The Anabaptists: A Gallery of Factions, Friends and Foes

Swiss Brethren

They were the first generation of Anabaptists—Conrad Grebel (a patrician’s son and Zwingli’s former protege), Felix Manz (a clergyman’s illegitimate son), George Blaurock (middle-aged ex-priest of peasant origins), Simon Stumf (parish priest in rural Hongg), Wilhelm Reublin (middle-aged priest in Witikon who was the first Zurich pastor to marry and to persuade parents to refuse baptism of their child), and Johannes Brötli (priest in rural Zollikon)—to name a few. Stumf, Reublin, and Brötli had achieved reform in their rural parishes through their refusal to send tithes to support Zurich’s clergy while Zwingli was still trying cautiously to institute reforms in the mass in that city. Zwingli’s insistence on the full support of city council frustrated Grebel and Manz, who concluded that the magistrate’s way and Christ’s way were not necessarily the same. Relinquishing their first hope of packing city council with likeminded reformers, they met on 21 January 1525 to discuss and pray about their response to city council’s newest law: that all infants be baptized within eight days of birth. When Blaurock asked Grebel to rebaptize him and then proceeded himself to rebaptize Grebel and others, these brothers in Christ signaled their intention to go a different way and suffer the political consequences of following Christ. Grebel left home and family, sold his books, and became a traveling evangelist working with Manz—first winning followers at Zollikon in what became the first Anabaptist congregation and then later quelling extremism among the rebaptized.

On 5 January 1527, Manz became the first martyr of the Swiss Brethren. Grebel had died of natural causes six months earlier, and Blaurock by 1528 was banished from the Swiss cantons. A popular preacher, Blaurock established many congregations in the Austrian Tyrol until he was caught and burned at the stake near Innsbruck on 6 September 1529. Brötli had met the same fate sometime in the preceding year. Seeking to keep the cause of the common man and the gospel joined, Reublin sought converts in Waldshut and surrounding areas of Austria, baptized Hubmaier and traveled to Strassburg. From there he seems to have led Michael Sattler to the Neckar Valley and been among those gathered at Schleitheim to solidify what by now was a separatist underground movement. Escaping Sattler’s fate of martrydom in May 1527, Reublin made his way to Moravia. He preached a rigorous communalism but was not faithful to it himself, was banned after Jacob Hutter conducted a sober investigation, and lived the last three decades of his life no longer associated with Anabaptists. Like Stumpf, Brötli and Hubmaier, Reublin seems to have held more to a Zwinglian view of the possibility of Christian magistrates and a Christian political system than to the more radical idea of separatist discipleship as held by Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock.

Thomas Müntzer

(1490?–1525) Historians have not found it easy to classify him: Was he an Anabaptist? A wayward disciple of Luther? Forerunner of modern socialism as Marxist scholars and others have claimed? He was the revolutionary spiritual leader of the Peasants’ War of 1525 and a torchbearer in the great wave of religious and social revolution of this time. A student of medieval realism— well read in church history, the German mystics, and the humanistic and Reformation tracts—Müntzer in 1520 received a pastorale in the Saxon city of Zwickau, where he quickly allied himself both with the disenfranchised artisans wanting a role in government and with those council members urging that the city become free of outside ecclesiastical powers. Müntzer combined the anticlerical spirit of the times with his own mysticism. Not in the Scriptures, not in the sacraments, not in the institutional church but rather in the tormented struggle of his soul did a person, according to Müntzer arrive at faith. And one still would not have faith unless God himself gave and taught it. This “experienced faith” placed the believer in a new order, an elect, to whom sooner or later the kingdom of this world would be given in the form of democratic theocracy. Müntzer’s conviction to bring faith to the common man resulted in his 1523 innovations in worship services, including German liturgies, psalms and hymns. When the court of Weimar retaliated by declaring that his pastorale was not official, Müntzer was summoned to give a “trial sermon” to Duke John and his son John Frederick, the latter already convinced of Luther’s version of the Reformation. In this “Sermon to the Princes” Müntzer invited his hearers to flee the inevitable bad combination of ecclesiastical and worldly powers for the “unconquerable Reformation”—the kingdom of Christ on earth. Unsuccessful, Müntzer had to flee Allstedt in August 1524 for Muhlhausen. There he joined the Peasant’s Revolt in the Black Forest. He had become convinced that their cause, especially the confrontation forthcoming at Frankenhausen was the last judgment and that the ensuing conflict would put the common man in direct contact with God. The results of the Frankenhausen battle on 15 May 1525, in which six thousand peasants and six princes met their death, proved Müntzer’s cause wrong. Shortly thereafter he was captured, tortured, and then executed on 27 May. Although the Swiss Brethren took issue with Müntzer’s use of force, they did identify with his insistence that the inner experience of faith affected totally the actions of both the individual and the fabric of society.

Hans Denck

(1500–1527) One of the early leaders of South German Anabaptism, Denck was called the “pope of the Anabaptists” by Strassburg Reformer Martin Bucer. Born in Upper Bavaria of educated, God-fearing burgher parents, Denck from 1517–19 studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was also well read in the mystical and humanistic texts of the day. In 1523 as headmaster of the renown St. Sebald School in Nuremberg, his mystical-humanistic ideas came under scrutiny of the Lutheran clergy. Consequently, after making hasty provisions for his wife and child, Denck left Nuremberg in 1525 and went to Augsburg. Here he became an Anabaptist and in 1526 baptized Hans Hut, who would become a charismatic Anabaptist evangelist. After a confrontation with Augsburg’s Lutheran ministers Denck moved to Strassburg, where he met Anabaptists of all stripes and engaged in conversations with the city’s Reformers. A man who by his own admission lacked the disposition for dogmatic controversy, Denck left Strassburg in December 1526. Next in Worms, he consulted with Jewish scholars and assisted Ludwig Hatzer in translating the Old Testament Prophets from Hebrew into German.

Published in Worms in April 1527, the Haetzer-Denck All the Prophets went through twenty-one printings in the next seven years, and became a source in the Zwingli and Luther translations of the Old Testament. Denck died of the plague in Basel in November 1527.

Hans Hut

(?–1527) He was the Anabaptist evangelist who began almost all the Anabaptist groups in Austria and Moravia, making more converts in southern Europe than all the other Anabaptist leaders combined. His work rightly earned him the epithet “Apostle of Austria.” As a book peddler, he traveled to Frankenhausen (Thuringia) in hopes of making some sales among Müntzer’s army. There he heard Müntzer preach his fiery sermon that linked the Lord’s second coming with the peasants’ cause, and Hut went up the hill with the peasants against Landgrave Philip. It is the Hut- Müntzer association in this event and Hut’s assistance in getting Müntzer’s “Express Exposee” published that led Bullinger and other Reformers to call Müntzer the “father of Anabaptism.” Disappointedly convinced that the peasants had sought their own glory, not God’s, Hut returned home. When the bodies of Müntzer and Heinrich Pfeiffer, his co-worker, were not buried but left to hang dead on spikes, Hut came to identify them as the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3, whose bodies were to lie unburied for three and a half days. This number, Hut’s own disappointment in the peasants’ rebellion, and an old prophecy made by Albert Gleicheisen let Hut to one conclusion: Christ would return on Pentecost 1528 three and a half years later. On Pentecost 1526 while he was passing through Augsburg, Hut was baptized by Hans Denck. With two years to go before Christ’s return, Hut embarked on a feverish missionary journey, baptizing and using the cross as a sign upon the forehead in order to recruit the 144,000 saints needed for the Christ’s millennial kingdom. Besides increasing converts, Hut’s contribution to Anabaptism was to take issue with Hubmaier over the use of the sword and whether magistrates could be Christians. Hut was captured, and he died on 6 December 1527 of smoke inhalation in his prison cell. As a warning to his followers, Hut’s dead body was tied to a chair and tried, then burned at the stake.

Balthasar Hubmaier

(1480?–1528) As the most able theologian among early Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier easily earned his enemies’ epithet of being the “head and most important of the Anabaptists.” The Council of Trent placed him in the same league with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Schwenckfeld. Educated at the University of Freiberg, Hubmaier learned theology at the feet of one of the keenest Catholic polemicists, Johann Eck, and received his doctorate in the same year as Luther. By 1520 Hubmaier had moved to Waldshut where he began reading the letters of Paul and the writings of Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Luther. “Christ was starting to sprout in me,” he wrote of this period. After participating with Zwingli in the October 1523 disputation on images and the mass, Hubmaier returned to Waldshut determined to change the mass. The Waldshut council supported him in expelling the Catholic priests. Hubmaier’s work did not go unnoticed; with Archduke Ferdinand’s threat to bring his Waldshut subjects forcibly in line, Hubmaier went to Schafflhausen where he penned one of the earliest arguments for religious toleration. When Ferdinand became distracted by a war with France, Hubmaier returned in October 1524 to Waldshut and began immediately to celebrate the mass in German and to remove images and holy objects. Meanwhile, Waldshut was seeking to increase its political power by aligning itself to the insurgent peasant groups, who were soon victorious. On Easter Sunday 1525 Hubmaier and sixty others were rebaptized by Wilhelm Reublin. In the days following, Hubmaier rebaptized 300 others. For a short time Anabaptism as the “state faith” flourished here. And Hubmaier was inspired to write one of the best early arguments for believer’s baptism. By December 1525 with the peasants defeated and Zwingli and Oecolampadius openly opposed to him, Hubmaier fled to Zurich, was arrested there, and temporarily recanted his faith. Meanwhile the Hapsburg troops moved into Waldshut, and the town reconverted to Catholicism. By July 1526 Hubmaier and his wife had made their way to Nicolsburg, where the tolerant prince Leonhard van Liechtenstein himself received baptism at Hubmaier’s hands. Again, Anabaptism as a “state faith” flourished briefly. To encourage his growing flock (according to contemporary accounts 12,000 Anabaptists collected there under Hubmaier’s influence) he published works on Christian living and church discipline. When the fiery preacher Hans Hut came to town, his preaching won disgruntled followers away from Hubmaier’s more moderate approach to the relationship of church and state. In July 1527 King Ferdinand arrested Hubmaier, tried him in Vienna, and had him burned at the stake on 10 March 1528; his wife was drowned in the Danube three days later. Although most other Anabaptist leaders rejected Hubmaier’s plea for a tolerant Christian government and judicious use of the sword, they adopted his arguments for adult baptism, tolerance and free will.

Jacob Hutter

(1500?–1536) A scantily educated hatter, Hutter served only two years as leader in Tyrol and Moravia, yet he managed to unify this group according to the apostolic model of community of goods in Acts 2–5. Consequently, this group became known as the Hutterites and 450 years later are still thriving as Christians living communally against the backdrop of an opposing worldly reality. In 1529 with the martyrdom of Georg Blaurock, Hutter became the leader of Tyrolean Anabaptism at a time when hardly a day passed that Anabaptist matters did not come up in the local councils throughout the region. Burning stakes, crowded prisons, bereft, starving children, and abandoned property were the visual reminders of the test of faith. Hutter travelled to Moravia, hopeful that his flock could emigrate to that region. He returned and began sending Tyroleans there. However, the Moravian Anabaptists were divided and quarreling. Both sides petitioned Hutter to conduct an investigation, which he did. Then in August 1533 he returned to Moravia for the fourth and last time and “cleaned house.” Even though he was never formally ordained to leadership, Hutter brought stability and unity to the brotherhood over the next two years. They began practicing total economic sharing. In reaction to the debacle of Münster King Ferdinand in 1535 ordered that all Anabaptists in Moravia be rooted out. Reluctantly their tolerant lords obeyed, and the Anabaptists had to seek refuge in the caves and forests. Hutter and his wife were hunted down in Tyrol. He was tortured, whipped, immersed in freezing water, doused with brandy and then burned publicly at King Ferdinand’s insistence (and over the protest of local officials) on 25 February 1536.

Ferdinand I

(1503–1564) No other European leader paid such relentless attention to Anabaptism’s suppression—a mission he virtually accomplished in Austria. A staunch Catholic, Ferdinand had the complex problem of keeping “infidel” Turks away from Vienna while repressing the monster of heresy within his realm without alienating the Protestant princes, whose support he needed in order to defend Vienna. Crowned Archduke of Austria in 1521, King of Hungary and King of Bohemia in 1526, and Holy Roman Emperor after his brother Charles V abdicated in 1556, Ferdinand found in the persecution of Anabaptists the perfect action to bring about some cooperation among the diverse groups of his territory. The mandate of 20 August 1527 signalled his intention against all “sectarians and heretics.” Using Hubmaier’s remote connections with the 1525 Peasants’ War, Ferdinand made him one of the first victims. When the trials proved slow, Ferdinand appointed a special commissioner to organize Tauferjager or Anabaptist hunters. The pyres burned everywhere; according to one account 1,000 Anabaptists were burned in the Inn Valley alone from 1527–30. The Imperial Diet of Speyer in 1529 extended the boundaries of persecution to the Holy Roman Empire, where according to the Hutterian Chronicle 2,169 Anabaptists were martyred during Charles’s and Ferdinand’s reigns. Tireless in his efforts, Ferdinand sometimes personally outlined the details of his bloodbath, as in the case of Jacob Hutter. Only in Moravia, where the proudly independent feudal lords found the industrious communitarian Anabaptists too lucrative, did Ferdinand not initially succeed. After temporary repression in 1535, Moravian Anabaptists again found protection and began their “Golden Age” (1550–90). Even the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 which allowed “whose region his religion” did not permit Ferdinand to re-Catholicize because by then he was too distracted by the Turks at his door.

Menno Simons

(1496?–1561) Mennonites, the largest group of Anabaptists today, take their name from him and rightly so, for Menno Simons was able after the Münster horrors of 1535 to salvage the nonresistant, Biblically based Anabaptist vision of a discipled church. Menno Simons’ prolific writings and a life consistent with his beliefs brought courage to the many Flemish, Frisian, and North German Anabaptists who had an immense horror of what had happened at Münster. “For no other foundation can any man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11) appeared as Menno Simon’s motto in his writings. In simple language he explained basic doctrines and ethical standards of the “new man” in Christ for the scattered and confused “covenanters” of the Netherlands. His Foundation of the Christian Doctrine of 1539 continues to have its usefulness for Mennonites today. Ordained a priest in 1524 in his native Friesland, Simons did not touch the Scriptures for his first two years for fear that he would be misled, yet a growing doubt that the bread and wine was the body and blood of Christ led him to examine the New Testament. The martyrdom of a Friesland Anabaptist in 1531 drove him to examine the Scriptures on infant baptism. A likeable person and popular priest, Simons did not leave his parish until 1536 after he had already begun preaching the “true repentance” and against the abomination of Münster for nine months. He also married that year. His first tract pointed out the fallacies of Münster and proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the Spiritual David, King of Israel. The congregation, separated from the world, became the community of the reborn. East Friesland, where Melchior Hoffman first introduced Anabaptism, was to be the center of renewal under Simons. From 1536 to 1554 he was a hunted man with a price of 100 Guilders on his head. At least one friend was executed for sheltering him, and the property of another friend confiscated for sheltering his wife and children. He preached and baptized at night. Under the tolerant leadership of Countess Anna of Oldenburg, Menno Simons was called before her superintendent of the East Friesland churches, John a Lasco, who was charged with determining which sects in her domain were heretical. It was the countess in her decree of 1545 who first coined the term “Mennisten.” From 1544 to 1554 Menno Simons traveled throughout the Lower Rhine region of Cologne and Bonn and then to Danzig and Prussia as an evangelist and elder. Questions regarding the application of church discipline occupied his attention in later years, with Simons first taking the middle road “in this sad affliction” and then becoming more rigid. At the conference of South German Anabaptists at Strassburg in 1557, where 50 representatives from Moravia, Switzerland, and Alsace were present, the elders sent a letter to Menno and his co-workers urging them not to go to extremes in matters of the ban and avoidance so that family life was disrupted. Simons responded that the heavenly marriage with Christ was more important than the earthly marriage of man and woman. Menno Simons finally found a home and protection in the province of Holstein, where he died a natural death. To the last, Simons remained very much preoccupied with the protection of the community of disciples and the discipline necessary for its health.

Pilgram Marpeck

(1490?1556) He was a civil servant and did not live the life of a hounded Anabaptist. From a prosperous prominent family and trained as an engineer, Marpeck in 1525 became magistrate for the silver mines of Rattenberg, his birthplace. In 1528 Marpeck quit his job, left his property and wealth behind, and went to Strassburg where the city hired him to devise more efficient means of transporting wood from the Black Forest and to correct drainage problems. Here he made public his Anabaptism and engaged in conversations with the Reformers. Among the Strassburg radicals,Marpeck took a middle stanceon the one hand, between Dencks mystical approach to Christianity and the more radical spiritualism of Schwenckfeld and Sebastian Franck and on the other hand, the apocalyptic teachings of Melchior Hoffman. Wide respect for his accomplishments as well as his preaching against infant baptism and the oath of allegiance made him a political liability, and he was banished. From 15321544, Marpeck moved from place to place. During this time he opposed the Swiss Brethren who were then concerned with the ban and with the particulars of an ascetic way of life. Although Marpeck insisted on church discipleship and separation from the world, like Denck he emphasized the primacy of love. In 1541 he traveled to Moravia to pursue uniting South German Anabaptists with the Moravian Anabaptists, but he concluded they were too divided and authoritarian, and he rejected community of goods on the grounds that it opposed freedom of the Gospel. Deeply burdened with a concern for church unity, he and his followers sought a statement that would represent common areas of belief. A rewriting of Bernard Rothmans Bekentnisse von bey den Sacramenten was published as the Taufbuchlein in 1542. This confession represents Anabaptist doctrine almost twenty years after its Zurich beginnings and shows its adaptation to the struggles and issues of the time.

Melchior Hoffman

(1495?1543) He took Anabaptism from South Germany to East Frisia and the Netherlands where it gained mass support. Among his followers Hoffmans fanciful prophecies sowed a mood of expectancy that made them travel by the thousands to Münster to establish the kingdom of Godin 153435. Later, through the careful work of Menno Simons these militant Melchioritesevolved into an Anabaptist group that by 1550 comprised one quarter of the population of the Northem Netherlands. A furrier by trade, Hoffman from 1523 to 1529 was a Lutheran lay missionary in Livonia, Stockholm, Lubeck and Schleswig- Holstein. In Strassburg in 1529 he became an Anabaptist. He took Dencks idea of universal divine grace, modified Schwenckfelds notion of the celestial flesh of Christ, and added the idea held by a small group of Strassburg prophetsthat Christ would return soon. He preached that the world must prepare for this return in which the free imperial cities would defend the true gospel against the emperor, pope, and false teachers.

Although Anabaptists would not bear arms in this struggle, they must pray and build fortifications in anticipation of the peaceful theocracy that would be the final outcome. When Strassburg issued a

warrant for his arrest in 1530, Hoffman escaped to East Frisia; here and in Emden he made many converts among unemployed artisans suffering from high food prices. Convinced that the imminent apocalyptic events would begin in Strassburg in 1533, Hoffman resumed there and cheerfully permitted himself to be arrested; there still imprisoned he died ten years later. 

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #5 in 1985]

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