A Cautionary Tale about Predicting the World’s End

Melchior Hoffman was a 16th-century lay preacher who believed that he was the reincarnation of Elijah. One of his most infamous sermons was preached to the inhabitants in Strasbourg where he declared that that the Day of the Lord was at hand, meaning, that the End Times were finally here. As proof of his authority as a prophet, he proceeded to predict that he would be thrown in jail and that six months later the New Jerusalem would become a reality.

Remarkably, the city officials decided to help him out with the first part of the prophecy by actually throwing him into jail. But their plan backfired as a flock of malcontents migrated to Strasbourg because, after all, the first part of Hoffman’s prophecy just came true! So he must be a prophet! They gathered at Hoffman’s cell and listened wide-eyed as he described how in the coming days the children of God must take up arms against the children of darkness. He didn’t go into much detail about what he meant by that.

Unfortunately for Hoffman, six months came and went and no New Jerusalem appeared. But his fanatic followers refused to be discouraged. A baker named John Matthys convinced the riotous crowd that it was silly to think that the Kingdom of God would come to a little place like Strasbourg. It was obviously coming to the nearby podunk town of Munster. And so, they abandoned the reincarnation of Elijah and left him to rot in jail; they waged war on Munster, expelled the Catholics along with their bishop, and prepared for the great Armageddon to come.

Matthys then announced to his followers that he had just received a vision from the Lord with the clear message: “death to the godless!” By which he meant that all the people in Munster who refused to join their cause must be killed. A colleague gently took him to the side and explained to him that this would be a bad idea. After which, Matthys announced to the crowd that he had just received a new vision from the Lord with the clear message: “expel the godless.” By which he meant, never mind what I said before, let’s just kick them out of town and take over their homes.

By now, the Catholic bishop had returned, and he brought with him a few thousand well-armed friends.  And Matthys, true to form, announced a third vision from the Lord to his followers in which God assured him that he was invulnerable to the weapons of the godless.  Courageously, he led a group of armed fanatics outside the city walls in a bold attack against the Catholics.  And as it turned out, Matthys was wrong about the whole invulnerability thing as he was summarily killed.

Back in Munster, his buddy, Jan of Leiden, took the opportunity to declare himself “Ruler of the New Zion” and for the first time in this movement, he managed to do something right for a change as he successfully defended the city against the bishop’s army.  But the Catholics were in no hurry, and so they wisely camped outside and waited.

With a little time on his hands, Jan wandered the streets and declared to the inhabitants that he too had seen a vision from the Lord.  You see, the New Jerusalem had a problem.  Lots of men were dying, leaving lots of widows.  And the population of the town was dwindling.  And, well, the town needed more children to join the children of light.  But there weren’t enough men to go around.  Plus, the Ruler of Zion had had a major crush on the widow of Matthys.  But Jan was already married.  And sooo, the Holy Spirit told Jan that God wanted to him bring back polygamy.

The men cheered.

And Jan immediately wed the widow of Matthys.  However, it didn’t take long for him to conclude that he needed to spread the love.  Yet the next woman who caught his eye resisted the Ruler of the New Zion’s advances.

This was treason!

And so the woman of his affections was taken to the town square, beheaded, and to make his point more clearly, Jan proceeded to jump up and down on her headless body, giving it a few swift kicks for good measure.

And now, all of a sudden, it became a lot easier for Jan to get a date.

But time was running out. Well, more importantly, the food was running out.  And soon, just about everyone was having visions about this or that as others were passing out due to starvation.  Eventually, a couple of Munsterites decided that they didn’t want to be numbered among the children of light anymore if it meant starving to death and having their daughters join Jan’s growing harem.  So they made a deal with the Catholics.  And soon, the bishop’s army was led through a breach in the town’s defenses, and the children of light were slaughtered.  Jan, along with two other leaders, were tortured and executed, their bodies left to rot in cages hung in public.

If you go to Munster today, you can still see the cages hung from the cathedral (pictured above). Fortunately, the skeletons have long been removed.  They stand as a vivid reminder of where unchecked zealotry about the End Times can lead.

Still, one of these days, somebody is going to get it right.


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