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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 11 — Protestantism in Switzerland From Its Establishment in Zurich (1525) to the Death of Zwingli (1531)

Chapter 3 — Outbreak and suppression of Anabaptism in Switzerland

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Rise of Anabaptism in Switzerland – Thomas Munzer – His First Disciples, Grebel and Manx – Summary of their Opinions – Their Manners and Morals – Zwingli Commanded to Dispute with them – Coercive Measures – Anabaptism extends to other Cantons – John Schuker and his Family – Horrible Tragedy – Manx – His Seditious Acts – Sentenced to be Drowned in the Lake of Zurich – Execution of Sentence – These Severities Disapproved of by Zwingli – The Fanaticism Extinguished by the Gospel – A Purification of the Swiss Church – Zwingli's Views on Baptism Matured thereby.

THE river of Reform was rolling its bounteous floods onward and diffusing verdure over the barren lands, when suddenly a foul and poisoned rivulet sought to discharge itself into it. Had this latter corrupted the great stream with which it seemed on the point of mingling, death and not life would have been imparted to the nations of Christendom. Zwingli foresaw the evil, and his next labor was to prevent so terrible a disaster befalling the world; and his efforts in this important matter claim our attention before proceeding to trace the influence of the Baden disputation on the two powerful cantons of Bern and Basle.

Zwingli was busy, as we have seen, combating the Papal foe in front, when the Anabaptist enemy suddenly started up and attacked him in the rear. We have already detailed the deplorable tragedies to which this fanatical sect gave birth in Germany. [1] They were about to vent the same impieties and enact the same abominable excesses on the soil of Switzerland which had created so much misery elsewhere. This sect was rather an importation than a native growth of Helvetia. The notorious Thomas Munzer, thrown upon the Swiss frontier by the storms of the peasant-war in Germany, brought with him his peculiar doctrines to sow them among the followers of Zwingli. He found a few unstable minds prepared to receive them, in particular Conrad Grebel, of an ancient Swiss family, and Felix Manx, the son of a prebend. These two were Munzer's first disciples, and afterwards leaders of the sect. They had been excellently educated, but were men of loose principles and licentious lives. To these persons others by-and-by joined themselves. [2]

These men came to Zwingli and said to him, "Let us found a Church in which there shall be no sin." Grebel and Manx had a way peculiar to themselves of forming an immaculate society. Their method, less rare than it looks, was simply to change all the vices into virtues, and thus indulgence in them would imply no guilt and leave no stain. This was a method of attaining sinlessness in which Zwingli could not concur, being unable to reconcile it with the Gospel precept which says that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present evil world." "In whatever crime or vice they are taken," said Zwingli, "their defense is ever the same: I have not sinned; I am no more in the flesh, but in the spirit; I am dead to the flesh, and the flesh is dead to me." The wisdom of Zwingli's reply to Grebel's proposal was as great as its words were few. "We cannot," said he, "make a heaven upon earth." [3]

Re baptism was rather the badge than the creed of this sect. Under the spiritual pretext of emancipation from the flesh, they denied the office and declined the authority of the pastors of the Church and of the magistrates of the State. [4] Under the same pretext of spirituality they claimed a release from every personal virtue and all social obligations. They dealt in the same way with the Bible. They had a light within which sufficed for their guidance, and made them independent of the Word without. Some of them threw the book into the fire saying, "The letter killeth." "Infant baptism," said they, "is a horrible abomination, a flagrant impiety, invented by the evil spirit and Pope Nicholas of Rome." [5]

The freaks and excesses in which they began to indulge were very extraordinary, and resembled those of men whose wits are disordered. They would form themselves in a ring on the street, dance, sing songs, and tumble each other about in the dust. At other times, putting on sackcloth, and strewing ashes on their heads, they would rush through the streets, bearing lighted torches, and uttering dismal cries, "Woe! woe! yet forty days and Zurich shall be destroyed." [6] Others professed to have received revelations from the Holy Spirit. Others interrupted the public worship by standing up in the midst of the congregation and proclaiming aloud, "I am the door; by me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved." They held from time to time nocturnal revels, at which psalms and jovial ballads were sung alternately, and this they called "setting up the Lord's table."

Fourteen of their number were apprehended by the magistrates, contrary to Zwingli's advice, shut up in the Heretics' Tower, and fed on bread and water. On the fourteenth day "an angel opened their prison door and led them forth." [7] Contrary to what happened in Peter's case, with which they compared their deliverance, the angel found it necessary to remove certain planks before he could effect their liberation.

The magistrates, alarmed for the public peace, ordered Zwingli to hold a disputation with them. The conference took place on the 17th January, 1525. Zwingli's victory was complete, and the 8magistrates followed it up by an edict, ordering all infants to be baptized within eight days. [8] The fanatics no more gave obedience to the command of the magistrates than submission to the arguments of Zwingli. They neither brought their children to be baptized nor abjured their opinions. A second disputation, was enjoined by the council. It was held in the March of the same year, but with the same results.

Victory or defeat came alike to men who had resolved to adhere to their beliefs whatever arguments might be brought in refutation of them.

Severer measures were now adopted against them. Some were imprisoned; others were banished from the canton. Zwingli disapproved of these coercive remedies, and the event justified his wisdom. Persecution but inflamed their zeal, and their dispersion carried the fire to other cantons. In St. Gall their numbers were reckoned at 800; in the canton of Appenzell at 1,200. They extended also to Schaffhausen and the Grisons, where they gave rise to disorders. Two of the sect undertook to go and preach in the Popish canton of Schwitz; the unhappy creatures were seized and burned. They died calling on the name of the Savior. [9]

In some cases fanaticism developed into madness; and that madness gave birth to atrocious deeds which did more to open the eyes of the people, and banish this sect from the soil of Switzerland, than all the punishments with which the magistrates pursued it. One melancholy and most revolting instance has come down to us. In a solitary house in the canton of St. Gall there lived an aged farmer, John Schuker, who, with his family and servants, had received the "new baptism." Two of his sons were specially noted for the warmth of their zeal. On Shrove Tuesday the father killed a calf and invited his Anabaptist friends to the feast. The company, the wine, the fanatical harangues and visionary revelations in which the night was spent, would seem to have upset the reason of one of the sons. His features haggard, his eyes rolling wildly, and speaking with hollow voice, he approached his brother, Leonard, with the gall of the calf in the bladder, and thus addressed him, "Bitter as gall is the death thou shalt die." He then ordered him to kneel down. Leonard obeyed. A presentiment of evil seized the company. They bade the wretched man beware what he did. "Nothing will happen," he replied, "but the will of the Father." Turning to his brother, who was still kneeling before him, and hastily seizing a sword, he severed his head from his body at a single blow. The spectators were horror-struck. The headless corpse and the blood-stained maniac were terrible sights. They had witnessed a crime like that of Cain. Groans and wailings succeeded to the fanatical orisons in which the night had been spent. Quickly over the country flew the news of the awful deed. The wretched fratricide escaping from the house, half naked, the reeking sword in his hand, and posting with rapid steps through hamlet and village to St. Gall, to proclaim with maniac gestures and frenzied voice "the day of the Lord," exhibited in his own person an awful example of the baleful issues in which the Anabaptist enthusiasm was finding its consummation. It was now showing itself to men with the brand of Cain on its brow. The miserable man was seized and beheaded. [10]

This horrible occurrence was followed by a tragedy nearly as horrible. We have mentioned above the name of Manx, one of the leaders of the fanatics. This man the magistrates of Zurich sentenced to be drowned in the lake. In adjudging him to this fate they took account, not of his views on baptism, or any opinions strictly religious, but of his sentiments on civil government. Not only did he deny the authority of magistracy, but he gave practical effect to his tenets by teaching his followers to resist payment of legal dues, and by instigating them to acts of outrage and violence, he had been repeatedly imprisoned, but always returned to his former courses on being set at liberty. The popular indignation against the sect, intensified by the deed we have just narrated, and the danger in which Switzerland now stood, of becoming the theater of the same bloody tragedies which had been enacted in Germany the year before, would no longer permit the council to wink at the treasonable acts of Manx. He was again apprehended, and this time his imprisonment was followed by his condemnation. The sentence was carried out with due formality. He was accompanied to the water's edge by his brother and mother, now an old woman, and the unacknowledged wife of the prebend. They exhorted him to constancy, but indeed he exhibited no signs of shrinking. They saw the executioner lead him into the boat; they saw him rowed out to deep water; they saw him taken up and flung into the lake; they heard the sullen plunge and saw the water close over him. The brother burst into tears, but the mother stood and witnessed all with dry eyes. [11]

In these proceedings Zwingli had no share. This fanatical outburst had affected him with profound sorrow. He knew it would be said, "See what bitter fruits grow on the tree of Reform." But not only did he regard the reproach as unjust, he looked to the Gospel as the only instrumentality able to cope with this fanaticism. He pleaded with the magistrates to withhold their punishments, on the ground that the weapons of light were all that were needed to extirpate the evil. These Zwingli plied vigorously.

The battle against Anabaptism cost him "more sweat," to use his own expression, than did his fight with the Papacy. But that sweat was not in vain. Mainly through his labors the torrent of Anabaptist fanaticism was arrested, and what threatened fatal disaster at the outset was converted into a blessing both to Zwingli and to the Protestant Church of Switzerland. The latter emerged from the tempest purified and strengthened. Instead of an accusation the Anabaptist outbreak was a justification of the Reformation. Zwingli's own views were deepened and purified by the controversy. He had been compelled to study the relation in which the Old and New Testaments stand to one another, and he came to see that under two names

they are one book, that under two forms they are one revelation; and that as the transplanting of trees from the nursery to the open field neither alters their nature nor changes their uses, so the transplanting of the institutions of Divine revelation from the Old Testament, in the soil of which they were first set, into the New Testament or Gospel dispensation where they are permanently to flourish, has not in the least changed their nature and design, but has left them identically the same institutions: they embody the same principles and subserve the same ends. Baptism, he argued in short, is circumcision, and circumcision was baptism, under a different outward form.

Proceeding on this principle, the sum of what he maintained in all his disputations with the Anabaptists, and in all that he published from the press and the pulpit, was that inasmuch as circumcision was administered to infants under the Old Testament, it is clear that they were regarded as being, by their birth, members of the Church, and so entitled to the seal of the covenant. In like manner the children of professing parents under the New Testament are, by their birth, members of the Church, and entitled to have the Sacrament of baptism administered to them: that the water in baptism, like the blood in circumcision, denotes the removal of an inward impurity and the washing by the Spirit in order to salvation; and that as circumcision bound to the observance of God's ordinances, so baptism imposes an obligation to a holy life. [12]

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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