Ascherham, Gabriel (d. 1545)
Gabriel Ascherham (also called Kürschner after his trade as a furrier), was leader of an early Anabaptist group in Moravia and Silesia, the so-called Gabrielites. He was born in Nürnberg, Bavaria, and worked in Schärding (now Austria) where he seems to have come into contact with Anabaptists, most likely with Hans Hut and Ambrosius Spittelmayer. He joined the group and was made preacher. Soon hereafter he moved to Silesia, where he became active around Glogau, Breslau and Glatz, establishing small brotherhoods. When the first persecutions began in 1528, he led his followers into Moravia, then the most tolerant country in Central Europe. On a noble's estate at Rossitz they settled, soon joined by like-minded newcomers from Swabia, Hesse and the Palatinate, whose leader was Philipp Plener, also called Blauärmel or Weber. This Philippite group soon moved away from Rossitz to nearby Auspitz where, by chance, also a Tyrolese Anabaptist group under the leadership of Zaunring and Schützinger had found refuge. In 1531 these three groups (about 4,000 baptized members) formed a loose union at the suggestion of Jakob Hutter. Ascherham was named their Vorsteher or bishop. In 1533, Jakob Hutter, who meanwhile had labored in Tyrol, returned and found many things faulty with this group. Thus he insisted upon a stricter and fairer practice of the (in Moravia long established) community of goods. In consequence, a most painful division took place among the Brethren (in Hutterite writings called die Zer Spaltung), which for a long time reverberates in all Hutterite documents. Now there were three groups in Moravia instead of one: the Hutterites, the Philipites and the Gabrielites, which had little contact with each other but lived in peace side by side. When the first heavy persecution began also in Moravia in 1535, each group tried to escape it in its own way. The Philipites returned to Southwest Germany (see Ausbund), the Hutterites somehow managed to stay in Moravia, while Ascherham and his group turned northward, to Silesia, Poland and East Prussia (where they perhaps later mingled with the Mennonites). Only a small Gabrielite group remained behind in Moravia establishing several new households on noble estates, yet still disunited with the Hutterites. Gabriel's old grudge against Jakob Hutter and his people prevented any negotiations (much asked for), even after Hutter's death in 1536. In fact, Ascherham attacked the Hutterite group in speeches, writings, songs and "improper" letters. In 1542 he even published a booklet against the Hutterites (used by Chr. Andreas Fischer, in his Taubenkobel, 1605), to which they replied in a sharp epistle.
Little is known about the Ascherham group in Silesia. Wilhelm Wiswedel's statement is apparently correct when he says that Ascherham was no real leader, had little gift for organization, and by his spiritualistic teachings easily antagonized people. His abandonment of the practice of community of goods was not opposed by his followers, but when he began to show indifference toward infant baptism, many of his (Anabaptist-minded) adherents were estranged, and many left the group and returned to the Hutterites in Moravia. In order to strengthen the regard of his followers for his vision, Ascherham published in Silesia in 1544 a new polemical-dogmatic book, called, Vom Unterschied Göttlicher und Menschlicher Weisheit (only known copy at the National Bibliothek in Vienna, Austria), and had it read at all places where his people met. Wiswedel published most of its text in the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1937), where it covered about 53 pages. It is a book of remarkable intellectual and spiritual strength (considering that Ascherham was an unlearned man), but it is most ignoble toward his former brethren, the Anabaptists in Moravia. The genius of this work is rather that of a "spiritual reformer" (like Bünderlin, Hans Denck, Franck) than that of the Anabaptists. All the external things became indifferent to Ascherham—the "spirit" alone mattered. The book is well written and Wiswedel praises its style. As a declaration of his whole philosophy Ascherham places at the beginning four brief statements that sound like a challenge: (1) no one has a right to baptize and to establish church ordinances (regulations) unless he be in the Christian church; (2) no one is in the Christian church unless he has the Holy Spirit; (3) neither faith nor spirit can be obtained from the Scriptures; (4) nor is faith the ground and origin of our salvation. Obviously, these are tenets of a non-Anabaptist nature, and the deeper roots of the conflict become visible.
Only those who have the Holy Spirit (or, as often used, the Spirit of Promise, Geist der Verheissung) can distinguish between good and evil, and not those who have just the letter of the Bible. That is the real meaning of the title, "Concerning the Distinction Between Divine and Human Wisdom." Those who preach without the Spirit soon become "literalists," and that leads to error and false appearance. The Kingdom of God is inward only. External organization and regulations (or ordinances) are of no value whatsoever toward salvation. "What they [the Hutterites and all those who do not follow Ascherham] do they perform in a 'legalistic' fashion, and not because of an urge of the Holy Spirit. That is, they show but a pretense of monkish appearance (angenommener mönchischer Schein). Do not seek your salvation in external things (elementische Kreatur) such as baptism, Lord's Supper, and brotherhood, for they do not guarantee salvation."
Of himself Ascherham declared that he had no personal call from God to begin anything new. Thus he was not an apostle. "But I have received mercy through the spirit of divine understanding to build on the ground laid by Christ and the apostles. God has sanctified me that I may serve according to the order of the Holy Spirit. . . . Thus nobody should meddle with Scriptures and regulations (Ordnung) unless he have the Spirit of Promise. And it is through this spirit alone that one loses the will to sin."
Concerning Gemeinschaft (the word meaning both brotherhood and community of goods) Ascherham's ideas are strangely contradictory, considering that he was the leader of a group himself, in contrast to the radical spiritualists of that time who, by intention, remained isolated individuals. "The apostles," he says, "did not preach anything about Gemeinschaft, but only the Gospel of the kingdom of God and Christ. In believing, they received the Holy Spirit which made them think little of earthly goods. . . . The community of goods, however, which is practiced today [by the Hutterites] is quite different. People are pressed to give up their goods, though they do it reluctantly only, on promise of salvation. They are not urged by the love of the Holy Spirit but they rather think to buy the kingdom of God by such an act [which Ascherham calls 'simony']. I tell you if you are not saved outside your Gemeinschaft [brotherhood or community of goods], you will never be saved by it. For salvation does not rest in good deeds, but in the grace of God only. And whoever is saved, in him is brotherhood unbidden."
The most provocative section of the entire book deals with Ascherham's interpretation of baptism. "All baptizing that takes place outside the Holy Spirit is of benefit to none. Since baptism cannot bring the Holy Spirit, no one in the Christian church can be made better or worse by it (wird gebessert oder gebösert). Therefore it is not right to condemn anyone on account of baptism. Since baptism cannot produce pious men, people should not be compelled to submit to it unless they have [divine] understanding. Baptism is not a law but presupposes liberty, as do all Christian ordinances (Ordnungen). Since reason has such liberty, it would be much better to let little children, who cannot even talk, come to this liberty. As they are baptized they have nothing found nor lost . . . yet if anyone asks me if infant baptism is sin, to him I answer, no. But in order to prevent disorder and superstition, it is well to omit infant baptism since so much misuse sprang from it." "Where there is the Holy Spirit, there is also baptism, the remembrance of Christ [Lord's Supper], and a saintly life. The self-styled brethren, however, say, 'This is our order, we insist on it even if it hurts somebody.' This they call Christian zeal and testimony. But the Holy Spirit does not need such external proofs." "It is not possible to die for the sake of baptism, for that means to miss God's grace in Christ Jesus by whom all men are saved through the death of Christ and not through their own death."
And now follow two appended chapters: An Admonition to the Authorities, and Concerning the Lord's Supper,” signed by Gabriel as "the least among his brethren and nobody in the kingdom of God." He exhorts the government in so many words "not to judge by the sword the zeal for God of those who do not understand it better. Since the gift of the Spirit is not in the power of the government, we urge thee not to use the sword over those who do not use the sword against thee but rather are obedient. . . . In these times God does not permit killing anybody for the sake of his faith," etc.
With regard to the Lord's Supper he opposes the symbolical interpretation prevalent among Anabaptist groups. He favors more a sacramental viewpoint, not unlike that later taught by Calvin and his church, namely, that at a dignified celebration the believer actually participates in the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual fashion.
As these excerpts show, this was not a book adapted to build a strong brotherhood or a suffering church. Ascherham, who had come to Silesia in or before 1544 to rally his followers, soon found himself "a shepherd without sheep" (Loserth). Apparently they sought more the spirit of genuine Anabaptism than their leader did. Not much is known about Ascherham's predicament and reaction. We only learn that one year later, in 1545, he died in a small city on the Polish-Silesian border. As for the fate of his group, more is said in the article concerning the Gabrielites. Most of them soon joined the Hutterite brotherhoods.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 88.
Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv für österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895). See also his articles in Mennonitisches Lexikon II: 24 f.
Wiswedel, Wilhelm. "Gabriel Ascherham und die nach ihm benannte Bewegung."Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1937) (with the text of Ascherham's book).
Wolkan, Rudolf. Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Macleod, Alberta, and Vienna, 1923: 76-104.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 174-176. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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