AT 19: Swiss Anabaptism and the Sword

by Andy Potter
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 19, Autumn 1998

He [God] admonishes us therefore to go out from Babylon and from the earthly Egypt, that we may not be partakers in their torment and suffering, which the Lord will bring upon them ... Thereby shall also fall away from us the diabolical weapons of violence - such as sword, armour, and the like, and all of their use to protect friends or against enemies - by virtue of the word of Christ: "you shall not resist evil."1

These words taken from the Schleitheim Confession (1527) capture what is for many people the dominant image of early Swiss Anabaptism - that of a separatist, pacifist movement. However, whilst this is certainly an accurate picture of the movement by the end of the 1520s, it is not true of the entire movement in its earliest years. In fact the first few years of the Swiss Anabaptist movement were marked by a variety of approaches to the Sword and it was only with the Schleitheim Confession that widespread agreement was reached.

The Sword in Early Swiss Anabaptism

The Swiss Anabaptist movement had its roots in the tension which existed from the second half of 1523 between Ulrich Zwingli and a group of erstwhile supporters, including both Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz. As early as September 1524, Grebel set out his vision of a believers' church which seemed both to embrace pacifism and move towards apoliticism. In a letter to Thomas Muntzer, he wrote that,

The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves... True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptised in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland o f eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword nor war, since killing has ceased with them entirely. 2

The logical implication of Grebel's argument that Christians wield "neither worldly sword nor war" is that they should not participate in the process of government and by December 1524 Zwingli was reporting that some of his opponents believed that "no one who is a ruler can be a Christian."3Felix Mantz seems to have held similar views to Grebel and his position is beautifully expressed in his farewell song penned shortly before his death sentence:

The true love of Christ shall scatter the enemy; so that he who would be an heir with Christ is taught that he must be merciful, as the Father in heaven is merciful... Christ never hated anyone; neither did his true servants, but they continued to follow Christ in the true way, as he went before them. This Light of life they have before them, and are glad to walk in it; but those who are hateful and envious, and do thus wickedly betray, accuse, smite and quarrel, cannot be Christians. 4

Initially Anabaptism spread as a series of inter-related local initiatives in response to local issues and concerns rather than as a single, coherent movement. For instance, much of the effort of the Anabaptist congregation in the village of Zollikon was spent on clarifying and defending their position on the meaning and significance of baptism rather than working out the ethical and ecclesiological implications which follow. In fact, testimonies from the village say very little concerning government and the Sword (despite the fact that most of the adult men in the village were experienced soldiers) and there is no evidence that Zollikon Anabaptism espoused a doctrine of apolitical non-resistance.

However, the growth of Anabaptism in 1525 cannot be understood apart from the Peasants' War which affected many parts of Central Europe, particularly the German-speaking regions. The war was part of the ongoing conflict between landowners and peasants which was one consequence of the shift from a feudal society to a capitalist one. Although the conflict had its roots in economic and political issues, it also had significant ecclesiastical and religious components (not only was the church one of the major landowners at the time but the vast majority of the upper clergy were an integral part of the aristocracy and thus dependent on the revenues produced by their serfs and tenant farmers). Indeed, many in the peasants' movement believed that the Reformation meant not only religious reform but also social change which would lead to a more egalitarian society, in which they would have both a political and a religious voice. As historian Arnold Snyder observes, the peasants' revolt" was a search for social, economic and political redress which found ideological legitimisation in Reformation concepts."5

The Anabaptist movement thus found a sympathetic audience, not only in the religiously motivated common people who longed for a reform in both the structures and practices of the church, but also among those who were disaffected with social and economic conditions. However, their very success among the lower-middle and artisan classes presented Anabaptist leaders with a stark choice as to whether or not to support the peasants in their increasingly violent struggle. In practice, a number of Anabaptist reformers entered into de facto alliances with the peasants and it is likely that some of those who were baptised actually took up arms. For instance, Hans Krusi, the reformer of St Gall, gave the peasants moral support in their battle against tithes. In return, the peasants pledged themselves to defend their preacher with arms (unfortunately for Krusi, they failed to carry out their pledge when he was arrested in the middle of the night!).

In the town of Hallau, the peasants' struggle for local autonomy and opposition to the tithe on both religious and economic grounds provided the context for Wilhelm Reublin and Johannes Broth's attempt to create a radical Anabaptist variety of Reformed Christendom. Initially the two reformers enjoyed great success and, in the early months of 1525, virtually the entire population of the town was baptised. At the same time, peasant troops from the town participated in a variety of local armed conflicts, including an attempt to occupy the nearby city of Neunkirch, and when the Schaffhausen council tried to imprison Brotli and Reublin, the rebellious villagers actively protected their pastors. Whilst there is no evidence that Brotli and Reublin themselves were active participants in violence, it is clear that they were willing to receive armed protection and implicitly, at least, to legitimise the use of the sword in a "just cause." Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the Anabaptist movement could have taken root as a populist one in towns such as Hallau if it had completely disassociated itself from the peasants' struggle.

In the town of Waldshut, north of Zurich, the reformer was Balthasar Hubmaier. Hubmaier initially set out his reformation programme in April 1524, which he began to implement a few months later, although it was not until Easter 1525 that he was baptised (by Reublin) and began to baptise others, including the majority of the town council. By this time, the town was under the military protection of the peasant army, whom Hubmaier believed were engaged in justified resistance to tyranny. Consequently, during April and May, the city gave military assistance to the peasant army in the form of men, cannon and wagons. In July 1525, in the middle of the peasants' struggle, Hubmaier stated his position on the Sword as follows, "there should be a government which carries the Sword ... The more Christian it is, the more it, like Solomon, asks God for wisdom to rule."6

Hubmaier's comment, and the development of Anabaptism in St Gall, Hallau and Waldshut, point to the fact that the movement as a whole had yet to develop and articulate a pacifist, separatist ethic. In fact, the mass Anabaptism of these towns (which was for most of 1525 the main locus of Swiss Anabaptism) was rooted in the idea of a popular, voluntary, Anabaptist church ruled by a Christian government. There is no suggestion at this stage that social and governmental functions, such as the magistracy or even the army, were regarded as inappropriate spheres for Christian participation. Nonetheless, even in these towns there are hints of a more apolitical approach. In Waldshut, Jacob Gross and Ulrick Teck were exiled for refusing to fight alongside the peasants, although Gross was willing to accept non-combatant service. Similarly, Junghans Waldshuter from Hallau was exiled for his less than wholehearted support for the peasants' cause. After his exile he argued that "a Christian government should not kill people ... [since] no Christian is permitted to kill."7

The Schleitheim Confession

By the end of 1525, the peasants' revolt had failed and the fledgling Anabaptist movement faced a much more hostile environment. Hubmaier had fled Waldshut; Reublin and Brotli had left Hallau, whilst Grebel, Mantz, and others were held in prison. Although Grebel escaped in March 1526, he died soon after of the plague. It is at this point that Michael Sattler, an ex-Benedictine prior, emerges as one of the leaders of Swiss Anabaptism. It was Sattler who would give voice to the radical separatism which would soon become a defining tenet of Swiss Anabaptism.

Whilst it is not clear when Sattler joined the Anabaptist movement, by June 1526 he is reported as "preaching, teaching and baptising in the same Swiss villages where the peasants had earlier taken up arms."8 At some point, his ministry spread to Strasbourg and the surrounding area, where he held discussions with Bucer and Capito, the city's reformers. Subsequently, Sattler wrote to them in the form of twenty articles, in which he justified his Anabaptist position and appealed for the release of some Anabaptist prisoners in the city. These articles foreshadow what was to become a central theme in the Schleitheim Confession, that of the basic duality between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of the world, in which Christians are seen as citizens of heaven and not of earth, with no further need of worldly arms.

By the beginning of 1527, the movement was in severe danger; local authority persecution had intensified (Felix Mantz was drowned by the Zurich authorities in early January), whilst conversations with the Strasbourg Reformers had reached an impasse. It was at this crucial time

that leaders of the fledgling Anabaptist movement converged on Schleitheim and, guided by Sattler, produced a document which not only provides a biblical and theological grounding to the Anabaptist experience of persecution, but also sets out a fundamentally different vision of reform from the magisterial model, albeit one which is achieved by being separate from the world and by living and modelling an alternative vision of church and society.

The confession itself comprises seven articles: baptism, ban, the Lord's Supper, separation from the world and all evil, shepherds, sword, and oath. The fourth article describes a church which is separated from a sinful world:

Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God's temple and idols. Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.9

It continues by rejecting the use of "the diabolical weapons of violence - such as sword, armour and the like." However, it is the article on the Sword which, more than any other, sets out the separatist non-resistance stance which was quickly to become the norm in Swiss Anabaptism. This article asserts that, whilst government is installed by God in order to punish the wicked and protect the good, it is "outside the perfection of Christ" and thus a no-go area for Christians. Moreover, Christians should forsake the Sword even "against the wicked for the protection or defence of the good, or for the sake of love." Rather, the disciple of Christ should be meek and lowly of heart, acting with mercy and forgiveness, refusing to pass sentence in disputes and strife about worldly matters or to participate as a magistrate in the government of the temporal realm. Christians, it argues, are citizens of heaven, not of this world, whose battle is not against the flesh, but against "the fortifications of the devil", and whose weapons are spiritual not physical. Thus, whilst the worldly are "armed with steel and iron.... Christians are armed with the armour of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and with the Word of God."10

After the events of 1525 and 1526, Swiss Anabaptism became a largely rural, "underground" movement, whilst further persecution also saw notable migrations to places where there was either outright toleration of Anabaptism or where legal enforcement was less severe. Nonetheless, Hubmaier from his new base in the Moravian city of Nicholsburg continued to reject separatist non-resistance as a valid option. In his final work, On the Sword,11 published a month after Sattler's execution in June 1527, he argued that Christians, much to their own regret, are citizens of this world and that the governmental role of punishing the evil and protecting the good is best accomplished by a Christian government. Christians are to imitate Christ by being faithful to their calling, "be it in government or obedience."

Ironically, just one month after the publication of On the Sword, Hubmaier was arrested. He was subsequently to suffer the full force of the governmental Sword when he was burned at the stake in Vienna in March 1528 as a rebel and a heretic. His state-church Anabaptism did not survive much longer and, although the text of Schleitheim was quoted infrequently as the century wore on, its Christocentric, separatist, non-resistant position on the sword not only survived but became the political ethic of the Anabaptists.

And Today...

Nearly 500 years after the emergence of Swiss Anabaptism, in the vastly different political and ecclesiological environment of the late twentieth century, the contrasting approaches of Sattler and Hubmaier and of Hallau and Schleitheim still remain before the Anabaptist movement. In reality, the challenge for contemporary Anabaptists is probably how to combine the best from both approaches whilst learning from their weaknesses. In outline, some of the features of such a witness might include:

  • viewing the church as a paradigm whose mission is to reveal God's intention for the whole of human society;

  • combining a vision for social transformation with a healthy suspicion of worldly power (whilst rejecting the "pure church"/"evil world" polarity);

  • working for the reduction of all forms of violence, coercion and oppression and towards the establishment of shalom;

  • being willing to form tactical alliances with those outside our community where there is a common interest;

  • giving priority to grassroots activism ("the mustard seed conspiracy");12

  • following the pattern of Jesus by obedience to his teaching and his example.

Andy Potter has recently completed studies at Spurgeon 's College and is now minister of the Baptist Church in Margate, Kent.


1 Translated by J.H. Yoder, The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale: Herald, 1973).

2 Letter from Grebel to Munster, Zurich, September 5, 1524. Translated in Harder, L., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald, 1985), 290.

3 J.M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (2nd Edition) (Lawrence, 1976), 103.

4 Felix Mantz, "Admonition", 1526. Translated in Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald, 1981), 268.

5 C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener: Pandora, 1995), 32.

6 Balthasar Hubmaier, "On the Christian Baptism of Believers", 1525. Translated in Pipkin, and Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale:: Herald, 1988), 98.

7 Stayer, "Reublin and Broth: The Revolutionary Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism", The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 100.

8 Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 60.

9 Yoder, The Schleitheim Confession, 12.

10 Ibid, 14-16.

1 I Balthasar Hubmaier, "On The Sword", Translation in Pipkin and Yoder, 494-523.

12 This is the title of a book by Tom Sine (London: MARC Europe, 198 1) which documents a wide range of grassroots Christian social action.