Anabaptists Like You’ve Never Seen Them

Rich interviews Jason Landsel on his graphic novel

 

Video transcript:

RICHARD
For this video in our series on Anabaptism, I’m here with a fellow Bruderhof member, Jason Landsel, who has been working for the last couple of years on a project about the early Anabaptists. It’s a graphic novel, possibly the first of its kind. So Jason, to start out with, can you talk a little bit about the project and why you started out on this?

JASON
The idea for this came up to try and do something with the early Anabaptist story as part of the 5–year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

RICHARD
Why a graphic novel?

JASON
Graphic novels have proven to be a successful genre in presenting history to younger readers. You look at the success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus story, Nate Powell’s excellent trilogy, March, on the civil rights movement, Persepolis, other stories have done very, very well in presenting historical tales to the younger readers. And what we’re hoping to do is, we don’t want to create a sort of a religious Prince Valiant kind of comic, of costume drama with big hats and ponderous beards that might put some people off. We want to create something that’s fresh and alive and is accessible.

RICHARD
Anything in your personal background that inspired you or drew you to this story?

JASON
Well, my parents were Catholic. I was baptized as a child and growing up, I think that there was a bit of that, just little perception of the path to salvation being something that was a little, maybe ominous and a bit medieval even. And in a way, growing up, we had, in religious history class, we were taught the Reformation story as part of our class. And there was something in it that attracted me, there was something fresh and new there that these people had discovered. But the presentation that we were given in school, it felt very kind of stiff and formal and a bit King Jamesey to me. And later, as I grew up, I just continued to read and study this story more on my own. And then later in life, I married a woman from a Hutterite background, wonderful woman, and so that story became very much part of our family’s story, and it’s a very proud part of our heritage. As part of this project, about a year ago, we had a chance to travel to Europe and research and visit a lot of these sites. And we brought my oldest son along and it was really nice to be able to introduce him to that.

RICHARD
So what exactly is it that you feel is relevant about the Anabaptist story for today?

JASON
They were searching and looking for answers to things which I think a lot of people still do today. There’s a lot of people who still ask, is another world possible? Is it possible to live out the New Testament in a way that it affects all elements of society? Political? Social? The story addresses issues of religious freedom, the ability to practice your faith the way you feel. And one of the big parts of the story I find very important and compelling is the issue of compromise. It’s a thread that runs throughout the entire story we’re trying to cover. There were other Reformers who took their reform to a certain point and then they backed off. They said, “we’re gonna side with government, we’re gonna not follow this through.” The Anabaptists weren’t satisfied with that. They wanted a completely new expression of faith based on the New Testament, much like the early Christian church.

RICHARD
The novel is based around the stories of several prominent Anabaptists. So could you talk a little bit about who they are and why you chose them?

JASON
Well, I’ve selected three stories. Felix Manz was the illegitimate son of a Zurich priest and him and his mother lived on the street just adjacent to the Grossmunster Cathedral. As a young man, he goes to school, he learns Hebrew and Latin and Greek, so he has some knowledge. So Felix Manz joins a Bible study started by the reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, who comes to Zurich with big plans of changing everything. He attracts a group of young men who were inspired and interested and also intellectual. And together, they study the New Testament gospels and get very inspired and enthused about how can they bring this to a living reality in this city? How can they change things? Zwingli does initially do a lot. He did a lot of the church infrastructure and gets it converted into public works. The monasteries are turned into hospitals and there’s a food line, they’re feeding the hungry, and there’s a lot of good, positive change. But Zwingli’s students wanted to live out the gospel in its entirety, they didn’t want to just fix a little bit and do some nice works for the city here or there. They wanted a complete transformation of life. And so they started having disagreements with Zwingli. Ultimately, a very clear division is made when the group that Manz is a part of decides to baptize themselves as adults. They do this in Manz’s home and celebrate a very simple Lord’s Supper in the way that the early church would have done it. And then from there they went out and started preaching and telling people about this new way that they had discovered. And it catches on in a very amazing way. And many people are baptized, and they’re breaking away from the church and something new is happening, something very fresh. And then the city, of course, reacts very strongly and they’re imprisoned, and they escape. Then at one point, they leave the city entirely and go up into the highlands above the city. They’re preaching in the small towns and villages up there. As part of our travels, we got a chance to go through these areas, and one of the pretty interesting places we visited was a small cave up in the mountains, which they used for meetings, a secret meeting place behind a waterfall, and you’ve got to go up this steep mountain trail to this cave. They apparently met with up to 30 or 40 people in there. Nobody’s gonna stop these guys. And this ultimately leads to his arrest and then his execution. He walks through the market on the way and he’s preaching. The priest that’s escorting him to the execution site is trying to change his mind till the last minute. And there’s his mother on the other bank, encouraging him, "Don't give in, don't stop." And at the age of 29, he’s drowned in the river and dies. He’s the first martyr of the movement.

RICHARD
I know another story you tell is about Michael and Margaretha Sattler. So could you tell us a little bit about them?

JASON
The Sattler story is a personal favorite. Michael Sattler was a monk, and he saw first hand the depravity and the wrong that was going on in amongst the clergy and was attracted to some of the ideas of the early reformers, like Zwingli, particularly in the question of the clergy getting married. He married a former Beguine nun. Her name was Margaretha, and together, they were a very dynamic, very convicted team. Michael presided over a conference of Anabaptist leaders in the town of Schleitheim and there they drafted the first declaration of faith. The Schleitheim document sort of created a blueprint for the future of the movement. The hope was to create something that would bring the different little groups together and unite them under a central idea or confession. They did a lot of mission work. They were in a town called Horb, where the majority of the town was actually converted to Anabaptism. The town was also very protective of them. They were very deeply loved and admired and appreciated. On the way home from the Schleitheim meeting, they're arrested and taken back to their hometown and put in the prison. The town goes into an uproar about this, threaten to get violent and to protect the Sattlers, because they care about them. They admire them. So they have to take them to a small village, further away, more secluded. The Sattlers are accused of breaking an imperial mandate by practicing their faith. They’re accused of getting married, as former clergy people. Sattler is condemned to death, and not only to die, but to be tortured horribly. One of the things they wanted to do to him was to tear him with these tongs on the way to the execution site. And then he’s taken to this field, which we went to (there’s a memorial there now) and he’s burned at the stake and all throughout he’s calling out to the people and then challenging them and telling them to repent. His wife is drowned some days later, and one of the last thing she says is that she would rather have gone to the flames with her husband.

RICHARD
And the final story is the story of Jakob and Katarina Hutter, who feature prominently in Hutterite history. Be interested to hear what inspires you about them.

JASON
Jakob Hutter was originally a hat maker, and he’s rumored to have fought in the Peasants’ Revolt. It’s unknown exactly when Hutter first encountered the Anabaptist teachings, but it is known that he was a very zealous convert. And with the death of the one of the last early leaders, Hutter emerges as someone who’s stepping up. He’s a very active evangelist. He’s a very charismatic person. He’s baptizing, he’s preaching. He’s going around. And one of the people he baptizes early on is a young woman named Katarina, a servant girl, and she later becomes his wife. Hutter, in his leadership emphasized the communal nature of the church. It’s something where people came together: as part of your baptism, your possessions are no longer your own. They belong to the whole church. Withholding even a quarter was seen as a sign of disloyalty. So a common fund was created in the church to support the widows, to support people in prison, to support the refugees, people fleeing to other countries because of persecution. With all his activity, Hutter drew the attention of King Ferdinand I, who was the emperor ruling that part of the country, a very pious Catholic. He’s very determined to stamp out this Anabaptist threat. Ferdinand’s persecution of the Anabaptist movement is very bloody, very brutal and ruthless. Many, many people are dying. Many people are being put into prison. So the movement starts looking further afield, there must be a place where they can go to settle, to live out their faith in peace. And Hutter is commissioned to go to Moravia, which is now in the Czech Republic. People have fled there and they’ve been accepted. And the landowners in Moravia like the Anabaptists. Hutter is commissioned to go to Moravia. He arrives there and finds people living in community. He returns and then leads trips over the mountains, bringing people to safety. We’ve had a chance to hike one of the trails that he used up over the mountains. And you could imagine the old people, young people, children having to do this at night and the guide that took us up the mountain, he said many people died from exposure. In Moravia, Hutter manages to bring the different threads together. He manages to provide leadership. It's not an easy task. There's opposition from other people who are assuming themselves to be leaders, but he brings a sense of unity to the settlers there in a time when it was really needed. And they lived there in community for a period of time. But then the persecution returns. Ferdinand orders the landowners in Moravia to evict all the Anabaptists. So Jakob Hutter and his wife are told to go back to the Tyrol, which they do. And they’re finally betrayed and captured. So Hutter is taken to Innsbruck, and King Ferdinand is determined to make an example of him, and he’s tortured and mistreated and mocked and humiliated. One of the things that they do is they parade them through the cathedral there. Jakob Hutter is condemned to death by burning. He's brought to the middle of the city. There’s a VIP box looking down, it’s called Goldenes Dachl, which you can go up into and you can look down on the site where he was burned. There’s a memorial plaque there, which we saw. As he’s executed, Hutter defiantly calls out to the onlookers and government officials who are enjoying the spectacle of his death. Katarina continues her husband’s work for another two years. She’s finally captured, taken to Schoeneck castle, which we visited, and here she’s given what they called the “third baptism”, which was a mocking term they used for death by drowning.

RICHARD
Now, what do you hope people will take away from this book, aside from a fascinating look at a moment in history?

JASON
The last thing we hope is that this book is just a bland retelling of the story with pictures. You know, we want it to be something that’s challenging, something that’s inspiring. As I tried to bring across, there are many elements to their story. I think they have a lot to say to us today. And I hope that, as a reader, you can find something in it that you connect to that resonates with you, that inspires you in your pursuit of faith or your calling to live in community or to be a Christian in the world. It’s something we can all learn from. And we could all benefit knowing more of.

RICHARD
Well, Jason, thanks for spending time and talking to us about this project. So far, we don’t have a publication date for the book, but hopefully it’s soon. It’s looking very promising. And if you want to find out more about the Anabaptists, make sure to check out the other videos in our series here on the Bruderhof channel. And thanks for watching and as always, please like and subscribe to our channel.