Last Updated on : Sunday, October 7, 2012
WHAT were the principles upon which the Brethren in Christ based their faith and life, and for which so many of them died? Whence did the community derive such dynamism and power to survive?
Back to the Bible
The first and foremost, indeed the basic principle underlying all others, was the conscious intention to restore and revive original New Testament Christianity.
In this the Brethren were not obsessed by loyalty to a historical past, but were possessed of the firm conviction that no Christianity other than that of Christ was worthy of the name. In a world where foul deeds equally with fair were done in the name of the Nazarene, and where official Christianity usually meant ruthless power, pride, luxury, and corruption, they were convinced that the religion of Jesus and the apostles, truly understood and faithfully obeyed, could be a vital and transforming force. To them the Scriptures, as the most authentic source of knowledge about the Gospel, were obviously a better guide to original Christian truth than councils of bishops and the fossilised tradition of a corrupt medieval church.
The main national Protestant reformers originally took this stand at their first break with Rome, but -- as their own writings frankly testify -- compromised it and modified it more and more under steady pressure from various quarters, political and ecclesiastical, and through plain self-interest and desire to retain power. Like many before and since, these emergent national religious leaders became convinced of a divine calling to maintain power, even though it meant abandoning their original principles.
Council House in Zurich, 1525 (painting)
The Brethren in Christ perpetuated the initial principles of the Reformation, and would have no compromise for expediency's sake. But they were more than dissenters against Protestantism; they were possessed of a positive independent inspiration through the Bible, newly-translated into the national tongues of Europe, from first-century Christianity. That this was direct, and not merely second-hand through the Reformation as has sometimes been maintained, is apparent in all the relevant historical sources, in their community life and their literature.
This "back to the Bible" call was characteristic of all the preaching activities of the Brethren. For them it was not the preacher who converted. No convert was acknowledged as such who had not felt the touch of the living Word, not second- hand, but direct, by reading it himself or, if illiterate, having it read to him. "The word of God is eternally true and is a dynamic force which converts sinners; it will sing its own truth into the heart" -- so Conrad Grebel expressed it. They believed that it was possible for the humblest believer, if fair minded and sincere, to understand and follow that Word.
Bible Study Groups
One of the fundamental activities of the Brethren was consequently the Bible study class. The Vaudois and Lollards had met as "gathered groups" for memorisation of and meditation upon paraphrases of the Scriptures in their native tongue, but with the growing numbers of printed Bibles in national languages readily available and the increase in Greek and Hebrew studies at universities, these Bible classes took on new power, as in the case of Castelberger's group in Zurich referred to in an earlier chapter. The meeting was opened with prayer. At first there was no singing of hymns, as Grebel for some unaccountable reason discouraged it, but later, under pressure of persecution, this became a vital unifying exercise. Then the Scriptures were read, and often one who was familiar with the original languages would elucidate various points in the chosen passage. "The meaning of the sacred word was then unfolded" by a member of the group. Brethren took turns to lead the class in this way. Finally, there would be opportunity for discussion upon the topic chosen before further devotions concluded the class. Very clearly, this was in its day a novel and radical form of church activity. (See Plate IV)
In these simple meetings the Brethren hammered out a framework for their community life and the tenets of their faith. Both will be increasingly apparent in later chapters. In this chapter attention will be focussed on those elements which found greatest prominence in the second and third quarters of the 16th century. Others were there only as yet in embryo.
"Not many noble"
The Brethren were almost naive in believing that men like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli would be honest and consistent enough to follow and abide by the Scriptures. In the many disputations in the 1520's and 30's it was frequently recognised that the Brethren had the
best of the argument, yet it was not argument but power that won the day. "Not many noble, not many mighty are called."
Many of these disputations concerned the subject of baptism. Scripture and history alike indicated that the christening of infants bore little resemblance to the baptism of fervently repentant believers of apostolic days or to the new birth of water and spirit commended by the Lord to Nicodemus. Grebel defined the Brethren's position:
"Baptism should be applied to one who has been converted by the word of God, and changed his heart, and henceforth earnestly desires to walk in newness of life. Baptism means a dying of the old man, and a putting on of the new. Christ commanded to baptize those who had been taught, and the apostles baptized no one except those who had been taught."
It was sometimes alleged that there was an over-emphasis on the water aspect of baptism, that baptism was a mere mechanical rite. Hubmaier disposed of the criticism in his inimitable way: "Water is not baptism, else the whole Danube were baptism and the fishermen and boatmen would be daily baptized." Only adult conversion and commitment provide an adequate basis for baptism; "all others would still belong in the world, even though a whole ocean of water had been poured over them." They viewed infant baptism as "an impertinence, the anticipatory doing by others of that which it was alike the privilege and duty of every believer to do for himself". Hence their rooted objection to allow their children to be christened. A tract, disseminated in the region of Neuchatel in the 1540's, outlining various aspects of the Brethren's faith, expresses their view of baptism:
"Baptism ought to be given unto such as be taught unto repentance, believing that their sins will be taken away by Jesus Christ, and will walk in his resurrection. Therefore it ought to be ministered unto such as ask for it themselves, and not unto infants, as hitherto has been done in the Pope's kingdom.
Neuchatel was in that part of Switzerland which John Calvin considered to be under his spiritual superintendence, so he thought it necessary to publish a rejoinder to this tract. He was no man to cross: like Zwingli, Luther and too many other religious leaders of
his day, he could be bitterly cruel. But few could match his flaming and intemperate resentment against any who differed radically from him. So it was that the "Brieue Instruction pour armer tous bons fideles contre les erreurs de la secte commune des Anabaptistes" appeared in 1545. Its cover has a flaming sword and the sinister words in Latin: "I have not come to bring peace but a sword." A poorly translated English edition appeared shortly after in London. The cover now has the English coat of arms, an almost naked man and a woman with only one leg. Horns sprout out of the man's head and below is a vignette showing a king with two fierce hounds. It was to be sold "at the new shop by the little conduit in Cheapside". In the title "erreurs" in the French becomes "pestiferous errors" in English.
A tone of scurrilous derision runs through the work. The Brethren, described as "occupied with pride and presumption", "through obstinate and deliberate malice shut their eyes because they will not see the light when it is evidently offered to them". Calvin calls them "these poor phantasticals who so mightily vaunt themselves"; their writings are "barren and trifling . . . made by ignorant people . . . so unlearnedly and foolishly written . . . dangerous poison ... a whole sea of false and foolish opinions . . . unsettling the simple who have not the judgement to discern". "To write against the false opinions and errors of this bottomless pit would be a thing too long, and such a bottomless pit as I would not well come out of." None the less he attempts it. The main argument is that the Brethren cannot really "have the Word" because they have not helped Calvin who certainly does have it, but "have hindered and disturbed us". Whatever view is "raised against ourselves" is repugnant and bound to be false.
Yet Calvin's refutation of believers' baptism must be admitted as woefully weak. It is impudent slander, he claims, to call infant baptism papist in origin. He wishes to inform the simple that there is no doctor so ancient who does not confess that it is a practice as old as the apostles. (This is, of course, either bad scholarship or dishonesty.) On Mark 16:16 an interpretation that would make the belief precede the baptism he calls "a naughtie conclusion". The baptisms recorded in Acts 2 are dismissed as being exceptional because they needed special repentance. He calls attention to the expression in the New Testament "children of God" and asserts that this implies that they must have been baptized as infants.
A century later another Calvinist, the Glaswegian Robert Baillie, in "Anabaptists the true fountaine of a wickednesse", has a quaint jibe at the practice of adult baptism:
"They esteem sprinkling no baptism at all, they will have the whole body to be plunged over head and ears into the water. This circumstance of plunging they account so necessary and essential to baptism, that the change thereof to sprinkling makes baptism to be null. That such a plunging draws upon some sickness and death, and upon a woman great shame and scandle, while they are stripped and must stand altogether naked in the presence of men and of the whole congregation: these and other inconveniences they do not much regard."
There is actually no evidence from the Brethren's own accounts that naked baptisms were universal or even normal or that men and women were in fact baptized together in this condition.
In the "Brieue Instruction" Calvin attacks another article of faith which will receive more attention in later chapters:
"They do think that their souls do sleep unto the day of judgement without feeling or knowing anything; that the soul of man is nought else but his life which through sin dies until such time as he be raised up again. Some say it is only the virtue that man has to breathe, to move and to do other actions of life while he is yet alive; some that it sleeps without any sense or understanding until resurrection."
He describes this as "a blind opinion" and adds "everyone can see the consequences of this error". He also notes with disdain the view that hell is the grave.
Calvin's answer is that "by death we may not simply understand the common death but a death which doth emport rejection". St. Peter, he asserts, proved that the souls of the faithful are immortal when, having asserted that all flesh is grass, adds that the word of God abides for ever.
The Church: A Fellowship of Believers
It is clear from events described already that the Brethren experienced a great deal of trouble with religious and civil authorities because of their view of the church as a free and voluntary society of
the committed, not a state institution. An early work of Grebel's sets the pattern; it is paralleled by many other writers:
"The church has Christ as its head, and the believers as members. This church is in truth a fellowship of brethren in life and suffering, which is maintained by an outward bond of faith and the inward bond of love. When a member of the body fails to maintain love towards the brethren or does not order his life according to the Gospel, he breaks the bond of fellowship. Brethren who give offence by their sinful conduct and who will not hear the church must be excluded from fellowship."
The church was conceived as consisting of heartfelt believers, all equally "exemplifying within her fellowship the living and dying of the Lord Jesus, a community of saints whose members, though not perfect, yet aspire to perfection and strive mightily". It was a society at once completely lay and completely ordained. Distinctions of clergy and laity had little meaning. Those serving the church in such capacities as preachers and elders "worked with their own hands for their livings"; indeed they "cried down all set stipends for church officers". Each particular congregation elected those whom it considered fit to act as shepherds, and the commission to preach was considered as applying to all members. Latourette, the French historian, makes the comment: "Many were ardently missionary, seeking to win not only professed Christians to their views but also dreaming of carrying the gospel to all mankind." Men such as Calvin and Baillie took great exception to the fact that "each single congregation had supreme and independent power to judge in all ecclesiastical causes, also to proceed to the highest censure of excommunication", and even more to a situation where "any member could question in public the doctrine of the preacher".
Women and Marriage
In contrast to the age, the position of women in the church was extraordinarily emancipated; they always appear to have been treated with affection, chivalry and respect. It is one of the most attractive features of their life and literature. A real spiritual cameraderi between husbands and wives, between brethren and sisters seems to be reflected, so different from the contemporary scene which was a severe man's world. In a century when it was deemed both unwise and unnecessary for women to interest themselves in Biblical studies, Hubmaier could remark that the pious woman Argula of Stauffen knew "more of the divine word than
the red-capped ones will ever see and lay hold of". Many wives of prominent Brethren were themselves outstanding characters and Bender estimates that one third of those who suffered death for their faith were women. Women wrote hymns, instructed other women and were encouraged to perform almsdeeds. Bender notes that among the Brethren marriage was elevated to a more spiritual relationship than was then recognised. Marriage within the faith and strong, loyal families became a firmly established tradition. Although the following comes from a document of a century later, it is expressive of their view from the beginning: "Marriage is instituted of God, and shall be entered into only with those who are members of the same Christian fellowship, who have received the same baptism and who belong to the same church."
The Believers in Society
The relationship between this voluntary society and the state has largely been interpreted as one of withdrawal. They avoided prominent civil office, and would not assume the roles of judge, police, or any occupation entailing force; they were convinced that Christians should never participate in national wars. Indeed, as a Swiss Chronicler wrote with amazement: "They carry no weapon, neither sword nor dagger, nothing more than a pointless bread knife, saying that these were wolf's clothing which should not be found on the sheep." We have already seen how this tradition of complete abandonment of the use of physical force and violence was emphasised as early as Grebel's correspondence with Muntzer. Despite a continuous history of provocation the great majority of Brethren in every country remained loyal to this self-sacrificing principle. They considered it the natural outcome of obedience to Christ and of membership of an international brotherhood of believers that knew no national boundaries, jealousies or enmities. Going to law and oaths were considered unworthy of Christians, and prohibitions of both figure largely in some confessions of faith.
They themselves, however, were convinced that their attitude was not really negative withdrawal, but positive example. Friends and enemies alike testified to the extraordinary moral and ethical power generated within the brotherhood. One of the most striking features of the documents of the period is the glaring inconsistency between the savage and irrational condemnation of the Brethren by leaders such as Zwingli, Calvin and Luther and the lengthy observations of more objective but yet unsympathetic witnesses.
While Zwingli himself calls them "inhuman" and charges them with vice and brutality, a contemporary Roman Catholic observes:
"No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display, but rather humility, patience, uprightness, meekness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose they had the spirit of God."
And a Zwinglian:
"Their walk and manner of life is altogether pious, holy and irreproachable."
As the Pharisees taunted Christ with possession by Beelzebul, by the same odd logic the Lutherans attributed this holiness to possession by the devil.
The Brethren in Christ were alone in the Reformation period, and indeed until the late 17th century, in making religious liberty a cardinal point in their creed: to them it was futile to coerce a man to believe. Some of them also spoke against capital punishment, advocating an approach to both education and justice that was not widely adopted until the 20th century.
One society that grew out of the Brethren in Christ and which still exists -- the Hutterite Brethren -- came to adopt "community of goods" as an essential tenet of their corporate life, as a result of special developments in Moravia. At the beginning, however, this was not so; Hubmaier when asked about it by Zwingli replied that "one man should have regard to others so that the hungry may be fed, the thirsty receive drink and the naked be clothed; for we are not lords, but stewards. There is certainly no one who says that all things must be common". This was the attitude of most of the Brethren. While the memory of the German Peasants' War was still fresh, governments in Europe were naturally rather nervous on the subject of communism.
Credal Formulae under Suspicion
With only the Bible and the Apostles' Creed as acceptable expressions of doctrine, Trinitarian credal formulae, as might have been expected, early came under increasing suspicion. As will be seen later, the nature of the Godhead and of Christ proved to be topics of controversy, but quite early the consequences of reversion to purely Biblical modes of expression and thought became apparent.
Claudius Allobrex in Switzerland about 1530 found himself in trouble through his anti-trinitarian teachings, and Spitalmaier in the Tyrol expresses his faith in a way which indicates an increasing abandonment of Athanasian theology:
"We hold and believe that Christ here on earth became a real, essential man, such as we are, of flesh and blood, a son of Mary, who conceived him, however, without human seed. He was Son of God. He is not God, but a man, an instrument through which God has made known to us His word."
The development of a distinctive emphasis upon the unity of the Godhead will be considered in the article on the Polish Brethren.
Belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ and the reign of the saints was characteristic of the brotherhood, the intensity of millenary zeal fluctuating from time to time with varying political fortunes. Undoubtedly the apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation were among the books studied both individually and in groups. The symbols in the Apocalypse were variously identified with the Pope, Zwingli and the persecuting emperor Ferdinand. One day in the summer of 1525 members from Zollikon marched peacefully through the streets of Zurich in a long procession as a warning of impending judgement.
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