Persecution and Execution under the Magisterial Reformation


In Zurich, in the early 1520s, several men were working together with Ulrich Zwingli to introduce a reformation in the city. However, as things progressed, Zwingli would not push the Zurich council for changes beyond what it was willing to adopt. At that stage, a number of those who had been working with Zwingli separated from him and started meeting on their own in houses. They believed that the believers should gather separate from the ‘world’ as a group of committed Christians. They also started preaching in homes and outdoors. Many people turned to the Lord through their preaching. From their study of the Scriptures, these men also believed that baptism in water was a requirement for the genuine convert to Christ. This brought them into a headlong collision with the magisterial reformer, Zwingli, and the city council of Zurich. Zwingli upheld infant baptism in debating against the Anabaptists, as they were to be called, before the city council. (The exact reasons for this are detailed in Extract One or in the book.) Zwingli continued to write and speak against the Anabpatists.

After a ‘public disputation’ in January 1525, the council issued measures banning the meetings of the Anabaptists, and parents were ordered to have their infants baptised within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city. However, the Anabaptists were undeterred. They were going to follow their conscience and convictions. On January 21, 1525, about a dozen men met at the house of Felix Manz, and Conrad Grebel, a layman, baptised George Blaurock, an ordained priest. Thus was Anabaptism born.

In February of that year, Grebel and Manz went from house to house witnessing, baptizing, and conducting the Lord’s Supper after the new order of the Swiss Brethren. This evangelisation soon spread to neighbouring villages and towns and even further afield in Switzerland.

Two of Grebel’s converts then started to witness in and around another the city in Switzerland  (St. Gall) with marked success, so Grebel joined them there. At St. Gall he preached and found great response among the people. This preaching resulted in about five hundred people being baptised in the Sitter River by the Anabaptists on April 9, 1525. However, eventually the authorities in St Gal followed the lead of Zürich and suppressed the movement. From the latter part of April until June, Grebel was forced into hiding in Zurich, as his activities were illegal. In fact, during this period the Anabaptists were in and out of prison, as they simply kept on preaching and witnessing, whether from house to house, in fields or even churches that initially happened to be opened to them.

Grebel, Manz, and a fiery man called George Blaurock were preparing for a service in a field, when Grebel and Blaurock were arrested by the magistrate and imprisoned in the castle. Three weeks later Felix Manz was seized and thrown into the same prison.

They were put on trial, where Zwingli spoke against them, accusing them of ‘sedition’.  Anyway, as a result of the trial, on November 18, 1525, the Anabaptists were condemned to lie in the tower on a diet of bread and water, and no one was permitted to visit them except the guards. During that winter other Anabaptists were imprisoned in Zurich.

In a letter to an acquaintance Zwingli wrote:

“It has been decreed this day by the Council of Two Hundred that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower, in which they formerly lay, and be allured by a bread and water diet until they either give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that they who after this are immersed shall be submerged permanently: this decision is now published…I would rather that the newly rising Christianity should not be ushered in with a racket of this sort, but I am not God whom it thus pleases to make provision against evils that are to come, as He did when in olden time He slew with a sudden and fearful death Ananias who lied to Peter, so that He might cast out from us all daring to deceive…”  (Huldrych Zwingli, Letter to Vadian, March 7, 1526, p.252. Staehelin, Briefe ausder Reformationseit. Italics mine.)

Zwingli likens the prospective drowning of Anabaptists to God’s judgement on Ananias and Sapphira. His was truly a darkened mind. It is amazing, if not a revelation, that he who was called a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland could write with such coldness and murderous intent right about those who believed in believer’s baptism! This was no vain threat. It wouldn’t be long before reformed Zurich would have its first martyr at the hands of Zwingli.

After five months of imprisonment, starvation had not worked, so a second trial was held in March 1526. A sentence of life imprisonment was passed on all the defendants. In addition to this, a new mandate was issued on the same day which made the act of performing baptism a crime punishable by death. However, two weeks later all the Anabaptists managed to escape through the help of a friend, but eventually Manz was caught again and put on trial. On January 5, 1527, Manz was sentenced to death at the Council Hall, where he was charged “because contrary to Christian order and custom he had become involved in Anabaptism, had accepted it, taught others, and become a leader and beginner of these things because he confessed having said that he wanted to gather those who wanted to accept Christ and follow Him, and unite himself with them through baptism, and let the rest live according to their faith, so that he and his followers separated themselves from the Christian Church…” (Mennonite Encyclopedia, 3:473. Italics mine.)

Manz, was bound and taken from the prison to the boat. But on the way he witnessed to his faith to those lining the way, and praised God that he was dying for the truth. His mother too, was encouraging him to stay faithful to Christ. As he was then put into a boat and his arms and legs were tied, he cried out with a loud voice, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. He was then plunged into the waters of the river to drown.  Thus acted ‘Reformed’ Zurich.

Another major figure in Anabaptism was Balthasar Hübmaier, who arrived in Zurich with his wife at the end 1525, fleeing from the Catholic forces that were about to descend on his town. After their arrival, he and his wife were seized and imprisoned. Zwingli maintains he was arrested to keep him from stirring up an insurrection. Hübmaier was called upon to recant, which, under threat of further punishment, he did before the city Councils. He was then told to read the recantation in church before the congregation after Zwingli’s sermon on Friday, December 29. However, once Hübmaier was in the pulpit he confessed to being in great anguish, and that there was no way he could recant and proceeded to defend believer’s baptism. Hübmaier was placed in prison. While in prison he wrote the 12 Articles of Christian Belief.  

During this second imprisonment, Hübmaier was stretched on the rack and brutally tortured, which led to him giving the recantation that Zwingli wanted. Zwingli then mocked him betraying his own beliefs. This was done by the leading reformer in Switzerland in the name of the Reformation and he saw nothing wrong in it! To so torture and mock a man seemed normal and natural to him.

This was heart-breaking for Hübmaier and resulted in a genuine repentance and confession as witnessed by his eventual death when he was burnt at the stake by Catholic authorities for his beliefs and for his refusal to recant. Hübmaier went to Nikolsburg in Moravia. Here Hübmaier’s work thrived. Converts were rapidly made, including a Moravian baron who was baptised by Hübmaier. It is said that at least 6000 people were baptised in one year alone through Hübmaier’s work at Nikolsburg. Hübmaier also continued writing and particularly inveighed against the moral laxity of the Lutherans – something that we shall address later.

But when Moravia came under the jurisdiction of Catholics, Hübmaier was taken prisoner, tortured on the rack once again, and this time burnt at the stake for his refusal to recant. His wife was murdered three days later by drowning. If one were to give the designation, ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, to which group of people would this designation best fit?

The Martyrs’ Synod

A meeting took place in Augsburg, Southern Germany, in 1527 (August 20 to 24). This meeting was attended by about sixty representatives from different Anabaptist groups, and its purpose was to iron out differences between the Swiss and south German Anabaptists regarding the central Anabaptist teachings.

At the time, Augsburg was an active centre of the Anabaptist movement in southern Germany. By 1526, only a year after the first Anabaptist baptism in Zurich, the number of Anabaptists had grown to between 700 and 1,000 people in Augsburg, despite persecution and the fact that they had to meet in secret.

However, on the Protestant side, Urban Rhegius was the head of the local clergy in Augsburg. (He was a close associate of Luther, who called him his bishop of Lower Saxony). But as soon as the Augsburg authorities learned of the synod, they took steps towards putting down the movement. Within days of the Synod starting (24 August), the city council arrested and tortured Anabaptists and used the forced confessions to warn other governments to be on the lookout for them. During the autumn of 1527, most of the leaders of the Augsburg congregation were arrested, tortured and banished, and the city threatened severe punishment against anyone caught baptizing or meeting in secret. The Anabaptist Hans Hut was tortured horribly (for 4 months), and accidentally died in the Augsburg prison in December 1527 because of a fire which resulted in his death by suffocation. The next day, the authorities sentenced his dead body to death and burned him.

This Synod became known as the ‘Martyrs’ Synod’, because most participants were killed for their faith soon afterwards. The Martyrs’ Synod took place just as persecution of the Anabaptists began to escalate throughout Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

Also, during this time (in the last quarter of 1527 and the first half of 1528) decrees and mandates were continually being issued by rulers and authorities against the Anabaptists. The Swabian League (a defensive force in southern Germany) passed a cruel decree at Augsburg on 22 February 1528, which authorized a band of four hundred armed horsemen to hunt down, arrest and bring to trial the Anabaptists. Those who did not recant suffered being burnt at the stake without trial. Even those that did recant simply received the more speedy punishment of being beheaded, while women were executed by drowning. Two weeks after this decree was passed Joachim Helm, a citizen of Augsburg, wrote: “It is such a misery, that the whole city of Augsburg is saddened. They are daily beheading some, at times four or six, and at times ten persons” (Archiv für Ref.-Gesch., 1916, 154).

However, these Anabaptists did not resort to violence. Violence and the use of force had no part in authentic Anabaptist teaching or practice. There would be others who did resort to violence and insurrection and who would be called Anabaptists, especially by the reformers, but who both in practice and principal differed greatly from the great many Anabaptists who simply endured persecution and death.

The Anabaptists were hunted down ruthlessly like animals. They were forced to meet in secret, but the persecution of them was constant and merciless, with many being hauled before magistrates, interrogated, imprisoned and tortured. The reformers banned its adherents and hounded them out of their regions, sending them into Catholic territories, where the Catholic Church had no compunction about torturing and burning them at the stake. To read about their sufferings is to read about prolonged and unspeakable cruelties.

Germany: Philip Melanchthon and the Punishment of Anabaptists.

Philip Melanchthon was a leading reformer and Luther’s right-hand man and successor in Wittenberg. In 1527, Melanchthon was commissioned by John the Elector of Saxony to inspect the churches in the region of Thuringia. With him were two other Lutherans, Friedrich Myconius and Justus Menius. As a result of this visit wrote his Visitation Articles, which he later expanded in 1528 into a refutation of the beliefs of the Anabaptists in his Adversus Anabaptistas Iudicium (German: Unterricht wider die Lehre der Wiedertäufer; Englsih: Against the Teachings of the Anabaptists.)  Two years later he defended the death penalty for Anabaptists who would not recant in a letter to Myconius:

“At first when I began to become acquainted with Storch and his following, to whom the whole family of Anabaptists owes its existence, I was possessed by a foolish tolerance. Others were also of the opinion that heretics are not to be destroyed with the swordNow I regret this lenience not a little. What disturbances, what heresies did he not stir up afterward?. . . All the Anabaptists, even if they are blameless in all other respects, reject some part or other of their civic duties. Though the matter in and for itself may be insignificant, yet at this time and in so many crises it is extremely dangerous. . . . Therefore it is my opinion concerning those who hold beliefs that are, to be sure, not seditious, but still obviously blasphemous, that the government is under obligation to kill them” (Letter to Myconius, 1530. Wappler, Paul; Kursachsen, 13 f. Italics mine.) (Die Stellung Kursachsens und des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen zur Täuferbewegung.)

The leading reformer, Melanchthon, regretted his ealier ‘torlerance’ in not agreeing to the execution of heretics! Later on, the execution of six Anabaptists in 1530 (January 18) at Reinhardsbrunn in Saxony caused a great stir. The Elector John now wanted the Lutheran Wittenberg theologians to give a written clarification and basis for dealing with the Anabaptists. It was put together by Melanchthon and submitted to the Elector in October 1531, entitled Gutachten an den Kurfürsten Johann von Sachsen. This writing addressed the matter of appropriate punishments for Anabaptists, and in this Melanchthon distinguishes between three kinds of Anabaptists. There are those that are ringleaders and proclaimers of Anabaptism. Secondly, there are the followers and those who have been misled, and finally there are those who may be weak in their belief and who could possibly be persuaded to recant. Melachthon continues:

The first class is to be killed with the sword, because they persisted contrary to the electoral mandate in holding meetings; for they have thereby shown themselves disobedient to the government. But the second class who hold obviously seditious articles of faith and persisted in them in spite of warning and instruction, should as revolutionaries also be put to death. . . . Finally those of the third class, who have erred because of ignorance, should be shown mercy after they have been instructed and have recanted their error, after they have made public confession and have been warned not to repeat the error. But if they do not desist from their error – ‘for many of them are possessed by the devil’ – they should be expelled from the country, provided that no seditious beliefs or malicious intentions are found in them, or be punished by some other mild penalty” (Wappler, Kursachsen, 26 f. Italics mine.)

[ Neff, Christian. “Melanchthon, Philipp (1497-1560).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 27 Dec 2021.,_Philipp_(1497-1560)&oldid=145860%5D

The words of Melanchthon above reveal a cold, murderous intent in the name of religion that made the reformers scarcely any different to their Catholic counterparts. Luther signed this document and added his own comments upholding the death penalty for the most zealous adherents. (See Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 138.)

A few years later, on 20th November 1535, some other Anabaptists from Kleineutersdorf in Saxony. In all, sixteen people were arrested and interrogated. At Jena, a number of them were interrogated concerning their beliefs by Melanchthon and others in the presence of the city council.

Melanchthon sent a report of the interrogations of the prisoners to John, Elector of Saxony on 19 January 1536, which included advice about what he considered to be suitable punishment.  Referring to one wavering father he wrote, “With this one I beg you not to hasten punishment. For I hope that when his master Heinz Kraut, who lies in Jena, and a few other stubborn ones are executed, he will let himself be instructed. On the obstinate ones it is necessary to inflict serious punishment. And even though some may not be otherwise untractable, nevertheless this harmful sect must be resisted, in which there are so many terrible, dangerous errors. But with the poor obstinate women I think it is not necessary to hurry, but first deal earnestly with their husbands.” John wrote a letter on 23 January concurring with Melanchthon’s opinion (Corpus Reformatorum III, 16 f.)

Accordingly, the ‘obstinate’ ones were questioned further but eventually put on the rack to induce them to recant, but they refused to be thus ‘persuaded’ and were condemned to death and beheaded. (Jan. 26, 27, 1536). Their condemnation was that they were Anabaptists and were responsible for ungodly, seditious views and had held meetings at Kleineutersdorf.

The wives of those executed were being held at Leuchtenburg, and had held out against the attempts to make them renounce their beliefs, for which reason Melanchthon had called them ‘stubborn’ (Corp., Ref. III, 21).  However, learning of the death of their husbands broke the resolve of the women, and they were finally induced to recant, just as Melanchthon had anticipated. He also wrote extensively against the teachings of the Anabaptists.

The Lutheran Reformers carried on and perpetuated the cruel religious dictatorship that had begun under the Roman Catholic Church. They actively encouraged and stirred up the princely authorities in Germany to persecute, imprison, torture, banish and execute the Anabaptists.

How did the reformers justify the use of force against the Anabaptists?

The reformers believed that the magistrates were ordained of God to ensure religious orthodoxy and to punish blasphemers and heretics.

The reformer Henry Bullinger, who was the successor to Zwingli in Zürich, complained about the teachings of the Anabaptists and wrote the following, “They say that one cannot and may not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, seeing that faith is the free gift from God. It is wrong, say they, to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put anyone to death because of erring faith. It is an error, they assert, that in the church any other sword is used than that of the divine Word. The secular kingdom, they hold, should be separate from the church and no civil ruler ought to exercise his authority there. The true church of Christ, according to them, has this characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict it upon any.” (John Horsch, Menonnites in Europe. Italics mine.)

What was totally reasonable to anyone with common sense, let alone scriptural knowledge, was baffling and objectionable to Bullinger.

John Calvin ended up writing a notorious work, justifying the persecution of, and death penalty for ‘heretics’.

For Calvin the government and the church are one, they together represent Christendom and godly rule over the nation. But he maintains that the proper, true position of the government is that of subjection to the church. Calvin states:

“For the magistrate, if he is pious, will have no wish to exempt himself from the common subjection of the children of God, not the least part of which is to subject himself to the Church, judging according to the word of God… For, as Ambrose says, “What more honourable title can an emperor have than to be called a son of the Church? A good emperor is within the Church, not above the Church.” (Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 11, P. 4. Italics mine).

The reformers loved the idea of ‘Christendom’ as much as the Catholics did – the ‘godly’ magistracy was viewed as those who wielded the ‘sword’ to safeguard the Church and society from heretical teaching by imposing physical persecution and punishment on such ‘heretics’.

Commenting on Psalm 82:6 (‘I have said, You are gods…’), Calvin says, “When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God.” (Bk 4, Ch. 20, P. 4. Italics mine.) As we shall see, Calvin is saying nothing different to what Luther had said in his exposition of Psalm 82.

Commenting on Romans 13, Calvin states concerning magistrates, “…rulers are the ministers of God, “not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Rom. 13:1, 3). To this we may add the examples of saints, some of whom held the offices of kings, as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah; others of governors, as Joseph and Daniel; others of civil magistrates among a free people, as Moses, Joshua, and the Judges. Their functions were expressly approved by the Lord. Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.” (Italics mine).

Calvin has here elevated and equated the civil authority in a so-called Christian nation to that of the Kings, prophets and judges of Israel. In other words, the magistrates are not only divinely appointed, but appointed as being subject to the church and an instrument of the church. Such an interpretation is not enlightenment, but a reveals deep darkness that is devoid of a true understanding of Scripture and of spiritual truth. Here we see how Calvin perpetuates and develops the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, of Christendom, which is to be modelled on the theocracy of the OT. He says that just as Kings, prophets and judges ruled over Israel in the Old Testament, exhorting to goodness and righteousness, and punishing and killing the wicked, so too now a city, region or nation which has embraced the Reformation, is regarded as ‘the people of God’, and the so-called ‘Christian’ magistrates of such a nation or region rule over the inhabitants – who are regarded as God’s people – upholding righteousness and punishing, persecuting and killing the wicked heretics!

The consequences of this outlook, and modifications or extensions of it, have reverberated down the centuries. The Puritans would go to war against a Catholic king, regarding themselves as the soldiers of Christ and on the mission of God to purify the land of heresy and heretics, and reclaiming the country for God. Multitudes across Europe were ‘baptised’, or brainwashed by this kind of outlook into the religious delusion that they were doing God’s work and fighting His cause by persecuting the ‘enemies of God’ and waging war against Catholic forces. This is fruit of the Reformation.

Calvin simply upheld the model created under Constantine. He also took up his pen in writhing against the Anabaptists. His ideas concerning these matters become clearer in his attacks on them. He writes:

“Those who are desirous to introduce anarchy object that, though (in the OT) ancient kings and judges presided over a rude people, yet in the present day, that servile mode of governing does not at all accord with the perfection which Christ brought with his Gospel. Herein they betray not only their ignorance, but their devilish pride…” (Book 4, Ch. 20, P. 5. Italics mine).    

Here Calvin pours scorn on the teachings of the Anabaptists who maintain that civil magistrates have no sanction from Scripture to persecute and punish religious dissenters. Ominously, he accuses such people of introducing anarchy, since sedition was a crime punishable by death. Calvin claims that it is only their ignorance and devilish pride that makes them think thus! What should we say about what makes Calvin think the way he does?

Calvin, in his blindness, castigates the Anabaptists as deceivers and perverters of the truth. Because of the tremendous spread and impact of the Anabaptist movement, many of the reformers were constantly engaged in writing against the Anabaptists.

Martin Luther wanted his close associate Urbanus Rhegius (of Augsburg, if you remember) to undertake a written work attacking the Anabaptists. In this work, Rhegius praises Constantine for creating the state church model and the use of force. He wrote, “The truth leaves you no choice; you must agree that the government (magistracy) has the authority to coerce his subjects to the Gospel... to get people to the services with fine words and admonitions is the preachers duty, but to keep them there with recourse to force if need be and to frighten them away from error is the proper function of the rulers… What do you suppose ‘Compelle intrare’ means?” (Quellen Hesse, p. 108. Italics mine.) Quellen Hesse = Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951).

In the last sentence Rhegius is echoing the sentiments of Augustine when he quoted the scripture, ‘Compel them to come in”. Here you have the mind of the reformers – they believe it is obvious that the magistrates have the authority to force their citizens to the Gospel! The ruthless religious dictatorial rule of the Catholic Church of many centuries is here subscribed to and supported by the Protestant Reformers. What motivation was it in the hearts of these reformers that could so blind them to the simple clear meaning of Scripture?

Ulrich Zwingli, it is no surprise, was in full agreement. Writing of Zwingli, the historian Philip Schaff states, “Zwingli…occupied the theocratic standpoint of the Old Testament, as did Calvin. The preacher is a prophet: his duty is to instruct, to exhort, to comfort, to rebuke sin in high and low places…his weapon is the Word of God. The duty of the magistrates is to obey the gospel, to protect religion, to punish wickedness. Calvin took the same position in Geneva, and carried it out much more fully than Zwingli.”  (History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. Philip Schaff Chpt. III, S.23).

According to the outlook of the reformers, Christendom is the new Israel, where the magistrates and the preachers work together to correct, punish and if necessary to eliminate the ‘wicked’ from the land.

The Execution of Heretics.

In the 1518 version of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, “The burning of heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.’ In the early days Luther believed that the proper spiritual means to change people’s view was the preaching of the word of God. And in 1520 in his ‘Address to the Nobility of the German Nation’ he wrote against the use of force regarding heretics, saying “One should overcome the heretics with Scripture and not with fire.”

Very good indeed! But due to disturbances in Germany, and with the spread of Anabaptism, by 1530 he had declared that the Anabaptists were to be condemned by the state for sedition and blasphemy. For a number of years he supported the death penalty for them, and it was through his and Melanchthon’s advice to the princely rulers, based on ‘theological’ grounds, that Anabaptists were persecuted to death in the German regions.

In 1527 and 1528, as we have already noted, John the Prince-Elector of Saxony, who was Luther’s protector, issued mandates instructing imprisonment and the death of any Anabaptists carrying on their work in his region, and a number were duly found and executed by this Protestant Prince, while others fled to safer neighbouring regions.

At the end of this Extract, there is a review of Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82, in which he clearly delineates the role of the secular authorities and the need to punish heretics.

Another Lutheran Reformer, Urbanus Rhegius, is uncompromising! He states: “When heresy breaks forth then the magistrate must punish not with less but with greater vigour than is employed against other evil-doers, robbers, murderers, thieves, and the like…. God raises up the magistrates against heretics, faction makers, and schismatics in the Christian church in order that Hagar may be flogged by Sarah (here referring to an allegory made by Augustine)… All who know history will know what has been done in this matter by such men as Constantine, Theodosius and others.” (Quellen Hesse, pp.111,112. Italics mine.)

According to Rhegius, religious dissenters must be punished with greater vigour than murderers! It is a bizarre rant from the pen of the Reformer. The minds of the reformers are already made up, and any scripture (Sarah flogging Hagar) that seems to serve their purpose is simply corrupted to validate their murderous intent.

Earlier in his Institutes Calvin had written that the magistrates should not intervene in matters of the Church, and that the Church should not assume the role of the magistrates in persecuting of punishing evil-doers and heretics. He wrote, ““For the Church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain, has no power to coerce, no prison, nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict…The two things, therefore, are widely different, because neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to what is done by the Church.” (Institutes, Book 4, Ch. 11, P. 3).

This is rather disingenuous. Yes, on the one hand, Calvin certainly did not want the council and its magistrates to interfere with his running of the church in Geneva – as we shall clearly see when we look at that period of his life later. However, from the above quotes, including his own, it becomes obvious how the reformers not only deemed it a moral and spiritual obligation for the secular authorities to act – ‘on behalf of God’ – in persecuting and punishing heretics, but actually goaded them on to do so. The supposed ‘separation’ of church and state that Calvin alludes to, is one that works in his favour! Yes, the magistrates and councils must not tell the church what it is to teach and do, but it is clear by the reformers’ actions and writings that they felt they could direct the secular ‘Christian’ authorities in how to handle dissenters. After all, they all were bound by the one purpose to maintain Christendom!

So, given the above quotes, we may again ask, are the leading Reformers among those who have been converted and transformed by the Gospel of Christ, or are they just ‘enlightened Humanists’ with regard to certain biblical truths like justification by faith? However, regarding the treatment of others, Erasmus, the renowned humanist, was far more ‘enlightened’ than them, for he would have nothing to do with the reformers’ violent measures and actually wrote against them.

It is an amazing phenomenon that such brutish, blind men as these leading Reformers could have created a doctrinal system that is believed and adhered to by millions!

Supporting The Death Penalty.

Calvin wrote to Farel saying, “I am struck with horror when I hear with what cruelty the godly are persecuted in France.” (Letter to Farel; May, 1540).

It is a strange contradiction that Calvin could express horror at the cruelty of the persecution of Protestants if France, while he justified the persecution and death of dissenters to his religion! Calvin writes in defence of magistrates, “…how can magistrates be at once pious and yet shedders of blood? But if we understand that the magistrate, in inflicting punishment, acts not of himself, but executes the very judgments of God, we shall be disencumbered of every doubt.” (Bk 4, Ch. 20, p. 10. Italics mine.)  

Of course, for Calvin included in this is the punishment and death of ‘heretics’. Calvin might have been ‘disencumbered of every doubt’, but that didn’t hold true of everyone who lived in his day.  

In one notorious case, John Calvin orchestrated the procedures that would lead to the death penalty for Servetus, who, among other things, was accused of attacking the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin compiled the charges against Servetus and after the trial Servetus was burnt at the stake in Geneva. There was such an outcry against it that Calvin immediately wrote a Defence of this punishment! There are those, of course, who would argue that Calvin wasn’t really responsible for the death of Servetus. However, the facts prove otherwise. But then again, for those who want to distance Calvin from Servetus’s death, how do they justify Calvin’s writing that defends the death penalty for heretics?

In his letter to his close associate Farel in 1546 (13th Feb.), Calvin writes concerning Servetus, “He takes it upon him to come here, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word of safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)  

These words were written to Calvin’s friend, Farel. He did not mince his words nor were the words hyperbole. If Calvin had anything to do with it, Servetus would not leave Geneva alive. These are the words of a man considered to be a great Christian leader and theologian!

Writing again to Farel in 1553 (20th August) about the trial of Servetus, Calvin writes, “He (Servetus) intended perhaps passing through the city…But after he had been recognised, I thought he should be detained. My friend Nicholas summoned him on a capital charge. On the following day he had used against him 40 written charges. He had first sought to evade them. Accordingly, we were summoned…. At length the Senate pronounced all the charges provenI hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine.)

It was Calvin who spotted Servetus in the church service and notified the authorities to have him detained. Calvin got his associate Nicholas to bring the charges which no doubt he, Calvin, had framed against Servetus, and it was to be upon a capital charge, in other words, a charge that incurred the death penalty. Servetus was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Geneva in 1553, October 27.

At no time whatsoever did Calvin ask for the death penalty to be commuted to something less. He only asked the council to change the manner of death to hanging rather than being burnt at the stake.

The medieval mindset and disposition of Calvin is further revealed in 1555, when some of his political opponents in Geneva were arrested, tortured and executed for conspiracy and insurrection – though it is debated how great a crime they actually committed. Calvin played no part in the judicial process, but expresses his ‘satisfaction’ at the suffering and execution of those that had been his political opponents in Geneva. The two Comparet brothers were sentenced to death – one by having his head cut off, the other by having his body chopped into pieces and displayed in different locations. Unfortunately for the latter victim, the executioner botched up the execution and thereby prolonged the suffering of the victim, for which the council dismissed the executioner. Calvin, however, commenting on the extended suffering of the victim, says in a letter to Farel:

“And assuredly I am convinced that not without the judgement of God they suffered, contrary to the sentence of the judges, a long torture under the hand of the executioner.” (Letter to Farel, 24th July 1555. P. 205,206; Letters of John Calvin, Vol. 3, Dr. J. Bonnet, 1858.)

In other words, Calvin was convinced this ‘accident’ that prolonged the victim’s suffering in contravention to the judges’ instructions was actually an act of God. There were others also who were to be interrogated about their part in the ‘conspiracy’, and in the same letter Calvin states:

“Now, those who are kept in fetters have pretty clearly revealed their misdeeds, though these also grossly mislead the judges…Before two days we shall see, I hope, what the rack shall wring from them.”

Though he played no part in deciding these men’s fate, Calvin nevertheless felt quite at home with the use of torture to extract information from those that had been opposing his endeavours in Geneva.

Let us now, however, return to the case of Servetus. His burning at the stake caused a public outcry from many quarters. But Calvin immediately produces a writing called, ‘Defence of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, in which he defends the death penalty for heretics.

Calvin writes: “That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep.  I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?”

These are the same arguments that were used by Augustine, whom Calvin loved to quote. He advocates killing heretics in order to safeguard the Lord’s flock! We find no such instructions from Jesus or the apostles! But then again, we must remember that both the Catholics and Reformers believed that God had turned things around after the time of the apostles, so that, whereas at the beginning Christians did not ‘rule’ over peoples, but were the persecuted, now however, God, through Constantine and the Emperors, had put power into the hands of the Church, and of the Christian rulers that would also reign in future – be it princes, councils or magistrates. As we saw in Chapter 1, Augustine had ‘explained’ this ‘turnaround’ by using the passage in Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar changed from obliging his people to the worship of idols, to imposing the worship of the God of Daniel to all in his kingdom!

Calvin continues, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.” (A Defence. Italics mine.)

There you have it! According to Calvin, whoever argues against the punishment of death for heretics, argues against God, and incurs the guilt of the heretics. But it was Calvin who taught (above quote: “neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate…”) that the ministers of the church had no right to tell the magistrates how to go about their business in dealing with law-breakers. However, here he is putting divine obligation on them regarding how to deal with and punish heretics! It is ‘God’ who has spoken, according to Calvin. How could anyone call themselves a follower of Calvin?

Much of the Reformed doctrine is built on the writings of such a man as this. There is a contradiction here, namely, that a man who could get things so dangerously long – not least for his own soul – should become a pillar of Christian theology for many down the centuries.

However, this disposition of murderous intent found a home in the hearts of many of the leading Reformers. It is noteworthy, that as voices were raised at the burning of Servetus, the leaders of the Reformation across Europe flew enthusiastically to Calvin’s defence! They were all of one mind – ‘it is good to kill heretics.’ Here are some quotes that illustrate this.

Letter of Bullinger to Calvin (Bullinger was successor to Zwingli of the Reformation in Zurich):

“In all places there are good men who are of the opinion, that impious and blasphemous heretics are not only to be admonished and imprisoned, but also capite esse mulctandos, to be punished with death. Be not therefore discouraged that you have undertaken this labour. The Lord will assist your holy endeavours and studies. I do not see how it was possible to have spared Servetus, that most obstinate man, the very hydra of heresy.” (Zurich, June 12, 1554. The Life of John Calvin, Theodore de Beze, pp. 192,193. Italics mine.)

Letter of Melancthon to Calvin (Melanchthon was Martin Luther’s right-hand man and succeeded him in leading the Reformation in Germany):

“Reverend and dear brother, I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus ; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was…the awarder of your crown of victory, in this your combat. To you also the church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man. (Ibid. Oct. 14, 1554. Italics mine.)

The burning at the stake of Servetus, according to the reformer Bullinger, is a matter of thanksgiving to the Son of God, and for which future generations will be grateful! What depths of darkness of the heart and mind these men lived in!

John Knox (1514-1572), the Scottish theologian and preacher and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, wrote fervently in defence of the execution Servetus, giving it the unambiguous title: The Execution Of Servetus For Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended. In it he defends Calvin against those that criticise him for this execution, adding that he believes Calvin’s writings concerning the execution shall prove profitable to posterity!

“John Calvin hath besides committed to writing the Examination of Servetus, and the Cause of his miserable death. Which books, albeit to you they be a perpetual memory of cruelty, yet I have good hope, that to our posterity they shall be profitable.” (Italics mine.)

In the following century, the 1600s, John Owen, who is considered the Prince of Puritans within the Calvinist tradition, wrote that Servetus was such an evil blasphemer that the zeal of them that put Servetus to death may be acquitted.

Letter of Peter Martyr to Calvin (Martyr was a Reformed theologian in England, who influenced the Edwardian Reformation in the 16th century):

It bitterly grieves me and all good men, that against the truth and your name, they spread such foolish and false things about… the punishment of heretics with death. But it is well, in what they write they dare not mention his (Servetus’) name. As often as we are asked about this, both Zanchius and I defend your side of the question and the truth, in public and private, with all our strength.” (Ibid, Strasburg, May 9. pp. 193,194. Italics mine.)

Peter Martyr is not grieved about the burning of a heretic, but that men should criticise it!

Theodore Beza was Calvin’s successor in Geneva and an important Reformation figure. He is also known for having issued an edition of the Greek New Testament. He writes in the same vein as other reformers: “Shame upon that contradictory charity, that extreme cruelty, which, in order to save (Lord knows how) many wolves, exposes the whole flock of Jesus Christ! … For the sake of the salvation of the flock use that sword righteously against those monsters disguised as men.” (Concerning the Rights of Rulers over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects towards Their Rulers [1574]; cited in Lecler 1960, 1:348. Italics mine).

Shall we proclaim that freedom of conscience should be grantedCertainly not in the sense it is usually taken that each could adore God in his own fashion.  That is simply a diabolical dogma.  It pretends that everyone is at liberty to perish if he wants to.” (Beza, Epistolarum theologicarum liber unus (Geneva 1573), pp. 216ff; quoted in Lecler 1960, Vol. 1, p. 349. Italics mine.)

Beza thought it was the devil’s work to allow freedom of conscience and freedom to worship God according to one’s own beliefs – this was tantamount to allowing people to eternally perish. The reformers were convinced of the rightness of their form of religion just as the Catholics were of theirs; and just like the Catholics, they believed they had a right to persecute and kill those who were leading others ‘astray’ in order to preserve the ‘pure’ doctrine, which alone could save souls.

The Reformers’ Religious Worldview.

The following important point needs to be understood regarding the mindset of ‘intolerance’ of the Protestant Reformers towards the Anabaptists:

The intolerance of the Reformation towards dissenters was nothing new at. It was simply a continuation of the system set up from the time of Constantine and Theodosius I. Toleration of dissenting religious views were regarded as a betrayal of the proper social and spiritual oversight and duty of both Church and State. We have already seen how the Church and State acted as ‘one’, and regarded themselves as custodians of the one true religion. The State acknowledged and supervised over the one religion. This was integral to the nature and cohesion of this beast, called ‘Christendom’. Plurality of religions was equated with division and threatened the overthrow of both the State and the Church. It was regarded as an unacceptable threat to the very existence of both. It was simply taken for granted by those that ruled during that time that the extermination of ‘heretical’ teaching was the proper and responsible course of action. It was the mindset of Christendom.

In this context, one thing the reformers were not unaware of was the accusation from the Catholic Church that the Reformation allowed and harboured heretics in their regions. The Catholics seized on any such opportunity to brand the reformers themselves as heretics who threatened Christendom by allowing religious anarchy that undermined the Christian religion itself. The reformers were sensitive to this charge and did not want to show themselves negligent in upholding religion through a ‘soft’ treatment of ‘heretics’. This was another factor in the scenario of persecution that we have been considering – but hardly a justification for killing dissenters. The reformers were sensitive to this charge exactly because they came from, and were of the same mindset as the Catholics.

The reformers of the 16th century – and beyond – were ‘born into’ this mindset, or to put it in another way, they just naturally and easily ‘bought into it’. No spiritual experience, no biblical understanding was theirs that delivered them from such delusions. They, like the reformers that would follow them in the next century, believed it was their solemn religious duty to act thus. This helps to put things into context, but it does not mean it was right! It simply confirms that unlike many Anabaptists, the reformers were ‘men of their times’, they were of this world.

The point of these studies is to show exactly that, namely, that the Reformation leaders continued in the mindset of their times and of the previous centuries. In the quotes from Beza above, he declares that heretics should be punished and killed in order to preserve the flock of Christ. And this is the mindset we come up against in these men – a mindset that had prevailed for more than a thousand years.

Nothing had happened to the reformers, nothing had happened in the reformers that changed this darkened mindset. There was a thick dark veil over their eyes blinding them from knowing the truth.


Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82.

In his exegesis of the 82nd psalm (1530), Luther declares that the Anabaptists were both seditious and blasphemers, and deserving of the severest punishment. In this exposition he repeatedly states that blasphemers are worthy of death. I have read through the whole exposition in German – which is quite long – and the translated excerpts below are my own. (Source: Luther, Martin, Sämmliche Werke, Band 30, Erlangen, Carl Heyder, 1846.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular authority (Princes, rulers, magistrates. German: Obrigkeit) have been placed there by God and that they equate to the ‘gods’ mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, to highlight the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden), the first of which is to protect and promote ‘the word of God’ and to support the ministry of the Church. Luther declares that one of the chief responsibilities of the Princes and noblemen in the matter of religion is to ensure that only the ‘true’ Gospel is preached and that the Princes are failing when they allow ‘false’ teachers to propagate their views and remain in their regions. He states of this failure, “But who can furthermore tell what horrendous vice and harm such a Prince or Lord causes by chasing so many souls into hell and robs them of eternal bliss. He should rather be called a Devil than a god…”

These words of Luther leave the Princes in no doubt about their duty to eradicate false teachers in their regions, just as the Kings of Israel should have eradicated the false prophets of Baal. Luther, in his comments on verse four of this Psalm, devotes more time to the issue of the suppression and persecution of religious dissenters than to any other specific topic in his whole exposition. Luther introduces his commentary on verse four by giving an answer to the question whether, along with promoting God’s word, the ‘gods’ or ‘authorities’ (these are the same for Luther according to Psalm 82) should oppose and punish false teachings and heresies, since, it is argued, that one cannot and should not force anyone to believe. Luther then proceeds to give his answers in support of the authorities acting to suppress religious dissent. He says,

“Firstly, some heretics are revolutionaries, who openly teach that one should not tolerate any authority.” (Italics mine.)

It is true that there were violent elements at that time among those that may have been called Anabaptists by some, but there then follows a list of subversive activities that may apply to some but would be a misrepresentation if applied to all Anabaptists in the way that he does. Luther mentions the refusal to sit as a magistrate and the idea of the ‘communal sharing of goods’ as seditious activities, which were taught by the Anabaptists but not by all in the same way. But his conclusion is clear,

“These ones are immediately and without doubt to be punished by the authority, because they openly fight against the worldly government and authority (Rom. 13:1f).” (Italics mine.)

As I have said, the reformers grossly misinterpreted the views of the Anabaptists so that they could make them look like revolutionaries. Luther then mentions a number of heresies which he claims are taught by Turks and Anabaptists alike, and then states,

“…neither should one tolerate these but punish them as those who blaspheme openly. Since they are not only heretics but open blasphemers. Now, it is certain that the authority is responsible for punishing these public blasphemers, even as one punishes swearing, revilers, blasphemers…etc.” (Italics mine.)

Luther’s message is clear, heretics and blasphemers are not to be tolerated but punished and banished. He accepts that no one can be forced to believe, but to publicly teach heresy and to blaspheme is forbidden, and with such people one should not even dispute and argue but they are to be condemned out of hand once their heresy is revealed, just like the Arians were at the council of Nicea. He then adds,

“Moses also in his Law commands that all such blasphemers and, indeed, all false teachers are to be stoned. So, in this matter, one should not dispute much, but condemn such public blasphemers without being heard or answered.”

He pointedly makes his case to the German Princes regarding the need to punish heretics by referring to the custom of stoning blasphemers in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. From all he said previously, it is difficult to imagine that this allusion is just hyperbole! He was writing in the 16th century, after all. Luther then goes on to mention ‘clandestine preaching’ (German: Winkelpredigten), which is a reference to the Anabaptists, whom he calls ‘clandestine preachers’, because they ‘sneak’ into people’s homes and in secret places teach their doctrines. (Winkel in German means ‘corner’, so the idea is of things being done ‘in a corner’, in other words, secretly.)

“But what I say about public preaching, I say that much more about ‘clandestine preaching’ (Winkelpredigten) and secret ceremonies; because these are altogether not to be tolerated.”

He continues to hold forth the against the Anabaptists: “In all this no one is to be forced to believe, but the community is to have peace secured from the stubborn heads, and from the rubbish of the clandestine preachers (Winkelpredigern), who repeatedly sneak into houses and pour out their poison before the pastor or authority knows anything about it. These ones are robbers and murderers of whom Jesus speaks in John 10.”  (Italics mine.)

In his fervour to have Anabaptists punished and banished, Luther now puts obligation on all citizens to inform on Anabaptists and their activities, referencing the oath of allegiance they made to the civil authority:

“And a citizen is guilty when one such ‘corner sneak’ (Winkelschleicher) comes to him and he does not immediately – before he actually hears him or allows himself to be taught by him – inform the authorities and also his pastor, whose parish child he is. If he does not do this, then he should know that he acts contrary to his oath and that he is being disobedient to the authorities…(he) acts against God and makes himself guilty, and becomes a thief and a rogue like those who sneak about.” (Italics mine.)

Christians have suffered such persecutions in the past and suffer them today, where the regime is so set against them that you do not know who to trust, since even your next door neighbour could inform on you to the authorities. What a climate of fear and mistrust this can create. What hardships for the Christians who want to meet to pray and study the word of God. And it is this kind of religious ‘police state’ that Luther was exhorting and compelling the German Princes and their citizens to establish – or simply to continue what had been happening under the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

I mention elsewhere that the Anabaptists generally refused to take the oath. Here we can see one clear reason for it. The oath is an oath of loyalty to the State. An Anabaptist is hardly going to take an oath that morally obliges him or her to inform against other believers! Yet the reformers were to pick on this point to ‘prove’ that Anabaptists were seditious.

Luther builds up his argument to an ominous threat. He continues to rail against them, exhorting pastors and the authorities to warn their people with all diligence to have nothing to do with those rogues who ‘sneak around’ (Schleichern) with their deadly sermons, and to avoid them as if they were the devil’s agents (“des Teufels gewisse boten”). Indeed, unless they can show proof of their calling and their commission from God to preach in the parish (which he has just denied them above!), they are “not to be allowed entry or to be heard even though they want to teach the pure Gospel, indeed, even if they were an angel or…Gabriel from heaven…If he wants to preach or teach, so let him prove his Call and Commission, which drives and compels him to do this, otherwise let him keep quiet. But if he does not, then command the authority to hand such a rogue over to the Master (German: Meister), who is called ‘Meister Hans’”.

‘Master Hans’ was a designation for the man who was appointed by the local authority to carry out the executions of criminals and public offenders. There would be no point in referencing ‘Master Hans’ unless the death penalty was in view. However, with or without this last reference to ‘Master Hans’, Luther’s exposition of this Psalm and his many words decrying the Anabaptists as heretics, blasphemers and seditious could hardly be less severe.

That Luther himself was aware of this is shown in his answers to objections that he says might be raised against what he has so far written in his exposition. Luther defends himself against one of the objections by saying:

“Moreover, perhaps someone will want to be clever and imagine against me that I will strongly encourage tyrants who oppose the Gospel [presumably, the Catholic Church] and will open the window and door to them by my teaching, and that because our Gospel is regarded as heresy and blasphemy by them…their own conscience and authority will compel them to punish us as blasphemers etc. Answer: what is that to me…”. (Italics mine.)

Luther realises that some people will complain that if we thus punish heretics, we will encourage and justify the Roman Catholics in their persecution of us – which certainly included executions. Luther dismisses this objection out of hand. Apart from ‘what is that to me’, he says that their (the Lutherans’) teachings cannot be determined by what the other side do, otherwise they would have had to abandon the Gospel long ago. Luther continues with this extraordinary comparison when referring to the Catholic Church and to the killing of heretics:

“It is no wonder that they do wrong since they are like the blind that cannot see and as the senseless that cannot hear our teachings. In like manner the Kings of Israel killed the true prophets. Nevertheless, one could not remove or hide the command to stone the false prophets. But pious authority will punish no one, unless it first hear, establish and be certain that they are blasphemers.”

Luther claims that the Catholic killings of Lutherans equates to the evil Kings of Israel killing the true prophets of God, but that the Protestant killings of heretics represents the pious Kings of Israel killing the ‘false’ prophets of Baal! Taking his cue from the OT, Luther says that no pious authority / government will execute a blasphemer arbitrarily, but only after careful examination!

Luther does devote time in his exposition writing about the two other virtues he mentions, which include works of compassion for the poor and the sick. Nevertheless, Luther’s exhortations and directives to the Princes and Nobles of Germany regarding the suppression, banning and punishment of the Anabaptists and all religious dissent do not represent some passing comment or digression. They are an integral part of the first of the three virtues that Luther refers to, the responsibility for which Luther firmly places on the shoulders of the ‘gods’ – the Princes and Nobles of Protestant Germany.

That this so is underlined by Luther himself when writing again in 1530, when he not only emphasises the same point, but also clearly states that part of the purpose of his exposition of Psalm 82 was to warn the authorities against the Anabaptists and to ensure their suppression and banishment. He states that people “should understand that the devil had sent them (‘Wiedertäufer’, i.e., the Anabaptists);…and it is certain that they come from the devil, as Christ says in John 10, ‘All that came before me are thieves and murderers’…Thus have I previously warned both the authorities and those under them in Psalm 82… that on no account should such secret preachers (‘Winckelprediger)’ be tolerated.” (Italics mine.) (Luther, Martin, Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 30. Band. Zweite Abteilung, pp. 212,213. Weimar, Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger 1909.)

Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 gives a good perspective on the thinking of the reformers. The reformers readily abandoned their earlier moderate and even scriptural views concerning the use of force against dissenters – from toleration and freedom of conscience to cruel persecution and the death penalty – once they were confronted with a force that threatened their status and authority!

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021        

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