It all began, for all intents and purposes, in early 1525. The radicals withdrew from the Church and established their own communities and when summoned by the Council to explain themselves, did so. Everything came to a head in March of that year and deteriorated afterwards.
Rudolph Thomann of Zollicon, examined by the Council of Zurich on February 7, 1525, thus described the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as observed in the Zollicon gatherings:
“He had eaten the Lord’s Supper with the old assistant (Brötli?), and him from Witikon (Röubli), and had invited them into his house.… There many had assembled so that the apartment was full; there was much speaking and long readings. Then stood up Hans Bruggbach of Zumicon, weeping and crying out that he was a great sinner and asking all present to pray God for him. Whereupon Blaurock asked him if he desired the grace of God and he said ‘Yes.’ Manz then arose and said, ‘Who will hinder me from baptising him?’ Blaurock answered, ‘No one.’ So Manz took a dipper of water and baptised him in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Whereupon Jacob Hottinger arose and desired baptism; and Felix Manz baptised him also.… Seeing the loaf on the table, Blaurock said: ‘Whoever believes that God has redeemed him with His death and rosy-coloured blood, comes and eats with me from this loaf and drinks with me from this wine.’ Then each one present ate and drank as invited.”
Weekly debates with the Baptists were held in Zurich during March and one especially on March 20, 1525. But they only widened the breach, and the punishment of banishment which the Council inflicted for rebaptism did not lessen the numbers of the Baptists. Yet from the Council’s point of view the punishment was defensible as the Baptists were enemies of the standing order. Among those openly to adhere to the Baptists was the famous theologian Balthasar Hubmaier. He quickly became their leading man, and it was with him that Zwingli was engaged in hot debate—all the more painful because Hubmaier had been a bosom friend. The fight was now on and it was bitterly waged. But no space can be given to it. Both sides went over the now well-worn arguments and were as far apart as ever. The action of the Zurich authorities was determined by practical considerations. They could not tolerate a body of schismatics who denounced Zwingli and themselves. If there were to be any abuse let Zwingli and them have it all to themselves.
So Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock were banished. Consistently believing in their favourite panacea, the Council ordered a third public disputation, which took place on November 6, 1525. As before, Zwingli was the spokesman of the Reformed. Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock were temporarily recalled from their banishment to debate with him. As they naturally declared themselves unconquered, they were threatened with the severest punishment. Hubmaier was not present.
Most of the Baptist leaders met violent deaths. After many adventures unhappy Felix Manz was, in punishment of his objectionable Baptist propaganda, drowned in the Lake of Zurich January 7, 1527; and George Blaurock was cruelly beaten and then banished under threat of death if he returned.
He did return, however, and secretly baptised. He lived until 1529, when he was burned for his alleged heresy in Innsbruck. Conrad Grebel died of the plague at Maienfeld in 1526. Hubmaier was burnt at the stake in Vienna, March 10, 1528.
The fortitude of the Baptist martyrs made a great impression, and the party continued to flourish for a while in spite of the efforts of the magistracy. Zwingli and his associates1 wrote book after book against them, and honestly favoured their extinction as enemies to Church and State.
In Zwingli’s correspondence there are many more or less extended references to the Baptists, some of the most characteristic of which are here given, especially those relating to Balthasar Hubmaier.
To Œcolampadius, October 9, 1524 (vii., 360):
“The challenge of Balthasar [Hubmaier] lately issued, either send to me in print or have a copy made for me, whichever way this bookseller will act as messenger.”
To Capito, January 1, 1526 (Staehelin, Briefe aus der Reformationzeit, p. 20):
“Balthasar of Waldshut has fallen into prison here—a man not merely irreverent and unlearned, but even empty. Learn the sum of the matter. When he came to Zurich our Council fearing lest he should cause a commotion ordered him to be taken into custody. Since, however, he had once in freakishness of disposition and fatuity, blurted out in Waldshut against our Council, of which place he, by the gods, was a guardian [i. e., he was pastor there], until the stupid fellow disunited and destroyed everything, it was determined that I should discuss with him in a friendly manner the baptising of infants and Catabaptists, as he earnestly begged first from prison and afterwards from custody. I met the fellow and rendered him mute as a fish. The next day he recited a recantation in the presence of certain Councillors appointed for the purpose [which recantation when repeated to the Two Hundred it was ordered should be publicly made. Therefore having started to write it in the city, he gave it to the Council with his own hand, with all its silliness, as he promised. At length he denied that he had changed his opinion, although he had done so before a Swiss tribunal, which with us is a capital offence, affirming that his signature had been extorted from him by terror, which was most untrue].
“The Council was so unwilling that force should be used on him that when the Emperor or Ferdinand twice asked that the fellow be given to him it refused the request. Indeed he was not taken prisoner that he might suffer the penalty of his boldness in the baptismal matter, but to prevent his causing in secret some confusion, a thing he delighted to do. Then he angered the Council; for there were present most upright Councillors who had witnessed his most explicit and unconstrained withdrawal, and had refused to hand him over to the cruelty of the Emperor, helping themselves with my aid. The next day he was thrust back into prison and tortured. It is clear that the man had become a sport for demons, so he recanted not frankly as he had promised, nay he said that he entertained no other opinions than those taught by me, execrated the error and obstinacy of the Catabaptists, repeated this three times when stretched on the rack, and bewailed his misery and the wrath of God which in this affair was so unkind. Behold what wantonness! Than these men there is nothing more foolhardy, deceptive, infamous—for I cannot tell you what they devise in Abtzell—and shameless. To-morrow or next day the case will come up.”
Zwingli’s reference to Abtzell, modern Appenzell, one of the Swiss cantons, as a hotbed of Baptists brought him into trouble, as the following
letter to the people of Abtzell, February 12, 1526 (vii., 473) shows:
“Grace and peace from God to you, respected, honoured, wise, clement, gracious and beloved Masters: An exceedingly unfortunate affair has happened to me, in that I have been publicly accused before your worships of having reviled you in unseemly words and, be it said with all respect, of having called you heretics, my gracious rulers of the State. I am so far from applying this name to you, that I should as soon think of calling heaven hell. For all my life I have thought and spoken of you in terms of praise and honour, gentlemen of Abtzell, as I do to-day, and, as God favours me, shall do to the end of my days. But it happened not long ago when I was preaching against the Catabaptists that I used these words: ‘The Catabaptists are now doing so much mischief to the upright citizens of Abtzell and are showing so great insolence, that nothing could be more infamous.’ You see, gentle sirs, with what modesty I grieved on your account, because the turbulent Catabaptists caused you so much trouble. Indeed I suspect that the Catabaptists are the very people who have set this sermon against me in circulation among you, for they do many of those things which do not become true Christians. Therefore, gentle and wise sirs, I beg most earnestly that you will have me exculpated before the whole community, and, if occasion arise, that you will have this letter read in public assembly. Sir, I assure you in the name of God our Saviour, in these perilous times you have never been out of my thoughts and my solicitous anxiety; and if in any way I shall be able to serve you I will spare no pains to do so. In addition to the fact that I never use such terms even against my enemies, let me say that it never entered my mind to apply such insulting epithets to you, pious and wise sirs. Sufficient of this. May God preserve you in safety, and may He put a curb on these unbridled falsehoods which are being scattered everywhere, which is an evidence of some great peril—and may He hold your worships and the whole state in the true faith of Christ! Take this letter of mine in good part, for I could not suffer that so base a falsehood against me should lie uncontradicted.”
To Vadian, March 7, 1526 (vii., 477):
“It has been decreed this day by the Council of Two Hundred that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower,2 in which they formerly lay, and be allured by a bread and water diet until they either give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that they who after this are immersed shall be submerged permanently: this decision is now published. Your father-in-law [Jacob Grebel, father of Conrad], the Senator, in vain implored mercy [for Conrad, who was one of the prisoners]. The incorrigible audacity of these men at first greatly grieved me, now it as greatly displeases me. I would rather that the newly rising Christianity should not be ushered in with a racket of this sort, but I am not God whom it thus pleases to make provision against evils that are to come, as He did when in olden time He slew with a sudden and fearful death Ananias who lied to Peter, so that He might cast out from us all daring to deceive, though there is nothing of which we are naturally such masters.”
To Peter Gynoræus, August 31, 1526 (vii., 534):
“That Balthasar [Hubmaier] of whom I wrote a few things in an epistle has acted as follows among us: He escaped secretly from the town of Waldshut and came to the home of a widow at Zurich. When the Council learned it they supposed that he was hatching out some monstrosity, as do the rest of the Catabaptists, and that for this purpose he had crept secretly into the city. So they gave orders that he be arrested and kept under guard in the court house. After the third or fourth day (I do not know exactly which), they suddenly ordered Engelhard, Leo, Myconius, Sebastian [Hofmeister], Megander [Grossmann], myself and others to be present. When we had come certain of the Council who had been appointed for the purpose told us that Balthasar had sent letters to them in which he promised that he would vanquish Zwingli on the subject of baptism by his own writings. We proceeded to business. Then the blind fellow adduced what I had written about teaching catechumens some years ago in the book on the Sixty-seven Articles. For he did not know that it was our custom that the boys also as in former times be taught the rudiments of the faith. This he referred to baptism, rather indiscreetly; as if I had said that it was my counsel that the custom of not baptising infants be brought back again, when I had spoken of imbuing children in the elements of faith. When he saw that he had erred in this matter he was charming. We proceeded after much debate, in which he was unwilling to recognise that perpetual covenant. We came to Acts 2, from which I proved that the children of Christians were in the beginning reckoned as of the Church. When he had made many answers I was trying to bring him to a clear and definite reply to the question whether those children were in the Church or not. But I made every effort in vain. Then I confess frankly when I came to 1 Cor., 2. ‘All our fathers were baptised unto Moses, etc.,’ and was coming Jo the point of compelling him to acknowledge that children were included even though they were not expressly mentioned, and when he was unwilling to say whether or not they were—I confess that I went for the man rather vigorously. But yet only to the effect, that by his catabaptism he had drawn many wretched citizens into a revolt in which they had perished. But when he had endured this for a considerable time the man was confuted and overcome. He then took a new tack and demanded that he be granted an interview with Leo, Myconius, and Sebastian [Hofmeister] alone, in order that he might confer with them. The arrogant fellow hoped he would draw them over to his side by his soft-spoken ways. When he saw that this course did not succeed he made the demand a second time, and after many crafty tricks, he came to the point of saying that he would recant. The Council did not compel this, except in case he were unwilling to depart from the city. For it had made no severer provision against those who do not wish to desert the cause of catabaptism than that they should leave the city. Meanwhile the legates of the Emperor came with a demand for the man to carry him to punishment. He was denied them on the basis of the law which provides that no citizen shall be put on his defence on any other charge than that for which he had been arrested. Such was the sin of the Council against that man, they defended him from the demand of Cæsar just as though he were a citizen! And this aided, that he was in prison before he was in ‘free guard.’ However this may be, he was free when we came together and for some time after was guarded at the court house. Then a form of recantation was drawn up, not in accordance with any formula of the Council or of anyone, but by his own hand. And when he had read this in the church to which the name Abbey is given,1 and the address which I delivered to the people had been finished, he straightway denied the recantation in the presence of the whole assembly.
“He did this supposing that he had an opportunity of speaking, and then adduced much against the baptism of infants and in favour of catabaptism. Hence there was a persistent rumour (but I think it is speculation) that he was secretly prompted to do this so that some commotion might result; for they hoped that I would go away when my speech was delivered. He was cast anew into prison and was held there for a month longer. Then he finally declared that he was entirely ignorant of saying anything to vitiate his recantation; and if he said anything else than what he had promised he must have been possessed by a demon. He put together a new recantation. I went around to my friends with the request that they would obtain a merciful judgment from the Council. This was granted. When he offered to make a final statement it was decreed through pity that he should make an express disavowal and then should depart immediately from the territory. I then personally besought Engelhard, Leo, and Megander [Grossmann], my fellow-bishops, that they should intercede in company with me before the Council; for if he were driven out immediately after his disavowal, grave peril would threaten him both from our Swiss and from Cæsar. The Council listened to our request, and after the recantation, which he pretended he made heartily, whereas there could have been nothing less hearty, a space of time was given him to stay until there should be found an opportunity of sending him first in safety. And this came about through a certain member of the Council who is most faithful in the cause of Christ, and he was secretly sent away so that the citizens did not know of his departure. See, my Peter, with how great generosity we treated the fellow and with what treachery he responded. For as soon as he reached Constance he so calumniated me before the ministers of the Word and boasted of his victory that I do not know but he turned some of them against me. So unprepared are some for the detection of hypocrisy. We kept everything secret. When he went away he so worked on those good men’s feelings that they gave him ten gold pieces. And yet either he or his wife had more gold than they had silver. Thus do they abuse our simple-mindedness who advance their own interests under the guise of piety. But that the man should so revile me is not to be wondered at, for he saw from the beginning that I abhorred him and his practices. I give the man credit for cleverness and studious moderation; but still I see in him (I trust I am mistaken) nothing more than an immoderate thirst for money and notoriety. Accordingly I am quite indifferent to what he may whisper about me into the ears of others. It is certain at any rate that he will act according to the saying in the comedy: ‘It has not succeeded here, let us go elsewhere.’ May the Omnipotent extinguish by celestial dew this desire for glory which glows in the hearts of some!”
Zwingli’s first book on Baptism was written in German for popular use and dedicated to the city of St. Gall. In the dedicatory introduction he alludes to the origin of the Baptist party, to their principal tenets and to their treatment. The treatise is divided into four parts: 1. Baptism in general; 2. The initia or institution of Baptism; 3. Rebaptism; 4. Infant Baptism.*