Anarchy in Action

Jump to: navigation, search

Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works:

In the years immediately prior to the [1524 German Peasants' War], a number of Anabaptist prophets began travelling around the region espousing revolutionary ideas against political authority, church doctrine, and even against the reforms of Martin Luther. These people included Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch, Mark Thomas Stübner, and most famously, Thomas Müntzer. Some of them argued for total religious freedom, the end of non-voluntary baptism, and the abolition of government on earth. Needless to say they were persecuted by Catholic authorities and by supporters of Luther and banned from many cities, but they continued to travel around Bohemia, Bavaria, and Switzerland, winning supporters and stoking peasant rebelliousness.

In 1524, peasants and urban workers met in the Schwarzwald region of Germany and drafted the 12 Articles of the Black Forest, and the movement they created quickly spread. The articles, with Biblical references used as justification, called for the abolition of serfdom and the freedom of all people; the municipal power for people to elect and remove preachers; the abolition of taxes on cattle and inheritance; a prohibition on the privilege of the nobility to arbitrarily raise taxes; free access to water, hunting, fishing, and the forests; and the restoration of communal lands expropriated by the nobility. Another text printed and circulated in massive quantity by the insurgents was the Bundesordnung, the federal order, which expounded a model social order based on federated municipalities. Less literate elements of the movement were even more radical, as judged by their actions and the folklore they left behind; their goal was to wipe the nobility off the face of the earth and institute a mysticist utopia then and there.

Social tension increased throughout the year, as authorities tried to prevent outright rebellion by suppressing rural gatherings such as popular festivals and weddings. In August 1524, the situation finally errupted at Stühlingen in the Black Forest region. A countess demanded that the peasants render her a special harvest on a church holiday. Instead the peasants refused to pay all taxes and formed an army of 1200 people, under the leadership of a former mercenary, Hans Müller. They marched to the town of Waldshut and were joined by the townspeople, and then marched on the castle at Stühlingen and besieged it. Realizing they needed some kind of military structure, they decided to elect their own captains, sergeants, and corporals. In September they defended themselves from a Hapsburg army in an indecisive battle, and subsequently refused to lay down their arms and beg pardon when entreated to do so. That autumn peasant strikes, refusals to pay tithes, and rebellions broke out throughout the region, as peasants extended their politics from individual complaints to a unified rejection of the feudal system as a whole.

With the spring thaw of 1525, fighting resumed with a ferocity. The peasant armies seized cities and executed large numbers of clergy and nobility. But in February the Schwabian League, an alliance of nobility and clergy in the region, achieved a victory in Italy, where they had been fighting on behalf of Charles V, and were able to bring their troops home and devote them to crushing the peasants. Meanwhile Martin Luther, the burghers, and the progressive princes withdrew all their support and called for the annihilation of the revolutionary peasants; they wanted to reform the system, not to destroy it, and the uprising had already sufficiently destabilized the power structure. Finally on May 15, 1525, the main peasant army was decisively defeated at Frankenhausen; Müntzer and other influential leaders were seized and executed, and the rebellion was put down. However, over the following years the Anabaptist movement spread throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and peasant revolts continued to break out, in the hopes that one day the church and the state would be destroyed for good.

Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy

Kropotkin, in his essay on the origin of the state, mentions the Anabaptist movement as an example of anarchism, although present day members of Anabaptist sects and atheist oriented anarchists would undoubtedly be a little disturbed at such an association. Modern legatees of Anabaptism are the Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite sects. Basic to their teaching is the 'two Kingdoms' theology, which has its roots ultimately in Augustine's City of God. To Augustine there are two cities: the earthly city of self love and contempt for God and the heavenly city of love of God and contempt for self. The latter, or city of God, manifests itself on earth in the church. Since the church has elements both of the heavenly and earthly cities, it should not be identified as the city of the God. The state corresponds to the earthly city. A true Christian state works in close relation with the church, promotes the church and secures the peace. Church and Christian state are inextricably bound together in mutual dependence and obligation.

This scheme, which became the model for the medieval conception of church state relations was modified by the Anabaptists. Thus the earthly city or kingdom represented by government and the state is seen as 'worldly' and un-Christian. There can be no such thing as a Christian state or government since it is founded upon the principle of the legitimate use of violence to compel obedience to law. Since violence cannot be used by Christians, they therefore cannot participate in government or in the administration of the state. Furthermore, Christians being right-minded individuals and members of the church, and therefore of the Kingdom of God, have no need for governments. Governments as institutions of the kingdom of this world are for worldly, evil-doing people. As long as there are the latter, governments are necessary. Christians must stand aloof from them to avoid participation in their operation. At the same time they should be obedient to them where it is within their conscience to be so. They should render unto Caesar. Such rendering, however, does not include being a member of a military organisation or a police force. Nor does it mean holding political offices or voting for them or serving on juries, which may send men to prison or to their death.

The true Christian is a member of the Kingdom of God through the earthly organisation of the kingdom, which is the church. This in turn, is the community of believers and of those who practice the teachings of Christ in everyday life. In lieu of secular government, believers are under the guidance of congregations of which they are full, equal and voluntary members. The church is a voluntary contractual association; one does not have to belong. The member is expected to live according to the doctrine and the rules of the church. Such doctrine and regulations are not determined by an elite body of hierarchs, but represent the collective product of the total religious community.

There are, however, clergy who are elected by lot from among the members of the congregation and they lead the church rituals and take a major role in interpreting church doctrine and in dealing with alleged wrongdoers. The ministers and bishops are the men of influence in the community who are at least readily able to sway a large part of a congregation, if not all, to their way of thinking. They do not have the power to make decisions arbitrarily by themselves, however. When a member of a congregation is accused of wrongdoing his or her case is heard by the whole membership and decided by it. The ultimate punishment is 'disfellowshiping' in which the errant member is expelled from membership, which in the close knit highly integrated order of the Anabaptist congregation has always meant a serious punishment. Before a person is given such a sentence, however, he is encouraged to make a public confession before the assembled congregation and ask for forgiveness. Such a request is invariably granted and the matter is ended. Refusal to do so is considered a defiance of the entire church and this defiance of the community ultimately, then, becomes the most serious offence. Disfellowship means not only that one is expelled from membership, but also that one is totally shunned by all the church and cannot share in the religious services. It is in this general manner that Hutterite colonies and Amish congregations operate today. They have no police or courts and do not apply to them, but settle their dispute within their own communities in a system without government or the state, but founded, of course, on the ultimate sanction of God's disapproval. Such a system, as much as others we have discussed, requires firm belief in the power of the supernatural sanctions. It demands such a dependence upon the community of believers that shunning and disfellowship are perceived as excruciating punishment and so are effective deterrents to deviant behaviour. Some so punished would not find it easy to continue in defiance of the congregation and at the same time continue residing among its members.

Unlike the other communities described thus far these Anabaptist groups exist within states, so that they have always been ultimately subject to the law and force of a given government, although as far as they are concerned this would not in any way make their system of social control for themselves any different than if they were not subjects of nation states. Many such groups, for example, the Hutterites, have the characteristics of intentional communities which are discussed below.