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The Persecution of the Anabaptists

I pushed on the worn, stout, wooden door with oversized iron hardware and ducked as I stepped over the threshold and into the dim, stone-walled cell. A rough bed-like wooden frame, with iron chains, stocks, and shackles, took up most of the room. I tried to grasp what went on here at the Trachselwald Castle in Switzerland and why Anabaptists were imprisoned here. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I had joined the TourMagination Anabaptist History Tour that wound through Southern Germany, Switzerland, and dipped into France.

Martin Luther’s suggestions for church reforms in 1517 set in motion the wheels of religious and social change. Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich, Switzerland agreed with many of Luther’s reforms, including the nature of salvation: that it was a gift; that the role of the Bible was central; that people did not need a priest to access God; and that and icons and relics held no power.  Anabaptists owe a great deal to these reformers and yet Anabaptists were also persecuted by the churches that Luther and Zwingli founded.

Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his views in 1521. He hid in the isolated Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament into German in 11 weeks. His work provided the scriptures in everyday language for anyone who could read and they spread quickly thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press.

In the city of Zürich, Zwingli renounced his position in the Church, but he continued as the leading cleric in the Gross Münster and lead the formation of the Reformed Church thanks to the support from the city council. He began to hold church services in German instead of Latin and people flocked to hear him preach.

With Luther in Northern Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland, they managed the reforms and kept the link between Church and State. They were able to gauge how far the city officials would allow changes to be implemented.  However, some of Zwingli’s students grew frustrated at the mediocre and slow-paced reforms and pushed for more reforms faster. Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and others began hold their own worship services in the country side. On January 21, 1525 the Anabaptist movement was officially founded with Conrad Grebel baptizing George Blauroc. They became known as the radical reformers and continued to preach and baptize.

Manuscript page in Heinrich Bullinger’s “Kopienband zur zürcherischen” depicting the drowning of Felix Manz in 1527.

State officials deemed the radical reformers to be in error and ordered them to submit to the will of the city council. When they refused, city leaders felt threatened and were determined to keep control of the situation. On January 5, 1527 Felix Manz was executed by drowning in the Limmat River for his beliefs.

The Anabaptists scattered and some gathered in the town of Schleitheim on February 24, 1527, where former Benedictine prior, Michael Sattler, took leadership in drawing up what became known as the Schleitheim Confession. The new believers agreed to seven points that built on some of the reforms implemented by Luther and Zwingli. This Anabaptist confession understood that baptism was for adults who repented of their sins and committed to follow Jesus in everyday life; that church membership was voluntary; that violence had no place in the life of a Christian; and that communion was to commemorate the suffering and life of Jesus.

Anabaptist nodes sprung up in the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Moravia. With no official structure there were many leaders with various beliefs. In 1536, the Dutch priest, Menno Simons, left the Catholic Church to give leadership to struggling Anabaptist groups. Simons was adamant that even in the face of persecution, disciples of Jesus were nonviolent. Through Simons’ role and his widely distributed writings, he became one of the best-known Anabaptist leaders. Many Anabaptists began to be known as followers of Menno – or Mennonites. Persecution of Anabaptist-Mennonites was heavy until the mid-1600s. Between 2,000-3,000 Anabaptists were executed and thousands more exiled, imprisoned, or tortured.

I thought of this persecution as I stood in the dimly lit cave in a remote area of Switzerland, where Anabaptists would come secretly for worship, fellowship, and prayer. Four people from the nearby Reformed church welcomed us to the cave and worshiped with us. They invited us to their church for refreshments and explained that joining us in worship and hosting us was a small but important gesture of reconciliation for how the Anabaptists were treated in the past.

The memorial stone set up near Schleitheim to recognize the persecution endured by Anabaptists. Photo: Conrad Stoesz

There were other signs of a willingness to acknowledge this painful history. In 2004, a stone was placed along the Limmat River acknowledging the drowning of Felix Manz and other Anabaptists. In the same year, a memorial stone was placed near Schleitheim, along the newly created Anabaptist trail, in recognition of the inhumane way the Anabaptists had been treated. I was touched and moved by these gestures of reconciliation.

Like some Reformed churches, the Lutheran World Federation has made significant strides towards reconciliation. After it was brought to their attention that the Augsburg Confession explicitly condemned Anabaptists, an interfaith dialogue was established. In 2010, an official apology was made by the Lutheran World Federation to Mennonites for the persecution their ancestors endured. At the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in 2015, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Dr. Martin Junge, said “we cannot commemorate the 500th anniversary without remembering your forgiveness. We cannot commemorate without you. You have given us a gift – the gift of reconciliation.” He went on to say that the Lutherans learned that reconciliation is not the end – it is not the goal. Reconciliation is the beginning of repairing relationships so we can work together. He saw this in action when MWC donated funds to the Lutheran World Fellowship for refugee aid programs.

Conrad Stoesz is the Archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.

Today, Mennonites join in marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and value many of the ideas brought forth. Today, our memories about the persecution have been soothed by time and the reconciliation. Today we can work for God’s glory together.