The siege of Oldeklooster, 1535: A turning-point in Mennonite history

(Click the images for more details.)

This week (late March-early April 2015) marks the 480th anniversary of the siege of Oldeklooster in Frisia. Oldeklooster was a monastery near Bolsward that a group of about 300 people who authorities labeled Anabaptists (wederdoper),  used as a refuge or (so their enemies asserted) a point from which to attack surrounding territories. The people labeled Anabaptists rejected child baptism in favor of believer’s baptism, and largely as a consequence of this belief they were considered criminals by state authorities, whether or not they committed any violence.

The siege in Frisia was related to the siege of the city of Münster, Westphalia, that began in February 1534. In both Frisia and Westphalia, supporters of believer’s baptism trusted that God would rescue them from persecution, and they hoped the fortifications of Münster and Oldeklooster would protect them until divine help came. Each siege ended with the death of many of the defenders.

These tragic events are important in Mennonite history because Menno Simons and other early leaders struggled in the 1530s and 1540s to come to terms with the violence in which their baptist brothers and sisters had become entangled. For generations to come Calvinists, Catholics and Lutherans spread the idea that Mennonites and other supporters of believer’s baptism were religious and political fanatics. These propagandists cited the events at Oldeklooster as one of their examples. They considered the brutal violence that authorities had used against the Anabaptists to be justified. Mennonites, in turn, distanced themselves from their Anabaptist forebears.

The prints included with this post are examples of the propaganda that haunted Mennonites in the 17th century.