Confiscation of Property
In the 16th century the Anabaptists not only forfeited their lives when they were baptized upon confession of their faith; their property was also seized by the authorities. In the Netherlands during the time of persecution the property of martyrs who were sentenced was usually confiscated, though this is not always expressly declared in the sentences. The proceeds of the property of a martyr who was executed or of a person banished from the city or the province accrued partly to the public treasury, and partly to the emperor; sometimes a part of the proceeds was given to the person who had denounced or betrayed the "heretic." The very earliest mandates issued against them contain threats of such punishment. The mandate of Louis V, Elector Palatine, 5 March 1528, determined that anyone "who had previously been baptized according to Christian order" would be punished with "loss of life by fire, and confiscation of possessions and property" if he allowed himself to be rebaptized (Hege, 59). Confiscation was retained for several centuries as a punishment for membership with the Anabaptists. A comprehensive study of confiscation of Anabaptist property has not yet been made.
Exceptional severity in confiscation characterized the Swiss cantons. In Bern, when the emigrating Swiss Brethren sold their properties these were to be confiscated from the buyer by a decree of 23 April 1610; the buyer was then supposed to be repaid by the seller. Thus sale became impossible. But finally this confiscation by the state became so offensive to public opinion that a Bern mandate of 19 August 1678 specified that confiscated Anabaptist property should be managed by the local communities. The income from these properties flowed into the church and school funds of the community (Müller, 131).
In the Palatinate in the last third of the 16th century, the Anabaptists who refused "to return to the right church" were expelled and their property was confiscated by the state. It was returned as soon as the exile promised to return into the state church. If an exile died "in wretchedness," his property was given to the surviving relatives or friends (Hege, 137-41).
In the duchy of Württemberg, property confiscated from Anabaptists was occasionally arbitrarily disposed of, causing loud complaints in the Landtag in 1594. Formerly the property of emigrants to Moravia had been returned to the heirs, but now petitions for the release of Anabaptist hereditary property were as a rule denied. "A matter of faith becomes a matter of finance." At the demand of Duke Frederick, confiscated Anabaptist funds were applied to the church at Freudenstadt. In 1606 the funds collected from Anabaptists by the Austrian government during its occupation amounted to 40,000 fl.; in 1636 they decreased to 24,000 fl. (Bossert, 38).
Confiscation was practiced longest in Zürich. Here too the aim was to compel the Anabaptists either to recant or to emigrate by injuring them financially. This measure had already been extensively discussed about 1550 at a synod in Aarau, but was not applied until 1598. At first this confiscated Anabaptist property was used to aid the children or those who recanted; later it was used to support hospitals, schools, and churches. Anabaptist property was also frequently applied to the printing of Bibles, which the government took over in 1618. These funds were also used to cover the cost of tracing and seizing Anabaptists, as well as the support of imprisoned Anabaptists. Thus the fund was sharply reduced. Not until a number of well-to-do Anabaptists were seized did the fund appreciably increase. Thereby the community fund for the support of the poor also fell into the hands of the government. Frequently the confiscated properties later fell into the private possession of officials. In 1798 the Anabaptist fund had grown to 325,402 pounds. Appeals made by heirs for repayment were only rarely granted, and then only if there was proof that they had returned to the state church (Bergmann, 136-145).
The confiscation of Anabaptist property by the state was first assumed by the canton of Bern to be a self-evident right; later this measure was disapproved by the people. It was therefore decided that confiscated Anabaptist-Mennonite property should be kept in the local community as a separate fund. Täufergut (Anabaptist Property) was the name given the cash capital confiscated from the arrested Mennonites. The income from this fund was used for the churches and schools of the community.
The severe Bernese mandate of 8 September 1670 stipulated that those Mennonites who would "yield to attend the sermons and the use of the holy sacraments" should be permitted to keep their property; but those who remained obstinately with their faith should have their property publicly sold at auction and the proceeds turned over to the manager of the church fund, who should make an annual report to the government on this fund. In case such "unconvertible Anabaptists die, their property shall remain in the church fund and be used for schools and the poor." Under certain circumstances the farms of these "stiff-necked and disobedient fellows" who were already behind bars, if the land was farmed by the prisoner's wife and children, should be placed in the hands of a guardian and if it seemed advisable sold, and the proceeds given the children only if they would submit to the orders of the established church. This mandate specified further that the property of those Mennonites who were in exile should be sold and this money also added to the fund in the care of the church. The government made an effort to banish the Mennonites as penniless as possible and keep the money in Switzerland.
Later, when the permanent Commission for Anabaptist Affairs was appointed, this commission assumed the care of the Anabaptist properties, which were put into the Täufergutsfonds. After the costs had been met, the remainder of the proceeds of the sale should be listed in the Täufer-Urbar, so that it would at all times be possible to see what had been done with the money. These Anabaptist property accounts are still to be found in the archives at Bern, as well as a Zinss-Rodel for Anabaptist funds (begun in 1614). Enormous sums were taken by the state from honest citizens. If a Mennonite was converted and joined the state church, abandoning Anabaptism for good, his property was restored to him; but this happened only rarely. The confiscated money remaining in the fund was used for church and school buildings. Thus the parish of Roggwil received 2,000 pounds of Anabaptist money for the renovation of the church. Huttwil used 500 guilders of Anabaptist money in building a new church. The parish of Schwarzenegg in Thun in 1692 drew a sum from the Anabaptist fund that would in 1954 have been worth about $4,000.
Bergmann, C. Die Täuferbewegung im Kanton Zürich. Leipzig, 1916.
Bossert, Gustav. "Aus der nebenkirchlichen religiösen Bewegung der Reformationszeit in Württemberg." Blätter für württembergische Kirchengeschichte (1926): I-II, 1-41.
Gratz, Delbert. Bernese Anabaptists. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1952.
Grosheide, Greta. Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der Anabaptisten in Amsterdam. Hilversum: J. Schipper, Jr., 1938: 72-87, 228-230.
Hege, Christian. Die Täufer in der Kurpfalz. Frankfurt, 1908.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: II, 210.
Hoog, I. M. J. De Martelaren der Hervorming in Nederland. Schiedam, 1885: 195-196.
Müller, Ernst. Geschichte der Bernischen Täufer. Frauenfeld: Huber, 1895. Reprinted Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1972.
Teufel, Eberhard. "Die Beschlagnahme und Verwaltung des Täufergutes durch den Fiskus im Herzogtum Württemberg im 16. u. 17. Jahrhundert." Zeitschrift für historische Theologie 8 (July/August 1952): 296-304.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 688-689. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hege, Christian and Samuel Geiser. "Confiscation of Property." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/confiscation_of_property.
APA style: Hege, Christian and Samuel Geiser. (1953). Confiscation of Property. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/confiscation_of_property.