AT 16: Michael Sattler: An Early Swiss Anabaptist Martyr

by Stuart Murray
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 16, October 1997

One of the remarkable features of the early Anabaptist movement is the very brief periods of ministry of the most influential leaders (some not even as long as the ministry of Jesus). Few survived to die peacefully in old age; some (like Conrad Grebel) succumbed to the plague, but many more were drowned, burned or beheaded after only a few years - or even a few months - of ministry. If the writings of these leaders which have survived seem a little rough and ready by comparison with their more illustrious Protestant contemporaries, this is not surprising, given the brevity and precariousness of their lives as Anabaptist leaders. Anabaptist theology has been characterised as "theology on the run". What is more surprising is the continuing influence of some of their writings centuries later.

In the summer of 1526, only eighteen months after the first believers' baptisms in Zurich had signalled the start of the Anabaptist movement, Michael Sattler suddenly appeared on the scene. In a whirlwind ministry tour, he preached, baptised and taught new converts in various Swiss villages, continued these activities in Strasbourg and nearby Lahr, held talks with the Strasbourg reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito, fell out with some of the early South German Anabaptists, participated in the crucial Schleitheim Conference and was arrested shortly after this in Austria. By May 1527, less than a year after starting his active ministry as an Anabaptist, he was dead. But in this brief period, Sattler left a lasting imprint on the Swiss branch of the movement.

History does not record how Sattler was converted to the Anabaptist cause. He had been the Prior (second in seniority) within the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter's of the Black Forest, but we do not know whether he was still there when, in 1525, this monastery was captured by a peasant war band during the widespread unrest that historians refer to as the Peasants' War. Since this war band included men from Waldshut and Hallau, where Anabaptism was already becoming established, it may be that Sattler encountered Anabaptist ideas through his contact with the peasants who overran his monastery. We know too that someone by the name of Michael spent time in the village of Klingau with the Anabaptist Hans Kuenzi; this may have been Sattler.

But his Anabaptist convictions were sufficiently thought out, and his reputation within the movement adequately established, for Sattler to play a significant role in the Schleitheim Conference. This conference drew together' Swiss Anabaptist leaders and produced the Schleitheim Confession, which in seven articles spelled out key convictions of the emerging movement. Sattler may well have been the author of this document, and of the "Congregational Order" which circulated with the Confession and spelled out seven further articles dealing with congregational practice. His influence is certainly evident. Arnold Snyder refers to the Schleitheim articles as the "crystallization point" for Swiss Anabaptism, defining it as a movement and giving it a rallying point. These articles were not all endorsed by other branches of the diverse movement that comprised Anabaptism, but they were fundamental for the Swiss Brethren.

In his short ministry, Sattler had three significant debates with other Anabaptists, each of which reveals some of the tensions in this rapidly developing movement. Each also highlights an issue of continuing concern for Christians.

(1) He argued against the spiritualist Anabaptists Hans Denek and Ludwig Hatzer (who called him a "sly evil lurker") that the teachings of Scripture must be obeyed to the letter. One of the issues which troubled and divided early Anabaptists was the relationship between "Word" and "Spirit". Anabaptism was both a charismatic movement with a deep awareness of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and a biblical movement with a deep concern to take very seriously the explicit teachings of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. Michael Sattter represented the wing of the Anabaptist movement which emphasised the necessity of obeying the letter of Scripture and not allowing this to be spiritualised or explained away by appeal to general principles.

(2) He argued against the apocalyptic Anabaptists led by Hans Hut, the most prolific and successful early Anabaptist evangelist, who anticipated the return of Christ within months and was fascinated by the prophetic passages of the Bible. Sattler argued that the church should concern itself primarily with obedience to Christ rather than speculation about the future.

(3) He argued against the magisterial Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, who was much more hopeful than most of his contemporaries that society as a whole might be reformed and who encouraged Christians to play an active role within society. Sattler disagreed and urged a more separatist line. His underlying theological framework was that there were "two kingdoms" - the kingdom of Satan or the world, and the kingdom of Christ, the church. Christians were to live distinctive lives and to submit to the rule of Christ rather than the customs of the world.

Michael Sattler does not emerge from what little we know about him as the most appealing of early Anabaptists. His monastic training seems to have resulted in his understanding Anabaptism as a new "rule" for living, and his writings emphasise obedience to the letter of Scripture to the extent that he has often been accused of literalism and legalism. But within the context of the first decade of the Anabaptist movement, he seems to have provided an important check on those who were in danger of downplaying the teaching of Jesus in favour of spiritual experiences, prophetic speculation or political ambitions. Sattler insisted on a firmly Christocentric interpretation of the Bible, which eventually came to be accepted as the norm within the movement and which continues to challenge biblical interpreters to take Jesus seriously. But the Schleitheim Confession is his most enduring legacy.

Extracts from the Schleitheim Confession can be found in the Freeze Frame in this issue. This document gives us important insights into the concerns of the early Swiss Anabaptists. But another kind of document is also available as a resource for understanding the early Anabaptists - therecords of their trials. Some of these make poignant reading. These are Christians under pressure, not engaging in careful study or polite debate. Their comments are sharp and likely to get them into even deeper trouble. But they help us understand what issues were regarded as significant by those who persecuted them, and how the Anabaptists presented their convictions in a hostile environment.

We do not have enough information about Michael Sattler's life to justify a lengthy article. But we have an account of his trial, which gives us an indication of what kind of man he was and why the Swiss Brethren so quickly warmed to the ex-prior. What follows is a dramatised (and abbreviated) account of Sattler's trial, drawn primarily from Thieleman van Braght's The Martyrs ' Mirror.

The date is the 17th of May 1527. The place: the imperial city of Rottenburg in Germany. The court is in session with Count Joachim of Zollern in the chair. On trial are Michael Sattler and thirteen other alleged Anabaptists.

Count: Defendants, you may choose a lawyer to represent you.

Sattler: Thank you, Sir, but we choose not to be represented. Though we know you are servants of God in your capacity as judges, we also know that the Word of God gives you no right to judge matters of faith. This court is not competent to try us.

Count: You insolent fellow! You will soon see what we are empowered to do to you. Read the charges.

Clerk: The charges against Mr Sattler are (1) that he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor; (2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ were not present in his sacrament; (3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism was not promotive of salvation; (4) that they rejected the sacrament of unction; (5) that they despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints; (6) that he declared that men should not swear before a magistrate; (7) that he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord's Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same; (8) that contrary to the rule he has married a wife; (9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks.

Count: Now do you answer these serious charges?

Sattler: May I ask for them to be read again so that 1 may fully understand them?

Clerk: He has boasted that he has the Holy Spirit. If that is true, we do not need to read the charges again - the Holy Spirit can inform him?

Sattler: Please read them again. (Clerk reads them again.)

Count: Will you now reply to these charges?

Clerk: The charges against Mr Sattler are (1) that he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor.

Sattler: This first charge was directed against the Lutherans and urged them to preach only the gospel and the word of God. We have observed this for we have not acted contrary to the word of God.

Clerk: (2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ were not present in his sacrament.

Sattler.- The second charge 1 accept as true and 1 will show you many Scriptures to defend this.

Clerk: (3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism was not promotive of salvation.

Sattler: The third also is true, for baptism is for believers, not for infants, as the Scriptures clearly show.

Clerk: (4) that they rejected the sacrament of unction.

Sattler: The sacrament of unction is nothing. Oil is made by God and so is good, but no papal blessing improves it.

Clerk: (5) that they despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints.

Sattler: We do not revile the Mother of God, but the Scriptures do not allow us to treat her or the saints as intercessors for us.

Clerk: (6) that he declared that men should not swear before a magistrate.

Sattler: The sixth charge is true, for swearing oaths is forbidden by Christ himself.

Clerk: (7) that he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord's Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same.

Sattler: 1 will make no response to the seventh charge, for it is not worth defending.

Clerk: (8) that contrary to the rule he has married a wife.

Sattler: As to my marriage, this is an ordinance of God. How many chaste priests do you know?

Clerk: (9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks.

Sattler: As regards the Turks, we will not fight, for we are told "Thou shalt not kill".

Count: Is this your full reply?

Sattler: 1 am happy to discuss these matters in greater detail with you if you will allow me to appeal to the Scriptures.

The judges became infuriated at Sattler's calm confidence and began to ridicule and threaten him, but he did not lose his composure. At length they conferred pronounced him guilty and declared the sentence. Two

days later Sattler was executed. His ordeal began in the marketplace where a piece was cut from his tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body with red-hot tangs. He was tied to a cart and the tongs used five more times on the way to the site of execution. To the guards' amazement, Sattler was still able to speak and he could be heard praying for his persecutors. Then he was bound to a ladder and pushed into the fire.

Sattler: People, judges, Lord Mayor - hear the word of God, repent and believe the gospel. Almighty God, eternal God, you are the way and the truth. Because 1 have not been shown to be in error, 1 will with your help this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.

When the ropes on his wrists burned through, Sattler raised the two fore fingers of his hands, giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr's death was bearable. Then the crowd heard him say through seared lips...

Sattler: Father, I commend my spirit into your hands.

Two days later, Sattler's wife, Margareta, refused to recant her beliefs and was drowned.

As you reflect on this account, you might want to ask these questions:

(1) This was trial by a Catholic court. Which of the charges against Sattler would equally have applied to a Protestant defendant, and which were distinctively Anabaptist?

(2) How would you have responded to these charges?

(3) Which, if any, of these issues are still significant issues of disagreement among Christians?

(4) What convictions might land Christians in late twentieth century Britain in trouble with the courts?

Stuart Murray teaches church planting and evangelism at Spurgeon's College, London.