The First Anabaptist Martyr–Felix Manz
Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA
Felix Manz was the son of a canon of Grossmünster church in Zürich. Though records of his education are scant, there is evidence that he had a liberal education, with a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Where he was educated was not known. Manz became a disciple of Huldrych Zwingli after he came to Zürich in 1519. He had high hopes for Zwingli’s reforms. When Conrad Grebel joined the group following Zwingli in 1521, he and Manz became friends. They questioned the mass, the nature of church and state connections, and infant baptism. After the Second Disputation of Zürich in 1523, they became dissatisfied, believing that Zwingli’s plans for reform had been compromised with the city council. He did not fully reform Switzerland after the New Testament pattern.
Grebel, Manz, and others made several attempts to plead their position. They carefully prepared their positions to bring to the council. Several parents refused to have their children baptized. A public disputation was held with Zwingli on January 17, 1525. The council declared Zwingli the victor. After the final rebuff by the city council on January 18th they were ordered to desist from arguing and submit to the decision of the council and have their children baptized within eight days. The government thus became the enforcing arm of Zwingli’s misguided position of infant baptism.
The brethren (as they were called) gathered at the home of Felix Manz and his mother on the 21st of January. Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock, and Blaurock in turn baptized the others. The Anabaptist movement was born. This made the break with Zwingli and the council complete and formed the first church of the Radical Reformation. The movement spread rapidly and Manz was very active in it.
Manz used his language skills to translate his texts into the language of the people and worked enthusiastically as an evangelist. His efforts however were not without peril. Manz was arrested on a number of occasions between 1525 and 1527. He was in and out of prison. While he was preaching with George Blaurock in the Grüningen region they were taken by surprise arrested and imprisoned in Zürich at the Wellenburg prison. This time they were treated as ruthless criminals.
On March 7th, 1526, the Zürich council had passed an edict that made adult re-baptism punishable by drowning. Manz was made an example to those who would deny the council’s position. On January 5th, 1527, Felix Manz became the first casualty of the edict and the first Swiss Anabaptist to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. It was a shameful testimony of the ruthless lengths those who opposed the Anabaptist were willing to go.
While Manz stated that he wished “to bring together those who were willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps, to unite with these by baptism, and to leave the rest in their present conviction“, Zwingli and the council accused him of obstinately refusing “to recede from his error and teaching“. At 3:00 p.m., as he was led from Wellenburg to a boat, he praised God and preached to the people. Manz was not fearful facing his certain death.
A Reformed priest went along, seeking to silence him on the way to his execution, hoping to give him an opportunity to recant. Manz’s brother and mother encouraged him to stand firm and suffer for Jesus’ sake. He had both sides offering mercy if he changed his position and encouragement to be steadfast. People had been trying to tie his hands for several years had finally done it—literally. Those naming themselves as ministers of a new covenant of forgiveness, life, and love wrapped thick ropes around his wrists and ankles in the cold January morning air. His accusers planned to make a powerful mockery of his baptism by drowning him in the lake and thereby cruelly enforcing a recent edict that demanded death for those who resisted the powers on matters of baptism. It was the ultimate cost for Manz’s convictions but he was not backing down
Manz was executed by drowning in Zürich on the Limmat River. His alleged last words were, “Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” His faith superseded those taking his life. His property was confiscated by government of Zürich, and he was buried in the St. Jakobs cemetery.
Felix Manz left a written testimony of his faith, an eighteen-stanza hymn, and was apparently the author of Protestation und Schutzschrift (a defense of Anabaptism presented to the Zürich council). He believed the truth of God’s Word about baptism and paid for it in a vivid way.
It is a sorry state of affairs when government tries to enforce religious belief to a certain religious group. In this case it was the Reformed church of Switzerland. We must not say from this negative experience how God and His moral law have no place in government. We need His influence today more than ever.
This biography is shared to show you “believer’s baptism by immersion” is important for identification with Christ and the church. Those who say we don’t need the name Baptist or think one mode of baptism is as good as the other ought to see the price paid and the lives sacrificed for this cherished belief. Do not diminish its importance!