The First Vision of Lienhard Jost

Just before Christmas in 1522, an illiterate laborer from Strasbourg named Lienhard Jost lay in his bed at night and prayed. He had literally felt the ground shifting under his feet when an earthquake had struck while he was cutting wood in the forest that day, but he was even more unsettled by the ongoing religious controversies and by rumors that the world would be destroyed by a second Deluge in little more than a year.

The result of his prayer was a series of visions in which the Light of the Lord, as he called it, compelled Jost to deliver a message to the civic leaders of Strasbourg. The city council didn’t want to listen to him, however, asking him to dictate a report to a copyist instead. For Jost, who was illiterate, dictating a text to a copyist instead of preaching his divinely commissioned message to the city council represented a silencing of his preaching and a failure of his prophetic mission. A few nights later, Jost was commanded to try a different tactic: walking naked into Strasbourg at night and crying woe upon the city.

For that outburst, Jost spent two months in the city’s asylum. Behind the walls of his confinement, Jost felt that he was utterly despised by everybody. His visions continued, however, and the Light of the Lord told Jost that the asylum was in fact the school of his Heavenly Father, and that the diploma of Jost’s graduation from it, written in his heart, would certify him as witness of holy scripture. Jost soon began having his visions recorded by his own choice, at first in writing and eventually in print, and he began to see writing and publication not as the frustration of his prophetic calling, but as its fulfillment. Although he remained illiterate, he embraced the use of literacy and gained confidence as an oral preacher on scriptural texts.

At the time of his first vision, Lienhard Jost was married and the father of at least one child, a daughter around four years old at the time. A decade later, he had eight children and his wife Ursula was pregnant with their ninth. The family’s economic situation hadn’t improved, and they were dependent on alms for sustenance. In 1523 or 1524, however, Ursula had begun to receive her own visions, and by 1530, Lienhard and Ursula Jost were leading figures among the Strasbourg Prophets associated with Melchior Hoffman.

Although Jost was an impoverished laborer, he also had social connections to people who could gain him an audience with the city council. While the city authorities resisted him and threatened imprisonment if his preaching got out of bounds, they tolerated it within them. The city preachers also were resistant, but one of the preachers (probably Mathias Zell) supported Jost’s decision to record his visions and seemed to offer validation for them. Jost’s visions came during a critical moment in Strasbourg that combined religious excitement with the wavering of the foundations of religious knowledge, creating space for a prophetic voice to be heard.

Lienhard Jost made at least four attempts to record his visions (of which only the last is preserved), each time adding new visions, details he had previously forgotten, and new understanding of the visions’ significance, thus creating an autobiographical account of the experiences and mentality of a manual laborer and visionary during the first years of the Reformation. While Ursula Jost’s visions have long been known from an edition printed in 1530, Lienhard Jost’s visions were thought to have been entirely lost until an edition printed in 1532, along with an expanded collection of Ursula’s visions, recently came to light in Vienna.

I don’t know if there’s a specifically Mormon angle here, but those who are interested in the self-representation of unlettered visionaries in an increasingly literate society during a time of religious transformation may want to take a look at the original source, or at my article about it recently published in the Sixteenth Century Journal.

7 comments for “The First Vision of Lienhard Jost

  1. In our city, here in the Netherlands, we have a city preacher, who calls himself an apostle fof Jesus Christ. He had left his loving wife and children and good profession, and went to our city to preach, as God personally commanded him, so he says. Thos people who are serious about God and able to handle it, he gives private lessons on the Book of Mormon, teaching Jesus. This course may last over a year, with weekly lessons. If they “graduate” (if they can handle the higher law), he sends them to the LDS missionaries. Otherwise he sends them to the Pentecostals or others, depending on their level of spirituality. We have had 3 converts from him, all well prepared and serious and wonderful people. One day, he says, he too, will be ready for Mormonism. But for the moment he needs to preach in the streets, as God told him in a personal visit. This is a highly intelligent man, with no psychotic symptoms (as judged by me). Thank you, Jonathan, for your interesting story.

  2. Nice story! Is the crucial thing about visionaries that they’re illiterate in an increasingly literate society? Or is it that they don’t like current religious configurations, and how much attention they get (good or bad) depends on how firm, or threatened, those configurations are? Would that be another takeaway?

  3. Interesting contribution, Jonathan. Also Hans’ comment is quite fascinating. Has the role of visionaries in conversion to Mormonism ever been documented? In Holland, exactly during Joseph Smith’s period, there was the “prophetess” Maria Leer with the “Nieuwlichters” (Newlighters) under the direction of the exalted Stoffel Muller. In the 1860s the remnant of that “brotherhood” got involved with Mormonism, which some recognized as the fulfillment of their prophecies. Many were baptized and emigrated to Utah.

  4. Thanks for the comments. The Josts and other visionaries are interesting cases because they are not related to Mormonism in any obvious way, yet they seem familiar in other ways, and the possibility of interaction (as Hans and Wilfried point out) is always there.

    Craig, I’ve often wondered if anxiety about literacy in transition is one of the necessary ingredients for visionaries. It’s certainly one of Jost’s concerns. A religious environment undergoing change seems to be another necessity, but what’s so interesting about Jost is that he’s not easily identifiable with any particular side in the Reformation. His visions have a good amount to say about clerical poverty and sacramental theology and other issues that indicate he’s aware of the ongoing debates, but his answers are filtered through an impoverished laborer’s personal experience and expressed in personally significant symbolism (such as partial stigmata) that are prior to or outside of the prevailing discussion.

  5. Both the post and comments are fascinating. Would love to hear
    more about contemporary visions and dreams.

  6. My wife has dreams (at least a few each year) that have a clear spiritual message.
    I don’t get those hardly ever.

    Once on my mission we fasted with a family we had just started teaching. The wife had a dream that she was in the chapel and a woman went up to shake the bishop’s hand but couldn’t sustain it. Then she went up and shook his hand and was able to stand.

  7. In their role as visionaries, what do Noah, Lehi, Ezekiel and St. John have that Joan of Arc, Margery Kempe, Bernard de Clairvaux, the Erythraean Sibyl, and Bernadette Soubirous don’t have? Canonicity, I suppose, although it certainly depends on who establishes the canon (three in my latter group are already canonized Saints). In their day, biblical prophets didn’t have the benefit of having their visions pre-canonized, therefore those choosing to follow their teachings must have demonstrated a greater act of faith than those who came after.

    Joseph Smith allowed for truth to be found in un-canonized scripture upon condition of receiving personal guidance: “whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;” — D&C 91:4. That places greater responsibility on the reader. But, we may be shy about accepting truth from unacknowledged or unapproved visions of glory because we certainly don’t want to make a mistake. What if we end up following the hallucinations of a mad man? Our eventual acceptance of unorthodox visionaries may require more of us in terms of both our ability to believe and our connection to the Spirit, but it may also allow us to celebrate the goodness of God who liberally shares dreams, visions, wisdom, and many other divine gifts with so many of His children.

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