It is the 31st of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1561.

Despite what you might have heard on a cable channel that is ostensibly devoted to history, speculation about aliens is usually beyond the scope of our training. Are there aliens? I don’t know. The universe might be too big to know.

But what about the reports of aliens? Perhaps there is a place for historians on this one. Reports of extra-terrestrial activity can be just as important as reports of, well, anything. “Reports of things” don’t make them true, but they can tell us something about the people making the claims.

So, we have a report that in 1561 in the city of Nuremberg, the people woke up to see fire dart across the sky. Cylinders, triangles, circles, and crosses seemed to be in what looked like a space battle. They reported seeing a large black triangle swallow up the shapes after an hour, followed by a large crash sound outside the city. This and similar stories flooded the mid-sixteenth century.

There are interesting theories as to what happened, but those are for another day, mass hallucination? Natural occurring phenomena, etc. Here’s a simple answer to the phenomenon of these apocalyptic space fights, et al. Everyone thought the world was ending. And what would the end of the world look like? Something like the Book of Revelation, perhaps? Supernatural causes might be the case, and historians can’t dismiss the supernatural. We just have to admit our particular toolkit can’t do much with the metaphysical.

Why were these people so apocalyptic? For one, Christianity is apocalyptic. Secondly, signs and wonders were often interpreted as portending to cataclysm. And for 40 years, the church had been in an almost constant state of bloody feud. The world had gone mad.

For instance, the Münster Rebellion is one of many radical, popular, and violent uprisings. Back in 1535, John van Lyden and his group of followers took the town by force, and they proclaimed the town the new Jerusalem and their leader the “3rd David.” Lutherans and Calvinists barricaded the town until hunger drove the radicals out. The leaders were imprisoned, and some were killed.

Watching this with horror was a young priest in a nearby village with reforming tendencies. But this Munster Rebellion and the violent Münsterites had unwittingly recruited Menno Simons to join the Reformation movement, but not with the Lutherans and not with violent Münsterites. Menno Simons, from whom we get the name “Mennonite,” led the group for more than two decades, dying on the 31st of January in 1561.

Simons was ordained into the priesthood in 1524 in the Dutch town of Utrecht. In 1531 he became the parish priest in his hometown of Witmarsum in Friesland (think of the top of the Netherlands). He was known as an “evangelical” priest but did not join the Reformation movement. He feared that if he were to read his Bible, he could come to the same conclusions as Luther and Zwingli. And by the 1530s, that could get you in trouble.

His experience watching the Münster Rebellion and the violent attacks by all sides, radicals, and reformation backed princes led him to a kind of “middle way” to teach a peaceful version of what we might refer to generally as Anabaptism. After the death of van Leyden and other self-proclaimed prophets, some radicals either splintered off further or made their way back to “safer” radical churches, like that of Simons.

Menno Simons spent most of his career on the run, visiting towns with large Anabaptist populations, writing simple catechetical works, and preaching the Gospel emphasizing simplicity and peace. Some of those who Simons re-baptized were put to death, and a hefty ransom was placed on his own head. He would eventually settle in northern Germany with a patron who assisted Simons in setting up a printing press.

Simons came to the Radical Reformation later than some. Still, his recasting of radical apocalypticism into a Gospel of Peace makes it fitting that he died, unlike so many Radicals, peacefully, on the 31st of January in 1561.

The reading for today, recommended by a listener, a poem by E.H. Hamilton.

Afraid? Of what?
To feel the spirit’s glad release?
To pass from pain to perfect peace,
The strife and strain of life to cease?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
Afraid to see the Saviour’s face,
To hear His welcome, and to trace,
The glory gleam from wounds of grace,
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
A flash – a crash – a pierced heart;
Brief darkness – Light – O Heaven’s art!
A wound of His a counterpart!
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To enter into Heaven’s rest,
And yet to serve the Master blessed?
From service good to service best?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To do by death what life could not –
Baptise with blood a stony plot,
Till souls shall blossom from that spot?
Afraid? Of that?


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose favorite Mennonites include John Howard Yoder, John Denver, and Nsync’s J.C. Chasez, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.