ANABAPTISM IN GERMANY
THE name Anabaptist stands in the literature of the Lutheran Reformation as a synonym for the extremist errors of doctrine, and the wildest excesses of conduct. The Anabaptists were denounced by their contemporaries, Romanist and Protestant alike, with a rhetoric so sulphurous that an evil odor has clung to the name ever since. If one were to believe the half that he reads about these heretics, he would be compelled to think them the most depraved of mankind. Nothing was too vile to be ascribed to them, nothing was too wicked to be believed about them—nothing, in fact, was incredible, except one had described them as God-fearing, pious folk, studious of the Scriptures, and obedient to the will of their Lord, as that will was made known. The masses of the Anabaptists, as of the Lutherans, were uncultured people; but among their leaders were men unsurpassed in their times for knowledge of the original Scriptures, breadth of mind, and fervidness of eloquence. Historians of their own land and race are beginning to do these men tardy justice. The day is not far distant when historical scholarship will prepare a complete vindication of the men so maligned. In the meantime, enough is already known to set right many erroneous statements that have been handed down from historian to historian for centuries, and accepted as undoubtedly true without re-investigation.
As in Switzerland, so in Germany, hardly had the Reformation begun when we find mention of Anabaptists. But there is this difference: while the name in Switzerland denoted a party essentially homogeneous in faith and practice, the name Anabaptist is applied in Germany to men of widely divergent views and acts. It was, in fact, a convenient epithet of opprobrium, carelessly bestowed by the dominant party on those who opposed them and so aroused their displeasure. Just as now anybody who holds advanced views about the State and its functions, thereby differing from the orthodox political faith, is called by hasty and superficial people anarchist or ‘‘ socialist (though he may repudiate both titles), so then anybody who dissented from orthodoxy and would not conform to the State Church was likely to be called " Anabaptist." Many who are called by this title in Reformation literature were never Anabaptists, but practised Pedobaptism as consistently as any Lutheran or Romanist of them all. Others who were so far Anabaptists as to have rejected infant baptism, had not grasped the principle on which rejection of infant baptism properly rests, the spiritual constitution of the church.
Even when the name Anabaptist is properly applied, it does not necessarily connote evangelical beliefs and practice. Any Christians who have re-baptized, for whatever reason, may be called by that title. The Donatists were Anabaptists, but they baptized those who came to them because of a supposed defect in the " orders" of the Catholic priesthood. Baptists have affinity only with such Anabaptists as hold to the theory of a regenerate church, reject infant baptism as a nullity, and re-baptize on profession of faith those baptized in unconscious infancy. These distinctions must be borne in mind by one who would read intelligently about the German Anabaptists.
The seemingly sudden appearance of the Anabaptists and their rapid growth in Germany is a remarkable phenomenon—one of the strangest things in history if we refuse to look below the surface. Some historians insist that the Anabaptists had no previous existence; that it is in vain to look back of the first mention of them for their origin. But this is to say that an event occurred without an adequate cause. No sect or party in the history of the world ever made such an extraordinary growth as the Anabaptists made during the early years of the Reformation unless it had a previous history.
We have seen in previous chapters how Central Europe was leavened by evangelical teachings. The writings of the medieval Fathers are full of complaints of the extent to which the various heresies had corrupted the people. Making all due allowance for exaggeration (where there was little temptation to exaggerate and nothing whatever to be gained by it) the conclusion cannot be resisted that the persistence of what the Catholic Church pronounced heresy, but what we should call evangelical truth, was complete throughout Central Europe during the three centuries preceding the Reformation. This truth was doubtless mixed with no little error, in some cases, but error less deadly than that taught by the Roman Church. For, with all their deviations from the gospel truth, the heretical sects taught a spiritual religion, not a religion of forms and ceremonies—they were loyal to the idea of salvation by faith, not salvation by works. The name Anabaptist we do not meet, as applied to any of these sects before the Reformation; but the Anabaptist party of the Reformation period had its roots in these preexistent sects, and found in their remnants the materials for its surprising growth. To doubt this is, as before remarked, to assume that so great a result—almost unparalleled in the history of Christianity—had no adequate cause. which is irrational. It is commonly said that the first appearance of Anabaptism in Germany was in I52I, at Zwickau, on the border of Bohemia. Certain "prophets" here made a great stir. These prophets were Nicholas Storch, a weaver, but a man of marked ability and well versed in the Scriptures; Marcus St�bner, who had been a student at Wittenberg; and Marcus Thom�, evidently a man of some learning, since a letter written in Latin is extant, in which he is addressed as "a learned man" (erudito viro). Of Thomas Munzer, the writer of the letter, we shall see more hereafter; it suffices the present purpose to say that he joined himself to these prophets for ends of his own, and that though with them for a time, he was never of them.
The prophets being driven out of Zwickau, made their way to Wittenberg, where Carlstadt and Melanchthon received them with favor; but Luther was greatly disturbed by their ascendency, returned from his "captivity" at the Wartburg, and by preaching a series of violent sermons recovered the direction of affairs. The prophets accordingly had to depart, and we hear little more of them. Ever since it has been the fashion among the church historians, following the lead of the Lutherans, to represent the Zwickau Anabaptists as a band of fanatics and disturbers of the peace, misled by a belief in their own prophetic inspiration and believing themselves endowed with a gift of tongues. The contemporary literature, however, gives no support to this view. A strong tinge of mysticism is, indeed, found in their reported teachings, but of fanaticism, or encouragement of civil disorder, there is no trace. These prophets had precisely such visions, opening to them (as they believed) the secrets of the spiritual world, as Swedenborg and George Fox enjoyed. They seem, indeed, to have been the precursors of the modern Friends, so spiritualizing the church as to reject the priesthood, water baptism, and all outward ceremonies of religion. They were not Anabaptists, for they did not baptize, yet they were at one with the Anabaptists in holding that the unregenerate have no place in the church of Christ.
It is difficult, if not impossible, in the present state of research, to set definite bounds for the beginning of Anabaptist churches in Germany. What we know is that two men were influential above others in promoting the Anabaptist movement: Balthasar Hubmaier and John Denck.
Hubmaier was born about the year 1481, in Friedburg, Bavaria. The name of his birthplace (of which the English equivalent would be Peaccmont), sometimes done into Latin after the fashion of the learned in those days, furnished a surname often used by him in his writings—Friedburger or Pacimontanus. Nothing definite is known of his family, whose name may be taken to imply that they were small tenant-farmers.1 The lad was sent at an early age to the Latin school at Augsburg, and thence he went to the University of Freiburg, where he matriculated in 1503. His studies here were diligent and successful, but were interrupted by his going to Schaffhausen as a teacher, to earn means to prosecute his work at the university. He returned and took the master’s degree in 1511. So high was his proficiency that he was regarded as a promising young man, and was advised to study medicine, then a profitable career. But he decided to devote himself to theology, saying: "Her alone have I chosen, her before all others have I selected, and for her will I prepare a cell in my heart."
At Freiburg he met two men who had much to do with his subsequent career. John Heigelin, or Faber, and John Meyer, better known as Eck. The former was a fellow-student, the latter his most influential teacher. A dispute arose between Eck and the faculty of the university, and Hubmaier warmly espoused the cause of his teacher and friend, and followed Eck to the University of Ingolstadt on his removal thither. Here Hubmaier’s rise was rapid. He was given a chair of theology and appointed university preacher, and finally (I5I5) vice-rector of the university.
The crisis of his fate was now at hand. In 1516 he was called to be pastor at the cathedral of Ratisbon. This removed him from the overshadowing influence of Eck and gave him chance for independent study and growth of character. He seems, even thus early, to have become an ardent and profound student of the Scriptures. As a scholar he was the equal of Luther, though not the peer perhaps of Ivlelanchthon and Erasmus. He soon became renowned as one of the most eloquent preachers of his time. So far as we can know, he led a pure life and was sincerely pious, though still in error. With such talents there was no position in the church to which he might not aspire. But when the Reformation began, it seems to have appealed at once to his mind, if not to his heart; and it was not long before brilliant career in the church seemed less attractive than to follow the truth. Resigning his position, he went to Schaffhausen, where he had formerly made friends, and here he possibly hoped to take an active part in the Swiss Reformation. Soon after we find him pastor at Waldshut, just over the Swiss border in the province of Austria. He did not for a time break with the Church of Rome, and observed all the Catholic forms in his new parish. Whether he had not yet become fully convinced of Romish errors, hesitated to make a breach with the church, in the hope that it was capable of a gradual reformation, it would be profitless to guess. There is a vacillation about his conduct just at this part of his life that is difficult to explain on any theory. He was even recalled to Ratisbon, to a new charge there, and accepted this invitation in November, 1522, but without resigning Waldshut, to which he returned the following March. From this time on he seems definitely to have cast in his lot with the reformers.
In May, 1523, Hubmaier visited Zurich and formed a close connection with Zwingli. The latter was in the beginning of his career as a reformer, and inclined to go to the full lengths demanded by his principle of making the Scriptures the sole rule of faith and practice. Hubmaier clearly perceived that this necessitated the abandonment of infant baptism, and Zwingli assented. In his writings and sermons of this period Zwingli did not hesitate to make the same avowal. It was not, however, for two years thereafter that H1bmaier acted on that conclusion, and by that time Zwingli had begun to draw back from it altogether. At the second Zurich disputation (October 26, 1523), Hubmaier was, next to Zwingli himself, the most prominent disputant; and having thus avowed himself a full believer in the Reformation, he became henceforth its firm and consistent supporter.
Hitherto his acts at Waldshut had been those of a trimmer, or, at least, of one whose course was undecided. On his return, he submitted to the clergy and deanery of Waldshut eighteen articles of religion, in which he upheld justification by faith alone, taught that the mass is not a sacrifice, but simply a memorial of the death of Christ, and denounced images, purgatory, celibacy of the clergy, and other Roman errors. Only three of thirty priests sided with him, but he had better success with the citizens. He gradually began to change the service, first reading the Epistles and Gospels in German. And later giving the cup to all communicants. Some opposition was roused, and just before Whitsunday he resigned his office, but was reelected pastor by the almost unanimous votes of the parish. The Bishop of Constance, hearing of these acts, summoned Hubmaier before him, but no attention was paid to the summons, the reformer saying, " It would be a little thing for me to stand before that hypocrite." The Austrian Diet, outraged by these proceedings, demanded the surrender of Hubmaier, and though the citizens of Waldshut stoutly refused to give up their pastor, he thought it better to leave the city.
Accordingly, August 16, 1524, he sought refuge at Schaffhausen, where he wrote his tract, "Heretics and those who burn them," but in November he again returned to Waldshut. It was about this time that he became clearly convinced that infant baptism is contrary to the Scriptures, as we learn from a letter written by him to OEcolampadius, written January 16, 1525, in which there is an elaborate argument against the scripturalness of infant baptism.
About this time he married a daughter of a Waldshut citizen, and during Lent he abolished the mass, which up to that time he had celebrated in German, had all pictures and altars removed from the churches, and the priests (discarded vestments and wore henceforth ordinary clothing. This was an imprudent step, no doubt, since it was almost sure to rouse Austria to violent measures against Waldshut, but fidelity to the truth seemed to Hubmaier and his followers to demand that it be taken. A still graver step followed. Up to this time Hubmaier bad, indeed, been an Anabaptist in theory, but not in practice. In the spring of 1525 William Reublin, who had been compelled to leave Switzerland, came to Waldshut, and through his instructions Hubmaier became convinced, not only that his baptism in infancy was a nullity, but that he ought to be baptized on personal confession of faith. Others were convinced with him, and at Easter Reublin baptized the Waldshut pastor and others (one authority says sixty, another one hundred and ten). Shortly after the pastor himself baptized three hundred of his flock.
This action not only made Hubmaier’s position in Waldshut more difficult, by adding fuel to the flame of Austrian hatred, but speedily embroiled him with the Swiss reformers. The Anabaptists had become very troublesome in Bern, and a public disputation with them was held June 5, 1525. OEcolampadius claimed the victory and published his version of the debate. This did so little justice to the arguments of the Anabaptists that Hubmaier was impelled to enter the lists, which he did by writing two tracts: the first, a dialogue " On the baptism of infants" was not published until some time later, when he had gone to Moravia; but the other, "Concerning the Christian baptism of believers," appeared at once, and had a great effect. Zwingli retorted with great vehemence, not to say bitterness, in his celebrated treatise on Baptism, Anabaptism, and infant baptism." From this time on the Swiss reformers, who had been so friendly to Hubmaier, became his bitterest opponents.
Affairs in Waldshut grew steadily worse, and a strong Catholic party was formed, which favored surrender of the city to the Austrians. Hubrnaier finally saw that his situation was an impossible one, and with forty-five of his adherents sought safety in flight. December 5, 1525, the city was captured by Austrian troops. Hubmaier made his way to Zurich, not fully realizing how implacable an enemy he now had in Zwingli, and soon after his arrival was seized, imprisoned, and treated with great rigor. Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock had already preceded him to the prison, and it was the evident intention of the authorities to suppress Anabaptism by the most vigorous measures. A show of fairness was, however, still maintained. A public discussion was held December 21, at the close of which Zwingli succeeded in wringing from the ill and enfeebled prisoner a promise to reconsider his views. Ambassadors from Austria demanded the surrender of Hubmaier and, though Zurich refused, a different decision was possible at any time. Besides, it is now certain that torture was applied. At length a written recantation was obtained, and, after a confinement of several months, during which time he was loaded with heavy chains, he was released (June 6, 1526), on condition that he leave Switzerland.
He made his way to Constance, thence to his old residences of Ingoldstadt and Ratisbon, where friends received him kindly. He could not hope for safety in either of these towns, should his presence become generally known, and he determined to seek an asylum in Moravia. About the end of June he arrived at Nikolsburg, in the domains of the lords of Lichtenstein, nobles who were known to be humane and tolerant. Here he began the most fruitful part of his labors. Though they occupied not more than fifteen months, their results were astonishing. He was incessant in his work as evangelist. Lord Leonhard of Lichtenstein himself soon became an Anabaptist, and the sect grew with amazing rapidity.
An unfriendly historian estimates their numbers at this time at twelve thousand. Moravia had been well-sown with gospel truth by Waldenses and other evangelical preachers and the field was white to harvest when Hubmaier put in the sickle. He was equally busy with the pen. Tract after tract, not fewer than fifteen distinct writings in all, was written and printed during this period, and some tracts previously composed now found their way to the public. They were scattered broadcast over Germany and Switzerland, and had an influence that it would not be easy to overestimate. To this time belong his treatise on the Lord’s Supper, his reply to Zwingli, his "Book of the Sword," Form of Baptism,’’ ‘‘ Form of the Lord’s Supper, "Freedom of the Human Will," etc. These were dedicated to the lords of Lichtenstein and other noble patrons, which certainly did not hinder their circulation.
Though for a time there was no external opposition to this work of Hubmaier, it was not without certain difficulties from within. Hans hut and Jacob Widemann were to Hubmaier what Hymenaeus and Alexander were to Paul—messengers of Satan to buffet him, thorns in the flesh. hut was the more mischievous of the two. Beginning as a sacristan, then an artisan, afterwards imbued with the spirit and teachings of Munzer, he narrowly escaped from Muhlhausen with his life, to become a "prophet," a fanatic, a preacher of Chiliasm and the gospel of the sword. He proclaimed the speedy end of all mundane things, and first set as the date for this final event the day of the summer feast in 1529. Hubmaier stoutly resisted these men and preached and wrote against their false and demoralizing doctrines. A disputation was held in the castle at Nikolsburg, but the result was not decisive; both sides, as usual, claiming the victory. At length Hut was imprisoned by Lord Lichtenstein in the castle, but made his escape and preached his doctrines in various parts of Germany, especially at Augsburg, where he was put to death in I529. Not a little of the responsibility for the growth of fanaticism among the Anabaptists must be laid at his door. The unity of the Nikolsburg church was fatally impaired, and the way was prepared for the final catastrophe. The Anabaptists in Moravia would never have been unmolested so long, but that the country was in a most disorganized state. The Archduke Ferdinand had succeeded in making good his title as Margrave of Moravia, and now determined to get possession of Hubmaier. Exactly how or when he accomplished his purpose we do not know, but as there is no record that the lords of Lichtenstein suffered any personal inconvenience it has been inferred that they surrendered the Anabaptist preacher to save themselves. Not later than September, 1527, Hubmaier and his devoted wife were taken to Vienna and tried for heresy. During the process he asked for an interview with his old friend Faber, and the latter reported that he had made a partial recantation. On March 10, 1528, he was taken through the streets of the city to the public square, and his body was burned. So died one of the purest spirits of the Reformation. Three days later his wife, who had exhorted him in his last hour to endure steadfastly, was drowned in the Danube.
Hubmaier was one of the Anahaptists against whom his enemies bring no charge of immorality or unchristian conduct. We may be sure they would have found or invented such charges against him had it been possible. Lie was eloquent, learned, zealous, a man in every way the equal (to say no more) of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. His name has been loaded with unjust reproaches; he has been accused of teaching things that his soul abhorred; but in spite of his weakness at Zurich he stands out one of the heroic figures of his age. Hubmaier was no mystic. He believed in no inner light other than the illumination of the Spirit of God that is given to every believer who walks close with God. His appeal on all disputed points is not to this internal witness of the Spirit, for which other voices might be mistaken, but to the written word of God which cannot err. To the law and the testimony he referred every doubtful question, and by the decision thus reached, he loyally abided.
Another leader of this time, John Denck, was a man of different mental cast. Singularly little is known of his early history: the place and time of his birth are uncertain, and of his parentage and family we can learn as little—we cannot say definitely whether he had brother or sister, wife or child. He is thought to have been a native of Bavaria, about the year 1495. We first get definite knowledge of him as an attendant on the lectures of OEcolampadius at Basel, in 1523, where he took the degree of Master of Arts. Shortly after he became head master of the school of St. Sebald, in the free imperial city of Nuremberg. He had evidently adopted evangelical views before going to Basel, but he was from the first neither a Zwinglian nor a Lutheran, but took a line of his own. Nuremberg had, however, become a Lutheran town under the lead of Osiander, and it was not long be. fore Denck’s teachings were found to harmonize ill with those of Luther, especially as to the freedom of the will. He was summoned before the authorities, made a Confession of Faith, and this was adjudged so heretical that be was condemned to banishment.
This Confession has been recently discovered in the archives of the city, and interpreted by Doctor Keller. It plainly appears that Denck held the theological views with which the name of Arminius became later identified. He admits the existence of original or inherited sin, but denies total depravity; on the contrary, he says, a germ of good exists in man. Men are so far from being utterly depraved that every man has in him a ray of the divine light, which he could recognize and follow if he would. To follow this light, to obey the divine will, is the essence of faith, and by such faith alone is one justified. There is a working together of the divine and human in salvation. Faith is not mere belief, but the conformity of our will to the will of God. Scripture is not the sole foundation for faith, for there were men of faith before the Scriptures. Man must first of all believe in God as revealed in his own conscience, and then he will believe in the external revelation, finding the two to harmonize. The witness of the Spirit confirms the witness of the Scriptures—this inner word testifying to the truth of the external word—and only he who has the illumination of the Spirit can understand the Scriptures.
It will be seen from this brief account of his teachings that Denck’s theology, as held at this time, was irreconcilable with that of Luther in the fundamental doctrines of human nature, freedom of the will, faith, and justification, to say nothing of the authority of the Scriptures. A city that had declared itself for Luther and his doctrine could hardly be expected, in those times, to tolerate so pronounced dissent from the official faith.
In June, 1525, we find Dcnck was at St. Gall. He was not yet a professed Anabaptist; possibly up to this time he had not heard of the doctrines of this party. Lie could hardly fail to hear of them now and to be favorably impressed by them. This would account for his going next to Augsburg, which was already an Anabaptist center. A visit of Hubmaier to the city in the following year decided him to become an Anabaptist, and he was himself baptized by Hubmaier. From this time the Anabaptists in Augsburg grew rapidly, until they are said to have numbered eleven hundred, many of the prominent people of the city joining them. The Augsburg Anabaptists, as we know from a contemporary eye-witness, practised immersion. Their piety was acknowledged even by their opponents and persecutors, though these maintained that it was a work of the devil, and called it "a sort of carnival-play of a holy apostolic life, fitted to make the gospel hateful." At a synod in this city, held in the autumn of 1527, at which Denck presided, it was decided that Christians ought not to obtain power or redress of grievances by unlawful means, that is, by the sword.
Partly urged by his restless spirit, partly compelled by danger of imprisonment and death, Denck spent his last years in rapidly moving from place to place. We find traces of his presence at Strassburg, Worms, Zurich, Schaffhausen, and Constance. His last days were passed at Basel, where he died in the autumn of 1527, of the plague. The exact time of his death and the place of his burial are unknown.
His contemporaries unite in praising Denck’s brilliant talents and exemplary life. "In Denck, that distinguished young man," says Vadian, "were all talents so extraordinarily developed that he surpassed his years, and appeared greater than himself." He was of handsome and imposing appearance, and hence was called "the Apollo of the Anabaptists." His eloquence was celebrated, and his learning surpassed his eloquence. His work as translator and author was of high quality. His translation of the Hebrew prophets, made in connection with H�tzer, preceded Luther’s by several years, and was freely drawn upon by the latter, which is one testimony among many to its merit. Denck was, however, a mystery; his mental and spiritual affinities were with such men as Tauler and Thomas a Kempis. He would have hailed George Fox as a brother in the Lord. His belief in the sufficiency and supremacy of the inner light not only led him into some doctrinal vagaries, but had a very mischievous effect upon his followers. The charge that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ, Doctor Keller thinks is unproved; but it is admitted that he believed in the final restoration of mankind. Denck’s writings are remarkable for their mild polemics in an age when savage denunciation and personal abuse of opponents too often took the place of argument. He was one of the most influential thinkers in Germany, and probably had in the South and West a greater following than Luther, in recognition of which fact his opponents not infrequently called him "the Anabaptist pope." The influence of his work was felt for many years after his untimely death.
Two views of civil government had been thus far contending for the mastery among the Anabaptists. One is that of the Schleitheim Confession, which defines the sword as "an ordinance of God outside of the perfection of Christ . . ordained over the wicked for punishment and death," and forbids Christians to serve as magistrates. A very considerable part of the Anabaptists advocated those principles of non-resistance that have been professed by the Friends of later date. Hubmaier and Denck differed from this view in part. They held that the Scriptures direct men to perform their duties as citizens; that Christians may lawfully bear the sword as magistrates, and execute the laws, save in persecution of others. In his tract on the "Christian Baptism of Believers," Hubmaier says: "We confess openly that there should be secular government that should bear the sword. This we are willing and bound to obey in everything that is not against God." In his treatise " On the Sword" he defines and distinguishes civil and religious powers, pointing out the true relations of Church and State, with a clearness that a modern Baptist might well imitate, but could not excel. "In matters of faith," said Denck, "everything must be left free, willing, and unforced." Hubmaier denounced persecution in his "Heretics and Those Who Burn Them," written at Schaffhausen before he had by his rebaptism fully ranged himself with the Anabaptists:
Those who arc heretics one should overcome with holy knowledge, not angrily but softly. . . If they will not be taught by strong proofs, or evangelical reasons, let them be mad, that those that are filthy may be more filthy still . . . This is the will of Christ, who said, "Let both grow together till the harvest, lest while ye gather up the tares ye root up also the wheat with them!" . . Hence it follows that the inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all, since they against the doctrine and example of Christ condemn heretics to fire, and before the time of harvest root up the wheat with the tares . . . And now it is clear to every one, even the blind, that a law to burn heretics is an invention of the devil. Truth is immortal.
These disconnected sentences give an idea of the course of thought through his brief tract, which is written with a fire that may well have stirred to wrath the persecutors whom it arraigned.
The Anabaptists of this period were the only men of their time who had grasped the principle of civil and religious liberty. That men ought not to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs was a necessary corollary from their idea of the nature of the church. A spiritual body, consisting only of the regenerate, could not seek to add to itself by force those who were unregenerate. No Anabaptist could become a persecutor without first surrendering this fundamental conviction; and though a few of them appear to have done this, they ceased to be properly classed as Anabaptists the moment they forgot the saying of Christ, "My kingdom is not of this world."
It remains to tell the disgraceful story of the treatment of the German Anabaptists. Luther began his career as a reformer with brave words in favor of the rights of conscience and religious liberty. At Worms he said: "Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since J believe neither the pope nor councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience." But later, when the Anabaptists took precisely this position, Luther assails them with exactly the arguments brought against him at Worms, which he so boldly rejected:
If every one now is allowed to handle the faith so as to introduce into the Scriptures his own fancies, and then expound them according to his own understanding, and cares to find only what flatters the populace and the senses, certainly not a single article of faith could stand. It is dangerous, yes terrible, in the highest degree, to hear or believe anything against the faith and doctrine of the entire Christian church. He who doubts any article that the church has believed from the beginning continually, does not believe in the Christian church, and not only condemns the entire Christian church as an accursed heretic, but condemns even Christ himself, with all the apostles who established that article of the church and corroborated it, and that beyond contradiction.
There was a similar change in Luther’s opinions regarding the treatment proper for heretics. In his address to the Christian nobility of Germany (1520) he said: "We should overcome heretics with books, not with fire, as the old Fathers did. Ii there were any skill in overcoming heretics with fire, the executioner would he the most learned doctor in the world; and there would be no need to study, but he that could get another into his power could burn him." The same ideas are set forth in the tract on Secular Magistracy (1523): "No one can command the soul, or ought to command it, except God, who alone can show it the way to heaven. . . It is futile and impossible to command or by force compel any man’s belief. . . Heresy is a spiritual thing that no iron can hew down, no fire burn, no water drown. Belief is a free thing that cannot be enforced." Luther even retained these sentiments, at least in the abstract, as late as 1527, for in a treatise written in that year against the Anabaptists, he said: "It is not right, and I am very sorry, that such wretched people should be so miserably murdered, burned, and cruelly killed. Every one should be allowed to believe what he pleases. If his belief is wrong he will have sufficient penalty in the eternal fire of hell. Why should they be made martyrs in this world also? . . . With the Scripture and God’s word we should oppose and resist them; with fire we can accomplish little."
Yet such excellent sentiments as these did not prevent Luther from advising John, Elector of Saxony, to restrain by force the Anabaptists from propagating their doctrines within his domains. A decree issued by that prince in 1528, on the plea that the Anabaptists were seducing simple-minded folk into disobedience to God’s word, by preachings and disputations, through books and writings, commanded that "no one—whether noble, burgher, peasant, or of whatever rank he may be, except the regular pastors . . . to whom is committed in every place the care of souls and preaching—is permitted to preach and baptize, or to buy and read forbidden books; but that every one who learns of such doings shall make them known to the magistrate of the place where they occur, in order that these persons may be brought to prison and justice." It was made the duty of every one to seize and deliver such offenders to the court; and whoever should fail to do so, did it at peril of body and goods. Whoever received such persons into their houses or gave them any assistance, should be treated as abettors and adherents. The Protestants are therefore entitled to the distinction of beginning the persecution of the German Anabaptists.
We cannot wonder that the Catholics followed this example. At the Diet of Speyer, in 1529, when the German princes and representatives of the free cities presented their famous protest, in which, in the name of religious liberty they claimed the right to force the reformed faith upon their unwilling Catholic subjects, while they spoke also a faint-hearted plea for the Zwinglians, they had no good word for the Anabaptists. The Diet at this session passed a stringent decree against these people: "All Anabaptists and rebaptized persons, male or female, of mature age, shall be judged and brought from natural life to death, by fire, or sword or otherwise, as may befit the persons, without preceding trial by spiritual judges. Such persons as of themselves, or after instruction, at once confess their error, and are willing to undergo penance and chastisement therefore, and pray for clemency, these may be pardoned by their government as may befit their standing, conduct, youth, and general circumstances. We will also that all of their children according to Christian order, usage, and rite shall be baptized in their youth. Whoever shall despise this, and will not do it, in the belief that there should be no baptism of children, shall, if he persists in that course, be held to be an Anabaptist, and shall be subjected to our above-named
This decree was formally binding on all the States of the empire, Protestant as well as Catholic, but there was of course great latitude in its practical enforcement. Most of the Protestant princes, like the Elector of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse, while greatly desirous of suppressing the Anabaptists, had invincible scruples against persecuting to the death those who, like themselves, claimed to be following conscience and Scripture. In such domains, fines, imprisonment, and banishment were inflicted, but not death. The free cities were still less stringent, and seem to have moved against the Anabaptists only when their numbers became so great as to alarm the authorities. Indeed, these cities became the chief refuge of the Anabaptists in the storm of persecution that raged against them after 1529. In the Catholic States they were pursued with implacable severity, and one chronicler (Sebastian Franck, d. 1542) estimates that two thousand or more were put to death at this time. In the Palatinate the persecution was not less severe than in the Catholic States, for three hundred and fifty are said to have perished there.
Cornelius, though writing as a Roman Catholic, yet also as a conscientious historian, thus sums up the results of these persecutions:
In Tyrol and G�rz, the number of the executions in the year 1531 already reached one thousand; in Ensisheim, six hundred. At Linz, seventy-three were killed in six weeks. Duke William, of Bavaria, surpassing all others, issued the fearful decree to behead those who recanted, to burn those who refused to recant. Throughout the greater part of upper Germany the persecutions raged like a wild chase. The blood of these poor people flowed like water; so that they cried to the Lord for help. But hundreds of them, of all ages and both sexes, suffered the pangs of torture without a murmur, despised to buy their lives by recantation, and went to the place of execution joyful and singing Psalms.2
Some of the recent apologists for these cruelties have said that there was at least a partial justification for such wholesale executions in the suspicion that the Anabaptists were not merely heretics, but traitors—revolutionists, advocates of sedition, as dangerous to the State as to religion. It is perhaps a sufficient answer to this plea to remark that none of the contemporary documents bring this charge against the Anabaptists. In the preambles of the various decrees issued against them, in the statement of their offenses nothing is found but their errors in religious faith and practice. If they were suspected of being politically dangerous up to 1529, it is remarkable that no trace of such suspicion should appear in any official action taken against them. It may be properly added that up to this time neither the acts nor the teachings of the Anabaptists afforded a plausible pretext for the State to treat them as seditious.
1 Hubmaier-H�bel (provincial for H�gel) meier, "the farmer cf the hill.
2 " Geschicht, des M�nsterischen Aufruhrs," Vol II., p. 57 seq.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 12 - The Outbreak of Fanaticism