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Conrad Grebel, The Founder of Swiss Anabaptism

  • Harold S. Bender (a1)

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The age of the Reformation, as one of the creative periods in the history of the Western church, was rich in great personalities. The challenge of the time brought some men to heroic heights, while it took scores of lesser men out of their small corners and flung them into the great stream of movement and action which was remaking the world, where they were compelled to assume places of leadership. The names, and often the life stories, of many of the characters of four hundred years ago are still familiar to us today. Some of them are household names. But there are no Anabaptist names among them, even though the Anabaptist movement represents a distinct type of continental Protestantism. Menno Simons, the sturdy leader of Dutch Mennonitism, is perhaps most widely known of the Anabaptist leaders, although the quadricentennial of his conversion from Catholicism to the Anabaptist movement, which was celebrated last year by Mennonites round the world, passed scarcely noticed. But Menno was not the founder of Anabaptism, and ten years before he appeared on the theatre of action most of the original founders and leaders of Anabaptism in its birthland in Switzerland and South Germany were numbered among the martyrs. The careers of these Swiss leaders were so short that even among their present-day Mennonite descendants most of them had been totally forgotten until they were revived in recent years by modern historical research; and today there is no living tradition attached to their names. It is true that as long ago as 1910 Adolph von Harnack could say in his History of Dogma: “Thanks to the research of recent years we have been presented with figures of splendid Christian leaders from among the circles of the Anabaptists, and many of these noble and reverend characters come nearer to us than the figures of an heroic Luther and an iron Calvin.”

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1 Since it may be new to some that a comparatively unknown figure like Grebel should be reckoned as the founder of Anabaptism rather than such an one as Thomas Mülntzer, who has been traditionally viewed as the originator of the movement at least in idea if not in person, perhaps a few facts should be mentioned at this point. The most recent authoritative opinion agrees that the cradle of Anabaptism was Zurich, Switzerland, and that the first Anabaptist group was formed out of the inner circle of Zwingli's supporters. It agrees also that it was not a revolutionary movement, but a thoroughly peaceful one even to the point of absolute pacifism, with a predominantly religious focus and concern, and that the matter of baptism of infant children was the issue on which the first break with Zwinglianism came. Thomas Müntzer, however, was a Lutheran pastor in Saxony, far nearer to Wittenberg both geographically and ideologically than to Zurich, and remained Lutheran in his basic theology tolhe end, even though he became an unbalanced social and religious revolutionary ready to use the sword to avenge the righteous against their oppressors. Furthermore, he not only never practiced adult baptism, but wrote the first Protestant liturgy for the baptism of children (1523) and was rebuked by Conrad Grebel for failing to abandon infant baptism. In fact, Müntzer was in no sense an Anabaptist, but rather an erring Lutheran, as the latest interpretations of him by Boehmer, Lohmann, and Brandt have shown.

2 The story found its way into the remarkable manuscript chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, known as the Grosses Geschiehts-Buch which has been maintained by that group from the year 1534 to the present day. In that account of the epochal meeting in the house of Felix Manz, when fifteen brethren were gathered in prayer after the mandate of the Zurich council proscribing the further propagation of their faith, we are told that as they arose from prayer, moved by the Spirit of God, George Blauroek asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him on the confession of his faith, thus recognizing Grebel as the spiritual leader of the little company. This Conrad Grebel did, thus performing the first adult baptism in Reformation times, the model for millions of similar baptisms since that day.

3 The latest and best edition of this exceedingly important document is to be found in Boehmer, H.Kirn, u. P., Thomas Müntzers Brief wechsel, Leipzig, 1931, pp. 92101.

4 Vadianische Briefsammlung, herausg. Arbenz and Wartmann, St. Gallen, 18881913, Bd. III, p. 97.

5 Huldreich Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke, Band VIII, Leipzig, 1914, p. 332.

6 op. cit., Band III, Leipzig, 1914, p. 872.

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