“The Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism” – September 27, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

The Prehistory

In January of 1519, Huldrych Zwingli assumed the office of the people’s priest in Zurich. He had just celebrated his 35 birthday. Immediately after arriving, Zwingli made it a priority to promote the study of Scripture and ancient languages. He organized a group to study Greek together. We know that sometime in 1520, Conrad Grebel became part of this group. Not long after, future Anabaptists, Felix Mantz and Simon Stumpf joined as well. Scripture for this group fueled an interest in church reform.

Zwingli believed strongly that the power of Scripture should be accessible to all. Quickly circles of craftsmen and peasants formed in the city to study and discuss Scripture. A significant number of early Anabaptists took part in these groups and later used this model to spread Anabaptism elsewhere.

Now is a good time to introduce you further to Zwingli’s friend and soon to be protagonist, the cofounder of the Anabaptists in Switzerland, Conrad Grebel. Listen to how the leading German Anabaptist scholar, Hans Jurgen Goertz, describes him: “He was impetuous and lacked self restraint, and was perhaps even violent-tempered. He has a humanistic education but he was anything but composed and moderate. He was relentless, when it came to carrying through perceived truth … but he could also, when the signs indicated stormy weather, pour oil on the fire of the peasants’ revolts and forget any thought of self sacrifice as soon as the opportunity arose to build an Anabaptist people’s church and avoid the path to a Free Church… He kept at a distance everyone who came close to him… he is not an easy person to celebrate.” When you hear of any disruptive acts happening in Zurich, you can almost be certain that Grebel was at the heart of it.

I’ve mentioned this before but Zwingli’s big break from Catholicism and towards the people’s church of Zurich began on Ash Wednesday 1522, when a group gathered at Christopher Froschauer’s workplace to participate in a defiant Wurstessen or sausage eating, an act of protest against the feasting laws of their day. At that feast was Conrad Grebel with 4 other future Anabaptists. Zwingli was present as well, but did not partake. Though he clearly supported the act of protest and used it as a way of testing the waters to see how the Zurich city council would respond. Zwingli wanted to gauge if they would be open to actively change the church structures and practices, allow for reform.

At this point, it is important to note that Zwingli, Grebel, and the rest of his associates, were very much still friends. They saw themselves as working towards the same goals.

An important moment in Zurich’s reformation took place on January 29, 1523, today known as the first Zurich disputation. The city council called the meeting to examine which faction among the preachers was preaching the truth. Zwingli prepared a document of 67 points. And the Catholic bishops sent a delegation as well. Over 600 people attended. In the end, the council sided with Zwingli. They insisted that nothing should be preached except what can be proved by the Gospel. And with this proclamation, the Reformation path was affirmed and accelerated in both Zurich and the surrounding countryside.

As you can guess, the friendship between Zwingli and Grebel didn’t last long. The reasons for this are numerous, some political, some theological, though we tend to overemphasize the theological. And honestly, I think the rupture had as much to do with personality and history, as anything else. As mentioned earlier, Grebel was intense. He was forceful. He refused, under any circumstance, to compromise. He wasn’t a visionary. He didn’t seem to have set out goals that he wanted to accomplish. Instead, Grebel cast his lot with the pious lay people, in particular, the common man and woman who lived outside the main city of Zurich. They were his main concern.

Zwingli, on the other hand, was a man of great vision. He had hopes of Zurich becoming the focal point of evangelical reform in the area. He wanted to extend what would happen here not only to all of the Swiss Confederacy, but even beyond Switzerland. To accomplish this, Zwingli knew he needed two things, the support of the city council and also to cultivate ties to the other reformed minded people in the surrounding cities and towns.

So after that first disputation, when reform was clearly on the horizon, two alternative trajectories begin to form that completely ruptured any connections between the radicals which looked to Grebel and the evangelical reformers. Grebel and his cohorts, saw this as a chance to more intensely push for reform in the Zurich area. This is when iconoclasm started to break out all over the area, when towns started pushing for tithe reform, and refused to pay taxes to Zurich if they were not able to select their own pastors. A popular, grassroots and locally-oriented form movement started breaking out in the areas around Zurich.

While Zwingli, saw the disputation as a chance to create something a bit more centralized. He didn’t want to do anything that would put Zurich at risk. And of course, the council, whenever they had the chance, sided with Zwingli over the radical reformers.

Hans Jurgen Goertz seems to think that the rupture can be best understood by examining both Zwingli and Grebel’s past experiences: “The reason for Zwingli and Grebel’s divergent interpretations lies elsewhere, namely in the experiences that shaped each of them. Zwingli, it has been said, had good experiences with the patricians, whereas Grebel had bad experiences. The later joined forces with the preachers in the countryside and began to see the circumstances of the beginning of reform through their eyes. Harmony with secular authority led to the positive view of the relationship between God’s word and the secular sword, whereas the dissent with authority led to a negative assessment of this relationship….”

In October of 1523, a second disputation was held in Zurich, this time to debate the biblical merits of images and the Mass. At this disputation, Zwingli invited reform minded people from all over Switzerland. And on the second day, Conrad Grebel got extremely angry with the discussion and called for an outright abolition of the abomination of the Mass. Zwingli, then replied: “The Milords will discern how the mass should henceforth be properly observed.” Simon Stumpf replied: “Master Huldrych! You have no authority to place the decision in the Milord’s hands, for the decision is already made: The Spirit of God decides. If therefore, Milords were to discern or decide anything that is contrary to God’s decision, I will ask Christ for his Spirit and will teach and act against it.” Here we clearly see the differing approaches. Zwingli publicly supported a centralized, government led reform movement, while the radicals would not.

After the second disputation, it appears that Grebel and his associates turned their attention to the countryside. By this point, they had abandoned any hope of repairing the relationship between them and Zwingli and Zuirch. So they sought out different ways to help support autonomous reformed church communities elsewhere. Iconoclasm on the fringes continued to increase. It was here that they hoped that political power would not turn against them, like was happening in Zurich. They wanted communities that were not separatist, were not apolitical nor world-denying, but ones where a reformed, baptized, disciplined church could form of the minority, that was non-coercive and yet found support by the local political authority. And in some places, like Waldshut, Hallau, Tablat and Gruningen, they seemed to find this, at least temporarily.

By the summer of 1524, it had come to the attention of Zurich’s council that individuals in Witikon and Zollikon were refusing to bring their newborn children for baptism. Wilhelm Reublin, a tithe agitator, seems to be the one who was leading this campaign. He was quickly imprisoned. It was at this moment, that the radicals began searching for kindred spirits who might help them in their more radical approach to reform. This for example, is when they appealed to Thomas Muntzer for aid.

It is important to remember than the summer of 1524 is when the peasant war began to break out. This put the Swiss cities in a serious predicament. Cities like Zurich wanted to support the peasants revolt, but at the same time they didn’t want the Catholic cantons to start opposing them. So they tried to help in non-discrete ways. While publicly, they refused to send troops. They also did not prevent and seemed to encourage armed volunteers to help. A rotation of a few hundred armed men were continually helping fortify different cities.

However, this act greatly upset both the country of Austria and the Catholic canons. In November, after irresistible political pressure, Zurich was told that they had to call all of its armed citizens back home. They tried to delay this process as much as possible, and on January 10, after continued pressure, they finally cooperated.

It is unfortunate, that this is the exact time that the sharpening of the baptismal issue in Zurich began to take place. Again we find Grebel and his friends not reading the times very well. After a series of unfruitful private discussions between the Zurich preachers and the opponents of infant baptism took place, Felix Mantz demanded that Zwingli provide, in writing, biblical proof that infant baptism was correct. In December, right when Zurich was being pressured by people with power and influence, Zwingli published Those who Give Cause for Uproar against them.

Like I said, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Things probably would have turned out similar, even under better conditions, perhaps the rupture wouldn’t have been so vicious. But with all happening, Zurich needed to demonstrate that reformation did not mean political rebellion. That peace at home was possible and that it wouldn’t completely disrupt the order of things. Zurich couldn’t have the countryside fighting for some sort of independence from the centralized power of Zurich. They couldn’t also support adult baptism, which would completely derail the order of things. In January, just days after Zurich withdrew its unofficial troops, it also decreed adult baptism to be illegal. All those who failed to support infant baptism would be banished.

What I hope you are beginning to see is what we have are two, very similar, and yet different types of reform movements, which are based primarily on location. One focused on the freedom of the city, the other on the freedom of the countryside. Ultimately, those with money, power, and means won the feud.

In other words, The Scriptures were interpreted very differently in the city and in the countryside. Rulers drew differ conclusions than did the ruled. The reasons that Zwingli and Grebel fell out were not primarily theological. They were tied to the social-political realm of experience. The break began well before their disagreements on baptism.

Zwingli spoke for some and Grebel for others. In a divided world, it was obviously not possible for only one voice to proclaim Holy Scripture. Had the newly discovered Gospel reached everyone, then Zwingli and Grebel would have been well advised not to fight but to complement one another. Yet it was necessary that one give way.

Anabaptism and its Spread

The first baptisms took place on January 21, 1525 in the house of Felix Mantz’s mother. Present that evening were Grebel, Felix Mantz, George Blaurock and other persons who remain unnamed. Grebel baptized Blaurock and most likely others as well.

Immediately those present sought out to win adherents in neighboring towns and cities to their vision of reform. The first town evangelized was Zollikon, about 3 miles away from Zurich, where a number had been active the last few years. On January 22, they baptized a fairly large segment of the town’s population. Soon they spread west toward Basel and Bern, east to St. Gallen and Appenzell, but mainly they focused their attention north, to the cities where the peasant unrest was erupting. Gruningen, Waldshut, Hallau, Schaffhausen, these were the main cities that the radicals focused on, all major players in the Peasants’ War. Many of the central leaders of the rebellious peasants accepted adult baptism. For many, this was a political act of liberation. Of the early Anabaptists, only Felix Mantz appeared completely committed to nonviolence.

When we look at the picture of the earliest of Anabaptists, it is clear that they extremely improvisational. They were precarious. They were sly. They didn’t have set goals. They were an ecclesiological muddle who made things up as they went. Their actions were full of contradictions. Their actions resemble someone who is struggling for one’s life, throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks and what doesn’t. Judging things by the fruits that they bear instead of trying to be consistent.

For example, we see the provisional nature of the earliest Anabaptists in Zollikon. Here we find numerous records of people celebrating the Lord’s Supper who were not baptized adults nor part of the Anabaptist community. We also see people celebrating adult baptism not as a means of separation but instead as a means of loudly declaring their local independence from the powers that be.

I think a good comparison to the early Anabaptist movement in Switzerland is to the Occupy movement which blew up in 2011. Everything was provisional. It was purposefully done this way. They wanted to trust themselves to a social movement who had no goal that was set once ad for all for they knew their goals would only emerge as they concretely attacted the existing power structures. We can critique them all we want, for trying to develop processes as they went. But I think part of the reason for their initial success as well as the lack of their abillity to maintain it was tied to this provisional vision. These seem to go together.

In Zurich, one of the questions I wrestled with most is why didn’t the early Anabaptists in Zurich ever publish anything? We know they wrote extensively. We have some of their letters and they referenced many documents that they wrote. They had the means to publish. We know their friend, Balthasar Hubmaier published extensively. And yet, the Anabaptists who arose from Zurich refused. And the best answer that I can come up with is linked to their desire to be provisional. They didn’t want to be tied down, for their words to be used against them. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the academics and they didn’t want to be bound by those rules. Also I think they liked the element of surprise. And I also think they didn’t want to be weighed down by the need to be consistent.

The provisional nature of the early Anabaptists didn’t last long. Conrad Grebel was arrested in October of 1525. While he escaped in November, after that Grebel disappears. All we know is that he died in anonymity sometime in 1526. No one knows what Grebel looked like – this non-conformist son of a patrician, the critic of pious pretense, the first Anabaptist. And no one knows his final resting place. All traces have been washed away. And soon, the provisional path which Grebel established was abandoned, the groping and seeking, the subversive activities were replaced with set-phrases and hardened rules.

Also at the end of 1525, with the failure of the peasant revolt, we find a number of Grebel’s friends imprisoned. Many of those who were baptized, recanted and fled the territory of Zurich. Those that stayed behind, continued to be arrested and kicked out of the area. For example, on March 7, 1526, the city council of Zurich punished 18 Anabaptists to perpetual imprisonment on rations of bread and water and bedding of straw, until recantation or death. The only option remaining in Zurich became clear – an underground existence. Felix Mantz was the first Anabaptist to be condemned to death by drowning, the sentence carried out on January 5, 1527.

Around this time, Michael Sattler began teaching and baptizing to the north of Zuirch. Sattler is best known as the author of the influential Schleitheim Articles penned in February of 1527. Here, for the first time, do we see a clear vision of Anabaptism as something which separates itself from the world. It is probably the most famous document of the early Anabaptist period. One still tightly clutched onto by many. For example, on the Mennonite dating website, Mennomeet, one of the questions is something along the lines: what is your interpretation of the Schleitheim Confession.

It is important to note that at the time, most Anabaptist groups did not support the document. I don’t think most were willing to concede to the notion of being an underground movement. But as more and more cities expelled Anabaptists, the Articles gained popularity, especially in western Switzerland. Suppression has the affect of forcing one to focus inwardly, to self-preserve and alter one’s vision. And once many of the vibrant leaders were murdered, a vacuum of leadership formed, further forcing Anabaptist communities to fade and hide.

If I have time talk about how the ban changed meanings…

James Stayer summarizes the Swiss Anabaptists during this period this way: “In practice the leadership of Swiss Anabaptism, following the loss of the first, educated leaders of the late 1520s, was weaker than that of Anabaptism elsewhere…. In Switzerland, they lived on under intermittent persecution. Instead of pastoral monologues, everyone who was literate read one after the other at the typical Swiss meeting. The minister was the first among equals. He live from voluntary donations.”