The Swiss Brethren, Part 1: Laying the Foundation for Distinction

This multi-part post is the second in the Anabaptist Streams series here on Young Anabaptist Radicals, in which we’ll be looking at different streams of early Anabaptism and making connections with our own context. The series will feature different authors over the coming months and is loosely based on Rodney Sawatsky’s model of four streams of Anabaptism. It will feature different authors over the coming months, each looking at a different stream.

In this prefatory portion as a substitute for addressing each notable member of the group that is presently known as the Swiss Brethren, I will address the assembly as a whole for to do otherwise would exhaust the allotted time for this entire series of presentations. Each of those member were vivid distinctive characters that laid the foundation of a movement that no only altered the Ecclesiastical world but ironically impacted the country that epitomizes the empire they challenged via their indefatigable ministry.

In the beginning during their tenure in Zollikon and St. Gallen they went by the designation “Brothers in Christ”, it was not until later they became known as the “Swiss Brethren”. Their antagonists “both Protestant and Roman Catholic, used the label Anabaptist (“rebaptized”) for the radical reformers because they baptized adults who had already been baptized as infants” (Kraybill 10). However, as mentioned formerly from “the beginning in Zollikon and St Gallen they referred to themselves as “brothers in Christ.” Later, from some time in the 1540s, they were called the “Swiss Brethren,” the name being coined by two other Anabaptist groups that wanted to maintain an identity distinct from them — the Hutterites and the Marpeck brotherhood” (Ibid.).

History acknowledges the Brothers in Christ (hereafter Swiss Brethren) as the principal Anabaptists that engaged in the first disciples’ baptism of the movement “in Zurich in January 1525 in an effort to create immediately a complete, uncompromising and uncompromised reformed Church” (Stayer 95). The small group consisted of Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock among other like-minded believers. They severed ties from the Magisterial Reformer Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli for the reason that they felt reforms was not progressing in an expeditious fashion.

Those that took on the name did not derive it from residing within a certain geographical location. The name “referred to all Anabaptists who were direct successors of Conrad Grebel, who initiated believer’s baptism, and Michael Sattler, who authored the Scheleitheim articles. Anabaptists in Swabia and Alsace, and even in Moravia, as well as Swiss Anabaptists were called Swiss Brethren” (Ibid.)   John D. Roth and James M. Stayer expresses:

“In contrast to other Reformation traditions that took shape around formal doctrinal statements such as Calvin’s Institutes or the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, Swiss Brethren theology tended to focus on the pragmatic ethical concerns and resisted easy summary in doctrinal formulations. As historian David Sabean has suggested more generally about village culture in early modern Europe, the Swiss Brethren were defined less by a carefully formulated set of shared convictions than by the fact that members of the community were “engaged in the same argument, the same raisonnement, the same Rede, the same discourse, in which alternative strategies, misunderstandings, conflicting goals and values [were] threshed out.” To be sure, the seven articles of the “Brotherly Union” at Schleitheim (1527)–with their strong emphasis on the separation of the church from the world–suggested the basic contours of that discourse” (Roth and Stayer 348-9).

Within time, the Swiss Brethren attained a substantiated identity in the heart of a passionate battle for survival during the turbulent Reformation era. They not only contended with the church sponsored by the state but also with fellow Anabaptists and the Spiritualists. Even still, they managed to differentiate themselves as being distinctive from the rivaling communitarian Hutterites by establishing that mutual possession of goods was not obligatory but optional and the Swiss Brethren adopted a more reasonable view of the Ban. They further distinguished themselves through the rejection of the celestial-flesh Christology of Melchior Hoffman that categorized Dutch Anabaptism that lingered until the point when Menno Simons took up governance (Ibid.).

The next installment in this series will look at the Swiss Brethren’s theological distinctiveness in contrast with their 16th century contemporaries.

Works Cited:

Kraybill, Donald B. Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Roth, John D., and James M. Stayer. A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Stayer, James M. German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. Montreal: Mcgill-Queens Univ Press, 1994.

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