Last Updated on : Sunday, October 7, 2012
By the end of the year 1527 little communities of Brethren in Christ were scattered through the central and northern cantons of the Swiss Confederation, and also in Moravia, the Tyrol, and south-west Germany. Yet almost all of the original leaders of the movement barely two years old -- were either dead, in prison or in exile. Especially was this true of Switzerland. Egli, a Swiss historian with no marked sympathy for what the Brethren stood for, had to comment when surveying the stubborn staying-power of the community which they founded: "What extraordinary men these leaders must have been."
The Brethren preached at street corners and even in taverns, according to official reports from the canton of Bern. The death penalty, however, introduced in 1527 as has been mentioned by invoking the ancient code of Justinian, was frequently enforced against both sexes. In Protestant cantons it was generally effected by drowning. The Bern government passed measures in 1527 to "eradicate these weeds" and a special police force called Taufer-Jaeger -- "Baptist hunters" -- was enrolled.
The Zurich decision was confirmed in 1529 when, at an Imperial meeting at Speyer in Germany, Catholic and Protestant authorities came together for the first and only time in order to agree upon the infliction of the death penalty upon all "rebaptizers", whether peaceful or otherwise in all territories of the Holy Roman Empire. This Mandate required that "rebaptizers and rebaptized, all and each, male and female, of intelligent age, be judged and brought to death without antecedent inquisition of the spiritual judges". Following this savage edict, efforts were intensified throughout Europe to destroy the movement. Mere identification
Edict of Ferdinand, 1528, promulgating the death penalty for the Brethren in Christ.
with the Brethren was enough. In Basel a man appearing on trial earnestly appealed that his life might be spared, pointing out that so long as he had lived in wickedness no one had molested him, but since he had become interested in virtue and religion he had received nothing but persecution. Generally in the Swiss cantons a public disputation was held before enforcing the edicts for suppression. In Aargau, at Zofingen, Martin Weniger engaged in a debate with the Zwinglian ministers Megander and Haller which lasted nine days, but the result was the usual one.
At one stage there were as many as seventy small congregations of Brethren in Zurich canton alone, but most were extinguished within a few years. Many of the members who survived travelled to Moravia, Poland and Germany. So severe were the repressive measures that the Zurich religious leaders had to deal with protests from among their own ranks at the treatment meted out to peaceful citizens:
"There are those who tell us that the magistrates ought not to punish in body or in estate those who mislead others, or are misled by others; since first, the apostles did not do so, and second, faith cannot be given or taken away by force."
But these objections were deemed to be trifling and so they concluded:
"Let those who will recant be pardoned. Those who relapse should be punished as evil doers in accordance with divine, secular, and imperial edicts."
In 1527 George Blaurock left Switzerland for the Tyrol. This was a Habsburg domain directly governed from Catholic Vienna. Undoubtedly what drew him to this hornet's nest was the knowledge that fields there were white to harvest. For two years, in extremely difficult circumstances, he and others evangelised the length of the Inn valley. By the time the 1529 Mandate was promulgated, many vigorous communities of Brethren had come into being throughout the Tyrol. Studies have shown them to have comprised a full crosssection of Austrian society, but with a predominance of craftsmen and artisans. This was probably typical of every country in which communities were established.
The Mandate of 1529 was carried out in the Tyrol with unremitting thoroughness. Blaurock was burnt at the stake on August 26th;
hundreds were arrested and a visitor to the country reported that he saw "stakes burning all along the Inn valley":
"Some they have executed by hanging, some they have tortured with inhuman tyranny, and afterwards choked with cords at the stake. Some they roasted and burned alive. Some they have killed with the sword and given them to the fowls of the air to devour. Some they have cast to the fishes. Others wander about here and there, in want, homelessness and affliction. They must flee with their wives and little children from one country to another, from one city to another. They are hated, abused, slandered, and lied about by all men."
The last phrase was not quite true. If it had not been for kind, sympathetic farmers and burghers the carnage would have been even worse than it was, for some were enabled to escape. But even so, by 1530 over a thousand men and women had been killed in the Habsburg lands alone.
From the Swiss cantons, the Tyrol and Roman Catholic Germany many refugees made their way to the comparative safety of Moravia and Poland. Although Moravia became part of the Habsburg dominions in 1526, there were parts of the country where friendly local princes offered a measure of protection and even encouragement. One of these was the Liechtenstein family, one branch of which at the present day rules a small independent principality adjoining Switzerland. Owning large estates in the Moravian highlands, they found that the Brethren made hardworking and conscientious tenants.
However, the little spell of comparative prosperity and peace was short-lived. It was followed by one of the most inhuman persecutions of pious and peaceful folk in all history. It was inspired by the Jesuits who were urging Ferdinand, the Austrian Emperor, to take more active measures for the suppression of heresy in his wide domain. So was passed the terrible edict Of 1535, which envisaged the complete extirpation of all dissent against Roman Catholicism, and was principally directed against the Brethren.
A Noble Appeal
The first response of the Brethren was to convey a petition to the Imperial government in Vienna. This moving document is so
astonishing in its restraint and so free from any bitterness of spirit in the face of implacable hatred that part of it is worth quoting at some length:
"We Brethren, who love God and His word, banished from many countries for the Name of God and for the cause of divine truth, beg you to know, honoured ruler of Moravia, that your officers have come to us and delivered your message. Already we have given a verbal answer, and now reply in writing -- that we have forsaken the world, an unholy life and all iniquity. We believe in Almighty God, and in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we have devoted our entire selves, our life and all that we possess, to keep his commandments, and to forsake all unrighteousness and sin.
Photo of Title Page of the Bruderliche Vereynigung,
"We have injured no one, we have occupied ourselves in heavy toil, as all men can testify. We are driven by force from our possessions and our homes. We are now in woods and under the open canopy of heaven; we know not any place where we may securely live; nor can we dare to remain here any longer for hunger and fear. If we turn to the territories of this or that sovereign, everywhere we find an enemy. If we go forward, we fall into the hands of tyrants and robbers.
"With us are many widows and babes in the cradle, whose parents were given to the slaughter and whose property was seized. These widows, orphans and sick children have been committed to our charge by God and He has commanded us to feed, clothe and cherish them and supply all their needs. They cannot journey with us, and unless otherwise provided for, they cannot live for long. We dare not abandon them. We may not overthrow God's law to observe man's law, although it may cost gold and body and life. On their account we cannot leave, but rather than that they should suffer injury we will endure any extremity, even to the shedding of our blood.
"We desire to molest no one; our manner of life, our customs and conversation are known everywhere to all. Sooner than strike our enemy with the hand, much less with the sword as the world does, we would die and surrender life. We carry no weapon, neither spear nor gun, as is clear as the open day. We would that all the world were as we are, and that we could bring and convert all men to the same belief; then should all war and unrighteousness have an end.
"There remains no refuge for us, unless God shows us some special place to which we can flee. Day and night we pray to Him that He will guide our steps to the place where He would have us to dwell. Grant us a brief space: perhaps our heavenly Father will make known to us whither we must go.
"We earnestly intreat you, submissively and with prayers, that you take in good part all these our words. Farewell."
The response of the government to this appeal was to send troops, egged on by fanatical priests, into every communal settlement, into the woods and into every corner of the country in a methodical massacre of incredible ruthlessness. This was not an event in a religious war as was, for example, the massacre of St. Bartholomew in France, where both parties had no compunction concerning the use of arms, but the unprovoked slaughter of hundreds of some of Europe's most valuable, conscientious and good-living citizens. A contemporary record speaks of those times of sorrow:
"Some were torn to pieces on the rack, some were burnt to ashes and powder, some were roasted on pillars, some were torn with red-hot tongs. Some were shut up in houses and
burned in masses, some were hanged on trees, some were executed, some plunged in the water, many had gags put into their mouths so that they could not speak and were led away to death. Others were starved and allowed to rot in noisome prisons. Many had holes burned through their backs and were left in this condition. Like owls and bitterns they dared not go abroad by day, but lived and crouched in rocks and caverns, in wild forests, in caves and pits, where they were hunted down with hounds and catchpoles."
Not until the scientific horrors of Nazism was Europe to witness and suffer such brutal bigotry.
Of the way in which this onslaught was met we have testimony from both friend and foe. After reporting the death of 2,173 of his friends, one friendly writer comments:
"No human being was able to take away out of their hearts what they had experienced. The fire of God burned within them. They would die ten deaths rather than forsake the divine truth.
"They had drunk of the water which flows from God's sanctuary, indeed, of the water of life. Their faith blossomed like a lily, their loyalty as a rose, their piety and candour as the flower of the garden of God. The things of this world they counted only as shadows. They were so drawn unto God that they knew nothing, sought nothing, desired nothing, loved nothing but God alone."
The Lutheran pastor Faber, a bitter enemy, was amazed at the attitude of the Brethren. He wrote:
"They behold the glittering sword with undaunted hearts, they speak and preach to the people with smiling mouths, they sing psalms till the soul goes out, they die with joy as if they were in festive company, they remain strong, confident, steadfast even unto death."
He then goes on to suggest as the only possible explanation that they were dupes, possessed of the devil.
The depopulation of Moravia was so great that the Parliament in Vienna, with the support of the hierarchy, passed a special law permitting men in Moravia the extraordinary privilege of taking two wives so that the country could be repopulated.
Those who were able hid in the pine forests of the mountains by day, and by night trekked across eastern Europe seeking a place where they could live and work and worship in peace -- first to Hungary, then to the Cluj region of what is now Romania, and finally far into Russia. Some of these communities remained well into the present Soviet era.
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