Melchior Hoffman

From Academic Kids

Melchior Hoffman (1495-1543) was an Anabaptist prophet and a visionary leader in northern Germany and the Netherlands. He was born at Hall, in Swabia, before 1500 (Zur Linden suggests 1498). His biographers usually give his surname as Hofmann; in his printed works it is Hoffman, in his manuscripts Hoffmann. Hoffman was first connected with the Lutherans, but got into trouble in northern Germany because of his radical eschatological views.

He was without scholarly training, and first appears as a furrier at Livland. Attracted by Luther's doctrine, he came forward as a lay preacher, combining business travels with a religious mission. Accompanied by Melchior Rinck, also a skinner or furrier, and a religious enthusiast, he made his way to Sweden.

Joined by Bernard Knipperdolling, the party reached Stockholm in the autumn of 1524. Their fervid attacks on image worship led to their expulsion. By way of Livonia, Hoffman arrived at Dorpat in November 1524, but was driven thence in the following January. Making his way to Riga, and thence to Wittenberg, he found favour with Luther; Luther recalled him to Wittenberg in 1525. His letter of June 22, 1525 appears in a tract by Luther of that year. He was again at Dorpat in May 1526; later at Magdeburg. Hoffman broke with Luther over the views on the eucharist, and journeyed to Strassburg in 1529 to meet with Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Though Bucer and Capito also opposed Luther's views on the eucharist, they could not tolerate Hoffman.

Repairing to Holstein, he got into the good graces of Frederick I of Denmark, and was appointed by royal ordinance to preach the Gospel at Kiel. He was extravagant in denunciation, and developed a Zwinglian view of the Eucharist. Luther was alarmed.

At a colloquy of preachers in Flensburg (April 8, 1529) Hoffman, John Campanus and others were put on their defense. Hoffman maintained (against the "magic" of the Lutherans) that the function of the Eucharist, like that of preaching, is an appeal for spiritual union with Christ. Refusing to retract, he was banished. At Strassburg to which he now turned, he was well received (1529) till his Anabaptist development became apparent. He joined with the Anabaptists of Strassburg, and, according to Estep, was rebaptized in April of 1530. In May he traveled to Emden, where he baptized about 300 people and established churches there. He was in relations with Schwenkfeld and with Karlstadt, but assumed a prophetic role of his own.

Journeying to East Friesland, (1530) he founded a community at Emden (1532), securing a large following of artisans. Despite the warning of John Trypmaker, who prophesied for him "six months" in prison, he returned in the spring of 1533 to Strassburg, where we hear of his wife and child. He gathered from the Apocalypse a vision of "resurrections" of apostolic Christianity, first under John Hus, and now under himself. The year 1533 was to inaugurate the new era; Strassburg was to be the seat of the New Jerusalem.

Hoffman soon returned to Strassburg, believing that the Lord would return there in 1533. When he prophesied that the return of Christ would be preceded by a purging of the ungodly, Hoffman was seen as a revolutionary. Under examination, he denied that he had made common cause with the Anabaptists and claimed to be no prophet, a mere witness of the Most High, but refused the articles of faith proposed to him by the provincial synod. Hoffman and Claus Frey, an Anabaptist, were detained in prison, a measure due to the terror excited by the Munster episode of 1533-1534. The synod, in 1539, made further effort to reclaim him. He stayed in prison from 1533 until his death in 1543.

Hoffman's failed prophecy of the return of Christ set the stage for the events often called the Münster Rebellion. Two of his followers, Jan van Matthijs and Jan van Leiden, proclaimed that Hoffman was wrong not only on the time, but also on the place, where Christ would return. They named Münster as the location that Christ would return and reign.

Hoffman was important in at least one aspect of the development of the Mennonites. He adopted the views of Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig concerning the incarnation of Jesus, and taught what has been called the "heavenly flesh of Christ". Menno Simons accepted this view, probably from the peaceful Melchiorites Obbe and Dirk Philips, and it became the general belief of Dutch Anabaptists in the first century of their existence.

Hoffman wrote a commentary on the Book of Daniel in 1526. Two of his publications, with similar titles, in 1530, are noteworthy as having influenced Menno Simons and David Joris (Weissagung das heiliger gotlicher geschrift, and Prophecey oder Weissagung vsz warer heiliger gotlicher schrifft). Bock treats him as an antitrinitarian, on grounds which Wallace rightly deems inconclusive. With better reason Trechsel includes him among pioneers of some of the positions of Servetus. His Christology was Valentinian. While all are elected to salvation, only the regenerate may receive baptism, and those who sin after regeneration sin against the Holy Ghost, and cannot be saved.

His followers were known as Hoffmanites or Melchiorites. See G Herrmann, Essai sur la vie et les ecrits de M. Hofmann (1852) ; FO zur Linden, M. Hofmann, ein Prophet der Wiedertaufer (1885); H Holtzmann, in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie (1880); Hegler in Hauck's Realencyklopädie (1900) ; Bock, Hist. Antitrin. (1776), ii.; Wallace, Antitrin. Biography (1850) iii., app. iii.; Trechsel, Prot. Antitrin. vor F. Socin (1839) i.; Barclay, Inner Life of Rel. Societies (1876). An alleged portrait, from an engraving of 1608, is reproduced in the appendix to A Ross, Pansebeia (1655).


  • Anabaptist History and Theology, by Arnold C. Snyder
  • Melchior Hoffman: Social Unrest & Apocalyptic Vision in the Age of Reformation, by Klaus Deppermann ISBN 0567086542
  • The Anabaptist Story, by William Roscoe Estep
  • The Radical Reformation, by George Hunston Williams

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