E. Belfort Bax. Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists.

Chapter I.
Beginnings of Anabaptism.

For religio-political mysticism, sporadic among the smaller handicraftsmen of the towns and the peasantry throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, acquired an extraordinary impulse at their close, that is, during the period known as the Reformation. Political movements with a religious coloring, or religious movements with a political coloring, according to circumstances, may be said to have become chronic, through central and western Europe, from the end of the 15th century onwards.

In two former volumes I have traced the history of these movements in Germany, which culminated in the great Peasants War of 1525. This insurrection, extinguished though it was as such for the time being, continued to live on in the minds of the people, and, in a manner, rose again from its ashes in the great Anabaptist revolt of a few years later.

Some of the leaders of the peasant rising of 1525 have been incorrectly described as Anabaptists, on account of the similarity of their views and aims with those of the later movement. Notably is this the case with Thomas Münzer, the leading spirit of the revolt in Thuringia; the latter, however, was lay no means at one with the; initiators of the Anabaptist movement then just beginning in Switzerland. To its special sign, re-baptism, Münzer attached no importance whatever. The so-called Zwickau prophets, Nicholas Storch and his colleagues, seem, in their general attitude, to have approached very closely to the principles of the Anabaptist sectaries. But, even here, it is incorrect to regard them, as has often been done, as directly connected with the latter, still more, as themselves the germ of the Anabaptist party of the following years.

As to the actual origins of Anabaptism, properly so called, our information is somewhat scant, and is vitiated by the fact that much of it comes from bitterly hostile sources. “Anno 1524 and 1525 AC. is God’s word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ come into all Germany, after the Peasants War”.[1] Such is the exordium of an Anabaptist account of the origin of the sect. “As may be found in the old chronicles and histories, Germany or Deutschland was so wild, rude, and untilled, and its people so unlearned, with so rude ways and customs as scarce another place or province in the world. Moreover, no man hath anywhere read that any apostle or disciple of Christ did ever come to this country, notwithstanding that elsewhere they journeyed over sea and land to far-off countries, to the end that they might preach God’s word. Perhaps hath even this German land been chosen by God to discover and to set forth His word in this the last age of this passing world.” The writer then proceeds, in a few words, to sketch the history of the Reformation, observing that Luther had known how to pull down an old house, but not to build up a new one. With the Reformers, he says, it is as though they were mending an old pot in which the hole only grows larger: “They have smitten the vessel out of the hand of the Pope, but left the fragments therein: for a new birth of Life hath one never seen with them.” After a passing allusion to Münzer and others, he proceeds:

“God hath called to this wonderful work then in Switzerland, amongst them have been Balthazar Hubmeyer, Konrad Grebel, Felix Manz and Georg von Chur.” “These men,” he says, have recognised that one must first of all learn the Divine message, the love of an active faith, and only after having done so, should he receive Christian baptism. But since, at that time, there was no servant ordained to such work, Georg of the house of Jacob called Blaurock rose up and prayed this Konrad Grebel in the name of God, that he should baptise him. After that was done, the others there present did demand the same from Georg, and began to hold and to teach the faith. Therewith hath the separation from the world originated and hath grown up.”

This, it should be said, happened in an obscure gathering of enthusiasts at Zürich in the year 1525, and from this occasion amidst this small circle we may fairly place the origin of the Anabaptist sect or party proper. Anabaptism was emphatically in the air; in other words, the spirit and general tendencies of what subsequently consolidated itself as the Anabaptist movement were dominant amongst certain orders of the population in widely distant centres. But the sect actually took its rise from the above indicated small beginnings.

Zwingli had, through the manner in which he had conducted the Swiss reformation, given an impulse to radical tendencies, especially in Zürich, the centre of his activity; tendencies which he found it difficult later on to stem, when he saw he was beginning to lose control of them. Appeals to the command of God, as taking precedence of human authority, passionate invocations of the inner light, were the order of the day. Numbers came from other parts of Switzerland, as well as from the neighbouring German territories, to join in the controversial life of what might now be regarded as the metropolis of the Reformation in this part of the world. From Basel especially came several of those who were later the apostles of the Anabaptist movement. Wilhelm Reublin from Würtemberg, who as chief preacher at St. Albans, in Basel, had ostentatiously broken rules as to fasting, and who was exiled from the city as soon as the Reformation began to stir there, came to Zürich, where he soon obtained a living in the neighbourhood of the town, and not long after, amid the applause of the inhabitants, celebrated the first priestly wedding within the Swiss borders. Simon Stumpf, another Basel priest, finding Basel too hot for him, fled to Zürich, where, like his colleague, he obtained a living in a village near. Here he thundered against authority in Church and State and was eloquent on the ungodliness of rent-dues and tithes. Ludwig Hätzer or Hetzer, a learned young priest, hailing from Thurgau, was also drawn to the great centre of agitation where he made a name, through a tract he issued against images in churches. Appointed as secretary to the great debate on current theological questions held by the City Council in October 1523, he was the official editor of the minutes afterwards published. Hans Brödli, yet another preacher, came from Graubünden and settled at Zolliken, near Zürich, where he also instructed the peasantry in the principles of the new gospel, not forgetting also to denounce tithes and dues as contrary to the Pauline precept that all men should earn their bread by the work of their hands. In close connection with these men by means of correspondence were others holding similar views in the north of Switzerland and across the German border. Amongst them may be noted Balthazar Hubmeyer, the reforming pastor of Waldshut, an account of whose activity there will be found in our former volume. (See Peasants War pp.91-94) There was also the Reader of the bare-footed friars at Schaffhausen, Dr. Sebastian Hochmeister. They were both a enthusiastic adherents of the new order of things ecclesiastical that was being inaugurated at Zurich.

For at first the Anabaptist movement was an extreme wing of the reforming movement of Zwingli. But, as is usual in such cases, no sooner had the latter movement succeeded in establishing itself than a rupture took place, and Zwingli found himself strong enough to cut off his inconvenient radical tail. Early in the year 1522 we hear of the formation of a school of heretics in the town, under the leadership of the bookseller Andreas auf der Stilze, who also hailed from Basel, where, it is probable, he had already been associated in friendly intercourse with Grebel, Stumpf, Reublin, Hetzer and others. But at first this association, advanced as were its views, continued in the most friendly relation with Zwingli himself, and with the reformed party in Zürich generally.

It was in the late autumn of this year, 1522, that the other reforming spirits from Basel came to Zürich. From this time forward, the little society embodying the new tendencies acquired fresh life and importance. Proselytes joined it every day. The tendencies, embodied in the circle, began to acquire consistency and gradually took on the character of a distinct sect. From among the newcomers two men now obtained a special influence among the “brethren,” or the “Spirituals” as they were termed. These were the above mentioned Konrad Grebel, himself a young man sprung from a well-to-do family of Zürich burghers, who had studied in Paris and Vienna, and Felix Manz, also a Zürich burgher, and a friend of Grebel. In the house of Manz’s mother meetings of the sectaries were held. Like Grebel, Manz was a scholar and full of youthful enthusiasm.

Zwingli had, by this time, carried out the new principles of the Reformation much more logically than Luther and embodies then in a distinct confession of faith. Not standing on the same theological ground as Luther, he had less hesitation and was prepared to carry on the work of destruction beyond the point at which Luther held his hand. The result was that in Zürich every semblance of Catholic ceremony was entirely swept away. Meanwhile the effect of the continuous theological wrangling of the Reformers amongst themselves, who showed themselves only thoroughly united in their attack on Catholicism and on certain catholic usages, was to detach large numbers of the non-learned classes from the positive dogmatic system that the learned were endeavouring to set up in the place of the old Catholic theology. The biblical text itself, now everywhere read and re-read in the German language, was pondered and discussed in the house of the handicraftstman and in the hut of the peasant with as much confidence of interpretation as in the study of the professional theologian But there were also not a few of the latter order, as we have seen, who were becoming disgusted with the trend of the official Reformation and its leading representatives. The Bible thus afforded a point d'appui for the mystical tendencies now becoming universally prominent, a point d'appui lacking to the earlier movements of the sane kind that were so constantly arising during the Middle Ages proper. Seen in the dim religious light of a continuous reading of the Bible and of very little else, the world began to appear in a new aspect to the simple soul who practised it. All things seemed filled with the immediate presence of Deity. He who felt a call pictured himself as playing the part of the Hebrew prophet. He gathered together a small congregation of followers who felt themselves as the children of God in the midst of a heathen world. Did not the fall of the old Church mean that the day was at hand when the elect should govern the world, It was not so much positive doctrines as an attitude of mind that was the ruling spirit in Anabaptism and like movements. Similarly, it was undoubtedly such a sensitive impressionism rather than any positive dogma that dominated the first generation of the Christian Church itself. How this acted in the case of the earlier Anabaptists we shall presently see.

The new sect that took its rise in Zürich in 1522 was one of a number of similar sects springing up at various points throughout central Europe about the same time. This Zürich sect, however, historical fate had ordained should be the germ of the great Anabaptist movement, absorbing all other like sects and tendencies into itself. It must not be forgotten that it was, in its earlier stages, emphatically a religious and non-political organization. This was the point which sharply distinguished Konrad Grebel and his friends from others whose tendencies were similar, notably from Thomas Münzer. The little Zürich society would have nothing to do with carnal weapons. They would fight only with the sword of the spirit. In a letter under date September 5th, 1524, written by Konrad Grebel and his friends to Münzer, they say: “The Gospel and its followers shall not be guarded by the sword, neither shall they so guard themselves, as, by what we hear from the Brethren, ye assume and pretend to be right. Truly believing Christians are sheep in the midst of wolves, sheep ready for the slaughter; they must be baptized in fear and in need, in tribulation and death, that they may be tried to the last, and enter the fatherland of eternal peace, and not with carnal but with spiritual weapons. They use neither the sword of the world nor war, for to kill is forbidden,” etc.

During the year 1523, the new sect grew rapidly in Switzerland. The idea also made great headway that the aim of the Church reformation was the re-establishment of primitive Christian condition, not merely in matters of theology but of social practice. But for many months there was no open schism between the Brethren and the reforming party of Zwingli. They made it their task to endeavour to urge Zwingli forward in the direction of religious revolution and of such social changes as seemed to them demanded by Holy Writ. Zwingli on his side confined himself to endeavouring to check the more extreme tendencies by gentle remonstrances. Yet the differences between the official reformation of Zwingli and that of the Brethren became more and more apparent every day accompanied by increasing bitterness on both sides. The definite split did not occur before the end of June. The Brethren became increasingly insistent on the immediate abolition of tithes and other ecclesiastical dues. Zwingli himself had previously spoken in favour of this reform which was however strongly opposed by an influential section of the burghers, who also carried with them the majority of the City Council. Accordingly, on June 22nd, the Council passed a resolution condemning emphatically the idea of attacking the existing sources of Church revenue. This was for Zwingli a parting of the ways. He had to make up his mind either to throw in his lot completely with the Brethren, whose, revolutionary tendencies lie now dreaded — a course that would have damned his influence with the wealthy Zürich burghers — or to throw over the Brethren with their subversive doctrines and attach himself definitely to the moderate party that found its expression in the majority of the Town Council. He did not long hesitate. On June 25th, he delivered a sermon in favour of the Council, and thus definitely ranked himself on the side of the moderates. Henceforward he became the acknowledged head of the official reformation in Switzerland.

The “Spirituals,” on their side, grew more decided in their tendencies. It was now that the question of infant baptism first came forward as a prominent feature in the agitation of the Brethren. But the rejection of infant baptism, strongly as it was insisted upon, was after all only a sign of vast divergences otherwise from the Zwinglian Reformation. The Brethren, as representing the men of low estate, felt that they had not overthrown the Roman Church organization to hand themselves over, body and soul, to the secular authorities of the city, the “Ehrbarkeit” and wealthy guildmasters of Zürich. The theory that the Bible, interpreted by the inward light, was the only rule of faith, before which all human authority and institutions must bend, was now proclaimed with greater emphasis than ever. The result was as might have been expected. The truth of the saying, that “you may prove anything out of the Bible” is signally illustrated by the subsequent history of the movement. The most absolute non-resistance doctrine, the most fiery invocations of the sword to destroy the unbelieving occupant of place and power, the mortification of the flesh of the anchorite, and the unbridled lasciousness of the libertine, alike found their place in the ranks of the Anabaptists and of the later sects of the 16th and 17th centuries that sprang from the Anabaptist root.

After Zwingli’s sermon the hostility between the two parties was declared. The decisive crisis, however, was brought about by the debate in the City Council on October 26th, 1523. There had already been a similar debate on the question of the Church reformation in the previous January. On this occasion the reformed Evangelical party had presented a solid front in their demands. Now it was otherwise, the only point upon which unanimity prevailed being the abolition of the Romish cultus, of the Mass, images etc; the question as to what should take the place of these things led to violent altercations. Grebel denounced various matters connected with the Sacrament — the mixing of the wine with water, the use of unleavened bread, its being received by the laity from the hands of the priests, etc. Zwingli would have none of these criticisms. The malcontents were inveighed against as a source of discord. They on their side declared Zwingli to have betrayed the cause in agreeing to accept the decision of the Council on spiritual matters. “You have no power,” said Simon Stumpf, “to give the judgment into the hands of the City Fathers; judgment is already given; the Spirit of God judges.” The Council, however, accepted Zwingli’s propositions and passed laws accordingly.

This meant, of course, that the breach between the two parties could not be bridged over. The “Spirituals” formally repudiated the now officially established Zwinglianism and all its ways. But the new sect grew. The meetings of the small handicraftsmen and journeymen that were assembled under the leadership of Grebel, Manz, and their friends, were continually increased by the accession of new members. In addition, the original strain of ecclesiastical radicalism, or anarchism if one likes, received an accession of strength from the sentiment of an oppressed class in which political and economic considerations mixed themselves up with religious enthusiasm. By the end of the year Zwingli had already begun to call in the aid of the secular arm to repress the sect which was now a serious obstacle to him in his work of organizing the new Church polity. Two months after the great debate in the City Council, Simon Stumpf was banished. Meanwhile progress was made by the Brethren in the adjacent country districts, a large number of peasants joining.

With the extension of the Brethren in numbers, the rejection of infant baptism as a test-sign of adhesion became ever more prominent. Parents began to refuse to allow their children to be christened. At last an edict was issued forbidding the meetings of the body. Reublin, who had made himself particularly conspicuous in his attacks on the orthodox baptismal theory, was arrested, and it was made compulsory for parents to bring their children to the font. At the same time attempts were made, both in private interviews and public disputations, to convert the “Spirituals.” This went on throughout the year 1524, till the whole city rang with the questions at issue, eagerly debated as they were, in every church and at every street corner.

Finally Zwingli issued a manifesto and announced a public disputation for January 18th, 1525. On this occasion, after having conclusively, as he deemed it, refuted the errors of the Brethren, he read out from the pulpit a new order of the Council visiting the refusal of infant baptism with expulsion from the city and its territory. Three days later several of the principal leaders received notice to quit within a week. Just at this time, an ex-priest, Georg Blaurock, (so-called from the blue costume he habitually wore) who had recently come from the town of Chur and who had just become prominent, proposed to Grebel and Manz, who, as Zurich burghers, had not been exiled, to formally proclaim rebaptism a solemn duty for all Brethren. This was done on the historical occasion referred to in the passage from the “Geschichtsbücher” quoted earlier in this chapter. At this meeting, as we have already seen, Blaurock rose and called upon Grebel to baptize him in the true Christian Faith, which ceremony having been accomplished, all present received baptism at the hands of Blaurock. It appears to have been done with the object of showing their abhorrence of the idea of a hierarchy or of leaders at all. All who had been awakened to the true faith by the inward light, were entitled to receive baptism, and all who had received it were entitled to confer it on others. This event, which marks the beginning of the Anabaptist movement properly so-called, occurred on January 21st, 1525.

By the decision to constitute re-baptism a sign and seal of membership of their community, the “Brethren” definitely cut themselves loose from the rest of Christendom, Protestant no less than Catholic. It was the gauntlet thrown down to the current Christianity in all its forms — to the new reformed doctrines represented by Luther and Zwingli no less than to the older Catholicism, against which their polemic had been directed. The notion of a community of the elect, surrounded by a wicked world with which it was at war, was naturally fostered by the new development things had taken. The change, slight as it seems to us, had an electrical effect. Brethren with girdles of cords round their waists were to be seen in the streets and open places of Zurich, as well as in the country hard by, crying: ‘Woe! woe!’ foretelling for Zürich the fate of Niniveh, which would not listen to Jonah, exhorting to repentance, righteousness and brotherly love, and denouncing the dragon, as they called Zwingli, with all his abettors.[2]

A sharp persecution now began. The Rath ordered a number of arrests, amongst them those of Manz and Blaurock. Even severer punishments were tried in order to suppress the new teachings, but without avail. Suffering drew the Brethren closely together. Communistic doctrines now became part of the principles of the League of Zürich Brethren, and a practical attempt at a kind of family communism seems to have been started. A common fund was inaugurated from the wealthy members, out of which indigent Brethren might obtain what they liked. But the persecution succeeded in its immediate object. The Brethren, or the Anabaptists, as we may now term them, were well-nigh all driven from Zurich, and the little community in its original form was broken up and dispersed. The result was only to carry the seed of the new doctrines over the whole of northern Switzerland and southern Germany. Grebel repaired to Schaffhausen and Reublin to Waldshut. In the latter place Balthazar Hubmeyer definitely joined the new sect. This meant, of course, his separation from Zwingli and the orthodox Reformation. With Hubmeyer the reformed community of Waldshut was won over.

In Graubünden Anabaptist doctrines were preached by Manz and gained many adherents. Basel and Bern also became infected, while in St. Gallen and Appenzell the new teachings made a profound impression on the whole population.

The excitement leading to the great outburst of the Peasants War was favorable to the propaganda, but the war itself, especially the successes of the insurgents in its earlier stages, — successes which led many really to hope that the day of the peasant and the common man had at last come, and that he was in very deed about to crush the ecclesiastical and noble oppressor, — was not favorable to a doctrine that, at this period, proclaimed non-resistance as one of its cardinal tenets. During the course of the Peasant insurrection, to the great bulk of the population, the new Anabaptist preachers were confounded with the numberless theological agitators with which Germany then abounded.

Zwingli and the Zürich Council, keenly alive to the danger of the new departure in theological discipline, did not meanwhile rest satisfied with the mere expulsion of the sectaries from the town and territory. Zwingli published a manifesto, designed to prove that infant baptism was an essential part of the Evangelical doctrine. Hubmeyer replied in a trenchant manner from the Anabaptist standpoint. Zwingli rejoined with an abusive attack on Hubmeyer. But in the end the clever theological disputant succeeded in establishing infant baptism and the heretical character of re-baptism on a dogmatic basis, which, if it did not convert the Anabaptists, at least proved satisfactory to his own followers. The question, said Zwingli, was not merely one of baptism, but of the introduction of schism and heresy generally into the Church. No one had any right, he continued, to leave the Church, but all were bound to submit to the decision of the majority in ecclesiastical matters, as indicated by the supreme authority of the State.

About midsummer, 1525, at a time that nearly coincided with the first serious defeats of the peasants, a persecution again broke out against the Anabaptists in the new localities, where, for the last few months, they had been planting their seed in comparative peace. In St. Gallen, notably, the Council began to take steps. First of all, it invited the new sectaries to a debate in the church of St. Laurenz. Meanwhile they were enjoined to cease proselytising. As might be imagined these measures led to nothing. Finally the Burgermeister of the town, Joachim von Watt, who, according to the practice of the time was also known as Vadianus, took a determined stand in opposition to the new propaganda. His standpoint was not so much that of theological opposition to the new tenets, for he had notably himself been opposed to infant baptism, but rather that of a statesman, or “man of order,” who feared the methods of the new propaganda. All ecclesiastical changes, he maintained, must take place gradually so as not to endanger political stability. The practice of re-baptism, erected into an institution, he denounced as contrary to the preachings of the Apostles, and to the precepts of Holy Writ. Both Zwingli and Grebel left no stone unturned to influence the decision of the St. Gallen Council in favour of their respective sides. At last, on the 5th of June, a manifesto of the Burgermeister against the Anabaptists, together with a reply of the latter, was publicly read before the Council. The result was a decree stringently forbidding re-baptism and also the “breaking of bread,” the form of the sacrament adopted by the new Sect. The punishment for the re-baptiser was imprisonment and banishment, for the re-baptized a heavy pecuniary fine.

The Rath then called together two hundred well-known citizens in order that they might be sworn in as a kind of special constables, to see to the carrying out of its decisions. One only refused the oath, and he was at once, with his family, expelled from the town. Thereupon followed the suppression of the Anabaptist community in St. Gallen. The persecution spread rapidly. In July Manz was arrested in Chur and handed over to the Zürich Rath. In August Hochmeister was banished from Schaffhausen. He went, however, to Zürich and “ratted” to the Zwinglian party, receiving his reward in consequence from Zwingli, who gave him an appointment. At the same time Bern also exiled the new teachers. In December, the town of Waldshut fell into the hands of the Austrian authorities, and there also the new doctrines and practices were suppressed. Hubmeyer, hotly pursued by the soldiers of the Archduke Ferdinand, fled in desperation to Zürich, where he was at once arrested and compelled to hold a public disputation with Zwingli. Hubmeyer anticipated this by recantation, but on being forced to ascend the pulpit in order to advocate infant baptism, he. startled his hearers by preaching a sermon against it. He was re-arrested, put to the torture, compelled to a triple recantation in public of the views he had expressed, and after having sworn an oath at once to leave and never re-enter Zurich territory, was dismissed.

The persecution throughout the Swiss cantons continued during 1526 and 1527. It did not, however, succeed by any means in entirely stamping out the movement even in Switzerland, while it had the effect of the dispersal of the leading spirits far and wide throughout southern Germany. During 1525, with the exception of Waldshut and a few places on the immediate confines of the Swiss territories, the movement had remained essentially local and Swiss. But in the spring of 1526, we already see signs of considerable Anabaptist activity in the southern provinces of the empire. Hubmeyer, leaving Zurich in April, repaired to Augsburg and later on to Nicolsburg in Moravia; where he settled down and once more took up the cause of Anabaptism. Tracts from his pen appeared in succession, but this did not hinder his preaching and teaching with his wonted energy.

The last of the leaders to forsake Switzerland was Blaurock, who, in the beginning of 1527, was flogged through the streets of Zürich, and thrown out at the city gate. He went to sow the seed of the new doctrines in Tyrol. Not alone the leaders, but numbers of the rank and file, whose names are unknown, felt a call to go a-preaching.

Hätzer, after a period of wavering, settled down in Strasburg, and in the summer of 1526 started an industrious propaganda in that city and in the Upper Rhenish districts generally. The Nürnberg schoolmaster, Hans Denck, also joined Hätzer in Strasburg. A former admirer of Thomas Münzer, Hans Hut from Hain in Franconia, was now won over to the new sect and to the doctrine of non-resistance. Hut, possessed alike of eloquence and untiring energy, proved a priceless acquisition to the movement. In proportion as, after the great defeat of 1525, despair of attaining their aims by insurrectionary methods gradually settled down on the peasantry and poor handicraftsmen, the Anabaptist doctrine spread like wild-fire; attracting to itself all the elements from the earlier peasant and proletarian movements that had a similar religious coloring. At the same time the new elements that came in did not fail in the course of events, as we shall see, to change the character of the propaganda.

The movement, in its inception purely religious, took on an increasingly political colour. The purely voluntary communism in imitation of the supposed institutions of the early Christians, which the Zürich Brethren had instituted among themselves, became more and more raised to the position of a cardinal principle, whilst the nonresistance doctrine, in certain quarters began to fall into the background.

By the end of 1527 the new propaganda had done its work. The process of absorption was complete, and the great Anabaptist movement had entered upon its changeful and chequered career.

1. Geschichtsbücher der Wiedertaüfer in Oestreich-Ungarn. Herausgegeben von Beck, II, pp. 11, 12.

2. It should here be pointed out, in order to give a proper understanding of the effect produced, that in the adoption of the theory of re-baptism, the Zürich Brethren were quite original. Many of the reforming party opposed infant baptism. Indeed, Zwingli himself had originally favored this view; and, although the Brethren gave it special prominence from the beginning, it cannot be regarded as, in any way, a tenet distinctive in the sense of exclusive. With re-baptism it was otherwise. This had never been suggested before by any of the reforming parties.