Establishment Anabaptists, part 1: David Joris’ authority and Menno Simons

This multi-part post is the first in the Anabaptist Streams series here on Young Anabaptist Radicals, in which we’ll be looking at different streams of early Anabaptism and making connections with our own context. The series will feature different authors over the coming months and is loosely based on Rodney Sawatsky’s model of four streams of Anabaptism. It will feature different authors over the coming months, each looking at a different stream.

In this article (and two following) I’ll focus on the Davidites, a little known Anabaptist sect that had a tremendous impact on Menno Simons and the group that became the Mennonites, what Sawatsky identifies as the establishment stream. The Davidites were the followers of David Joris, an urban prophet responding to massive disruption of the traditional social fabric, what Ferdinand Tönnies called Gemeinschaft (Graham and Haidt, 376). Understanding Joris can help us understand Mennonites and how they became who they are today. I’ll be drawing heavily on Gary Waite’s David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism, 1524-1543.

David JorisDavid Joris, painted between 1635 and 1665. From Wikipedia

We’ll start by looking at how Joris established his authority as a leader. Anabaptists as a movement rejected traditional sources of authority, so the question of how to organize their own communities was constantly evolving.

Joris’ story embodies this approach to authority of the radical reformation. His work in Delft from 1524 to 1528 had all the hallmarks of an urban dissident: pamphleteering far and wide against the church and visiting religious dissenters in jail. This culminated on Ascension day in 1528, when he disrupted a church service to denounce the Procession of the Host. He was arrested and held for eleven weeks. Thanks to his aristocratic family ties he avoided the death penalty the inquisitor demanded and was only banished from Delft (Waite 52-54).

As Joris got older, he moved away from visible challenges to the state and church hierarchy and began to establish his own authority as a prophet. This shift was likely influenced by the Dutch Anabaptist tradition of a single strong, charismatic leadership (Waite 119) and the Melchiorite emphasis on prophecy, apocalypticism and the authority of the holy spirit. In the years after his exile from Delft, Joris would have watched Anabaptism as preached by Melchior Hoffman spreading like wild fire through the cities of the Netherlands (Nijhoff 119).

In the winter of 1534-35 Joris was rebaptized. This came in the midst of a widespread invitation for Melchiorites to go to Münster to support the creation of the New Jerusalem, but Joris did not go there. Joris was immediately recognized as a leader in the movement due to his hymn writing and commissioned by Obbe Philips as a “bishop or teacher”. (Waite 65-66)

Like Menno Simons, Joris was strongly drawn into leadership with the fall of Münster in. However, Joris’ approach to reviving the Dutch Anabaptist movement was dramatically different from Simons. Whereas Simons approach was one of using scripture to chastise those who had gone astray (Snyder 216), Joris took the approach of diplomacy and reconciliation. Beginning with the post-Münster Bocholt gathering of Anabaptist leaders Joris drew on his charismatic abilities to establish himself as the new leader of the Melchiorites (Waite 92). His stature as the new leader of Dutch Anabaptism was recognized even by his enemy, Jan van Batenburg in his confession after his arrest (Waite 120).

Joris visions at the end of 1536 led him to an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership. This culminated in his debates with Melchiorites in Strasbourgh. Waite says:

Clearly Joris accepted no challenge to his authority or revision of his teachings. He left the participants little room for genuine dialogue. They could either reject his word as inspired by the devil or accept is as the message of God. Such a view could only spawn a relationship in which the prophet held almost cultic sway over his follower. (Waite, 134)

Ultimately, Joris attempts to convince the Strasbourg Melchiorites of his divine inspiration failed due to their growing skepticism of authority. Waite quotes Strasbourg leader, Peter Tasch saying “Should we have believed all of those who have claimed to have spoken in the Spirit?… If I stood in your place, would you believe me?” (Waite, 133). Here we see the limits of Joris’ claims to charismatic authority in an Anabaptist movement adjusting its moral reasoning to an urban context.

It was this dependence on his own charismatic authority that Meno Simons honed in on in his critique of Joris. He said Joris “had abandoned these teachings and replaced them with his own imaginings, philosophies and deceit.” (Ziljstra 253)

When it came to relating to women, Joris was particularly authoritarian. In his debate with the Strasboug Melchiorites, he denied the write of Anabaptist leader Barbara Rebstock to speak at all (Waite 131) In “Münster and the Anabaptists” Hsia R. Po-chia draws the connection between this repression of women and attempts to return to the ways of the clan:

In spite of the initial excitement and promises of the Evangelical and Anabaptist movements, the Reformation in Münster represented an attempt to subjugate women by restricting their social and religious roles, by transforming them, ultimately, into obedient (and protected) wives and daughters of a polygamous, patriarchal, and sacred tribe” (Hsia 60)

In Hsia’s analysis, we see the connection that Joris was continuing the Münsterite suppression of women as an attempt to recreate the traditional patriarchal structure of Gemeinschaft.

In part 2 we’ll look at how Joris’ approach to boundaries contrasted with that of Mennonites.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. “Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness Are Foundations of Morality.” Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification. By John T. Jost, Hulda Thorisdottir, and Aaron C. Kay. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 371-401. Print.

Hsia, R. Po-Chia. “Münster and the Anabaptists.” In The German People and the Reformation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 50-69. Print.

Krahn, Cornelius. Dutch Anabaptism. Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought (1450-1600). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. Print.

Snyder, Arnold C. Anabaptist History and Theology: an Introduction. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora, 1995. Print.

Waite, Gary K. David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism 1524-1543. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1990. Print.

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5 Responses to “Establishment Anabaptists, part 1: David Joris’ authority and Menno Simons”

  1. Eddie Gonzalez Says:

    Excellent start. Looking forward to the next installments and seeing the development.

  2. J Fehr Says:

    There’s an unusual jump in this text. First you say “Whereas Simons approach was one of using scripture to chastise those who had gone astray (Snyder 216), Joris took the approach of diplomacy and reconciliation.” Then almost immediately thereafter: “Joris’ visions at the end of 1536 led him to an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership.” What? Visions lead to authoritarianism? That seems a bit superficial.

    And recent scholarship suggests a much more complex situation in Münster than Hsia suggests. They weren’t just a bunch of crazies and misogynists - in some respects they were much more acceptive of women’s rights than was usual in their society. Nor were they prone to violent behaviour any more than others of their day. The Münster story is still dominated by the bad press it got for many hundreds of years.

  3. TimN Says:

    JJ,

    My reading of Joris’ path is that in 1536, his visions led him move away from diplomacy and reconciliation and towards more of the style of a cult leader, claiming divine revelation (in the form of visions) as the basis for his authority. I back that up with the quote from Waite that immediately follows:

    Clearly Joris accepted no challenge to his authority or revision of his teachings. He left the participants little room for genuine dialogue. They could either reject his word as inspired by the devil or accept is as the message of God. Such a view could only spawn a relationship in which the prophet held almost cultic sway over his follower. (Waite, 134)

    So that’s my response in terms of content. In terms of editing, I can see how I could have made that point more clearly. Duly noted for any future revisions.

    I’m very interested in hearing more about this emerging line of thinking about Münster as not as crazy or misogynist as claimed. I haven’t heard of it before.

    KevinD will be writing the piece on the Transformationist stream. I don’t know if he’s planning to include Münster or not. Are there particular sources you’d recommend? Would you be interested in writing your own YAR piece specifically on Münster?

  4. KevinD Says:

    I will be including Munster when I cover Muntzer, but it will probably be a significant piece of the Muntzer blog rather than it’s own.

  5. Week’s Links | Says:

    […] Establishment Anabaptists, part 1: David Joris’ authority and Menno Simons (Young Anabaptist Radicals) […]

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