Täuferjäger: Anabaptist Hunters

March 4, 2013

by Ron Hale

He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, and Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.

Early Anabaptists upset the apple cart of medieval — early modern Europe as they contended for believer’s baptism, the conviction that only confessing adults could turn from their sinful lifestyle and consciously follow the path of discipleship with the first step: faith in Christ. This radical idea challenged the prevailing “church and state” mindset that assumed Christianity to be more of a birthright than a born-again experience leading to a separated life.

This tension wedded church authorities with the power of the state in using drastic means and measures in protecting Christendom from the perceived religious disorder and deviance of the Anabaptists. Persecution and prosecution were handy tools for an authoritative state-run church.

Refusing to pay tithes to state-run church jurisdictions only hastened the deep animosity toward Anabaptists. They were not just challenging a denomination, as we would think of it in America; these radical reformers were challenging a state or jurisdiction that had the laws of government and religion on their side. This institution had the authority to baptize you as a baby and burn you at the stake as an adult. In fact, not having your infant baptized and/or getting re-baptized as an adult was usually against the law. Each jurisdiction regulated their religion similar to how my Volunteer state regulates distilleries; moonshiners will be hunted and prosecuted.

Consequently, Anabaptists were denounced, hunted, and executed as arch-heretics by Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Churches for well over a century. This short essay will provide examples of all three.

Baptism was just one of many differences that set the Anabaptists apart from the more established groups that maintained a Constantinian tradition. Many Anabaptists saw themselves as revivers of true Christianity, and the reign of Constantine (r.306-337) being responsible for the unholy alliance of church and state —  that relied more on tradition and sacramentalism than a NT biblicism. This Constantinian shift (Caesaropapism) can also be viewed as the time in which Christian church membership was connected more with citizenship and less with a personal faith experience and devotion.

The Roman Catholic king, Ferdinand I,[1] appointed a commissioner to organize Täuferjäger or Anabaptist hunters. With the order of Ferdinand I, it is estimated that 1,000 Anabaptists were burned to death on pyres (funeral structures of wood) in the Inn Valley from 1527-30. With the Imperial Diet of Speyer extending the boundaries of persecution to the Holy Roman Empire in 1529, it was reported in the Hutterian Chronicle 3,169 Anabaptists were martyred during Charles’s and Ferdinand’s reigns as they were hunted down, imprisoned, tried, and put to death.[2] 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.[3]

Balthasar Hubmaier was arrested in the new jurisdiction of King Ferdinand and was taken to Vienna and executed on March 10, 1528.  Upon arriving at the scaffold, he cried out a prayer in the Swiss dialect, “O my gracious God, grant me grace in great suffering!” He pardoned his accusers and asked for forgiveness if he had offended anyone.  With a stone tied around her neck, his wife was drowned in the Danube River several days later.

Martin Luther set the pace for Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists in spoken words and written works; an example is a pamphlet written in 1536.  Notice the call for death:
“Besides this the Anabaptists separate themselves from the churches . . . and they set up a ministry and congregation of their own, which is also contrary to the command of God. From all this it becomes clear that the secular authorities are bound . . . to inflict corporal punishment on the offenders . . . Also when it is a case of only upholding some spiritual tenet, such as infant baptism, original sin, and unnecessary separation, then . . . we conclude that . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.”[4]

In 2010, the 11th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation approved a statement of repentance calling on Lutherans to express regret and sorrow for past sins against Anabaptists and asking for forgiveness.  The statement was titled: Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists.

What about the Reformer’s response to the Anabaptists?  The Anabaptist movement was birthed in Zurich, Switzerland, where Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) became the pastor of the Grossmünster in Zurich in 1518. The movement arose out of the circle of close friends and followers of Zwingli. This circle of friends (Grebel, Manz, Blaurock, and others) failed in persuading Zwingli to establish a free church of believers only with adult baptism upon confession of faith in Christ.

The Zurich council vigorously rose to suppress this movement and established an ordinance that the teaching or preaching of Anabaptism was against the law – with the penalty of death.  Dr. Sam Storms indicates that more than 5,000 Anabaptists were executed in Switzerland by 1535.[5]

Felix Manz was the first person executed under this law. With the support of Zwingli, Manz was taken from the Wallenberg prison tower on a cold winter day.  He was taken to the fish market by the Limmat River to be read his death sentence.  He was forced into a boat and escorted to a little hut in the middle of the river by a pastor and his executioner.  Felix Manz was securely shackled and pulled from the top of the fishing hut into his watery grave.  His friend Blaurock was whipped through the streets of the city and banished; while Grebel later died of the plague.

Descendants of the Evangelical-Reformed Church of Zurich met on June 26, 2004 and corporately confessed their sins of the sixteenth century persecutions and they asked descendants of the first Anabaptists to forgive them.  A historical marker was placed on the bank of the river where Manz was drowned almost five hundred years earlier.[6]

Anabaptist leaders were quickly hunted and killed by these three state-church institutions making it difficult to mature and multiply the movement.  However, the common folk of this movement continued steadfast in pursuing the dream of restoring the Church to NT beliefs and practices. They saw the Protestant Reformation as being far from complete and they were willing to put their lives on the line for an apostolic era faith for their children and grandchildren.


© Ron F. Hale, February 23, 2013

[1] Ferdinand I was the king of Bohemia and Hungary beginning in 1526, and king of Croatia from 1527, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1558 until his death. Before becoming king, he ruled the Austrian hereditary lands of the Habsburgs. He was a staunch Catholic.

[4] Martin Luther: pamphlet of 1536; in Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [orig. 1891]; Vol. X, 222-223