This is the final installment of a three-part overview of the life of Pilgram Marpeck, Anabaptist radical and lover of Christ.
From 1532 to 1542 , Pilgram and Anna Marpeck wandered from German city to city, Pilgram getting an engineering job here and there, and trying to encourage local Anabaptists wherever he went. He wrote letters and held meetings in various places.
In Moravia, where there was the greatest freedom for Anabapists to thrive, Marpeck found the greatest level of dissension between the different groups of Anabaptist. It is there that Marpeck realized that the greatest enemy of the true Christian church is not persecution, but disunity.
“Unity is the highest adornment of love. This treasure, unity, brings with it all other virtues and treasures, namely peace, joy, comfort in the Holy Spirit, as well as humility, meekness… I do not write this to accuse you but to entice you to emulate the true and proper humility in Christ.” (Marpeck, p.216)
However, this message of unity was not well received by many communities of Anabaptists whom Marpeck visited. Marpeck considered many Swiss Brethern churches and the Hutterites to be unnecessarily legalistic, a message that was not well received. Marpeck himself held to a more spiritualistic view of ethics. He said that since Christ is found in each of the hearts of the church, then there should be freedom for each person to discern and apply the word of Christ to their own lives.
“Because the Jerusalem, which is above, is only built by Jesus Christ in the Spirit, the heart is the inner and only temple. .. the church is seen only by the Spirit and only in the Spirit, through the high priest Christ, is there forgiveness and remission of sins.” (Spiritual p. 82)
“We must simply in all of our actions stand idle ourselves, as dead in ourselves, if Christ is to live in us, which life and walk alone are pleasing to the Father.” (Spiritual, p 90)
The Hutterites, especially, did not care for Marpeck’s attempt at unifying the Anabaptist churches, calling Marpeck “full of guile and intrigue.” Pilgram and Anna moved on, seeking other Anabaptist churches and other work.
The Marpecks moved to Augsburg in 1542, not because of the Anabaptist church, because arrests and exile seemed to have scattered the Anabaptist church in Augsburg. Rather, Pilgram was offered work in Augsburg, and that work was solid enough for Augsburg to be their home for the rest of Pilgram’s life.
Alongside his work as an engineer, Pilgram began to write both letters and books, and slowly, the Anabaptist church began to grow in Marpeck’s home. Almost immediately came a crisis to the community. Helena von Freyberg was an Anabaptist in Augsburg long before the Marpecks arrived there. She was persecuted for her outspoken beliefs and adult baptism, and was forced to make oaths of recantation of her Anabaptism. This caused her to be on the outskirts of the Anabaptist groups, unaccepted.
However, the group in Marpecks home welcomed her and encouraged her to confess and repent, which she did. She wrote out a public confession to the Anabaptists, admitting her wrong oaths and committing herself fully again to Christ and Anabaptism. Despite the doubts of some, the Marpecks fully received her and forgave her.
Even so, the unity of the Church is seen in love and forgiveness of its members:
“The inner church of the Spirit is also directed to perform external works, to be a light to the world. It witnesses inwardly between God and us, but it is also formed externally and testifies in love shown toward our neighbor.” (Spiritual, 83)
As the Anabaptist church grew in Augsburg, so did the persecution of the magistrates. They made both Catholics and Lutherans legal, but Anabaptists were still illegal. Although they would not arrest Marpeck himself, they persecuted his church members and the many Anabaptist groups that he encouraged and helped to grow in the city.
“The cross of Christ is a holy, innocent cross if one suffers innocently as a witness of God in the truth and for the truth to the praise of God. To the holy cross of Christ, our highest shelter and shield, we have surrender with holy patience (not obliged or forced patience) to overcome all our enemies in the victory of Christ.” (Outline, p. 97)
As the persecution grew, so did the strength of love and forgiveness for the Anabaptists in Augsburg. When Pilgram Marpeck finally died (of unknown causes) in 1556, his loss to the churches there was considerable. Anna lived among Anabaptists while living on the remainder of the finances Pilgram worked for.
While the works of other Anabaptists are powerful, I find the life and work of Marpeck to be remarkable.
He did not seek easy comfort, nor did he hold views that were easily accepted. Rather, he listened to the voice of Christ on the page and in his spirit, and that voice led him to love, to forgiveness and to unity. Rather than just develop principles of right and wrong, and lines in the sand, he worked to create unity between opposing groups.
He constantly sought the outcast, assisting them with his wealth and connections, as often as he could. He used his education, not to gain fame or finances, but to increase the knowledge of Christ and the Scripture. He built up churches wherever he went, but refused to listen to judgmentalism or legalism.
He himself lived on the edge between the spiritual body he loved and their persecutors. He did not run from persecution, but rather ran to new opportunities to be associated with the persecuted.
He is a worthy one to imitate, if one were seeking to live an Anabaptist life.
Dyck, Cornelius J., Spiritual Life in Anabaptism: Classic Devotional Resources. Herald Press, 1995.
Klaassen, Walter, Anabaptism in Outline. Herald Press, 1981.
Klaassen, Walter and Klassen, William, Marpeck: A life of dissent and conformity. Studies in Anabaptist History, no. 44. Herald Press, 2008.