Praying to the Lord Against the City?

Dürer_FourHorsemen

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut The Four Horsemen (1498), an interpretation of Revelation 6:1-8 featuring Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence (from left to right).

In 1639, the city council of Zurich published its so-called Manifest, an apologetic mandate which justified authorities’ recent repressive actions against the Anabaptist population living in the rural jurisdictions surrounding the city. Among the reasons given for a campaign of incarceration, intentional impoverishment, and child removal—the weight of which ended a more than century-long Anabaptist presence in the area—was the nonconformists’ alleged utterance of malevolent prayers. Instead of interceding on behalf of the authorities, in keeping with the instruction of the apostles [1 Tim. 2:1-2], Anabaptists were accused of asking God to visit “pestilence, war, and other plagues” on the territory’s inhabitants.1

This particular accusation is of uncertain origin, but it was not new. The authors of the Manifest claimed that Anabaptists had cultivated this specific prayer “among themselves for years.” Indeed, clerics stationed in rural parishes had complained of a prayer with similar content in a list of grievances submitted to Zurich’s synod already in 1601. Allegedly, several local Anabaptists had asked God to rain down disaster on the territory so that Reformed authorities would forget about the dissidents and leave them alone.2 Anabaptists denied such claims. For example, Hans Müller, a deacon from Zurich’s southeastern Oberland, dismissed the charge categorically as an untruth spread by “evil people.” In keeping with Christ’s command, his brethren prayed for those who persecuted them, Müller insisted.3

We cannot determine definitively whether beleaguered nonconformists actually beseeched God to inflict their Reformed neighbors with disease, famine, and armed conflict. Still, the occasional reappearance of the claim that they did leaves us with a few interesting questions: why were some members of Reformed communities convinced that Anabaptists engaged in such malicious devotions, despite dissidents’ frequent denials, and why did they care?

Reformed pastors—those who reported the practice in question—likely believed that Anabaptists were capable of such spiritual sabotage because it accorded with the stereotypes of the dissident movement reinforced by their clerical education. Ministers’ libraries contained texts that attributed to local Anabaptists the seductive power of heretics and the disruptive potential of rebels.4 In addition, in the early 17th century pastors periodically attended academic events organized around discussion of anti-Anabaptist theses, including one entitled “Concerning the diabolic possession of men . . .”5 Furthermore, ill-seeking prayer communicated a lack of concern for the welfare of the Reformed society. This fit with clerics’ understanding of the intentions behind Anabaptists’ withdrawal from the religious life of the majority: nonconformists’ refusal to participate in certain religious and civil ceremonies was viewed as an act of spiritual arrogance. Since religious disunity held the potential to invite divine wrath, their behavior put the entire Christian community at risk. By offering up malevolent prayers, Anabaptists requested with their words what they were calling for with their actions.

Other members of the Reformed majority may have believed allegations of ill-intentioned prayers because of some rhetorical consistency with other instances of Anabaptist speech. Anabaptists often openly denounced what they deemed to be the generalized moral depravity of Reformed society, and implied its members’ perdition. They also frequently got into trouble for purposefully provoking their Reformed neighbors in shared social spaces. When Anabaptists told fellow travelers on the street that they had seen a devil on the local minister’s shoulder, or suggested that reconciliation with the Reformed church was akin to a dog vomiting and snarfing the results back up again, they deliberately baited their audience by publicly impugning their faith.6 In this context, the malevolent prayers which accusers attributed to Anabaptists might have been understood to reflect a similar spirit.

Undergirding all of these concerns was an assumption that Anabaptists’ words mattered, that they had the power to enact some kind of effect on reality. One the one hand, this belief existed in tension with Reformed leaders’ claims that Anabaptists’ spiritual and civil disobedience had cut them off from communion with God. On the other, it fit easily within a worldview that saw the crises of the period—indeed, exactly those disasters the Anabaptists were accused of appealing for—in the context of a broader spiritual conflict, in which Zurich was deeply engaged. These were not theoretical disasters, but catastrophes that marred seventeenth-century Europeans’ everyday existence. A primary response of the city council to the threat posed by the period’s economic ruin and the Thirty Years’ War was to mandate mass participation in days of prayer and repentance. That Anabaptists were engaging simultaneously in spiritual counter-efforts simply confirmed their identity as opponents of the common good in the eyes of authorities. The assumption, of course, was that God would only answer the petitions of those faithful to him. Some, however, believed that Anabaptists’ utterances had the power to invoke diabolical forces. This was the charge often lodged against Anabaptist medical practitioners—midwives, doctors, and veterinarians—who supposedly harnessed dark powers in the practice of healing arts.

The charge of uttering malevolent prayers represents a curious facet of the long-standing relationship between Anabaptists and representatives of Zurich’s Reformed majority. It sheds light on how contemporaries understood the effects of dissidents’ clandestine devotional practices on social well-being. It also shows that, despite their non-participation in Reformed religious culture, Anabaptists were deeply implicated in rural communal life. Their participation in networks of village sociability and exchange was a feature of long-term coexistence. Differences in religious belief and practice did not make living together impossible. However, as this case shows, this coexistence did not exclude conflict over speech with religious content. When open conflict did erupt, latent accusations (of questionable derivation) could be reactivated and used to sanction the repression of members of the local religious minority.


  1. “Wahrhaffter Bericht…,” in Täufer und Reformierte im Disput: Texte des 17. Jahrhunderts über Verfolgung und Toleranz aus Zürich und Amsterdam, ed. Wälchli, Philip, Urs Leu, and Christian Scheidegger (Zug: Achius, 2010), 125. 
  2. Zentralbibliothek Zürich (ZBZ), Ms B 163, 82v. 
  3. ZBZ, Ms B 163, 303v-304r. 
  4. Hanspeter Jecker, “Lange Schatten und kurzes Gedächtnis – Heinrich Bullingers posthumer Einfluss auf die Behandlung der Täufer in der Schweiz,” in Heinrich Bullinger: Life – Thought – Influence, ed. Emidio Campi and Peter Opitz (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2007), 709-713. 
  5. A thesis entitled “Disputatio theologico-philosophica, de diabolica hominum obsessione, et de daemonum eiectione” was submitted for dispute during synodal meetings in October 1626. Urs B. Leu, “Letzte Verfolgungswelle und niederländische Interventionen,” in Die Zürcher Täufer, 1525-1700, ed. Urs B. Leu, and Christian Scheidegger (Zürich: Theologisher Verlag Zürich, 2007), 208. 
  6. Francisca Loetz has argued that blasphemers engaged in similar forms of verbal performance. Dealings with God: From Blasphemers in Early Modern Zurich to a Cultural History of Religiousness (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009), 272-73. 

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