The term for revolutionary socialism during the Reformation was Anabaptism. The Anabaptists, while they claimed to be “true” Christians, denied virtually all the content of the faith.
They rejected biblical law, rebelled against the Church’s government, ministry, worship, and sacraments, and turned from orthodoxy to a multitude of heretical doctrines. They were forthrightly socialist, using the old techniques of envy- and guilt-manipulation: “It is impossible to be Christian and wealthy at the same time,” they proclaimed. Thus they formed Christian communes, in which all possessions-yes, wives. too-were shared among the Brethren, and from which they published their radical, egalitarian dogmas: “Therefore it ought to be that all authorities, secular and clerical, be deprived of their offices once and for all or be killed by the sword . . .”
The stories of two important Anabaptist leaders, Thomas Muntzer (or Munzer) and John of Leyden, are crucial for an understanding ofthe nature of Christian Socialism, and a likely intimation of where it is headed in the future. Miintzer and John of Leyden are given extended treatment by Shafarevich in a twenty- page, small-print appendix to his chapter on the heresies. Muntzer, a vagrant preacher and organizer of conspiracies, early established a pattern of rebellion against authorities in the name of Christ. After many escapades and scrapes with the law, he finally established a revolutionary base in Miihlhausen, Germany, from whence he issued proclamations damning landowners, magistrates, and the Reformers (“I would like to smell your frying car- cass,” he wrote to Luther).
Friedrich Engels summarized Muntzer’s doctrines: “Under the cloak of Christianity he preached a kind of pantheism, which curiously resembled modem speculative contemplation and at times even approached atheism. He repudiated the Bible both as the only and as the infallible revelation. The real and living revelation, he said, was reason, a revelation which existed and always exists among all peoples at all times. To hold up the Bible against reason, he maintained, was to kill the spirit with the letter, for the Holy Spirit of which the Bible speaks is not something that exists outside us- the Holy Spirit is our reason. Faith is nothing butreason come alive in man, and pagans could therefore also have faith. Through this faith, through reason come to life, man be- came godlike and blessed. Heaven is, therefore, nothing of another world and is to be sought in this life. It is the mission of believers to establish this Heaven, the kingdom of God, here on earth. Just as there is no Heaven in the beyond, there is also no hell and no damnation. Similarly, there is no devil but man’s evil lusts and greed. Christ was a man, as we are, a prophet and a teacher, and his supper is a plain meal of commemoration wherein bread and wine are consumed without any mystic garnish.”
Engels explained that ”by the kingdom of God Munzer meant a society without class differences, private property and a state au- thority independent of, and foreign to, the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown, all work and all property shared in common, and complete equality introduced.” And he makes this highly significant observation: “Munzer preached these doctrines mostly cloaked in the same Christian phraseology, behind which the new philosophy had to hide for some time.” By using superficially biblical language, Muntzer was able to gain a following among many who might have repudiated his damnable doctrine if it had been presented in the clear light of day as a call to envy and mass murder.
Muntzer created an army of citizens, which enforced his doctrine of equality upon the countryside by what Engels praised as its “robust vandalism”: robbing, burning, and destroying the property of the rich. “Let your swords be ever warm with blood!” Muntzer exhorted the faithful. In 1525 he was successful in rousing up all of central Germany in the bloody, so-called “Peasant Rebellion” (although, it must be carefully noted, he attracted several nobles to his side). The rebellion was eventually put down and Muntzer was executed; Luther said, “Whoever has seen Muntzer can say that he has seen the devil in the flesh, at his most ferocious.” That was before Luther saw Jan Bokelson – better known to history as Johann (or John) of Leyden.
Bokelson began his career as the disciple of the Anabaptist leader Jan Matthijs (or Matthys), who took over the town of Munster in 1534. Shafarevich describes the scene: “Armed Anabaptists broke into houses and drove out everyone who was unwilling to accept second baptism. Winter was drawing to a close; it was a stormy day and wet snow was falling. An eyewitness account describes crowds of expelled citizens walking through the knee-deep snow. They had not been allowed even to take warm clothing with them, women carrying children in their arms, old men leaning on staffs. At the city gate they were robbed once more.”
But those were the lucky ones. They, at least, escaped the reign of terror which followed, as Matthijs and Bokelson ordered the socialization of all property and ordained apostles of revolution to preach throughout Europe. The communist paradise of Munster attracted thousands of armed Anabaptists from Ger- many and Holland, and eventually a war broke out between the Munster rebels and the surrounding cities. Matthijs was killed in one of the early battles, and Bokelson took command. He established a dictatorship (in the name of equality), and issued an order for what was by now a standard Anabaptist/socialist tradi- tion: Polygamy (or, more technically, wife-sharing; as Frederick Engels observed, “It is a curious fact that in every large revolutionary movement the question of ‘free love’ comes to the foreground”). No woman was allowed to be exempt, either-there was a law against being unmarried, which meant that every girl of “marriageable age” was forced to be passed around among the men. Every woman became fair game for an anabaptist’s lust. All this led, understandably, to rapes, suicides, and severe punishments; mass executions took place almost every day. (On one notable occasion, Bokelson himself beheaded a virtuous woman who had refused his sexual advances. As he ceremoniously chopped her head off in the public square, a choir of his wives sang “Glory to God in the Highest.”) This went on for a year and a half, until the city was captured at last by the orthodox forces, who put Bokelson and his lieutenants to death for their crimes- crimes committed in the name of love, equality, and spirituality.
Shafarevich observes another very curious fact about Muntzer and Bokelson: they became the first “in a long list of revolutionary leaders” to break completely under defeat. When the end came, both Muntzer and Bokelson ran for cover (Bokelson hid in a tower, which is mildly amusing in light of the fact that, just before the city fell, he had ordered all towers to be destroyed, on the grounds that they were unfairly “superior” to other buildings; identical orders, incidentally, were issued-but not carried out during the French Revolution). When they were caught, the socialist leaders confessed, informed on their confederates, and begged for their lives to be spared. “This strange and contradictory figure will reappear in subsequent historical epochs. He is a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy when successful, but a pitiful and terrified nonentity the moment his luck turns against him.” Shafarevich explains: “An ideology that is hostile to human personality cannot serve as a point of suppport for it.”
I have necessarily omitted a great deal of Shafarevich’s material on this subject, and he has by no means told the whole story. Many other groups, with stories just as horrifying, could be mentioned, along with the various cults that served as links between pagan religions and the Anabaptist heresies. The definitive his- tory of the Anabaptist/socialist heresy has not yet been written, and it may be that the Church will never grow up until that history becomes widely known. For example, some Christian groups today regard movements such as the Donatists, the Paulicians, the Bogomils, the Petrobrusians, and the Albigenses as “forerunners of the Reformation,” or some such nonsense. They were not. They were heretical, socialist, revolutionary cults, outside the Christian faith. In truth, the Reformation was resolutely opposed to socialism and Anabaptism, because the Reformers believed, taught, and practiced the law of God. They believed it was wrong to murder, fornicate, and steal. The Anabaptists, having rejected “blueprints” and thus freed from the law, came to regard these abominations as marks of sanctification. It is no wonder that the English Reformers specifically repudiated Anabaptist socialism in their official confession of faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Article XXXVIII reads:
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.
While some scholars regard the Anabaptist movement as a product of the Reformation era, Shafarevich argues (correctly, I believe) that Anabaptism has been a unified heresy throughout the history of the Christian Church: “A striking picture emerges of a movement that lasted for fifteen centuries…. A precisely fixed set of religious ideas affecting the general attitude toward life was preserved virtually unchanged, often down to the smallest detail… The heretical movement, thoroughly hostile to the surrounding world, flares up from time to time with an all-consuming blaze of hatred.”
One obvious objection to all this, of course, would be that the Anabaptist tradition is one of pacifism, not violence; thus it is unfair, and slanderous, to lump the peaceful Anabaptists together with these bloodthirsty revolutionaries. There’s only one problem with that argument: the facts. For the bloodthirsty revolutionaries we have been discussing were pacifists! Some groups even had theological positions against the killing of animals- yet they would suddenly explode into some of the most violent orgies of destruction and mass murder known in history. “The two extremes [pacifism and violence] of the heretical movement were closely interwoven; they cannot be clearly distinguished. At times, infact, a sect switched from one extreme to the other overnight.” Shafarevich cites numerous examples of this phenomenon, and concludes: “Apparently it was possible for a sect to exist in two states, ‘militant’ and ‘peaceful,’ and the transition from one state to the other could happen suddenly, and for all practical purposes instantaneously.”
Anabaptism socialism was not a movement for reform or improvement; rather, it called for utter destruction of the Church, and indeed of the earth itself. In its fervor to establish total equality, it rejected all individuality and hierarchy, ultimately declaring that man was equal to God. The nineteenth-century historian Johann von Dollinger concluded: “Each heretical doctrine that appeared in the Middle Ages bore, in open or concealed form, a revolutionary character; in other words, had it come to power, it would have been obliged to destroy the existing state structure and implement a political and social revolution. The gnostic sects, Cathars and Albigenses, who provoked the severe and implacable medieval laws against heresies by their activities, and with whom a bloody struggle was carried on, were socialist and communist. They attacked marriage, the family and property. Had they been victorious, the result would have been a traumatic social dislocation and a relapse into barbarism.
But they were not victorious. They failed. Socialism parading as radical Christianity was shown to be a pious-sounding fraud. Orthodoxy had demonstrated that there can never be any such thing as “Christian Socialism,” because socialism is antichrist. And so the tactics changed. Socialism went secular, and it went underground as well, dropping the theological approach and turning to an avowedly autonomous, philosophical rationale instead.
It is striking that the two great opponents of that era- Reformed orthodoxy and the Anabaptist heresy- resurfaced in our age at the same time. In 1973 (the year of the socialistic, blueprint-denying Humanist Manifesto II), Ronald Sider and his Anabaptist/socialist colleagues (at least some of whom, at this writing, are still pacifists) issued the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, which brought a forthright demand for Christian socialism to the attention of Christians across the country. In the very same year, two Reformed works were published which will mean the eventual defeat of Christian socialism in our day as well: R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law and Gary North’s Introduction to Christian Economics. Just as, according to tradition, Pelagius and Augustine were born in the same year (354), so God again has brought the poison and its antidote into the world simultaneously.
Excerpted From Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators