Saxony existed as an electorate in Germany 1356-1806, then became a kingdom and in 1918 a free state. It was the cradle of the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century, promoted and protected by the electors of the Ernestine line of the Wettin-Saxon princely house, who lived in Wittenberg at the time. Among them were Frederick the Wise (1486-1525), his brother Johann the Steadfast (1525-32), and his son Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous (1532-47), who was compelled after the battle at Mühlberg (1547) to give the electoral honors and lands to Duke Maurice of the Albertine line resident at Leipzig, which turned Catholic in 1697 and ruled until 1918.
As freely as Lutheranism was permitted to develop, so violently was Anabaptism attacked and suppressed by both the spiritual and temporal leaders. It was feared that there lurked within this religious lay movement the revolutionary and fanatical spirit of a Thomas Müntzer and the "Zwickau prophets".
Early in February 1527, in the district of Königsberg, a Saxon enclave in Würzburg territory, where the movement gained an early foothold through the efforts of Hans Hut, Volk Kolerlin, and other Anabaptist apostles, the first Anabaptists were seized. On 26 February 1527, the elector issued the public order, "that no one, be he citizen, peasant, or anyone else, except the regular clergyman, preacher, and chaplain, to whom pastoral care is entrusted and who is qualified at each place is permitted to preach, baptize, or exercise other similar offices in his house or other places owned by him." Soon afterward he had the Königsberg citizens, Beutelhans, Wolf Schominger (Schreiner), and ten other men besides a woman put to death as Anabaptists.
On 7 January 1528, a new mandate was issued against the Anabaptists and the dissemination of their doctrine by spoken or written word, after the church inspectors had on 16 June 1527, been ordered to summon to court all those suspected of false doctrine, question them, and if necessary hear the testimony against them. Those who persisted in their error must sell their possessions and leave the country; those who acted contrary to the mandate should be arrested.
In 1528 Luther wrote his booklet, Von der Wiedertaufe an zwei Pfarrherren, in which he gave the assurance that there had not yet been an Anabaptist in Saxony. He adds, "I do not yet know exactly what is the cause and foundation of their faith."
The Saxon reformers approved of the elector's violent measures, so that on 23 April 1529, at Speyer he could without qualms of conscience give his consent to the well-known Anabaptist mandate (see Punishment of the Anabaptists) and henceforth strove to act in accord with it.
In 1529 ten Anabaptists were imprisoned at Reinhardsbrunn, and the six who remained steadfast were put to death on 18 January 1530, causing great excitement among the people. The reformers now found it advisable to formulate a vindication of the right to punish heretics. To this end Justus Menius, the superintendent of Eisenach, wrote Der Widdertauffer lere und geheimnis aus heiliger Schrjft widderlegt, with a preface by Luther and a dedication to Philipp of Hesse (who, they were convinced, was too lenient), dated 4 May 1530; and Melanchthon drew up a formal opinion addressed to the elector of Saxony at the end of November 1531.
In a long-drawn-out dispute with Philipp concerning the penalizing of several Anabaptists in the Hausbreitenbach district, which was under the joint jurisdiction of Saxony and Hesse, the elector insisted on their execution. In the end the prisoners were divided between Saxony and Hesse. Of those allotted to the elector at least three were put to death: Berlet Schmidt, Hans Eisfart, and his wife. Later he also insisted upon the execution of the Anabaptist leaders, Melchior Rinck and Fritz Erbe, who were held by Philipp. They died in prison.
In Schweinitz near Wittenberg death in prison terminated the many cross-examinations and long martyrdom of Hans Sturm of Steyer, though he had neither preached nor baptized in Saxony. His countryman Peter Pestel of Linz, also a victim of the intolerance of the Wittenberg theologians and jurists, was beheaded on Friday after Corpus Christi at Zwickau in 1536.
After the fall of Münster in 1535 the elector's severe attitude was, of course, sharpened. On 21 November 1535, Hans Peissker of Kleineutersdorf near Orlamünde was arrested in his own house with his sixteen-year-old daughter Margarethe and fourteen others; he was taken to the Leuchtenburg, and after a minute cross-examination, attended by Melanchthon, put to death with Heinz Kraut and Jobst Möller in Jena at the end of January 1536. Of the four prisoners who were transferred to Neustadt a. d. Orla because of lack of prison space in the Leuchtenburg, Heinrich Möller sealed his faith with his death.
On 10 April 1536, a new mandate was issued in Saxony against the "Anabaptists, Sacramentists, and fanatics," which was composed by Melanchthon, and also a polemic from the same pen, Verlegung etlicher unchristlicher Artikel, welche die Wiederteuffer furgeben, which every pastor in Saxony had to read and explain to his congregation on each third Sunday.
In January 1538 the elector had two men executed who were caught conversing with Fritz Erbe in the tower of the city wall of Eisenach, and who persisted in their faith in spite of all efforts to convert them. They were Hans Köhler of Eyerode and Hans Scheffer of Hastungsfelde. Other admirers of Erbe recanted on the rack.
In the territory of Mühlhausen, an imperial city, where after the Peasants' War in 1525 the Duke of Saxony had the protective magistracy every third year alternating with the elector of Saxony and the langrave of Hesse, Georg Köhler and Klaus Ernfart were among those who suffered death. A large number of Anabaptists were drowned in the Unstrut between Mühlhausen and Ammern and buried on the bank; among these were Jakob Storger and Klaus Scharf besides eight women on 8 November 1537, and Hans Hentrock of Amra and Ottilia Goldschmidt, a Mühlhausen girl, on 17 January 1538.
In spite of the frightful severity of the measures taken to suppress Anabaptism in and around Saxony, representatives of the movement now and then ventured to appear, especially in the Hausbreitenbach district, where on 7 and 8 January and 1544, a group of sixteen persons was tried at Berka. Six of them escaped death by the intervention of Philipp of Hesse; the rest were executed.
In 1543 Johann Friedrich had Peter Rube beheaded. After the catastrophe of Mühlberg (1547) he apparently adopted a more lenient attitude; in 1551 he wrote to his son Johann Friedrich the Middle, "To threaten heretics with the fear of fire and not to instruct them from the Scriptures we cannot consider Christian or right."
Under the Albertine electors, however, Anabaptism continued to be a capital offense and was completely eradicated. Early in 1584, under Elector August, who succeeded his brother Maurice, the Anabaptist Hans Dohn ended his life at the stake.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. 4.
Paulus, N. "Wappler." Theologische Jahresbericht 30 (1911), showing that heresy was a capital crime.
The original of Luther's letter is found in Wolfenbüttel: see Keller, Ludwig. Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien: in ihrem Zusammenhange dargestellt. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1885: 370.
Wappler, Paul. Inquisition und Ketzerprozesse in Zwickau zur Ref.-Zeit. Leipzig, 1908.
Wappler, Paul. Die Täuferbewegung in Thüringen von 1526-1584. Jena: Gustav Fisher, 1913.
Wappler, Paul. Die Stellung Kursachsens und des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen. Münster, 1910.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 435-437. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hein, Gerhard. "Saxony." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S328.html.
APA style: Hein, Gerhard. (1959). Saxony. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S328.html.