“Anabaptism in the 17th century in Bern” – October 25, 2015


Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

Perhaps my favorite city which I visited was Bern. It is the capital of Switzerland and yet it remains quite small. The city has only about 140,000 people that live there. It is stunning and the surrounding towns are even more beautiful. It is easy to see why Mennonites have always loved Bern and why even when they were excessively persecuted, why they were hesitant to leave.

Bern is important, because north of 10% of all Mennonites worldwide have ties to the Mennonite communities around there. The oldest continuous Mennonite church is located just a few miles away. Which was nothing like I expected. Full of pingpong and pool tables. It resembles a large evangelical church today. And I know that a number of people from our church have ties to the Bern area. Margot’s family was from this region before they moved to the Palintate. The Swartzentrubers originate from a small town near Trub. And many Mennonites on the east coast also stem from this region. During the 17th century, the Mennonites near Bern were heavily persecuted. So the Mennonites from the Netherlands would often send them aid and they helped pay for them to relocate to safer areas. Many of the Mennonites from Bern were the first to arrive in the United States.

Today I want to begin by looking at Mennonites in Bern during the last half of the 16th and the 17th century. This was a time when these Anabaptists faced significant pressure by the repressive government of Bern. Pretty much there were two options for the Anabaptists during this period – to recant or to accept exile. And to accept exile meant to lose their livelihood, to have their homes and land seized, to impoverish their families, and face an extremely uncertain future. Exile wasn’t a good solution and yet, giving up their religious faith was unfathomable for most. So Mennonites did their best to find some alternative solution somewhere between humiliating survival and ruinous exile. Their struggle to survive is interesting. It reminds me a lot of the early Anabaptists – how they improvised and compromised to survive.

Anabaptists first arrived in Bern weeks after the first baptisms. Sometime in early 1525. Already in 1527, the government leaders of Bern issued a mandate that all Anabaptists in their city would face death by drowning. And through the middle of the 18th century, the Bernese authorities were diligent about riding their land of the “Anabaptist” plague. I do want to stress that they were diligent. The Bernese government had a group called the Anabaptists constabulary, or the Tauferjager, whose sole job was to root out Anabaptists. They were spies. Allowed to infiltrate and do whatever was necessary to identify the Anabaptists among them. And yet Anabaptists refused to flee Bern and find homes elsewhere. This meant that they had to be flexible and learn to exercise extreme caution to survive.

While in Bern, I was able to take a day trip and visit a nearby castle, Trachenswald. Trachenswald served almost entirely as an Anabaptist prison in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hundreds of Anabaptists were imprisoned here, tortured, beaten, many were even killed. A few years ago, the Mennonite church actually purchased the castle for 1 dollar. Today parts of it is in desperate need of some serious repairs but many of the rooms still have the chains that were used to enslave Anabaptists. I only was able to see part of the castle and Stephanie chastises my photography skills so I do not have one good picture of what the castle looks like. But interesting story, when I visited the castle there were a number of people setting up for a wedding. I was extremely out of place, but the castle is open to the public, so I decided to view it anyway. By the time I finished, the wedding was about to take place. And everyone attending the wedding, except the bride and groom, were dressed in teams soccer jerseys. The groom’s side had one team. The bride’s side had another team. Someone told me that those teams were facing each other today. They asked me why I was visiting, but I didn’t have it in me to say that I was touring a place of torture and execution, to see firsthand the struggle that the early Anabaptists went through trying to survive. Didn’t seem like the right time, but the castle is a vivid reminder of the persecution which the early Anabaptists regularly faced.

Here are some other pictures. This one is of the Prison Tower where Anabaptists were tortured. Records show that murderers and other criminals were sometimes let free in order to make room to imprison Anabaptists here. Another picture is of the building known as the Blood Tower. This is another of the infamous interrogation and torture towers. You can still read the interrogations of the Anabaptists that happened in the so called tower books. Anabaptists were tortured until they admitted they had gone wrong in their faith. This building was the former Home for the Orphans. Here is where many of the children of Anabaptists lived.

So if you were one of those early Anabaptists in Bern, what might you do to survive? What would have been your strategies for avoidance? Perhaps the easiest solution was Nicodemism. Who is Nicodemus? It seems that this practice was much more common than we might expect among Anabaptists in Bern. Outwardly they would do just enough to make people assume that they were conforming to the religious practices of the dominant faith. However, inwardly, they followed their own opinions and beliefs. Nicodemites would bend their faith, but would not go farther than was absolutely necessary to avoid repression. While their preference was to find ways to evade awkward questions, sometimes they would have to profess false beliefs while holding mental reservations. And it appears that the Anabaptist communities in the area had no issues with those who took this route. They accommodated their members who felt forced to make compromises. As long as they weren’t doing it under their own volition, it wasn’t understood as lying. And we know that some of these Anabaptists even submitted to oaths or recanted, because it was a common belief that coerced oaths were not considered to be binding or spiritually harmful.

Nicodemites were often successful because the number one thing that made one question whether one was an Anabaptist or not was church attendance. Church attendance during that period was mandatory. If you regularly missed church, your name was given to the Tauferjager as one who was suspected to be an Anabaptist. This means that many athiests or non-interested people were persecuted as Anabaptists. Going to church and playing nice was the easiest solution.

Another practical solution was to hide. Anabaptists built secret huts in the forest which they hide in and also conducted their meetings. A number of hiding places have been recorded and a few still exist like the one near Trub built for hiding Mennonites in the 17th century. You can still visit the Fankhauser farmhouse today. While I was unable to make it, the hiding place is just a large box, approximately one meter wide by two meters high, located in the floor of the hayloft. The box was hidden by straw. This story about it has been passed on from generation to generation:

“Whenever a person came to this farm to interrogate an Anabaptist, the man or woman would run up into the area where the hay was stored and suddenly disappear. Although the searchers looked through the whole house, it was impossible to find them. One of the searching persons decided to wait on the floor of the stored hay, in order to observe the Anabaptist. The next time when the Anabaptist ran away into the area of hay again, the chaser noticed that the Anabaptist jumped on top of a balanced movable piece of timber and disappeared by sliding into the hiding place.”

Forests and caves provided alternative possibilities for hiding. They also liked to meet near waterfalls because the noise of rushing water could mask the sound of large meetings. And the many pathways to and from the waterfall sites could facilitate a quick escape.


Another thing which Anabaptists did to survive was to compromise what they considered to be non-essential matters. We might disagree with them on what is and what is not essential today. But some of the issues that they were flexible on were lying, taking the oath, participating in communion at reformed churches and even, surprisingly, infant baptism. Yes, it is clear that among many of these Mennonites, infant baptism was not a non-negotiable.

Why did Mennonites allow their children to be baptized as infants? It is hard to say. Maybe they saw it as a meaningless ritual that could not harm the child. Maybe they were trying to find a working compromise so that they wouldn’t face the repression of the central authorities? Either way, we see a constant attitude of resigned indifference to child baptism.

One extremely odd practice which Anabaptists often attempted was to have a relative or a friend bring their child to be baptized, so that they wouldn’t have to attend. But there is one problem with this idea. If you didn’t attend your child’s baptism, then it was easy for the state to declare you an Anabaptist. Why else would this child be brought for baptism by another.

Here is a good story as an illustration. The father of Anabaptist, Hans Gerber from Wingei offered his granddaughter to preacher Moschard for baptism in 1691. Gerber Sr was concerned that his grandchild should receive the sacrifice of baptism for the benefit of salvation. The clergyman however was extremely intolerant of the Anabaptists. He wanted nothing to do with this child. Here is what Gerber Sr said: “My son has gotten a child, and I thought I’d declare it to you, so that you can baptize it, if you think it good. If it is not right, may you answer before God for it.” It was a treat of clear and unique force. If you deny the child the sacrifice of baptism, condemning it damnation, you will have to face the divine judgment. A year later, Hans Gerber Jr and his wife were exiled from Trachselwald. Gerber was an Anabaptist alms treasurer. He was sentenced to galley service.

We know of a few dozen cases where Anabaptists were identified and quickly captured once their children were brought to be baptized. I guess you can’t really hide your children from being baptized, but this alternative solution, didn’t seem to work any better.


I thought I would show you a few more pictures of Bern. Einstein’s home. Overview of the city. Here is the Langnau Mennonite church, the oldest continuous Mennonite church which began meeting in 1530. It wasn’t until 1848 that the church was finally able to met openly. Their church building was built in 1888. Here is the church of Bern, which has only been meeting for about 50 years. They met in a Reformed church, which offers them free rent as a means of making reparations.


During the few weeks, the Amish have been briefly brought up in people’s comments. The rise of the Amish is directly related to the persecution of the Bernese Anabaptists. Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish, originated from the area. He was one of the lucky individuals who was able to save his property by dividing it among his children, before fleeing the area. Ammann then fled to the Alsace, a place where Anabaptists were not be persecuted and could practice their faith freely. One where Anabaptists didn’t have to make difficult choices in order to survive. Soon after leaving, Ammann began admonishing the Anabaptists in Berne for their lack of purity in religious observation. The Anabaptists in Berne didn’t appreciate Ammann’s admonitions much. They argued that it was easier for someone who didn’t face persecution to live out their religious convictions. It was this difference that fueled much of the split between the Amish and the Mennonites.


It is easy for us to criticize these Anabaptist survival tactics as dishonest or lacking of fortitude. But to do so would be naïve. They were doing their best to live out their faith while also caring for the welfare of their families and trying to maintain the long-term survival of their religious communities. They trusted that God would understand and ultimately forgive them.


Here is an interesting quote from Mark Furner to sum up the Bernese Mennonites: “Anabaptists in the region of Bern survived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by employing a variety of strategies. These strategies – which ranged from simply evasion to half-truths and awkward questions, compromise on certain practice such as infant baptism, and swearing oaths while holding mental reservations – struck a delicate balance between acceptable means of dissimulation and the renunciation of their heterodox faith… These strategies of survival then appear to indicate a weakening of religious commitment. However, the historical fragments of this early period record only a minority of Anabaptists who were identified and captured by the authorities, but did not recant. An alternative reading is that Anabaptist casuistry fits into a broader strategy of dissimulation characteristic of many forms of religious dissent in Europe during the religious wars of the early modern era.”


Many Mennonites in Bern refused to leave. They would be exiled, and quickly returned again and again, they couldn’t leave behind their friends, their family, their work. They risked their lives, they often jumped off of the ships which were deporting them, they even broke oaths in order to remain in the Bern area and practice their Mennonite faith. Clearly that was extremely important to them. No matter how many compromises and how flexible they had to be in order to maintain a sliver of their faith.


Some Mennonites did leave. And one of the main places which they relocated to was the Palatinate in Germany. After the 30 year war ended, the Palatinate was almost complete desolate and depopulated. The number of people in this area had been wiped out by more than 90% due to disease, murder, or flight. So when the persecution in Switzerland reached its apex in the early 1670’s, this was an area that welcomed them, not with open arms, but was very glad nonetheless. Soon a number of small communities of Mennonites formed all over the Palatinate. For the most part those who arrived became farmers, but we also know that quite a few planted their own vineyards, and made quite a bit of wealth selling wine. In 1778, the State economist wrote, “The most perfect farmers in Germany are the Palatine Mennonites.” A few years later a state official insisted: “They are exemplary, industrious, and intelligent farmers. It would be desirable that every farmer would appropriate their good knowledge of agriculture and stock raising.”


Stephanie and I were able to spend a day touring the German Mennonite communities and areas in the Palatinate. This is the area which Margot grew up in. One of the oldest and biggest Mennonite community is found in Weierhof. After the 30 year war, only one family survived the horrors of the war and the waves of pest. His manor enclosed about 445 acres, but no one treated the property, and it completely decayed.

In 1682, a Swiss Mennonite purchased all 445 acres from this man’s family and they were given the right to practice their religion in private. Quite a few Mennonite families were welcomed into this area and in 1771, their first church was built. Mennonites were allowed to build churches here as long as they didn’t look like church buildings. They could not show churchlike windows nor have a bell tower. By the early 19th century, the community had almost 100 individuals.


A few more interesting things about this church community. Their pastor, Christian Neff, organized the 400th anniversary of the Anabaptists in 1925. He is considered the founder of the Mennonite world conference which he helped realize in 1936.


Today the German Mennonite archives are located in Weierhof.


After this show quite a few pictures of Mennonite communities in the Palatinate. Include Sembach Mennonite church where Margot and Dwight were married and a picture of the farmhouse where Margot lived during WW2.