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The Protesters
By Alan EyreBook Title



IN the ten years 1522 to 1532 the wave of the Protestant Reformation rolled over Europe. It reached to every part of Christendom, affecting not only those countries which became officially "Protestant", but stirring deep eddies and currents in lands whose governments were most loyally Roman Catholic, such as Spain, Italy and Austria. In some countries there was a clean break. It should be remembered that the first official Protestant state was the canton of Zurich in Switzerland, whose council adopted a state church "according to the word of God" in 1523. At that time, although Luther was preaching almost unmolested in parts of Germany, he was still an excommunicated and outlawed heretic in an officially Roman Catholic empire. Not until 1525 did Philip of Hesse, in return for Luther's sanction of his bigamy, form a league of German states to protect the Lutheran church. By 1532 some Swiss cantons, some German states, Sweden and England had seceded from Rome. Elsewhere longings for change proved to be widely diffused and intractable, escaping here and there like suppressed steam from a boiling pot.

In part the Protestant movement was politically motivated, coinciding with a rising tide of nationalism, and marking the death throes of medievalism. In part also it was social, for the burghers and artisan class, seeking a new social frontier, provided much support and inspiration for it. But in part it was the outcome of a new biblicism, a desire to approach the Scriptures direct, through the original tongues and the national languages instead of through the cloudy prism of the Latin Vulgate and medieval theologians.

Many men and women were no longer content to leave their eternal salvation in the hands of immoral friars, monks and


discredited penance-vendors. Many clerics themselves, dissatisfied with their position, abandoned their corrupt orders, married and entered workaday society, thus adding to the ferment of thought and discussion. There were ideas abroad, from the universities to groups gathered in the homes of intelligent craftsmen in the towns, of rebuilding the Christian church anew on its original foundations, laid bare in Holy Writ.

Such a group met in a house in Zurich under the guidance of Andreas Castelberger, a figure well-known in the city since he was a cripple and walked on crutches. Regular Bible study meetings with free discussion began not later than 1522, the letters of Paul being the chief topic. In 1523, they met in the home of Felix Manz, a young and learned Biblical and linguistic scholar. They read the Bible together, Manz reading in the original tongues and then translating for the benefit of the less accomplished. They discussed the ideal pattern of the church and aimed through study and discussion to build up the original Gospel. Many groups like this one came independently to similar conclusions, some of which coincided with those which characterised the earlier dissenting bodies mentioned in the previous chapter.

Independence from Rome

The Castelberger-Manz group worked at first in co-operation with the Swiss evangelical reformer Huldrich Zwingli, who was encouraging the Zurich Council to declare its independence from Rome. The council undoubtedly favoured this, but was rather alarmed at the thoroughness of the reformation proposed by some of the group. On July 7, 1522, Conrad Grebel, Claus Hottinger, Heinrich Eberli and Bartlime (Bartholomew) Pur were summoned before the Council and "forbidden to speak any more against the monks in the pulpits and were required to cease disputing and speaking about these things".

But the group of Bible students continued to meet and to become involved in the reforming movement. In January 1523 Zwingli made his position clear, stating that the new church must be built upon sound Scriptural principles; it must even accept the call to be a suffering church if needful, it was not to be established by force. "In worldly things judges are necessary, but in matters concerning divine wisdom and truth I will accept no one as witness and judge except the living Scriptures and the spirit of God which


speaks out of the Scriptures." Manz, Conrad Grebel and Castelberger and their friends supported Zwingli wholeheartedly in this and urged him to use his great influence speedily to remove all traces of Roman Catholic ritual including the Mass, infant christening, worship of images, the Ave Maria and invocation of the saints, replacing these things by New Testament beliefs and practices.

In 1523, Zurich officially became evangelical and on October 26 to 28 a great three-day disputation was held before the council, mainly to consider the speed and extent of reform. Zwingli told his friends beforehand that the word of God would be his sole arbiter and that if the Council adopted any course contrary to that he would not accept it, but would continue to work for a true reformation. He also plainly professed repudiation of armed force, and agreed with the Manz group on the importance of believers' baptism.

Hubmaier, the "Unwearied Hearer"

Zwingli, of course, played a leading part in the discussions, but another notable participant was a forty-two year old evangelical preacher from Waldshut, who had formerly been a university vice-rector, Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier. Born in the village of Frieberg near Augsburg, he graduated as Master from the university of Freiburg, studying under the Dr. Eck who later, as the champion of the Roman Catholics, challenged Luther's progress in Germany. Eck commented on the young Balthasar that he was "a diligent reader, an unwearied hearer". He accepted an appointment at the university of Ingolstadt, where he took his doctorate and subsequently became vice-rector. After five years in Regensburg he moved to Waldshut, a town on the German bank of the Rhine. Waldshut is not far from Basel where he met the great Erasmus ("he speaks freely but writes cautiously" was Hubmaier's comment) and became disturbed in mind concerning the truth of his Roman Catholic faith. He plunged into assiduous study of the Scriptures, which led to a revolution in his thinking. After giving a course of lectures in Regensburg on the Gospel of Luke, he visited Zwingli in Zurich, and Grebel's brother-in-law, von Watt, in St. Gallen. Discussions with them centred on the importance of baptism, Hubmaier insisting that no trace could be found of infant christening in the Scriptures; in form and spirit it was foreign to the personal commitment demanded of believers in the early church [ecclesia].


The October disputation referred to was about to take place and Hubmaier was encouraged to participate. Some of his speeches were highlights of the debate; from one on the second day, for example, we have the following:

"For the Scripture is the sole light and is a true lantern, by whose light all the fictions of the human mind may be discovered and all darkness dispelled. Errors should be examined and corrected by the sole rule of the word of God."


For him it was logical for a Christian to call himself such only if he followed Christ, whose claims and commands were preserved only in the Scriptures. It was vital that all should know as clearly as possible what these were. As he urged on the third day:

"It is ridiculous to recite Latin words to a German who knows nothing of the Latin language. What else is this than to hide the Lord whom we ought to proclaim? Paul wishes so to speak in the church [ecclesia] as to be understood by all and he would rather speak five words to be understood than thousands in an unknown tongue".


Typical of Hubmaier's attitude until the day of his death was his final appeal:

"These, brethren, are my opinions which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. If there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Saviour and the day of his last judgement, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks; I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly submit. I have spoken. It is yours to judge and set me right."


There was one in the audience that day who was to prove 18 months later that Hubmaier was true to his word.

Unfortunately there were many who did not consider that Zwingli was true to his, and indeed felt deeply betrayed. He capitulated to the Council on the most significant issues: "My lords will decide whatever regulations are to be adopted in the future." Claiming that the Reformation must be upheld by arms or it would


fail, he abandoned his original "peace principles" and preached a stirring war sermon. Talk of a "suffering church" ceased, and it became clear that infant christening was to be firmly upheld. The church in Zurich must be a state church to which all from birth must belong, not a brotherhood of believers. Simon Stumpf, a member of the Grebel-Manz circle, was horrified at the decision: "I will ask Christ for his spirit, and I will preach and act against it." In the subsequent history of the Zwinglian reformation self-interest now played a very great part.

A Thorough Reformation

Hubmaier returned to Waldshut, and threw himself into a thorough reformation of the entire religious life of the community. Pictures and images were removed from the church and tapers from the altar. Costly vestments, chalices and jewelled ornaments were sold. His marriage to Elizabeth Hugline was the occasion for a great feast provided by the townspeople in their honour.

Nailing theses to church doors was a practice by no means confined to Luther. It was in fact the 16th century equivalent of an advertisement in the press. The following are selected from a number drawn up by Hubmaier to mark the beginnings of his 1524 reform in Waldshut. His characteristic practical style is already evident.

"-- Faith is the knowledge of the mercy of God, which He manifested to us through the giving of His only-begotten Son. Thereby are overthrown all sham Christians.

-- This faith cannot remain dead, but must manifest itself towards God in thanksgiving, and towards our fellowmen in works of brotherly love. Thereby are destroyed all rituals, tapers, holy water.

-- Only those works are good which God has commanded, and only those are evil which He has forbidden: thereby fall fish, flesh, cowls, plates.

-- The mass is no sacrifice, but a memorial of the death of Christ. Hence it may be offered as a sacrifice neither for the dead nor for the living. Thereby fall masses for souls and the like.

-- As Christ alone died for our sins and we are baptized in his Name, so should we call upon him only as our mediator and intercessor. Thereby fall all pilgrimages.



-- All Christian doctrines not planted by God Himself are profitless and self- condemned; here fall to the ground the scholastics and all teachers who in their origin are not from God.

-- Whoso seeks purgatory, the trust of those whose god is the belly, seeks the grave of Moses -- it will never be found.

-- To promise chastity in the strength of man is nothing else than to fly over the sea without wings.

-- Whoso for worldly advantage denies or remains silent concerning the word of God, sells the blessing of God, as Esau sold his birthright, and will also be denied by Christ."


Two Different Interpretations

In June, 1524, the Peasants' Revolt broke out in Germany. It was primarily a social upheaval, but it had many religious overtones. Like many another social struggle, historical interpretations are deeply subjective and a picture free from bias is difficult to achieve. In the two republics of Germany today diametrically different interpretations are taught: West German schoolbooks stress the atrocities of the peasants, while Engels' version, which is the only valid one in East Germany, portrays Luther as the arch villain and is principally concerned to vilify the atrocities of the Lutherans.

An important figure in the revolt was Thomas Muntzer. A zealous advocate of radical Protestant reformation, Muntzer is a puzzling figure. Sometimes misleadingly described as an "anabaptist"(1), his avowed aims at first appeared deceptively like those of the Grebelian group in Zurich, his position in relation to Luther being not dissimilar to theirs in relation to Zwingli.

But the parting of the ways came early: on July 13, 1524, Muntzer gave a fiery sermon in the castle of Allstedt in Saxony before an audience of princes, the import of which was clear and unmistakable. The rule of the saints must be set up by violent revolution, and the ungodly destroyed:

"What should be done with the wicked who hinder the gospel? Get them out of the way and eliminate them. Perform a righteous judgement at God's command! Let not the evildoers live longer who make us turn away from God. For the godless person has no right to live when he is in the way of the


(1)The Anabaptists (re-baptists) rejected infant christening and taught adult baptism only.


pious. The godless have no right to live except as the elect wish to grant it to them."

Grebel was deeply disturbed. On September, 1524, he wrote a letter to Muntzer deploring this turn of affairs:

"The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves, which as we learn from our brother is thy opinion and practice. True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; they must be baptized in anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering and death; they must be tried with fire, and must attain to the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing their bodily, but by mortifying their spiritual, enemies."


There was no further contact. Muntzer encouraged the insurrection of the peasants and was himself beheaded in May of the next year. This early link and some other tenuous ones, together with certain common features of theology, caused both contemporary authorities and later historians to put a false colour upon peaceful "anabaptism" which is still reflected in some present-day encyclopaedias.

The Baptism Controversy

The question of baptism continued to be an irritant in Zurich. It should be appreciated that the controversy was far deeper than the simple doctrinal issue as to the form and significance of Scriptural baptism. For infant christening was seen as vital to the existence of a national or state church on reformed principles which would simply replace en masse the previous Roman Catholic all- embracing theocracy. Believers' baptism was seen as vital to the establishment of a truly evangelical, confessional faith where the keynote was personal commitment. The leading reformers, Zwingli, Luther and others, gave lip- service to the latter but inconsistently upheld the former, when necessary by force. To many sincere and pious people this was intolerably double-minded and a clash became inevitable.

Two discussions on baptism were held on successive Tuesdays in November 1524 before the Zurich council. Zwingli defended infant christening while Grebel and Hatzer urged its abolition and advocated believers' baptism. The discussion -- as was invariably the case -- was to be ostensibly on the basis of Scripture.


But Grebel subsequently wrote:

"We had no chance to speak, and there was no chance for the Scripture to be heard; for when one of us wanted to say the truth in the matter they overwhelmed us and choked the speech in our throats, whereas they themselves should have brought forth Scripture and truth. Zwingli overwhelmed me with so much talking that I was unable to answer on account of his long speeches."


Zwingli, of course, had another view of the meetings. He considered his opponents bigoted, unamenable to reason and carried away with self-conceit.

Manz and Grebel were disheartened and perplexed by the result of the November discussions, and Manz prepared a petition offering "thorough proof that infant baptism is not scriptural". The short but impressive document was condemned by Zwingli and the Council as "inimical to the welfare of the state" and the whole movement to establish a believers' church was ruled as "seditious". Grebel swiftly denied the charge:

"I never took part in sedition and never talked or spoke in any way anything which would lead to it, as all those with whom I have ever had anything to do will testify of me."


Grebel knew that he and his friends were now in a highly perilous situation, their movement, despite all their efforts, being represented in a treasonable colour. It was at this time, a week before the Christmas of 1524, that Grebel wrote a short letter to his brother-in-law von Watt, who was Zwingli's aide at St. Gallen. It is worth quoting as it reveals important facts about the relationship between the group around Grebel, which was to become a month later an independent religious community, and the Zwinglian reformation. It also indicates Grebel's own awareness of the danger of their position.

"My dear doctor and brother-in-law,

The thing which you asked me to do I could not perform. The truth will not be bound to the occasion, so do please accept this in good part. I am begging you to do so. Others who have come to understand the divine truth about baptism do not wish to have their children baptized. They have been warned by my lords, but still stand firm. I hope that God will apply the remedy of patience.



If the booklets are printed, and I live to be able to do so, I shall send them to you. Do pray to God for the advancement of His will and our piety, or rather my own.

Greet for me my sister and all the pupils and beginners in the word of God and the godly life that they (if they so wish) may also pray for us in these perilous times. God knows why, why they are so perilous.

Your sincere brother-in-law, Conrad.

P.S. I wish rather that we were both unanimously brethren in the truth of Christ."