“Anabaptism in Southern Germany/Austria” – October 4, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.


Anabaptism in Southern Germany/Austria:

The Many Forms of Anabaptism

(Ryan’s experiences in Nuremberg, Augsburg, Strasbourg, and Austria)


Today I have the impossible task of trying to outline the Anabaptist activities in south Germany, Austria, and Moravia from 1525-1535. There is just a crazy amount of material to cover and little time. My goal, this morning, is to help you see that there never was a movement called Anabaptism. Instead there were Anabaptisms, multiple movements with different aims that often disagreed with each other. Many times these Anabaptisms tried to exist side by side in cities, and it was their feuding that raised suspicions and got them in trouble. Instead, what I hope you see today is that Anabaptism was a dynamic and mutable movement. It grew out of local needs by very different groups of people in different places. Any attempt to try to neatly define Anabaptism constricts it and leads us astray.


The spread of Anabaptism in this large area really spread in two areas, one in the countryside, particularly the areas affected by the peasant revolt. Hans Hutt, Melchior Rinck, and others who had participated in the peasant war were the most active and influential in evangelizing to this area. Anyone know who Hans Hut was? What do you know about him? He was a bookseller, most important Anabaptist during the early period. Already in 1524 he refused to have his infant child baptized, which led him to expelled. He then moved to Nuremberg and printed a number of tracts and letters by peasant revolt leaders and soon joined the peasant revolt and somehow survived the battle of Frankenhausen. After this, Hut is baptized in 1526 and soon becomes the most important itinerant preacher in Anabaptist history. He traveled throughout all the regions affected by the peasant revolt and almost everywhere he went, he converted lots of people. He baptized many thousands. Hut translated the revolutionary hopes of the peasants into apocalyptic language, preaching the end of the world would be happening soon. He died in 1527 meaning that he did most of his preaching activity in a 14 month period. Hut’s name will come up again in a bit, when we talk about Tirol and Austria, but since I spent most of my time in the cities, I don’t want to focus too much time on Anabaptism in the countryside.


The second major area which Anabaptism spread throughout Southern Germany was in the Free Cities. What are free cities? These are self ruling cities that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. They were ruled only by the emperor and did not have a territorial prince or Lord always looking over their shoulder. These free cities could, for the most part, do what they want, as long as nothing seriously disrupted the order of things. Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Worms, Augsburg were all examples of Free Cities during that time. Free Cities were where Anabaptism arose out of in this area. And some free cities where perceived as places of haven when threats of persecution arose.


Nuremberg: Stephanie and I spent a week in Nuremberg, which as I told Karl, was probably our least favorite city which we visited. But Nuremberg was a hotbed of reform that began early, quite early, sometime in the 1510s. It was the home of the famous print-maker and painter, Albrecht Durer who loved to print anti-clerical themes which made fun of the Catholic clergy. It was also the home of Hans Sachs, the great German poet and playwright who was an open advocate for the reformation.


After Luther’s acts, Nuremberg quickly joined the side of the Lutherans. It was a hub of protestantism and quickly people of more radical orientation began to flock there. Hans Denck, an important future Anabaptist arrives in Nuremberg in 1523 to serve as the rector of St. Sebald, one of the largest churches in the city. Quickly, Denck became friends with a number of prominent city leaders, artists, and reformers in the city who were becoming disenfranchised with the moral laxity of the Lutheran reformation and believed it didn’t go far enough. While in Nuremberg, Denck met a number of important future Anabaptist leaders.

What I find interesting is how closely the timeline of what happened in Nuremberg mirrors what happened in Zurich. Nuremberg, like Zurich, had no interest in openly supporting the peasants war. They wanted to distance themselves from anything that might bring them trouble. When the city started interrogating people who were of the more radical persepective, one name kept coming up – Hans Denck. On January 10, 1525, just days before the first adult baptisms in Zurich, the city council ordered Denck to appear and confront charges of heresy and disrupting the peace. And on January 21st, the same day of those baptisms, Denck was banned and labeled a heretic. For a few years, Nuremberg looked like a possible future hub for an alternative, more radical Christian reform movement, in 1525 it became clear that this would not be the case. While Nuremberg would suppress Anabaptists from the very start, traces continued to appear here for a long time to come.




For those of you that heard my stories from my sabbatical, then you probably remember my trip to Augsburg and Stephanie and myself’s day with Wolfgang Krauss. Looking back, I think we would have much rather stayed in Augsburg and there would have been more to see, if we had. I think it is safe to say that after the failed attempts of reform in Nuremberg as well as the failure of the peasant revolt, Augsburg was the second attempt of starting a radical reform movement in a free city of Germany. Augsburg is just 90 miles south of Nuremberg, so it must have seemed like the most logical choice.


In Augsburg, the Anabaptists found a place that, for the most part, wanted to leave them alone. The city didn’t seem to mind that a group of individuals were gathering who were upset with the conduct of the Protestant preachers. Every once and again the Lutherans would make a fuss, and the city would banish a leader, but even this was really rare. One of the first Anabaptist leaders who found his way to the city was, as you can probably guess, Hans Denck. He worked as a private tutor and spent his free time unifying people who were disenfranchised with Luther’s vision of reform. We know Denck was baptized here in June 1526. We don’t know how many were baptized here before him.

It is important that it wasn’t just the poorer class that was attracted to Anabaptism here. We know that a number of prominent city leaders, patricians, and religious leaders also took interest in the movement. We know that between 1526 and 1528 the movement grew to over 1100 adults or about 5% of the city’s population. We do not know that much about the movement in Augsburg. But we do know that they did their best to stay out of the public eye. While their presence was tolerated, as they grew, they gained opponents. The Lutheran preachers were adamant that the Anabaptists must be either banished or killed. The city could only do so much to allow them to stay. The council said that they were no longer allowed to meet in large groups. Anything over two or three was disallowed. And when the Anabaptists, disagreed, a number of important leaders were arrested. Still Anabaptists would not stop gathering. Quickly new leaders were elected. And while some people in the city were talking about executing Anabaptist leaders, over the majority of the city council opposed such actions.

One of the interesting things I learned about Anabaptism in Augsburg is about the importance of women in sustaining the congregation. They were preachers and leaders. They housed meetings. They were midwifes so the Anabaptists could avoid baptizing their babies. Their spinning circles were one of the places that they evangelized and converted new members. They distribute alms to the poor and they were messengers used to distribute news. I already told the story of Susanna Doucher, but there are many similar stories like Barbara Schlieffer, a grocer by trade, who not only hosted meetings but also Anabaptists refugees. So many people were constantly coming and going through her house, that her name was mentioned by 42 different people during interrogations, more than almost all of the ministers. When the city started to take action against the Anabaptists in the fall of 1527, it was her steadfastness that was a major reason that the movement remained alive. And while she was beaten out of town in January of 1528, we know that she returned just weeks later and again quickly hosted meetings and people.

Easter of 1528 was pretty much the end of the Anabaptists in Augsburg. The authorities still hesitated to use capital punishment. Only 1, maybe 2, Anabaptists were martyred while in Augsburg. Hans Hut …. We do see an Anabaptist community emerge again in Augsburg in the mid 1530’s under the leadership of Pilgrim Marpeck. But these Anabaptists were not interested in evangelism. They kept to themselves. They worked in roles for the city. They supported oaths. So the Augsburg city council seemed to welcome them in.


I hope by now that you are seeing that not all Anabaptists wanted to go underground, that they wanted to hide and be a small community apart from the world like some of the Swiss Anabaptists. Instead a large percentage tried to work within the confines of the city, hoping that it would allow a minority alternative voice to form. Nuremberg was attempt number 1. Augsburg was attempt number 2. This brings us to the most important attempt – Strasbourg.




Strasbourg is beautiful. A wonderful town full of charm and lot of personality. It was high on my list of favorite places which I visited.

Strasbourg too was a hub of reform that began in the late 15th century, well before it was on the radar of most other cities. They had an awesome Catholic priest who was the most famous preacher of his day, Johann Geiler van Kaiserberg. I became interested in Kaiserberg in seminary, wondering at the time if there might be any connection between this radical catholic priest and future Anabaptists. It wasn’t until I arrived at Strasbourg, visited the most massive and beautiful chapel in the city, and learned again that Kaiserberg was the preacher there, that this past thought reentered my mind. It is definitely something I wish to study in the future.

Kaiserberg was a strong anticlericalist. He loathed his fellow priests. He saw how they were abusing the poor and using their position as a means of gaining wealth and the easy life. He preached sermon series on ants and ships as a way of challenging hierarchy and pushing for reform in the city, until he died in 1510. But with Kaiserberg and others, church reform was in the air.


Strasbourg was the mecca of Anabaptist activity in the early years of the Reformation, the Lancaster county of Mennonite Church USA. It is hard to know just how many Anabaptists there were in this major city, but best estimates put the number somewhere near 5000 at its peak, or about 1/4 of the adult population. There is a reason that it was called by some the Anabaptist kingdom of God.


The two major reformers in the city (Martin Bucer and Woflgang Capito) were not Anabaptist, although Capito was a friend and advocate for all minority groups. He was a clear friend of the Jews and at times, worked with the Anabaptists. Many of the Anabaptist groups in the city started out of small groups that met in his church (St. Peter, the Younger). He worked to make Strasbourg a city of hope and a dwelling place of righteousness for everyone. Capito also was unconvinced on the necessity of infant baptism, was inclined toward the Anabaptists understand of communion and was open ears to their non-hierarchical understandings of church.

Already in 1524 there were forerunners of Anabaptism in the city. Most of these individuals belonged to the gardener guild, and followed the lay preacher, Clemens Ziegler. These individuals were people who supported the peasants revolt and longed for a radical change in the religious practices of their day. In 1524, they led a riot at the church of St. Peter, the Younger church, causing all the catholic priests to flee. This is when Capito was elected as their pastor. And after the failure of the revolt, when peasants were afraid to return home, many turned to Strasbourg and joined this group. Capito was seen as the common persons priest. Ziegler’s home was the typical meeting place for these Anabaptists.

A second group of Anabaptists arrived in Strasbourg in the fall 1525, individuals who had been expelled from Zurich and other areas of Switzerland, Reublin who we heard of multiple times last week was among them. Soon Michael Sattler, the author of the Schlietheim Confession joined him briefly.

In 1528, after the Anabaptists fled from Augsburg, a third group of Anabaptists arrived in Strasbourg. And just a few months later, a fourth group, Pilgram Marpeck and his friends from Austerlitz arrived in Strasbourg as well. And then finally in 1529, a fifth group arrived in Strasbourg under the influence of the prophetesses Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock. This group was aided by a quirky and wild preacher, who we will hear more about next month, Mechior Hofmann. As I hope you can see, Strasbourg became this hodgepodge of different Anabaptist groups.

Strasbourg didn’t know what to do with all these divergent groups. That is because Strasbourg was unique among all cities. The magistrates believed that faith cannot be compelled. They also didn’t believe that there only needed to exist one faith in the city. Two Confessions, both the Catholic Mass as well as Zwingli’s were supported, at the same time. This gave Anabaptists hope that there might be a third one accepted too. But which one? There is the problem. There were so many different types of Anabaptists in the same place at the same time, that they couldn’t get along with each other. No one could agree.

One of the primary reasons that Anabaptists were embraced and accepted, at least at first, in Strasbourg was the one thing which united them: their care for Strasbourg’s poor and religious refugees. Because Strasbourg was seen as a city of hope, there was a continual stream of people to the city and this caused a great strain on the city’s alms collection. Anabaptist groups saw this as a need which they could help. Some preached and led meetings at the syphilis houses, where many Christians were unwilling to attend. Others raised money on a regular basis for the city’s alms collection so that the poors’ needs would be met. As a recent article puts it best: many of the Anabaptist groups were trying to find a third way between Luther and the papacy. For a while, it looked as if, it was working.

However, it appears that there just were too many different groups of Anabaptists with too many of them. Martin Bucer was threatened that their numbers grew too fast, and more and more kept streaming to the city. And each week, less and less people were coming to hear him preach. So he turned to the city council for help. He wanted a Magistrat-supported church order. He also wanted a public debate with one of the leaders of the Anabaptists, Pilgram Marpeck to prove that he was wrong. The council didn’t want Bucer to gain to much power, but also didn’t want to upset him. In the end they granted that hearing with Marpeck, and soon he was kicked out of the city. It’s also important to note that Capito left town on December 8th of 1531. Marpeck was kicked out during January of the following year.

However, the Anabaptist population in Strasbourg remained strong, at multiple thousands, even as the tides began to turn. Soon, fear spark partly by the Munster rebellion, drove Strasbourg to hold a Synod in 1533 – 1535 in order to legislate correct doctrine and expel nonconformists. Within weeks of the Anabaptists’ seizure of the city of Munster, the city passed a law against adult baptism. All dissents would be banished. This was a watershed moment for the Anabaptist groups. Some recanted of their faith, but most scattered into the countryside. This was for many their last hope to be an urban movement. So they went from visible to clandestine, from being a movement with educated leaders to a group led by uneducated leaders. No longer was its membership from all social strata. Soon it was based mostly of lower artisans.

The Anabaptists continued to make the region around Strasbourg their home. It was still seen as a hub for Anabaptist life and though for hundreds of years. Here is where Anabaptists regularly met to try to work out their differences. And the Alsace still is home to many Mennonite communities. But you have to wonder what would have happened if those early Anabaptists would have found a way to overcome their differences and find a way to be united together. And yet, it also speaks quite a lot about them, that they never tried to be just one voice. One movement. They were also multiple.


Tirol & Moravia


Only a few brief words on Tirol. Tirol was one of the most active areas during the peasant revolt and so it is no surprise that Anabaptism spread early throughout the Tirol. The leaders were extremely active during the revolt but Anabaptism was not primarily a poor individuals movement during the early years here. I read an interesting study this week about the wealth records of the early Anabaptists and only a few were under what we would consider to be the poverty line. The majority of early Anabaptists were upper middle class and a few were the excessively wealthy. For example, we know that a nobel woman who owned one of the largest castles in Tirol was an Anabaptist and for years it was at the castle that they met. Again we see that Anabaptism was a threat to the other protestant movements and people really believed it was a viable alternative.


For financial reasons, stephanie and I did not make it to Moravia like I wanted. Car rentals in Vienna were excessively expensive and it was even more expensive for us to cross the Czech border. We did make it up to the border, about 30 miles from where the majority of Anabaptist activity was and were able to visit two Anabaptist museums near the border.

It is impossible for us to number all the different Anabaptist groups which existed in Moravia. Moravia was considered the Promised Land by the Anabaptists. Here is where they were caught in a permanent tension between the Habsburg politics who longed to rid the area of the Anabaptists and the Moravian lords who persistently defended their liberties and included them in their local constitutions. This game of being kicked and reinvited continued to be played for almost 100 years, until 1622 when most Anabaptists had to leave Moravia.


Moravia, even before the Anabaptists, was a haven for radical, minority groups. Here is where the Hussites were allowed to peacefully exist throughout the 15th century. So it is no surprise that the Reformation started early in Moravia. The Lords were quite receptive to it, as well.

Anabaptism really broke out throughout Moravia in 1526, when Balthasar Hubmaier won the lord of Nikolsburg, (close to Brno) to the cause. A number of Lutheran leaders in the area were also converted. Nikolsburg’s population was around 2500-3000 inhabitants with a strong Jewish minority. We know that most of the city as well as the surrounding area converted to Anabaptism. Reports counted up a 72 baptisms a day, every day for about a 2 week period.

Quickly internal tensions began to arise. People began questioning worship practices, theological issues, and social ethics. For example, some were upset that the ringing of bells for morning, noon, and evening prayers continued in Nickolsburg by these Anabaptists. Importantly, these Anabaptists believed in the sword. They were called the sword barriers by other fractions who disagreed with their views on violence. A portion of these Anabaptists also were the sabbatarians which I mentioned during week 1, who insisted that the 10 commandments were the ultimate authority and that Saturday was the proper day of worship for Christians.

A separate group, today known as the staffbearers quickly arose who believed in nonviolence and also the community of goods. We know that they were kicked out of the Nickolsburg congregation in 1527 and they made a deal with the Lord of Austerlitz to settle here. Where they were exempt from war taxes. Over time, the Austerlitz brethren became one of the most organized denominations of the early Anabaptists. They formed congregations all over the South Germany. Pilgram Marpeck was one of the leaders of the Austerlitz brethren.

A series of other congregations arose as more and more immigrants fled from Southern Germany and Austria between 1531 and 1533. Most of these groups stemmed not from differing theological opinions, but from personal rivalries among leaders. Distinctive theologies only developed after the groups had already separated. In Auspitz for example, Jakob Hutter emerged as a new energetic leader in 1533. Hutter came to believe that he had been given apostolic authority from God to establish a new, true Church. Today we know his followers as the Hutterites.

We also know a number of Swiss made their way to Moravia as well. Here, a group which called themselves the Swiss Brethren formed. We don’t know much about them. Only in Moravia do any sources reference them. However, we do know that they had a notoriously low view on baptism and believed that all which was needed was to call upon the name of the Lord. They did practice the communioty of goods.

They also refused to worship in church buildings, and instead worshiped in private homes. They didn’t like the Austerlitz because they allowed their members to drink beer.


The Hutterites are the most famous and most prominent Anabaptists which arose out of this area. They were some of the most successful, who rejected the out, radical desacralization of religius practices, communial goods, etc. They were strong proponents of education and were said to have some of the best schools in all of Europe. The Lords of the area always sent their children to Hutterite schools. They were extremely hard workers and for that reason because extremeely wealthy. Whenever the Lords needed money, they knew the Hutterites commitment to nonviolence meant that they would easily hand over cash.