Breitinger, Johann Jakob (1575-1645)

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Johann Jakob Breitinger, born 19 April 1575, was the antistes (chief prelate or head) of the Zürich church from 1613 until his death on 1 April 1645. From 1593 to 1596 he studied in Germany and Holland at the Reformed universities, where he became closely associated with the scholars of the rigidly orthodox wing, whom he supported later as the delegate of the Swiss church at the Dordrecht Synod in its struggle with the Remonstrants. In 1611 Breitinger was called as preacher to Zürich. He fulfilled his duties as pastor and parson with a self-sacrificing spirit during the plague which was rampant in Zürich and thus won the sympathy of all classes, so that after the death of the old antistes Lehmann in 1613 he was called to fill his position at the Great Minster. His influence upon the Zürich church as well as the Swiss Reformed Church extended far beyond his lifetime; it is observable in his organization of the church into a substantial and decisive integral factor in the state. His life was centered in the church, the Zürich church in particular, as a religio-political concept.

Political life about 1600 had become more and more centralized and degenerated into a "family management." The church had no appreciable influence upon it; life in the canton was subjected to demoralizing influences, permitting the tendencies of the Counter Reformation, most evident in the field of education, to gain more and more ground, while the more earnest elements tended toward the loosely organized Swiss Brethren (Anabaptist) churches and in spirit joined them. This drift spread so much the more because the Swiss Brethren developed an extensive activity in charitable and welfare work and in the exercise of church principles, especially the ban, which had won the approval of even the former antistes Lehmann, and because the corrupt government was no longer guided by ethical motives. Breitinger found this state of affairs on his taking office, and since his was a practical temperament, he tried to take up the fight for the church at the weakest link in this chain of opposing factors.

His first significant step against the Swiss Brethren was a justification of the execution of Hans Landis, one of the leaders and an elder of Swiss Brethren in the canton, who had paid the death penalty in 1614 because the state had counted his determination to remain with his church and not to emigrate as civil disobedience. The trial and the preliminary procedure give a fair picture of the progress the Swiss Brethren had made. The disputed points were still the same as was also the demand made by the Swiss Brethren that the church prove its sincerity by the Scriptural life of its members; but the relative strength of the Brethren had greatly increased. The council of the city of Zürich saw itself obliged to hold disputations in the country, into which Breitinger was also drawn, to induce the Brethren either to attend church or emigrate; the Brethren, however, did not consent, but let it come to a test to see which of the two parties had the greater following.

When this procedure proved futile, a persecution set in, accompanied by a serious reformation of the clergy. In 1613 a regulation was passed on the instruction of children; in 1615 a new hymnal replaced the one introduced in 1598; in 1616 a regulation of clothing, which included conduct in general. The synods became a stern tribunal for the irresponsible clergy who were largely responsible for the degeneracy of the canton; schools and instruction of children were pushed with all seriousness; Breitinger had attacked the essential points with reformatory results which extended far beyond his original purpose.

Breitinger's good intentions created for him an indisputable, superior position which his practical motives made the more secure, and which became disastrous to the progress of the Swiss Brethren. For it was first of all the Swiss Brethren who hindered Breitinger in the execution of the reforms for the unification of the canton by keeping the more earnest personalities from actual or even passive cooperation. But to save the church from the reproach of intolerance and to present it inviolable and unique above all others, he had to find a solution which would enable him to do justice to both sides, his own people and outward appearance, without losing sight of his goal. This solution he proposed in 1615 in the memorial against the Swiss Brethren. He says in it among other things: Sending them to the galleys should be avoided; it is better to convince them of the groundlessness of their views through the preachers. Those who nevertheless refused to attend church and were baptized should be heavily fined, their children declared illegitimate, because the marriages were not concluded according to church rules. But because the Anabaptists insisted so urgently on better church discipline and order, a committee should be formed to provide for improvement in church discipline and order.

These suggestions of Breitinger's were confirmed on 18 January 1616 after two discussions in November and December and sent to other Protestant towns for opinion so that on the basis of these opinions it would be possible to reach some decision on a unified course of action against the Swiss Brethren at the meeting in Aarau set for February. The Aarau decision asserts unanimously that galley punishment should be abolished on the basis of scholarly opinion. The death penalty should be applied only to agitators. But all stressed the necessity of reform among the clergy, who would be able to do most to remove this evil.

These views remained basic for subsequent action and were modified only in the severity of their application.

The Thirty Years' War halted the movement, for Breitinger was deeply concerned with supporting the Protestant side, and Switzerland managed to avoid entanglement contrary to Breitinger's wishes. About 1630 he turned his attention again to questions of internal church politics, in order to bring his twenty years' struggle with the Swiss Brethren to a successful conclusion in their complete suppression and eradication in the canton of Zürich.

By Breitinger's orders a committee was appointed of members of state authorities, which should serve to assist, with the exercise of force, the clergy, who under Breitinger's direction were to lead in the struggle in order at the same time to meet the reproaches of the canton against the clergy for their harsh application of government regulations. In 1630 Breitinger composed a memorandum for the committee, discussing in detail the reasons for the necessity of resisting the Brethren. He speaks of the Anabaptist articles of faith in a very moderate tone, finds the sympathy for them comprehensible because of their way of life, and promises himself success against them only if the Reformed congregations recognize that the Anabaptists are wrong and deserving of punishment. Therefore it is necessary to explain the Bible and truth in their sermons, to exercise great patience toward the erring, and to attack no one or limit their freedom of conscience if they only lived quietly and honestly and attended (Reformed) church. Only in case of the exercise of rites and ceremonies and intentional separation, must the state exercise punitive authority. "If we do not apply these measures, we will have correct doctrine, but bad consciences on our side, and the sectarians will only become more hardened. . . ."

In 1633 Breitinger ordered a census to be taken by the clergy, which in addition to other questions of ecclesiastical and religious education in the canton was to count the Anabaptists. The result showed a total of 182 Anabaptists in all the villages of the canton, an insignificant number, which hardly corresponded with the measures undertaken against them. Aside from the fact that some parsons counted entire households as single individuals, and did not include children, so that the figure indicates the number of families rather than individuals, the parsons obviously considered it important to register the lowest possible number for their own districts, but had to admit a large number of suspected persons.

Contrary to Breitinger's wishes the government committee at this time took over the leadership, eliminating all secondary authority, and made use of the clergy only as a means in their struggle to establish order in the canton. The Anabaptists were required to formulate and present their religious views in writing; five congregations with 68 signatories complied. In general the individual statements agreed with the confession of faith presented shortly before, stating that (1) The foundation of their faith is Christ Jesus. (2) They believe and teach that Jesus is entirely the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary (referring to the divine-human nature of Christ). (3) Jesus Christ has completed redemption and eternal life can be acquired only through His "merit, justice, intercession and blood." (4) They made attendance at the Reformed church services dependent upon the introduction of the ban and excommunication. (5) In their conception of marriage "that it shall be one man and one woman, obligated in holy matrimony" they found no divisive influence. Those who attribute disorderliness to them were in error. (6) Baptism shall be administered only to those "who have been taught repentance and a change of life and believe in truth," that have been saved from sin by Jesus Christ. (7) In the matter of government they desired "no other government on the whole earth than you."

The point most opposed to Breitinger's intentions was doubtless their refusal to attend church as long as the ban was not introduced. Yet there is little evidence that the Brethren connected the use of the ban with the conception of a "church of holiness" to be evidenced at communion; it is rather the manner of life of many members of the Reformed Church that led to this demand. This admission was the point at issue according to the statements of imprisoned Swiss Brethren preachers, one of whom said they should not be made to suffer so merely for the sake of church attendance. To Breitinger it was important to attain at least external unity in the Swiss Reformed Church, since he must long since have been convinced of the impossibility of internal concessions. For until he achieved this outward unity he could hardly speak of success in his endeavors. Negotiations continued for several years, causing the Brethren continual excitement to be sure, but no immoderate pressure was applied. Breitinger even entered into discussions with them, but with no positive results. The Brethren declined a public disputation for various reasons. They would not have been a match for Breitinger's dialectics. After all attempts had failed, Breitinger compiled a report to the government (1635), giving the outcome of the negotiations and suggesting measures for future procedure. This report became the basis of all later presentations, and parts of it were used in the letters of justification to the Dutch government and Reformed churches that had since 1641 shown sympathy for the persecuted Anabaptists.

In this report their refusal to bear arms or serve in possible war was stated as the occasion for proceedings against the Brethren; this was, to be sure, the immediate occasion, but it was by no means the basic cause. For the refusal to render armed service through an ensign to whom reference is made here, which led to the arrest of several Swiss Brethren, only started the fear that the Anabaptist movement might win the wealthier and socially influential circles. When Breitinger in this report expresses himself willing to make concessions excusing the Anabaptists from bearing arms, he thereby gives the impression of having proved clearly that he was willing and ready to make any concession to attain unity. But the reply of the Brethren, that Breitinger had granted the promise of freedom from military service only until they should be convinced by the Reformed preachers (or have convinced them), places Breitinger's intentions into a clear light and makes the distrust on the part of the Anabaptists very understandable. The treatment of individual articles of faith Breitinger touches only briefly, for the divergent points of doctrine were sufficiently well known. The important point to him is church attendance, for he would have expected no more of them than "merely to offer the outer ear of the body to the preaching of God's Word, but to keep their heart, faith, and conscience completely free and inviolate to agree or to disagree with what they hear." In the first draft made by Suter these words are added, "this is cheerfully and with kind words expected of them . . . this alone and nothing more." But these words were crossed out by Breitinger, since they would have made the contradiction and purpose too evident. Isolated cases of serious transgression (drunkenness, usury, immorality), for which the Brethren excommunicated the offender, are represented as general occurrences.

The most serious reproof is made by Breitinger himself in a long personal discussion concerning the inadequate instruction of children (by the Brethren) in the doctrines of faith and salvation, and he adds that this was one of the gravest reasons for compelling them to attend church. As for the rest, Breitinger does "not in the least wish to apply force to any persons in religious or doctrinal matters, . . . our intention is only that we and all our loyal subjects honor the one true God and Him whom He has sent, . . . to live in proper Christian unity, to bear with the weak in faith. . . ."

This report was obviously drawn up for the purpose of permitting the government to adopt certain measures and of outwardly creating the impression, above all among the populace, that these "proud" people, as Breitinger calls them instead of "obstinate," deserved their fate by their own attitude and that no one else could be blamed.

However unjustified, above all, the charge of inadequate instruction of the children was, actually contrary to facts and reports, this reproach contributed much to the irrevocable demands and punitive measures adopted by the government. The civil authorities carried on the contest most ruthlessly and cruelly, property was confiscated, the Swiss Brethren expelled from the country or held in prison. Breitinger's report served as a vindication to the people and later also to the Dutch authorities. The Brethren did not reply until several years later; their counterstatement, drawn up in 1640, is printed as an appendix in the 1655 edition of the Ausbund and in all American editions beginning in 1742.

When Breitinger died in 1645, there was no longer a Swiss Brethren church in the canton of Zürich; unity had thus been attained; but 20 years later Swiss students in Amsterdam reported that in the opinion of the important scholars the once uniquely exemplary Swiss Reformed Church had forfeited its position.


Bergmann, Cornelius. Die Täuferbewegung im Kanton Zürich bis 1660. Leipzig: M. Heinsius Nachf., 1916.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 259-262.

Mörikofer, Johann Kaspar. Bilder aus dem kirchlichen Leben der Schweiz. Leipzig, 1864.

Mörikofer, Johann Kaspar. J. J. Breitinger und Zürich: ein Kulturbild aus der Zeit des dreissigjährigen Krieges. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1874.

Author(s) Cornelius Bergmann
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bergmann, Cornelius. "Breitinger, Johann Jakob (1575-1645)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 Mar 2019.,_Johann_Jakob_(1575-1645)&oldid=146382.

APA style

Bergmann, Cornelius. (1953). Breitinger, Johann Jakob (1575-1645). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 March 2019, from,_Johann_Jakob_(1575-1645)&oldid=146382.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 413-415. All rights reserved.

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