Pilgrim Marpeck: Missionary, Leader, and Anabaptist

September 19, 2014

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

Pilgrim Marpeck has received greater notice recently because of his writings being uncovered. He is also to be admired because of missionary efforts.

Marpeck was a native of the Tyrol, Austria. His father, Heinrich Marpeck, moved from Rosenheim in Bavaria to Rattenberg, Austria, where he served as a city councilman. Heinrich also served as a judge (1494–1502) and mayor (1511). Pilgrim attended the Latin school in Rattenberg. Marpeck is distinguished from other Anabaptist leaders in that his education was primarily secular and his employment was in the secular field before he ministered as a Baptist leader.

Before his days as an Anabaptist, Pilgrim Marpeck enjoyed a good financial status and was a highly respected citizen of Rattenberg on the Inn River. He was a mining engineer, a member of the miners’ brotherhood, and served on both Rattenberg’s inner and outer councils. His connections were varied and allowed him to see the oppression and martyrdoms of the Anabaptists from a different perspective.

Records of Marpeck’s conversion to Anabaptism are not really revealed. It is known that in his position as a mining magistrate, he was required by Archduke Ferdinand to expose miners in sympathy with the Anabaptist movement. Leonhard Schiemer was executed by authorities two weeks before Marpeck left his mining position on January 28th, 1528. It is generally believed that he lost his position because he refused to aid authorities in capturing the Anabaptists. Marpeck was quickly reduced from a prominent citizen of Rattenberg to a “wandering citizen of heaven”.

From 1528 to 1532, Marpeck lived in Strasbourg, serving for two years as a timber supervisor, before he was expelled from the city because of his Anabaptist activity. For the next 12 years, he lived a wanderer’s life in Switzerland, and traveled to Tyrol, Moravia, South Germany, and Alsace. He is believed to have established Anabaptist congregations in these areas. Marpeck probably covered more territory in his missionary efforts than any Anabaptist leader.

Marpeck worked as a bi-vocational minister while continuing some of his positions in secular work. In 1544, he was working in the city forest of Augsburg, and on May 12th, 1545 he was employed as the city engineer, a position he held until his death in December 1556. His services were evidently in great demand, for, although the city issued reprimands and warnings to desist, Marpeck continued his activities as a minister among the Anabaptists. The fact that he was able to hold these positions gave evidence that some of the persecution of Anabaptists was lessening in these areas.

In addition to his labors as a pastor and church organizer, Marpeck made other important contributions to the Anabaptists, the chief of which flowed from his pen. He seemed to be a voice of reason among Anabaptists. He was valiant in his defense of the truth. Marpeck debated with Martin Bucer and Kaspar Schwenkfeld, but also attacked the incarnation view of Melchior Hoffman, the Münsterite use of force, and the Hutterian community of goods. He held both the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, but distinguished the New Testament as the authoritative rule of faith and practice for Christian brethren. Marpeck attributed the German Peasants’ War, the Münster Rebellion, Ulrich Zwingli’s death, and many of the excesses of the Catholic Church for the failure to make this distinction.

Marpeck’s unique perspective allowed him to write freely on religious liberty after he has seen magistrates run roughshod over defenseless Anabaptists. Thomas White in his presentation of The Anabaptists and Religious Liberty at a precedent setting conference on Anabaptists at Southwestern Baptist Theological seminary shared Marpeck’s views because of this perspective.

“Marpeck served as a civil engineer, which meant he knew the difficulties for Christians to serve as a magistrate, ‘since no one can serve two masters,” and he saw how a magistrate could use their magistracy to promote particular beliefs.” The misuse of power in oppressing the Anabaptists was something he was vocal about in his writings.

Pilgrim held a moderate position among Anabaptists, criticizing the positions of both the legalists and the spiritualists. He was fair in his assessment of the movement. His writings include the Vermanung (a revision of Rothmann’s Bekentnisse), the Verantwortung (a reply to Schwenkfeld), and the Testamentserläuterung. William Estep suggests that Marpeck was to South German Anabaptism what Menno Simons was to Dutch Anabaptism.

Interest in Marpeck’s life and thought has seen a major revival in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The discovery of the Kunstbuch, a collection of works by Marpeck and his circle, has contributed to this revival. Full-length monographs have been considered in these areas: hermeneutics (William Klassen), his social thought (Stephen Boyd), his Christology (Neal Blough), and his theological method (Malcolm Yarnell). Much information about Marpeck’s writings has been processed in these areas.

Pilgrim Marpeck represents the hard-working makeup of a lot of Anabaptists. His retaining a secular job all his life and also starting congregations as well as his writings are truly amazing. His defense of Anabaptist thought and practice was a needed emphasis after the early days of ruthless persecution and martyrdom. We, like Marpeck, don’t need to divide our lives into the secular and sacred. We must intersect both worlds with the truth that will set people free the way Marpeck did in spite of the costs that it entailed.