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Mennonites in Europe

Pages 299-302

The Anabaptists from their beginning spread with surprising rapidity. Sometimes a congregation was founded at a given place within a few hours after the arrival of an Anabaptist preacher. "Anabaptism spread with such speed," says a contemporary writer, "that there was reason to fear that the majority of the common people would unite with this sect." There is abundant evidence that in certain provinces large portions of the population were openly sympathetic toward the Anabaptists. In various sections of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria the evangelical Anabaptist movement easily surpassed in inherent strength the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements in those states whose governments accepted the Reformation of the state church type. In various states the strength of the Anabaptist movement was such that it was found difficult to carry out the bloody decrees against the Anabaptists. We shall directly see that the Reichstag, the House of Parliament of Germany, begin the highest legislative and executive authority of the empire, in 1551 passed a decree ordering the removal from office and punishment of judges who had scruples against sentencing Anabaptists to death. To avoid giving offense to the people in general, Anabaptists were often executed secretly. Clearly in these sections the Anabaptist movement, if tolerated by the authorities, would have completely upset the plans for a state-governed church in which the whole population would hold membership by force of civil law.

In need scarcely be said that Roman Catholicism had always taken an attitude of intolerance and persecution toward all dissenters from its creed. On the contrary, the principal leaders in the Reformation movement, Luther and Zwingli, in the first period of their reformatory labors, condemned Romish intolerance. They were in the earlier period defenders of the principle of liberty of conscience. Later they agreed to a thoroughgoing union of the church with the state, which meant the abandonment of the principle of religious liberty. Furthermore, the natural and inevitable consequence was the persecution of the Anabaptists by the established Protestant state churches.

It is a fact recognized by many recent historians that the persecution of the Anabaptists surpassed in severity the persecution of the early Christians by pagan Rome. Persecution began in Zurich soon after the Brethren had organized a congregation. Imprisonment of varying severity, sometimes in dark dungeons, was followed by executions. Felix Manz was the first martyr to die in Zurich, but at least two Brethren had been martyred earlier in other cantons of Switzerland by Roman Catholic governments. Within a short period the leaders of the Brethren lost their lives in the persecution. Among the early leaders of the evangelical Anabaptists who suffered martyrdom were Eberli Bolt, Johannes Krüsi, George Blaurock, Hans Lüdi, Hans Brötli, Thomas Herman, Eitelhans Langenmantel, Leonhard Schiemer, Hans Schlaffer, Hans Leopold Schneider, Wolfgang Uliman, Wolfgang Brandhuber, Georg Zaunring, Jerome Käls, Leonhard Seiler, Jacob Hutter, Offrus Griesinger.

Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prices were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was a made a crime. In Roman Catholic states even those who recanted were often executed. Generally, however, those who abjured their faith were pardon except in Bavaria and, for a time, in Austria and also in the Netherlands. The duke of Bavaria, in 1527, gave orders that the imprisoned Anabaptists should be burned at the stake, unless they recanted, in which case they should be beheaded. King Ferdinand I of Austria issued a number of severe decrees against them, the first general mandate being dated August 28, 1527. In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake, in Lutheran and Zwinglian states generally by beheading or drowning.

Emperor Charles V of Germany issued a general mandate against the Anabaptists on January 4, 1528, which was read from the pulpits of all cities, towns, and villages, decreeing that not only those who had received baptism but all parents who did not have their children baptized in good time were guilty of a criminal offense deserving death. Within a few years a number of imperial decrees followed. Not only were the Anabaptists to be executed by fire, but their dwellings also should be burned, unless they were located in towns or cities in which case they should be raced to the ground. In certain provinces their houses were not destroyed by confiscated. Speaking of northern Germany Menno Simons relates that in 1546 a small house of four rooms was confiscated because the owner had rented it to Menno and his family. In the Tyrol even the houses ion which an Anabaptist had been given temporary lodging were to be destroyed.

Thousands sealed their faith with their blood. When all efforts to half the movement proved vain, the authorities resorted to desperate measures. Armed executioners and mounted soldiers were sent in companies through the land to hunt down the Anabaptists and kill them on the spot without trial or sentence. The old method of pronouncing sentence on each individual dissenter proved inadequate to exterminate this faith.

In the first week of Lent, 1528, while Hubmaier was in prison at Kreuzenstein, King Ferdinand of Austria commissioned a company of executioners to root out the Anabaptist faith in his lands. Those who were overtaken in the highways of fields were killed with the sword, others were dragged out of their houses and hanged on the door posts. Most of them had gone into hiding in the woods and mountains. In a forest near Lengbach seventeen were put to death.

In the province of Swabia, in South Germany, four hundred mounted soldiers were, in 1528, sent out to put to death all Anabaptists on whom they could lay hands. Somewhat later the number of soldiers so commissioned was increased to eight hundred and then to one thousand. In various provinces an imperial provost marshal by the name of Berthold Aichele, with his assistants, put many Anabaptists to death. On Christmas day, 1531, he drove seventeen men and women into a farmhouse near Aalen in Württemberg and burned the building together with the inmates. Three hundred and fifty Anabaptists were executed in the Palatinate before the year 1530. The Count of Alzey, in that province, after having put many to death, was heard to exclaim: "What shall I do? The more I kill, the greater becomes their number." At Ensisheim, "the slaughterhouse of Alsace," as it was called, six hundred were killed within a few years. Within six weeks thirty-seven were burned, drowned, or beheaded at Linz, in Austria. In the town of Kitzbüchl in the Tyrol, sixty-either were executed in one year. Two hundred and ten or more were burned in the valley of the Inn River. The number of Anabaptist martyrs in the Tyrol and Görz was estimated at one thousand about the end of the year 1531.

It may be recalled here that it was comparatively easy for the catchpolls to ascertain who was and who was not an Anabaptist. They simply put the question to suspected persons. A true Anabaptist would disdain saving his life and burdening his conscience by telling an untruth and denying his faith.

Copyright Rod & Staff Publishers

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