Scattered Among Strangers

In the mid-seventeenth century, Dutch Mennonites inquired with increasing persistence into reports of Swiss Reformed governments’ mistreatment of Anabaptists living in their rural territories.1 In response to these expressions of concern, nonconformists in Zurich sought to provide their own testimony of what they had experienced. The primary result of this effort was Jeremias Mangold’s True Report . . . Concerning the Tribulations Which Came Upon Them, a description of the suffering of Anabaptist women and men, and their children, during a campaign of repression instigated by the city’s council in 1635.2 “It is not possible with a few words to tell of the great tribulation and cruelty which came upon us, as well as our wives, children, the aged, the sick, those with child, and those nursing—how they dealt with us poor subjects so harshly, inhumanely, and mercilessly,” Mangold wrote.3 Despite a recognition of the limited capacity of language to capture the breadth of their hardships, community members had contributed to a “short, simple, sure, and true account” of what had occurred. As the text revealed, the detention of Anabaptists and their separation from their children stood at the center of nonconformists’ understanding of the source of their suffering.

Oetenbach_Image

Detail from Jos Murer’s woodcut Der uralten wytbekannten Statt Zurych gestalt und gelaegenhait… (Zurich, 1576) depicting the Oetenbach cloister, which lay just inside the city’s walls. By the 1630s, the city’s council had converted the complex into an orphanage, workhouse, and prison and used it to incarcerate scores of Anabaptist women and men who lived in the surrounding countryside.

For a period of more than a century after the city’s reformation, Zurich’s government had sought to achieve uniformity of religious belief and practice in the territory under its control. The authorities had employed a variety of means, including social exclusion, financial penalties, and control of physical mobility, to compel Anabaptist conformity. Yet, despite the existence of a stable legal framework under which nonconformists could be prosecuted, officials had not implemented penalties systematically. Exemplary punishment of male Anabaptist leaders achieved only short-lived successes. Nonconformists continued to threaten the unity and health of the sacred society which authorities believed they had been ordained to institute and protect.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the council extended the scope of its repression. Frustrated by Anabaptists’ ongoing unwillingness to agree to their basic demand to either conform or leave, the authorities decided to incarcerate both nonconformist men and women in large numbers and to relocate their children, now separated from their parents, into Reformed households throughout the region. In the eyes of the authorities, given the failure of previous initiatives to address Anabaptists’ intransigence, this tactic was a lamentable but necessary means to achieve what they deemed a public good, the elimination of Anabaptist religious culture and the removal of nonconformists from the social body. “But as long as the Anabaptists . . . neither want to move away, nor be obedient, is not an Honorable Government compelled to take such a disobedient people into civil custody?” they asked.4

Thus, the breaking up of Anabaptist families became routine. Reports of family separation punctuate the True Report’s biographical vignettes which relate the details of each Anabaptist family’s experience. When Rudolph Hägi and his wife were detained in the orphanage-cum-prison of Oetenbach—Hägi for a period of eighty-three weeks–their five children were “scattered . . . from house and home among strangers.”5 The children of Adelheid Egli, the daughter-in-law of the martyred Anabaptist Hans Landis, suffered a similar fate during the nearly four years she survived in confinement.6 Anabaptist parents who agreed to leave the territory in exchange for their freedom later returned, incurring significant personal risk to find their daughters and sons. Mangold, describing the actions of the expelled Anabaptist Jacob Gochnauer, reported that “when he came into the area again to search for his scattered children, he walked into the hands of the enemies on the street, and they took him prisoner.”7

Evidence of family separation also appears in the city’s archived financial records. When Anna Peter and her husband Hans Müller, a miller from the small rural settlement of Edickon and an Anabaptist deacon, were imprisoned in Oetenbach for more than a year, their nine-year-old twins and three-year-old son were handed over to Müller’s Reformed brother, while their eighteen-month-old daughter was placed in the home of Müller’s Reformed brother-in-law, an official with policing functions in a nearby village government. The authorities mandated that these children be billeted and supervised without any support from the common funds.8

Members of local Anabaptist communities, who had survived in hostile conditions for decades, recognized that the breaking up of families represented a departure from a previous punitive regime. They lamented this punishment over any other. In addition to concern about the physical well-being of children–who were now “buffeted about among strangers, looked down upon, scolded, and mocked”—Anabaptists also harbored fears about the long-term consequences of their children’s separation from “fatherly and motherly care.”9 Who would supply their children’s needs and with what intentions? Who would protect them as they matured? Who would care for their spiritual well-being? Who would they become? How these questions would be answered had grave implications for the maintenance of fragile community life.

If anything, the authorities believed that separating children from their Anabaptist parents would improve their lot; integrated into the life of the Reformed parish, children stood a chance at social and spiritual restoration.10 Yet, this remained the secondary benefit of a coercive program with a more important objective. By exerting intolerable pressure on Anabaptist parents, the breaking up of families forced them to choose between conformity or exit. This practice helped authorities articulate a basic message: “We do not want you here, at least not as you are.” Within a few years after the implementation of this program, there was no longer an Anabaptist presence in Zurich. The government’s project of religious and cultural purification found success.

 


  1. Translated editions of many of the records produced by these inquiries and the efforts of mutual aid that followed are found in Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Volume I, 1635- 1709, trans. James W. Lowry, ed. David J. Rempel Smucker and John L. Ruth (Millersburg, Oh.: Ohio Amish Library, 2007), and Letters on Toleration: Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615-1699, ed. and trans. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs (Rockport, Maine: Picton, 2004). 
  2. All subsequent passages cited from this work, originally titled “Ein Warhafftiger Bericht, Von den Brüdern im Schweitzerland, in dem Zürcher Gebiet, Wegen der Trübsalen welche über sie ergangen seyn, um des Evangeliums willen; Von dem 1635sten bis in das 1645ste Jahr,” are taken from Lowry’s full translation in Documents, 24-83. On the attribution of authorship of this manuscript to Mangold, see Documents, 25n1. 
  3.  Documents, 27. 
  4. Johann Heinrich Ott to Isaac Hattavier (July 1645), translated in Documents, 103. Here, Ott, a Reformed minister defending the Zurich government’s actions to Hattavier, a merchant representing the interests of Dutch Mennonites, paraphrased an anti-Anabaptist tract known as the Manifest, published and disseminated by the city council in 1639. The original passage is found in Täufer und Reformierte im Disput: Texte des 17. Jahrhunderts über Verfolgung und Toleranz aus Zürich und Amsterdam, ed. Philip Wälchli, Urs Leu, and Christian Scheidegger (Zug: Achius, 2010), 104. 
  5.  Documents, 43. 
  6.  Documents, 61. 
  7.  Documents, 73. 
  8. Staatsarchiv Zürich, F I 190, 253. There is no mention of the removal of Peter and Müller’s children in the True Report. 
  9.  Documents, 81-83. 
  10. Reformed authorities considered children’s attendance at regular catechetical classes in the parish church an essential step in young people’s spiritual formation. Anabaptist parents regularly impeded their children from attending Reformed religious instruction. 

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