In Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, a center of the Anabaptists in the 16th century, the leading figures of the movement met on 20 August 1527 in a conference that was of great significance in the history of the brotherhood. Because a large number of the delegates died a short time afterward as martyrs, this meeting has been called the Martyrs' Synod.
Previous to this meeting there was only one general statement issued by the movement as a whole, namely, at a meeting on 24 February 1527, at Schleitheim, in the canton of Schaffhausen in Switzerland, where representatives of the Brethren agreed on a statement of doctrine and practice regarding the points in which they were at variance with Zwingli's state church. It laid the foundation for bridging over the differences between the Swiss and South German groups. Whereas the Schleitheim decisions were written down and later published, the Augsburg synod left no written statements. But there are several documents written by Anabaptist leaders of that time, which throw some light on the nature of the meeting and its religious position, such as Jakob Dachser, Hans Denck, Oswald Glait, Balthasar Hubmaier, Eitelhans Langenmantel, and Sigmund Salminger.
From the scant information from other sources it is clear that a definite program had been arranged and carried out. Those present expressed a firm determination to proclaim the doctrines and ethical principles they had accepted as right, and not to be deterred from it by persecution and danger of death.
More than 60 representatives came from South Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Hans Denck was most likely present. The others present whose names are known were Hans Beck of Basel, also called Beckenknecht; Eucharius Binder of Koburg; Burghard Braun, also called Burkhart of Ofen; Jakob Dachser, a former Catholic priest of Ingolstadt; Leonhard Dorfbrunner, formerly a Teutonic Knight of Nurnberg; Jakob Gross of Waldshut; Hans Gulden of Biberach in Franconia; Lukas Flaffner of Augsburg; Siegmund Hofer; Hans Hut of Haina in Franconia; Jakob Kautz, formerly a Lutheran preacher in Worms; Hans Kiessling of Friedberg near Augsburg; Gregor Maler of Chur; Eitelhans Langenmantel of Augsburg; Hans Leupold of Augsburg; Joachim März of Franconia; Marx Mayer of Alterlangen near Nurnberg; Hans Mittermaier of Ingolstadt; Georg Nespitzer of Lauingen, also called Jorg of Passau; Leonhardt von Prukh; Sigmund Salminger, a former Franciscan monk of Munich; Peter Scheppach, an artist of Augsburg; Leonhard Schiemer, a former Franciscan monk of Judenburg; Hans Schlaffer, a former priest of Upper Austria; Leonhard Spörle; Ulrich Trechsel; Thomas Waldhausen, a former Catholic priest of Grein, hence also called Thomas of Grein; Jakob Wideman of Memmingen; Andreas Widholz, a guild master, in whose house services were held (Keller, Apostel, 218; Keller, Staupitz, 325 f.; Keller, Reformation, 426-28; Nicoladoni, 107; Neuser, 27).
Some of the important leaders were not present: Hubmaier was in Moravia; Pilgram Marpeck was still at Rattenberg on the Inn; Georg Blaurock was wandering in the mountains of Switzerland; Felix Manz had been martyred by drowning on 5 January 1527 in Zurich, and Michael Sattler at the stake on 21 May 1527, in Rottenburg on the Neckar; Conrad Grebel had died of the plague in Maienfeld, Grisons, in the summer of 1526.
The conference appointed missionaries, who went out in all directions in two's and three's to all the countries where their fellow believers lived, to teach, comfort and strengthen them, or to build new brotherhoods. Their speech was so impressive that frequently a few hours sufficed to establish a new congregation (Cornelius, II, 49). Of their converts they demanded an upright life; when a brother sinned, he was to be admonished, and if he was in need he should be aided by the brethren; anyone who was unwilling to do this should not request baptism (Wiswedel, II, 50). Their opponents were surprised by the rapid spread of the movement. Unable to understand it, they asserted of some of the preachers that they carried little flasks of a magic potion, which they passed around through the audience to put a spell upon them (see Hans Hut; also Wiswedel, II, 178).
Hans Denck, Gregor Maler, and Hans Beck were sent to Basel and Zurich (Rohrich, 33); Ulrich Trechsel and Peter Scheppach to Worms and the Palatinate (Rohrich, 33); Hans Mittermaier, Leonhard Schiemer, and Leonhard Dorfbrunner (Nicoladoni, 107) to Upper Austria; Georg Nespitzer to Franconia (Keller, Reformation, 429); Eucharius Binder and Joachim März to Salzburg; and Leonhard Pruckh and Leonhard Spörle to Bavaria. None of these evangelists were able to work long; some were apparently seized in the rising wave of persecution before they reached their assigned field.
As soon as the Augsburg authorities learned of the synod, they took steps toward wiping out the movement. Urban Rhegius, the head of the local Protestant clergy, on 6 September 1527 published a booklet, Wider dien neuen Tauforden, with an addition, Notwendige Warnung an alle Christ-gläubigen durch die Diener des Evangeliums in Augsburg. Already on 24 August 1527 the city council had made arrests and applied torture (Keller, Reformation, 428), and used the extorted statements to warn other governments of these messengers; on 16 September, they sent a message of this kind to Ulm (Roth, Reformationsgeschichte I, 264), and on 20 September to Strasbourg (Röhrich, 32) and Nurnberg (Schornbaum, 39).
By this measure the suppression of Anabaptism in German-speaking regions was given a new impetus; political charges went hand in hand with attacks on their doctrine. Even before the meeting of the synod a number of polemics had been issued against them; Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, Johannes Eck, Johann Landtsperger, Konrad Schmid, and Johannes Bader had written such booklets. In 1527, following the synod, and in 1528, other polemics were published by Wenzeslaus Linck, Andreas Althamer, Johann Faber, Ortolf Fuchsberger, Thomas Venatorius, and again Urban Rhegius. Melanchthon now also took up the fight against the Anabaptists.
At the same time a new general persecution was inaugurated by the temporal authorities. In the last quarter of 1527 and the first half of 1528 not a month passed without a decree or mandate having been issued (see Mandates). The most cruel was the decision of the Swabian League passed at Augsburg on 22 February 1528 authorizing a band of four hundred armed horsemen to hunt the Anabaptists and bring them to headquarters. All who would not recant were burned at the stake without trial, those who did recant were beheaded; women were executed by drowning (Kühn, 1016 and Schornbaum, 117). 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 Ref.-Gesch., 1916, 154).
The first martyrs among the participants at the synod were Joachim März and Eucharius Binder, both of whom died at the stake in Salzburg on 27 October 1527. Leonhard Spörle was executed on 12 November 1527 at an undesignated place. Hans Hut was suffocated by a fire in his cell at Augsburg, 6 December 1527. Leonhard Dorfbrumier was burned at the stake at Passau in January 1528. Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on 14 January 1528 at Rattenberg on the Inn, and his corpse burned. Hans Schlaffer was beheaded on 4 February 1528 at Schwaz in Tyrol, Eitelhans Langenmantel on 11 March 1528, at Weissenhorn near Ulm, one of the four headquarters of the Swabian League. Thomas Waklhausen was burned on 10 April 1528 at Brno in Moravia; Hans Leupold was beheaded on 25 April 1528 at Augsburg. Hans Mittermaier was executed in 1529 at Linz, and Jakob Wideman in 1535 at Vienna.
Other participants in the synod were victims of the strains of persecution. Hans Denck died of the plague at Basel in November 1527. Several preachers languished in prison in Augsburg, until, broken in body and soul, they recanted in order to gain their release, as was the case with Jakob Dachser, Sigmund Salminger, and Jakob Gross.
Two other participants in the synod, who were seized several years later in Franconia, recanted in the face of death and were released under oath not to return to the region after making a public confession in church. George Nespitzer renounced his faith in Brandenburg on 21 August 1530. Marx Mayer was arrested at Creglingen near Ansbach in June 1530, and was sentenced to death in accord with a decision of Margrave George (Schornbaum, 189). But the mayor and the council of Ansbach made a protest on 13 August claiming that the decision of the margrave was not valid in this case, since the prisoner could not be charged with sedition (Schornbaum, 191). Mayer recanted and was released. But he then joined the Puschenhamer group, misguided followers of Hans Schmied, who based his doctrines on dreams. Against them the Margrave had issued a mandate on 20 June 1531 (Schornbaum, 270 f.). Marx Mayer was beheaded on 6 July 1531 as an adherent of this group, whose teachings were not at all like those of the Anabaptists (see the sentence in Schornbaum, 327-329).
It is worth noticing that in spite of the cruel persecution, no Anabaptist took recourse to violent resistance, nor was there evidence of a planned attack against the government in all the cross-examinations even on the rack. The prophecies concerning the punishment of the persecutors, which Hans Hut at first proclaimed, and which were interpreted as revolt against the temporal government, he soon abandoned (Schornbaum, 188). Nor were they construed as criminal by the authorities when they learned that they were repeated only in the circle of intimate friends (Schornbaum, 191.)
Although several delegates fell from their faith under the severe pressure of persecution, nevertheless the other participants in the synod were faithful shepherds of the congregations entrusted to them. Some of the writings of these martyrs are still unpublished, and are found in various archives: Hans Hut (Vom Geheimnis der Taufe), Eitelhans Langenmantel (Vom Nachtmahl des Herrn), Hans Schlaffer, (Beck, 64; excerpts in Beck, 651-653 and Wiswedel, II, 191-201), Thomas Waldhausen (Beck, 66 and Keller, Reformation, 434), and Leopold Schiemer (Beck, 62; excerpts in Wiswedel, II, 174-86).
Some scholars have doubted that the meeting known as the Martyrs' Synod ever took place, and J. J. Kiwiet goes so far as to call it a fiction of Ludwig Keller. Walter Fellman (Hans Denck Schriften, 17 f.) gives probably the best analysis of what actually happened, based on the latest research. Several meetings were held, the chief one on 24 August 1527, in the house of Mathias Finder, a butcher. It was at this meeting that the missioners were delegated. One meeting had been held two or three days before this at the house of Gall Fischer, a weaver, one of the deacons of the Augsburg Anabaptist congregation. In these two meetings both Denck and Hut were present, with about 60 others. A third meeting was held in the house of Konrad Huber, also a deacon of the Augsburg congregation, where Hut was present, but Denck absent. Hut calls this latter meeting a "council." Although none of the sessions was a synod in the formal sense that a body of delegates deliberated and adopted binding resolutions, yet there was a consideration of certain points at issue and at least a sort of agreement, in addition to the appointment of missioners. In this sense the term conference would be justifiable.
Fellman holds that the conference consisted largely of representatives from the areas where Hut had been preaching, i.e., mostly south and east of Augsburg. Denck was not the presiding officer, as Keller supposed. The major theological point at issue was Hut's chiliastic teaching. He had, among other things, prophesied the second coming of Christ to take place in the spring of 1528. The conference decided, with Hut's agreement, to drop certain of the concrete details of the Hut prophecy, but approved the central idea of the return in 1528. Fellman holds that the urge to send out missioners was based on the concept of the near return of Christ and the urgency of strengthening the congregations and inaugurating a vigorous evangelistic campaign before the end. At least some of the decisions of the conference are reported in the "Epistle of Hans Hut," sent with some of the missioners, which has been published by Lydia Müller (Glaubenszeugnisse, 12).
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 529-531. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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