On March 31, 2019, following a thematically-diverse, well-attended international colloquium at Bienenberg Theological Seminary on “Anabaptist History and Renewal Movements,” John D. Roth moderated a day-long discussion on the subject of the identity of the Swiss Brethren. This conversation centered around Martin Rothkegel’s challenge to the scholarly consensus, which Arnold Snyder has recently reasserted, concerning the character of this Anabaptist tradition.1 The essential contours of this disagreement are as follows: Snyder (along with most of his colleagues) sees the Swiss Brethren as a transregional confessional movement, rooted in the earliest theological statements of Anabaptists in Switzerland, with a consistent set of distinctive doctrinal and behavioral markers; Rothkegel, meanwhile, posits that the label Swiss Brethren was the name given to an organized, underground network of churches, analogous in structure to Calvinist églises plantées and centered in the Holy Roman Empire, with only incidental links to the Swiss Confederation and early Swiss Anabaptist theological positions and texts.
This interchange represents a new chapter in debates over group definition which have long characterized historical research into early Anabaptism. This focus persists, in large part, because the categories and models that historians have employed to explain the development of official confessional movements (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed) during and after the Protestant Reformation cannot be easily applied to marginalized communities of nonconformists. Arguments about who Anabaptists were, what they believed and did, and how they related to each other and to those outside of their communities require creative interpretations of sparser evidence.
This particular iteration of a longer conversation about the identity of the Swiss Brethren is provocative because it encourages reconsideration of basic questions. Which sources matter in determining where the boundaries of the Swiss Brethren community lay? Which methods are most effective in uncovering these sources’ significance? And, at the core of the matter, what is the historical significance of Swiss Anabaptist origins to later Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions?
These questions brought to mind a rare reference to the “Swiss Brethren” in my reading of legal records from Zurich’s territory in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In May 1595, Markus Wydler, the pastor of the village of Kilchberg, along with a local deputy bailiff and lay elder authored a supplication to Zurich’s city government on behalf of their community.2 They complained of the recent settlement of the glassmaker Heinrich Rützensdorfer “of the Anabaptist sect” and his wife and children in their parish. The new family refused to attend Reformed services. The locals’ efforts to persuade Rützensdorfer and his family to integrate into Reformed parish life had failed. On multiple occasions, the pastor, lay community leaders, and, eventually, Rützensdorfer’s own mother-in-law had visited the couple’s home in order to investigate their religious opinions. Rützensdorfer responded to these approaches, the supplication’s authors claimed, by outlining positions associated with the “Swiss Brethren, as they are called.”3 He would only attend a church that, one, exercised the ban and, two, allowed congregants to correct the preacher when he erred. (In a separate interrogation, Rützensdorfer also expressed unwillingness to swear an oath.)4 Out of fear of the potentially “damaging unrest” that might result from these new arrivals’ presence, the supplicants asked the authorities to remove the Anabaptists, “who had never existed in our parish since the beginning of the Reformation.”
In the framework of Snyder and Rothkegel’s exchange, this document presents intriguing evidence. On the one hand, the document’s authors appear to see continuity in the identity of Anabaptists within Zurich’s territory over time. One sect has been present in the region from the introduction of Zwinglian reform in Zurich to the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time, after diligently examining Rützensdorfer’s stated beliefs, the people of Kilchberg apply a label (Schweizerbruder) to him that authorities in the area simply did not use to refer to local Anabaptists settled permanently in their communities. Officials who governed parishes and bailiwicks inhabited by larger numbers of Anabaptists employed the derogatory labels Wiedertäufer, Täufer, or, in rarer cases, Taufbrüder. In my reading, the use of the name Swiss Brethren attributes a degree of foreignness to Rützensdorfer and his family.
There is a tension within sixteenth-century attempts to categorize the religious community or tradition to which Rützensdorfer belonged which suggest both continuity and change. Examination of other extant records are not particularly helpful in resolving this tension for modern observers. As Christian Scheidegger has shown, Rützensdorfer participated in a reading circle of Schwenckfelders in Zurich proper in the late-1580s before being temporarily expelled from the city.5 Although he continuously refused to attend Reformed services in Kilchberg into the 1610s, Rützensdorfer’s wife eventually participated actively in the life of the parish and regularly sent her children to Reformed religious instruction.6 I have not yet been able to document whether Rützensdorfer established membership in a specific Anabaptist congregation or, indeed, whether he was ever baptized. Still, in addition to his aforementioned statements regarding the proper form of Christian community, Rützensdorfer also used theological argumentation often employed by local Anabaptists when refusing to submit to authorities’ demands for him to leave the territory.7
This set of documents doesn’t provide conclusive evidence about the nature of Swiss Brethren group identity, organization, and theology. Rather, it shows that even contemporary observers struggled to understand the ongoing influence of early Swiss Anabaptism on nonconformists and the forms of nonconformity they encountered in their own time. Although unique in its particulars, this case represents many more which frustrate attempts to make narrow claims about who the Swiss Brethren were. On account of Anabaptists’ marginality, Rützensdorfer’s biography is complicated in ways that many nonconformists’ biographies are complicated. As we continue to refine an understanding of the Swiss Brethren, our models need to be flexible enough to account for this type of evidence. As this post has shown, the task of definition does not necessarily become easier as we move past the turbulence of the early Reformation.
- Martin Rothkegel, “Schweizer Brüder,” Mennonitisches Lexicon, vol. 5, updated February 11, 2016, http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=top:schweizer_brueder; Arnold Snyder, “In Search of the Swiss Brethren,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 4 (2016): 421-515.↩
- Staatsarchiv Zürich (StAZH), E I 7.3, #74.↩
- The context of the referenced quote follows: “Demnach so habenn wir durch unseren pfarrer un[d] die Ehegoumer zu mehermalen un[d] undersheidenlichen ziten, Inne siner Meinung der Religion halben Laßen erforschen, die dan bey uns ungebrechlich, Insonders wie Er sich deß kilchgange halben wölle halten. do Er sich dan für das ine zu[o] den Schweitzerbrudern, wie man si nennt.”.↩
- StAZH, E I 7.3, #70.↩
- Christian Scheidegger, “Täufergemeinden, hutterische Missionare und schwenckfeldische Nonkonformisten bis 1600,” in Die Zürcher Täufer, 1525-1700.↩, ed. Urs B. Leu and Christian Scheidegger (Zurich: Theologisher Verlag Zürich, 2007), 155.↩
- StAZH, E I 7.4, #43.↩
- During an undated period of imprisonment prior to Rützensdorfer’s settlement in Kilchberg, Zurich’s authorities interrogated him in the Wellenberg tower in the middle of the Limmat river. When he was asked to promise to leave the city’s territory and not return, the prisoner responded by citing Psalm 24:1. Since the earth was was the Lord’s, secular authorities had no ultimate power to determine people’s movement through it, Anabaptists often claimed.↩