Reformation in Switzerland II: Anabaptists

In my last Swiss Reformation post, I told you the story of Zwingli, a little known Swiss Reformer who played a large role in church history.  All seemed well at the end of the post, with Switzerland on the road to reformation and the famous John Calvin taking over to for Zwingli.

But, as always, there’s more to the story.  I can’t tell just one, pretty part of the story and leave out some of the darker shades of this history.

This area was also the birthplace of the Anabaptists (even though there’s some controversy about this), which you might have heard of in your history classes.  King Henry the VIII loved to kill them (along with his wives), and so did a huge portion of people in Europe (Catholics and Protestants alike).  But, on the American home front, you might recognize them more as the spiritual ancestors of the modern day Mennonites and the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish (The “Dutch” part is a bit of a misnomer, since they’re actually mostly German and Swiss decedents, speaking a language akin to the Swiss German of today.  I’ve heard that the name came from a misunderstanding of the word “Deutsch,” which is the German word for the German language.).

Around the same time Zwingli was winning Zurich to Protestantism, a group of believers were developing some radical new ideas about baptism, the state’s connection with the church, and Christian community.  The Anabaptists believed in adult baptism, not the infant baptism that Catholics and Zwingli preached. They also wanted a free church, separate from the official state church.  In addition, they held unique beliefs about the community of believers, which included the emphasis on communal living and separation from the world (see the roots of the Amish beliefs in there?).  

In 1525, Zwingli debated with the growing and vocal group of Swiss Brethren (as the Anabaptists commonly called themselves) and eventually decided to kick them out of the city if they wouldn’t baptize their infants.  They were also prohibited from meeting.  Of course, things got worse, and many of the key Brethren members were publically executed.  Of note, Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist martyr in Zurich. He was drowned in the Limmat River (pictured here) in January of 1527, only after being locked up and starved within an inch of his life.

Just so we don’t give the Protestants all the bad rap here, we’ve got to share some of the shame with the Catholics.  Everybody seemed way too bloodthirsty (except, of course, the stridently passivist Anabaptists).  The Catholic cantons and the Protestant ones were constantly in tension, in these early days of reformation.  Zwingli led his Protestant cantons to blockade the Catholic ones, but the Catholics retaliated in 1531 with a battle, in which Zwingli was killed.  Upon hearing the news, Martin Luther responded, “All who take the sword die by the sword.”  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
    AL: Always wise to be aware of the church’s mistakes in the past, so we don’t repeat them in the present.


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