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 Spreng-kraft).[4] 

     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 Hüppi 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. [7] Auß dem von imme an daß daß [sic] Chorgricht alhier abgebenen undt jr gn. vorgetragenen schreiben habind dieselben ersehen, welcher massen Jacob Amman von Erlenbach sich mit der taüfferischen sect ansteken laßen: Worüber zu[o] begehrter wägweisung jr gn. jnne befolchen haben wellindt, den taüffer zu[o] beschiken nochmalen zu[o] examinieren, undt durch güetliches zu[o]sprechen, so wol durch sich selbst alá auch den predicanten, fleiß anzuwenden denselben wider auf den rechten wääg zu[o] bringen: erklärt er sich recht, mit heill; wo nit solle er jme auf die grentzen führen undt deß lands verweisen laßen, mit bedeudten, ob er gleich den eÿdt nit schweren thüÿe, so werde man jme dennoch au[o]f den fal wider ein trättens, nit anders alß einen mein-- eidigen straffen und mit ru[o]hten au[o]ß schmeitzen. Sein gu[o]t dan sölle er in-- uentorisieren, mit den kindren theillen undt sein deß vatters antheill daruon bezeüchen undt zum kirchengu[o]t hinder den kirchen meÿer legen. Vmb damit zever-- fahren wie die taüfferordnung mit meh-- reren au[o]ß weißt: Jm fal er aber die ordnung nit hätte, werde er sich darumb beÿ der Cantzleÿ vmb solche alda zu[o] -- empfachen, entweders schrifftlich oder sonst durch jemand anzumelden wüßen.

[*] 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 Dürsrüti 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 Dürsrühi der kilchhöri Langnauw ein widertöüffer, nach dem zu[o]vor fünf vnderschiedenliche mal ist in beÿsein Jrn. David Ammann deá kleinen Raths vnd hrn. Heimberg deß Grichtschreibers, durch hrn. Geörg Langhans predicant, vnd Jacob Venner helffer auß Gottes Wort der irrhtummen überwisen, 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 Turmbücher - 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 T„ufern im Schwarzenburgerland," Mennonitica Helvetica 19 (1996), 22, 32-33, 38, 48, 142, 147, 165, 169. A man of that name also committed suicide in Büren in 1696.-". . . deß sich selbst entleibten Jaggi Ammanns hinderlaßenen 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

[2] . Hanspeter Jecker, "Jakob Ammanns Missglückte Verhaftung im Bernbiet (1694)," Mennonitica Helvetica, 18 (1995), 55-67. Return to Text

[3] . Andr‚ Holenstein, "Seelenheil und Untertanenpflicht. Zur gesellschaftlichen Funktion und theoretischen Begründgung des Eides in der st„ndischen Gesellschaft," in ed. Peter Blickle, "Der Fluch und der Eid," Zeitschrift für 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

[4] . Andr‚ Holenstein, "'Ja, Ja - Nein, Nein!' Oder war der Eid von šbel? Der Eid im Verh„ltnis von Täufertum 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 Täufer und Prädikanten im Gespräch 1538-1988, ed. Hans Rudolf Lavater, (Berne: Stämpfli, 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

[5] . 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

[6] . The left-hand margin reads: Amman Jacob wider taüffer. Return to Text

[7] . A II 500, Ratsmanual 188, 35.

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