GREBEL AND THE SWISS ANABAPTISTS
THE origin of the Anabaptists of Switzerland is obscure. The testimony of contemporaries is that they derived their chief doctrines from sects that antedated the Reformation, and this testimony is confirmed by so many collateral proofs as to commend itself to many modern historians. Vadian, the burgomaster of St. Gall, and brother-in-law to Conrad Grebel, says of the Anabaptists, "They received the dogma of baptizing from the suggestions of others." The industrious F�sslin reached this opinion: "There were before the Reformation people in Zurich who, filled with errors, gave birth to the Anabaptists. Grebel was taught by them; he did not discover his own doctrines, but was taught by others." In our own day impartial German investigators have reached similar conclusions. Thus Dr. Heberle writes:
In carrying out their fundamental ideas, the party of Grebel paid less attention to dogmatics than to the direction of church, civil, and social life. They urged the putting away of all modes of worship which were unknown to the church of the apostles, and the restoration of the observance, according to their institution, of the two ceremonies ordained by Christ. They contended against the Christianity of worldly governments, rejected the salaries of preachers, the taking of interest and tithes, the use of the sword, and demanded the return of apostolic excommunication and primitive community of goods.
It is well known that just these principles are found in the sects of the Middles Ages. The supposition is therefore very probable that between these and the rebaptizers of the Reformation there was an external historical connection. The possibility of this as respects Switzerland is all the greater, since just here the traces of these sects, especially of the Waldenses, can be followed down to the end of the fifteenth century. But a positive proof in this connection we have not. . . In reality the explanation of this agreement needs no proof of a real historical union between Anabaptists and their predecessors, for the abstract biblical standpoint upon which the one as well as the other place themselves is sufficient of itself to prove a union of the two in the above-mentioned doctrines.1
The utmost that can be said in the present state of historical research is that a moral certainty exists of a connection between the Swiss Anabaptists and their Waldensian and Petrobrusian predecessors, sustained by many significant facts, but not absolutely proved by historical evidence. Those who maintain that the Anabaptists originated with the Reformation have some difficult problems to solve, among others the rapidity with which the new leaven spread, and the wide territory that the Anabaptists so soon covered. It is common to regard them as an insignificant handful of fanatics, but abundant documentary proofs exist to show that they were numerous, widespread, and indefatigable; that their chief men were not inferior in learning and eloquence to any of the reformers; that their teachings were scriptural, consistent, and moderate, except where persecution produced the usual result of enthusiasm and vagary.
Another problem demanding solution is furnished by the fact that these Anabaptist churches were not gradually developed, but appear fully formed from the first—complete in polity, sound in doctrine, strict in discipline. It will be found impossible to account for these phenomena without an assumption of a long-existing cause. Though the Anabaptist churches appear suddenly in the records of the time, contemporaneously with the Zwinglian Reformation, their roots are to be sought farther back.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Switzerland was the freest country in Europe—a confederacy of thirteen cantons and free cities, acknowledging no allegiance to emperor or king. These cantons differed greatly in speech, customs, and form of government; their chief bond of union was, in fact, hatred of their common foe, the House of Hapsburg. Zurich was governed by a council of two hundred, and the ultimate power rested with the various guilds to which the burghers belonged. It was, in a word, a commercial oligarchy, maintaining a republican form of government. Little could be undertaken, certainly nothing of moment could be accomplished, without the approval of the council.
The Reformation in Switzerland was quite independent of the Lutheran movement, though it occurred practically at the same time. Reuchlin had given instruction in the classics at the University of Basel; and Erasmus came to that city in 1514, to get his edition of the New Testament printed. The study of the original Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek received a great impetus, and the result could not long be doubtful. The Swiss people had once been devoted adherents of the papacy, but knowledge of the corruption of the church and the unworthy character of prelates had penetrated even there and greatly weakened the hold of the church on the people. The clergy, though not so bad as in some localities, were still far from illustrating the virtues they preached. The Scripture seed fell into soil ready to receive it and give it increase.
The leader in this reformation was Ulric Zwingli, born in 1484, at Wildhaus, in the canton of St. Gall, educated at the University of Vienna, a teacher at Basel and then pastor at Glarus in igo6, later at Einsiedeln, and finally at Zurich. He was during his earlier priesthood unchaste and godless, like many of the clergy, but he was led to the study of the Greek Testament, and God’s grace touched his heart and made a new man of him. His preaching became noted for spiritual power and eloquence. As in Luther’s case, he was first brought into prominence by opposition to the sale of indulgences. One Samson, a worthy companion to the infamous Tetzel, came to Switzerland hoping to conduct a brisk traffic in indulgences, and was roundly rebuked by Zwingli: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Is it not, then, most presumptuous folly and senseless temerity to declare on the contrary— Buy letters of indulgence, hasten to Rome, give to the monks, sacrifice to the priests, and if thou doest these things I absolve thee from thy sins?’ Jesus Christ is the only oblation, the only sacrifice, the only way.
As the Roman Church had been established by law, and its priests were largely paid out of the treasury, it was the most natural thing in the world that, as the reformation continued, the reformed church and ministry should also be an appanage of the State. Zwingli was called to Zurich and was kept in his position there by the council, and as the reform developed that body took into its hands the direction of religious as well as civil affairs. It probably occurred to few of the worthy burghers that there was any impropriety in this. In 1520 the council issued an order that all pastors and preachers should declare the pure word of God, and Zwingli had announced as his principle the rejection of everything in doctrine or practice not warranted by the Scriptures. In a disputation held January 29, 1523, he made his appeal on all points to the Scriptures—Copies of which in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin he had on a table before him. lie vainly challenged his Catholic adversaries to refute him from the Scriptures, and the council renewed their order that all the preachers in the canton should teach only what was found in the Scriptures.
Up to this time we find no trace of the Anabaptists, as such. The reason evidently is that Zwingli and the Zurich Council were virtually Anabaptists themselves. They had adopted the most radical and revolutionary of Anabaptist principles, that the Scriptures should be the sole rule of faith and practice, and that whatever the Scriptures do not teach must be rejected. Nor was Zwingli unconscious of what he was doing, and he did not at first shrink from the logic of his fundamental principle. As he frankly confesses, he was for a considerable time inclined to reject infant baptism, in obedience to the fundamental principle he had adopted of accepting the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and practice, and rejecting everything that had no clear Scripture warrant. He had but to go on consistently in this way to have made the Zwinglian Reformation an Anabaptist movement. But having put his hand to the plow, he suffered himself to look back. He was in bondage to the idea of a State Church, a reformation that should have back of it the power of the civil magistrate, instead of being a spiritual movement simply. But to fulfil this ideal, infant baptism was a necessity. The moment the church was made a body consisting wholly of the regenerate, it of necessity separated itself from the world. The Zurich Council had supported the reform thus far, but by no means all its members—possibly not the majority—were regenerate men. How far would they support a reform that would, as a first step, unchurch them and deprive their children of the privilege (as they still esteemed it) of baptism? Such a policy of reform seemed to Zwingli suicide at the very beginning, for he could see a possibility of success only through the support of the civil power. In this conviction is to be found, not only his reason for breaking with the Anabaptists, but the secret of his other mistakes and the cause of his untimely death. He gained, it is possible, for his reformation a more immediate and outward success, only to establish it on a foundation of sand.
About the year 1523, therefore, Zwingli and some of his fellow-reformers came to tile parting of the ways. Zwingli thenceforth developed conservative tendencies, thought the reform had gone far enough, and endeavored to restrain those who were impatient for more thorough work. A division of sentiment rapidly developed among the hitherto united reformers. A strong minority desired to continue on the line already begun, to carry out consistently the principle already avowed that the Scriptures were to be the sole arbiter in all matters of faith and practice. They pointedly declared that the Bible said no more about infant baptism than it said about the mass, fasts, the invocation of saints, and other popish abominations. The New Testament churches, they said, were composed only of those who gave credible evidence of regeneration.
Up to the time of their separation on this question of infant baptism, those who afterward became Anabaptist leaders were among the most active and trusted of Zwingli’s lieutenants. This was particularly true of Conrad Grebel. The son of one of the members of the Zurich Council, he was socially a man of more importance than Zwingli, whose father was a peasant farmer. In eloquence, he appears to have been little the inferior of his leader, and he is described by Zwingli himself as "most studious, most candid, most learned." He was born in the last decade of the fifteenth century, and was educated at the universities of Vienna and Paris. At both institutions he attained high rank among his fellows, but his life was wild and dissipated. Some time before 1522 he was converted, and from this time on his life was one of perfect rectitude and piety. Though not a profound scholar, he was a learned man for his time, and his views regarding the church were derived from careful study of the original Scriptures, especially of the Greek New Testament.
Another of the Anabaptist leaders was Felix Mantz, also a native of Zurich, the natural son of a canon, liberally educated, and especially versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the firm friend and adherent of Zwingli, until the latter gave up his early principle of the supremacy of the Scriptures. Mantz could not chop about so easily. Faithfully following the principle to its necessary conclusions, he became convinced that the baptism of infants is nowhere authorized in Scripture, but is, on .the contrary, excluded by the requirement of personal faith as a precedent to baptism.
Other prominent men among the Anabaptists were George Blaurock, a former monk, who for his eloquence and zeal was known as a second Paul; Ludwig H�tzer, a native of the canton of St. Gall, who had studied at Freiburg and acquired a good knowledge of Hebrew, and had the confidence of Zwingli before he became an Anabaptist; and Balthaser H�bmaier, of whose life and labors a more particular account will be given in a subsequent chapter.
By the beginning of 1525 the break between Zwingli and his more radical associates in the work of reform had become marked. Their opposition to infant baptism became so vehement that at length the council appointed a public disputation January 17th. Grebel and Mantz, H�tzer and Blaurock, were present and represented the radical party, but the council decided that the victory was with Zwingli and issued an order that parents should have their children baptized at once, on pain of banishment.
Thus far no reference is made in the contemporary records to Anabaptism. The radicals had begun by simply opposing infant baptism and refusing to have their own children christened. They did not at once see that this contention of theirs invalidated their own baptism. If faith must precede baptism, and for that reason they could not conscientiously permit their infants to be baptized, it necessarily followed that they themselves had not been baptized. They were not long now in seeing this, and from the summer of 1525 we read of rebaptisms. At first allusion was practised, probably according to the common usage of the Swiss churches of that day, but a little later immersion was adopted by some as the baptism prescribed by Scripture. The Swiss Anabaptists did not arrive all at once at a full understanding of New Testament practice, but were led to it gradually, as they were taught by the Spirit of God, and possibly by other Christians.
Anabaptism spread with great rapidity. Zwingli and the Council of Zurich became alarmed, and again hit upon the expedient of a public discussion, on November 6. The Anabaptists came, but it is not likely that they expected a victory, knowing that Zwingli was inflexibly opposed to them, and that his influence was all-powerful with the council. Zwingli brought forward the arguments of which later Pedobaptists have made so free use, that the Abrahamic covenant is continued in the New Dispensation, and that baptism replaces circumcision. The Anabaptists, like Baptists of to-day, argued that there is no command or example for infant baptism in the New Testament, and that instruction and belief are enjoined before baptism. Incidentally, Zwingli reproached the Anabaptists for being separatists; to which they made the unanswerable reply that, if they were such, they had as good a right to separate from him as he had to separate from the pope. The council, however, made an official finding (published under date of November 30), to the effect that "each one of the Anabaptists having expressed his views without hindrance, it was found, by the sure testimonies of holy Scripture, both of the Old and the New Testaments, that Zwingli and his followers had overcome the Anabaptists, annihilated Anabaptism, and established infant baptism." So little confidence had the council in this annihilation of Anabaptism, in spite of their swelling words, that they proceeded to do what they could to annihilate it by means of the civil power. On this occasion they contented themselves with ordering all persons to abstain from Anabaptism, and baptize their young children. They added this grim warning: "Whoever shall act contrary to the order, shall, as often as he disobeys, be punished by the fine of a silver mark; and if any shall prove disobedient, we shall deal with him farther and punish him according to his deserts without further forgiveness."
That this was no light and unmeaning threat, the Ana-baptists had immediate reason to know. Grebel, Mantz, Blaurock, and others prominent in the movement, were summoned before the council and commanded to retract their errors; on refusal they were thrown into prison loaded with chains, and kept there several months. Hubmaier, who had been compelled to seek a refuge in the canton, was thrown into prison also; and there sick and weak, he yielded for the moment and consented to make a public recantation. When brought into the pulpit, however, his spirit reasserted itself, and instead of pronouncing his recantation, he made an address declaring his opposition to infant baptism and defending rebaptism. His amazed and disappointed hearers unceremoniously hustled him back to his prison, and by prolonged imprisonment and tortures at length extracted from him a written recantation. This was only a weakness of the flesh, that is no more honorable to Zwingli and his followers than to H�bmaier. On his release, he resumed his Anabaptism and remained faithful to his convictions until his death.
It would be a painful and useless task to detail the cruelties that followed. No persecution was ever more gratuitous and unfounded. Some of its later apologists have alleged that it was more political than religious, that it was a necessary measure to protect the State from seditious persons. It is sufficient to reply that contemporary records make no charge of sedition against the Anabaptists. They were condemned for Anabaptism, and for nothing else; the record stands in black and white for all men to read. The Zwinglians found that having once undertaken to suppress what they declared to be heresy by physical force, more stringent remedies than fines and imprisonments were needed. In short, if persecution is to be efficient and not ridiculous, there is no halting-place this side of the sword and the stake. The Zwinglians did not lack courage to make their repressive measures effectual, On March 7, 1526, it was decreed by the Zurich Council that whosoever rebaptized should be drowned, and this action was confirmed by a second decree of November 19. Felix Mantz, who had been released for a time and had renewed his labors at Schaffhausen and Basel, was rearrested on December 3, found guilty of the heinous crime of Anabaptism, and on January 5 was sentenced to death by drowning.
This barbarous sentence was duly carried out. On the way to the place of execution, says Bullinger (a bitterly hostile historian), "his mother and brother came to him, and exhorted him to be steadfast; and he persevered in his folly, even to the end. When he was bound upon the hurdle and was about to be thrown into the stream by the executioner, he sang with a loud voice, ‘In rnanus tuas, Dornine, comniendo spiritum rneum‘ (‘into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’) ; and herewith was drawn into the water and drowned." No wonder Capito wrote to Zwingli from Strasburg: "it is reported here that your Felix Mantz has suffered punishment and died gloriously; on which account the cause of truth and piety, which you sustain, is greatly depressed." If anything could depress the Zwinglian movement, one would think it would be this brutal treatment of those whose only fault was that they had been consistent where Zwingli himself had been inconsistent, in keeping close to New Testament teaching and precedent. About two years later Jacob Faulk and Henry Rieman, having firmly refused to retract, but rather having expressed their determination to preach the gospel and rebaptize converts if released, were sentenced to death, taken to a little fishing-hut in the middle of the river Limat, where, says Bullinger, "they were drawn into the water and drowned."
For these persecutions Zwingli stands condemned before the bar of history. As the burning of Servetus has left an eternal stain on the good name of Calvin, in spite of all attempts to explain away his responsibility for the dark deed, so the drowning of Mantz is a damning blot on Zwingli’s career as a reformer. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten the hand that has been stained with the blood of one of Christ’s martyrs. If Zwingli did not take an active part in the condemnation of Mantz, if he did not fully approve the savage measures of the council, he did approve of the suppression of Anabaptism by the civil power. There is no record of protest of his, by voice or pen, against the barbarous cruelties inflicted in the name of pure religion on so many of God’s people, though his influence would have been all-powerful in restraining the council from passing their persecuting edicts. He cannot be acquitted, therefore, of moral complicity in this judicial murder. Though not personally a persecutor, he stood by, like Saul at the stoning of Stephen, approving by silence all that was done.
Grebel was spared the fate of Mantz by an untimely death. His fiery spirit made him a natural leader of men, and at Schaffhausen, at St. Gall, at Hinwyl, and at many other places, he preached the gospel with great power and gathered large numbers of converts into churches. His labors continued little more than three years, and his name appears in the Zurich records for the last time early in March, 1526. All that we know of him further is that he died, probably soon after, of the pest. Had he lived a few years longer, his fitness for leadership would have given him a large following among his countrymen, the character of the Swiss Reformation might have been radically changed, and the history of Switzerland turned into a new channel for all time. Hubmaier was banished, to meet his martyrdom elsewhere. Blaurock was burned at the stake at Claussen, in the Tyrol, in 1529. H�tzer, driven out of Zurich, went to Strassburg for a time, but being banished thence made his way to Constance, where he was apprehended, imprisoned for four months and then put to death. The formal charge against him was bigamy. He is said in some accounts to have had twenty-four wives, according to others he had nineteen, whik some content themselves with saying vaguely "a great many." In the trial record at Constance he is said to have confessed that he married his wife’s maid while his wife still lived. There is not a line of confirmatory evidence in the correspondence between Zwingli and his friends at Constance, nor in a contemporary account of H�tzer’s last moments by an eye-witness. His death was after a godly manner, and the account says: "A nobler and more manful death was never seen in Constance. He suffered with greater propriety than I had given him credit for. They who knew not that he was a heretic and an Anabaptist could have observed nothing in him. . . May the Almighty, the Eternal God, grant to me and to the servants of his word like mercy in the day when he shall call us home."
This is not the way in which adulterers and vulgar scoundrels die. Dr. Keller pronounces the charge against H�tzer "an unproved and unprovable statement." Resting as it does on an [alleged] confession that is wholly unconfirmed, the official charge is to be regarded as a calumny invented to conceal the fact that there was no fault found in him save that he was an Anabaptist.
Thus one by one the leaders were killed or driven away or died by natural causes. By this means the persecutors at length attained their end. Though persecution at first increased the number of Anabaptists, they were for the most part plain, unlettered folk, rich in nothing else than faith, and little able to hold out unaided and unled against a persecution so bitter and determined. Gradually the Anabaptists disappeared from the annals of Zurich, but not without having left the impress of their character on the people.
While the canton of Zurich was measurably successful in suppressing the Anabaptist movement, it proved to have a greater quality of permanence elsewhere. The Anabaptists of Bern are less prominent during the time of Zwingli than those of Zurich, perhaps because there was no reformer at Bern of the ability and literary activity manifested by Zwingli at Zurich and by Cecolampaditis at Basel. There is even better reason than the history of the Zurich movement discloses for supposing that these Anabaptists were the direct descendants of the Waldensian groups that for two or three centuries had leavened parts of Switzerland with their influence.
Except that we have less explicit accounts of the formal organization of the sect, the history of the Hernese Anabaptists is precisely parallel with that of their Zurich brethren, down to the disappearance of the latter. There appears to be no essential difference in doctrine and practice, if we except the fact that no evidence of immersion is found in Bern. There is the same active, relentless persecution by the council, but it does not appear that the death penalty was inflicted in this canton. But the result of these persecutions was very different from what we have found in Zurich. The Bern Ana-baptists had less able leaders at first, and consequently may have been less dependent upon leadership. What is certain is that the Bernese authorities themselves regretfully recognized the impotence of their persecuting measures to suppress the movement. Causes for the increase of these people, rather than their diminution, were found by contemporaries in the lax enforcement of the laws by magistrates; in the lack of pious and godly living among the ministers and people of the town; and in the failure of discipline in the churches. The Anabaptists are acknowledged to be more sober, God-fearing, and honest than others, and their preachers expounded the Scriptures more faithfully. Nevertheless, it was believed that such people as these were dangerous and should not be tolerated.
Persecution of the Anabaptists in Bern continued during the seventeenth century, and through the influence of their fellow-believers in Holland, the Mennonites, the Dutch government several times intervened to secure liberty of conscience for these long-suffering people. There were not wanting also Swiss Christiatis to protest against the inhuman and un-Christian policy of the government. Though these efforts were not immediately successful, the persecutions grew less severe with each successive generation and in the eighteenth century gradually ceased.
In the meantime, however, large numbers of the Bernese Anabaptists had emigrated in order to escape their bitter persecutions. Not a few came to America. The colony that settled in Lancaster County, Pa., from 1715 onward, though commonly called Mennonites, was composed largely of these refugees from Bern. Others settled in the Palatinate and other German States in which some measure of toleration was allowed. But a considerable number refused to leave their native land, endured all the persecutions, and their descendants are found in Bern to this day. Still called Wiedert�uffer (Anabaptists) and sometimes simply T�uffer (Baptists), they hold the precise doctrines of the medieval evangelicals, and the practices of the sixteenth century Anabaptists. They baptize only believers, but most of them still practise allusion, though the practice of immersion is said to be spreading among them. They refuse to bear arms and prohibit oaths. A part of them formed a separate body in 1830, and are known as New Baptists, because they practise immersion exclusively. Eight of the older congregations are members of a Conference, or Association, which meets semi-annually, but there are some other churches not members of this body. They publish a paper called " Zion’s Pilger," and there seems every prospect that they will continue to increase in numbers and influence.
The teachings of the Swiss Anabaptists are accurately known to us from three independent and mutually confirmatory sources: The testimony of their opponents, the fragments of their writings that remain, and their Confession of Faith. The latter is the first document of its kind known to be in existence. It was issued in 1527 by the "brotherly union of certain believing, baptized children of God," assembled at Schleitheirn, a little village near Schaffhausen. The author is conjectured to have been Michael Sattler, of whom we know little more than that he was an ex-monk, of highly esteemed character, who suffered martyrdom at Rothenberg in the same year this confession was issued, his tongue being torn out, his body lacerated with red-hot tongs, and then burned. The Confession is not a complete system of doctrine, but treats the following topics: baptism, excommunication, breaking of bread, separation from abominations, shepherds in the congregation. sword (civil government), oaths. It teaches the baptism of believers only, the breaking of bread by those alone who have been baptized, and inculcates a pure church discipline. It forbids a Christian to be a magistrate, but does not absolve him from obedience to the civil law; it pronounces oaths sinful. With the exception of the last two points—in which the modern Friends have followed the Anabaptists in interpreting the Scriptures—the Schleitheim Confession corresponds with the beliefs avowed by Baptist churches to-day. It is significant that what is opprobriously called "close" communion is found to be the teaching of the oldest Baptist document in existence.
With this Confession agrees the testimony of Zwingli and other bitter opponents of the Anabaptists. The only fault charged against them by their contemporaries, that is supported by evidence, is that they had the courage and honesty to interpret the Scriptures as Baptists to-day interpret them. Of their deep piety there is as little doubt as there is of the cruelty with which that piety was punished as a crime against God and man.
1 "Jahrb�cher f�r Deustche Theologie," I858, p. 276 seq.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 11 - Anabaptism in Germany