The Swiss Brethren and Worship: Part I

The Anabaptists “must be seen as people trying to recover the pure church of apostolic times, a goal nearly impossible for a state controlled church to which all were forced to belong.”[1] Even at present, this can be a difficult task and professed believers at present do not have a state sanctioned and enforced ‘church’. Or is it? This blog post will look at how the 16-17th century Anabaptists studied the Bible, edified their members, worshipped and defended their comprehension of the faith.

There is very little evidence extant regarding the makeup of the Swiss Brethren’s meetings except for a few eyewitness accounts. A Lutheran vicar by the name of Elias Schad from Strasbourge reported to have witnessed a Swiss Brethren conference. He:

reported that 200 Swiss Brethren—gathered from Switzerland, Breisgau, Westerich, Württemberg, Alsace and Moravia—had met secretly at night in a forest clearing just outside the city. After a series of short sermons from the epistles, the participants knelt and began to pray–“murmuring as if a nest of hornets were swarming.” Then, following a period of general greetings, the elders invited the group to raise questions related to the sermon or, if the Spirit so led, to offer “something to edify the brethren.”….The meeting finally broke up at 2:00 a.m.[2]

Within the context of the 16th-17th century Swiss Brethren Gemeinde they utilized a number of items for the purpose of worship, ministry, and the edification of the assembly. These books consisted of “a hymnal known as the Ausbund; a concordance of scriptural passages central to Swiss Brethren theology; and a compilation of martyr stories and devotional literature published as Golden Apples in Silver Bowls—were all texts prominently associated with the Swiss Brethren tradition that both reflected and reinforced a distinctive identity.”[3]

The following will be a presentation of the aforementioned items, while not listed I will begin with the Bible that the 16th-17th Swiss Anabaptists employed during their time.

2mennonite-heritage-center-6.720.453.s

Froschauer Bible (1524-1529)

The Froschauer Bible (also known as the Zürich Bible) was printed and disseminated by a recognized publisher in Zürich, Switzerland that went by the name of Froschauer. The Old Testament (The Prophets) was primarily translated in German by two anabaptists named Ludwig Haetzer and Hans Denk in the month of April in the year 1527. The New Testament  was largely based on Luther’s translation of the New Testament with a slight altering of the word order and contemporary terms (at the time) was used in the text overall plus it held over 200 illustrations. This made it popular among the people and highly favored especially by the Swiss Anabaptists.

Swiss Brethren Concordance

Swiss Brethren Concordance (Concondanzt vnd zeyger)

This pocket-sized volume touched on 66 different scriptural subjects. It was used not just for personal enrichment but also for apologetic purposes while witnessing or engaged in public debates. Biblical excerpts and their location was the only thing present in the concordance for the Brethren believed that the scriptures was clear enough and no additional instruction towards the passages’ application was required.

Ausbund

Ausbund

The early Anabaptists i.e. the Swiss Brethren made use of hymns in their worship. The initial Anabaptist hymnbook, the Ausbund saw publication in the 1560s. It is now considered the oldest Christian hymnbook that is still employed in the world. It was originally a collection of 51 (sometimes 53) songs sung in worship by the Swiss Brethren. The Ausbund was written by some Philippites in the castle of Passau on the Danube (present-day southeastern Germany) while imprisoned for their faith (1535-1540).[4]  Some of the other  Ausbund contributors were George Blaurock, Felix Mantz, Micheal Sattler and Hans Betz. Those whose hymns were included originated outside of the Swiss Brethren context as well. Some were for instance the Spiritualist Sabastian Franck and a the Bohemian Brethren among a whole range of thers. The hymns found their muse and content from such scriptural passages as the Psalter, the Sermon on the Mount and the Paternoster i.e. Lord’s Prayer.

The oldest known edition possess the printing year of 1564 and it is entitled Etliche schöne christliche Gesäng wie dieselbigen zu Passau von den Schweizer Brüdern in der Gefenknus im Schloss durch göttliche Gnade gedicht und gesungen warden. Ps. 139 (Genuinely Beautiful Christian Songs Which Were Written and Sung Through God’s Grace by the Swiss Brethren in the Passau Castle Prison). Later another edition that contained 130 hymns and it actually employed the name Ausbund in the title. Over time, various anabaptist groups added to and altered the Ausbund to the degree where it currently exists in its final form totaling some 800 pages. At present, the Amish use it in their churches.

Golden Apples and Silver Bowls

Golden Apples in Silver Bowls (Güldene Aepffel in Silbern Schalen)

It was initially collected with the revised edition of the 1632 Dutch Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1702. Later it became a standalone compilation. The contents were a compilation of martyr testimonies, prayers and admonitions. Used by the Swiss Anabaptists as a devotional.

In the second part of the this series I will address some aspects of their worship and close with whether I think it is possible to adopt and practice first century style of worship.


[1] James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 82.

[2] Stayer et al., A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Boston: Brill, 2007), 369-70.

[3] Ibid., 370.

[4] This group did not last too long because of a lack of strong leadership, they were most likely assimilated into the Swiss Brethren assembly in their area thus some works refer to them as member of the Swiss Brethren.

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