In New Jerusalem, Paul Ham tells a story of religious obsession and persecution, of noble ideals trampled to dust, of slavish sexual surrender . . . all in the name of Christ.
In February 1534 a radical religious sect whose disciples were being persecuted throughout Europe seized the walled city of Münster, in the German-speaking land of Westphalia. They were convinced they were God’s Elect, specially chosen by the Almighty to be the first to ascend to Paradise on Judgement Day.
'Cannibalising' the body of Christ:
How could the Apostles have eaten His flesh and drunk His blood while He sat beside them, the Anabaptists wondered? Had the Lord sliced off pieces of Himself in their presence? And how could we, they asked, 1500 years later, devour Christ’s corpse while He sits in Heaven at the right hand of God? What sort of father would allow his son to be bitten, chewed and digested, his body to be ‘shitted out’ and his blood drunk and pissed? Such acts were a desecration of the Son of Man, and a shocking heresy, they argued.
The wrath of Rome:
By strange and terrible increments, then, the Anabaptists drew the wrath of Christendom upon themselves. And the world bore down on these ‘brothers and sisters’ of ‘the company of Christ’ with terrific force. Here was not a ‘faith’ but an abomination, a mob of devil-led ‘rebaptisers’, a ‘foul disease’, ‘vermin’ and ‘senseless unchristian animals’, who defiled Christ’s words and mocked the holiest sacraments.
Many went happily to their deaths, singing with joy, dancing around the scaffold as though it were a maypole. For them, this was the beginning, not the end. Death was a divine reunion with the Lord, a beautiful wedding. In the Swabian town of Kaufbeuren, in 1528, one Anabaptist actually embraced and kissed his executioner.
Nobody suspected that the convulsions of the Reformation would settle here, with so many faiths scrabbling to possess the soul of the people. It was as though God had chosen Münster as a microcosm of Christ’s kingdom on earth, compressing every gradation of worship into this humble little town.
The road to Münster:
For many, this was their first journey from home. They were entering a world that detested them, the prospect of which loomed in their minds like an Old Testament landscape: the baleful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the savage land of Noah’s before the flood, the terrifying path of Exodus from Egypt. And everywhere they saw cruelty, famine, conflict, moral decay and sexual abandon.
And for the first time in her life a woman enjoyed a spiritual identity, a direct relationship with Christ, who cared specifically for her. Baptism and freedom of conscience had made women ‘the spiritual equals of men’.
The law of polygamy:
A spirit of riotous sexual abandon now gripped parts of the city. Hundreds of married men, drunk and engorged by lust, seized the chance to take a second wife. And a third. And a fourth. They rushed around town with a kind of bestial urgency, free to indulge their sexual fantasies in God’s name. They tore open the doors of the houses ‘in which they knew a woman or a virgin or young maiden’ lived. Half a dozen were often seen chasing a single pretty girl up the street, in a race to accumulate the most wives...
The city starves:
So they resorted to roasting rodents, snakes, frogs, hedgehogs, birds and bats on spits over communal fires. And when these grew scarce, they ate slugs, snails, grasses, shoots and bark. And then they sucked on leather, and old shoes, and even gnawed on chalk and tallow candles. A few crazed citizens thought the Lord, in His pity, had turned the paving stones into loaves and tried to bite into them.
"Ham succeeds impressively. In my judgment this is the most readable narrative of Anabaptist rule in Münster. Ham presents a vivid and broadly correct history of Melchior Hoffman, Bernhard Rothmann, Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leiden and how they created a New Jerusalem in Münster in Westphalia from February 1534 to June 1535. He has read very widely in the English translations of studies of Anabaptist Münster, going back to Leopold von Ranke in the 1850s; and he has had some of the untranslated German studies translated for him." - Professor James Stayer, Professor Emeritus at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
"Ham tells the story of Münster and its people with passion, compassion and a vivid eye for the physical details of a town in crisis. This is the first popular history of the siege for several decades, and it is a riveting book. New Jerusalem vividly synthesizes existing scholarship, and makes use of skilled translators for the quotations that give the book a sense of immediacy. Ham's focus on the polemics of religious identity and the politics of fear make it a book for our times." ― Dr Jennifer Spinks, Hansen Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne, The Sydney Morning Herald
Conversations with Richard Fidler, ABC Radio