Persecution of the Anabaptists

Excerpts from the book, "Mennonites in Europe" by John Horsch

(Note: The term "Anabaptist" was used to describe and define certain Christians during the Reformation era. These Christians rejected infant baptism, choosing instead believer's baptism. Since many of them had been baptized in their infancy, they chose to be baptized as believing adults. So their enemies called them Anabaptists — "re-baptizers." For their "crime of believer's baptism", Anabaptists were heavily persecuted during the 16th century and into the 17th, by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.)

In need scarcely be said, that Roman Catholicism had always taken an attitude of intolerance and persecution toward all dissenters from its creed. On the contrary, the principal leaders in the Reformation movement, Luther and Zwingli, in the first period of their reformatory labors, condemned Romish intolerance. They were in the earlier period, defenders of the principle of liberty of conscience. Later they agreed to a thorough-going union of the church with the state, which meant the abandonment of the principle of religious liberty. Furthermore, the natural and inevitable consequence, was the persecution of the Anabaptists by the established Protestant state churches.

It is a fact recognized by many recent historians, that the persecution of the Anabaptists surpassed in severity the persecution of the early Christians by pagan Rome! Persecution began in Zurich soon after the Brethren had organized a congregation. Imprisonment of varying severity, sometimes in dark dungeons, was followed by executions. Within a short period the leaders of the Brethren lost their lives in the persecution.

Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prices were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was a made a crime. The duke of Bavaria, in 1527, gave orders that the imprisoned Anabaptists should be burned at the stake — unless they recanted, in which case they should be beheaded. In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake; in Lutheran and Zwinglian states, Anabaptists were generally executed by beheading or drowning.

Thousands sealed their faith with their blood. When all efforts to halt the movement proved vain, the authorities resorted to desperate measures. Armed executioners and mounted soldiers were sent in companies through the land to hunt down the Anabaptists and kill them on the spot without trial or sentence. The old method of pronouncing sentence on each individual dissenter proved inadequate to exterminate this faith.

In the first week of Lent, 1528, King Ferdinand of Austria commissioned a company of executioners to root out the Anabaptist faith in his lands. Those who were overtaken in the highways of fields were killed with the sword, others were dragged out of their houses and hanged on the door posts. Most of them had gone into hiding in the woods and mountains. In a forest near Lengbach seventeen were put to death.

In the province of Swabia, in South Germany, four hundred mounted soldiers were, in 1528, sent out to put to death all Anabaptists on whom they could lay hands. Somewhat later the number of soldiers so commissioned was increased to eight hundred, and then to one thousand.

In various provinces an imperial provost marshal by the name of Berthold Aichele, with his assistants, put many Anabaptists to death. On Christmas day, 1531, he drove seventeen men and women into a farmhouse in Württemberg and burned the building together with the inmates.

Three hundred and fifty Anabaptists were executed in the Palatinate before the year 1530.

At Ensisheim, "the slaughterhouse of Alsace," as it was called, six hundred were killed within a few years.

Within six weeks thirty-seven were burned, drowned, or beheaded at Linz, in Austria.

In the town of Kitzbüchl in the Tyrol, sixty-eight were executed in one year.

Two hundred and ten or more, were burned in the valley of the Inn River.

The number of Anabaptist martyrs in the Tyrol and Görz, was estimated at one thousand at the end of the year 1531.

One last very touching incident:
Dirk Willems
of Holland was re-baptized when he became a believer, thus rejecting the infant baptism practiced at that time. This action, plus his continued devotion to his new faith and the re-baptism of several other believers in his home — led to his subsequent arrest and martyrdom.

An officer came to arrest him at the village of Asperen. Running for his life, Dirk came to a frozen pond. After making his way across in great peril, he realized that his pursuer had fallen through the ice, and into the freezing water.

Turning back to save the drowning officer, Dirk dragged him safely to shore. The man wanted to release Dirk, but a burgomaster, having appeared on the scene — reminded him that he was under oath to deliver criminals to justice. Dirk was bound off to prison, interrogated, and tortured in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his faith. He was tried and found guilty of having been re-baptized, of holding secret meetings in his home, and of allowing baptism there — all of which he freely confessed. "Persisting obstinately in his opinion", Dirk was burned at the stake near his hometown on 16 May 1569, by these blood-thirsty, ravening wolves — enduring it with great steadfastness.

For further reading:

"The Anabaptist Story" by William R. Estep

"The Reformers and Their Stepchildren" by Leonard Verduin