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The Price of Baptism

October 5, 2017 by

This month the Lutheran Church is celebrating five hundred years since its founding. When Martin Luther questioned centuries-old traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, he could not know that his ideas would tear apart the whole fabric of European Christendom. Out of this, something completely new was born. As the Hutterian Chronicle of 1581 put it, “God brought forth the Morning Star, the light of his truth, to shine with all its radiance in the present age of this world. He wanted in particular to visit the German lands with his Word and to reveal the foundation of divine truth, so that his holy work could be recognized by everyone.”

I recently returned from a trip to Tyrol, an alpine region that includes part of Austria and northern Italy. My hope was to learn more about the beginnings of Anabaptism, specifically the branch from which the Hutterian Church developed, and about Jakob Hutter and his wife Katharina.

Tirol landscape
Tyrol, in the Alps

The Anabaptist movement began in 1525, with a group of men and women who went beyond the debates posed by Luther. They believed that infant baptism was in fact no baptism; that the church should be a people of God who would “repent and be baptized” like the first believers in Jerusalem. They refused to take part in violence – even in self-defense or by command of the king – and they pooled their possessions and began living in community. Believers’ baptism was the sign by which they were known, and it soon became a capital offense.

The Anabaptists were a group of men and women who went far beyond the debates posed by Luther.

As I pored over records from the 1500s in several Tyrolian archives, and as I toured castles in which believers were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes executed, I felt as if I had been transported into the distant past. I learned the names of the governors of the various districts and read their correspondence with the bishop and the federal government in Innsbruck. In the interrogation transcripts, a snapshot of the catacomb Christianity of that time appears in sharp focus. Take, for example, the file regarding a certain Valentine:

Three years earlier Jakob Hutter and a cabinet maker came to his house and asked for food and drink. Among other things Hutter asked him if he wanted to know the divine truth. He said yes, if only there were someone who could teach him. They talked for a long time. Then they went outside to the meadow. Hutter explained what baptism meant and how he should live. Then Valentine kneeled down and prayed God to forgive his sins. Hutter asked him if he believed in God, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. He answered yes. Hutter said, “God has forgiven your sins.” Then he took water and baptized him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Conferences were arranged in hidden valleys or remote mountainsides. Up to a hundred men and women would gather. Stewards were assigned to arrange for food for them all – fifty loaves of bread, and sometimes a steer to be butchered and roasted. These were festive occasions of mutual encouragement, the sharing of news, and the celebration of baptisms and the Lord’s Supper.

But the authorities were determined to root out this “seductive sect.” They sent spies to infiltrate the meetings, and forbade anyone to shelter the Anabaptists.

In October 1535, the governor in Schöneck learned that Jakob Hutter and his young wife Katharina were in the area. I came across his report to his superior:

Jakob Hutter has his wife with him. She is pregnant; her baby could be born any day if this has not yet happened. She looked in two villages for a place for her confinement. The magistrates should search for poor girl in childbed since Hutter will seek lodging there too.

Katharina must have had her baby around the middle of October 1535. Six weeks later she was ready to travel once more – perhaps having left her newborn with friends or relatives. She and Jakob were caught on the night of November 30.

branzoll landscape
Branzoll Castle, where Jakob and Katharina were imprisoned

Jakob Hutter was taken to Innsbruck where he was tortured, interrogated, and ultimately burned alive on February 25, 1536. Katharina remained in prison in South Tyrol, but a few months later managed to escape. It is thought that she was arrested again two years later and drowned.

The Tyrolian Alps are breathtakingly beautiful with their picturesque houses and romantic castles. But much blood has been shed there, the blood of martyrs who died for their beliefs. Would I have the courage and conviction to be baptized if I knew it would mean abandoning everything I loved, living in hiding, and perhaps dying a violent death? It is difficult to imagine today, and yet in many parts of the world Christians are facing exactly such persecution.

As we remember Martin Luther this month, let us also remember that spiritual renewal demands a price that others were more willing to pay in full, and let us pray for the strength to stand up for our own convictions today.


About the author

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel, an author with a particular interest in Bruderhof history, writes a regular blog post featuring timely...

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  • I am a Roman Christian from Cluj, who takes a few years with the translation and publication on my blog of the history of the hutterites.

  • Thank you Emmy Maendel.