Under the pressure of interrogation with or without torture, many 16th-century Anabaptists were induced to recant and rejoin the dominant regional church. In some regions, especially where capital punishment for religious error prevailed (Hapsburg lands, central Germany), recanters numbered well over 50 percent of the Anabaptists who appeared in court. In other regions, often where exile was the unofficial but ultimate form of punishment (Strasbourg, some other south German cities, Hesse), the percentage of recanters was much lower.
Why try to induce recantation? Church and court authorities were traditional: recanting was morally advantageous to the soul because the recanters could be received back into the church (Catholic or Protestant) to their salvific benefit. Both Catholics and Protestants, especially the latter, saw the advantage in obtaining recantations from prominent leaders in order to use them to persuade other Anabaptists to recant. From 1538 through about 1560 Strasbourg used recanted Anabaptist Peter Tasch to induce perhaps 200 Anabaptists to recant.
Why did Anabaptists recant? Most of them were pressured intolerably to abjure their faith. Torture, threat of torture, separation for life from spouse and/or children, appeals of relatives and friends, threat of death or at least exile—any of these could be decisive. Furthermore, many Anabaptists (like many Protestants) were troubled in conscience by separation from the church, even a church they thought was an abomination in the sight of God. Therefore some were persuaded to recant by pastors or theologians who themselves continued to exercise a critique against the church (e.g., Michael Schneider at Passau, 1538). Such recanters often retained a substantial element of Anabaptist thought and ethic. One such recanter administered the poor relief program in Strasbourg for many years.
Some, probably most, recanted because they were Spiritualists (Obbe Philips) and relied more on the intervening Spirit and less upon the gathered church of believers. Some Anabaptists recanted several times, rejoining the Anabaptist fellowship between recantations. A few of these appear to have been Nicodemites who maintained some active underground fellowship with like-minded Anabaptists but who outwardly led lives of religious conformity to the dominant church.
Many recanters were fresh converts, immature in Anabaptist thought and life; some had been Anabaptists for only a few months or even weeks. The standard pressures overwhelmed them and they displayed an awesome ignorance of their new faith in court or under interrogation. But major leaders also recanted: Balthasar Hubmaier (who recanted and retracted twice), Jacob Dachser, Jacob Kautz (recanted feebly while seriously ill), Obbe Philips, Hans Pfistermeyer, Eitelhans Langenmantel, Georg (Jörg) Rothenfelder (who retracted and would not recant again) are only a few examples.
It is impossible to find an absolutely clear relation between recantation and torture. Torture was used too frequently as a routine form of interrogation in religious cases to be thought worth recording, even in regions such as South Tyrol where it had only recently been introduced into legal practice. Routine torture derived from Roman law, and thus also was standard practice in canon law. There are instances of Anabaptists recanting only after the excruciating pain of torture.
Some authorities used formulae for recantation; these disguised the individual's convictions but also made relative adherence to Anabaptist thought and practice after recantation less apparent.
Protestant churchmen and political leaders tried instruction to persuade Anabaptists to recant, all the more as executions for religious reasons decreased. Many leaders spent many hours with imprisoned Anabaptists. In some Protestant regions church leaders instructed recanting Anabaptists in detail, covering much more than the normally disputed issues of baptism, nature of the church, oath, and government.
Menno Simons and other Anabaptist leaders of his kind generally disapproved of recantation, associating it in the North at least with extravagant Spiritualism. Some Anabaptist groups were reluctant to receive back into fellowship a retracting recanter. But because of intolerable pressure to recant including torture, Anabaptists usually were reluctant to visit too harsh a penalty on recanters who wanted to return to the fellowship.
Recantation did not necessarily bring release from punishment. Some recanters were flogged, others fined, still others branded on the forehead, a few even killed. In many regions, both Protestant and Catholic, recanters underwent public penance—for example, standing bare-headed with lighted candle, clothed in special coarse cloth, in front of the church or beside the altar at the end of mass or worship for a designated number of Sundays (Schamstrafe). In some regions recanters were required to wear a particular cloak, one that set them apart, for a year and a day. Many were required to swear a special oath, the Urfehde, to remain faithful to the church under penalty of death if they relapsed.
See also Persecution.
The best material is the largely unworked raw data in the court records, especially in the Täuferakten (see Mennonite Encyclopedia IV:237), which forms the basis for the present article. Occasional brief references to recantation are found in biographies of some Anabaptists in GAMEO.
For one brief account see:
Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972: 366-370.
For parallels in early church history related to the readmission of lapsed believers and public penance similar to the Schamstrafe described in the article, see:
Frend, W. H. C. Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985: 318-324, 409-411.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 745. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Oyer, John S. "Recantation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R41.html.
APA style: Oyer, John S. (1989). Recantation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R41.html.