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The Protesters
By Alan Eyre



IN July 1526 Hubmaier left Zurich for the last time, travelling more than 400 miles to the town of Mikulov in Moravia, three miles north of the Austrian frontier. The reason for the choice was the knowledge that the realm of Louis, king of Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary was noted for its tolerance of protestant minorities. In an area where the Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum or Hussites) had made a deep impact already upon religious and moral thinking, fruitful ground would certainly exist for Hubmaier to cultivate.

The immediate cause of Hubmaier's departure from Zurich has been the subject of unjust slanders against his integrity. As has been mentioned already, he was not highly endued with natural courage, but it has been alleged that he left Zurich to save face after an abject recantation. Recantation there undoubtedly was, and Hubmaier wrote grievingly afterwards: "O God, pardon my weakness. It is good for me (as David says) that Thou hast humbled me." But certain letters of Zwingli cast lurid light upon the circumstances in which it was made. He boasts that he "allured" Hubmaier into recantation by torture. In a letter to a friend Zwingli describes Hubmaier as stubborn and states that he did not recant freely. In a gloating style excessive even for Zwingli, he writes that, seeing that Hubmaier was clearly "a sport of demons", he extracted a recantation from him while he was "stretched upon the rack". That this was so is confirmed by the sinister words in his final condemnation in Vienna in 1528: "He was racked also at Zurich on account of the second baptism, and compelled to testify who had led him into such baptism, and ... made a public recantation." Clearly Zwingli was not only interested in a recantation through the rack, but wanted some names as well. It would have been folly for Hubmaier to remain in Zurich any longer.


Reformers' Cruel Persecution.

From the comparative safety of Mikulov, Hubmaier could look back upon his Zurich trials with more objectivity. "Faith is a work of God, and not of the heretic's tower, in which one sees neither sun nor moon, and lives on nothing but water and bread. But God be praised who delivered me from this den of lions, where dead and living men lay side by side and perished."

He marvelled at the inconsistency of men who, claiming to be reformers of the Christian faith and preachers of the religion of Jesus, yet used the foulest of means to eliminate those who peaceably endeavoured to be most loyal to it. In one of his finest and most eloquent passages Hubmaier cries from the heart for love and patience and against the brutalities and cruelties perpetrated in the name of Jesus:

"Christ did not come to butcher, to murder, to burn, but that men might have life and that more abundantly. So long as a man lives, we should pray and hope for his repentance. A Turk or a heretic is to be overcome not with sword or fire but by patience and weeping. We are therefore to wait patiently for the judgement of God. Every Christian has a sword against the godless, that is the word of God; but not a sword against evil-doers. True faith thrives by conflict; the more it is opposed the greater it becomes. When Jehoiakim destroyed the book of Jeremiah, Baruch wrote a better one. The truth is immortal."


The Moravian period in Hubmaier's life was a fruitful one. He was protected by the local lord. He became the much-loved spiritual guide and leader of a growing community of like-minded souls in and around Mikulov. That his own sincerity and magnetic spirituality burned deep into the hearts of many there was evidenced later by the tenacity with which his fellow-Brethren in Moravia clung to the principles they shared, despite the most ferocious persecution ever meted out to a helpless religious community. Many others besides Hubmaier found a temporary haven of refuge in Moravia during 1526, and a steady stream of refugees from Switzerland, the Tyrol, Italy and Germany swelled the ranks of the Brethren in that country.

Some of these, fresh from cruel persecutions, were neither so patient nor so well-grounded in the principles of Christ as Hubmaier. A particularly acute thorn in the flesh was Hans Hetz, who had been


associated with Thomas Muntzer before the latter became involved in the Peasant's War in Germany. Hetz, a bookbinder, began to preach on arrival that the Second Coming of Christ would take place at Whitsun 1528, whereupon he would lead his saints to victory. There was even talk of making some practical preparations to that end. However, after creating rather an anxious period for Hubmaier, Hetz returned to Germany where he was killed trying to escape from an Augsburg prison.

Appeal to the Scriptures

But it was not only in his evangelical and pastoral work that Hubmaier was fruitful. During his brief period of freedom writings poured from his pen, writings as overflowing as his earlier works with a reverent love of God's word, alive and vibrant with a passionate spiritual power. Neglected as they were and are, the few unbiased scholars in more recent times who have paid any attention to them have recognised their quality and worth, and have appreciated them as one of the great highlights of the Reformation period, richer in spirit and more honest in exegesis than the works of the more famous "reformers". Contrasting them with Zwingli's unconvincing sophistries, the Swiss scholar Usteri comments that "Hubmaier's exegesis is substantially in accord with modern scientific methods". Vedder has said: "His continual enquiry, as each point is discussed, is what do the Scriptures say about this? There are few writers in the history of the church who have searched the Scriptures with a greater zeal to discover their teaching or have come to the study with a more open mind, or have bent fewer texts from their plain meaning to support a favourite theory."

In a day when dogmas were battlegrounds for wordy controversies, Hubmaier's treatment of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith shone with uncommon brilliance. For him no Bible doctrine could be a sterile tenet to be cloaked in verbiage and highly-spun by worldly logic; for him it was a conviction that changed a man or woman's entire being. Water baptism, for example,

". . . is an external and public testimony of the inward baptism of the spirit, set forth by receiving water. By this not only are sins confessed, but also faith in their pardon, by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is declared before all men. Hereby also the recipient is externally marked, inscribed and incorporated into the fellowship of the churches,



according to the ordinance of Christ. Publicly and orally he vows to God by the strength of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that he will henceforth believe and live according to the divine word; also in case he should be negligent, that he will receive brotherly admonition, according to the order of Christ in Matthew 18 ... It is a pledge and promise which the baptized makes to Christ, our invincible leader and head, that he will contend manfully under his flag and banner in Christian faith until death."

Hubmaier was convinced that, despite the profound nature of the subject, Christian theology was needlessly complicated by men more interested in displaying their erudition than in explaining the verities of God, for among the Brethren he had witnessed humble artisans become mighty in the Scriptures. In his Simple Explanation be wrote:

"The humblest believer is able to understand the Scriptures, so much so at any rate as is necessary to salvation, and it is his duty to acquire his understanding by his own study of the word, not to take it at secondhand from anybody."


There was rarely need for the seeker to grope for an answer. One golden rule that he enunciated was that Scripture can be interpreted only by Scripture, and he uses a compelling figure:

"If we put beside obscure or brief passages other passages on the same subject, and bind them all together like wax candles, and light them all at once, then the clear and pure splendour of the Scriptures must shine forth."


Like a thread his emphasis on the Bible as the source and fountain of all we know of Christ and Christianity runs through his Mikulov works. The protestant reformers talked much of the Bible, but continued to cling to traditions, usages and accretions that have no place in it. They claimed to make the Scriptures the standard, but in practice maintained rigid church authority. Hubmaier would have none of this:

"We should inquire of the Scriptures, and not of the church, for God will have from us only His law, His will, not our wrong heads or what seems good to us. God is more concerned with obedience to His will than with all our selfinvented church usages."



Theologians, he contended, split hairs over abstract concepts, yet let great practical demonstrations of obedience such as the baptism of faith and non- retaliation go unhonoured. "But it is just the way of human wisdom to hold as of least weight that which God highly regards or commands." There was logic in his insistence that the church is built upon the word, not the word upon the church. A hymn he composed on I Peter I:25 reflects Hubmaier's Biblical approach and that of the Brethren in general:

"Ah, blind man, now hear the word;
Make sure your state and calling;
Believe the Scripture is the power
By which we're kept from falling.
Your valued lore at once give o'er,
Renounce your vain endeavour;
This shows the way, no longer stray;
God's word stands sure for ever."


The last verse of this hymn is interesting, anticipating as it does wide development and breathing a conviction that if Peter was right, then neither hidebound tradition nor brute force would completely stifle truth:

Praise God, praise God in unity,
Ye Christian people sweetly,
That He His word has spread abroad
His word, His work completely.
No human hand can Him withstand,
No name how high soever;
And sing we then our glad Amen!
God's word stands sure, for ever."


Death by Fire and Water

Mikulov offered Hubmaier refuge for barely a year. As a haven of freedom Moravia proved a fateful choice, for 1526, the very year of his migration, saw dynastic changes in the country. Louis, who had inherited Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary from his father Vladislav, was killed fighting the Turks on his eastern frontier. The succession fell to Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, who had married Anne, Louis' sister. As a Habsburg he was a stout defender of the Roman Catholic faith. In July 1527, Hubmaier and his wife, Elizabeth, were arrested in Mikulov and taken south to Austria. A monk was instructed to converse with them in an endeavour to convert them;


they had long conversations and Hubmaier was humble enough to admit that he might well be mistaken on many things, but there were some commands of the Lord which he felt in all sincerity that he could not compromise. The monk confessed failure and Hubmaier was brought to trial. The outcome was inevitable:

"The aforesaid Dr. Balthasar confesses that he does not at all believe in the sacrament of the altar nor in infant baptism. Therefore Dr. Balthasar, on account of this crime and condemned heresy, is condemned to the fire."


On March 10, 1528, he was led forth to death, Elizabeth "exhorting him to fortitude". An enemy eye-witness said that he remained to the last "fixed like an immovable rock in his heresy". He was urged to confess to a priest, but he steadfastly refused. There was no thought of compromise now, no hope of mercy. The whole sadistic atmosphere of the public burning sickened his deeply sensitive spirit, the morbid curiosity of the crowd providing an additional wound. But there was no bitterness or regret. "O dear brothers", he said as he was tied to the stake, "if I have injured any, in word or deed, may he forgive me for the sake of my merciful God. I will forgive all that have done me harm." With those who rubbed salt and gunpowder into his beard he jested: "O salt me well, salt me well", and as his clothes were removed from him, he muttered "My Lord, they took your clothes off, too." His last words were his Lord's: "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

It was the senseless slaughter at the height of his powers of one of the gentlest and noblest spirits of his age or of any age. Here was no revolutionary, no obsessed and dogmatic fanatic, but a man whose sensitive and eager conscience only wanted to pave paths of peace and truth for the spirit of man. "Learned, eloquent, free from fanaticism, and without rancour in debate", says a modern scholar of him, "he returned revilings with appeals and insulted no one. He wrote few angry words in a world where most pens were dipped in vitriol."

On March 13 his devoted Elizabeth, described by a court official as "hardened in the same heresy even more constant than her husband", had a great stone tied to her neck and was thrown into the water of the Danube.

Three years before the Vienna crowds flocked to just another victim "roasted at the stake" and knew not what they did, Hubmaier


had written a work entitled "Concerning heretics and those that burn them". It was an impassioned plea for liberty of conscience, for love rather than hate, for controversy to be conducted in the spirit of Christ:

"Those who are heretics one should overcome with holy knowledge, not angrily but softly, with a spiritual fire and a zeal of love. The greatest deception of the people is a zeal for God that is unscripturally channelled, for conviction of the right and sincerity are deadly arrows where they are not led and directed by the Scriptures. It is a small thing to burn innocent people, but to point out an error and disprove it by Scripture that is art."