The Martyrs’ Synod: The Anabaptists’ Quest for Unity

Yesterday while going through the newsfeed on Facebook, one of my good Facebook friends posted a quote by Sebastian Franck (1499-1543) the Reformed 16th century historiographer. It was taken from the Chronica in 1536. The quote says in regards to Anabaptism.

Although all sects are divided among themselves, yet the Anabaptists especially are so disunited among themselves and fragmented that I cannot write anything definite or final about them.[1]

By the time of the writing of the above, quote that may have been the case but prior to that around August 30, in the year 1527 an event occurred, an event in which the purpose was to achieve unity.[2] That is they wanted to make Anabaptism a monolith. They desired to reacquire the state that Christianity was originally. Therefore, many leading figures in the movement met in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany to resolve their differences with each other with a larger goal in mind, around 60 delegates that held from South Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The following are some of the names of those that attended.

Hans Denck was most likely present. The others present whose names are known were Hans Beck of Basel, also called Beckenknecht; Eucharius Binder of Koburg; Burghard Braun, also called Burkhart of Ofen; Jakob Dachser, a former Catholic priest of Ingolstadt; Leonhard Dorfbrunner, formerly a Teutonic Knight of Nurnberg; Jakob Gross of Waldshut; Hans Gulden of Biberach in Franconia; Lukas Flaffner of Augsburg; Siegmund Hofer; Hans Hut of Haina in Franconia; Jakob Kautz, formerly a Lutheran preacher in Worms; Hans Kiessling of Friedberg near Augsburg; Gregor Maler of Chur; Eitelhans Langenmantel of Augsburg; Hans Leupold of Augsburg; Joachim März of Franconia; Marx Mayer of Alterlangen near Nurnberg; Hans Mittermaier of Ingolstadt; Georg Nespitzer of Lauingen, also called Jorg of Passau; Leonhardt von Prukh; Sigmund Salminger, a former Franciscan monk of Munich; Peter Scheppach, an artist of Augsburg; Leonhard Schiemer, a former Franciscan monk of Judenburg; Hans Schlaffer, a former priest of Upper Austria; Leonhard Spörle; Ulrich Trechsel; Thomas Waldhausen, a former Catholic priest of Grein, hence also called Thomas of Grein; Jakob Wideman of Memmingen; Andreas Widholz, a guild master, in whose house services were held.[3]

Many of the more notable personages was not present, “Hubmaier was in Moravia; Pilgram Marpeck was still at Rattenberg on the Inn; Georg Blaurock was wandering in the mountains of Switzerland; Felix Manz had been martyred by drowning on 5 January 1527 in Zurich, and Michael Sattler at the stake on 21 May 1527, in Rottenburg on the Neckar; Conrad Grebel had died of the plague in Maienfeld, Grisons, in the summer of 1526.”[4] A series of meetings was held at the homes of various brothers in the area throughout a number of days. The major issue that was discussed was one of their fellow delegates by the name Hans Hut’s (d. 1527) apocalypticism. Hut viewed himself as “a divinely sent apostle or prophet, affirming that the persecution of the saints would be followed by the destruction of the empire by the Turks. Thereafter, the saints would be gathered and all priests and unworthy rulers would be destroyed by them, whereupon Christ would visibly rule on earth.”[5]

The majority present at the synod disapproved Hut’s apocalyptic notions for the most part and in response, “Hut promised to keep them to himself.”[6] In the end, they all “expressed a firm determination to proclaim the doctrines and ethical principles they had accepted as right, and not to be deterred from it by persecution and danger of death.”[7] While it cannot be definitively stated what they discussed because no minutes were taken of the meetings “the conference is also significant for authorizing a mission initiative.”[8] This was one of the chief goals of the synod from its initiation. They desired a grand united evangelism and missions venture in order to invite the masses to turn away from false Christian entities and align themselves with the Kingdom of God.

The conference appointed missionaries, who went out in all directions in two’s and three’s to all the countries where their fellow believers lived, to teach, comfort and strengthen them, or to build new brotherhoods. Their speech was so impressive that frequently a few hours sufficed to establish a new congregation  . . . Of their converts they demanded an upright life; when a brother sinned, he was to be admonished, and if he was in need he should be aided by the brethren; anyone who was unwilling to do this should not request baptism . . . Their opponents were surprised by the rapid spread of the movement. Unable to understand it, they asserted of some of the preachers that they carried little flasks of a magic potion, which they passed around through the audience to put a spell upon them.[9]

Even though the content of their discussions are relatively unknown we do know that they come to some sort of concord in order to focus on the what the Lord established as the Christian’s vocation, that is carrying the gospel of the Kingdom to the farthest reaches of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).

Tragic End

The synod acquired its name because of the heartrending events that transpired afterwards. The persecution inflicted on the Anabaptists by Protestants and Roman Catholics were so “severe that of the roughly sixty who attended . . . only two or three lived to 1530.”[10] Thus the synod was designated the Martyrs’ Synod “because of the number of subsequent victims of persecution who attended it”.[11]

Many today tend to view the lack of the proto-Anabaptists existing in a monolithic state as a good thing but apparently, the Anabaptists themselves did not. They knew that Christianity existing in a fragmented form with thousands of denominations (at present) is not genuine Christianity.

 

[1] C. Arnold Snyder, ed., Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2001), 10:233.

[2] The information on the Synod is scant but scholars have been able to pull together from various documents a dependable account of its purpose and the events that followed.

[3] Christian Hege and Harold S. Bender, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1957), s.v. “Martyrs’ Synod,” accessed March 26, 2014, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Martyrs%27_Synod.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Williston Walker et al., A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Scribner, 1985), 451.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kenneth G. Appold, The Reformation: A Brief History, Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion Series (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 127.

[9] Christian Hege and Harold S. Bender, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Ibid.

[10] Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 259.

[11] Michael Mullett, Historical Dictionary of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, New ed. (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Scarecrow Press, 2010), s.v. “Hut (Or Huth), Hans (C. 1490-1527).”

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