Last Updated on :
Saturday, November 22, 2014


sp spacer



The Protesters
By Alan Eyre



IN describing the campaign at Gruningen mention was made of Michael Sattler, who by the court order of November 18, 1525, was expelled from Zurich as a non- citizen. Thirty-five years old at this time, Sattler had been born of artisan background in the small town of Staufen, in the Rhine valley at the foot of the Black Forest. As an earnest and talented youth, Michael came under the influence of the Benedictines in the city of Freiburg eight miles from his home. He eagerly acquired considerable knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and, of course, Latin. Entering the monastery of St. Peter's in Freiburg as a novice, he rose to the rank of prior. This occurred at a time when evangelical preaching was increasing in the area, and Sattler was encouraged in consequence to make deeper study of the Scriptures. He was also spurred to view critically his ecclesiastical environment. He did not like what he saw.

Later, referring to this formative period in his life, Sattler tells how he "beheld the pomp, pride, usury and great whoredom of the monks and priests". He was unable to reconcile his position as a "spiritual lord" with Jesus' ideal of the disciple as meek and lowly in heart, serving not being served, transforming men by example not dominating them by carnal weapons. The immoral celibacy of the priesthood, which winked at pleasure but accepted no responsibilities, sickened him, and he married. He made a good choice -- "a talented clever little woman" we are told -- for she proved to be a great help and source of strength to him in his later work and trials. From his later writings it is clear that one field of New Testament study which compelled his attention was the doctrine of the church, the way the "ecclesia of Christ" should be constituted and directed. He saw little similarity between either the worldly, tyrannical Roman church or the newly emerging national Reformed churches,


and the simplicity and earnest fellowship of the New Testament Christians. To him the leaders of Christendom had left the side of Christ for a place with Pilate, Herod and the scribes. How right he was in this revealed itself in his own experience when he decided to join his Lord as "a sheep in the midst of wolves".

Reviving Apostolic Christianity

He left the monastery and with his wife travelled to Zurich where they were converted through Roubli to the Brethren. He engaged in various preaching ventures during 1525 before being finally expelled in November. He returned to his home district, but soon afterwards moved to Strasbourg, where he made the acquaintance of Johannes Denck who was associated with the Brethren. Strasbourg was a mainly Protestant city, and the two reformers Capito and Bucer were working there. Ludwig Hatzer, also associated with the Brethren, joined Sattler and Denck, and the five men had frequent discussions on the Bible and the reformation of Christianity. These discussions led Sattler to define more clearly the principles which he felt were essential to a revived apostolic Christianity. He was increasingly dismayed at the way the leading Protestant reformers seemed inclined to compromise Biblical principles in order to achieve power, and especially uneasy about alliances of expediency with temporal authorities. A modern historian has expressed Sattler's rapidly crystallising aim: he "wanted to build a church of Christ, pure, God-fearing, and genuine, cleansed by the blood of Christ to be holy and blameless before God and men. He clung to humble simplicity and withdrew from high flying spirits and theologians".

Unlike some other prominent Brethren, Sattler was not a prolific writer, but what he did write has a directness and clarity which indicates a love of essentials and a distaste for highly-spun theological exegesis. His contribution to the literature and development of the Brethren was practical and administrative. It was clear to him that there could be no genuine imitation of original Christianity without a spiritual and ethical power to move and fire the communities of believers. It was while at Strasbourg that he formulated some of the essential principles which he sought to commend to his growing brotherhood.

"Christians are citizens of heaven, not of the world."


"The spiritual are Christ's; the carnal belong to death and the wrath of God,"

"Christians are quite at rest and confident in their Father in heaven, without any external worldly armour."

This last item of faith is revealing of Sattler's attitude. For him, the Brethren's tenet of non-resistance was not a negative thing. It was the outcome of a positive confidence in the highest Power. And Sattler also saw the implications of an international fellowship in Christ. Involvement in national and local strife was impossible for one owing higher loyalties and owning wider ties in the family of Christ. The titles of his surviving writings indicate his practical bent and organising interests: "Concerning Evil Overseers", "Concerning Divorce", "The Hearing of False Prophets", "Two Kinds of Obedience", and others. His work in setting the highest standards for the Brethren to live up to has been described as being carried out with "unfeigned warmth and devotion". There is no doubt of the tremendous affection in which he and his wife were held by his fellow- brethren; this despite the fact that he moved among them for scarcely eighteen months.

During 1526 Sattler and his wife, at the suggestion of Roubli, moved to Horb, today an appealing little town in a lovely setting among the hills of Wurttemberg. The aim was to evangelise the whole Hohenberg region, which from 1520 to 1534 was part of the Austrian Habsburg lands and therefore officially Romanist. It is a measure of his sincerity and leadership that not only did viable and fervent communities endure after less than a year of his guidance, but that he endeared himself to the populace at large over a wide area of southern Germany.

In the midwinter of early 1527 Sattler journeyed south to Schleitheim in the Swiss Confederation. In this old Roman town below the vineyards of the Staufenberg north-west of Schaffhausen in Switzerland, representatives of groups of Brethren gathered for a conference on a number of important topics of common interest. Sattler was invited to preside and his influence is apparent in the articles drawn up at the conference. These regarded the church as made up of local units of baptized believers. Each of the units was to elect its own serving brethren or "shepherds" according to Scriptural principles and be bound together through the Lord's




Supper. Baptism, excommunication, separation from the world, oaths and non- resistance were other articles. The following is article seven:

"The secular government acts according to the flesh, the Christian according to the spirit. The secular authority has its abode in this world, the Christian's authority is in heaven. The fights and war-weapons of the civil power are carnal and can only attain the flesh; the arms of the Christian are spiritual and are directed against the wiles of the devil. Men of this world are armed with iron, but the Christian is armed with the armour of God that is with truth, justice, faith and the word of God. In short, the members of the body of Christ must have the disposition of Christ, lest there should come a division in the body which would be fatal to it."


Arrest and Trial

This conference was held on February 24th, 1527. Less than a week later, back in Horb, Sattler and his wife, Roubli's wife and several other members of the congregation there were arrested by the Austrian troopers. It is clear that the latter had been seeking a pretext to put a stop to such a radical reformation in Catholic territory as the Brethren were accomplishing. The Roman Catholic hierarchy saw the movement, peaceful as it was, as a threat to their influence, power and privileges. It was the crucifixion of Christ all over again; the Brethren viewed it so. Formal, vested religion was ranged against the faith of the heart, coercion against conscience; "he that was born after the flesh was persecuting him that was born after the spirit" (Galatians 4 : 29). Sattler was convinced that it could not be otherwise. At Binsdorf, where he had been taken, and yearning for his beloved flock in Horb, he wrote them a deeply moving letter. A precious document of the human spirit, it reveals a triumphant faith, unmarred by the glorification of martyrdom which characterised certain periods of early Christian history. The Austrian Imperial authorities were determined to make a cause celebre of the trial and spared no pains in the preparations, which took several months. Considerable effort was made to create an atmosphere of legality. However, unforeseen hindrances arose.

The unimportant town of Rottenburg was chosen for the trial, and Tubingen University, at that time Roman Catholic, was asked to send two lawyers, as it was believed they would ensure a more


severe sentence. But the request was refused on the grounds that if the death sentence was passed the lawyers would be disqualified for the priesthood, since technically they could not be consecrated if they acted as prosecutors in a criminal court. Matters dragged on, and meanwhile appeals for mercy were being increasingly made by many influential people. For the authorities it became even more necessary to simulate legality; but they remained absolutely determined that Sattler at all costs must suffer the ultimate penalty. Only after three appeals, accompanied with much pressure, did Tubingen eventually send two laymen, who were not doctors of law at all. The chief prosecuting counsel were two lawyers from the provincial government -- Jodokus Gundersheim and Eberhard Hofmann, the town clerk of Ensisheim in Alsace. A bench of twenty- four judges was summoned, presided over by Count Joachim of Hohenzollern.

The trial was skilfully prepared, chiefly by Hofmann. Joachim was jittery about the local support for the prisoners and they were escorted to Rottenburg by a squad of twenty-six cavalry and fifty-six foot soldiers. From the four surviving accounts of the trial, a picture emerges of the characters in the drama almost as vivid as that of the trial in the Gospels. Count Joachim, not a particularly vindictive ruler but anxious to appear a good defender of Catholic orthodoxy in his part of the Imperial dominions; his wife, secretly horrified by the whole proceedings; the twenty-four judges, not all equally callous perhaps, but determined to maintain their privileges and unaware of the fundamental ethical nature of the whole case; the sympathetic sergeant-at-arms; and Hofmann, undoubtedly the archfiend of the piece, bloodthirsty, fanatical, a vicious bigot of evil reputation and ferocious temper.

The trial of Michael Sattler opened with pomp on Friday, May I 7th, 1527. Imagine the scene: on a long dais the twenty-four judges represented the overpowering weight of Imperial authority; below them, the testy Hofmann, armed, scans his brief, and the prisoners -- Sattler and his wife, nine other men and eight other women -- crowd the dock, flanked by guards with halberds. The odds were heavily against the accused.

It has been stated in the principal modern reconstruction of the trial that Jacob Halbmayer was Sattler's defence counsel and that he appeared only at the beginning and end of the trial. This is, however, a misinterpretation of Halbmayer's office, for as mayor of


Rottenburg he carried the courtesy title "attorney for the defence of his lord", meaning, of course, His Imperial Majesty. Actually, the prisoners had no defence counsel. Sattler had informed Halbmayer that "the way of law was forbidden them by God's word". He had no desire to be acquitted by the oratory and skill of a man of the world. Actually, Halbmayer leaned over backwards to prove himself zealous in his office.

There were seven charges against all the prisoners and two specifically against Sattler. These were read on the first day, after which Sattler made a plea questioning the competency of the court, since the issues were basically religious and matters of personal conscience. The accused had committed no breach of the peace. Heresy was supposed to be tried by ecclesiastical courts at Konstanz. This plea was, of course, dismissed, since the Austrian judiciary considered itself defender of the Roman faith as well as guardian of the peace. The charges placed the Brethren on the same level as Turks, called their beliefs a secret revolt, an unchristian attack on the "Faith". The Roman Catholic church alone was valid on Austrian soil. A panegyric in praise of the Roman church was included, recounting its splendours and its miracles, which it was alleged Sattler was undermining. Rejection of trans- substantiation, infant baptism, and extreme unction constituted a heinous crime. The accused were charged with despising the Mother of God and refusing to swear by the Holy Trinity. The expression "breaking of bread", peculiar to the Brethren, was through the doctrine of transsubstantiation construed into a charge that they were guilty of breaking Christ! The two charges made against Sattler alone were firstly abandoning the monastic order and marrying, and, secondly, refusal to fight the Turks if they invaded.

A Remarkable Answer

On the second day Sattler requested that the charges be re-read as they were so many and he did not have them in writing. Hofmann objected with the jibe that there was no need; the Holy Ghost should tell the prisoners. However, he grudgingly agreed and they were re-read. A contemporary chronicle continues --

"Thereupon Michael Sattler requested permission to confer with his brethren and sisters, which was granted him. Having conferred with them for a little while, he began and undauntedly answered as follows ..."



The answer that follows is remarkable. "He began, unafraid, skilfully but modestly, to discuss each article in turn." He refers throughout to his judges as "ministers of God". A wonderful, radiant dignity seems to pervade his defence, even when reported through the pen of von Graveneck, sergeant-at-arms of the court, whose account of the trial is preserved in the old town of Wolfenbuttel in north Germany.

He began by pointing out that Austrian law only forbade adherence to the "Lutheran delusion", and of this they were not guilty. "I am not aware that we have acted contrary to the gospel and the word of God. I appeal to the words of Christ." He denied certain points in the charges and admitted others, such as disbelief in trans-substantiation and infant baptism. On the charge of insulting the Mother of God and the saints, Sattler spoke with disarming frankness, carefully choosing his words and terms so as to make his beliefs clear:

"We have not insulted the mother of God and the saints. For the mother of Christ is to be blessed among all women because unto her was accorded the favour of giving birth to the Saviour of the whole world. But that she is acting as mediator and advocate -- of this the Scriptures know nothing. She is not yet elevated, but like all men, is awaiting the judgement. Christ is our mediator. As regards the saints, we say that we who live and believe are saints, which I prove by the epistles of Paul, where he always writes 'to the beloved saints, ... "


On the two personal counts he spoke quietly of his own experiences: of his disgust at the conduct of the monks, their show, deception, covetousness and great fornication in seducing this man's wife, daughter, maid irresponsibly. Finally, in an eloquent and challenging peroration, he denied that in word or deed the Brethren had ever opposed the Government:

"In conclusion, ministers of God, I urge you to consider the purpose for which God has appointed you, to punish the evil and to defend and protect the pious. Since we have not acted contrary to God and the gospel, you will find that neither I nor my brethren and sisters have offended in word or deed against any authority. Ministers of God, send for the most learned men and for the sacred books of the Bible in whatsoever language they may be and let them dispute with us in the word of God. If they prove to us that we err and are in the wrong, we



will gladly desist and recant and also willingly suffer the sentence and punishment for that of which we have been accused. We are ready to be taught from the Scriptures."


After a violent reaction from the prosecutor Hofmann, who drew his sword and waved it violently in the air, the judges retired to an anteroom and remained there for an hour and a half. During this time, with Hofmann's encouragement, Sattler and his friends were "set at nought". Insults and mockery not usually offered to the worst criminals were flung at them by the soldiers. The Brethren remained silent and this incensed the soldiers more.

Unmitigated Savagery

The judges returned with a verdict of guilty and a sentence of horrifying and unmitigated savagery. "Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner, who shall convey him to the square and first cut out his tongue. Then he shall forge him fast to a wagon and thereon with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more in the same manner, and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic."

There was a moment of emotion. The prisoner's wife turned to her husband and, drawing him to her, embraced him in the sight of the entire crowd. It moved at least one member of the audience.

Sattler was remanded in custody for a further three days. Said a friend in a letter: "What fear, what conflict and struggle flesh and spirit must have undergone cannot be imagined."

There is a spot on the Tubingen road, about a mile out of Rottenburg, where men, following such dim light as they had, in the name of perverted justice, removed from their midst one more worthy than themselves. The cutting out of the tongue was bungled, allowing Michael to pray for his persecutors. As he was lashed to the ladder he spoke with concern to Halbmayer, urging him to have no part in the deed lest he also be condemned. The mayor answered defiantly that Sattler should concern himself only with God.

His last public words, uttered with difficulty, were a prayer for God's help to testify to the truth. The ladder was thrown on to the fire. As the fire burned through the ropes that bound his hands, he raised two fingers of his hand in a victory sign, a pre-arranged signal to his friends that he had been steadfast. He was thirty-seven.


The Countess of Hohenzollern, the wife of Joachim, tried to persuade Sattler's wife of the folly of persisting in her belief. She promised that if the condemned woman gave up her faith she could come and live with her at the castle. But she declared that she would rather be true to her Lord and her husband. Eight days later she was thrown into the Neckar river and drowned.

The grim proceedings provoked a wave of revulsion through Wurttemberg, and there was much conscience-searching by many people, as evidenced by some contemporary publications and letters. But the religious and civil leaders had their way, and bigotry and fear prevailed.

The Brethren and their sympathisers were not slow to notice the striking comparisons between the Rottenburg trial and that of Jesus himself; the attempts to preserve outward legality, the determination to secure a capital verdict, the demeanour of the accused, the viciousness and envy of the prosecutors, the weakness of the judge, the insultings and revilings, the helplessness of the populace who had been taught by the accused themselves not to resist force with force, the resignation and heroism of the condemned. There were others less sympathetic who were able to see them too and to draw their own conclusions.

The trial had more significance than was realised, for it brought into focus a major human ethical dilemma -- whether religion should be a compulsion of government and the party in power or a compulsion of the heart and conscience. It was also a test of another conflict: whether lives based on loyalty to the spirit of the Christian Gospel by an international communion can be permitted to co-exist alongside national laws and policies based on expediency. It is a conflict by no means resolved even today.

Four hundred and thirty years after the prayers of Michael Sattler were stifled by the sulphurous smoke of the faggots, a small plaque was unveiled in the parish church of Rottenburg to one of whom the world was not worthy.