Early Modern Anabaptists: Syllabus Draft

This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions. 

Expected Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
  • Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
  • Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
  • Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form

Assignments

Class Participation (15%)

Writing Assignments: Historiographical Workshops (20% each)

1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)

Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects. 

2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)

Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.

3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)

Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices. 

Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)

Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected. 

Course Texts

  • C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
  • Other readings listed in course schedule below

Course Schedule

I. Origins

1. Introduction

  • Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes

2. Context

  • Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
  • Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5

3. Polygenesis

  • Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
  • Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11

4. Spread and Development

  • Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
    • Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
  • Sept. 26 – Conversion
    • Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.

5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?

  • Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
    • Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
  • Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest

II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures

6. Authority and Gender

  • Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
    • Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
  • Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
    • Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
  • Oct. 22 – Münster

7. Communication

  • Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9 

8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”

  • Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
    • Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
  • Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest

9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence

  • Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
    • Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings, 92-99
  • Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
    • Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345

10. Identity Formation

  • Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
    • Readings: Ausbund, number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
  • Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
    • Reading: Troy Osborne,  “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218

III. Continuing Anabaptist Traditions

11. Historiographical Workshop #3: “New Directions”

  • Nov. 19 – A Short Historiography of Anabaptism
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
  • Nov. 21 – New Approaches
    • Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6

12. Continuing Anabaptist Tradition

  • Nov. 26 – Genealogies: Visit to “Growing Family” Exhibition at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College
  • Nov. 28 – Global Anabaptisms
    • Reading: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), chapter 5

“The Swiss Brethren, as they are called”

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.

An excerpt from Heinrich Rützensdorfer’s written defense against accusations raised by the Reformed parishioners of Kilchberg. Staatsarchiv Zürich, E I 7.3, #75 (undated).

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.


  1. 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.
  2. Staatsarchiv Zürich (StAZH), E I 7.3, #74.
  3. 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.”.
  4. StAZH, E I 7.3, #70.
  5. 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.
  6. StAZH, E I 7.4, #43.
  7. 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.

Why Think with Early Anabaptists?

The history of sixteenth-century Anabaptists has occupied a privileged position in North American and European Mennonite historiography and self-understanding during the last century. The reasons for this are myriad. Most importantly, this history, and the theological writings associated with it, have offered these Mennonite communities legitimacy and a framework for determining a shared purpose.1

The role that early Anabaptist history has played in this context is undergoing reevaluation. Firstly, historical Anabaptist theology is diminishing in prominence as a resource for shaping Mennonite belief and practice. Secondly, as more North American and European Mennonite groups reflect to a greater degree the diversity of their societies and as distinctive Mennonite traditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shape a global church’s conception of itself–developments to be celebrated, surely–a history of origins rooted solely in early modern Europe is insufficient to the task of describing a common story. The question of whether the study of sixteenth-century Anabaptists is relevant to twenty-first century Mennonites requires continuous answering; a positive response should not be assumed.

Beyond these dynamics, a decentering of the sixteenth century in Anabaptist-Mennonite historiography–a trend represented in the content of this blog and one which I do not oppose–also coincides with a broader growth of doubts, in educational institutions and society more generally, about the value of studying a deeper past. Demand for pre-twentieth-century history (wars, presidents, and palace intrigue aside) is drying up, as indicated by class enrollments, hiring lines, and page views.

This colors the everyday experience of teaching, research, and writing for those working in fields of premodern history. When my colleague Cory Davis and I were recently approached to contribute to a fiftieth anniversary issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal entitled “Taking the Temperature of Early Modern Studies,” we wrote about the value of early modern history. Beyond questions of utility and origins, we argued, premodern historical scholarship retains relevance because of the habits of thought that it embodies and promotes. In the introduction to the piece, we highlighted two of these habits:

“First, early modern scholarship privileges empathetic understanding over judgment; while sharing with all good historical research the impulse to comprehend human subjects on their own terms, it is uniquely equipped to model this objective. Early modernists join historians of the ancient world and Middle Ages in noting the alterity of the values, worldviews, and modes of behavior of these eras’ peoples; the nature and quantity of early modern sources, however, make larger pieces of this foreign past accessible. We cannot claim to ever know what a person thought or felt in the past, even (or perhaps especially) when he or she recorded it. Nevertheless, our sources make it possible for us to practice and train others in the empathetic task of thinking with an enormous variety of people in radically different, and yet accessible, worlds.

Second, because of the period’s importance in shaping the structures that undergird modern life, early modern research reveals the contingency of both the past and present. Recognizing the circumstances in which world systems have come into being serves to denaturalize our own reality and provides alternative examples of how past communities have dealt with challenges comparable to those we face today. Thinking with early modern subjects requires us to set aside the privilege of hindsight in order to reconstruct their world and the possible futures they envisioned. Reducing the inevitability of the present in the minds of readers and students spurs us all to recognize that oppressive systems and ideologies are not destined to exist.

The promotion of these habits of thought, demanded by the practice of early modern scholarship, has taken on renewed import in present circumstances. By encouraging an impulse to understand the Other and by demonstrating possibilities for systemic change, the significance of early modern scholarship extends beyond its explanatory function and aids us to live better.”2

Scholarship on a deeper Anabaptist past epitomizes and encourages these same impulses. Engagement with the writings of early Anabaptists, and the search for traces of their existence in archives of the governments which repressed them, obligate us to wrestle with these people’s apparent strangeness. This encounter often confounds the assumption, or desire, that we will find ourselves in them. Attempts to overcome our basic difference from these subjects have at times led to projects of selective forgetting; better are efforts to reach across chronological distance to consider motivations and deeds of those who are inescapably foreign and to carry out the task of reconstructing environments in which their thoughts and actions made sense.

If thinking with early Anabaptists requires imaginative empathy, it also pushes us to take the contingency of their experience and legacy seriously. Early modern Anabaptist history is characterized by paths laid out and then diverted or blocked off, the result of moments of social and imaginative possibility punctuating generalized hostility. Recent scholarship has reinforced the notion that our understanding of Anabaptist phenomena is illuminated as much by the thoughts and actions of those figures and groups without a surviving tradition as by those whose link to the present is strengthened by shared convictions, organizational structures, or family names. These historical outliers too reasoned in ways worthy of consideration and demonstrated the capacity to temporarily construct alternative communities with geographical breadth and emotional and theological depth.3

When such an approach is taken, early Anabaptist history grows in its capacity to illuminate present questions and concerns rather than serving as a shibboleth.


  1. This point could be demonstrated variously, but Albert N. Keim’s description of the role of Anabaptist historiography in the work of H.S. Bender and the “Concern” group provides an example. Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998), esp. 306-31 and 450-71.
  2. Cory D. Davis and David Y. Neufeld, “Thinking with the Early Modern Past: The Relevance of our Scholarship,” The Sixteenth Century Journal (forthcoming, spring 2019).
  3. Recent studies of instances of this phenomenon include Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

New Approaches to the Radical Reformation: Report from the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference 2018

The annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference (SCSC) is the principal forum in which North American (and, to a much lesser extent, European) historians of the Radical Reformation and early modern Anabaptists present fresh results from their research. In these subject areas, the most recent meeting, held in Albuquerque from November 1-4, featured the broadest participation and widest range of research topics since I began attending in 2011. The following is a brief report of the conference, by no means comprehensive but focused on salient questions and themes around which research energies are focused.

A plenary roundtable on “New Approaches to the Radical Reformation,” organized by Geoff Dipple (University of Alberta, Augustana) and sponsored by the Society for Reformation Research, centered discussion around definitions and methods. The most provocative proposal came from Michael Driedger (Brock University), who suggested that historians discard altogether the session’s organizing principle, the Radical Reformation, as a historical phenomenon or framework for research. In his view, the category is inescapably problematic. It reflects early modern majorities’ descriptions of nonconformists too closely, a point Jim Stayer reinforced in his engaging historiographical survey. Instead, Driedger proposes studying post-Reformation religious radicalism as a sociological phenomenon which, once outlined, can be compared with other radicalisms across time and space. Amy Nelson-Burnett (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) echoed Driedger’s critique of the concept of Radical Reformation, suggesting that her work tracing patterns of dissent in early Reformation debates about the sacraments embeds “radicals” in the messy middle, rather than on the margins, of a broader conversation. Kat Hill (Birkbeck College, University of London) also spoke of the benefits of comparative analysis and of reevaluating Anabaptism in light of the insights of post-colonial history or the history of sexuality, for example. However, she highlighted the importance of “holding the difference” or, in other words, finding ways to emphasize features which distinguished specific “radical” communities from their neighbors and shaped a set of unique group identities over the long term. In keeping with this observation, one suggestion of my own contribution was that distinctive Anabaptist religious cultures remain legible in archival collections, despite the distorting effects of early modern and modern record-producing and -keeping practices.

Challenges to the categorization of post-Reformation radicalism in works like George H. Williams’ Radical Reformation (1962) are not new. Nonetheless, this framework remains durable–it continues to bring together scholars (at conferences like the SCSC) who work on topics of research which would otherwise be only loosely connected. Thus, the roundtable, and the question period, brought to the surface a series of important questions. If we were to take Driedger’s proposition seriously, what would be gained and lost? With which larger conceptual frameworks would we be left that might bring our interests together? Would there be any value in keeping a shared conversation among this group of scholars going, at least as intensively as we have done? There are not only historiographical consequences to how these issues are addressed, but also implications for the networks that historians of the early Reformation and Anabaptist religious cultures build and maintain.

Subsequent sessions provided a type of response to these questions. On the one hand, sets of papers illustrated the curious pairing of topics that an organizing concept like the Radical Reformation produces. Presenters forwarded engaging arguments about early modern catechisms, English Baptist views of natural wonders, and the development of Anabaptist masculinities, but it was not immediately clear how to synthesize or connect these findings. At the same time, the richness and breadth of fresh research projects suggested a renewed vitality in the field. In addition to engaging presentations on the intellectual history of the early Reformation, participants addressed issues of gender and the family, migration and mobility, archives, and material culture. Papers exhibited experimentation with new approaches to evidence and an alteration of familiar chronological and geographical parameters into which the history of Anabaptists has fallen.

Most encouraging is that this research really demonstrates the type of deep engagement and comparative work with broader scholarly debates that roundtable discussants had promoted. As a result, historians of “radicals” and Anabaptists are bringing new conversation partners into their ongoing discussions–as demonstrated by significantly increased attendance at and participation in these sessions. Perhaps broadening interest in this body of research should not surprise, given shared and growing concerns around majority-minority interactions, mobility and migration, and the nature and consequences of cultural and religious difference. This elevated level of engagement might event serve as an argument in favor of holding on to the Radical Reformation for a bit longer, even if only to keep these fruitful interchanges going.

List of Presentations

Inevitably, each presentation’s richness is lost in the report above. This list provides names of presenters and presentation titles, hinting at the variety in papers’ contents and approaches.

  • Bonikowske, Adam M. (University of Arizona) “Anabaptist Masculinity and Civic Refusals in Southern Germany and Switzerland: Revisiting Gender History”
  • Davis, Cory D. (University of Arizona) “That Our Manors May Be Rebuilt: Palatine Landlords and Toleration of Anabaptist Immigrants, 1650-1672”
  • Dipple, Geoffrey (University of Alberta, Augustana) “What were Hans Denck and Ludwig Hätzer doing in Worms in 1527?”
  • Lowe, Jessica C. (Vanderbilt University) “Inheritors of the Radical Reformation? Children of Münster Anabaptists and Dialogues around Dispossession”
  • Hill, Katherine (Birkbeck College, University of London) “Pottery Wars: Materials Cultures in Anabaptist Communities and Diasporic Identity”
  • Lambert, Erin (University of Virginia) “The ‘Gospel of All Creatures’ Reconsidered: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Early Reformation”
  • Martinuzzi, Chris (DePaul University) “Attitudes towards Turks, Jews, and Heathens in the Works and Correspondence of Early Reformers and Anabaptists”
  • Nelson Burnett, Amy (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) “Culture of Persuasion or Streitkultur?: The Flensburg Disputation of 1529”
  • Neufeld, David Y. (University of Arizona) “Knowledge Production and Repressive Action: Anabaptist-Reformed Relations in Zurich’s Archives”
  • Randolph, Jacob B. (Baylor University) “Polemic as Catechesis: Instruction and Opposition in the First Anabaptist Catechism”
  • Smith, Joshua C. Smith (Baylor University) “Whirlwinds, Sudden Death, and an Army of Toads: Baptist Prodigies of the 1660s”
  • Vice, Roy L. (Wright State University) “Reading the ‘Twelve Articles’ to the Rebels of 1525”
  • Zhao, Julia Q. (University of Notre Dame) “‘I have already died’: Baptism and Conversion in Early Anabaptist Martyrdom Literature”

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. 

An Anomalous Defense of Anabaptist Mobility

The Zurich government’s efforts to end the long-term presence of an Anabaptist minority in their territory in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focused on the control of nonconformists’ physical mobility. The council’s anti-Anabaptist decrees, provoked in part by the movement of Hutterite missionaries in the city’s lands, obliged middling officials to collaborate in a project to segregate, enclose, or banish local dissidents from parishes across rural jurisdictions.1 Periodically, Anabaptist community members were barred from using the commons, incarcerated, or expelled. By imposing these sanctions, Swiss Reformed authorities joined governments across early modern Europe who saw in the restriction and control of movement a means to force members of religious minorities and other marginalized groups to conform.2 Their stated objective was the restoration of subjects’ obedience and communal wholeness. The violence inherent in this approach marked the everyday lives of Anabaptists living in the region over a period of decades. The more systematic implementation of this punitive regime in the 1630s and 1640s helped to permanently eliminate an Anabaptist religious culture from Zurich’s territory.

Plague Image

The burial of three victims of plague in the church yard of Zurich’s Grossmünster, 1582. From the chronicle of the Zurich canon Johann Jakob Wick, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Handschriftenabteilung, Wickiana, Ms. F 30, Fol. 11r.

In this context, it is difficult to imagine that these same authorities would forward an argument in favor of the free movement of Anabaptists through imperial territory. Yet, in a November 1612 letter to Ernst Georg, the Duke of Hohenzollern residing in Krauchenweis, this is precisely what Zurich’s burgomasters and council did.3 This piece of incongruous reasoning stemmed from the arrest and incarceration of a group of five travelers traveling east between Mengen and Rüdlingen in the duke’s jurisdiction, among them one citizen and one subject of Zurich, one of them a barber surgeon, and three Anabaptist men from Moravia, who were journeying home.4 After being held for several days, the Swiss officials reported, the party’s members had been relieved of a significant sum of money, more than two hundred ducats, before being expelled from the German territory upon the swearing of an oath not to return. The travelers’ misfortune was regrettable, the Zurichers explained, because they had only had cause to traverse Ernst Georg’s lands after being summoned by the doctor Bastian Herber to aid in his efforts to treat victims of an outbreak of plague, which had devastated the city’s territory over the previous year.5 Herber—and, putatively, the assistants he had called for—had “behaved kindly towards us,” using his God-given medical arts and enduring great personal danger. His collaborators were now returning home along a familiar route connecting Zurich and Moravia, carrying with them significant monies bequeathed to them by grateful patients.

The letter’s authors expressed some understanding for the punitive instincts of the duke’s agents. The Swiss officials themselves had been dismayed when circumstances had forced them to welcome wrong-believing adherents of Anabaptism into their territory, where they were not usually tolerated. They also knew the content of the Constitutiones of the Holy Roman Empire, under whose stipulations they assumed that the travelers had been detained and relieved of their possessions. Nevertheless, under the same legal code, the officials contended, if an Anabaptist were to pass through a German territory without spreading error, without coercing those with whom he came into contact, without transporting his property, while remaining quiet (sich still haltend), there was no cause to judge him an evildoer. Under such conditions, even a Jew or Turk could not be treated as the travelers had been. Thus, the officials requested that the confiscated money be returned to the Anabaptists and sought assurances that citizens of Zurich would have no more reason to submit further grievances.

This curious episode warrants attention, first, because it provides yet more evidence of the deep integration of Anabaptists into professional networks of medical practitioners in Swiss territories.6 These networks included local nonconformists and those living well outside the region, whose reputation and ability warranted temporary toleration of their presence in Zurich during times of desperation. Long-distance connections within this network remained viable, it seems, because of the groundwork laid by Hutterite missionaries and Swiss migrants’ ongoing need to settle outstanding financial concerns.7

Second, this case shows that authorities had no obligation to restrict and control the mobility of nonconformists. A variety of options between hospitality and open hostility remained open to them. Under certain circumstances, officials drew on available legal resources to make countervailing arguments, even in an environment in which their coercive approach, and the justifications that buttressed it, appeared to have ossified. Repeated determinations to segregate, enclose, and expel were made deliberately, despite the variety of other paths open to the territory’s governors.


  1. See, for example, “Verbot des Täufertums (1585 [1612]),” in Zürcher Kirchenordnungen, 1520-1675, ed. Emidio Campi and Philip Wälchli (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2011), 429-35. Astrid von Schlachta has argued that concerns raised by the activities of Moravian missionaries shaped the 1585 mandate. Hutterische Konfession und Tradition (1578-1619): Etabliertes Leben zwischen Ordnung und Ambivalenz (Mainz: Von Zabern, 2003), 352-53. 
  2. For a broader study of this phenomenon, see Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  3. The following account draws from this missive, found in Staatsarchiv Zurich, B IV 71, 519-22. 
  4. Leonhart Rützensdorffer was the citizen of Zurich and Conrad Bentz, from the Rumstal west of Winterthur, the city’s subject. The scribe did not record the names of the Anabaptist travelers. It is possible that the party included a man referred to as “one of our doctors” in the Hutterite Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that in 1612 an unnamed medical practitioner “had been in the city of Zurich and Swabia for over a year. God had blessed his work, and he had rendered good service to many prominent people with his medicines, especially during the epidemic in Zurich when eight thousand people died within a short time.” The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Volume I, ed. and trans. Hutterian Brethren (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1987), 598. 
  5. Otto Sigg’s study of records from the rural parish of Ossigen in Zurich’s lowlands suggests that between 35-44% of the population perished in the twelve months preceding the authorities’ letter. “Die drei Pestzüge in Ossingen, 1611/12, 1629/30 und 1636,” Zürcher Taschenbuch 99 (1979): 107. 
  6. For more on this phenomenon, see Hanspeter Jecker, “Im Spannungsfeld von Separation, Partizipation und Kooperation: Wie täuferische Wundärtze, Hebammen und Arzneyer das ‘Wohl der Stadt’ suchten,” Mennonitica Helvetica 39 (2016): 21-33; Roland Senn, “Wer war (Hans) Jacob Boll? Die Geschichte Zweier Täufer aus Stein am Rhein,” Mennonitica Helvetica 37 (2015): 11-44. 
  7. Given the location of the travelers’ arrest, it is likely that they were following a path well-established by Hutterite missionaries and the hundreds of migrants they recruited in Zurich’s territory. Travelers left Zurich’s territory through the northern lowlands, skirted Schaffhausen to the east, walked overland to Ulm, and then contracted water transportation downriver on the Danube. For more on this route, see von Schlachta, Hutterische Konfession, 355-56. Long after they left for Moravia, Swiss migrants returned to Zurich to address outstanding debts and claim inheritance. The Chronicle’s account of Hutterite participation in the provision of medical care highlights the fact that, because of their doctors’ faithful service to the Swiss citizenry, “the lords at Zurich [allowed] more than usual of the money inherited [by the brothers from Switzerland] to go out of the country to the church [in Moravia].” Chronicle, 598. 

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.