The German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods


227 pages
Contains Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0842-2
DDC 284'.3'09031




Reviewed by J.B. Snelson

J.B. Snelson is a librarian, bibliographer, and antiquarian bookstore
owner in Wolfville.


The experience of the Dutch and North German Anabaptists was such as to
lead rather quickly to theological and historical studies. The same
cannot be said of that of the South German, Austrian, and Tyrolean
Anabaptists. This means that most studies of the Anabaptists
concentrates on the Mennonites and other northern groups and generally
take these to be representative of the Anabaptist experience. This is
not necessarily true.

Anabaptism existed in the south prior to 1524. But, although both found
in the crisis of that year fertile grounds for growth, few Anabaptists
were not greatly affected by the suppression that followed. The German
Peasants’ War, somewhat like the Holy Roman Empire, was not German,
not particularly involving peasants as the main participants (except in
the propaganda of those who suppressed the uprising), and not really a
war. Initially it was an attempt by towns and villages to extend the
Swiss experiment. The result was a re-establishment of the power of the
nobles, whose methods would do credit to the Gestapo. Of the
intellectuals of the day, only Martin Luther and his followers were not
shocked by the brutality of the Habsburgs and their agents.

Then 10 years later, in 1534, came the siege and sack of Munster, where
many survivors of 1424-25 had found refuge. Those who got there first,
or who had been able to retain some movable wealth, found themselves
dealing with many destitute fellow believers, whom they felt obliged to
aid as best they could. This led to two related views among those who
now made their way to Moravia. The first was that it was simply
impossible for a ruler to be a Christian. The second was that Acts 2 and
4 described the way the Christian was supposed to live—that is, in a
society where the wealth of the community was administered by the
community and distributed according to need.

The few highly educated individuals were quickly eliminated by the
authorities. Even those of lesser training did not last long. The
distrust of authority and special training led to the leadership of
craftsmen such as Jakob Hutter, who were not theologians, whatever else
they were. The Hutterite leader thus rose through the ranks and had
little special training in either theology or administration.
Repression, constant movement, massacres, and other hazards also led to
many groups’ splitting, with each group following the local survivor
with the best ability. Personality and other differences thus led to
many schisms and splinter groups.

The result is that groups were short-lived, and those that survived,
such as the Hutterites, are often smaller and have less overall
influence than their northern compatriots. This has meant that they are
not as well known as they deserve. Of course, in many cases, the
documentation is both fragmentary and not especially enlightening. It
takes something of a detective to flesh out the sources.

Stayer has taken an important step toward increasing our understanding
of the South German Anabaptist experience. His is a historical study,
not a theological one: hence, the beliefs of the participants are of
less concern than identifying who was doing what, and when. This makes
for a somewhat bloodless and spiritless work, the more so because it is
densely written and must often deal with details of scholarship in
establishing what the facts were.

Still, this is a viable and important work on the origins of the
Hutterites and the South German Anabaptist movement. Stayer has greatly
extended our understanding of the subject. One can hope that it will be
the foundation for more studies that will show something of the spirit
and humanity of the South German, Austrian, and Tyrolean Anabaptists. A
scholarly masterpiece, if not a literary one.


Stayer, James M., “The German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed October 1, 2023,