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The Protesters
By Alan Eyre






THE first Zurich trial of Balthasar Hubmaier took place on January 13, 1526. He was very ill, a condition aggravated by several weeks of confinement. Accounts of the trial vary according to the standpoint of the writer. One account affirms that Hubmaier gave a masterly account of himself and the Word of God, confuting Zwingli out of his own mouth and writings. Zwingli, however, claims that he rendered Hubmaier "mute as a fish". Without question, Hubmaier showed that before coming to his present power Zwingli had in fact stated that there was no clear evidence in Scripture for infant sprinkling; he had witnesses who could testify that they heard Zwingli say that baptism of believers was more Scriptural. Such arguments as we know Hubmaier used were devastating to Zwingli's case, and so thorough was his answer that in addition to Bible testimony he showed historically from papal documents of the 6th century how infant sprinkling had generally superseded adult immersion.


We get some idea of the arguments from Hubmaier's "Ein Gesprech", a document of his later Mikulov period. The following dialogue there occurs:

Zwingli: You reject infant baptism that you may set up rebaptism.

Hubmaier: You have not produced a single passage to prove infant baptism is baptism. You should remember what you once said, that truth is clearly revealed in the word of God. If now infant baptism is a truth, show us the Scripture in which it is found.



Zwingli: If everyone adopts such views as he pleases, and does not ask the church concerning them, error will increase.

Hubmaier: We should consult the Scriptures, not the church. The church is built upon the word, not the word upon the church.

Zwingli: The thief on the cross believed, and on the same day was with Christ in paradise; yet he was not baptized with outward baptism.

Hubmaier: A man who has the excuse of the thief on the cross will have the favour of God. But when this excuse is lacking the word of Christ holds true that "he that believes and is baptized shall be saved".

Zwingli: Matthew 3 says that "all Judaea" went out to John and were baptized. Here one may say that if the whole multitude went out, we should expect that there were children who went out also.

Hubmaier: Might not one also say that we should expect that Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod went out and were baptized? It matters not what we think or expect. We must be governed by the Scriptures. I appeal to the Scriptures. Let them decide.


Hubmaier's appeal to the Scriptures was no mere thrust in a verbal battle: it was a genuine approach and was the most reasonable course. For Zwingli frequently and loudly proclaimed that the very basis of his revolt from Rome (and hence his personal position) depended on loyalty to the Scriptures, not to the Roman church. Hubmaier was turning the screw where it hurt the most. It was for this reason that Zwingli was prepared to spend time arguing over the Scriptures with those whose influence he sought to destroy. It was more than disconcerting to find his own particular platform used against himself.

On this particular occasion Hubmaier was at a low ebb; he was ordered to recant, and under severe pressure, reluctantly agreed to do so. He was ordered to read the recantation publicly in the Fraumunster (Minster of our Lady), the great church which still stands on the right bank of the Limmat in Zurich. The moment came, but instead of reading the public recantation he rose and tearing it up, began to address the great assembly on the true


Scriptural baptism -- to the consternation of all. He was -- needless to say -- violently interrupted and frogmarched to prison. His wife was also imprisoned without a hearing. They were to be kept on bread and water, like the others, without light until "they should die together, perishing and rotting by the stench".

A Moving Document

It was from this dark hour that there was born one of the most moving documents to survive from the 16th century: Hubmaier's "prison confession". Written as an exercise in self-encouragement, it takes the form of a commentary on the Apostles' Creed. Its feeling is so intense and its spiritual tone so high that it is worth quoting at some length. It also reveals almost incidentally how radically the Brethren's Christian thinking had departed already from that of the new national protestant churches. There is no doctrinaire overemphasis such as that upon justification with the Lutherans or divine election with the Calvinists. Its chief virtue, like that of its author, is a plain and appealing simplicity. In view of the circum


stances in which it was composed the second paragraph quoted below is, to say the least, remarkable:

"I believe and confess, my Lord Jesus Christ, that you were conceived by the Holy Spirit, without any human seed, born from Mary. I believe and trust that in your living, indestructible word and in the spirit I may be born again and see the Kingdom of God.

"I believe and confess also that you suffered under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, dead and buried in order that you might redeem and ransom me from eternal death, by the pouring out of your blood in which your greatest and highest love to us poor men is recognised. For you have changed for us your heavy cross into a light yoke, your bitter sufferings into imperishable joys and your death in the midst of anger into eternal life. Therefore I will praise and thank you, my gracious Lord Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.

"I believe also and confess, my Lord Jesus Christ, that after those forty days in which you walked the earth for a testimony of your joyous resurrection, you ascended into heaven. There you sit, mighty and strong to help all believers who set their trust, comfort and hope in you, and cry to you in all their needs. There is no need to pray to you in any special place, for you are at the right hand of your heavenly Father, as the holy Stephen saw you and prayed to you. It is vain to seek another advocate.

"I believe and confess also that thence you will come to -- judge the living and the dead on the day of the last judgement, which will be to all godly men a specially longed for and joyous day. Then will be ended our fleshly, sinful and godless life. Then will each one receive the reward of his work; those who have done good will enter into eternal life, but those that have done evil into everlasting fire. 0 my Lord Jesus Christ, shorten the days and come down to us! Yet give us grace and strength so to direct our lives in the meantime that we may be worthy to inherit the Kingdom.

"I believe also and confess a worldwide brotherhood of many pious and believing people, who unitedly confess one Lord, one God, one faith and one baptism; assembled, maintained and ruled on earth by the only living and divine word. 0 my God, grant that I and all who believe in Christ may be



found in this church; may we believe, teach and hold all that you have commanded us by your word, and root out all things which you have not planted; that we may not be led into error by any views of men, institutions, or doctrines of old Fathers, popes, cardinals, universities or old customs. 0 my Lord Jesus Christ, establish again the two bands, namely, water-baptism and the Supper, with which you have externally girded and bound your Bride. For unless these two shall be again established it will never be well with your church.

"I believe also and confess a resurrection of the flesh, though it may be eaten by worms, drowned, frozen or burned. Yea, though my temporal honour, goods, body and life be taken from me, yet will I, at the day of the joyous resurrection, first truly receive the real honour which avails before God, goods that pass not away, a body incapable of suffering, made clear and immortal, and eternal life. 0 my Mediator, Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen and hold me in your Faith!

"I believe that you will endow your faithful and elect after this suffering life with a sure, clear and joyous beholding of your divine countenance, and satisfy them in eternal rest, eternal peace and eternal salvation, which joy, delight and bliss no man can express or conceive.

"O holy God, O mighty God, O immortal God, this is my faith which I confess with heart and mouth and have witnessed before the church [ecclesia] in water- baptism. Faithfully, graciously keep me in that until my end, I pray. And though I be driven from it by human fear and terror, by tyranny, pangs, sword, fire or water, yet hereby I cry to You, 0 my merciful Father, raise me up again by the grace of Your holy spirit and let me not depart in death without this faith. This I pray You from the depth of my heart, through Jesus Christ, Your best-beloved Son, our Lord and Saviour. Amen."


There is significance in the fact that this poignant personal confession is based upon the Apostles' Creed; it reflects the aim of the Brethren in Christ to imitate and renew the original Christianity of the apostolic age, before the accretions of later credal traditions. All the implications of this were not yet fully realised, but the trend was already clearly established.


A Severe Sentence

On March 7th,1526, the prisoners in the Water Tower were brought to a retrial, undoubtedly with the intention of passing an even more severe sentence. Execution was advocated by some, but the accused were eventually returned to their confinement under formal sentence of life imprisonment. This, however, in the conditions existing in the notorious Water Tower, undoubtedly meant a comparatively speedy death.

Under pressure from Zwingli, the Zurich government finally made adult baptism a capital offence. An old Roman law of Justinian was revived which made "repeating of baptism" and denial of the Trinity a crime punishable by death. The Brethren were labelled "Anabaptists" (re-baptizers) so that the authorities could bring them under this law, though they consistently rejected the term as being untrue and misleading in their case. It is amazing that protestant Europe of four hundred years ago should have utilised a law of Imperial Rome in order to destroy those who most fully adopted its own avowed principles. This was legally possible by the artificial concept of the "Holy Roman Empire" which was viewed as the direct successor of Imperial Rome, so that an unrepealed law of the latter could still be viewed as in force. Switzerland was still de jure, but not de facto, within the limits of the Holy Roman Empire.

For the prisoners in the Wellenberg life imprisonment lasted fourteen days. On April 5, a cell window was found to be unlocked, an unexpected occurrence which caused much heartsearching and some discussion. Should they accept it as a sign of a providential release like that of Peter in Acts or should they consider the temptation to escape as one to be resisted, and remain where they were. Grebel, Manz and Blaurock at first favoured the latter. But the condition of some, with swollen limbs and emaciated face, and the convenient presence of a rope, convinced the majority that they should assume that it was the former. The correctness of their assumption appeared to be confirmed when, upon descending through the window to the ground, they found the drawbridge down, permitting them to cross the Limmat to the shore. There was some discussion as to where they should go then. One of them ventured: "Let's go and preach to the Red Indians across the sea!"


They scattered over the country, turning up in odd places, but never willing to cease their work. Two weeks afterwards Manz baptized a woman at Embrach. Blaurock appeared in Gruningen, St. Gallen, Basel. Grebel and Manz preached in Appenzell and in the Grisons. Everywhere the common people found their Bibles, not long translated into their mother tongue, and the teachings of the Brethren to "agree wonderfully", and adherents increased throughout eastern Switzerland.

Plague was epidemic in Coire while Manz and Grebel were there. Exhausted and weakened from their recent imprisonment, Grebel contracted it. Feverish and weary, he travelled down the Rhine valley and sought a haven of rest at his sister Barbara's home in Maienfeld. In August, 1526, five months after the escape, Grebel died there at the age of 28.

Debate and Repression

In Basel the irrepressible Blaurock and other Brethren engaged in a disputation before the council with Zwingli's friends. The Brethren insisted on Scriptural proof, but the "Reformers" were content to quote Origen and Augustine. Blaurock made a ringing response: "What have we to do with your doctors, the church fathers and the councils? They were men as we are, and as subject to blindness as we are."

An old argument fired at every dissenting minority raised its hoary head in this as in so many other debates: how can so many sincere and intelligent people be wrong? But the Brethren's answer was always that statistical counts were irrelevant.

"Baptism, we all agree, is a ceremony of the New Testament. Therefore we demand a plain passage with which you support infant baptism out of the New Testament. The word, the word, the WORD! Why will you like the night owl hate the light and refuse to come to the sun?"


Both sides considered themselves victorious in the Basel disputation. But the "Reformers" had the power, and repressive measures were enacted. Blaurock once again took the road, back to Gruningen, to a congregation to which he always seemed particularly attached. It proved later to be particularly resistant to destruction.

During 1526, despite every setback, the Brethren in Christ extended their influence and established conventicles of believers


over a wide area of Switzerland, southern Germany and Moravia. A conference was held at Augsburg during that year and early in 1527 another was held at Schleitheim near Schaffhausen. Hubmaier went to Moravia in July, 1526. It is said that there were a hundred organised groups of believers by the end of 1526 in Switzerland alone. But along with this growth was a steady hardening of the attitude of the authorities, both Romanist and Protestant.

In January 1527 Felix Manz and Blaurock were arrested, the former for the last time. Manz appeared on a capital charge and the following verdict and sentence are illuminating as to the real issues at stake:

"He has administered baptism in a way contrary to Christian rule; in spite of all the admonitions he could not be made to repent. He and his followers have severed themselves from the Church and they have constituted themselves an independent sect under cover of a Christian gathering. Such teachings are contrary to the general custom of Christianity and lead to scandal.

"Therefore we commend that his hands be tied together and put over his knees, a stick inserted between his arms and legs and that he be thrown from a boat into the Limmat at a designated spot."


Blaurock was to be "beaten on the naked back through the streets until the blood should flow".

On January 25th Manz was drowned in the Limmat river in the manner prescribed. It was according to due process of law, but it was a tragic waste of the young life of a "zealous and godly man". Viewed objectively, the sentence on Blaurock was curiously lenient. Undoubtedly the more hotblooded of the two, he had been repeatedly banished and just as repeatedly he had returned in defiance of the order and continued the work. But again he was banished, and his first journey was only to Gruningen, still within the Zurich cantonal jurisdiction. Blaurock went on from there to the Tyrol, leaving Switzerland for good. We shall meet him again when considering developments in the Tyrol. His Gruningen brethren and sisters suffered grievously a few months later and many of them were drowned. This method of execution was intended as a mockery of their baptist practices: Zwingli laconically called it "their third baptism".


The sentence upon Manz crystallised the real issue: the Brethren's activities, though entirely peaceful and conducive to the uplift of the human spirit, were classed as subversive of Church and State. It was really the familiar modern situation of a non-revolutionary, law-abiding but proselytising minority within a monolithic totalitarian state. Vedder comments that the Brethren's "doctrines were too scriptural, too spiritual, too incompatible with those that were forced upon unwilling people by men actuated by ambition and greed". A rather extreme judgement perhaps, but not very far from the truth.