Michael Sattler: Anabaptist Leader and Martyr

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

Michael Sattler was born in Stauffen, Germany about 1490. Little is known about his early life or even his education. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s near Freiberg where he probably became its Prior. Resigned it seemed to the life of a monk, hypocrisy there however disturbed him. In the 1520’s he left the monastery probably due to theological differences and disgust over the unspiritual lives of the monks and priests.

The power the church yielded there was also brutal. In May of 1525 a group of peasants from the Black Forest marched upon St. Peter’s monastery to protest the high taxes levied upon them by the Abbot. Sattler may have left the monastery as a result of this attack. Shortly after leaving the monastery Sattler married Margaretha, a former Beguine nun. Because of the program to eliminate heresy from the region by Ferdinand I of Austria, Sattler and his wife, who would join him in martyrdom, fled to Zurich in 1525 where he became an Anabaptist. The atmosphere of biblical standards and their stand for truth turned him into an Anabaptist. He was present at the Third Disputation in Zurich on November 6, 1525 and was expelled on the 18th.

Sattler eventually went to Strasbourg Germany and stayed with Wolfgang Capito, a German humanist who became a leading reformer. During his stay with Capito, Sattler discussed theology with his host and Martin Bucer. They disagreed on several points including infant baptism. Sattler’s experience with the reformers was different from that of the Swiss Anabaptists in that the disagreement over infant baptism did not cause animosity between Sattler and his friends. Sattler referred to them as his “beloved brothers in God” in a letter written after he left Stasbourg. After Sattler was executed Capito and Bucer described him as a “dear friend of God.” This attitude of the Anabaptist opponents such as this could have spared many of Anabaptists senseless deaths at the hands of their oppressors.

In February of 1527 a group of Anabaptists met in Schleitheim, north of Zurich near the German border. The result of their meeting was the drafting of the Schleitheim Articles, of which Michael Sattler was the principal author. The document, considered the first Anabaptist confession of faith, was widely circulated among the Anabaptists in the region. It is fortunate that the beliefs of Anabaptist were written down to dismiss erroneous ideas about them and set forth a clear testimony of their beliefs. Protestant reformers in Switzerland were also familiar with the document and by the late summer of 1527 Zwingli felt the need to respond to the work and published Refutation of Anabaptist Tricks to refute its teachings.

The work is not a systematic confession of faith, but it does address seven major issues that Anabaptists agreed upon. The seven articles concern baptism, the ban, the breaking of bread, separation from the world, the role of pastors, the sword, and swearing oaths. These were notable emphases of the Anabaptist movement.

In the month following the drafting of the Schleitheim Confession, Sattler and his wife were arrested, tried, and convicted of heresy. As a result of his conviction, on May 20, 1527, a brutal and ruthless scene ensued in the death of Sattler and his wife. Sattler was taken to the town marketplace in Rottenburg and tortured. A piece was cut from his tongue, although not enough to keep him from speaking, and glowing tongs ripped pieces from his flesh. At the marketplace he prayed for his persecutors. He was then taken outside the city and tied to a ladder and a sack of gunpowder was tied around his neck. He prayed, “Almighty, eternal God, thou art the way and the truth; because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with thy help on this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.” He was then pushed into a large fire. As the ropes around his hands were burned away, Sattler gave a signal to his group to show them he was confident about his fate and prayed, “Father, I commend my spirit into thy hands.” He remained steadfast to the end as well as his wife in her martyrdom. Two days after his execution, Margaretha Sattler was executed by drowning, often called “the third baptism” by authorities.

Here are the charges against Sattler and the Anabaptist in his trial and conviction:

First–that he and his adherents have acted contrary to the mandate of the Emperor.
Second–he has taught, held and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament.
Third–he has taught and believed that infant baptism does not conduce to salvation.
Fourth–they have rejected the sacrament of extreme unction.
Fifth–they have despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints.
Sixth–he has declared that men are not to swear before the authorities.
Seventh–he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, and eating and drinking the same.
Eighth–he has left the order, and married a wife.
Ninth–he has said that if the Turks should invade the country, no resistance ought to be offered them; and if it were right to wage war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks; and it is certainly a great matter, to set the greatest enemies of our holy faith against us.

Sattler wrote a letter with this excerpt the night before he was burned at the stake by the German authorities:  In it the truthfulness of his cause and courage are revealed. He declared:

“And let no man remove you from the foundation which is laid through the letter of the Holy Scriptures, and is sealed with the blood of Christ and of many witnesses of Jesus. Hear not what they say of their father, for he is a liar; and do not believe their spirit, for he is entirely swallowed up in the flesh. Judge what I write to you; take these matters to heart, that this abomination may be separated far from you, and that you be found humble, fruitful and obedient children of God. Beloved brethren, marvel not that I treat this matter with such earnestness; for I do so not without reason. The brethren have doubtless informed you that some of us are in prison; and afterwards when the brethren at Horb had also been apprehended, they brought us to Binzdorf. At this time we met with various designs of our adversaries. Once they threatened us with bonds; then with fire, and afterwards with the sword. In this peril I completely surrendered myself into the will of the Lord, and together with all my fellow brethren and my wife, prepared myself even for death for His testimony.”

Believer’s baptism by immersion and the right to freely practice our faith are more than just nice ideas. It is a conviction that people who believed the scripture were willing to die for. We must tell the story of Sattler and the Ana-Baptists lest their sacrifice be relegated to obscurity.

The confession that Sattler was the principal author of is invaluable because it sets forth Anabaptists beliefs so all the world can see and be enlightened by the reason for this truly New Testament Reformation. It is more than a faith on paper though. It is a faith that Sattler and other leaders died for. May we never forget the faith they were willing to die for ought to be the faith we are willing to stand up for and boldly proclaim regardless of what the trends are.