ANABAPTISTS AND THE FREE CHURCHES
By Ralph V. Harvey
Austria, we often heard people say that the free churches (Baptists and
other protestant groups) were religious imports from America. In
reality, the free church structure and teachings is as old as
Christianity itself. Furthermore, the free church movement in America
has its roots in Europe.
I am aware that many Americans are unfamiliar with the term "free church"
so Please allow me to give a simple explanation.
Many religions seek to gain political power and some of them insist on
absolute political control. Similarly, many governments have found it
convenient to use religion in subjecting citizens. The Roman Emperors were
worshipped as deities. After Constantine, much of Europe was ruled for 600
years by the "Holy Roman Empire." Nearly all Arab nations are officially
Muslim. If other religious groups are permitted to exist at all, then with
very few freedoms. Even governments of nations which have a Christian
majority often show favoritism towards a specific brand of Christianity.
Russia, Greece and Serbia are Orthodox while many European and most Latin
American countries are Roman Catholic. England is Anglican.
The above described situations result in either a state church or a
church state, depending on who has the upper hand. Religious groups which
neither seek nor tolerate such political arrangements are called "free
America has no state church and it certainly is not a church state, but
there are religious groups in America which would prefer the status of a
state church. World dominion is an expressed aim of Islam, but the American
Constitution forbids this. Our nation was largely founded by religious
refugees from Europe who had suffered much for their faith under such
coalitions. They were determined that this nation should never become a
church state and that no religious group should become a state church.
Contrary to popular belief, our Constitution does not insist on the
separation of church and state, but merely forbids the formation of state
intervention in churches.
Early Years of the Christian Church
The forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, baptized
repentant sinners and announced the coming of the Messiah. When he
baptized Jesus, he proclaimed him to be that Messiah whom had been
predicted and advised his own disciples to follow Jesus.
Jesus taught his disciples to preach the gospel -- the good news
of salvation and God's kingdom. This included the call for repentance,
baptism and commitment to God's Word.
The first Christian church came into being in Jerusalem when Peter
preached at Pentecost. He called on all to repent of their sin, to
believe and follow the Lord in baptism. Three thousand were baptized
(Acts 2:41). Luke makes it especially clear that the church grew
rapidly, multiplying and spreading (Acts 1:8, 2:47; 4:4, 6:1 and 7,
9:31; 12:4, 16:5 and 19:20).
Early Christians were soon the object of severe persecution, which
caused them to travel to other lands, primarily to Asia Minor (Turkey).
Everywhere they went, the same gospel was preached and churches were
established. Baptism and the Lord's table were important identifying
aspects of early Christians and they were often persecuted for this as
much as for their teachings.
In the fourth century, Emperor
Constantine brought about a dramatic historical change in recognizing
the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the new freedoms were misused by
some leaders of the church to achieve power and affluence. This was one
reason Constantine decided to move the capitol of the Roman Empire to
It was not Constantine, but his follower, Emperor Theodosius
(279-395) who made the Christian Church the official religion of the
empire. He too misused the popularity of the Christians to unify his
holdings, requiring all subjects to be baptized into the church. Thus
the first "state church" or
"unfree" church was formed. In 386, the same year St. Augustine
converted to Christianity, Maximus Priscillian and six followers were
executed in Trier for false teachings. This is the first recorded
persecution of Christians by Christians. Four years later, Theodosius
proclaimed heresy to be a crime against the empire and the propagation
of heresy became punishable by death. Roman citizenship and church
membership was thus made synonymous. It was only after this time that
we read of occasional infant baptisms.
In the following centuries, there were protests against church
leaders who misused their positions to gain power and affluence, but
even more common were protests against the church's departure from true
biblical teaching. Most of these uprisings were crushed by swift and
harsh military force. In time, protesters tended rather to form
secretive movements which often gained a large following before they
were discovered and destroyed. To these we could relegate the French
splinter groups which chose their own Popes between 1307 and 1417.
There was little general agreement on theological issues within the
church and although church councils were held in an attempt to achieve
some semblance of unity, they failed to resolve many of the
differences. Church teachings and dogmas were more often subject to the
moods and personal objectives of its leaders than to the Holy
Scriptures. All attempts to confront false teaching outside of the
church were quickly suppressed. Church leaders as well as secular
rulers repeatedly used the term "heresy" in defining their enemies, but
saw no need to define the word itself.
Peter of Bruis was an educated Priest who appealed for
the church to return to the New Testament model. Bruis preached openly
against the dogmas of "transubstantiation" (mystical transformation of
wine and bread into the actual blood and flesh of Christ) and the
growing trend of baptizing infants. He also rejected forced celibacy of
the priesthood, giving of alms, prayers for the deceased and worship of
the crucifix and other relics. He even dared to proclaim that men could
secure salvation and eternal life only through personal faith in Christ
and not through the faith of parents or the official act of a priest.
He taught that a person could pray anywhere and not just in the church.
Peter of Bruis found many ready followers in Southern
France, who were baptized according to their faith. Much of what we know
about this man and his teaching comes from the pen of "Peter the Honorable," whose
life proved himself to be anything but honorable! Peter the Honorable was
perhaps the first to use the term "Anabaptist" (Latin for "re-baptizers")
because they insisted on believer's baptism.
Peter of Bruis was burned at the stake in St. Gilles In 1126
under orders from Peter the Honorable. The Petrobrusianer, however, continued to thrive for many years
after his death in spite of brutal persecutions. A widely circulated tract of the later Waldensians,
"de l'antechrist" (the Antichrist), seems to have at least in part been the work of Peter of Bruis.
Catherer or Albigenser
The Catherers (clean ones) or Albigenser (the term reflects their
origin in Albania) appeared around the beginning of the 11th century in
the Balkans, and the movement soon spread into Italy, France, Spain and
Germany. They were especially strong in Southern France where the
Petrobrusianer had flourished. Their teachers, called "Perfect Ones",
taught of two opposing kingdoms of Satan and God. Only in those places
where they were very numerous did they have meeting houses. For the
most part, meetings took place in private homes with very simple
services and no imagery. Only a New Testament or Gospel (hand written
of course!) was allowed in the room. The Catherer viewed the Roman
Church as a traitor of the Christian faith because it had returned to
Old Testament rituals, tolerated immoral practices in monasteries, and
church leaders sought worldly power and wealth. Although we would
consider some of their teachings to be unscriptural today, the main
reason for their persecution was their rejection of the papacy and
insistence upon the priority of New Testament teachings.
During a period in which the Roman Catholic Church increasingly
neglected biblical obligations and violated scriptural teachings,
seeking instead worldly powers and material wealth, another Christian
movement began. A wealthy businessman by the name of Peter Waldo, from
Lyon, France has a special spiritual "conversion" experience around
1170 after the sudden death of a close friend. He took upon himself an
oath of poverty and devoted himself to the study of scriptures. He soon
began to teach others what he had learned from God's Word and even
sought and obtained the Pope's blessing on his endeavor. Many people
began to follow his teachings, which were not always in line with
church dogmas. In 1179, a papal decree forbade Waldo and his followers
to preach or teach, but the movement continued to grow. Threats of the
church were disregarded and soon there was bitter persecution. In spite
of this, the Waldensians continued to claim allegiance to the Roman
Church. They felt that church leaders would ultimately recognize New
Testament teachings which differed from current church dogmas.
Waldensian preachers were required to memorize large portions of
the New Testament. One historian wrote of them, "A genuine Waldensian
does not believe that it is sufficient to own scripture. The scripture
should own him." By "ownership", the writer was not referring to
printed Bibles, for these did not yet exist. Nor could he have meant
handwritten copies, for these were very rare and expensive. Waldensians
committed the Bible to memory and this was considered ownership.
The enthusiasm of the Waldensians for God's Word and their
insistence on obedience to the scriptures posed too great a threat to
the church. Brutal persecution and mass executions soon became common.
Because the Waldensians taught in the language of the people rather
than Latin, as was the practice in churches, they found many followers.
Waldensian assemblies grew rapidly in spite of intense persecution.
During the height of the Waldensian era, in the 14th century, the
Bishop of Passau appointed spies to search out his Diocese. They
reported 42 assemblies with as many as 500 members in what is now Upper
Austria. In order to give a comparison, the total membership of all
evangelical churches in Upper Austria today is less than 500 persons.
Official reports of Waldensians in Turin und Embruen gave 50,000 as a
modest count. One historian reported that in 1313, 12 % of the
population of Upper- and Lower Austria were Waldensians. The Waldensian
Bishop, Stephen of Basel, was tortured and burned at the stake in
Vienna in 1471. According to a written report to the Austrian Emporer,
Stephen of Basel had revealed under torture, that there were around
80,000 Waldensians in Austria and that they could not begin to be
numbered in Bohemia and Moravia!
Around 1400, a Professor of Theology in the University of Prague
became infatuated with the writings of the English theologian, John
Wycliffe. The professor, John Huss, soon began to preach what he was
learning publicly, and his teachings became so popular that the church
was always filled to capacity. Huss was excommunicated by the Pope, but
when this brought no change, Huss was burned in 1415. His teachings
continued to spread throughout Bohemia and Moravia as more and more
priests became consumed by the teachings of scriptures. Before long,
the Hussites had large followings in Austria as well.
The Peasant Wars or Thirty Years War
Peasants lived under deplorable circumstances in the middle ages.
They had virtually no possessions, could not own property and had few
rights. They were considered the personal property of the nobility,
which in many cases meant church leaders. Most land was owned and
controlled by the monasteries, which in turn were under the
jurisdiction of a Bishop. The taxes and work requirements of the
monasteries were often impossible for the peasants to bear. Many
peasants lived close to starvation while church leaders wined and dined
in their castles and palaces. Worse yet, these "men of the cloth" lived
in open immorality.
The coalition of church and state functioned quite well for their
nobility, but conditions were unbearable for the bulk of the populace.
The church used its religious influence to keep people subject to the
Emperor and the Emperor sent military force where needed to suppress
any resistance. An uprising against such powers was inevitable and it
would only take a spark to set the entire Hapsburg kingdom ablaze. The
only missing ingredients were an opportune moment and bold leadership.
The "Bundschuh" was an important symbol among the peasants. The word literally means "Shoe of Brotherhood"
and the idea probably came from Psalm 108:8-14. It was a symbol of unity which
promised sympathy, comfort, help and solidarity.
Although the symbol had been in existence for quite some time, it
was first used in peasant uprisings in the middle of the 15th century.
Peasants "tossed the first Bundschuh" in 1443-1444 in Strassburg, along
the Upper Rhine River. This first "peasant war" proved to be beneficial
to the Lords, for the peasants succeeded in routing a French invasion
of their territory. The nobility had been unsuccessful in their attempt
to do the same with well-trained soldiers, but the peasants proved to
be formidable fighters.
the peasants recognized their united strength, they gained confidence
and began to make small demands of the Lords. At first, some Lords
showed leniency, but after several successful uprisings, the nobility
began to fear the symbolic "Bundschuh" and determined to suppress the
peasants whatever the cost.
On April 22nd, 1502, a peasant named Joss Fritz led a bundschuh
revolt against the Bishop of Speyer in
Bruchsal. The expressed object of the peasants was "to support Godly
righteousness" and their banners were emblazoned with the words,
"Nothing but God's Righteousness!" Fritz organized another bundschuh in
1513 in Lehen (Breisgau) and again 1517 in Rosheim/ Elsass. In 1511,
peasants revolted in Kammer, Kogel and
Frankenburg, Upper Austria (the area where we served as missionaries).
More uprisings took place in 1514-1517 in Croatia, Slowenia, Carinthia
and Styria. Governor Siegmund of Dietrichstein finally defeated the
peasants of Styria in a bloody battle. Dietrichstein became a Lutheran
in 1525, but his conversion may have been politically motivated rather
than an act of religious conviction.
During the struggle for supremacy between Catholics and Lutherans,
the peasants were sometimes encouraged by their Lords to "toss the
bundschuh." Many Catholic nobles became Lutherans because they
recognized the opportunity to break the yoke of their own demanding
Bishops and the Hapsburgers. Herzog Ulrich, nicknamed "Utz Bur," used
the peasants in 1522 to regain dominance over Württemberg. Although
some Lords seemed to show genuine sympathy for the peasants,
others made a display of sympathy only to turn on them when it served
their own selfish purposes.
Renewed peasant uprisings broke out in 1525. Beginning in Bavaria,
they spread to Natternbach and to
Attergau. Another rebellion broke out from May through July, 1525 in
Brixen under Michael
Geismair. Soon all of Tyrol was a battlefield and uprisings began to
break out in Salzburg, Upper Austria and Styria. After intense
fighting, Emperor Ferdinand was able to defeat the peasants under
Gaismair on November 21, 1526. Following this victory, the Emperor
devoted the next 40 years to fighting "heretics" (protestants,
especially Anabaptists) in his territories.
soon become clear to his majesty, the Emperor, that no military might
was sufficient to suppress the peasants and rebellious lords as long as
these were being taught "to obey God rather than man." This is
documented by a list of demands made by the peasants in Frankenmarkt in
1525. The demands were of a religious nature and can be better
understood as a protest against the false teachings of the Roman
Church. They included no personal appeals for leniency of labor
or taxation. The "Gastein and Frankenmarkt Articles from 1525" were
directed towards the church and not the political powers in Vienna.
Power of the Printed Word
When Luther's German New Testament (1522) and other protestant
papers and books appeared in print, the Waldensian Christians welcomed
them with open arms. After all, these were not new to them, but beloved
and holy words of God which they had committed to memory. It is quite
possible that Luther was greatly aided in his translation work by the
existence of handwritten German copies used by the Waldensians. Austria
was soon flooded with literature. The first protestant books to be
printed in Austria were produced in 1524 by Leonhard Friesleben, of
Linz. He was most likely Waldensian or at least very sympathetic to
their teachings. Friesleben is later named among the Anabaptists.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper
Throughout church history, the subject of baptism and the Lord's
supper have been matters of heated controversy. When Jesus was tested
by the Pharisees, he countered by asking them about the baptism of John
(Matt. 21:25). Ecumenical meetings of leaders of the main Christian
bodies can agree on many things, but they seldom recognize baptisms of
the other churches and are not able to sit together at the Lord's table.
The greatest diversity among evangelicals today is the mode of
baptism. During the first millennium of church history this was hardly
an issue. Those who repented and believed on Christ were baptized by
immersion. It was not until men began debating on whether baptism is
necessary for salvation, that other forms of baptism came into
consideration. There are a few incidents of infant baptisms in the
early centuries, but immersion was clearly the preferred method if not
the only official method of baptizing for more than a thousand years.
The 816 Concilium Celichyt vorbade priests to baptize infants (effusio aquae super capita
and the Council of Nemours (1284) allowed the baptism of infants only
in emergencies. Thomas of Aquino (1227-1274) still contended that immersio was the proper and best method of baptizing. As a
rule, baptism of adults by immersion was considered to be part of the
convert's public profession of faith into the early 14th century. It
was not until the Council of Ravenna in 1311, that the officiating
priest was permitted to decide between immersion and pouring. The
practice of sprinkling came into fashion in the latter part of the 14th
century when an increased number of infants were being baptized.
There is a large adult-sized baptistry in a church dedicated to the
Virgin Mary, located in Ephesus. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who died
in 997, was known for his large 8-sided baptisteries, some of which
exist today. The reason for the 8-sided baptistery is fascinating, but
there is not enough room in this paper to go into that. We have seen
adult baptisteries in Greece, Turkey and Austria.
Followers of Peter Bruis, the Albigensians, Waldensians and
Apostolicis (1155) were openly critical of baptizing infants.
Waldensians and Anabaptists condemned the practice of infant baptism,
but there is no record of them baptizing by immersion. Conrad Grebel
and Felix Mainz separated from Zwingli over the matter of infant
baptism and started a church that practiced believer's baptism. They
then baptized each other by pouring, an event that historians consider
the birth of the Anabaptist movement. Baptism by immersion eventually
came back into use, but early Anabaptists did not use this method.
From Waldensians to Anabaptists
In my opinion, the Waldensians and Anabaptists
should not be considered as two distinctly different groups, but rather two
overlapping epochs of a strong pre-reformation Christian movement that thrived for
several centuries in Europe.
many denominational names and even the term "Christian" (Acts 11:26),
the terms "Waldensian" and "Anabaptist" were coined by persecutors and
not the persecuted. We could say the same about the sub-divisions
of Anabaptism such as the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites. Although
named after their founders, early followers of these reformers
preferred to call themselves simply "brethren." The intention of the
church was to defame and discredit by accusing these groups of being
followers of mere men rather than the Pope, who was acclaimed as the
legal representative of Christ on earth. The terminology was designed
to strike fear into the hearts of any who might consider straying from
the fold of the church. In reality, Waldensians and Anabaptists were
more deserving of the name "Christian" than those who sought to destroy
There are reports of Waldensians being the object of
persecutions throughout the Lutheran reformation and counter reformation,
but persecutions of Anabaptists became much more common. The reason seems
quite obvious. The church and government persecutors began to use different terminology.
alternating periods of persecution and limited freedom, the Waldensians
gradually became known for their industriousness, good character and
willingness to suffer for the truth. They not only captured the hearts
of peasants, but also of many respected citizens and even members of
the nobility. Reports found in city archives show that local political
and church leaders were sometimes reluctant to arrest or harm them. The
term "Waldensian" no longer carried the negative impact which it had in
the past, so the Hapsburgers and Church leaders needed to find another
term to describe them which carried a stigma. The Latin term
"Anabaptist" (re-baptizer) proved to be a convenient replacement. This
change in terminology can also explain why there were suddenly as many
Anabaptists reported in Upper Austria as there had been Waldensians a
short time before.
Waldensians paved the way theologically for Hussites, Lutherans and especially the Anabaptists. Early Waldensians
and many Anabaptists were pacifists, but Hussites and Lutherans were not quite so willing to die for their
faith without putting up a fight. With the increasing popularity of the bundschuh, many
began to change their thinking. A pseudo epigraph, Reformatio Sigismundi,
originated in 1438 and is attributed to the Waldensians. It contains
much pious content, but also includes demands for religious and
political reform. It was later copied and memorized by Anabaptists.
Another author who obviously knew the scriptures well, composed the Oberrheinische Revolutionär (Upper Rhine Revolutionary), a
prophetical utterance that gave peasants hope for better days in which
all men would be equal. It was only copied by hand, but became
widespread among the lower classes.
During the Lutheran reformation, Waldensians were inwardly torn
apart over issues such as baptism and bearing of arms. Many Waldensians
continued to claim Catholicism as their religion in spite of the
persecutions they experienced. When the Lutheran teachings and Bible
arrived on the scene, many saw this as God's answer to their pleas for
relief from sufferings. The Lutherans had become so popular among the
nobility by 1530, that it was considered less dangerous to join them
than to remain Waldensians.
In September, 1532, Waldensian leaders called a synod of key
representatives in Chanforans, in the d'Angrogne Valley. The object of
this convention was to discuss the possibility of a merger with the
Lutherans. According to an eyewitness report, there were Waldensian
pastors "who caused assemblies of the valleys and Bohemian brethren to
become uncertain." It was not until the following year that the
Waldensian Assemblies voted in a second synod to join with the
Lutherans. The second synod took place in St. Martins and little is
known about it. It is quite likely, however, that many assemblies
stayed away or were not invited. Whatever the case may have been, some
of the Waldensians did not join due to disagreements over baptism, the
Lord's supper and over the bearing of arms. The sudden increase in
numbers of those identified with the Anabaptists in areas where
Waldensians had been prominent indicates that the Waldensians which did
not join were no longer to be tolerated. Lutherans soon began to treat
Anabaptists as heretics and even joined with Catholics in such
persecution. This was anathema to those Waldensians who had joined with
the Lutherans and apparently more former Waldensians left the Lutheran
fold. They, once again, felt the brunt of intense persecution, but this
time as Anabaptists. Many years after the merger, former Waldensians
were still referred to by their old name. Lutheran sources report of
great financial sacrifices made by Waldensians in supporting the
translation and printing of the Lutheran Bible. In 1545, twenty
Waldensian villages in France were totally destroyed and citizens were
slaughtered by the thousands. Around 4,000 who escaped, found refuge in
higher Alpine regions. In 1560, Waldensians requested permission of the
Emperor to retain the faith of their fathers. His response was another
Those Waldensians who rejected the dogma of transubstantiation and infant
baptism were called Anabaptists and persecuted accordingly. During the next
160 years, both Catholics and Lutherans alike attempted to wipe out the
Anabaptists, but to no avail.
Although the Anabaptists were divided into two factions over the matter
of bearing arms in self defense (see next section), both sides of the divide continued to grow in number.
"Baptizers" and Free Churches
The Anabaptists never accepted this terminology, arguing that their
baptism was the only true baptism. They preferred to be called
brethren, but the term "baptizers" was also acceptable. They are the
true forerunners of the free church movement as opposed to state
churches. A free church does not seek official recognition from the
state beyond the freedom to worship God as outlined in scripture. The
absolute separation of church and state is very important in some free
churches, and members refuse to vote or hold government positions.
Other groups allow or even encourage the political involvement of
individual members, but reject any intrusion of the state in church
affairs. Members of virtually all free churches are encouraged to seek
and nourish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They are
expected to express their personal faith publicly both in baptism and
in their relationships with others. They seek to model themselves after
New Testament teachings.
Several free church groups evolved during the early reformation years, first in Switzerland (1525) and then,
almost simultaneously, in other parts of Europe. Although these churches
were loosely organized, they showed a strong loyalty for the teachings of
their founders and were soon called by their names. The Mennonites were
named after the Dutch reformer, Menno Simons. The Amish were named for a
Swiss reformer, Jacob Amman, and the followers of the Tirolean Jacob Hutter,
became known as Hutterites. Hutter encouraged the formation of work
colonies, some of which still thrive in USA and Canada.
One extreme Sect in Munster called itself "Kingdom of Zion." It was
founded in 1534 and led by a radical named Thomas Muenzer. More
political than religious in nature, the "kingdom of Zion" was ruled by
Muenzer as a virtual dictatorship. Other Anabaptists rejected Münzer's
teachings, claiming them to be contrary to scripture. Neither he nor
his followers were rebaptized, yet Catholic and Lutheran church
historians still attempt to present him as a typical example of
Anabaptism. Münzer was executed near Frankenhausen in 1535 and the
Kingdom was disbanded by government troops.
Anabaptists, like their predecessors, the Waldensians, were pacifist.
They would rather have died the martyr's death than to take up arms in
self defense. One branch of the Anabaptists, however, deemed it a
legitimate recourse to defend one's family and under some circumstances
their country. The conflict between these two factions was at times
intense, but never violent. The terms "Schwertler and "Stäbler"
(sword-bearers and staff-bearers) are used in German to this day to
describe the two sides of this issue.
Dr. Balthesar Hubmeier was probably the best-known Anabaptist proponent of self defence.
A well educated and gifted teacher, Hubmeier served as a pastor in Waldshut. His motto, "The Truth cannot Die,"
was printed on the title page of all his many books and pamphlets. Many of the
peasants who were involved in the above mentioned "bundschuh" uprisings between 1525 and 1626,
were likely influenced by Hubmeier.
Among the "Stäblern" (reference to the shepherd's staff) were the
followers of Hans Hut, Menno Simons (Mennonites), Jakob Huter
(Hutterites) and Jakob Ammen (Amish). A number of Brethren groups
active in Bohemia and Moravia also remained pacifist in spite of
Hussite influences. Although most modern-day Baptists, Methodists and
other free church groups are not opposed to military service, the
Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and some Brethren groups still refuse to
The Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther, began in 1517, to point out
erroneous teachings and practices in the Roman church, showing how
these were not conform to clear biblical teaching. Actually, most
people were well aware of what Luther was saying, but no Priest of
repute had dared to say such things publicly. As a result of Luther's
boldness, other priests began to study the scriptures for themselves.
The invention of the printing press in 1440 made this task simpler for
many who could read Latin, but it was Luther's translation of the New
Testament into German in 1522, that gave the reformation impetus.
Although the majority of the common people could not read, Priests
began to read and teach in the language of the people. Until the
reformation, Altarpieces and statues in the churches were the only
portrayals of scripture known to common man.
As exemplified in Luther's battle cry, sola scriptura (the scriptures
alone), the new Lutheran teachings were basically a call to return to the
teachings of Christ and the Apostles. But as people read the Bible, they also
learned that personal faith in Jesus Christ alone brought salvation. Neither
parents, nor priests, Bishop, Pope or Emperor had the God-given right to determine a person's
Soon more and more Catholic priests and monks gained sympathy for the Lutheran teachings.
Protestant literature found entrance into churches, monasteries and convents all over Austria.
Visitations carried out by papal emissaries, discovered an "alarming quantity" of protestant literature in
Luther delegated Michael Stiefel as "Castle Preacher" to Tollet
Castle near Grieskirchen in 1524. Priests who embraced the Lutheran
teaching began to multiply in Upper Austria, where Waldensians and
Anabaptists had thrived. An increasing number of lords, who were not
happy with treatment by the Hapsburgers and demands of powerful
bishops, discovered that the new teachings were not only superior to
Catholic dogma, but also provided opportunity to gain freedom from
The University of Vienna had 661 students in 1519. On July 14th,
1526, the faculty declared that it was no longer able to keep
protestant teachings out of the school. Emperor Ferdinand demanded a
pledge of allegiance to the Catholic faith from each professor and
student. As a result there were only 30 students left by 1529. By 1570,
Catholics were a small minority in most cities of Upper Austria. In the
important industrial city of Steyr, only 16 families claimed to be
Catholic, and it was said of Vöcklabruck, that not a single house
remained Catholic! Protestant church services were being conducted in
217 castles or fortresses and in nearly all the churches. Historians
recorded 86 cities and 600 dioceses which had converted to the Lutheran
Persecution of Christians by Christians
Between 1528 and 1571, tens of thousands of Anabaptists were
arrested, tortured and burned or drowned for their faith. Yet during
this period, the Lutherans multiplied and became entrenched as a strong
political force. There are several reasons for this development:
The Anabaptist movement was mainly a movement
among the peasants. Lutherans found willing converts in many of the
Lords and among the educated Catholic clergy.
Anabaptists placed little value on organization and government. They felt,
even as Luther preached, that the scriptures alone were sufficient. Lutheran
teachings, however, included a rigid organization from the top down, much like
that which the people were familiar with.
Lutherans and Catholics took part in the persecution of Anabaptists,
whose popularity among the peasants posed a threat to the ruling nobles.
Anabaptists were as a rule poorly educated and had little means to print or purchase literature. Lutheran literature
of Lutheran teaching was similar to teachings of the Anbaptists and
certainly preferable to Catholic dogma. For this reason, many
Anabaptists thought it wise to choose peace rather than to risk
persecution or death.
Anabaptists taught that Christ alone was Lord and that the
believers needed no earthly leader. The Bible was sufficient rule of
faith. In the beginning, Luther also taught this, but he soon
recognized the benefits of a well-organized church government. He
argued that this was necessary to protect the church from false
teachings, but it was also beneficial in consolidating his followers
into strong armies that would fight those who perpetrated "heresy"-
primarily, the Anabaptists!
The first known execution of protestants in Austria took place in
1524 in Vienna when Casper Tauber was beheaded by the decree of the
Emperor. Tauber was influenced by both Lutheran and Waldensian
teachings and decided that the Bible was sufficient for true faith.
Other persecutions and martyrdoms followed in rapid succession. Hans
Hut was burned at the stake in Augsburg (1529) and Hubmeier in Vienna
(1528). Hubmeier's wife, Elsbeth, was drowned in the Danube three days
later. At first, such atrocities were carried out by the Hapsburgers
and officials of the Roman Church.
Luther wrote a
discouse in 1528, in which he encouraged the persecution of
Anabaptists. Melanchthon wrote a letter to Myconius in 1530, declaring
that all Anabaptist teachers should be executed for heresy. Emporer
Ferdinand recognized the Anabaptists as a greater threat than the
Lutherans. For this reason, he gave certain freedoms to the Lutherans
in return for their help in fighting the Anabaptists. Between 1522 and
1595, an estimated 20,000 - 30,000 Anabaptists died for their faith,
but martyrs among Austrian Lutherans can be counted on one hand.
A second reason why Ferdinand gave the Lutherans more freedom was
the frequent Turkish invasions. The war against the Turks cost a lot of
money and the Lutheran Lords had money. Ferdinand made a contract with
the Lutherans in 1529, in which they agreed to help in the Turkish
wars. A second part of the agreement was a cooperative effort to rid
Austria of Anabaptists. One reason Anabaptists were held in contempt
was because they refused to bear arms.
temporary peace with the Turks was achieved in 1562, and the Habsburger
forces and armies true to Luther prepared to wage war against the
Anabaptists. One might think that the unarmed Anabaptists wouldn't have
a chance against such formidable odds, but God came to their aid in the
form of two successive natural catastrophes. First, there was a
great drought and then the plague, which eventually took the lives of a
third of all Austrians. More than 40,000 died of the plague in Vienna
Following the death Ferdinand in 1564, Maximilian I came to power.
Maximilian was determined to do battle with the Lutherans which were
growing rapidly and threatening to take full control of his
territories. In the fourth year of his reign, he too made a contract
with the Lutherans, signing the
Assurection on January 4th, 1571. This time, the agreement was
extremely expensive for the Lutherans, costing the Upper Austrian
Lutherans alone over a million Gilder and another 200,000 Gilder in ten
yearly payments. The agreement included continued help in eradicating
For many years, the Emperors were convinced of the existence of a
powerful leader among the Anabaptists. They believed that if they could
find and eliminate that person, the sect would soon disband and fade
into oblivion. The growth and stubborn resistance of the Anabaptists
seemed greater than that of the Catholics and Lutherans combined, who
had well-structured hierarchies and powerful leaders. The Emperor
repeatedly called on his subordinates to extract information about the
supposed leader from imprisoned Anabaptists, using any torture methods
at their disposal. He also demanded that they discover their secret
greetings and symbols; how they recognized each other. Following is an
excerpt from the letter of the Governor of Upper Austria written to the
Emperor Ferdinand on March 4, 1528. (discovered by Professor Dr. Dr.
Grete Meccenceffy in old city archives).
Danmals e. kö. Mt. in irem schreiben anzeucht, als sollten wir
uns bisher nit erkundigt haben, was der widertauffer grueß, zaichen und
pundnuß sei, darauf zaigen wir e. ko. Mt. underthaniklich an, das wir
in solher erkundigung auch kainen fleiß gespart haben, dann wir haben
an allen ortten, da die gefangen tauffer gefragt sein worden,
verordnet, sie und ain jeden in sonderhait auf die fragstückh hie
fragen. Darauf dann ettlich bekhanndt, was ir grueß sei, aber von irem
zaichen an häusern oder von irem pundt haben wir noch bishero auf die
fragstuckh nichts entlichs vernemen mugen. Die, so bishero
befragt, sagen, sie wissen von kainem sondern pundtnuß oder haimlichen
verstand, dergleidien wissen sie von kaiem zaichen, so sie haben
sollen, anderst zu sagen, dann wann sie taufft worden, so taugkh man
die finger in ein wasser und streich inen mit demselben wasser ain
creiz an das gestürn, das sei ain zaichen ires tauffs und ires glaubens
und pundnuß gegen Gott.
In brief, the letter says that although the authorities had tried
every conceivable method of torture, they were not successful in
obtaining information requested by the Emperor. The Anabaptists
insisted that their only identifying sign was baptism, administered by
dipping the finger in water and making a cross on the forehead of the
person receiving this rite.
On April 18th, 1528, another letter to Emperor Ferdinand contained the following:
Ferdinand usf. Ersam, weiß, besonder lieb, getrew! Uns sein
jetzo der widertauffer und irer anhenger
practickn, zaichen und ires furnemens halben khundtschafft zuekhomen,
die zu hörn gantz beschwerlich
sein. Nemlichen anfangs, welhermassen die widertauffer aneinander
erkennen, das sy nachvolgende
zaichen, grueß, wort und gebärd brauchen: So ainer fur den andern geet,
greifft der an sein huet oder paret und sprech: Got grueß dich, brueder
im herrn! So im dann der ander dermassen mit disen worten danckh sagte:
Got danckh dir, brueder im herrn! sey derselbig ir mitbrueder ainer;
und das der widertauffer und getaufften mainung und vorhaben sey, das
kain obrigkait oder herrschafft, dann allain Got, sollte gehabt noch
geduldt werden und alle gueter gemain sein undter inen.
In the above letter, it is said that when two Anabaptists meet, one tips his hat and says, "God greet you,
brother in the Lord!" The other returns, "God bless you, brother in the lord!" The Anabaptists contend
that they have no other leader or master other than God and neither would they accept another.
Furthermore, they share their goods equally among each other.
Over and over, Anabaptists insisted under the worst imaginable torture,
that they had no leader other than Jesus Christ.
Incidentally, the Anabaptist form of greeting became so
popular, that soon everyone was using it! Even after the counter reformation, when Austria
had again become
Roman Catholic, people greeted each other in a similar fashion. The most common greeting in Austria
today is "Gruss Gott!", a shortened form of the Anabaptist greeting.
Even after Lutheran teachings infiltrated most monasteries, moral
conditions in these religious institutions did not improve. A
visitation of thirteen Upper Austrian monasteries conducted by
subordinates of the Emperor in 1561, discovered 74 monks, 12 wives, 37
concubines and 107 children! Another visitation in 1566 showed that the
situation had gotten even worse! When one remembers that these
institutions were considered to be the spiritual centers of the church,
it is easy to imagine the impression this made on the general populace.
The monasteries were also economic centers which owned just about all
property in the region. The ground was farmed by the lowly peasant
class, which received barely enough to keep food on the table.
John Calvin was a strong influence during the reformation, especially in France. His followers in
that region were called Huguenots by the Catholics (after another Swiss preacher) and were severely
persecuted. Their numbers increased considerably under King Heinrich II (1547-1559) but things
changed drastically when Charles IX ascended the throne. Catherine de Medici and the Duke of Guise
orchestrated one of the bloodiest chapters of the reformation on August 24, 1572. Thousands
of Huguenots died in the infamous "Bartholomew Night Massacre" in Paris.
The Edict of Nantes of 1598, gave the Huguenots freedom to worship, but Louis XIV recalled this edict
in 1685 and continued the persecutions. Most Huguenots eventually migrated to other European countries
and to North America.
oldest and largest business in Voecklabruck, near where we lived and
worked, was founded by a family of Huguenots named Braun. I shared the
gospel with the present day owner and a fellow believer later led him
When one Lord after another converted to the Lutheran teachings, peasants
began to hope that this would bring relief from the intense poverty and
injustices they were experiencing. Their hopes were soon dampened, however, and
it became clear that allegiance to Luther did not always bring a change in
attitude towards subjects. This situation created a fertile soil for the
teachings of traveling Anabaptist preachers. The peasants were not only
open for the new teachings. They were also desperately interested in
improving their economic conditions and in the education of their children.
Because such changes were not likely be forthcoming without a show of force,
some peasants began to wonder if another "bundschuh" might be an effective way
of breaking the yoke of poverty which kept them
dependant on their ruthless masters. For this reason, Anabaptist groups which were not opposed to bearing arms grew more
rapidly than their pacifist counterparts. Both Catholics and Lutherans
sought to destroy the Anabaptists, so many "staebler" went
underground, but the "schwertler" showed boldness and attracted a large
first major protest of peasants near Steyr was put down in 1573 at the
cost of many lives. This defeat led to relative calm for almost 20
years, but the situation of the peasants worsened and another uprising
seemed immanent. On November 13th, 1594, renewed skirmishes between
peasants and the nobles broke out in the Hausruck region of Upper
Austria. Battles took place in Zweispalten and Natternbach, soon
spreading westward to Attergau. For the next two years, the peasants
continued successfully to win over one town after another.
The peasants at first fought with crude weaponry fabricated from farm implements, but
after capturing weapons
from defeated armies, they became a formidable force. Their determination and
the fact that there were many sympathizers in the region, posed
an even greater threat to the Emperor. Knowing that the peasants followed Anabaptist teachings,
and that the Anabaptists
were popular in many other provinces of Austria, Emperor Rudolf II rightfully
feared that the conflict could escalate throughout his entire kingdom. On May 8, 1597, the Emperor decreed
that the peasants were to cease support of the Anabaptist heretics. His order
fell on deaf ears.
The mostly Lutheran rulers in the Attergau and Hausruck regions were also determined to defeat the peasants
by whatever means necessary. On June 29, 1597, the Lutheran General, Gotthard of Starhemberg, began a systematic
campaign to annihilate the resistant peasants. He erected no less than 27 gallows
in Upper Austria on which around 600 peasant leaders were executed in the ensuing weeks.
Rudolf seized the opportunity to use the animosity between Lutherans and Anabaptists to his own
advantage. He sent troops to support the Catholic Governor of Upper Austria in
their fight against the
peasants. On July 16, 1597, Governor Loeibl began the attack. Now outnumbered
and completely overwhelmed by the concentrated attacks of two armies, the
peasants suffered great losses and were forced into retreat. In just one month,
an estimated 30,000 peasants died in the bloody battles, and by mid August, there was little fight left among the peasants.
Lutheran troops were
given little time to celebrate this victory, however. Emperor Rudolf II sent out a declaration
on August 25, 1597, that all non Catholic religions were now forbidden and demanded that the
Lutherans return all church property to the Catholics. Thus began what is called the Counter
Reformation, which lasted well into the second half of the 17th century.
Another decree of the Emperor followed on October 6th, in which Lutherans and Anabaptists were
commanded to either return to the Catholic Church or leave the country. By this time Lutherans
controlled much of Upper Austria and a majority of Austrians in many other parts of the country
claimed to be Lutheran. They felt no need to follow the dictates of a Catholic Emperor in Vienna.
Repeated threats were largely ignored. After 1604 some Lutherans began to sell their properties (if they
had any) and migrate to friendlier territories in Northern Europe. The pressure was
especially felt in important industrial centers such as Steyr. A number of prominent families
chose to sell their properties and leave rather than risk losing everything they owned by staying.
By 1608, iron production in Steyr was down 75% and eleven hammer mills had been closed due to
When Rudolf II again appealed to the Lutheran Lords for their help in suppressing Anabaptist
teachings on April 19, 1610, the Lutherans interpreted this as an assurance of their invincibility.
Turn of Events
On May 23, 1618, protestants threw two Catholic regents out a castle window in Prague.
This act made the Catholic Emperor furious and he determined to begin in earnest, to
lost to the Lutherans and to drive them out of his lands. The Hapsburgers began a bitter two-year battle
against the Lutherans in 1620. At first, the protestants kept the upper hand, but on November 8, 1620,
the Catholic General Tilly defeated them soundly at the battle of White Mountain near Prague. The
Lutheran General, Gottfried of Starhemberg was taken prisoner and brought to
Linz, where he died in
1624. The remaining protestant leaders were executed publicly on the Old City Ring of Prague. This
marks the beginning of the Thirty Years War which culminated in the total recatholization of the
The Anabaptist peasants of Upper Austria were not as easy to defeat as the Lutherans. In early May,
1625, a group of peasants in Frankenburg shut the Catholic priest out of their church, insisting on
keeping their own preacher. On the 15th of May, soldiers were sent by the provincial Governor,
Herberstorf, who ordered the peasants to congregate at a given time in an open field near Voecklamarkt
(about three miles from where we lived for ten years). Any who did not appear would be put to death.
Leaders of the peasants were told to cast dice two by two, and the one throwing the higher number was
executed. In all, 36 persons were executed by hanging and the bodies of several were hung from church
steeples of surrounding villages as a warning. Every two years, citizens of Frankenburg re-enact a
three-hour portrayal of that historic incident in Europe's largest open air theatre.
There were further uprisings of peasants between the 17th of May and 18th of November, 1626 under the
leadership of a capable peasant leader, Stefan Fadinger. Ten thousands of government troops and between 30,000
and 40,000 peasants died in these wars. Fadinger and other leaders were captured and publicly executed
in Linz during March und April, 1627.
While digging for construction of a hydro-electric dam in 1996, workers in
Lambach, Upper Austria came
upon a mass grave containing victims of those wars. A Roman Catholic Bishop and Lutheran Superintendent
took part in a special re-burial service, but they were probably not even aware of the fact, that the
dead were probably neither Catholic nor Lutheran, but Anabaptists.
Following these incidents, the exodus of protestants began to increase sharply. Around 15,000 Hutterites
fled Bohemia and Moravia to Romania. Later they emigrated to Russia and finally
to North America, where they
live to this day. Thousands of Europeans began to leave their homelands for "the new Promised Land" across
the ocean. There were Quakers (Shakers") and Puritans from England, Mennonites (named after Menno Simons),
Amish (named after Jacob Amen), Brethren (a name that many groups used) and other groups from Holland,
Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other lands. Many of these settled in what was
called "Penn's Colony" or "Penn's Experiment".
Lutherans also left Austria by the thousands, but most of them settled in Northern Germany
friendly parts of Europe. Some remained in Austria and went into hiding while others outwardly recanted
and professed to be Catholic, yet continued to meet secretly with fellow Lutherans. The
(those evicted from their homeland) were forced to sell their possessions for worthless money and leave, not
knowing where their travels would take them. There were further persecutions and evictions of
non-Catholics during the 17th century. In 1655, 8.000 Waldensians were slaughtered by soldiers in
the Piemont Valley. Even after the Edict of Toleration" was proclaimed in October, 1781, there were
reports of further persecutions of protestants. In many cities, large, ornate monuments were erected
to commemorate the victory of the Catholics over the protestants. Some are
called "Plague Monuments" today and because the protestants were blamed for the plague, this is perhaps
accurate. Even today, some Austrians contend that the plague was God's punishment for leaving the
Ralph V. Harvey