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THE year 1525 was of exceptional significance in the religious and historical movements under consideration. It saw the birth of the community of the Brethren in Christ (Bruder in Christo) in Switzerland, and, despite severe attempts at repression, its extension over a considerable area. This chapter surveys the rapid succession of events and some of the chief characters in the drama, leaving for later consideration the religious and ethical principles involved.
New Year 1525 came in with an atmosphere of ominous threat for the little circle of Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz in Zurich. Their views had been unwarrantably but conveniently branded as seditious and a religious controversy was becoming obscured by political overtones. Yet the friends still hoped to avoid a head-on collision with Zwingli and the civic authorities, as Manz's appeal indicated.
In January, 1525, the Zurich authorities invited Grebel, Manz and their friends to yet another public disputation in the city hall. The topic was to be baptism; the basis, as before, the Scriptures. But the very tone of the invitation indicated that the council had already made up its mind; it implied that its purpose was to convert the erring, not to weigh evidence. The "baptism" group never had a chance. Within the next few days the council issued decrees forbidding the opponents of infant christening to preach or even to meet together, banishing non-citizens attached to the group and renewing the order for all parents to christen all children or go into exile within eight days.
The non-citizens were put on oath to leave Zurich within eight days. This meant that the group around Grebel and Manz which had been steadily growing in number and cohesion would now be
MAP OF N.E.SWITZERLAND 1525
broken up by the departure of at least five of its most active members, Roubli the pastor of Witikon -- who of course would lose his livelihood -- Brotli, Hatzer, Cajakob and Castelberger, the cripple who had earlier played the key role. It was a moment of crisis for the group. They had striven for the New Testament practice of adult baptism to be officially recognised in place of the "Romish rite" of christening. They had begun the struggle by the negative protest of refusing to present children for christening; now, outlawed, their convictions pressed hard upon their own spirits. The need for positive response from themselves grew powerfully as the full impact of their situation was borne upon them. The decision of the Zurich Council on January 21, 1525, forbidding all those in favour of adult baptism to meet together was the spark that kindled a fire which was to burn in fervent hearts across half a continent.
Bruder in Christo
On the evening of this fateful winter Saturday, about twenty men gathered in the home of Felix Manz in Zurich. They talked over the situation, and their own needs before God. Let a contemporary account speak of what followed:
"As they were together, anxiety came on them and pressed upon their hearts. So they began to bend their knees before Almighty God in heaven ... ; they prayed that He would grant them to do His divine will, and that He would reveal His mercy to them. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to bear and suffer on account of it. After the prayer George Cajakob (Blaurock) ... entreated that Conrad Grebel should baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. After this had taken place, the others likewise desired of George that he should baptize them, which also he did upon their request. And so they together dedicated themselves in the high fear of God to the Name of the Lord. Each confirmed the other in the service of the gospel and began to teach and hold the faith."
They linked themselves into a brotherhood of faith: Bruder in Christo, Brethren in Christ. It was scaled by a solemn but intimate "breaking of bread", either the same evening or the next day, Sunday.
To appreciate the spiritual power generated in that hour it is well to pause and consider what manner of men these were who so determined that they would obey God rather than men. Most of them were in the prime of life. Cajakob, Manz, Eberli, Hutzer and Brotli were all to be burned, drowned or beheaded within five years of this Zurich meeting, in places hundreds of miles apart. Grebel was to survive little more than eighteen months. They fully realised the peril of the step they took.
Conrad Grebel, 27 years old, had left his native Zurich to spend a somewhat libertine youth at the Universities of Paris and Vienna. In fact it is doubtful if he graduated. That he was both intelligent and capable is evident from his writings and later activities. He and his tutor at Vienna, who was also Swiss, made one of the first ascents of a mountain for the purposes of geographical study -- Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland. On his return to Zurich a painful romance deepened his experience and it was a converted Grebel who entered the lists on behalf of apostolic baptism. A modern Swiss scholar has described Grebel as one of those earnest, pious people with a scrupulous turn of mind, who put a high value on the Bible as a guide to their lives.
Of Felix Mann, also a young man, no one has ever penned a word that is not a testimony to an altogether worthy and attractive character. He was the son of a canon of the Minster in Zurich, and before their estrangement Zwingli had him in mind for the chair of Hebrew in the projected Protestant academy in Zurich. He was "highly educated and was an accomplished Hebraist". Eberli has been described as "a man of high character and of great popular power". Cajakob, nicknamed Blaurock (Bluecoat), is a controversial figure among the Brethren. Undoubtedly he supplied a great deal of its dynamism, though there is plenty of evidence that he did not dominate it. As an example of how widely divergent assessments of character can be, we can contrast two historians' views of "strong George", as his friends called him:
"Blaurock was a hothead. Blaurock was dynamic. Many may simply have let themselves be carried away by the temperament and power of suggestion of this pusher."
"He was entirely free from fanaticism and can be said to have attained to a remarkably high standard of Christian consecration."
Concerning the group as a whole Zwingli's own grudging confession is expressive enough: "Their conduct appears irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive; even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent."
Johannes Brotli, originally a Roman Catholic priest, then a Zwinglian, and finally on January 21, 1525, one of the Brethren in Christ, had lived, since relinquishing his pastorship, in Zollikon, a village by the lake of Zurich. With his wife and child he lodged with Fridli Schumacher. On Sunday, the day following the gathering at Manz's home, he talked long and seriously with his landlord, and finally they walked together towards the city. On reaching Hirslanden, Schumacher said to Brotli: "All right then, Hans, you have shown me the truth. I thank you for it and ask you for the sign of baptism." The new brotherhood made its first convert. The same day Grebel officiated at a "breaking of bread" in Zollikon, the new brother being present.
Dr. Fritz Blanke of Zurich University has recently made some interesting comments on these two events:
"The gripping thing in this scene is its apostolic simplicity. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the baptism at Hirslanden and the christenings which at that time were customary in the churches of Zurich. Infants were still christened by Zwingli with blowing, driving out the devil, crossing, moistening with saliva, and anointing with oil. At Hirslanden all these accessories were lacking, as they had been lacking from baptism in early Christianity. The difference between the observance of the Lord's Supper in Zollikon and the manner in which Zwingli and his pastors, in that same January 1525 celebrated the Lord's Supper, is so great that it cannot be bridged. On the altars in the Grossmunster, in the parish church in Zollikon, we still find at that time the monstrance with the host, before it the pastor in chasuble, celebrating the Mass in Latin (omitting the sacrifice part), giving the congregation the wafer but not the cup. But here in the farmers' parlours in Zollikon, laymen break ordinary bread and distribute it along with the wine to all participants - a revolution in the history of the Lord's Supper."
On Wednesday evening, a Zollikon farmer, Ruedi Thomann, with his son-in-law Marx Boshard, invited two of the expelled noncitizens, Roubli and Brot1i to a farewell supper before they left, at
his home. After supper Manz and Blaurock arrived from Zurich, and three other farmers from the Zollikon area also appeared. Whether by intention or spontaneously, a Bible study class began. It was much like many others previously held by these earnest Bible students; but there was one difference - it was held under ban of law. The evening had profoundly different effects upon the visiting farmers. Two of them, Jacob Hottinger and Brubbach, were deeply stirred by the meeting. Brubbach in fact "wept aloud, saying he was a great sinner, and desiring the others to pray for him". Both were baptized, Jacob Hottinger becoming an important leader of the Brethren in Zollikon and a thorn in the side of the authorities for some years. One farmer, however, "broke out in sweat" as he expressed it, "and would have run out of the door" rather than join in these unorthodox and forbidden activities. Manz and Blaurock stayed the night with Thomann, and during the night Bosshard, the host's son-in-law, recalls how the things he had heard "kept attacking him". He spent much of that night asking God to give him correct insight and the faith to follow the right. It was no easy struggle to decide to join an outlawed movement. By morning his Gethsemane was over and he sought for Blaurock to fulfil his desire.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Brethren were dispersing over the country. Grebel, who was under no legal obligation to leave, seems to have decided to go to Schaffhausen, while Roubli went to Waldshut to stay with Hubmaier, and Brotli to Hallau. They did not remain idle. Among Grebel's converts in Schaffhausen, two proved outstanding figures in later work: Martin Lingg and Wolfgang Uollimann, who had known Blaurock intimately for some time. Uollimann was baptized by Grebel near to the famous falls at Schaffhausen. Roubli's stay in Waldshut resulted in April in the baptism of Balthasar Hubmaier. The font in the Waldshut church was "thrown into the Rhine as a papal relic".
Arrest and Imprisonment
Meanwhile in Zollikon the week which began eventfully on January 22 ended on the following Sunday with a disturbance in the parish church which involved Blaurock and the parish priest Billeter. Blaurock seems to have been there not to worship but to criticise, and he had to be rebuked by the deputy bailiff, who was present in the church,
It soon became apparent to the civic authorities that their mandates were not being obeyed, and that the fire was far from extinguished. On January 30 Blaurock, Manz and twenty-five Zollikon citizens were arrested and remanded in custody in Zurich. Blaurock and Manz were imprisoned in the Wellenberg tower which contemporary prints in the local museum show to have been in the middle of the Limmat River near its meeting with the lake. The rest were confined in a former monastery which had been cleared of its hermit occupants by Zwingli a few weeks before.
Zwingli endeavoured to divide the Zollikon converts from their leaders and so quickly reconvert them without resort to compulsion. He went personally to the hearing and put forward his main argument for infant sprinkling. It was that nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of anyone being baptized twice. The Brethren referred him to Acts 19. Zwingli, however, insisted that the men referred to in this chapter were only instructed by John the Baptist; only Paul had conferred water baptism on them. Dr. Blanke rightly comments: "This tortured interpretation was not convincing." In fact it would appear that Zwingli found these peasant farmers better informed in the Scriptures than he anticipated, and that during the hearing he promised by Easter to abandon Catholic usages for more Scriptural procedures. Rudolf Rutschmann spoke in his own name and also for the others that since he was
"a servant, slave and obeyer of God, I will also do what God tells me. Therefore I will not give way to anyone, nor will I be turned from it by any worldly power. Otherwise I will be respectful and obedient to my honourable masters of Zurich in everything which is not against the will of God".
The Zollikon brethren were released on the understanding that they met only in groups of three or four for Bible study and that there was to be no propaganda.
On February 17 George Blaurock wrote from his cell a letter to the council explaining his previous behaviour. It is a powerful document enshrining a concept of Christianity undoubtedly envisaged by Christ but obscured by the national and ecclesiastical organisations of the 16th century:
"Christ in sending out his disciples commanded them to go and teach all peoples, promising remission of sins through the power given by God his Father to all who would call upon his
Name. For an external sign he commanded them to baptize. As I have taught, some have come to me weeping and begging to be baptized. I have not felt at liberty to refuse, but after instructing them further as did the apostles in Acts 2, I have baptized them. In order that they might always keep in remembrance the death of Christ and his poured out blood, I have instructed them how Jesus instituted the Supper. Together we have broken bread and drunk wine in commemoration of the fact that we were all redeemed by the one body of Christ and washed by the one blood of Christ, that we all might be brothers and sisters of each other in Christ our Lord. In this I feel confident that I have done the will of God."
Being a non-citizen, Blaurock had overstayed the eight day limit; he was released on February 24, presumably exiled, while Felix Manz remained incarcerated in the Wellenberg tower for a further period.
Blaurock did not immediately leave the canton, however; in fact he went to stay with Eberli at his baker's shop on Rennweg. There they shared a fraternal meal with other brethren. The next day he visited Zollikon and baptized five wives and two daughters of brethren there (presumably domestic instruction was not propaganda). Then he left the area for the Grisons, his native canton, where he was joined by Manz some time later.
The Brethren in Zollikon did not remain inactive as might have been expected in view of their imprisonment and the departure of their leaders. During March they increased in number considerably, with new members from Kusnacht, Hongg and other quite widely separated districts. Most significantly, however, they developed at least four characteristics of an independent church organisation: baptism, breaking of bread, preaching and exclusion of fellowship.
This period was short lived. On March 16 nineteen Zollikon members were arrested and cross-questioned one by one. Dr. Blanke comments that their answers show that they "were not spiritualists who depended upon personal illumination, but they were biblicists, who found their guidance in the Bible, and the fullest possible compliance with it. These men from Zollikon and Zurich wanted to be considered responsible Christians and Bible readers." The farm labourer Gredig referred the lordly Zwingli to Mark 16 :16 and
Matthew 28 :19 in explanation of his behaviour. After more serious threats most of the prisoners were again released on the strictest understanding that no further proselytising was to be done. The council later followed this up by ordering the dissenters to give up their private meetings and attend the state church in Zollikon. The reply of the farmer Jacob Hottinger to the prelates of Zurich crystallised the position of the Brethren in Christ. It is not given, he urged, to any government to dispose over God's Word with worldly means of force; is not after all the Word of God free? He begged the council not to compel him to attend church, but to allow him to practise in law-abiding peace his faith in the way his conscience demanded. Zwingli admitted to a friend: "We have accomplished nothing. Some have desisted, not because they have changed their mind, but because they have changed their nerve."
Revival in St. Gallen
Like a pent-up flood which, suppressed at one point, bursts out at another, the activities of the brethren found new direction. Forty miles east of Zurich is the city of St. Gallen, on the river Sitter. Its leading religious leader was von Watt, Conrad Grebel's brother-in-law and former university tutor.
St. Gallen was fertile ground. In this centre of an area where Roman Catholic religious orders had formerly acquired vast wealth and influence, anti-Roman feeling ran high. There was a latent desire to retain as little as possible of old Romanist traditions. Here came first Johannes Kessler, a graduate of Basel and Wittenberg, who gave up his professional career to become a saddler. Kessler held meetings for the expounding of the Scriptures, first in a private home, but later in the hall of one of the guilds. This work paved the way for that of Uollimann who went further than Kessler dared and held regular well-publicised meetings in the Weavers' Hall. These meetings attracted much attention, which increased even more when Eberli came from Zurich and Grebel followed Uollimann from Schaffhausen. The climax came on April 9, the Sunday before Easter, when Grebel led a long procession of candidates to the Sitter River for baptism. At other times vats or tubs were used and the brotherhood grew rapidly. The campaign was also extended to the neighbouring canton of Appenzell, where it was outstandingly successful, so that for a time in a few villages the Brethren in Christ outnumbered the adherents of the state church. "The highest praise is bestowed", a historian has written, "on the purity and simplicity
of the lives of these people, even by their enemies. Considering the intense excitement, it is remarkable that so little occurred that could in any sense be regarded as fanatical."
Von Watt set his face implacably against the movement. The last letter of Grebel which has been preserved was an appeal to his brother-in-law not to associate with Zwingli's bloodthirsty party through fear of persecution or by the thought that he might lose money or position, but rather "to obey the divine truth and trust alone in God". It was in vain. Uollimann was ordered to appear before the St. Gallen council on April 25. He gave a creditable account of baptism from a Scriptural and historical point of view. He agreed, however, to the council's request for temporary suspension of activities. This request was unfortunately misjudged as leniency; actually the council only wanted time to make adequate preparations for a more effective destruction, and so sought Zwingli's advice.
Zwingli urged St. Gallen to take immediate action against the brethren. He published a booklet on infant baptism, and sent copies with a letter to von Watt. Grebel's letter and Zwingli's were read to the council. Exception was taken to the former, and Zwingli's booklet was ordered to be read in all churches. It is one of Zwingli's poorest writings, a rambling and unconvincing work. When it was being read, Uollimann interrupted with, "You may have Zwingli's word; we will have God's Word", and with that he and his fellowmembers left the church. Von Watt also prepared a tract on infant baptism, and the Brethren were required to refute it. This they essayed to do, but the council rejected their reply and imposed on them banishment and fines. Eberli agreed to leave St. Gallen in the interests of peace, but he was betrayed to the Roman Catholics and burnt alive in the market place at Schwyz.
An Appeal to Scripture and Reason
Hubmaier, though distant at Waldshut, threw in his glove during the St. Gallen campaign. His leaflet, first circulated during February before his own baptism and entitled "An Open Appeal", issued its plain but polite challenges:
"Whosoever wills" (a deliberate echo of the opening words of the Athanasian creed), "let him show that one ought to baptize young children, and let him do this with plain, clear, simple Scriptures relating to baptism without addition."
After contrasting the two forms of baptism he concludes:
"Now let a Bible be opened as the right, orderly and truthful judge between these two propositions; let it be read with prayerful, humble spirit, and then this disagreement will be decided according to the word of God and finally settled. Then shall I be well content, for I shall always give God the glory, and permit His word to be the sole arbiter -- to Him will I surrender, to Him have I devoted myself and my teaching. The truth is immortal."
Hubmaier was honest enough with himself, but he was certainly over-optimistic of the fairness and honesty of others.
In July Hubmaier wrote "The Sum of a Perfect Christian Life." It was in the form of a letter to old friends in Ingolstadt and Regensburg. Among other matters, he urges them to view the Eucharist in a way radically different from even the most "protestant" of contemporary reformers:
"Plainly the bread is not the body of Christ, but a memorial of the great truth that his blood was poured out on the cross, for remission of sins. We are not to forget that Christ died for us. Thus Paul writes to the Corinthians, 'For as often as you eat this bread -- notice he says bread -- and drink this cup -- notice it is wine that is drunk -- you do show the Lord's death till he come'. He is not there, then, but he will come at the judgement, in great majesty and glory, visibly, as the lightning cometh out of the cast and shineth even to the west."
No tortured theological interpretations, but a "common-sense" approach to the New Testament and to Christian foundations. Its appeal to many whom much 16th century theology must have left cold is obvious. In its simplicity and reversion to plain Biblical patterns the movement which was generated in 1525 by the lake of Zurich was deliberately reminiscent of that by the shores of another lake in Galilee fifteen centuries before.
During the summer Grebel, Manz and Blaurock met for successful preaching activity in the vicinity of Gruningen, south-east of Zurich and within its jurisdiction. Amazingly, from June to October their campaign proceeded without serious molestation. It effected a real and genuine reformation within the community: "drinking and carousing" ceased, and local authorities noted the transformation in some of their citizens with no little astonishment.
Trouble arose, however, at a meeting at Hinwyl on October 8 where Blaurock utilised the local church for preaching. Magistrate Berger turned him out and a meeting was held in a field outside. This attracted such a large and dangerously enthusiastic crowd that troops were sent for, whereupon the audience developed an ugly mood in attempting to defend the Brethren. They were restrained, however, by Grebel and Blaurock who allowed themselves to be arrested. Manz escaped, but was discovered and arrested three weeks later. Also involved in the round-up were Lingg and Michael Sattler, an eager convert from south-west Germany of whom more will be told later. Non-citizens such as these two were banished, the rest -- both men and women -- were brought to trial in Zurich.
"A Fair Disputation"
There were some members of the Zurich Council who felt that Zwingli's attitude to the Brethren was domineering and overpowering. It was to satisfy their tender consciences that "a fair disputation" was arranged in the great council chamber of the city hall. Zwingli, von Watt from St. Gallen and Grossmann were to present the official policy and Grebel, Manz, Blaurock and Hubmaier were to present the case for the Brethren in Christ. The encounter took place from November 6 to 8, lasting the full three days. Hubmaier, through illness, did not come from Waldshut as anticipated, and the audience in the council chamber contained so many of the Brethren that the disputation was transferred to a smaller room in the Great Minster, which was of course Zwingli's home ground.
It was not in any sense a fair disputation, but a trial in disguise. As one historian comments, the testimony of the prosecution was "woefully weak". Zwingli personally and enthusiastically advocated the summary execution of all the accused, which included several women. He referred to a comment of the sheriff of Gruningen that "these baptists" made his head grey with their words and proceedings.
Following the disputation severe repressive measures were passed by council and court. On November 18 Grebel, Manz, Blaurock, Manz's wife Anna, Anna Wiederkehr, Elizabeth and Margareta Hottinger, and about fourteen other men and women were sentenced "to lie in the tower on a diet of bread, water and apple sauce, with no one permitted to visit them, as long as seems
good to God and my lords". Presumably the divine Name is intended as a euphemism for Zwingli! Hubmaier wrote later of the episode in characteristic style:
". . . over twenty men, widows, pregnant wives, and maidens were cast miserably into dark towers, sentenced never again to see either sun or moon as long as they lived, to end their days on bread and water, and thus in the dark towers to remain together, the living and the dead, until none remained alive - there to die, to stink, and to rot. Some among them did not eat a mouthful of bread in three days, just so that others might have to eat."
In prison Grebel strengthened the prisoners by "reading the Scripture and admonishing". It is said that Anna Manz and the Hottinger sisters were "wonderful examples" to the rest of the company.
Meanwhile in Waldshut the sick Hubmaier was having trouble. On December 5 Austrian troops stormed into the town and the brief reformation was over. Mass was again celebrated in the church -- as it has continued to the present day. Hubmaier and his wife had to flee. Unaccountably -- perhaps because he relied overmuch on his previous friendship with Zwingli -- they chose to go to Zurich. He arrived there with his family ragged, wretched and ill with the winter cold and exhaustion. With most of the influential Brethren in prison, he found himself in a sorry situation. Zwingli immediately had him arrested. It was in this atmosphere of apparent defeat that the eventful year of 1525 drew to its close.
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