April 2000 Furner

April 2000

Research Note:

On the Trail of Jacob Ammann


During several months of combing through
the Bernese government council minutes from the time following the repression
of Anabaptism, I came across an early reference to Jakob Ammann. In June
1680 an Anabaptist of this name from Erlenbach was mentioned in correspondence
to the governor of Oberhofen.[1]
The governor had written to the Chorgericht, the religious and
morals court of the city of Berne that also served as the appeals court
for the rest of the canton, asking for advice on how to treat an Anabaptist
by the name of Jacob Ammann. Apparently the governor was unfamiliar with
the legislation and was probably inexperienced in Anabaptist affairs.
The letter had been passed on to the council for their consideration.
Since the Vogt (governor) was unsure of what action to take, the
council repeated the standard procedure. It ordered the clergyman to show
zeal in persuading Ammann to recant; if he would not recant, then he was
to be taken to the borders and exiled. If he refused to swear an oath
not to return, he was to be told that he would be punished as a perjurer
and beaten out with rods, a standard punishment for criminals. Ammann’s
property should be inventoried and a division made according to mandate.
There was nothing unusual in the orders given; Ammann was to be treated
in the standard fashion. He became known as an “arch-Anabaptist” only
in the 1690s.[2]

Anabaptists’ refusal to swear oaths was
the greatest single stumbling block to their acceptance by the Bernese
authorities from the early sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. The oath
formed the basis of the Bernese legal system, since God was seen as the
only guarantor of the truth of a sworn testimony or agreement. Religious
differences were minimally important to the government. But the oath of
fealty, whereby subjects swore to abide by the laws of the state and accept
its legal code and government, was an integral part of the Bernese judicial
system and political hierarchy and also the early modern psyche in general.[3]
Their refusal to take an oath gave the Anabaptists, in the eyes of the
council of Berne at least, a “system-threatening explosive force” (system-bedrohende

For Anabaptists who were ordered to be
exiled, the oath of exile was typically read to them at the cantonal border
where they were accompanied by the governor and his sheriff. The terms
of the oath were forced upon the dissenters, whether or not they agreed
to swear it. If a dissenter returned, the subject was to be punished as
a perjurer. No consent was required and the legal basis of the practice
was, by the standards of the time, at best dubious.

Ammann was still free when this order was
written. However, he seems to have been identified as an Anabaptist and
examined by the clergyman and/or the governor, and was therefore in immediate
danger. The governor’s hesitation and his ignorance of standing orders
could have given Ammann a vital chance to escape, since the governors
of areas more accustomed to Anabaptism in this period, such as Trachselwald
and Signau, would have acted sooner. There is no further reference to
the affair in the accounts of Oberhofen,[5]
and it appears that this order was never implemented. However, using this
date as a starting point, further evidence uncovered by John Hppi suggests
that Ammann had already made preparations to pass on his property to his
brother Ulrich and escape.


Oberhoffen – June 4, 1680.[6]
Orders to the governor of Oberhofen concerning Jakob Ammann the Anabaptist.
dem von imme an da da [sic] Chorgricht alhier abgebenen undtjr
gn. vorgetragenen schreiben habind dieselben ersehen, welcher massen Jacob
Amman von Erlenbach sich mit der tafferischen sect ansteken laen: Worber
zu[o] begehrter wgweisung jr gn. jnne befolchen haben wellindt, den taffer
zu[o] beschiken nochmalen zu[o] examinieren, undt durch getliches zu[o]sprechen,
so wol durch sich selbst al auch den predicanten, flei anzuwenden denselben
wider auf den rechten wg zu[o] bringen: erklrt er sich recht, mit heill;
wo nit solle er jme auf die grentzen fhren undt de lands verweisen laen,
mit bedeudten, ob er gleich den edt nit schweren the, so werde man
jme dennoch au[o]f den fal wider ein trttens, nit anders al einen mein–
eidigen straffen und mit ru[o]hten au[o] schmeitzen. Sein gu[o]t dan
slle er in– uentorisieren, mit den kindren theillen undt sein de vatters
antheill daruon bezechen undt zum kirchengu[o]t hinder den kirchen meer
legen. Vmb damit zever– fahren wie die tafferordnung mit meh– reren
au[o] weit: Jm fal er aber die ordnung nit htte, werde er sich darumb
be der Cantzle vmb solche alda zu[o] — empfachen, entweders schrifftlich
oder sonst durch jemand anzumelden wen.

Mark Furner is
an independent scholar living in Winterthur, Swizterland.

1. Researchers must be extremely cautious here. It cannot
be stressed enough that Ammann was a very common name, shared also by
a patrician family at the time. For example, David Ammann was one of the
councillors indirectly involved with Anabaptist issues in the late seventeenth
century, especially the interrogation of Urs Baumgartner, an Anabaptist
possibly related to Ulrich B. of Drsrti in the Emmental. was taken to
the castle of Trachselwald and then to Berne where he Urs was interrogated
and tortured in November 1629 in order to force him to name Anabaptist
teachers, after five attempts to get him to recant by senior members of
the council had failed. This information survives because it was recorded
by the clergyman Abraham de Losea, STAB B III 111, 629: “Den 2. November
1629 ist V[o]lli Bau[o]mgartner von Drsrhi der kilchhri Langnauw ein
widertffer, nach dem zu[o]vor fnf vnderschiedenliche mal ist in besein
Jrn. David Ammann de kleinen Raths vnd hrn. Heimberg de Grichtschreibers,
durch hrn. Gerg Langhans predicant, vnd Jacob Venner helffer au Gottes
Wort der irrhtummen berwisen, gefolteret worden, wegen er die lehrer
nit angeben wollen.” Cf Delbert Gratz, Bernese Anabaptists and
Their American Descendants (Goshen, Ind.: Herald Press, 1953), 31
is wrong to suggest that Baumgartner was tortured to find out his religious
beliefs: he was ready to discuss these The authorities treated the matter
as a criminal investigation and wanted Baumgartner to name his ‘accomplices’.
Torture was used almost exclusively in criminal investigations from the
1620s on, and almost never in religious examinations or related matter:
this case was an exception (as seen in the STAB Turmbcher – it may have
occurred in the 1690s in connection with the Pietists as well as Anabaptism,
but the relevant records have disappeared.). Paul Hostettler has found
several Anabaptists of this name in the district of Schwarzenburg.-“Von
den Tufern im Schwarzenburgerland,” Mennonitica Helvetica 19 (1996),
22, 32-33, 38, 48, 142, 147, 165, 169. A man of that name also committed
suicide in Bren in 1696.-“. . . de sich selbst entleibten
Jaggi Ammanns hinderlaenen mittel. . . ,” State Archive of Berne
(STAB) Seckelmeister Rechnungen, 1696, B VII 577. The entry appeared
as income under the cantonal treasurer accounts, since his property was
confiscated and administered by the state. Return to Text

. Hanspeter Jecker,
“Jakob Ammanns Missglckte Verhaftung im Bernbiet (1694),” Mennonitica
Helvetica, 18 (1995), 55-67. Return to Text

. Andr Holenstein,
“Seelenheil und Untertanenpflicht. Zur gesellschaftlichen Funktion und
theoretischen Begrndgung des Eides in der stndischen Gesellschaft,”
in ed. Peter Blickle, “Der Fluch und der Eid,” Zeitschrift fr Historische
Forschung, (1993), 11-63, esp. 26-32; and Die Huldigung der Untertanen.
Rechtskultur und Herrschaftsordnung (800-1800), Quellen und Forschungen
zur Agrargeschichte, 36 (New York and Stuttgart: Fischer, 1991). Return
to Text

. Andr Holenstein,
“‘Ja, Ja – Nein, Nein!’ Oder war der Eid von bel? Der Eid im Verhltnis
von Tufertum und Obrigkeit am Beispiel des Alten Bern,” Mennonitica
Helvetica, 11/12 (1988-89), 125-46. Published as “. . . lebenn
nach der ler Jhesu . . .” – “Das sind aber wir!” Berner
Tufer und Prdikanten im Gesprch 1538-1988, ed. Hans Rudolf Lavater,
(Berne: Stmpfli, 1989), 141. This significant difference made Anabaptists
a fundamental danger in the eyes of the authorities from the sixteenth
into the eighteenth century, and Anabaptists understood this. The danger
here bridged any demise of radicalism on other issues. Hence there may
not have been a passing of the “radical moment” in Berne, when Anabaptists
no longer chose martyrdom in large numbers after the 1530s, as argued
by James M. Stayer, “The Passing of the Radical Moment in the Radical
Reformation,” MQR 71 (Jan. 1997), 147-52, here 152. The Anabaptists
in Berne did not change regarding this point of dispute; only the method
used to punish them was changed. Return to Text

. The file containing
the Anabaptist documents of the castle of Oberhofen, dated 1703-23, is
found in the STAB B III 194b. Return to Text

. The left-hand
margin reads: Amman Jacob wider taffer. Return to Text

. A II 500, Ratsmanual
188, 35.
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