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Brethren In Christ

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How did it come about that within a time less than a grown man's life span, from 1525 to the century's end, the various groups of Brethren, their faith, writings, and manner of life had spread or grown so widely over the face of Europe?

There were two main reasons.

There was the ever present reality of persecution. It was a century when a red glow in one's window of an evening would most likely indicate that yet another "incorrigible heretic" was being consigned to the fire of the Inquisition. But, as today, not everyone in the 16th century was callous or cruel. mitigateMany a time a convenient rope, an open door, a whispered word, made an escape possible, and many city councils tried hard, and often successfully, to mitigate imperial, papal or royal decrees by imposing banishment and exile rather than death (Plate 2). A hard, grimly insecure life of wandering was in fact more often the fate of individual rank-and-file members than a spectacular execution in some civic square. Except at certain critical times, this latter was more often reserved for acknowledged or suspected leaders. Thus, as with the persecution that arose about Stephen in the first century A.D., so in the second half of the 16th century, "they were all scattered abroad" (Acts 8:1) and "they that were scattered abroad went everywhere, preaching the Word" (v. 4).

Take Bernardino Ochino ('Little Bernard'), for instance (see INSET). While an exile in London we have notice of him in:

"Certayne sermons of the rygthe famous and excellente clerk master Baradine Ochine, borne within the famous universitie of Siena in Italy, now also an exyle in thys lyfe for the faithful testimony of Jesus Christ. Faithfully translated into Englyshe, to be sold in Chepesyde at the sign of the Resurrection"195


and also in:

"A Tragedy or Dialogue of the Unjust Usurped Primacy of the Bishop of Rome . . . never printed before in any language, 1549"., 194


While in London, Mary the Catholic came to the throne and Ochino and his family had to move. He went to Zurich, but the place proved too hot. He became embroiled in the controversy which was then tearing all Switzerland apart over pre-destination and freewill.

PAGE 20 Inset: BERNARDINO OCHINO 1487-1563


With the typically simple theology and reasonable approach that became so characteristic of the Brethren in Christ, he added his part:

"The safest way in view of such doubt is to strive for the good as if we were free and give all the glory to God as if we were not. God has placed us before Christ the crucified, the heavenly bread of life, and the sweet truth of the gospel, with all its riches and benefits. There is no need for us to enquire how these gifts are bestowed. Enough that we thank God and use them well, giving unto Him all glory and honour through Jesus Christ our Saviour". 196

One of Ochino's works published in Poland illustrates the international character of the movement we are tracing and the consequences of having so many wandering exiles seeking some temporary haven of refuge. As Roland Bainton of Yale pointed out: "The book was written by an Italian, had previously appeared in English, was now translated by a Pole, subsidized by a German, printed by a Bohemian, and dedicated to a Lithuanian". 27

We have referred to Bernardino Ochino as but one example: the travels -- on foot, beast or primitive wagon -- of many like him were largely involuntary. They moved when they had to, to places which seemed safe for a while. There was, however, another factor, perhaps even more powerful, which helped to sweep the Bible-based message of the Brethren in Christ so speedily and, for a time, effectively, across Europe.

This was their conviction of the nearness of the second coming of


the Lord Jesus Christ. They expected that within a short time he would come to overthrow the dominions of men, crush the papal Antichrist and establish his worldwide kingdom.

It is easy to understand their anticipations of Jesus' return, premature though they may have been. There is no question that they "loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:8). How could they do else, when they had to give up all for the truth of it? In Europe, political and religious turmoil convulsed the continent, Feudal society was being torn apart, and nothing permanent was yet appearing in its place. Emperor and Pope were in unholy alliance to crush believers in the Bible. The witnesses were being slain. Driven out of western Europe, some Jews, many of them famous scholars and professionals, were being allowed by the Turks to settle in Palestine.

It was in such circumstances, pressed in spirit by their conviction that time was short and Jesus would soon come again, that a special conference of the Brethren was held in the German city of Augsburg. It had to be small because it had to be secret. They met on August 24th, 1527, in the private home of Mathias Finder, a butcher. Those present decided that they should inaugurate immediately a Bible Mission to witness widely, and they selected a number of able brethren to be missionaries, or leaders of the campaign. Considering that every aspect of the message to be proclaimed was considered heretical by the authorities, baptism was a capital crime and membership of the group illegal, to call the decision a courageous one hardly does it justice. It was an act of faith which can only rank with David's crossing of the brook of Elah to face Goliath, and that of the apostles before the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 5:29). Suffice it to state that within two years eleven of those sent out had been executed and five years later only two were still alive. But in a very real sense it was as a result of that meeting in the butcher's house that the message was carried in an organised way through southern Germany, Austria and Italy, and thence by various modes and routes to Moravia, Bohemia, Poland, Romania, Russia and elsewhere.228 (Map 2).map2

This campaign can be illustrated by its effects on one small village in Austria. It just happens that records survive in the Austrian National Library which describe what took place there.

Rattenberg (not to be confused with Rottenburg in Germany where Michael Sattler met his death) is a picturesque small town thirty miles east of Innsbruck; its quaint streets still hug the banks of the Inn river,


seemingly little changed since the 16th century. Already by 1527 there was a small congregation of believers there. That year, there came, by different routes, two of the missionary brethren, Leonhard Schiemer and Hans Schlaffer. Schiemer had met Hubmaier while in Mikulov, and had attended meetings there, but he had been baptised in Vienna. Arriving in Rattenberg on a missionary tour, along with his wife Barbara to whom he was passionately devoted, he was arrested during his very first night in town.

He languished in jail for several months before his death, but not before he had smuggled out his Ordnung der Gemein, a sort of ecclesial guide. This he hoped would help the young, inexperienced brotherhood through the evil days ahead. His last message to his wife and the members was a simple one: "The Lord is my comfort and my confidence: He forsakes none who trust Him truly".102 On January 14th, 1528 he was executed.


But not without protest. Like a Joseph of Arimathea, there was a prominent town councilor by the name of Pilgram Marpeck (see INSET) who had "not consented to the counsel and deed of them" (Luke 23:51). He had to leave his home town for Augsburg where he was baptized and became a quiet but sincere worker for the Faith. He wrote several books, 180-184 one of which contains over 800 pages; 182 of another, only two known copies survive;184 from yet another comes a passage which forms a good choice for our first selection (see PILGRAM MARPECK ON THE WORD AS SPIRIT). Marpeck is here refuting the notion that for us today illumination and conversion can come either through the Word of God or directly and independently by Holy Spirit inspiration, or both. Rather, he stresses, to believe and obey the Word of God is to receive God's Spirit and be transformed. Dealing with the old, but ever new, question "How can





you be so sure you have the Truth when so many other sincere people believe differently?" he responds:

"We have no right to condemn anyone. But seeking the salvation of men, we testify to the truth of God. If someone is hit or judged by it, this is not our own responsibility."233

Unfortunately -- for Pilgram Marpeck really deserves more of us -- space demands that we turn attention back to Rattenberg. With Marpeck out of the way, the Austrian authorities could get on with their heresy hunt. They caught Hans Schlaffer in the city of Schwaz, eight miles away, busily engaged in teaching his brethren and sisters the importance of prayer. One writer described him as "a master of praying", and it is by a prayer that we shall remember him at this time (see HANS SCHLAFFER'S FAREWELL PRAYER). It was written during the night before his execution in Schwaz on February 4th, 1528.

The events at Rattenberg were repeated in some form or another all


through Austria in 1528. The Tyrol in particular was hard hit, and whole congregations were systematically wiped out almost as soon as they had formed. Georg Ca' Jacob, nicknamed Blaurock ('Bluecoat' -- see INSET), one of the founding members of the Swiss Brethren," felt a great anxiety to help the struggling ecclesias in that Austrian province, and he arrived there in May, 1529. One writer described what happened next:

"When Blaurock heard that the Brethren longed for God's Word he spared himself no trouble or danger to go at once to the orphaned congregation. With Hans Langegger (Weber), a Tyrolese weaver, he travelled through the Val Venosta, strengthening the Brethren everywhere and founding new congregations, as at Glorenza, Silandro, Merano, Bolzano and to Chiusa. He held meetings, preaching and baptizing. As a rule meetings were held on holidays and at night. To escape pursuit Blaurock frequently changed the places of meeting, never avoiding the most strenuous journeys. He was apparently most successful in Chiusa: it was his favourite stopping place, to which he returned after each trip, until the middle of August, 1529.

Meanwhile, the Innsbruck authorities had done their best to seize Blaurock. They threatened to dismiss the sheriff of Guffidaun unless he immediately put an end to the 'mischief'. He therefore redoubled his efforts to capture the leaders. On August 14th, 1529 he was able to report that he had succeeded in capturing 'two real leaders and re-baptizers, Georg von Chur and Hans Langegger' and imprisoning them in the Guffidaun castle". 186

The prisoners were tortured (to reveal names, of course) and then publicly burnt in the woodmarket in Chiusa (Klausen). If Hans Schlaffer has left us a prayer, Blaurock has left us a hymn written similarly the night before his death. Written down in the quaintly spelled Schweizerdeutsch of the 16th century, it comes over into English after this manner (in the metre of the hymn 'The King Of Love' -- see THE LAST hymn OF GEORG 'BLAUROCK').167

The bitter experiences of the Brethren in Christ inevitably led them to identify Rome as the biblical Antichrist. Their understanding of Bible prophecy, and particularly of the Apocalypse, was not new to them. Earlier Bible students such as the Vaudois, and much earlier



PAGE 33 Inset: GEORG CA' JACOB 1492-1529

'post-apostolic fathers', had bequeathed to them the basic framework for appreciating prophecy and the grand design of the redemptive purpose of God with the earth and mankind. In the 16th century the need to place their own trials and labours in the context of the divine plan led the Brethren to meditate deeply and prayerfully over the details. The interpretation -- both in generality and detail -- that emerged was that with which Christadelphians have been familiar since the writings of John Thomas. The famous William Tyndale - almost certainly he secretly became a member of the Brethren in Germany - would definitely have repudiated as unscriptural the publications of the Press that bears his name today. A historian has stated of him that he:


"... held that the Roman Church was Babylon, the pope the Man of Sin, or Antichrist, seated in the temple of God, i.e. the church, and to be destroyed at the approaching second advent. The term Antichrist and its strong equivalent terms -- the Man of Sin, Mystery of Iniquity, Babylon, and Whore of Babylon, applied to the Papacy as the prophetic designation, occur constantly through Tyndale's writings. Tyndale believed the first resurrection to be literal, and looked for God's Kingdom to be established by Christ's coming for which he longed".105


One of the most powerful influences upon the development of this prophetic understanding came from works written in the 1490's by a noteable Jew, Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel of Lisbon. One of these, entitled Wells of Salvation was a detailed exposition of the prophecies of Daniel. It is all very familiar to us -- except that of course he did not consider Jesus as Messiah! Many of the Brethren were hebraists and read Jewish works such as this in the original. The influence of Jewish expositors upon the Brethren was considerable and will be noted later when 16th century publications are considered.