NICODEMITES AMONG WÜRTTEMBERG
John S. Oyer*
In February 1570 regional authorities in the
Duchy of Württemberg finally caught up with Hans Jäger,
an underground Anabaptist from Vöhringen in the Black Forest
of southwestern Württemberg, and reported his religious predilection
to appropriate central government authorities. It appears that Jäger
had attended the local parish church and had even taken the Lord’s
Supper in the Lutheran form without complaint, which certainly aroused
no suspicion of his real religious inclination. In 1571, however,
his case broke open because a nephew by marriage, a certain Thomas
Negelin, appealed to the court for the receipt of Jäger’s property
on the grounds that Jäger had fled to the vicinity of Worms and
died there after selling most of his land and property to his nephew.
Negelin wanted to receive the last remnants of Jäger’s property
and close out the case. The ducal authorities learned from Vöhringen
inhabitants that already in 1530, forty years earlier, they had suspected
that Jäger was an Anabaptist; but they could never pin the charge
on him and make it stick. He always answered their questions with
distinction, probably with equivocation. But he remained suspect,
as they reported laconically, because "whoever refuses to swear
an oath and lives a blameless (unärgerlich) life is considered
an Anabaptist in the Schwartzwald and is investigated accordingly."2
Early in 1570 Jäger finally sold his landed
possessions, valued at more than 2000 guilders, to his nephew Negelin,
then drove two loads of spelt to the market at Tübingen. But
why sell spelt at a market at least 53 kilometers distant from his
home village? Surely there were markets closer at hand. Reading between
the lines, one decides that Jäger intended to flee, and had gone
to Tübingen ostensibly on agricultural business but in reality
to deal with his relatives there and make good his escape from the
Duchy of Württemberg. He told his relatives and friends in Tübingen
that his unnamed illness prompted him to take some kind of cure from
a doctor in the vicinity of Worms and that he would return after three
months. He also hinted at marriage, probably to postpone legal action
by a nephew he apparently did not trust. In 1571 word reached Negelin
that Jäger had died single, and the nephew resorted to legal
action to gain the remainder of an inheritance to which he felt his
wife, apparently the closest surviving relative, was entitled. Ultimately
the court ruled in Negelin’s favor. Vöhringers who knew Jäger
freely reported that he had openly joined the Anabaptists in Worms
in the Palatinate. But what are we to make of Jäger’s diffidence
about his Anabaptist connection for so many years back home in Vöhringen’3
Jäger constitutes a type of Anabaptist
frequently found in the records of the Duchy of Württemberg and
in imperial cities within Württemberg’s boundaries: a Nicodemite.4
He worshipped with Lutherans, apparently with no misgivings, but held
resolutely to certain unmistakable Anabaptist practices: conspicuous
purity of moral life and a refusal to swear oaths. He was, in short,
what we will call in this essay an Anabaptist Nicodemite. Such a position
must have posed a real dilemma to Anabaptists because of their minority
view on the sharp separation of church and state. In sixteenth-century
German territories religious conformity was assumed. To fail to conform
usually meant exile or, earlier in the century, even death to offenders.
In the face of such options, how could Anabaptists
respond? What should practitioners of one faith do when they lived
in a state that killed or banished religious dissidents? Flee to some
region whose ruler permitted one’s own religion, as Luther counseled?
Remain and practice one’s religion secretly until caught, then accept
death or exile? Or, as with the case of Nicodemites, dissemble, i.e.,
pretend to adhere to the religion of the majority while simultaneously
worshipping secretly with adherents of the preferred religion, thereby
saving their skins? More particularly, what should Anabaptists in
Esslingen and surrounding Württemberg have done when compelled
to conform to first Catholicism, then Lutheranism? The answer for
some was to become Nicodemites.
The Genevan Reformer John Calvin defined "Nicodemism"
for his generation of Reformers. By 1543 he had coined the term, inveighing
against Protestants in Catholic lands who had succumbed to pressure
and worshipped in Catholic churches. They should either flee to some
safer haven, he said, or else stand firm against Catholicism, even
if it meant their death. Above all, they should not rationalize any
degree of conformity to the religion of their region.
Some Protestants, however, had begun to advocate
conformity to Catholic practices and justified that behavior by the
example of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who questioned Jesus under cover
of darkness to avoid the appearance of supporting him.5
Calvin was only turning the term from a favorable to a pejorative
meaning. Calvin first condemned Protestant priests and pastors who
outwardly conformed to Catholic religious practices and worshipped
in Catholic churches, and then the "protonotaries"people
like Caspar Schwenckfeldwho visited the courts of Catholic princes
and conversed freely with them and appeared to conform religiously.
He also condemned men of letters who criticized Rome but would not
join the Protestant faith community. And finally, he reproached rank-and-file
Protestants living in Catholic territories who, for their economic
interests, urged their pastors or priests to tone down their denunciations
of Rome and even to try to avoid discussions of religious thought
To late twentieth-century historians of the
Reformation, the term Nicodemite has come to mean any sixteenth-century
sectarian who, convinced of the truth of one religious confession,
worshipped within and conformed to another, usually the different
but dominant form of religion. Carlo Ginzburg, expanding on his mentor
Delio Cantimori, derived Nicodemism from Otto Brunfels, the Strasbourg
botanist-turned-theologian, who in 1527 put forward Nicodemus as exemplary
for Protestants living under heavy Catholic censure in Catholic lands.
Ginsburg projected a Nicodemite movement with a high degree of unity.7
On the other hand, Carlos M. N. Eire found Nicodemism to be much less
theoretical than Ginzburg had thought, and not at all a singular unified
movement. In Eire’s view, Nicodemites were individuals and small groups
who worked out their own pattern of religious conformity or diversity
in response to the immediate religious conditions under which they
lived.8 Jane Kristof described religious dissidents
in Catholic Viterbo, Italy who tried to mix Protestant theology with
Catholic practice. She suggested that Michelangelo may have emulated
Nicodemus by carving his self-portrait in the role of Nicodemus in
a Florentine Pietà; he destroyed it later, notably when Rome
was punishing its Nicodemite "heretics."9 More recently Mark Furner has described Lutherans in the Catholic
county of Ortenburg, Bavaria, whose Lutheran priest by the mid-eighteenth
century developed a set of twelve distinct rules for his Nicodemite
Many of those Nicodemite rules for Lutherans
could have been espoused and even enunciated by Württemberg Anabaptists
in the second half of the sixteenth century, had they turned their
hand to the task. Already in mid-1527 Anabaptism existed as a viable
movement within the then Catholic Duchy of Württemberg. By the
early 1530s, several of the later Nicodemites among them had made
their first recantation, but it is impossible to gauge their intention.
Did they expect to retract and return to Anabaptism, or did they intend
to rejoin the regional church that in its Esslingen center at least
was deliberately turning to a mild Lutheranism under the preaching
of Ambrosius Blarer? Blarer advised the Esslingen City Council to
use gentility and quiet discussion in their treatment of Anabaptists
because it would be more persuasive and fruitful than the recent executions
and continuing sentences of exile. He was absolutely correct on this
point. The Anabaptists did indeed listen to Blarer, both to his sermons
and his instruction, as he reported.11
But several decades later those Anabaptists
seemed to operate under rules of Nicodemism that they might have formulated
over time, although none were pried out of them by their interrogators.
One would think it easy enough to define Anabaptist
Nicodemites: those who recanted, then retracted their recantation
and secretly rejoined the Anabaptist fellowship, once or several times.
But in Württemberg one needs also to count as Nicodemites those
Anabaptists, especially in the second half of the century, who attended
Lutheran worship and took communion there. For the government, participation
in the Lord’s Supper served to distinguish between the obedient and
the religiously deviant. Yet for an Anabaptist, to attend Lutheran
communion was a religious compromise.
Another way of measuring religious loyalty
is by assessing the quality of an Anabaptist’s religious conviction
according to the quality of his or her testimony, in court or to neighbors.
Although such an evaluation is subjective, it is nevertheless useful.
Using this approach, one discovers that two of the three "seekers"
among the 21 Anabaptist men captured in July 1562 in Esslingen Forest
may actually have been more loyal, though not even baptized, than
Ulrich Hauwer, one of the steadfast Anabaptists who never recanted.
These two seekers were steadfast and sure, even testy, compared with
the relaxed, laid-back, almost irresolute Hauwer.
Thus, one pattern of calibrating Anabaptists
on some spectrum of relative faithfulness takes its data from several
arrests and trials, interspersed with evidence that the particular
Anabaptist had retracted and rejoined fellow believers. It measures
their lives longitudinally rather than evaluating them merely on the
basis of some singular appearance in court. The second pattern or
method assesses the quality of a particular Anabaptist’s confession
in court, measuring that confession against well known views and practices
of Anabaptists enunciated by many of them and accepted by the community
of scholars. Surely some combination of these two methods is to be
preferred, if one can find enough data.
To be sure, these lines of distinction between
the Nicodemites and the steadfast are fine. Still, one who reads all
of the testimony becomes convinced that there are distinctions to
be made: some Anabaptists were clearly more steadfast, others less
so; still others compromised a great deal. The following stories illustrate
different positions, but there were many other way-stations between
These stories are about Anabaptists in the
Duchy of Württemberg and those imperial cities such as Esslingen
surrounded by Württemberg lands. To be sure, some Anabaptists
in other principalities and regions also recanted and then sought
reinstatement with their erstwhile religious bedfellows. Linda Huebert
Hecht describes the conditions for recantation for some of the 50
women who recanted in the Tirol after 1527.12
Werner Packull tells the story of Niclas and
Anna (Troyer) Niderhofer of Tirol, who recanted, then retracted and
rejoined the Anabaptists, then fled to Moravia and forfeited the 200
gulden bondall over a 12-year span of time.13
I have earlier told the story of Fritz Erbe
of County Hausbreitenbach in Central Germany, who recanted once to
Philip of Hesse, retracted and rejoined the Anabaptists, and after
his second arrest received in effect a life prison sentence. He lay
imprisoned for 16 years, first in a tower of the Eisenach city wall,
then in the Wartburg itself because Anabaptists had been able to commune
with him at night in the Eisenach tower. To neighboring Anabaptists,
he was the supreme example of steadfastness.14 There are many more cases of
Anabaptist Nicodemites. But the Duchy of Württemberg probably
had the highest percentage of Anabaptist Nicodemites, second only
to some of the imperial cities, all because these regions had governments
less inclined to kill, more inclined to show mercy and especially
eager to induce recantation by careful religious instruction.15
On July 5, 1562 twenty-eight Anabaptists were
caught at worship in a ravine near the Katzenbühl fortress outside
Esslingen. The seven women among them were summarily released without
trial. Esslingen chronicler Dionysius Dreytwein reported that the
police told the women, who were not forced to join the train marching
to prison, that they had no mandate to handle the women.16
Probably the women were toldperhaps even required
to promiseto remain outside Esslingen territory. We know the names
of two of them only because they were caught later in other places
and reported their presence at this meeting.17
The state authorities sent a Doctor Krauss and
Hipolytus Rösch to interrogate the 21 men, then posted inquiries
to their home villages requesting reports about them. We have therefore
more than an average amount of information about these prisoners,
though still not as much as we want.
The Anabaptists had gathered from far and near.
Two were from Esslingen city or from its Etter, the cluster
of agricultural villages under the jurisdiction of the imperial city.
Six lived some 7 to 10 kilometers distant within the Württemberg
court jurisdiction of Cannstatt (including 5 from one village, Fellbach),
north and slightly west of Esslingen, all six living within no more
than 3 kilometers of each other. Four lived north of Esslingen, in
the court jurisdiction of Waiblingen, from 10 to 15 kilometers distant
from their Esslingen venue but within 3 of each other. Eight lived
east and slightly north of Esslingen within Schorndorf’s jurisdiction,
from 8 to 25 kilometers distant from Esslingen Forest; four of these
lived within 3 kilometers of each other. Finally, one came from the
village of Langensteinbach in the margraviate of Baden to the west
of Württemberg, about 65 kilometers from Esslingen.
Nothing in their testimonies suggested that
the meeting on July 5 had any special significance; it appeared to
have been a normal Anabaptist meeting. One is therefore surprised
at the distances these people traveled for a common Anabaptist worship
service; obviously the Anabaptists had developed a complex network
of Anabaptist informers, including announcers of meetings. Most of
these Anabaptists refused to comment about specific links in that
network. One of them, Sebastian Weber, did report that another Anabaptist,
Hans Gep, had told him about the meeting, although Gep himself did
not then appear at it. Obviously Weber could report Gep as a network
functionary because he was not in the hands of the law and presumably
could flee if the authorities pursued him. In such manner Anabaptists
protected each other. One notices also that these 21 refused to divulge
who would have made the initial decision to call the meeting.18 Scholars have known that Anabaptists
traveled 4 or 5 kilometers, perhaps as many as 8, to attend an ordinary
some of these men traveled 25 kilometers merely to attend a regular
meeting says something important about their own dedication to the
movement, which is all the more significant since so many of these
men were Nicodemites by the Reformation-era definition of the term.
The Esslingen 21 were asked repeatedly who
their leader was. They always insisted they had none, no Vorsteher
at all. Scraps of evidence suggest that Lienhart Sommer and Lienhart
Brelin (the latter not yet baptized) did "read" to them,
a term that implied making some interpretive, exegetical comments
beyond the reading of scripture, and perhaps some words of admonition
as well.20 Klaus
Rebstock also reported that they "spoke to each other,"
presumably meaning that they instructed each other; he added that
Sebastian Weber taught them but was not their leader. One of the 21
piously suggested that they hoped God was their leader, which was
more subterfuge than definitive answer to the question.21
Lienhart Sommer himself reported that when they
met they spoke out, each as he was led: when one had something to
say that contributed to the edification of the others, he spoke. Was
this a meeting run by round-table discussion rules’22
Perhaps they had cultivated the art of
meeting without an ordained leader ever since their most recent one,
Jörg Werner (often named Scherer), a surgeon, had died in 1559.23
Leaders required special protection, since government
authorities were always trying to find them. Werner had baptized a
number of these men, had been protected by one of the local nobles,
Hans Konrad Thumb of Neuburg, and undoubtedly called meetings for
Anabaptists in this region while he still lived. But their adamant
insistence that they had no leader at the timeor that, more specifically,
"yesterday" when they met they had no leader24
has to mean at the very least that there was
no one who they felt was authorized to baptize any converts. That
was a sensitive point because two of the three seekers among them,
not yet full-fledged Anabaptists, seemed close to deciding to submit
to believers’ baptism. In any event, these men were carrying on without
an ordained leader ever since the death of Werner; they had not yet
chosen a successor.25
The Esslingen 21 comprised a mixture of (1)
steadfast Anabaptists for whom there is no surviving record of recantation;
(2) recanters who must have retracted their recantations and been
readmitted to the Anabaptist fellowship; and (3) a group of seekers,
men and women curious about Anabaptist teachings and worship who had
not yet joined.
Surviving records reveal that eight men fell
within the category of the steadfast.26
The recanters included two men who had recanted
several times; seven who had recanted once, then retracted and did
not recant again; and one who was steadfast in several court appearances,
then recanted near the end of his life: a total of ten men. Three
men were seekers. All of the men in each of these three categories
of Anabaptists seemed to accept the others as brothers in the faith
without complaint; they obviously felt that they belonged together,
Nicodemites and steadfast Anabaptists apparently joined in harmonious
worship with one another, embracing a few potential proselytes as
When one combines data about their geographical
locations with those data touching the quality of their religious
resolve, one discovers members of all categories spread equidistant,
both near and far from Esslingen, except that two of the three seekers
were from Esslingen itself (none of the steadfast or the Nicodemites
was from Esslingen). Otherwise, no geographical region produced more
or fewer of either the uncompromising or the Nicodemites. Each region
from which these 21 came had Anabaptists in both categories; that
is, neither Nicodemites nor the uncompromising were clustered singularly
in contiguous villages.
The sources do not mention a clear sentence
imposed on the 21. Chronicler Dreytwein reported that they had all
been banished for life and that several of them would not swear to
obey that sentence and were consequently imprisoned. He provided no
more detail.27 Dreytwein
was intensely pro-Anabaptist in his descriptions and may therefore
have exaggerated the severity of the sentence. One wants some kind
of additional evidence. It is clear that, in general, Esslingen wanted
the Anabaptists to leave their territory and promise never to return,
but showed no interest in punishing them or in inducing them to recant.
We do, however, have clear evidence on treatment
for six of the 21. We know that Jörg Schnaitmann, for example,
was clearly banished, because in August 1562 he lodged a formal plea
with the mayor of Esslingen to permit him to return to the city. He
wanted (1) to engage in normal business with four Esslingers who were
not Anabaptists (he was a vinedresser, perhaps therefore also a vintner
who merchandized); and he wanted (2) to defend his religious position
latter is one of very few requests of that nature, because most governments
had notoriously tin ears for such appeals. Schnaitmann was bolder
than most Württemberg Anabaptists of his generation. Another
four of the 21 were required to promise to leave Esslingen; they signed
nothing because Esslingen took their oral pledge at face value. But
the sixth Anabaptist for whom we have unequivocal evidence of treatment,
Hans Kügelin, was not banished. At age 73 he was considered too
old to warrant more than a small fine. Probably all of them had to
promise in some manner, with or without oath, to remain outside the
city for life, but we cannot know for certain.
We should examine more closely the lives of
several men to illustrate each position.
Esslingen released several of the staunchest
Anabaptists, genuine diehards, with at the most only a verbal promise
to leave Esslingen’s territory, unaccompanied by any kind of oath.
The authorities noted that these Anabaptists had been told that if
they returned to Esslingen they would be treated as perjurers, who
were normally punished by cutting off the first two fingers of the
right hand.29 Two
Anabaptists who illustrate this conditionKlaus Rebstock and Bernhart
Löplewere released (together with two Nicodemites) on July 23,
only 18 days after their capture. For each one, Esslingen received
a report from an official in the jurisdictional district where each
lived. Strikingly, both men were married to women who refused to join
Bernhart Löple of Öffingen near Cannstatt
was first reported to be an Anabaptist by fellow believer Moritz Weber
in July 1539.30 Later
Löple reported that he was the father of twenty-six children,
all of whom, in addition to his wife, were of the same religious persuasion
"as, unfortunately, the entire world [i.e., Lutheran]."31 He had been caught the previous
year, imprisoned lightly in Waiblingen, had broken out of prison,
shed his clothes and swam the Rems River naked, then lived from hand
to mouth away from his own home until he was recaptured in the Esslingen
Forest at worship with others. The Waiblingen bailiff reported that
Löple carried a rope and a mason’s hammer with him into jail;
he later used these instruments in one of the few Anabaptist jailbreaks
that we know anything about. Apparently the jailer was kind enough
not to examine him carefully because Löple was well along in
years and thought to be harmless. After late July 1562 Löple
dropped from the records. He probably reverted to the furtive existence
of 1561 before his second arrest and lived that way until his death.32
Under pressure against Anabaptists, Klaus Rebstock
left his village of Fellbach in 1558 and took refuge in the castle
of a propertied noble, Hans von Stammheim, and became his cellarer.
Perhaps he had been a vinedresser, as his family name would indicate;
the sources do not tell us. The Stammheim lands lay about 6 kilometers
north of Stuttgart. Von Stammheim eventually gave him free rein, and
Rebstock could call meetings of Anabaptists in that castle when its
lord was absent. Both Rebstock’s testimony in court and the reports
of Cannstatt bailiffs make it clear that von Stammheim knew these
meetings were taking place. Here was one of several Württemberg
nobles who protected people they knew to be Anabaptists. In 1600 Rebstock
still lived under these conditions; by 1604 he had died; and over
the last several decades of his life he led the Anabaptists of his
region.33 One suspects
that he may even have been a reader at the July 5, 1562 meeting in
Esslingen Forest, though no one recorded this fact.
To his Esslingen captors, Rebstock reported
that he thought Lutheranism began well enough (introduced gradually
when Duke Ulrich returned to power in 1535), but then for the past
20 years had deteriorated, particularly in its use of force for religious
purposes. Hence in 1558 he made his way to the Anabaptists, thereby
illustrating an archetypical route for Württemberg Anabaptists
in mid-century. Late in the century church visitors reported that
as a widower Rebstock had married a second time, a younger Anabaptist
woman, and that she bore him two children.34 Probably she was the Apollonia Rebstock
whom a church visitor in 1621 reported living in Fellbach, Rebstock’s
old home village.35 He
died a man of property worth 759 guilders, which would have given
him a lower-middle class economic status.
Rebstock bore some sense of responsibility
for evangelical outreach. He induced his stepson, Hans Wagner of Fellbach,
to join the Anabaptists.36 Rebstock
was reported to have helped other Anabaptists when they were harried.37
Protected by a local lord so that he could practice
his faith virtually unhindered, he became a man faithful to his Anabaptist
calling until his own death.
Sebastian Weber is one of the better
examples of a Nicodemite. Born in Waldstetten near Schwäbisch-Gmünd,
a student at Württemberg’s university, Tübingen, and one
of few Anabaptists who had earned a de gree, probably the bachelor
of arts, in 1542 he turned up in his wife’s native village, Beutelsbach,
District of Schorndorf about 15 kilometers north of Esslingen. He
was baptized in 1542 in Heinbach by Esslingen. Arrested in Tübingen
in 1544 and charged with Anabaptist heresy, he recanted and swore
the standard court-shaped oath, promising not to retract, not to seek
vengeance for his treatment, etc. He broke that oath so quickly that
we can only surmise that he never intended to keep it. In 1545 he
was caught and tried in Schwäbisch-Hall where he promised to
obey but did not perform the Urfehde (oath to take no vengeance).38
Arrested next in 1562 in the Esslingen Forest,
he was freed, then imprisoned three years later in Schorndorf. In
1570 a church visitor covering Beutelsbach and neighboring villages
reported that he had fled to Moravia. In 1577 the last word on him
came from a church visitor who reported that Anabaptists in Grossheppach,
a village not far from Beutelsbach, sheltered him. Here was an Anabaptist
who made a career of dodging the authorities, fobbing them off with
promises to obey with apparently no intention of keeping those promises.
For 35 years, perhaps more, he kept the authorities largely at bay.
But he stayed too close to home to succeed entirely. He complained
that they hounded him closely enough so that he was not free to visit
his wife in Beutelsbach.
Of all of the 21, Weber provided one of the
most solidly Anabaptist confessions. He left the Catholic church of
his own will, staying with the Lutherans until, in his opinion, they
degenerated into petty and major immoralities. He sarcastically commented
that if one only looks out the window, one can see how well rank-and-file
Lutherans improve their lives. He must have given up on Lutheranism
only seven years after it became the religion of Württemberg.
He insisted that good works were necessary for salvation and condemned
the oath for any purpose whatsoever, despite the fact that he had
sworn it in court. Or, did his "swearing" consist only of
a "yes," which the court itself decided was tantamount to
an oath, subject to standard penalties for perjuring it? There were
other Anabaptists in Württemberg who held that view and were
upheld in it by their courts. He could not abide what he called the
tippling, idle cursing and gluttony of Lutherans, especially of their
preachers. He was dedicated in his devotion to the correct order for
faith and baptism, and thereby to believers’ baptism. His literacy
and mental skill turned him into a lay teacher. He appears to us as
a standard Anabaptist on points of faith and practice, and steadfast
to the end in his faithexcept for numerous promises and even oaths
to renounce it, on which he routinely reneged.39
This pattern of promise then disavowal, together
with sturdy justifications of Anabaptism in court, marked him as a
type of Anabaptist rarely found in other lands.40
Yet it was not atypical in Württemberg,
especially by mid-century.
Hans Kügelin is another example of an
Anabaptist Nicodemite. In October 1533 Kügelin had recanted,
saying that his youthfulness led him into the error of the Anabaptist
way, and his relatives posted bond that he would remain religiously
clean.41 In the
final years of the Hapsburg hegemony before Duke Ulrich returned to
his duchy, recanta tion statements were always written by the court,
and did not reflect with any accuracy the intention of the Anabaptist.
Kügelin’s own testimony at his second imprisonment, in 1562,
was too strongly Anabaptist and too anti-Lutheran to take seriously
his earlier recantation; he excoriated the Lutherans for the standard
Anabaptist reasontheir incessant moral lapses. Yet Kügelin had
indeed recanted. The Esslingen government thought him too old at 73
to banish, or to punish at all beyond paying a small fine; he even
gained the right from court to use the public bath at least four times
What marks most of the Nicodemites was their
artful dodge. They hid out, even close to home. Some of them pretended
to be faithful parishioners by attending services in Lutheran churches
and even taking communionbut only if they had to. Above all, they
recanted in some degree, some of them more than once, and then they
retracted in their own ways and returned to the Anabaptists. In July
1562 they were caught once more and run through legal and religious
interrogation, revealing and confessing as little as they could, shielding
other Anabaptists and also their own families. Esslingen, which wanted
them out of town permanently, apparently banished most of them and
tried to extract an oath from each one to honor that exile. Did they
obey? Probably not. What good reason is there to believe that these
Anabaptists perceived Esslingen’s action as any different from prior
apprehensions and punishments? Why should Anabaptists suddenly decide
to obey this injunction when they had cheerfully disregarded prior
penalties of equal severity against them? Indeed, extant sources tell
us that at least two of the ten, plus the wife of a third one,43
were apprehended or reported later as still
practicing their Anabaptist faith.
Three of the 21 had not been baptized
and therefore legally did not come under the punishment dealt out
to Anabaptists. Two of them would have been regarded as potential
converts, close to the Anabaptist position. Lienhart Brelin of Heinbach
breathed fire against the Lutherans, critical of them because their
faith produced no moral fruit. On the grounds that he was not morally
fit, he had declined to be rebaptized; he proposed that he would submit
only when he matured with age. He declared that he would give two
heads, if he had them, to Christsuch was his dedication.44 His unnamed Anabaptist sister
was one of the 7 caught at the July meeting but then released without
trial.45 It was common enough for
Anabaptists to have in their regular meetings a cluster of people
who were dissatisfied with the religion around them and were looking
for something better, including the Anabaptist religious option.
From 1562 into the next century a Greiner family
in Walkersbach, Schorndorf District, some 30 kilometers east of Stuttgart,
practiced Nicodemite Anabaptism, having been led into it by the family
patriarch, Blasius. He first attracted court notice as an iconoclast,
being one of several men who destroyed a forest chapel in 1548. By
1567 the authorities were labeling him an Anabaptist of five years’
standing, and they began a long struggle with him and his family.
Arrested and imprisoned several times, he had been carried bodily
to attend church in a former Cistercian monastery (Maulbronn) that
had been turned into a prison for him. He escaped that prison by cutting
the iron bars to his cell.46 Later
he would recant, then always return to his Anabaptist ways. After
1571 his recantation was used by the state as a formulaic model for
other Anabaptists whom the authorities induced to recant formally
in church.47 He
always retracted in some manner, unreported in its detail, and returned
to his Anabaptist fellow believers. He was dead by 1572, though no
extant source reports the year of his death.48
He and his relatives and descendants were master
glassmakers who owned a glassworks in the forest hamlet of Walkersbach.
Other branches of the family established glassworks in Lauscha near
Meiningen and in Langenbach near Schleusingen, then another one in
Bohemia.49 The authorities were aware of the
economic benefit of their work and seemed reluctant to pursue these
Anabaptists until, apparently, the movement became too large and its
members too audacious.
Blasius and his second wife Sophie were Anabaptists.
So were his three sons and their wivesMelchior and Elisabeth; Jakob
and Margarete (and his second wife Veronica); Georg and Klara and
their son Endrisand his daughter Marie Schmid. His nephew Hans and
Hans’s wife Anna also joined, as did their daughters Apollonia and
Katharina. Two unnamed maidservants of Jakob joined.50
Six additional Anabaptist Greiners at Walkersbach
had blood ties that cannot be traced. Hence the Anabaptist Greiner
family constituted at least 21 members plus two servants.51
Within this vibrant clan the most energetically
Anabaptist were Blasius’ son Melchior, a major leader for fifteen
years; Blasius’ colorful second wife Sophie; and his daughter Marie.
Melchior was banished for life and lived covertly within the region,
though close enough to visit his family and conduct Anabaptist worship
servicesa style of life not uncommon among Württemberg Anabaptists.
He had reacted sharply against his local Lutheran pastor, who called
the Anabaptists devils; this gave him a credible excuse for not attending
services. He "read" at Anabaptist services and was reported
to have preached conversion to others. Toward the end of his life
Moravian Anabaptists sent greetings to this Anabaptist leader back
The authorities contemptuously referred to
Sophie as Blasius’ prostitute; actually, she married him in the Anabaptist
manner, which was not recognized as valid by the government. His children
by his first wife always supported her, which they probably would
not have done if she had really been a prostitute. After Blasius died
she married a second time, a certain Nickolaus Greck, whom she grew
to dislike and apparently abandoned. He was not an Anabaptist. Usually
the authorities could not find her, nor could they induce her to obey
their orders to attend church and communion when they did catch up
with her. She was adamant, unmovable in her faith.53
Marie married a Hans Schmid of Grossheppach
(some 20 kilometers west of Walkersbach), persistently refused to
obey even her 1569 sentence of exile, and eventually was imprisoned
for an unspecified time. Her veterinarian husband Hans joined, recanted,
but continued to read "Anabaptist" books to her. Like her
brother Melchior, she hid with friends and acquaintainces in the villages
around Grossheppach to avoid imprisonment. Usually she was not pestered
heavilymerely asked to attend church and the Lord’s Supper, which
she resolutely refused to do.54
Some members of this family seemed Schwenckfeldian
as much as Anabaptist, although the authorities always classified
them as the latter. Jakob was reported to own Schwenckfeld books,
but also Menno Simons’ "book," obviously the 1575 German
translation of Menno’s Foundation of the Christian Faith. Indeed,
Jakob and his preacher brother Melchior occasionally attended Lutheran
church but read Schwenckfeld and Mennonite books during the service.55
Here were seventeen known members (or servants)
of the family, plus six additional Greiners who probably were blood
kin, covering three generations from 1562 to 1615. There must have
been more like them because we know too many instances of Anabaptists
for whom no court or civil records have survived; surely some unreported
Greiners fell among those more or less anonymous Anabaptists.
Defiance, compliance: this family managed a
delicate balance between the two. Blasius had recanted in full, then
retracted, promised and retracted.56 Georg
made a full recantation, then retracted as his father had done.57
something, usually to attend church and communion, and did neither.
Eight59 seem to
have refused even that minimal promise. For the remaining three, no
records survive to tell us whether or not they promised or obeyed.
Georg’s second wife, Veronica, had her children baptized. But the
Greiners were a family who embraced Anabaptism with enthusiasm and
survived by whatever means seemed appropriate: recantation, promise
to obey the state church, no promise at all. Obviously they believed
with full integrity that they were Anabaptists. In 1598 we learn from
two Anabaptists of Urbach, several kilometers from Walkersbach, that
they considered the Greiners, especially Blasius, to have been the
founders and leaders of the Anabaptists in that region.60
INDIVIDUAL NICODEMITE ANABAPTIST
Jakob Bientzli of Möhringen, today a
suburb at the eastern edge of Esslingen and renamed Oberesslingen,
was Nicodemite from the earliest records about him. On July 18, 1559
he and his unnamed daughter were interrogated by preachers Martin
Rauber and Bonaventura, who probed their Anabaptist or Schwenckfeld
faith. The record was written out as if Bientzli answered each question
entirely on his own without any comment from his daughter. Bientzli
thought infants were better left unbaptized, though he had had his
own children baptizedperhaps before he had become an Anabaptist, though
the matter remains unclear in the records. He espoused the standard
Anabaptist view that children fell within the Kingdom without baptism,
and that baptism ought to be administered only when people were old
enough to understand their own sin and God’s forgiveness of it. He
was orthodox on the Word of God as salvific, without elaborating on
his interlocutors’ Lutheran casting of the issue. So why did he not
attend church? Bientzli fumbled, saying he had gone once or twice
but was not always able to attend, although he did not say what prevented
On the issue of government and the oath he
appeared to be Anabaptist enough: of course government was ordained
by God to curb sin and keep order. And, yes, oaths could be sworn.
But there stood that powerful command of Christ to swear neither by
heaven nor by earth. Bientzli seemed always to waver, to try to placate
his evaluators, but when pressed he held to the normal Anabaptist
view. He was staunchest on the Lord’s Supper, declaring unequivocally
that he could not participate with communicants who were open sinners,
that is, blasphemers, payers of tithes, tipplers, etc. Indeed, the
entire congregation (Lutheran of Möhringen) lacked brotherly
love and practiced no discipline of members. He would not therefore
commune with them.61
His position as leader of the Anabaptists of
Möhringen was more sharply drawn by Möhringen’s parish priest
Johannes Dold, who scolded the Esslingen government bitterly for their
intolerable inaction. Anabaptists were increasing in number, taking
over the village; half of its members had converted, though Dold’s
own count of them reached only 32. Leader Bientzli was full of contempt
for Dold and bruited it about that no power on earth would induce
him ever to hear Dold’s preaching. Dold complained that Esslingen
permitted the Anabaptists’ originator, Martin Scheffer, to go free;
and that others such as Bientzli’s daughter boasted that they would
flee rather than ever submit to Dold.62
In 1563 when the government rounded up witnesses
to testify about specific Anabaptists in Möhringen, clearly the
problem was partly one of personality. Some of Dold’s own parishioners
did not like him. One testified that Dold "overloaded himself
with wine, used inappropriate speech,"63
and was a poor model for his parishioners. But
all the witnesses singled out Bientzli as leader of the Anabaptists,
and some reported that the Anabaptists regularly met in his house
at his invitation and calling.64 Some
of those witnesses were coy, refusing to recognize any of Möhringen’s
inhabitants as Anabaptist and identifying as Anabaptist only those
who had fled to Moraviafar enough to be beyond the arm of Esslingen
law. Anabaptists often got that kind of unsolicited support from rank-and-file
neighbors who were not minded to tattle.65
Bientzli’s brother, Michel, was mayor of this
small village and used his office to help Jakob.
Imprisoned for an unspecified time in 1562,
Bientzli was again arrested and questioned in 1571 by the Esslingen
Council. Although he seems never to have been asked to make a formal
recantation, he appeared to recant on almost every point except that
he could not quite stomach the notion of accepting the Lord’s Supper
from the local pastor. Dold was not mentioned, perhaps he was no longer
in office. Bientzli did take communion in Stuttgart, obviously from
Lutherans, perhaps as a sop. Surely that was only a means of ducking
the issue of taking communion closer home, in Esslingen or even Möhringen.
Threatened with exile, he winced and backtracked. For twelve years
he had been a constant thorn in the side of the regular Lutheran congregation
in Möhringen. Did he finally yield? Or was he banished? We do
not know for certain.66
Here was an Anabaptist leader who tried desperately
for twelve years to shape his religious course to fit the requirements
of a peaceable life in Esslingen and did not quite succeed. He cringed
at the prospect of life in exile. He begged to be allowed to remain
in Esslingen in order to support his wife and children, about whom
we otherwise know nothing except that an adult daughter was Anabaptist.67
Perhaps he gave in enough to enable him to stay.
But did he really obey? Or did he practice his Anabaptism more clandestinely?
He appears to have been too strongly Anabaptist to give in completely.
Most scholars of the Anabaptists have found
them steadfast to the point of martyrdom. Indeed, their emphasis on
loyalty to God and the community of faith seems one of their most
common identifying features. Anabaptists qua Anabaptists were
steadfast, or they ceased to be Anabaptist and turned to some other
religious option. Yet this view does not accurately describe or explain
Württemberg’s Anabaptists in the second half of the sixteenth
century and on into the next century. These Anabaptists did indeed
look for accommodation with the larger society, and that inevitably
led them to some degree of religious compromise. All the while they
continued to regard themselves as fully Anabaptist.
Still, Anabaptists generally protested apostasy
in their ranks. Here we will cite a number of lesser known Anabaptist
voices. One of the most extreme was Jörg Schreier in February
1532 in Esslingen, condemning any recantation as an irremedial sin,
never to be forgiven, however confessed and repented. He "damned
guildmaster Lutz and said: whoever fell away from the Kingdom of God
could never be regained." He was provoked beyond his limit by
Leonhard Lutz, former leader of the Esslingen Anabaptists, who recanted,
then tried to induce Anabaptists at subsequent government hearings
to join his party.68 Lutz’s
behavior must have chafed other Anabaptists like Schreier.
One of the earliest expressions of complete
rejection of recantation was that of Augsburg Anabaptist Caspar Schlosser,
who reported that his mentors told the Augsburg Anabaptists in 1527
that "if they are weak in faith and recant, it would be better
if a stone had been hung around their necks [and they were] laid out
in deep water."69
In one of his Passau hymns, Württemberger
Michael Schneider begged God to sustain him and his own and protect
them from recantation. Their Passau captors, especially Archdean Ruprecht
von Mosham, pressed them unmercifully to recant, promising them release
from jail and restoration of their spouses and property.70
Poet Schneider spurned the inducements to recant;
prisoner Schneider ultimately broke down and recanted. Schneider and
his Philippite fellow believers in that Passau prison ultimately made
their way back to the northwestern corner of the Duchy of Württemberg,
probably settling around Bruchsal, from which there was a heavy exchange
of Anabaptists with Moravia.71 One
suspects that Schneider later retracted, but there is no extant evidence
to demonstrate it.72
The Hutterian Brethren consistently opposed
recantation. Their missionaries caught in Württemberg did not
recant, at least according to the accounts printed in the Chronicle.
Indeed, using the Württemberg archival records, there is little
evidence that those missionaries were caught, with a few exceptions
like Paul Glock. It is conceivable that some Hutterite missionaries
were caught and forced to recant, and that the Hutterites would not
accept them back nor record their deeds in the Chronicle.73 Although Paul Glock and Württemberg
Anabaptist Leonhard Sommer did not discuss the issue in their lengthy
debate, recantation might have been one of the bones of contention
between Hutterites and other Württemberg Anabaptists, with the
former rejecting and the latter accepting retracted recanters.
Late in the century in Poland, Peter Schomann,
Polish Brother, in his Catechesis of 1574 reported that apostasy
was a sin grievous enough to warrant excommunication.74
I have not cited Menno or Dirk or Peter Riedemann
or other Anabaptist writers who are more freqently quoted. There are
enough Anabaptist voices raised in opposition to recanters to mark
acceptance of them as something striking and unusual, until late in
the century when it became more common.
WÜRTTEMBERG ANABAPTISTS TURN NICODEMITE?
Invalidity of Oaths Sworn under Duress
Perhaps the Württemberg Anabaptists regarded
oaths or solemn promises taken under duress as invalid. An older medieval
attitude suggested that an oath taken under duress had no morally
binding power, and perhaps also no legal power. This is also the view
of the Talmud. Perhaps Anabaptists did swear their oaths or make lesser,
simple promises with that moral reservation. However, none of them
tell us that.
Associations with Schwenckfelders
Perhaps Württemberg Anabaptists were influenced
toward Nicodemism by their associations, sometimes close, with Schwenckfelders.
The fact of association is clear, especially in the second half of
the sixteenth century. Anabaptists were reported to own Schwenckfeld
books as well as those by Anabaptist authors. Some Anabaptists had
been Schwenckfelders. Others left Anabaptism for that Spiritualist
persuasion. The two groups seem to have carried on a fairly constant
interchange despite the sharp disputes between Schwenckfeld and southwestern
German Anabaptists such as Pilgram Marpeck, disputes that emphasized
religious differences rather than similarities.
Schwenckfeld counseled legal denial, then private
resumption of one’s proper Christian calling without remorse or twinge
of conscience. Perhaps one illustration will suffice. In 1546 Schwenckfelder
Endris Neff, bookseller and also teacher of sorts, had been imprisoned
for his activities, then released, in Cannstatt just east of Stuttgart.
He had been pressed to quit teaching and probably made some promise
that he would quit. On January 25, 1546 Schwenckfeld himself wrote
to Endris’ wife Margreth to counsel her, and presumably him. He said
that of course one must teach or speak with friends and others about
Christ from the scriptures, irrespective of what the authorities required
or prohibited or what one may have promised them under oath. Anti-Christian
people always tried to drive true Christians from their nur ture,
and they must not succeed.75
The counsel was clear: promise what you will
even under oath, but live out your Christian life as if no promises
had been made, without any pangs of conscience. That counsel seems
to parallel Anabaptist views on the right of government, or any private
party, to own and govern any territory sufficiently to prohibit Christians
of any kind from dwelling in that segment of God’s earth. Repeatedly,
Anabaptists denied governments the authority under God to banish them
from any segment of God’s earthfrequently citing Psalms 24:1, "the
earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof"so they did not
heed sentences of exile and remained in place, living furtively against
recapture, despite having sworn to heed the sentences. Württemberg
provides many examples of that form of annulling the effects of oaths.
Did the Anabaptists of Württemberg learn
this view from Schwenckfeld, then practice it? If Anabaptists followed
the Schwenckfeld counsel, they did not comment on it.
Coexisting with the Dominant Culture
Simply put, Nicodemism was a means of making
one’s peace with the dominant surrounding culture. In the final analysis,
I think that it was this factor that induced Anabaptists both to recant
and also to forswear their oaths, retract recantations and rejoin
their brothers and sisters. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists faced
intolerable pressure to give in. Many who refused were killed or banished
or took flight on their own. Many others surrendered in various degrees,
and some of these in turn lived out a life between total submission
to the dominant church (Lutheran in Württemberg) and the practice
of a religious life within the Anabaptist community. In the reports
of church visitors from about 1573 through the end of the century,
this latter group comprised the three categories of "People who
despise God’s Word and attend communion indifferently," "Former
professed Anabaptists who permit themselves to be instructed,"
and "Harborers, who house [refugee] Anabaptists." These
categories were especially distinguishable from two others: "Seducers
[i.e., leaders]" and "Pertinacious, stubborn Anabaptists
who refuse instruction."76 The church’s Spezialis
(church visitors) found them intractable because they seemed to give
ground but would not heed their own promises to attend church.
Carlos Eire argues that Nicodemism developed
naturally as a practical solution to the problem of persecution of
religious dissidentsand not, as Carlo Ginzburg would have it, as a
principle of conduct enunciated first by Brunfels, then elaborated
and practiced by a succession of people close to the Spiritualists.77
George H. Williams calls Nicodemism a "prudential
spiritualism." I would argue that the Württemberg Anabaptists
developed their Nicodemism naturally, beginning in the late 1520s
in Esslingen, and never bothered to search for or invent a theological
basis for recantation or to find some excuse. Perhaps they could have
found the elements of a theory in Johannes Brenz, Lutheran Reformer
primarily at Schwäbisch-Hall, who in the late 1520s did counsel
Protestants to participate in the Catholic mass where necessary, and
counseled further on accepting clerical vestments, sprinkling with
holy water and singing in Latin.78 But
why would the Anabaptists read Brenz? Or why for that matter should
they have read Schwenckfeld’s letters? Most of them were illiterate.
Surely it makes more sense to suggest that they developed the practice
out of necessity, without recourse to counsel from other Reformation-age
figures whom they would not have trusted anyway.
What still baffles the researcher is the discreet
silence that hangs over this practice of Württemberg Anabaptists.
It is unclear why their stricter coreligionists, especially the Hutterian
Brethren, failed to condemn them explicitly?
SOME CONCLUDING COMMENTS
By the end of the century most Württemberg
Anabaptists, when pushed by authority, agreed to attend Lutheran church,
perhaps also to take communion. Many of them continued to dodge, to
resist attendance. Or they attended worship, then slipped out when
communion was served. But most of them did not formally recant, nor
was it required of them. Attendance at Lutheran church was the decisive
issue after approximately 1565.
In return for Anabaptists’ compromise, Württemberg’s
authorities were much more lenient than those in some other regions.
After 1535 the government authorities preferred interrogation and
invitation to change religious views (with even some quarter given
for bargaining), over death or even exile. Duke Ulrich favored that
policy himself. Many Anabaptists were banished, indeed, and they fashioned
a steady stream of exiles to Moravia. But there was also a regular
flow of Moravian Anabaptists returning to Württemberg. It appears
that Württemberg virtually countenanced Anabaptism as a viable
religious option without ever admitting it.
The Württemberg government was lenient
toward Anabaptists in another respect. They did not always require
an oathto seal a sentence of banishment or a recantation or a mere
promise to attend church. A simple yes or no would suffice legally,
with the proviso that the Anabaptist who broke that promise, however
made, was forsworn.
By century’s end, the Anabaptists of Württemberg
had developed into two parties, without any evidence that they acknowledged
a two-level system of faith and life. On the one hand were a body
of intensely steadfast Anabaptists who would not bend nor promise
anything nor attend Lutheran church. On the other hand were those
who accommodated themselves to the state church requirements, then
continued to join fellow Anabaptists in special worship, probably
within disciplined congregations. The movement appears almost to have
divided into two actual groups, heralding the fissure of late seventeenth-century
Mennonites in the South, especially those in Canton Bern, Switzerland.
These are the two groupings that I prefer to
superimpose upon late sixteenth-century Württemberg Anabaptists.
This pattern of two clusters seems much more significant and realistic
than the traditional division into South German and Swiss Brethren
Anabaptists Hans Koch and Peter Ehrenpreis
provide one illustration of this developing two-party Anabaptismof
two intensities of faith and practice. In the 1590s Anabaptist Hans
Koch was the mayor of Schmie, a village near Maulbronn in northwestern
Württemberg. He attended Lutheran worship and even took communion.
But he counseled certain Anabaptists to flee to Moravia. In 1596 Koch
attended a secret Anabaptist meeting in the forest, and the authorities,
in vain, determined to pry out of him and others what went on there.
He advised Peter Ehrenpreis, a more conscientious Anabaptist whom
the authorities tried to catch. Koch hid Ehrenpreis, then helped him
escape. Koch spent an unspecified amount of time in Moravia, and his
children re mained there. Despite his evident Anabaptism, the authorities
did almost nothing to him; he seems to have been permitted to continue
his dual religious loyalties.79
By way of contrast, the Anabaptist he helped,
Peter Ehrenpreis, who lived in the village of Illingen approximately
seven or eight kilometers east of Schmie, seems to have been an especially
devoted Anabaptist, one who would not succumb to any pressure. Ehrenpreis’
non-Anabaptist father had been mayor of Illingen. Peter owned a copy
of Menno’s Foundation and was reported by other Anabaptists
to have influenced them by the quality of his religious life. He refused
to attend Lutheran church or take communion. Pressed in 1583 and for
another five years to submit to interrogation, he fled to Moravia,
where he was baptized as an Anabaptist believer. Back in his home
region off and on until 1596, he continued to reject any overtures
from the state church. By 1596 he had fled a second time to Moravia,
presumably after his Anabaptist mayor friend Hans Koch had hidden
him and then helped him es cape.80
Hans Koch and Peter Ehrenpreis must have worshipped
together, yet they held very different views on the crucial issue
of their relations to the state, including its church. In my view,
these men represent two discrete levels of faithfulness that characterize
Württemberg Anabaptists at the end of the sixteenth century.
Oyer retired as editor of MQR in 1992, and as professor of history
at Goshen College in 1993.
Gustav Bossert der J., ed., Herzogtum Württemberg, Quellen
zur Geschichte der Wiedertäufer 1 (Leipzig: M. Heinsius Nachfolger,
1930) [hereafter Bossert 1], 259.
The entire account can be found in ibid., 259-61.
Was he really an Anabaptist? Both Claus-Peter Clasen and I consider
him an Anabaptist. Bossert, who edited the documents, did not consider
him a bonafide Anabaptist.Clasen, "The Anabaptists in South and
Central Germany, Switzerland and Austria: Their Names, Occupations,
Places of Residence and Dates of Conversion, 1525-1618" [Published
by MQR, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Monograph Publishing On Demand Imprint
Series, 1978], 140.
John 3:1-17. But see also 7:50, where he spoke out against the condemnation
of Jesus without a hearing in religious court, and 19:50, where he
is reported to have provided spices for Jesus’ burial.
George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Kirksville,
Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc., 1992), 904-12, summarizing
Jean Calvin, "Excuse à messieurs les Nicodemites,"
1544, Opera, cols. 589-614; and idem, "Petite traité
montrant que c’est que doit faire un homme fidèle connaissant
la verité de l’Evangile quand il est entre les papistes,"
1543, Opera, cols. 541-78.
Carlo Ginzburg, Il Nicodemismo. Simulazione e dissimulazione religiose
nell’Europa del ‘500 (Turin: Einaudi, 1970).
Carlos M. N. Eire, "Calvin and Nicodemism: A Reappraisal,"
Sixteenth Century Journal 10 (1979), 45-69. Heiko A. Oberman
agreed with Eire in Oberman’s "The Impact of the Reformation:
Problems and Perspectives," in Politics and Society in Reformation
Europe, E. I. Kouri and Tom Scott, eds. (New York: St. Martin’s,
See Jane Kristof, "Michelangelo as Nicodemus: The Florence Pietà,"
Sixteenth Century Journal 20 (1989), 163-82, esp. 171. Kristof
describes the Catholics of Viterbo (some as erstwhile followers of
Juan de Valdes) who wanted to introduce Lutheran and Reformed theology
into Catholic practice.
Mark Furner, "The Nicodemites in Arth, Canton Schwyz, 1530-1698"
(MA thesis, University of Warwick, 1994), ch. 6.
Theodor Pressel, Ambrosius Blaurer, Nach handschriftlichen und
gleichzeitigen Quellen (Elberfeld: R. L. Friderichs, 1861), 85-86.
Blarer lived in Esslingen from the middle of September 1531 until
June 1532. He was in effect the reformer of Esslingen. In his letters
he reported an almost unqualified success with Anabaptists; they came
to hear him preach. As time wore on he became increasingly negative
and found them intractable.
Linda Huebert Hecht, "Anabaptist Women in Tirol who Recanted,"
Profiles of Anabaptist Women, C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Hecht,
eds. (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 156-62.
Werner O. Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments
during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
John S. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists (The Hague:
Nijhoff, 1964), 68-71.
In this essay I do not attempt to report the treatment of Anabaptists
in the Duchy of Württemberg or the imperial city of Esslingen.
There are too many additional categories of treatment possible: the
captured Anabaptist was released, imprisoned, executed, exiled, fined,
or he/she fled and was never tried (only reported as Anabaptist by
others). From my collection of records of individual Anabaptists I
draw the following percentages of Anabaptists who either left voluntarily
or were exiled:
Wurttemberg Jurisdiction Esslingen
No. of Ana. in Records 418 189
Known to Flee 19% 5%
Not caught or tried 22% 19%
Exiled 11% 29%
Total 52% 53%
Many of those who fled from elsewhere
came to Esslingen, a city considered by Anabaptists to be a safer
haven than most other places. Esslingen was not harsh to its Anabaptists,
except from June 1529 through January 1530 when it executed 7 Anabaptist
men who had been previously exiled and had returned to the city. One
of them was a promising young leader, Joachim Fleiner. The figures
for those who fled are much below the actual facts, which one cannot
ascertain. Evidence for flight is uncertain hearsay in the form of
reports by captured Anabaptists or reports by neighbors who only suspect
"Chronicle of Dionysius Dreytwein, D. Dreytwein," Esslinger
Chronik, Bibliothek des Litterarischen Vereins zu Stuttgart 221
(1901); this section in MSS Collection Bossert, "Abschriften
der Täuferakten der Herrschaft Hohenberg, der Grafschaft Hohenlohe
und der Reichsstädte Esslingen, Reutlingen, Schwäbisch Hall,
Schwäbisch Gmünd, Heilbronn, Weil der Stadt und Giengen,"
in the Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe [hereafter Bossert 2], III Esslingen,
fols. 320-21. Dreytwein, who wrote with a sharply pro-Anabaptist bias,
probably was basically opposed to the Lutheran government. He reported
the Anabaptist meeting near Waiblingen. But that is too far from Esslingen
to have fallen within that imperial city’s jurisdiction. Esslingen
handled this case from beginning to end, and did not turn it over
to the duchy authorities.
Anna Schnaitman, wife of Jörg, one of the 21; see "Further
Hearing [of the Esslingen 21]," Bossert 1:223. The unnamed sister
of Lienhart Brelin, one of the 21, was also present, according to
his own testimony; she was an Anabaptist, not merely a seeker."Hearing
of the Esslingen ," July 6, 1562, Bossert 1:210.
See "Further Hearing of the Anabaptists," July 14, 1562,
Bossert 1:223, lines 10-21.
See data about the secret Anabaptist meeting in Eckboldsheim Forest
on July 4, 1576, about 5 kilometers west of Strasbourg, drawing Anabaptists
from that city in M[aster] Elias Schad, "True Account of an Anabaptist
Meeting at Night in a Forest . . . ," MQR 58 (July 1984),
See Heinold Fast’s careful treatment of this term, "read,"
as Jörg Maler used it.Heinold Fast, "Vom Amt des ‘Lesers’
zum Kompilator des sogenannten Kunstbuches; auf den Spuren Jörg
Malers," in Norbert Fischer u. Marion Kobelt-Groch, eds., Aussenseiter
zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit: Festschrift für Hans-Jürgen
Goertz zum 60. Geburtstag (Leiden, New York: Brill, 1997), 201ff.
Lienhart Brelin testimony, "Hearing of the Esslingen ,"
July 6, 1562, Bossert 1:210.
"Hearing of the Esslingen ," July 6, 1562, Bossert 1:207.
Surely this comment is a quotation of, or adaptation from, Paul’s
admonition in I Cor. 14:30: "If someone else present receives
a revelation, let the first speaker stop," a passage used by
Anabaptists to argue their right to be heard in the larger religious
discussion of the Reformation period. Leonard Gross, The Golden
Years of the Hutterites (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980),
191, decides from this passage that the Swiss Brethren/Anabaptists
in Württemberg did not have bishops, or major leaders, only individual
members speaking out as each felt led. I think these Württemberg
Anabaptists did indeed have major leaders and in 1562 were caught
without one to replace Werner.
"Hearing of the Esslingen ," July 6, 1562, Bossert 1:207.
From other sources we learn that Werner died in 1539 of natural causes.
See Gustav Bossert, "Wernlin [sic], Jörg," ME,
4: 918; and "Württemberg," ME, 4: 994.
"Further Hearing of the Esslingen ," July 14, 1562,
Rebstock comment, Bossert 1:223.
Hans Kügelin implicated Martin Fesser as a leader."Further
Hearing," July 14, 1562, Bossert 1: 222. Fesser was indeed an
Anabaptist leader in this region, had lived in Moravia where he sided
with Wiedeman, returned to Württemberg by the late 1530s where
he baptized, and died late in the 1550s of apparently natural causes.
He is an Anabaptist leader who seems never to have been caught or
tried."Testimony of Martin Stiltz," Kirchheim, May 18, 1560,
The researcher is unfortunately bound to the chance survival of records.
In the light of what seems a prevalence of recantations and retractions,
one suspects but cannot demonstrate that the eight steadfast Anabaptists
included some who had indeed recanted.
Report of Esslingen Chronicler Dionysius Dreytwein, in Bossert 2:
III Esslingen, fols. 320-21.
Jörg Schnaitmann to the Burgermeister, "Request for Permission
to Return and to Be Heard," Aug. 6 to Oct. 24, 1562, Bossert
2: III Esslingen, fols. 322-24.
"Report on Treatment of Anabaptist Prisoners," July 23,
1562, Bossert 1: 224.
As Bernhard von Öffingen.Hearing of Mauritz Weber, Marbach, July
10, 1539, Bossert 1:72. Weber named some 32 Anabaptists, including
7 leaders, most of whom were never caught or tried. Most steadfast
Anabaptists refused to name their coreligionists. We are not told
what Weber’s Anabaptist friends thought of him after this fuller revelation.Ibid.,
His first hearing, July 6, 1562, ibid., 207.
Report of the Bailiff of Waiblingen, July 12, 1562, ibid., 217.
His leadership was reported by the bailiff of Cannstatt, not a reliable
witness on this issue since government authorities were always scrounging
to find leaders. "Report of Stephan Grieninger," bailiff
at Cannstatt, July 11, 1562, Bossert 1:215. But he obviously led at
least in the form of calling meetings at his place of residence, as
reported by the Spezialis (church visitors) in Spring 1574.Bossert
Rebstock testimony in the hearings of July 1562, together with reports
by Spezialis at various times, in Bossert 1:210, 215, 223, 251, 401,
402, 757, 774.
"Minutes" of the Synod, Stuttgart, 1621, Bossert 1:902,
lines 11-12 and n. 3.
"Report" of Bailiff Esais Küss, Cannstatt, Oct. 27,
1569, Bossert 1:251.
"Report" of visitor, Spring 1574, Bossert 1:402, and 401
which reports him a leader.
Appropriate court records, Bossert 2: VI Schwäbisch-Hall, fols.
Many court records in Bossert 1:97, 206, 207; 213 for his confession,
220, 223, 243, 264, 503, 504, 505.
There were Nicodemites among the Anabaptists of Central Germany.
Urfehde of Hans Kügelin, Oct. 27, 1533, Schorndorf, Bossert
Various hearings, Esslingen , Bossert 1:209, 213, 220, 222. He
had died by 1572.Ibid., 1049.
Sebastian Weber, Lorenz Degen, Katharina Weber wife of Jörg.
"Hearing," Bossert 1:209, 210. Both Clasen, "The Anabaptists,"
107, and Bossert considered Brelin to be an Anabaptist. I do not,
because he clearly had not been baptized as a believer. Anabaptist
meetings often attracted sympathizers such as Brelin.
"Hearing of Lienhart Brelin," Bossert 1:210.
Obviously he had to have had help, outside or inside, but we are not
told by whom or how."Report of the Abbot and Governor . . . on
Matthis Binder . . . ," Maulbronn, July 6, 1574, Bossert 1:416.
Bossert 1:304, n. 1, tells us that the original recantation has been
lost. What remains is the formula drawn up by a secretary, 309-10,
to be used in formal recantation ceremonies for Anabaptists.
Testimony in court, various Reports of Spezialis or Reports of Officials,
Bossert 1:246, 248, 282, 285, 304ff. for the recantation; 371, 374,
416 for jail break; and 504, 567, 709, 730 for reports of his influence
as late as 1598.
There are some secondary accounts of this remarkable family. See Claus-Peter
Clasen, Die Wiedertäufer im Herzogtum Württemberg und
in benachbarten Herrschaften: Ausbreitung, Geisteswelt, Soziologie
(Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1965), 186; Gustav Bossert, "Greiner,
Blasius," ME 2: 577; Karl Greiner, "Beiträge
zur Geschichte der Glasindustrie in Württemberg," Württembergische
Vierteljahrshefte, NS 34 (1928), 70-99.
Relevant citations for members of this family not cited above or below,
in their order of appearance in the text: Elisabeth, Bossert 1:513,
721, 727; Margarete, Bossert 1:493, 504, 567 (refuses attendance at
any Lutheran service), 585; Veronica, Bossert 1:619; Klara, Bossert
1:504; Endris, Bossert 1:481, 493, 504; Hans, Bossert 1:493, 715,
859; Anna, Bossert 1:505; Apollonia, Bossert 1:471, 620, 774, 776,
859; Katharina, Bossert 1:715 (perhaps she was Schwenckfeldian; neither
Bossert nor Clasen considers her an Anabaptist; I do.); N. N., two
maid servants of Jakob, Bossert 1:493, 504.
Some scholars name them all Swiss Brethren, although I do not find
primary source justification for that label. It is used in the sources
for only one or two of them.
Various hearings, reports of visitors and government officials, etc.,
Bossert 1:432 (on Lord’s Supper); 452, 459, 471, 481; 493, 505 (on
local Lutheran pastor); 513, 516, 606 (he preaches); 609, 644, 697,
and 706 (affirmation of him as leader).
Various hearings, reports of visitors or government officials, etc.,
Bossert 1:264, 382, 404, 427, 448, 456.
Various hearings, reports of visitors or government officials, etc.,
Bossert 1:265, 385, 405, 429 (hides in her village); 450, 458, 470,
481, 492, 503, 513, 516, 584 (husband read her Anabaptist books);
655, 859. Clasen, "The Anabaptists," 123, 133, lists her
twice, once under Grossheppach and the other under Rommelshausen.
I think he was confused by a reference to the wife of Hans Schmid,
of whom there are too many to track any of them easily.
Bossert 1:493, 738. For Jakob, other hearings and reports, see Bossert
1:431, 452, 459, 471, 481, 504, 513, 516, 567 (Anabaptists preach
in his house), 585, 590, 595, 619, 626, 727, 735, 1022.
In Blasius’s recantation he promised: (1) to attend church in his
parish; (2) to take the Lord’s Supper in his parish; (3) to sever
ties with Anabaptists (not to attend their meetings; not to house
any itinerant Anabaptists; not to instruct any person in Anabaptist
teaching); (4) that he would not reproach officials (not quite an
Urfehde, but close) for imprisonment; and (5) that if he did
not obey all of the above, then he would expect further punishment,
unspecified in kind. This is a Verschreibung, a kind of legal
bond without money but with an oath (one that is not given here),
separate from this formal piece of writing. This Verschreibung was
sealed by the government authorities.Bossert 1:309-10. Bossert tells
us, 304, n. 1, that the original, official Recantation article, is
no longer extant.See n. 36.
Various Hearings and Reports, Bossert 1:481, 492, 504, 577.
Sophie, Jakob, Melchior, Elisabeth.
Margarete, Endris, Hans, Anna, Apollonia, Katharina, Klara, Michel.
"Testimony about Anabaptists" Visitation, 1598, Urbach,
Bossert 1:709, 730.
"Questions Addressed to the Möhringen Anabaptist Bientzli,"
July 18, 1559, Bossert 2: III Esslingen, fols. 299-301.
"Johann Dold, Pastor at Möhringen, to Johann Sachs,"
May 19, 1561, Bossert 2: III Esslingen, fols. 304-06.
Testimony of Michel Bientzli," June 14-15, 1563, Bossert 2: III
Esslingen, fols. 326-27.
"Interrogation anent Anabaptist Suspects," June 14-15, 1563,
Bossert 2: III Esslingen, fols. 325-32.
"Jakob Bientzli to the Council [Esslingen]," July 10, 1571,
Bossert 2: III Esslingen, fols. 339-44.
"Hearing of Anabaptists," Feb. 4, 1532, Esslingen, Bossert
2: III Esslingen, fol. 240.
Friedrich Roth, "Zur Geschichte der Wiedertäufer in Oberschwaben:
III. Der Höhepunkt der wiedertäuferischen Bewegung in Augsburg
und ihr Niedergang im Jahre 1528," Zeitschrift des historischen
Vereins f. Schwaben u. Neuburg 28 (1901), 57.
Etliche schöne christliche Lieder (n.p.,
1564), collection of 53 hymns written in the Passau prison between
1535 and 1539, most of them published in subsequent editions of the
Ausbund. This hymn (ff. 28v-30r.) was not published in any
later edition, probably because Schneider praised community of goods
too heartily for the tastes of the Ausbund’s Swiss Brethren
See John S. Oyer, "Michael Schneider, Anabaptist Leader, Hymnist,
Recanter," MQR 65 (July 1991), 256-86.
See also Werner Packull’s treatment of the Philippites in Hutterite
In 1558 two Württemberg couples with their children from the
Schorndorf District joined the Hutterian Brethren, then returned utterly
disillusioned to their Lutheran homes in Mittelschlechtbach. They
were irritated beyond measure by their separation from their children,
who were removed some six miles from where they lived and educated
to community life apart from the family. Michael Honacker also protested
his working out six days a week as a mason, then having to give up
his wages to the Haushalter, who returned only a fraction for
their upkeep. Michael and Anna Honacker and Hans and Katharina Braun
returned home to petition for the return of their property. Their
case, which extended from June through September 1559, was unprecedented
in that they were required to do penance in private, to a few persons
only, as against some form of public penance. The authorities were
trying to make recantation easier, less problematic, precisely in
order to induce more Anabaptists to recant. See Bossert 1:185-87.
See George H. Williams, "Radicalization of the Reformed Church
in Poland, 1547-1574: A Regional Variant of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,"
MQR 65 (Jan. 1991), 66.
See "Der LXXXVI Sendbrief an Frau Margreth Neffin zu Canstadt
. . . ," Jan. 25, 1546, Bossert 1:114-18, esp. 115, lines 10-19.
Many more categories are often used by Spezialis (visitors)
or Vögte (regional governors) to designate people of varying
degree of steadfastness to the Anabaptist cause. I draw these particular
ones from "Report from Amt Urbach," May 30, 1598, Bossert
Eire, "Calvin and Nicodemism."
Hearings, Reports, Bossert 1:689, 692, 1110.
Hearings, Reports, Bossert 1:560, 598, 603, 616, 631, 637, 687, 819,
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