Friday, July 6, 2012

Backstreet Boys

Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Georg Blaurock, Simon Stumpf . . . . names not readily found in our lexicon of famous church leaders. These guys were students of Ulrich Zwingli back in the early 1500s--part of a company of smart, educated, young men in whom he intended to instill Reformation fervor. Through them, Zwingli sought to perpetuate the Swiss branch of the movement.

Unfortunately, in relatively short order, his promising proteges morphed into his foremost antagonists. They came to the conclusion Master Ulrich had not gone far enough in separating himself from the old traditions. They were convinced, largely through their own study of Scripture, that only believers in Christ (not infants who had no choice in the matter) should be baptized; that churches should be free to call their own pastors and free from church taxes; and, that the church and the state should not be intertwined.

Because of their emphasis on "re-baptizing" believers, they were nicknamed "Re-baptizers", a sure testimony to the creative impulse at work in their detractors. These "Anabaptists" (Tauferin or Wiedertauferin in German) became the thorn in the side of the Protestant Reformers that would not go away. (Note: now you know why Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists are Protestants and the Anabaptist/Mennonite/Free church/Baptist crowd is not officially "Protestant".)

An interesting side note to this development: all these men were trained humanists. Even Zwingli had been influenced by Erasmus, the famous humanist scholar. The young men had been schooled in the universities of the day and were inescapably exposed to and shaped by humanist thought. Humanism of the day emphasized the centrality of reason and the importance of classical education, the value of the individual, and personal freedom and responsibility.

One cannot help but wonder not so much "if" but rather "to what degree" seeds of the Reformation (particularly in Switzerland) as well as the ensuing development of Anabaptist thinking (the "radical" wing of the Reformation) may be found in the great humanist traditions of the Renaissance era and the themes of individualism and freedom which were emerging at that time in western Europe.

Why "Backstreet Boys"?  Maybe "side street" would be better . . . . they blindsided Zwingli with their opposition to his teachings. But we also know that Manz lived with his mother down a narrow street just behind Zwingli's big church and Grebel was born and grew up in a nice place a stone's throw in the other direction.

Neustadtgasse is the street where Felix Manz lived with his mother. He was the "illegitimate son" of the canon of the Grossmunster. Because the priest recognized and assumed responsibility for his children, Felix had the advantage of his father's high position which included a quality education. The house does not exist anymore--newer houses and shops are there now. But the street is still there and we walked from this corner where it starts to the other end.

This is that street--it is narrow, cobblestoned (as every ancient walkway, street and plaza in Zurich is), quiet, and pleasant. One wonders what it was like in 1525 . . . . .

About two-thirds of the way to the end of Neustadtgasse is this fountain. There are fountains like this all over the city. In the Middle Ages this particular one was apparently popular with the clergy and local scholars.  The home of Felix and his mom was somewhere in this vicinity as well. This fountain might well have been the water source used for the first baptism involving Manz, Grebel and Blaurock.

Now we start looking for the home of Conrad Grebel. It is on Neumarktgasse, around the corner from the big church. Neumarkt was an upscale neighborhood in the Middle Ages where a number of aristocracy lived. Grebel's father was an iron merchant and had served as a magistrate. He also was an ambassador for the Zurich Canton to the meeting of the Swiss Confederation. (Unfortunately, he also had a wide range of financial dealings--we assume mostly legitimate--with foreign interests. These foreign connections eventually resulted in charges of treason and his execution in October, 1526, not long before Felix Manz was put to death by drowning. Some scholars speculate that Jacob Grebel's fate was due to his public opposition to Zwingli's harsh measures.)

Conrad's house is just down the street on the right. The front door is next to the bluish awning--there is a cafe and theater there now.

This sign over the door says, "In this house lived , between 1508 - 1514 and 1520 - 1529, Conrad Grebel who, together with Felix Manz, founded the Anabaptist movement."

A well-known printer who came to Zurich in 1519, Christopher Froshauer was popular among the Swiss Reformers. He published the writings of Zwingli, Bullinger, and others. Interestingly, he also printed Reformation writings from Bern (since there was no printer in Bern until 1537.) His Bibles were beautifully illustrated. They became popular with the Anabaptists because they were printed in the common language, Swiss German, thus more easily read and understood. A copy of an early edition we saw included cross references in the margins and some notes with theological explanations (a very early study Bible!)

The sign on the non-descript building which housed Froshauer's print shop indicates that it was located in the former St. Veronica's monastery (built in 1260; closed down by Zwingli in 1524.) He acquired this place in 1551.

On January 18, 1525, the city council of Zurich passed an ordinance outlawing meetings of the followers of Grebel and Manz, those heretical Anabaptists. The ordinance required infant baptism and disallowed believer's baptism. The very next week, January 22-29, a small groups of these Anabaptists came together in open defiance of this law. In a farmhouse in Zollikon, a few miles from the outskirts of Zurich, these believers got together to read the Bible, teach the Word, baptize the converted and observe the Lord's Supper. By the end of the week 35 persons had joined the group.

This modern-looking house, formerly a farmhouse, became the meeting place for the first Anabaptist congregation, the first "believer's church," which included farmers, servants and one woman. After Blaurock stirred up trouble by trying to preach in the local Reformed Church in Zollikon (the state church which appointed pastors to the churches), 15 Anabaptists were arrested and jailed. The congregation continued to meet in various homes.

The plaque above the door (behind the fountain) reads, "The concept of the believer's church was first realized in Zollikon by the Anabaptists. In this house on January 25, 1525, one of their earliest meetings was held."


  1. yes...and don't forget to try the Mozelle wine...

  2. So, are there seeds of humanist thought that have wormed their way into the theological positions of these men that ought to be eradicated? Are there humanist ideals that we hold (excuse my use of the personal plural pronoun), which actually do not have support in Scriptures? Or perhaps ideals contrary to humanism which we should hold, but don't due to this humanist influence?

  3. Erasmus (1465-1536) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist. He was a master of Greek and Roman classics. He was also a committed Catholic. So, even though the ancients provided insights into virtue, he believed that Christians should live their lives based on the life of Christ.

    His humanism led him to a strong belief in free will in salvation (he gave a reasoned defense of this position against Luther. Without free will, said Erasmus, human moral action has no meaning. Luther's--and even more so Calvin's-- justification by grace through faith has within it an implicit doctrine of predestination.)

    Erasmus also believed that along with freedom of choice there should be religious toleration. He stood against the death penalty for dissenters and heretics. These positions set him against his Catholic brethren.

    In his moderate position, Erasmus was somewhere in between the Church and the Reformers. He hoped to stay true to the Church but reform its superstitious, corrupt ways. He trusted the early church fathers more than he did scholasticism; he appealed to the reason of the believer more than to the Magisterium of the Church; and he promoted a "sound and reasonable" Christianity.The Reformers, who had hoped he would join them, did not believe he had gone far enough their direction.

    "seeds of humanist thought" . . .? Perhaps. But that may not be all bad. Such thought in a sense freed the radicals to think for themselves and gave them permission to question the traditions. Furthermore, in this brand of Erasmus-humanism, one finds a renewed emphasis on Greek texts, the virtuous life vs. corruption, free will as the basis for valid moral action, reason vs. superstition and magisterial dictates and religious toleration (possibly even non-violence.)

    Seems to me that one could find support in Scriptures for many of these ideas. Humanist ideals at this point are not by definition out of bounds . . . . are they?

    Here is where I think we should be cautious: the focus of faith has to be on Christ, not on our calculated (anthropocentric, prideful) reasoning. Concomitantly, we strive to keep the balance we find in Scripture between free will and the sovereignty of God--the biblical position is one of balance and "both/and"--not "either/or". The trouble always comes when we emphasize one over the other. Finally, we resist exalting reason over faith, recognizing that our journey is always one of "faith seeking understanding."

    How's the food?