The Magisterial Reformation: Part 3

  1. The spread of Anabaptism.
  2. The persecution of the Anabaptists by the Protestant Reformers.
  3. The teachings of the reformers justifying their persecution and execution of Anabaptists.
  4. The reformers’ religious worldview.

The Anabaptists and their Teachings.

Anabaptist means ‘rebaptiser’, and it was definitely not a term that the Anabaptists used for themselves. It was used by their opponents, which included the Protestant Reformers, who used it in a completely derogatory sense. It was a term that expressed their contempt, because ‘rebaptism’ was regarded as a crime that undermined both Church and State. This opposition to believer’s baptism in itself highlights the animosity and the incomprehension that the reformers had towards the idea that anyone could so respond to the Gospel that they would want to be baptised ‘again’, having already been ‘baptised’ as an infant. Though of course, the Anabaptists did not recognise the validity of their infant baptism, but were baptised on the basis that it was the first time that they had truly turned to Christ for salvation. It further also highlights the utterly false notion of the reformers that infant baptism is the initiation of the child into the New Covenant, and makes the infant a child of God. To ‘re-baptise’ someone therefore, was considered an offence and a threat to both the State and the Church because it undermined the whole notion of ‘Christendom’ by suggesting all the infant-baptised ‘Christians’ in the community were not actually already converted or Christian. This latter idea horrified the Protestant Reformers.

And there was nothing new about this. The imperial law code from the time of Justinian (A.D. 529) on, made rebaptism punishable by death, the other crime with the same sentence was denying the Trinity. Another term and ‘accusation’ that the reformers would dredge up from the past is that of calling the Anabaptists ‘Donatists’ (which I mentioned in Chapter 1), and they would appeal to Augustine’s writings and actions against the Donatists to ‘validate’ their own persecutions of the Anabaptists.

The name the Anabaptists commonly used to describe themselves was ‘brethren’, or ‘Swiss brethren’ in the Swiss regions. However, the Anabaptists did not begin as some kind of unified movement. There was no centralised leadership or base. Different groups started to spring up in different places with no unified teaching. So, in (February) 1527, in the Swiss-German border-town of Schleitheim, in Switzerland, a small group of Anabaptists met to create a document that some consider to be the real birth of Anabaptism. They did not come up with a complete confession of faith, but rather sought common ground upon which they could agree. It was called The Schleitheim Confession, because of the town where they met. The Anabaptists also warned against and criticised the ‘state’ religion of the reformers, and deemed it nothing more than nominal Christianity, as a ‘dead’ religion that allowed its adherents to continue in licentious living and immoral conduct. In the Confession, the Anabaptists wrote,

“A very great offence has been introduced by certain false brethren among us, so that some have turned aside from the faith, in the way they intend to practice and observe the freedom of the Spirit and of Christ. But such have missed the truth, and to their condemnation are given over to the lasciviousness and self-indulgence of the flesh. They think faith and love may do and permit everything, and nothing will harm them nor condemn them, since they are believers… But you are not that way. For they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts.”

Their main articles of faith consisted of the seven points, which I have summarised in brief:

  1. “Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ…This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abominations of the pope.”
  2. ‘The Ban’ – This refers to the only act of discipline that the Church can exercise. It consists of admonishing believers up to two times if they fall into some sin and then being banned from the fellowship of believers if they persist after the second warning. This to be done in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.
  3. ‘Breaking of bread’ – only for genuine baptised believers, in remembrance of the death of the Lord.
  4. Separation from the world: not unequally yoked with unbelievers. Living righteously.
  5. Pastors must be blameless and supported by the church.
  6. ‘Use of the Sword’: The church does not use force. Its only means is the ‘ban’. The Confession acknowledges that “the sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same [sword] is [now] ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates. In the perfection of Christ, however, only the ban is used for a warning and for the excommunication of the one who has sinned, without putting the flesh to death, – simply the warning and the command to sin no more.”

Not appropriate for a Christian to be a magistrate.

  1. Christ forbids swearing, that is, taking the oath.

As we saw in Chapter 2, the issue that particularly incurred the wrath of the reformers and the magistrates was believer’s baptism, which was seen as a teaching that would lead to the separation between Church and State, thus threatening both and heralding the end of Christendom. It was an obnoxious idea to the reformers, who wrote profusely against this teaching in the severest terms. Christendom existed and survived on the inviolable axiom and understanding that all infant-baptised citizens in a given area already belong to the ‘Christian’ community, which is represented by the State and Church.  The teaching of a personal ‘conversion’ that led to a believer’s baptism – in ‘addition’ to infant baptism – was viewed by the reformers as something that would completely fracture the religious, social and political structure of the Christian State and lead to its overthrow. Its proponents were therefore regarded as blasphemers and guilty of sedition and subversion, and who, therefore, needed to be appropriately punished as criminals of the State.

However, apart from the issue of baptism, two of the other main accusations levelled against the Anabaptists by the reformers were points 6 and 7. While acknowledging the use of ‘sword’ – the use of physical force to apprehend and punish criminals – by the secular powers, the Anabaptists believed that true believers should not allow themselves to be voted onto the magistracy. They believed it was not a Christian’s duty to judge in other men’s matters. This may seem somewhat extreme, but it must be remembered that the secular power, that is, the magistrates, ruled over a ‘Christianised’ society. So there is a blurring of issues between church and state, between civil and religious matters, since both worked in harmony to ensure religious orthodoxy in their territory. The pastors would teach ‘sound’ doctrine to their congregations – ‘use the word’ – and the magistrates were responsible for ensuring purity of doctrine in their domains, so they would issue warrants of arrest against, and mete out punishments to dissenters like the Anabaptists, including the death penalty, which is represented by the phrase, ‘use the sword’! So, it is no wonder that the Anabaptists didn’t feel that they could function as magistrates! They didn’t believe that ‘the sword’ should be used in matters of religion to persecute and kill their own brethren! However, the reformers used their refusal to serve as magistrates as a clear indication of sedition.

The other of these issues was point 7 – the Anabaptists refusal to take the oath – mainly based on Matthew 5:34-37. This point was also eagerly picked up on by the reformers in an attempt to show that the Anabapatists were rebels of the state. However, the historical context may again provide some explanation. Generally, an oath is given to emphasise or to validate the truth of something, but as we saw in Chapter 1 of this study, oath taking was a means of securing allegiance and subjection to the reigning power, as was the case in Roman times, when oath taking was a means of weeding out Christians who were considered a threat to society. So again, since the reformers perpetuated the idea of Christendom, oath taking still had the flavour of an oath of fealty to the reigning power, which is something the Anabaptists could not do. They would not take an oath of allegiance to a government that persecuted religious dissenters. Moreover, as we shall see, citizens were obliged by decree to inform on any Anabaptist preachers or meetings that took place in their locality. To underline their obligation to do this, citizens were reminded of the oath of allegiance they had taken to the state. It would hardly be possible to take an oath that obliges you to inform on your fellow believers to have them thrown in prison or worse! Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Anabaptists’ arguments in this matter, the reformers were very happy indeed to seize upon this custom of the Anabaptists as evidence that they were rebels against the state and a danger to society.

The teaching that it is not in the nature of the Lord’s Church to use the arm of the secular authorities to persecute, punish and stamp out religious dissenters in the name of the Christian religion, horrified the reformers – and the ‘Christianised’ secular authorities! That is tantamount to saying that anyone can set up their own sect and believe and teach what they want. It was considered a teaching that would sink Christendom. 

Those who support or sympathise with Luther, Calvin and other reformers of this period, often use the excuse that the reformers were ‘men of their times’ when trying to explain or lessen the impact of their cruel actions and murderous intent against dissenters. Somehow this argument is meant to find ‘understanding’ among those who would otherwise criticise or condemn their actions. I deal with this fallacy later on, but let me just say here that there were other men (the Anabaptists) who lived at the same time and in the same historical context, and yet we see that not only did they write clearly in scriptural terms against Christians using violence and executing heretics, but also lived out these principles and truths in their own lives to the point of allowing themselves to be beaten, tortured, drowned and burnt. The argument that the culture you are born in necessarily determines your behaviour as a Christian to the point of persecuting and executing other believers, is a fatally flawed one. New birth through Christ can and does raise a person above and out of such a culture and such behaviour. We have the Scriptures and the testimony of the apostle Paul that demonstrate this clearly – 1 Timothy 1:12-16. Or what views regarding the new birth do those hold who suggest that the reformers somehow inevitably had to follow a culture of punishing, imprisoning and even sanctioning the execution of religious dissenters? Does culture in such matters ‘trump’ the work of God in regenerating a person?

I will return to the nature of the accusations against the Anabaptists later.

Persecution of the Anabaptists.

Let us now continue with the story.

The Martyrs’ Synod

Another meeting took place in Augsburg, Southern Germany, later 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, 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). As soon as the Augsburg authorities learned of the synod, they took steps towards putting down the movement. Within days of the Synod starting (24th 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 22nd 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 Reformationsgeschichte, 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. More of this later.

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.

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, 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, he 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; Die Stellung Kursachsens und des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen zur Täuferbewegung; Kursachsen, 13 f. Italics mine.)

In this passage, Melanchton deeply regrets his earlier ‘foolish tolerance’ in hesitating to destroy heretics with the sword. Now he is of the firm opinion that they should be killed.

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.” (Ibid, 26 f. Italics mine.)

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 worst offenders. (See Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 138.)

A few years later, on 20th November 1535 Jobst Möller and his wife, Ursula Wedekind, were arrested along with other Anabaptists in the home of Hans Peissker at Kleineutersdorf in Saxony. Ursula’s mother, Greta Knobloch (from her first marriage) and her first husband had both been martyred. In all, sixteen people were arrested and taken to Leuchtenburg where they were interrogated. Among them were also Heinz Kraut who had baptised Jobst and his wife in July 1535. For logistical reasons to do with available space, the women remained at Leuchtenburg and the men were split between different locations (Jena, Kahla and Neustadt and the Arnshaugk castle). At Jena, Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut and Lorenz Petsch were interrogated concerning their beliefs during the first week of December 1535 by Melanchthon and others in the presence of the city council.

Lorenz Petsch was separated from the others as he seemed to be a very recent convert and inclined to recant. (N1) Concerning forgiveness of sins, the captives said, “They must sincerely ask for forgiveness and must thereafter walk in righteousness, believe and trust God’s Word, do the will of the Father, and the sins would be forgiven. In short, one must practice truth and righteousness.”

Melanchthon sent a report of the interrogations of the prisoners at Kahla and Leuchtenburg to John, Elector of Saxony on 19th 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 23rd January concurring with Melanchthon’s opinion. (Corpus Reformatorum III, 16 f.)

Accordingly, the ‘obstinate’ ones in Jena 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. 26th, 27th, 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 (Jobst and Heinrich Möller) 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. To finish this process the women were forced to make a public recantation in the church at Kahla by order of the Elector John Frederick, which he made in March.

During the trials of the Anabaptists in Jena, Melanchthon wrote to the Elector John, stating that it would be good to have public warnings against the Anabaptists: “Perhaps it would be advisable for your Excellency to have a public writing issued, which would show what coarse, seditious, and dangerous articles the Anabaptists have, wherefore such earnest measures must be taken against them” (Corp. Ref. III, 17). This was agreed to and Melanchthon was commissioned by the Elector to compose such a writing to submit to him for approval.

Following this, Melanchthon wrote more articles against the Anabaptists, and as the executions had caused such a stir in this region of Germany, he engaged his pen again in defence of the severe sentences in a writing entitled, ‘An Account of several unchristian Articles which the Anabaptists promote’ (Verlegung etlicher Unchristlicher Artikel welche die Widerteuffer furgeben), which was published in Wittenberg in 1536.

Before that, he had written a guide for pastors to warn them against the Anabaptists, which had the title, A Refutation of several revolutionary Articles promoted and defended by the Anabaptists. (Widerlegung auf etliche aufruhrische Artikel so die Wiederteufer treiben und verteidigen. Corp. Ref. III, 28-34). (N2)

The Lutheran Reformers carried on and perpetuated the cruel religious dictatorship that had begun under the Roman Catholic Church.

If you wish to read about the case of the Anabaptist martyr, Fritz Erbe, this will be found at the end under Appendix 1.

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, p. 325. Italics mine.)

What was totally reasonable to anyone with common sense, let alone scriptural knowledge, was baffling and objectionable to Bullinger. The incomprehension of the Protestant Reformers, whose outlook was still determined by, and rooted in Christendom, is obvious here. Christendom is upheld by the secular authority forcing religion on people and punishing and executing those who do not conform.

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 in upholding ‘pure’ religion; 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. We can see that, in essence, Calvin did not believe in the separation of Church and State at all – both work together to uphold the integrity of religion, with the secular power being directed in such matters by the Church.

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 Old Testament. 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.

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, and 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 continues to show his contempt of the Anabaptists’ teaching in his treatise against them by saying:

“Last of all, like as a drunkard, after he hath well belched, doth disgorge the villainous broth which charged his stomach, even so these wicked men, after they have detracted this holy estate which the Lord hath so much honoured, finally with full throat, they do spew out exceeding deformed blasphemies. The governance, say they, of the Magistrates, is after the flesh: and that of Christian men, is after the spirit... But this is nothing, compared to that which followeth, The habitation of Magistrates, say they, is permanent in this world: but the habitation of the Christians is in heaven. And such like. I beseech you, by the name of God, all faithful men, and I admonish you, well to consider those things, which Peter and Jude have written of certain corrupters, which in their time perverted the faith of the simple; and by their words I pray you make comparison with those things which I will recite of the Anabaptists.” (Calvin, To The Ministers Of The Churches In The County Of Neuchatel, or A Refutation of the Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists. Taken from an English translation of Calvin’s treatise printed in the year 1549.)

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 for applying 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 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?” (N3)

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 fact, this was one of his ‘errors’ that the Catholic Church mentioned when denouncing him as a heretic in 1520. 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. From then on, 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, imprisoned, tortured and put to death in the German regions.

The idea that Luther began a process of introducing liberty of conscience and freedom of religion in 16th century Europe is false, as many Anabaptists who were imprisoned, tortured, banished and martyred for their faith by the Protestants could bear witness to.

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 neighbouring regions. When faced with religious non-conformists that impaired and undermined his movement, Luther’s seemingly pious and charitable views regarding freedom of conscience evaporated and turned into cruel persecution of those that he perceived as his opponents – just as was the case with Augustine.

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 (German: Obrigkeit; e.g. Princes, rulers, magistrates) have been placed there by God, and that they equate to the ‘gods’ mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, he highlights the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden). The first of these 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, as he later intimates. 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.”

It is true that there were violent elements at that time among those that may have been called Anabaptists by some, but then he gives 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. (I dealt briefly with these accusations earlier in this Chapter, and shall elaborate towards the end.)  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 Nicaea. 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 sermons’ (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 sermons’ (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! Presumably following the format of the Spanish Inquisition.

Luther does devote time in his exposition to 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, as some have suggested. 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 emphasised the same point, but also clearly statesd 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 (i.e., Wiedertäufer, 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!

Another Lutheran Reformer, Urbanus Rhegius (Luther’s ‘Bishop of Lower Saxony’), 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, for example) 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, Bk 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 ‘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.

John Calvin wrote to his close friend 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 in France, while he justified the persecution and death of those that dissented to his religion! Calvin writes in defence of magistrates punishing heretics, “…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, included in this for Calvin is the punishment and death of ‘heretics’. Calvin might have been ‘disencumbered of every doubt’, but that did not hold true for everyone who lived in his day.

In one notorious case, John Calvin orchestrated the procedures that would lead to the death penalty for Michael 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 was not 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 that followed Servetus’s execution?

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 they just 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 when he arrived in Geneva, and then immediately 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 had 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 expressed his conviction and satisfaction that this ‘accident’ that horribly 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 produced 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 in his Defence of the Orthodox Faith: “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’ 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 forcing 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.

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.)

Whatever else the Protestant Reformers may have ‘broken free from’, they certainly did not break free from the apostate culture of Christendom.

Letter of Melanchthon 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 Melanchthon, is a matter of thanksgiving to the Son of God, and for which future generations will be grateful! What depths of darkness of 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.” (N4)

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.” (N5)  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.

A Note about the Accusations brought against the Anabaptists.

In their zeal to deal with and eradicate the Anabaptists, the reformers did not always represent their teachings accurately. The reformers were quick to incorporate misinformation about the Anabaptists as facts in their writings against them. In fact, it seems that misrepresentation of their beliefs was an easy tool in the hands of the reformers in order to justify labelling them as heretics and as being seditious. There are many examples of this. For example, the Anabaptists were accused of claiming to be sinless or that they wanted a church in which there was nothing but perfection. All this is simply false. The truth is that the reformers simply could not comprehend that an individual could have a sense of sins forgiven through the personal experience of conversion. (We shall be looking at this later on.) This is what the Anabaptists meant – not that they were made perfect or sinless by their conversions. In their writings and answers, Anabaptists do not make the claims imputed to them by the reformers.

Moreover, the reformers believed in Christendom, in the idea of a church that consists of ‘tares and wheat’, where you could not really distinguish clearly between the godly and ungodly, and where the Church encompasses virtually everyone in the (‘Christianised’) community. So when the Anabaptists pointed to the immoral and unrighteous lives of church-goers and called for a church of committed believers whose lives had been changed, they were immediately countered with the accusation that they believed in an unattainable perfectionism.

In the records of the interrogations of Anabaptists, some did express strange or erroneous views. However, among the thousands that were being converted in towns and villages, it is not easy to know how much teaching some had received or what teaching they had imbibed. The presence of various splinter groups may also account for this. But as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is not my purpose to support what every Anabaptist group taught and did, but to determine the nature of the Reformation by how they handled and responded to dissidents. 

It is also true that during this period a number of diverse radical leaders sprung up who were not representative of ‘mainstream’ Anabaptism. Some of these movements had outlandish views or views differing from the Anabaptists, or were notoriously violent. Two traumatic events that caused reverberations around Europe at this time were the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) and the Münster rebellion, which involved the violent seizure of the German city of Münster (1534-1535). Both involved terrible violence and bloodshed and the reformers would indiscriminately attribute these events, particularly the latter, to the spread of Anabaptist teachings, without distinguishing between things that were essentially different. 

However, as early as 1524 (Sept. 25) the Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, whose life we considered in Chapter 2, wrote to Thomas Müntzer, who was initially involved in the Reformation in Wittenberg, but who would become a revolutionary leader in the disastrous peasant’s uprising of 1525. In this letter he exhorted Müntzer to follow the pattern of Matthew 18 in dealing with those whose life-style was contrary to the Gospel. He stressed that the ‘ban’ from the fellowship of the saints was the only recourse of action that the church had. His message was that a heathen man was not to be put to death but must be left alone, and that the believers should not protect the Gospel with the sword. (Source of original German text: Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, edited by Leonard von Muralt and Walter Schmid. Volume 1. Zurich: S. Hirzel Verlag, 1952, pp.13-19.)

Pacifism was the trait of the genuine Anabaptist. Such Anabaptists had nothing to do with violent attacks on others or of using the sword to defend themselves. We also saw that in the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession their teaching was that the church does not use the ‘sword’; it does not use physical force or violence against anyone. This is what distinguished the mainstream Anabaptists. However, there were others who did not follow the Anabaptist Confession but were radical and demonstrated their radicalism with outlandish teachings and violent methods. These radicals were easily given the name of ‘Anabaptists’ by the reformers and others.

The term ‘Anabaptist’ was used of all and sundry at this time so that the errors of the worst (the ‘lunatic fringe’, as we may call them) were applied and imputed to all. Indeed, in the turbulence of this period, it may not have been easy to distinguish between radical groups, but it was a great convenience to the reformers not to distinguish between them so that they could banish and exterminate all those who they chose to call Anabaptist.

The idea that some hold that the severe reaction against the Anabaptists was to do with the Münster incident (1535) is not supported by the historical facts. We have clearly seen that already earlier on, in the 1520s, the reformers were writing against Anabaptist ‘heresies’ and to the German Princes, urging them to persecute, punish and execute Anabaptists.

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 all. It was simply a continuation of the system set up from the time of Constantine and Theodosius I. Freedom of conscience and 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 in tandem, regarding themselves as custodians of their form of 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 that had existed for centuries, and the reformers belonged to this tradition and outlook.

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.

Striking Parallels between the Pharisees and the Reformers.

  1. Zeal. The apostle Paul says of the Jews, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2-3). Here Paul is talking about Jews generally but we can easily see how these verses are particularly true of the Pharisees. The Pharisees certainly had a zeal for God, and in their eyes, it was very much based on the holy Scriptures. This was likewise true of the Protestant Reformers. Both believed correctly in certain passages of Scripture, but were utterly blind to other truths clearly stated there – or even to the truth of the scriptures they were quoting – which led them into conduct and actions that manifestly contradicted the religion they claimed to believe in. The blindness of their spiritual condition led them to misunderstand and oppose the essence of the Gospel. Both had, in fact, developed their own brand of religion, which they claimed to be God’s. And like the Pharisees, the reformers had a fanatical zeal for their brand of true religion. This hardened fanaticism made them cruelly intolerant of any deviation from what they regarded as orthodox faith.

Both believed they were doing God a service by persecuting and putting to death those that they regarded as heretics.

The irony of this comparison though, is that despite the reformers’ emphasis on justification by faith, they had, in fact, set up a religion of their own that opposed the righteousness of God, in that they cruelly sought to eliminate all their religious opponents. If love is the fulfilling of the Law (Romans 13:10), and therefore of righteousness, then the reformers seemed to be ignorant of this love and this righteousness.

  1. Position and Power: We read in John 11:48 these words spoken by the Pharisees concerning Jesus: “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.”

This clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees were concerned about their position and authority, and how letting another brand of religion thrive would threaten their position. So we see that at least part of their motivation in opposing Jesus and his followers was the desire to maintain the position they had with respect to the secular power. This was undeniably true of the Protestant Reformers. They understood very well that the unity and peace of the state – as well as their own position – depended on not tolerating any other form of religion. If the reformers allowed divergence from the doctrine and practice of the state religion, the state would regard that as a threat to its well-being and the reformers themselves would be in danger of being ousted and be regarded as a threat. This most likely explains why Zwingli changed his views on infant baptism and sided with the councils against the radical reformers – and turned into their persecuting opponent.  Of course, with the Pharisees, the Romans were the occupying force, but during the Reformation, the reformers were incorporated into the state church system – but the principle of persecuting others so that they could hang onto power remains the same.

  1. Persecuting the Threat: We read this in John 19:12, “And when pilot wanted to release Jesus the Jews cried out these words, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend: whosoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.

This is exactly the charge that the Protestant Reformers used against the Anabaptists – they declared that teaching a different doctrine to the state-recognised religion is heresy, and heresy represents rebellion and insurrection against the state. This is precisely the argument the reformers would use to incite the civil authorities to mercilessly persecute and kill Anabaptists. Just as Pharisees made reference to the secular Roman power where they could to put down what they considered to be the new religion – represented by Jesus – so too the Protestant Reformers used their association with the state to put down any dissent.

Just as the Pharisees persecuted, imprisoned, beat and even killed the disciples of the Lord to maintain the ‘purity’ of their teaching, so the reformers likewise persecuted, imprisoned, beat and killed the Anabaptists – and who can deny that many of the Anabaptists were disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ?

As were the Pharisees, so were the reformers. In these matters there was no difference. Am I comparing the spiritual condition of the Pharisees to that of the Protestant Reformers? I cannot see how we can avoid the comparison or fail to raise the question. The Pharisees were filled with murderous intent towards dissenting believers – and so were the reformers. We have seen it in the accounts above.

Jesus said, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

How blind the reformers were to the simplest and most basic teachings of Scripture.

The greatest judgement against the reformers.

The greatest judgement against the reformers comes from their own modern-day supporters or sympathetic historians and biographers. The common explanation for the monstrous persecution and murder of many Anabaptists and others by the reformers is this statement: “They were men of their times.” With this I whole-heartedly agree. They were of ‘their times’, they ‘belonged’ to their time; they were part of that generation; as that generation was, so were they. They were of this world. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from here.” (John 18:36). Jesus said His servants would not fight to maintain their cause. The Protestant Reformers called upon the use of the sword to kill others – in particular on other believers! Had the reformers not read the words of Jesus? Had they not read that ‘all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword?’ (Mtt. 26:52). Had they not read that it is the godly who would suffer persecution, and not that the godly would persecute and kill? (2 Tim. 3:12).

How could the Protestant Reformers be so blind to the most basic truths of the word of God? What good is there in proclaiming ‘justification by faith’ when you go around killing people and teaching the flocks under you that such persecution and killing of religious dissenters is not only justified, but also demanded by the word of God? What kind of spiritual state were they in? Do today’s Calvinists who seek in some way to explain this murderous conduct of the reformers by the statement that they were ‘men of their times’, do they believe that the Gospel and new birth cannot change a man, raise a man out of the murderous intent and butchery of his times? What do they believe about the new birth? We will see what they believe about that in the next series of studies, where will consider the doctrines of the reformers.

But against this ‘sympathetic’ concession to the reformers there are many witnesses.

Firstly, there is the testimony of the New Testament itself, which witness to the truth and against the actions of the reformers. But as we have seen, the reformers were as blind men when reading an interpreting the many Scriptures they used to justify the persecution of dissenters. However, in addition to the Scriptures, there were the writings of others of their time that clearly expressed the biblical truths on these matters. The Anabaptists had referred the reformers to passages of scripture, and Hübmaier, in particular, had written clearly against the use of force by religious leaders.

Thirdly, there was the witness of the lives of the Anabaptists – they were a living testimony to what God could do in a man to make him altogether different from the times he lived in! The Anabaptists put into practice what they preached. The genuine Anabaptists were not violent and didn’t use violence. They accepted persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the reformers. There was tangible evidence before the reformers’ eyes that there was a faith that could change a life completely and make it totally different to the spirit of the age that they lived in. The reformers were not left in ignorance concerning a different WAY, and a different LIFE.

Fourthly, there is the superlative example in the New Testament of Saul of Tarsus. He had been like the Protestant Reformers – in his zeal to maintain and protect the purity of his religion, he persecuted the saints and was an accomplice to their executions, just like the Protestant Reformers were. However, Saul had an encounter with Jesus Christ that totally changed his life and his outlook. He was born from above. He was made a new man in Christ. Whereas before he wanted to terrorise people and dominate their faith, he now tells them that he has ‘no dominion’ over their faith, but is ‘helper of their joy!’ (2 Cor. 1:24). He who had been a persecutor of the believers was now, by God’s wonderful grace, made to be an example of ‘all longsuffering’ to all future generations of believers’. (1 Tim. 1:12-16). Why did the reformers fail to learn from his example? Why did they choose to remain in the category of the Pharisees who set up a kingdom of an outward religion, and persecuted those who testified to a religion of the heart, indeed, that changed a person’s heart.

The reformers may have been able to intellectually discern some of the teachings of the apostle Paul, and even try and put it in wonderful religious language, but did they know Christ as Paul did, or even as the Anabaptists did? Did they show signs and demonstrate conduct that an inward rebirth had taken place in them?

Yes, the reformers were men of their times, and they stood in stark contrast to men who were not of their times, who were not of this world, men of whom the world was not worthy; men whose conduct acted as a judgement upon the conduct of the Protestant Reformers themselves. For these reasons noted above, I suggest there is no greater condemnation of the Protestant Reformers than to say that they were ‘men of their times.’

Concluding Remarks to Chapter 3.

If the conduct, mentality and writings of the reformers were such as we have seen and read up to now, how can their overall theology represent pure or true Christian doctrine upon which the faith of many should depend? If they were so blinded to the obvious meaning of important scriptures, if their conduct and actions were so contrary to the teaching of scripture and the Spirit and nature of Christ, how can they suddenly be enlightened regarding the meaning of the fundamental passages of scripture that relate to our great salvation and develop a theology that is supposed to be a foundation for all believers?

Our conduct and thoughts arise and flow out of the nature we have. As Jesus said, “out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts…murders…” (Mark 7:21). That men of murderous intent should be endued with a spiritual insight and understanding to teach multitudes of others down the centuries what to believe and how to live, seems a contradiction. Can you walk in darkness and give light to others? The Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, Jesus said, and they taught many things correctly from the scriptures, but because of their conduct, Jesus called them blind leaders of the blind.


(N1) The statements made by Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut, and Hans Peissker during this investigation have been published from the court records in Corpus Reformatorum II (995, 999, and 1000)

(N2) References for the above: Wappler, Paul. Die Täuferbewegung in Thüringen von 1526-1584; 109, 127, 404-414, 423. Jena: Gustav Fisher, 1913. & Neff, Christian. “Melanchthon, Philipp (1497-1560).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 3 Jan 2022.,_Philipp_(1497-1560)&oldid=145860 / Hege, Christian. “Möller, Jobst (d. 1536).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 3 Jan 2022.,_Jobst_(d._1536)&oldid=172018%5D

(N3) Quoted in Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 74. 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)

(N4) 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.

(N5) Beza, Epistolarum theologicarum liber unus (Geneva 1573), pp. 216ff; quoted in Lecler 1960, Vol. 1, p. 349. Italics mine.


Recommended Reading:

The Reformers and their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.

The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

The Great Reformation by R. Tudur Jones

Lutheran Reformers against Anabaptists by John S. Oyer


Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021