Obbe Philips (ca. 1500-1568)

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One of Dutch Anabaptism’s most important early leaders, Obbe Philips (c.1500-1568) was born c. 1500 in Leeuwarden, Friesland, one of two sons of a Catholic priest (possibly heer Philippus, the vicar of Cammingaburen). Trained in the medical profession, Obbe became a barber-surgeon. He seems to have been fascinated by the Anabaptist preacher Melchior Hoffman during the latter’s visit to Leeuwarden in 1532. After the prophet’s return to Strasbourg, Obbe remained in regular contact with Hoffman’s Strasbourg disciples, even after the prophet was imprisoned. Since his affiliation with the early Melchiorite movement began during Hoffman’s two-year suspension of baptism, it was not until December 1533 that Obbe was baptized by two of Jan Matthijs’s disciples, Bartholomew Boekbinder and William Cuyper. He was ordained a bishop the following day. Obbe therefore made the transition from Hoffman’s leadership to that of Matthijs with little apparent difficulty.

Soon, however, Leeuwarden was too dangerous for Melchiorites, and Obbe left for Holland, residing mostly in Amsterdam, but appearing in other cities such as Delft and in the Ommelanden district of Groningen in early 1535. During this period when Dutch Anabaptism was focused on the creation of the kingdom of Christ in the German city of Münster, together with Hans Scheerder Obbe was a major baptizer, and his name appears in the confessions of several captured Anabaptists as a leader or baptizer. He also played a critical role in the selection of Melchiorite leaders, ordaining several, including his younger brother Dirk, David Joris (in September 1534), and Menno Simons (late 1536 or early 1537). Unfortunately Obbe left behind no known writings dating to his Anabaptist career. Instead we are left to interpret his life and thought from a much later work, his “Confession” (Bekentenisse), composed years after his defection from the movement in 1539/40. This self-justifying confession depreciates the extent to which Obbe had been captivated by Münsterite expectations, but there is some contemporary evidence to the contrary, such as confessions of captured Anabaptists, as well as the assertions of Joris’s lieutenant, Nicholaas Meyndertsz van Blesdijk.

From this evidence it seems that in January 1535 Obbe participated in the gathering of hundreds of Anabaptists on a farm near ’t Zandt, Groningen, to listen to Münsterite emissaries and to consider marching to the city of God. Obbe had been baptizing in the region, and contemporaries place him in the crowd during this ’t Zandt affair. When sober discussions were derailed by the visions and beer induced ravings of the self-acclaimed “Son of God” Cornelis int Kershof and his “Father,” Herman Schoenmaker, the spell was broken by news of an approaching army and the attendees scattered. Clearly Obbe, like most Dutch Anabaptists, was caught up in the eschatological excitement and expectations of the moment. While he sought to be a voice of moderation, there is no contemporary evidence to support his later contention that he vigorously opposed the militance of the Münsterites at this juncture. Almost immediately after the debacle, Obbe was discovered entering one of Groningen’s city gates and arrested. He sat for a year in the city prison, but eventually friends got him released. The combined experiences of the ridiculous ’t Zandt visionaries, the failure of Anabaptist Münster and his imprisonment turned Obbe away from both militance and reliance on visions. While invited to the important meeting of militant and pacifist Anabaptists at Bocholt in western Germany in 1536, Obbe and his brother both refused to attend for fear of a Batenburger assassination plot. As a result, Joris was the only credible non-violent leader in attendance, and his compromise settlement won the day, if only temporarily so.

After Münster, Obbe’s group, called the Obbenites, focused on the development of spiritual, not earthly weapons to establish the church, turning away from aspirations for an earthly kingdom of God. In other respects his theology remained close to that of Hoffman, although Obbe disliked Hoffman’s cloven-hoof method of interpreting the scriptures. Even militants, such as Gerdt Eilkeman and Dirick Schomecker, noted in their confessions from the mid-1540s the existence of an Obbenite sect which opposed the violence of the Batenburgers. Schomecker admitted to having been baptized by Obbe, but he left this pacifist sect to join the Batenburgers.

Obbe’s own personal crisis reached a climax in late 1539, although it is likely that his doubts about his own calling and spiritual authority had been simmering for some time. When he explained these to his colleagues Dirk and Menno, he concluded that their calling as elders was similarly invalid. He was therefore placed on the ban in early 1540. In his later “Bekentenisse,” he expressed his anxiety over the fact that he had no idea who had commissioned Hoffman himself, hence there was no valid line of authority for any of the Melchiorites. He certainly felt ashamed that he had commissioned others. While self-serving in its depreciation of his involvement in the apocalyptical and militant phase of the Melchiorite/Münsterite movement and insistence that from the beginning all he and his associates wanted was to withdraw from the world to “worship God quietly in the manner of the fathers and patriarchs,” his “Bekentenisse” reinforces the impression that a spiritualizing approach was present in the beginning.

After his defection, Obbe moved to Rostock, taking on the name Albrecht and practicing again as a barber-surgeon until his death in 1568. There is no evidence that he ever returned to the state church, and it is likely that his convictions remained spiritualistic. By the time of the composition of his “Bekentenisse” by 1560, he was without a doubt a spiritualist in the mould of Sebastian Franck, standing aloof from all confession and creed. Little else is known of Obbe. While a group of his followers seems to have existed in Mecklenberg as late as 1552, Obbe’s identifiable sect generally evaporated with his defection. His expression of doubts about calling and external religiosity, however, continued to haunt the Mennonites.

Primary Sources

S. Cramer, ed. “Bekentenisse Obbe Philipsz,” Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica VII. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1903ff: vol. VII, 91-138.

Williams, George H. and Angel M. Mergal, eds. “A Confession by Obbe Philips.” Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957: 204-225.

Bibliography

De Bakker, Willem and Gary K. Waite, “Rethinking the Murky World of the Post-Münster Dutch Anabaptist Movement, 1535-1538: A Dialogue between Willem de Bakker and Gary K. Waite.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 92 (2018): 47-91.

Dipple, Geoffrey. “The Spiritualist Anabaptists.” In A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, eds. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007: 257-297.

Krahn, Cornelius. Dutch Anabaptism. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.

Kühler, W.J. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de zestiende eeuw. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1932.

Lievestro, Christiaan. “Obbe Philips and the Anabaptist Vision.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1967): 99-115.

Mellink, Albert F. De Wederdopers in de noordelijke Nederlanden 1531-1544. Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1954.

Verduin, Leonard. “An ancient version of Obbe Philips’ ‘Confession.’” Mennonite Quarterly Review 21 (1947): 120-122.

Zijlstra, Samme. Om de ware gemeente en de oude gronden: Geschiedenis van de dopersen in de Nederlanden 1531-1675. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2000.

Zijlstra, Samme. Nicolaas Meyndertsz. Van Blesdijk: Een bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van het Davidjorisme. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1983.

This article is based on the original English essay that was written for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=art:philips_obbe.

Original Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Paul Schowalter and Nanne van der Zijpp. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 9-11. All rights reserved.

Obbe (Ubbo) Philips(z) (Filips) (ca. 1500-68), a leader of the Anabaptists in the Netherlands, the (probably older) brother of the well-known Dirk Philips, was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest at Leeuwarden. The father gave the son a careful education. Whereas the gifted Dirk devoted himself to the study of theology, the likewise talented brother applied himself to the study of medicine. According to the custom of the time he practiced his profession as a barber rather than a physician, though the surgical services were the most important part of the barber's profession. About 1530 he married and set up shop in Leeuwarden.

Considering his intellectual interests it is not surprising to find that Obbe was drawn into the movements that began to stir the town. The idea of the Reformation came to the city early. Gellius Faber in the neighboring Jelsum was a zealous exponent of the new teaching. In the city itself Obbe made contacts with learned men who had studied at the University of Wittenberg and had there become acquainted with the leaders of the Reformation. Thus he soon began to question the correctness of Catholic doctrine. It is probable that he witnessed the first execution of an Anabaptist, Sicke Freerks, which took place in his home town on 20 March 1531. The evangelicals of Leeuwarden at this time formed a circle that practiced a sort of mystic individualistic piety that attracted Obbe. They wished to "worship God quietly in the manner of the fathers and the patriarchs," so that "each one could seek God from his heart, and serve and follow Him without a preacher, teacher, or any other outward meeting"  (Bekentenisse, 122).

His further religious development he described in his only extant writing, the "Confession" which, although written before 1560, was published after his death from the original manuscript by Cornelis Claesz in Amsterdam in 1584. The full title reads Bekentenisse Obbe Philipsz, waermede hy verclaert, sijn Predick-ampt sonder wettelicke beroeping gebruyckt te hebben, beclaecht hem dies, en waerschuwet einen yeders, wt sijnen eygen Boeck, met eyghener Handt gheschreuen, ghecopieert.  It soon went through a second edition (without date), was translated into French by Charles de Nielles (Leiden: 1595) and republished in Dutch by Willem Jansz Stam in 1609. (Copies of all editions in [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Amsterdam Mennonite Library]], and of the 1609 edition in Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA) ).

Soon afterward Obbe became acquainted with the Anabaptists, who were under the influence of Melchior Hoffman. The feverish excitement stirred up in wide circles by his prophecies made a deep impression on Obbe. When Bartholomeus (Boeckbinder) van Halle and Dirck Cuper, emissaries of Jan Matthijsz van Haarlem, arrived in Leeuwarden, Obbe did not hesitate, emerged from his seclusion and was baptized with many others by these emissaries. This happened in November or December 1533. These men must have considered him to be the best suited person to spread their ideas, for on the next day he and a friend Hans Scheerder were ordained to preach, to baptize, and to lead the brotherhood (Bekentenisse, 129).

Filled with zeal Obbe left the city at once after his ordination, to preach and baptize with his brethren and to promote the new doctrine. Meanwhile, however, the authorities had become aware of the movement, especially when in Obbe's absence another prophet, Peter de Houtzager, had appeared in Leeuwarden and continued the preaching of "the imminent destruction of all tyrants." Thus when Obbe returned after some time, he found the city gates closed at midday, and managed only with difficulty to enter. The authorities were looking for the leaders of the movement; finally when his name appeared on a bulletin of the Stadholder (23 February 1534) as one of the "seducers and deceivers who wander about the country, who rebaptize people and teach bad and dangerous errors and sects," he realized that he could no longer stay in the city.

Obbe then went to Amsterdam and made contacts with the very numerous brethren there, who called themselves Bondgenoten (comrades of the covenant) . There were already two wings, representing diametrically opposed ideas. The majority had preserved their sobriety and leaned toward the quiet ideas of Jacob of Campen. Obbe was attracted to this group. But the other party was already under the dubious influence of Jan Matthijsz, who wanted to bring about by violent means the imminent coming of the kingdom of God which he proclaimed. Obbe did not stay in Amsterdam. He was no longer secure anywhere. In the late fall of 1534 he came to Delft, where he ordained David Joris as elder. He had already ordained his brother Dirk Philips at Appingedam, and he also ordained Menno Simons later in Groningen (about 1537, after he had baptized Menno probably at the end of 1535 or in January 1536).

In the time before and after the Münster catastrophe it was difficult to find the right course to follow. The men who had really drawn him to the Anabaptist movement he saw in the camp of the revolutionaries. He needed all his strength to resist the enticing ideas of this group. "But God knows that Dirk and I could not find it in our hearts that such attacks were right, and also diligently preached against them, but nothing did any good, for the great majority were of that mind. . . . Sometimes some of us were saddened to death and our hearts became chilled in our bodies, and we did not know whither to go or what we ought to do: the whole world was persecuting us for the sake of our faith with fire, water, sword, and bloody tyranny, the prophets deceived us on every hand and the letter of Scripture took us captive, the false brethren whom we reproved and opposed swore to kill us, and the love of so many hearts aroused our pity to such a degree, as God knows, that my soul was often saddened to death" (Bekentenisse, 135). The assertion by Mellink (Wederdopers, 367 f., 381, 394) that in 1534-35 Obbe had much contact with revolutionary Anabaptists is at the least very questionable. The fact that many persons baptized by him soon after belonged to the revolutionary wing is no proof, and Mellink himself admits (op. cit., 390 and especially 267) that Obbe in 1535 remained aloof from the revolutionary plans.

Until Menno Simons became the leader of the peaceful Anabaptists, all that were averse to violence and fanatical enthusiasm looked up to Obbe as their leader. For this reason the early Dutch Anabaptists of this period were often called Obbites or Obbenites. After Münster, when no distinction was made by the public anywhere between the violent and the peaceful Anabaptists, though the radical difference had just been very clearly demonstrated, Obbe apparently went to Germany. Nearly all trace of him is lost. He appeared about 1539 in the region of Rostock, after he had found some followers in Schwerin. This is gathered from a letter written by Joachim Kükenbieter, the Lutheran preacher of Schwerin, to Johann Gartze, his colleague in Hamburg, warning him of the Obbenites; he gave them the surprising testimony that they "to some extent honored the government and were not revolutionaries" (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1884): 16).

By 1540 Obbe's activity seems to have come to an end. A list of elders of the early period contains for 1540 the note that Obbe Philips had "fallen away." He was no longer working with Menno Simons. In his writing against Gellius Faber, Menno said, "That Obbe has become a Demas and Adam Pastor has left us I could not prevent; the same thing happened also during the time of the apostles. May God restore them according to His will. They have received their dismissal and are no longer (as long as they are not converted) reckoned among us" (Complete Writings, 761). It is more difficult to determine to whom Obbe then attached himself. For his "falling away" he gives only one important reason: the illegitimacy of his office, which made him feel that his ordaining others was also a great wrong. That is the reason for his writing the confession. It begins and ends with this. Some have concluded from it that he returned to the Catholic Church, which alone offers a guarantee for the legality of a church office by the apostolic succession. But de Hoop Scheffer is right in calling attention to the fact that his utterances concerning the papacy as "a Sodom of Babylon, Egypt, and an abomination of desolation" (Bekentenisse, 122) refute this supposition. Other suppositions, viz., that he became an unbeliever (Herman Schijn), or joined the "House of Love" as a follower of Hendrik Niclaes, are not very tenable. The attempt of W. J. Kühler to present him as typical of the individualistic-spiritualistic Anabaptist wing of Sebastian Franck merits consideration (Geschiedenis I, 1932, 230 ff.). Indeed, there is some similarity between his ideas and those of Franck. In his confession he cited Franck's Chronica (Bekentenisse, 122). Like the latter he repudiated all existing churches, believing that the true church of God is invisible, and any attempt to establish it in a visible form is wrong, unless there were a direct commission of God. Obbe received his commission from Jan Matthijsz, and this call was "illegitimate." He therefore considered himself as one who has been deceived and has deceived others.

Nevertheless Obbe spoke with deep respect of baptism on confession of faith even after his defection, and was on the whole not far removed from the principles of the peaceful Anabaptists. He spoke sharp words only against those who had been revealed as false prophets and revolutionaries, not against Menno and his followers.

Even if the shadows concealing the last year of his life until his death in 1568 can never be entirely lifted, it can be asserted, in the light of known facts, that Kühler's verdict is not unjustified, "that in Obbe the brotherhood certainly lost its most appealing leader" (Geschiedenis I, 232).

Bibliography

Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink, 1932.

Scheffer, J. G. de Hoop. "De bevestiger van Menno Simons." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen(1884): 1-24, German translation in Mennonitische Blätter, 1884: 77 ff. (somewhat shortened).

Bekentenisse Obbe Philipsz in Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica VII: 121-38, with critical introduction by Samuel Cramer, 91-120.

Burgmann, J. C. Commentatio Historic - ecclesiastica. De Ubbone Philippi et Ubbonitis. Rostock, 1773.

Vos, K. "Obbe Philips." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1917): 124-38; (1876): 20; (1906): 29 f.

Groningsche Volksalmanak (1909): 161; (1916): 131.

Mellink, Albert F. De Wederdopers in de noordelijke Nederlanden 1531-1544. Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1954.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 369-371.


Author(s) Gary K Waite
Date Published February 2020


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Waite, Gary K. "Obbe Philips (ca. 1500-1568)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. February 2020. Web. 10 Jul 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Obbe_Philips_(ca._1500-1568)&oldid=166680.

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Waite, Gary K. (February 2020). Obbe Philips (ca. 1500-1568). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 July 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Obbe_Philips_(ca._1500-1568)&oldid=166680.




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