These are among the most unusual literary documents of Anabaptism, in type, style, and spirit reminiscent of the epistles of the New Testament. Though single epistles by other Anabaptist groups have been preserved (see Non-Hutterite section), we know of no other group which so systematically collected all of their epistles and made them available to the brotherhood. In their totality the epistles represent one of the richest sources for our understanding of the Anabaptists, and a moving testimony of the courage, strength, and genuineness of their faith. No other group of Anabaptists has produced such an amazing amount of devotional literature as have the Hutterites, who enjoyed writing and copying their literature almost up to recent times. European archives and libraries as well as the colonies of the Brethren in the United States and Canada hold an astonishing number of handwritten devotional and other books. Joseph Beck (Geschichts-Bücher) describes a great number of these European codices (as does also Lydia Müller, Glaubenszeugnisse . . . , 1938) which once belonged to Hutterite colonies in Slovakia but were confiscated, mainly by Jesuits during the 18th century and stored away (Beck, 563-642). About 300 such codices are known but many more must once have existed which were lost in times of persecution and wandering, or were destroyed by fire or plunder. They represent a complete Hutterite devotional library which was, to be sure, never printed and was hardly known to the outside world until rather recent times. In these books (Sammelbände) are found also all the epistles to be discussed in this article.
Moravia was the main center of Hutterite activities during the 16th century. Here were their large Bruderhofs with a Vorsteher or elder at the helm, and here were also their scriptoria (Schreibstuben) where all the incoming and outgoing epistles were collected and copied. The Brethren developed an extraordinary literary activity: the largest of these codices comprises 700 to 800 leaves quarto (of solid, strong paper), written in excellent penmanship, and beautifully bound in leather with clasps. The number of epistles known is likewise amazing; 400 to 500 have been counted. But it is fairly safe to say that once the number must have been still greater. Many of these epistles are of unusual length, covering in print occasionally as much as 20 pages folio size. Only about one fifth of all derive from the 17th century; all the rest belong to the great era of the 16th century; the time of writing stretches from 1527 to 1662.
Apparently most of the brethren were passionate letter writers; their strong inner life and their complete devotion to their new way found no better expression than in such epistles. Their topics were brotherhood, community of goods, a working faith in God and Christ, martyrdom as the inevitable lot of an earnest Christian, victory over flesh and world, absolute certainty in their way of resignation and nonconformity, love to everyone. Theological speculations were rare and less popular since they lack the actuality of a given situation. All these letters were read and reread by the Brethren, who thus learned the genius of their own tradition as well as the right behavior of earnest Christians living like sheep among wolves. It was their sacred legacy.
The epistles may be classified into different types: missionary letters to and from those who were working for God in all countries of German tongue, martyr letters to and from those who were in prison or just about to give the highest testimony of their faith, letters of admonition and encouragement, and finally also a few personal letters to friends, and so on. The elders or the entire community also sent many letters to the Brethren abroad.
About 80 personal letter writers have been counted, half of whom died sooner or later as martyrs. Some of these writers were very prolific, in some cases writing as many as 20 or more letters to the church at home, while others wrote just one or two letters in a long while but then often very long ones. Not all writers were leaders, ministers, or other functionaries. Often simple and very humble brethren produced true gems of epistolary literature. Many of these letter writers name Tyrol as their home country. Four of them (of the earliest period) had formerly been Catholic priests. Only one writer is known to have been a schoolmaster; others were millers, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, etc. About one third of all the epistles have no individual author; they are, as so many other documents of the Anabaptists, anonymous.
Most prominent of all these letters are those written in prison and dungeon (about 130 in number). It was the very joy of the Brethren who suffered for conscience’ sake to write home to the community as a whole. The consciousness of belonging to the brotherhood gave them strength, firmness, and courage to stand all of these unbelievable hardships and tortures. Only 30 of all letters studied are addressed to the “marital sister,” i.e., wife, containing farewell greetings and exhortations to remain steadfast in their faith. Perhaps not all letters of this sort were filed in the scriptorium, though that is not likely in a group as closely knit as this. One epistle which has become particularly well known, even famous, is the long letter which Jakob Hutter, the great first leader, wrote to the governor of Moravia on behalf of the entire brotherhood when this group was about to be expelled from Moravia in 1535. This letter has been reprinted seven times in different connections, and has been used as a major source. More than 200 epistles have a collective address (e.g., “To the brethren on the Rhine,” or “To the brethren wherever they are,” etc.). In some epistles an imprisoned brother comforts his comrade in bonds who lies in a nearby prison (Trostbrief an einen mitgegangenen Bruder). Many epistles were written by the elder or Vorsteher of the community to the distant workers for God in tribulations and need. It was particularly during the “Golden Era” in Moravia (1565-78), the period of the elder Peter Walpot, that a great number of missioners (Sendboten) went out into many lands. Hence many epistles arrived and were answered by busy writing-hands.
The high standard of most of these epistles is truly amazing; simple tradesmen and husbandmen wrote letters of great perfection in expression and effectiveness. In the Hutterite colonies they learned reading and writing and of course the spiritual foundations of their life. They also studied the writings of those who lived and suffered before them. Equipped in this way, they were eager to write under any situation. In jail and dungeon they somehow procured paper, ink, and quill, and there were always messenger-brethren for the contact back and forth with Moravia. At home all letters were carefully preserved, copied, collected in separate codices, and also inserted into the text of the Great Chronicle (Geschicht-Buch) which was so carefully carried on through the centuries. One fifth of the entire Chronicle consists of such inserted epistles, while the great part of the text is made up of excerpts from such records. It was the real life of the Brethren which was thus mirrored in these writings.
Only the epistles of the New Testament offer an adequate comparison to this unique literature which has the same spirit and in many cases even the same style as the apostolic models. Their genuineness and immediacy make them outstanding. It was, of course, inevitable that occasionally stereotyped forms crept in. But most of the letters written in prison—and they are the majority—in face of a supreme test, show a spontaneity of expression not too often met in religious literature. Distress and tribulation, but at the same time hope and trust in God, thus became verbal; likewise the assurance to have lived up to God’s commands. There was no room for great excitement. Simplicity is combined with deep spirituality, and an emotional warmth with healthy restraint and dignity in expression. Occasionally a folksy note comes to the fore, but surprisingly it is not the rule. The Pauline style is often imitated as the Brethren felt a kinship to the spirit and life of the early apostles. Sometimes a natural rudeness and wittiness shows up, which enhance the attractiveness of these letters. An example from 1568 might illustrate this side. A brother in prison reports of his conversations with a Catholic priest who wants to persuade him to give up his way, "Then I spoke, 'Since you want to derive infant baptism from circumcision which so obviously is straight against infant baptism, I must speak about it. Now, you tell me: did Abraham invent circumcision by himself?' Upon which he said, 'It was ordered to him by God.' Then I answered, 'Then wait until infant baptism will be ordered to you by God.' Then he said, 'You are a rude straw-cutter and do not understand the Scriptures, and yet you want to teach me; you should rather believe me and follow me; I am a highly learned man and well versed in many languages.' Upon which I said, 'A long time ago there was not one swine-herd all around Rome who would not have known Latin since it was a common language then, as ancient history clearly makes out. Nowadays it is a secular art and not at all divine piety or discipline.' "
Freshness of style, and always a witness to their faith make these epistles stimulating reading. True, there were not many new ideas to be propagated, since Anabaptism is a simple Biblical faith. Yet there is almost in every line of this literature a concreteness and existentiality of a faith which was less meditated than lived out. That explains why there is no unctiousness in their speech and no empty talk. As one brother wrote in 1561, "For that reason, beloved brethren, accept my little writing in love and good spirit, not as a work of the pen or the ink, but as truth and living word. All that I have taught you I am set to seal with my blood through the grace of God. . . . My letter is not in pleasant words of human wisdom but in the testimony of the Spirit and of power (in der Beweisung des Geistes und der Kraft)."
There is little wonder that these human documents were so highly esteemed; they were studied and copied and represent the source of strength for everyone in the colony. Here the Brethren learned the right demeanor in facing the world, and the right spirit of suffering. This reading gave them strength in the martyrdom which threatened them in almost every corner of the country. All that explains why these epistle-codices became such a precious heritage and why they were preserved and carried along throughout all the long history and wandering of the brethren.
Geschicht-Buch in its several editions (1883, 1923, 1943);
Zieglschmid, A. "Unpublished 16th Century Letters of the Hutterite Brethren." Mennonite Quarterly Review XV (1941): 5-25, 118-40 (German).
Friedmann, Robert. "An Old Anabaptist Letter of Peter Walpot (1571)." Mennonite Quarterly Review XIX (1945): 27-40 (English).
Müller, Lydia. Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter. Leipzig, 1938: passim.
Bossert, Gustav. Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, I. Band: Herzogtum Württemberg. Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte XIII. Band. Leipzig: M. Heinsius, 1930: has all the epistles by Paul Glock, 1563-69, pp. 1049-1102. This is the most extensive printed collection of epistles coming from a single brother. Hans Georg Fischer published Hutter’s letters with a biography in 1956.
Robert Friedmann was editing a volume of Hutterite letters for publication in 1957.
The Hutterites were not the only passionate letter writers; it seems as if such activities were particularly appealing to all Anabaptists, who thus testified to their faith, expressing their uncompromising stand, and above all leaving a legacy for those who came after them. These letters were in most cases written by martyrs who wanted to send a last farewell to their beloved ones or to the entire group, together with some admonitions and exhortations to keep loyal to the faith. In the same way as the great Hutterite Chronicle was built upon such epistles (either inserted or else used as main sources for the narrative), so were also all the martyrbooks, which originated in the Netherlands and found their climax in van Braght’s great Martyrs' Mirror of 1660 . Even a superficial perusal of this book will demonstrate this fact; nearly half of its second part is made up of such letters written by martyrs in many lands in prison, on the eve of their execution, and addressed to wife, husband, child, or the brethren wherever they were. No special study has yet been undertaken in this direction, but the similarity in spirit, form, and style with the Hutterite letters is striking. Only in one point is a significant difference observable; while the Hutterites have not one single letter written by a woman (though they had female martyrs), van Braght presents a great number of epistles written by women who were about to face the supreme sacrifice. J. C. Wenger (Glimpses, 177-78) prints the translation of such a most moving letter by Janneken von Munstdorp to her child, which was born in prison and now had to be abandoned (1573). This is a real gem of Anabaptist epistolary literature. Other great letters were written by Anneken of Rotterdam 1538, and many other women who were ready to seal their faith by martyrdom and death.
The sources of van Braght or the earlier martyr-books are little known. No central office existed in the Netherlands or in the Lower Rhine district as was the case with the Hutterites in Moravia, and no central body could take care of these precious legacies. And yet they were preserved. The Amsterdam Mennonite Library has the original of a letter written by the martyr Maeyken Wens, who was executed at Antwerp on October 6, 1573. This letter is written on the back of a letter which her husband had written to her while she was in prison. This is the only autograph letter of a Dutch martyr that has been preserved. It was later included in the Dutch martyrbooks, including van Braght’s Martyrs’ Mirror. It was, most likely, done by way of small printed pamphlets (Flugschriften) published soon after the tragic event and circulated among fellow believers. Today several libraries in America and Europe hold collections of such pamphlets . These anonymous booklets, containing epistles together with introductions of admonition and exhortation, must once have been very popular. Large collections (Sammelbände) of later centuries impressively demonstrate this fact. The oldest printed copy of a letter by a Dutch martyr seems to be one written by Anneken Jans, who was executed in 1539 at Rotterdam, published in the very year of her execution with a song, also written by Anneken. Beginning about 1577 a large number of booklets containing letters by Dutch martyrs appeared. They were published (at first anonymously) by Gillis Rooman at Haarlem, Nicolaas Biestkens at Amsterdam, and others. The following volumes are known: letters of Jacob de Keersmaecker 1577, Hendrick Alewijnsz 1577, Thys Joriaensz 1577, Joost Verkindert 1577, Reytse Ayseszoon n.d., Jan Woutersz van Cuyck 1579, Christiaen Rijcen (Christiaen de Rijcke) 1582, and Joose de Tollenaer 1599. Of some of these volumes there may have been older editions; some of them have been reprinted. A considerable collection of letters was already published in the oldest martyr-book, the Dutch Offer des Heeren of 1562, of which a number of reprints have appeared of each successive enlarged edition. The most outstanding of these collections is Güldene Aepffel in Silbern Schalen, most likely of Swiss origin, published 1702 and 1742 in Europe and 1745 in Pennsylvania. It contains altogether 24 epistles: (1) First the Sendbrief an die Gemeinde zu Horb (1527) by Michael Sattler. In this case the source, a pamphlet with all the Sattler material, published right after his execution, is known and found in Mennonite libraries. (2) Eight epistles by Thomas Imbroich (executed 1558), including his famous Confessio, sent to his wife and the brethren. In this case also we know the pamphlet serving as a source (see Mennonite Quarterly Review XVI, 1942, 99-107). (3) Two epistles by Soetge van der Houte (martyred 1560), one a Sendbrief an ihre Brüder und Schwestern und auch Kinder, and one a testament (legacy) to her children. (4) Eleven epistles by Michael Servaes (died 1563), called Sendbriefe welche er vor und in seinem Gefängnis zu Köln an seine Verwandten nach dem Geist und Fleisch geschrieben. (5) Two epistles from prison by Konrad Koch, who died as a martyr in 1565. Of the Houte, Servaes, and Koch epistles we do not know the original sources; yet there is little doubt that printed booklets existed also in these cases. As to the contents of these epistles and their skillful form of expression the same can be said as of the Hutterite letters: they are certainly superior documents.
It is surprising that one more such pamphlet of the 18th century has preserved almost the same spirit and form. That is the Sendbrief von einem Liebhaber Gottes Worts, written by an unknown brother in the darkness of prison in Bern, Switzerland, about 1715, and published most likely in Basel as an anonymous tract (copies in Mennonite historical libraries). This brother sends his admonitions to his “fellow members of the household of faith” as a call to steadfastness and loyalty and as a reminder to stay in the true fear of God, which befits earnest believers. It has 40 pages in print, and strikingly continues the old tradition of Anabaptist epistles.
Many more such epistles have been found in archives where trial records are stored away. The great Täuferakten publication in Germany (Bossert, Schornbaum) contains a number of such epistles though all too often in excerpts only. More such source publications are scheduled and will no doubt increase our knowledge of Anabaptist letter writing. But one particular letter still deserves our special attention because of its historical significance. That is Conrad Grebel’s famous writing to Thomas Müntzer, from Zürich, September 5, 1524 (see Bender, Conrad Grebel). Strictly speaking this is not yet an Anabaptist letter since Grebel was at that time not yet baptized on confession of faith. Still it might be called the very first Anabaptist statement in existence. It is not a martyr’s epistle, but a friendly admonition together with a brief exposition of the new Anabaptist faith and attitude toward life. As such it does not quite fall into the scope of the present article, but represents rather an introduction to this entire field.
In July 1955, a remarkable find of Anabaptist epistles was made in the Bürgerbibliothek in Bern, Switzerland, where a bound manuscript volume of 42 letters and documents of 1527-61 was found. The letters are largely by Pilgram Marpeck and his associates, collected by Jörg Maler in a volume together with a few other documents, to which he gave the title Kunstbuch.
Bender, H. S. Conrad Grebel. Goshen, 1950.
Bender, H. S. “New Discoveries of Important Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Codices,” Mennonite Quarterly Review XXX (1956): 72-77.
Fischer, H. G. Jakob Huter, Leben, Frömmigkeit, Briefe. Newton, 1956.
Friedmann, Robert. “The Epistles of the Hutterian Brethren, 1530-1650, A Study in Anabaptist Literature,” Mennonite Quarterly Review II (1946): 147-77 (a revision of the author’s study, “Die Briefe der österreichischen Täufer,” in Archiv für Reformations-Geschichte XXVI, 1929).
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, 1949.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 230-233. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Friedmann, Robert. "Epistles, Anabaptist." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/epistles_anabaptist.
APA style: Friedmann, Robert. (1956). Epistles, Anabaptist. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/epistles_anabaptist.