A Theology of Suffering: Suffering and Martyrdom in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Hymnody

Alec Loganbill

Whoever wants to have fellowship with [Christ]
and be a partaker of his kingdom
must also do like him
here on this earth.
Whoever would inherit with him
must have much pain here
for the sake of his name.1

The strong connection between suffering and salvation displayed in this Swiss Brethren Anabaptist hymn is underscored throughout sixteenth-century Anabaptist hymnody. Such a connection was inspired by Anabaptists’ developing theological beliefs and by their experiences of persecution and suffering in early modern Europe. The writing and singing of hymns were popular and powerful means of religious expression for early Anabaptists, whose music could be heard everywhere from worship spaces to prison cells to the burning stake. They wrote and sang hymns to declare their faith, memorialize their martyrs, and connect to other believers. As music historian Rosella Reimer Duerksen has observed, in the case of Anabaptists, “hymnodists practiced little restraint or sophistication, but presented their views and beliefs freely in the stanzas which they penned.” 2 Thus, their compositions offer an unadulterated look into the hearts and minds of lay people rather than the formal doctrine found in other confessional hymnals of the Reformation. The lack of any formal doctrine in Anabaptist hymnody is also reflective of the fact that, as historian John Rempel has noted, “little time was taken for doctrinal or liturgical formulation; what mattered was spiritual rebirth and a life of surrender.”3 This grassroots form of religious expression and experience emphasized passionate spirituality, concern for living a holy life, and, perhaps most strikingly, the powerful and effective motifs of suffering and martyrdom.4

Among the developing doctrinal and theological ideas with which Anabaptist hymnodists interacted, adult baptism appears as one of the most prominent, for it was both the distinguishing feature of the confession theologically and politically. In the sixteenth century, adult baptism, or believer’s baptism, was “cited more often than any other doctrine as the crime condemning an Anabaptist to execution.”5 The connection between baptism and death was not lost to hymnodists, who frequently set baptism in a context of suffering. In addition to the baptismal sequence of grace followed by water, Anabaptists understood there to be a third rite of baptism: that of blood.

The Lord Jesus Christ, therefore,
assigns three witnesses for us.
The two are called water and Spirit.
The third, blood, that is, suffering.6

In a very real way, Anabaptists thought of baptism as the first step on the path to martyrdom. Baptism was a commitment to a godly life and a suffering life, a statement of faith that was a violation and rejection of the state church punishable by death. The emphasis of suffering in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, especially among the Swiss Brethren, was both a response to their experiences as a persecuted people and their theological formulation that true Christian discipleship demanded that Christians follow in the way of Christ, suffering as Christ suffered.

The importance of believer’s baptism was stressed in the context of martyr hymns, like in the account of the imprisonment, trial, and execution of Claesken Gaeledochter. In recounting Claesken’s inquisition, the hymnodist stresses her commitment to believer’s baptism, intimate knowledge of Scripture, and personal and passionate spirituality—all of which are common themes in Anabaptist martyr hymns.

About her baptism he did question;
But she, without alt’ring her course,
Courageously the Scriptures told:
That of new life and repentance
Both John and Christ most clearly tell;
‘Repentance first!’ was taught the people.7

Not confined to a baptismal context, Anabaptists’ theology of suffering consistently appears throughout their robust oral and literary traditions, most especially in their hymns.8 Like other confessions of the Reformation, Anabaptists connected their own suffering to the larger narrative of Christian persecution. One Passau hymnodist recounted the lineage of Christian suffering, declaring that “it began with Abel.”9 The author goes on to write:

Afterwards, all the prophets
and other pious also—
some were killed,
other experienced especially great humiliation
through fear and distress, cross and affliction.10

Anabaptist hymnodists accounted for the suffering of martyrs as well as their own affliction. In doing so, many hymns depicted imprisonment, torture, and execution in graphic detail. Stanzas told of burning, beheading, drowning, and stretching on the rack, along with other forms of physical torment. One of the most gruesome examples appears in the hymnal account of Elisabeth van Leeuwarden:

They had two thumbscrews put on
When for a long time she refused to confess,
So that they smashed thumb and fingers
Till the blood spurted out from her nails.11

However grim this theology of suffering may seem, it was often closely linked to messages of consolation and hope. The acceptance of “innocent suffering,” as one wrote, was not only a manifestation of discipleship but necessary for salvation.12 This union between suffering and salvation simultaneously inspired, sustained, and consoled sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Often, consolatory hymns took the form of prayers, pleading for God to grant peace to the suffering:

In anguish and distress,
Give us the bread of heaven,
And in the pain of death
Let peace to us be given.13

Anabaptist hymnodists also looked directly to Christ to inspire their work, as in this stanza, adapted from the Sermon on the Mount:

When you are slandered and abused now,
Persecuted and beaten for my sake,
be joyful, for see, your reward
is prepared for you on heaven’s throne.14

Many hymns that connected suffering to consolation and salvation were created by those who immediately needed such a message, namely, the imprisoned. The most famous collection of such hymns is the Ausbund, the primary hymnal of the Swiss Brethren. The core of this hymnal was first published in 1564 and consisted of fifty-three hymns, which were composed by Swiss Brethren Anabaptists imprisoned in Passau between 1535 and 1540 and include hymns written by well-known early Anabaptist leaders such as George Blaurock, Felix Mantz, and Michael Sattler, and others.15

Motifs of sorrow and distress underscore much of the Ausbund, a clear reflection of the immediate situation of the hymns’ authors. These understandable themes, however, are offset by “a note of triumph [and] of a conviction that [the authors’] past of sorrow and tribulation is leading them to everlasting life.”16 In one hymn, Michael Schneider joins the reality of bondage and suffering with the hope of salvation in the opening and closing stanzas:

We cry to you, Lord God,
and lament to you all our distress,
which now confronts us
in dungeons and in stocks
where they have stuck us.
Give our spirit power and much strength
that it may lay hold of the goal
which has long stood before us,
so that we might obtain it.
O God, Release the captives! Amen.17

Schneider’s urgency, religious conviction, and belief in the salvation of and from suffering were common themes often repeated in many of the hymns composed in Passau.

While the composition of many hymns was often an individual practice of meditation and expression, singing hymns was nearly always communal. For early Anabaptists across Europe, the singing of hymns was decidedly a shared practice, be it in a congregational, familial, or clandestine setting.18 Because of the wide variety of Anabaptist hymnody, songs were sung to worship God, express religious ideas, commemorate martyrs, and give comfort and hope to the persecuted and imprisoned. Dutch martyrologist Hans de Ries believed that “songs of the cross” were “profitable to be sung at times when the congregation [was] burdened with the cross and suffering.”19 Anabaptists readily recognized and employed the power that singing hymns could have for a community of believers. Simply, the hymns of the Ausbund and other hymnals were written by the suffering, for the suffering.

Related to the motif of salvation and suffering was the prevalence of a belief in imminent eschatology. Several hymns in the Ausbund expressed the hymnodist’s belief that Christ would soon return and usher in the Kingdom of God. Here, hymnal messages were intended to instill a sense of urgency to convert, repent, and “console the suffering and encourage them to endure a little longer.”20 Michael Schneider conveyed the urgency of repentance in the face of imminent eschatology on multiple instances throughout the Ausbund:

God burned Sodom
for its sinful deeds.
You should accept this.
It is certainly an example
for all who live godlessly
in this time.
God will give them their reward.
The fire is already prepared.21

In another hymn, which anticipates the New Jerusalem in a remarkable forty-six verses, Schneider consoles his audience:

You, Church of God, keep your pure covenant,
namely the covenant of your groom, Christ.
For a short time be patient and suffer.
He will soon give your rest.22

Prominently, Anabaptists experienced and expressed their suffering through the drama of martyrdom, which included not only execution but also imprisonment and prosecution. Although Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century also published their own extensive martyrologies, those of Anabaptists were unique in that they were preserved primarily through song. When Anabaptist hymns were published, they rarely appeared with musical notation but rather with a familiar tune designation. Believers preserved these tunes, often adopted from popular folk songs, and the lyrics through communal singing and rote memorization.23 Anabaptism’s distinctive separatism, strong in-group orientation, and low literacy levels among believers contributed to hymnal martyrology for Swiss Brethren and Dutch Anabaptists in the sixteenth century.24

The extant of hymnal martyrologies was not long-lasting among some Anabaptist groups, however. Hans de Ries, who published a new Dutch Mennonite martyrology in 1615—one that became the basis of the Martyr’s Mirror—refashioned much of the content from earlier hymnals into prose. Although no information was lost, a certain distinctiveness was. This editorial decision reflected a transition in Dutch Mennonite life: the stories of martyrs were no longer memorized and sung in secret by illiterate Christians; instead, they were studied openly by the educated.25 The Swiss Brethren and their descendants, on the other hand, continued publishing updated versions of the Ausbund in America until 1785 and in Europe until 1838, which helped to maintain a “theology of suffering…long after the actual experience of martyrdom had become relatively rare.”26 Generally, however, the intense attention paid to the theology and experience salvation and suffering, sustained through early believers’ hymns, faded with their own martyrdom. Nevertheless, an interest in Anabaptist martyrdom is still alive among many present-day Anabaptists.

Despite the near absence of sixteen-century hymns in modern Anabaptist worship and experience, these songs were absolutely foundational to the experience of the Christians who wrote and sang them. The composition and singing of original hymns provided consolation, meaning, and continuity to a persecuted religious movement still in its infancy. The themes of suffering and martyrdom pointed to a distinctive and immensely meaningful aspect unique to this Reformation-era confession. Beyond the narratives which many of these hymns outlined, early Anabaptist hymnodists also unveiled their own understandings of the larger narrative of the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, as well as their place in it. Viewed from the twenty-first century, these hymns provide a unique glimpse into the temporal and existential realities of the first Anabaptists.


1. Galen A. Peters, ed., The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau, Published in 1564, trans. Robert A. Riall (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2003),62.

2. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century: A Study of Its Marked Individuality Couples with a Dependence upon Contemporary Secular and Sacred Musical Style and Form.” Ph.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1956, 268-269.

3. John D. Rempel, “Anabaptist Religious Literature and Hymnody,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 391.

4. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 35, no. 1 (January, 1961), 38.

5. Ibid., 44.

6. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 266.

7. Hermina Joldersma and Louis Grijp, eds. and trans., Elisabeth’s Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2001), 91.

8. John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

9. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 409.

10. Ibid.

11. Joldersma and Grijp, Elisabeth’s Manly Courage, 119.

12. Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” 42.

13. Quoted in Paul M. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964), 45.

14. Quoted in Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 203.

15. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 5-6.

16. Ibid.,6.

17. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 143-148.

18. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, s.v. “Hymnology of the Anabaptists,” accessed March 2, 2019, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hymnology_of_the_Anabaptists.

19. Quoted in Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 239.

20. Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century,” 259.

21. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 133.

22. Ibid.,244.

23. Yoder, et al. Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 7.

24. Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 212.

25. Ibid., 237.

26. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

1 thought on “A Theology of Suffering: Suffering and Martyrdom in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Hymnody

  1. Surely the most developed theology of martyrdom among early anabaptists is Hans Hut’s ‘Gospel of All Creatures.’ It is a kind of natural theology of suffering, which posits suffering – being slain and consumed for the benefit of whatever is higher on the food chain– as the key characteristic of life found in all levels of creation. I can only imagine the shock running through the early anabaptists as they reacted to the vicious terrorism to which their beloved fellows were being subjected, even as they were convinced they were finally experiencing what they understood to be the love of God in a deeper way than they had ever experienced before. The cognitive dissonance in this veritably cried out for some kind of explanation. Hut’s Gospel of All Creatures is an admirably creative attempt to make some kind of logical sense of the situation. It clearly had currency for some years in the South German/Austrian fountain of anabaptism. My sense is that it died its own natural death once the persecution become less vicious and more sporadic. It contained the seeds of its own demise in that, like any natural theology, it pointed toward an imaginative picture of God and the qualities of God. Thus, while it might make sense of immediate vicious treatment of God’s beloved followers to place the suffering in the context of suffering for the benefit of those higher up in the circles of emanation, and for those lower in the circles of emanation to find their own true ‘fulfillment’ and purpose (grapes being crushed, animals being slaughtered and roasted, grain being ground between stones, etc.) when you move to what this says about the highest level of emanation (God) who, after all, created things this way and who ‘draws all thing to Him,’ you are left with a picture of something like a sadistic maniac. I am reminded of something Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death, that if you try to discern the ‘higher purposes’ of life on this planet by simply looking at what is going on all around you, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the higher purpose is simply to be a gigantic fertilizer pit. Hut’s Gospel of All Creatures did not press the issue of what such a construction of creation said about the Creator, although I do seem to remember from my studies 40 years ago that Hut or some other SG/A writer did try to equate God’s love with the demand of martyrdom, using Christ’s crucifixion as the model. This at least echoes the rationalizations of severely abused children to justify and exonerate their abusers. It is hard to look at, one turns away in dismay, even these 500 years later.

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