Paul Ham
New Jerusalem: The short life and terrible death of Christendom's most defiant sect 
William Heinemann Australia, North Sydney, 2018

New Jerusalem


"A fascinating historical account, the events recounted in New Jerusalem have echoed down through the centuries and the warning they carry - against intolerance over religious differences in particular - should ring loud in our ears."

The history of Christianity is littered with violence, oddity and tragedy and this story - which takes place during the uproar of Europe's Protestant Reformation in the early to mid 16th century - has all three in spades.

Paul Ham takes a deft hand to the story of the Melchiorites, a splinter group of Anabaptists who managed to take-over the north-western German city of Munster and hold off a vastly bigger army led by the local Catholic bishop, Franz von Waldeck, for more than year.

The story starts with radical preacher Melchoir Hoffman, a Catholic-turned-Lutheran-turned radical self-proclaimed prophet and his call for the creation of a 'New Jerusalem' in the city of Strasbourg. Hoffman, who fled the city in 1529 for fear he would be arrested having previously stirred up religious strife in various other cities, returned in 1533 as the acknowledged leader of the Dutch-speaking Anabaptist movement and was arrested on charges of sedition and heresy. 

While he would spend the rest of his life in prison, the ideas Melchior had promulgated continued to gather momentum against a background of harsh repression by religious authorities (Ham says that while the figure pales in comparison to the 40,000 to 60,000 "witches" executed in Europe between 1560 and 1630, it's estimated that more than 1,000 "rebaptisers" - those who rejected infant baptism and looked for people to be baptised as adult believers - were executed, often in particularly nasty ways).

When authorities in Strasbourg outlawed Melchiorism in late 1533, the movement, seeking a new base, followed their new leader - a former master baker from Haarlem in what is now The Netherlands named John Matthias - to resettle in the Westphalian city of Munster (in what is now Germany), a previously nominally Catholic town where Lutheranism had gained a strong following.

The book then charts how the group transformed the city under leaders like Matthias, preacher Bernard Rothmann and a tailor from Leiden, John Bockelson, who was known simply as 'John of Leiden'.

What follows, as the local Catholic bishop besieged the city, is an account of increasing depravity as the leaders of the movement enacted harsh new rules - including forcing women to enter into polygamous marriages - with severe punishments, including executions, for those who did not submit. Eventually, we read, Leiden went so far as to declare himself 'king' in the belief that he would eventually rule the world.

Ham paints a colourful picture of a world in religious turmoil as well as a detailed explanation of why such movements appealed to those who joined them. But most vivid of all is his account of the horrors of what went on behind the walls of Munster, including the starvation many endured after the bishop's siege had cut off the city's food supply.

What took place in Munster was to have considerable consequences across Europe - in its aftermath, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issued an edict which demanded every Anabaptist was hunted down and be forced to recant on the rack before being put to death or sentenced to forced labour. Those who refused to recant were to be burnt alive.

"Even peaceful strains of Anabaptism were perceived as a diabolical threat," Ham writes. "They were not some fringe group; though their views were extreme, they were central actors in the Reformation, and their teaching was a logical extension of Protestant thought. Their purity of purpose and sense of social justice, and their core message of salvation through adult baptism, offered hope to the spiritually vulnerable and won sympathy among rich and poor alike. But the dark side of the faith, its fierce iconoclasm and upending of the social order, terrified the establishment - so much so that even the more tolerant cities unleashed precious crackdowns. Strasbourg, Cologen and the Rhineland were determined to eradicate these 'foreigners'."

By the end of 1540, Ham writes, Anabaptists had virtually ceased to exist in continental Europe with many having fled to America where their ideas were influential in the formation and development of the Baptist Church as we know it today.

A fascinating historical account, the events recounted in New Jerusalem have echoed down through the centuries and the warning they carry - against intolerance over religious differences in particular - should ring loud in our ears.