Diving into Anabaptist History

July 12, 2021 by

Replica of a galley at the Falkenstein castle ruins. Photo by author.

Gently I squeeze the ancient leather covers together and release the brass clasp. I open the book, and with my gloved fingers, carefully turn the pages. Translating the title page, I read: “A book containing beautiful epistles and letters written by our dear brothers, witnesses of the divine truth, in prison and elsewhere, comforting for the devout to read. 1577.”

It is written in an archaic German script, with embellished initial capitals in red. The letters were written by men who protested the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church and had themselves baptized as adult believers as a statement that they were dedicating their lives to Christ. They were called “Anabaptists” or re-baptizers, and the penalty for the step they took was imprisonment and death.

Seeing their names, I feel like I am meeting old friends. There is Jeronimus Käls’ farewell letter to his wife, Treindl, written from prison here in Vienna in 1536; Leonhard Schiemer, letter of comfort to a weak brother, written in Rattenberg, 1527; a letter from the brothers imprisoned in Falkenstein to the fellowship in Moravia, 1540. I’m particularly interested in letters from Jakob Hutter (for whom the Hutterian Church is named), and this codex contains four. There is also a testimony from Jörg Rack: at his interrogation before he was executed in 1561 he was asked who had convinced him to join the “sect.” He answered, “Before he came to this faith, he heard that a man called Jakob Hutter was burned alive in Innsbruck; when he was led to Innsbruck he was gagged so that nobody could hear him testifying to the truth.”

I’m sitting in the Altes Buch (Old Book) reading room of the University of Vienna. I’m looking for new information on Jakob Hutter and his wife, Katharina, for a book I am working on. But I’m using the opportunity to gather as much material as I can relating to the Hutterites. I’ve also spent many hours in the Moravian State Archive in Brno, Czechia, and in the Bratislava State Archive in Slovakia. I’ve pored over many Hutterian codices from around the years 1570 to 1650, containing such letters as well as tracts on baptism and statements of faith. There are songs too, written by the prisoners. Some describe their capture and imprisonment, while others are an expression of their confidence in God. Many are acrostic, with the first letter of each stanza spelling the name of its author.

Perhaps most intriguing are the “Denkbüchl” and “Märtyrerbücher” – collections of stories of those who died as martyrs to their faith, and chronological accounts of the events of the fellowships in Moravia (modern Czech Republic) where communities flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The books were copied out by members of the Hutterian communities and treasured by them. But when persecution forced them to leave their homes, the books were confiscated. Many were probably destroyed. The Hutterites were able to hold on to some, and the remainder are scattered in libraries and archives across Europe.

For the past ten months I’ve been stationed at our small Bruderhof settlement in Retz and the nearby village of Unternalb, north of Vienna, very close to the Czech border. I find it thrilling that we have a community in the very area where our spiritual forebears lived almost five hundred years ago.

What is perhaps even more inspiring is the fact that people of Austria are realizing with shock that in earlier centuries, men and women were killed for their faith. It is not a huge movement, but in numerous cities across the country individuals are working hard to bring recognition to wrongs of the past and even to find ways to do penance.

In Tyrol the “Hutterer Arbeitskreis” has put up plaques at sites where people were imprisoned or executed. In Innsbruck, the site of Jakob Hutter’s execution, they have created a “Hutterpark” consisting of a circle of twelve stones, symbolizing community and illustrating the verse from Zechariah, “They shall be as the stones of a crown” (9:16).

HutterparkEmbed"Hutterpark" (in Innsbruck, the site of Jakob Hutter’s execution). Photo by author.

In Vienna there is a plaque marking the site where Balthasar Hubmair was executed in 1526. In Linz, a Pentecostal church group is eager to learn about the seventy men and women executed there around 1529, and I’ve met a woman who has thoroughly researched the stories of those executed in Salzburg. A visitor to our small community here showed us a sixteenth century German Bible that he obtained, certain that it was used by Anabaptists.

And at Falkenstein, the ruin of a castle where 150 people were imprisoned, there is a museum with exhibits telling the story. The prisoners were marched down to Trieste in 1540, where they were to serve as galley slaves; to commemorate this a replica galley has been built in the middle of the castle ruin. This last exhibit moves me particularly. My late husband, Jake, had read about its opening and we always had the newspaper clipping on our wall.

An ecumenical group that calls itself “Runder Tisch: Weg der Versöhnung” (Round Table: Path to Reconciliation) sees it as their calling to work toward healing for the schisms within Christianity:

The divisions within Christianity are a sin that cries to heaven, a betrayal of God’s love! … Why don’t we feel the pain of this division? Where is our shame? Where are our tears? The disunity among Christians is a catastrophe….We have to admit that the history of schisms and religious wars have made Christendom a laughing stock, made it ridiculous and unbelievable.…
Serious crimes against unity like the innumerable oppressions and persecutions can only be offered a “healing of memories” by repeated confession and requests for forgiveness. … Only when we recognize our guilt is it possible to approach each other on a deeper level. [1]

It is in this sense that the Round Table group is learning as much as possible about the persecution of the Anabaptists during the Reformation, with the desire to repent for the sins of their country and their church (both Catholic and Lutheran). It is not a question of revisiting theological differences – which can only separate us once again.

Personally, I must admit that I have many reservations toward the Roman Catholic Church, primarily regarding questions of theology. But I have met many men and women here in Austria who love Jesus and take their faith seriously. God is surely much greater than our ideas and traditions. Our Anabaptist group has found a home here in Catholic Austria, and I can only marvel.


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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