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The Moral Subject of Property, 48 William & Mary Law Review 1897 (2007)

Abstract

Utopians do not like private property. In one of the most notorious incidents of the Reformation era, militant Anabaptist preachers called for their followers to establish a Kingdom of the Saints in the town of Muenster in western Germany, gathering supporters in the early 1530s and finally taking over the town from the ruling Prince-Bishop in 1534. The supposedly saintly Kingdom followed, in which a key element, though not an uncontroversial one, was the abolition of private property. According to these Anabaptist leaders, their new converts were without sin. For these earthly saints, the self-regarding payoffs of ''Mine'' and the discipline of "Thine" were, as one leader said, "abominations." Love and the spirit of community would induce the Saints to work and share selflessly, free from the grubby hoarding, hawking, and wage counting that accompany property rights. As a matter of fact, they were not supposed to need conventional marriage either, a doctrine that worked out quite conveniently for at least one of the Anabaptist leaders, Jan Bockelson, who ditched an old wife and acquired fifteen new ones. But the community of property—and the almost-community of spouses—was not to last. The Prince-Bishop returned with an army, assisted by a number of other alarmed German princes and the townspeople themselves, who had become dismayed at their increasingly tyrannical leaders. The besiegers turned out the Anabaptists in mid-1535, executing Bockelson and a number of other Saints with the exquisitely painful means and public drama reserved for sixteenth-century revolutionaries. Along with the bishop's restoration came the return of laws, marriage, and property—constraining institutions that were thought more compatible with the human state of fallenness—while the Anabaptists eventually retreated to more quietist versions of their faith. Their descendants now reside in Pennsylvania and other places as Mennonites and Hutterites.

Date of Authorship for this Version

2007

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