EUROPEAN ORIGINS OF AMERICAN CHURCHES
We served nearly 40 years as missionaries in Austria. We often heard Austrians argue that the "free" churches (evangelical groups) were religious
imports from America. In reality, the "free church" structure and evangelical movement we are familiar with in America are as old as Christianity
itself. The evangelical church movement in America has its roots primarily in Europe.
I am aware that many Americans are unfamiliar with the term "free church" so Please allow me to give a simple explanation. Many religions seek to
gain political power and some of them insist on absolute political control. Similarly, many governments have found it convenient to use religion
in subjecting citizens. The Roman Emperors were worshipped as deities. After Constantine, much of Europe was ruled by the "Holy Roman Empire."
Nearly all Arab nations are officially Muslim. If other religious groups are permitted to exist at all, then with very limited freedom. Even
governments of nations which have a Christian majority often show favoritism towards a specific brand of Christianity. Russia, Greece and Serbia
are primarily Orthodox while many European and most Latin American countries are Roman Catholic. England is considered Anglican.
These situations result in either a state church or a church state, depending on who has the upper hand. Religious groups which neither seek nor
tolerate such political arrangements are called "free churches."
America has no state church and it certainly is not a church state, but there are religious groups in America which seek the status of a state church.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, sought the office of US President with this goal in mind. His follower, Brigham Young, sought to establish a
church state in Utah. World dominion is an expressed aim of Islam. All other political and religious constellations are considered illegitimate.
Some early explorers and settlers came to America with the intention of forming a church state, but America was largely founded by religious refugees
from Europe who had suffered much for their faith under church state and state church conditions. It was not until the Peace of Westphalia was signed
on October 24, 1646, that limited religious freedom was at all possible in Europe. That freedom was also very limited, which is why millions of
religious refugees came to America. And these settlers were determined that their new homeland should never become a church state and that no
religious group should receive the status of state church. Contrary to popular belief, our Constitution does not insist on the separation of church
and state, but merely forbids the formation of state churches and a church state.
Early Years of the Christian Church
New Testament Times
The forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, baptized repentant sinners and announced the coming of the Messiah. When he baptized
Jesus, he proclaimed him to be that Messiah whom had been promised in the scriptures and advised his disciples to follow Jesus. John did not found
a church or religious movement.
Jesus taught his disciples to preach the gospel -- the good news of salvation and God's kingdom. This included the call for repentance, baptism and
commitment to God's Word, but the church of Jesus Christ was not founded until Pentecost.
The first Christian church came into being in Jerusalem when God sent his Holy Spirit. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached at Pentecost and
called on all to repent of their sin, to believe and follow the Lord in baptism. Three thousand were baptized (Acts 2:41). Luke makes it especially
clear that the church grew rapidly, multiplying and spreading (Acts 1:8, 2:47; 4:4, 6:1 and 7, 9:31; 12:4, 16:5 and 19:20). Although people were
always involved in building the church, and the human elements are clearly visible, Jesus Christ has been and still is building his church.
First State Church
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity brought about a dramatic historical change. Unfortunately,
the new freedoms granted to Christians through this royal recognition were misused by some leaders of the church to gain personal power and affluence.
This was one reason Constantine decided to move the capitol of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (Istanbul). He might have accepted the idea of a
state church but he feared that his empire could become a church state. Emperor Theodosius made the Christian Church the official religion, requiring
all subjects to be baptized into the church. In 386, the same year St. Augustine converted to Christianity, Maximus Priscillian and six followers were
executed in Trier for heresy. This is the first recorded persecution of Christians by Christians. Four years later, Theodosius proclaimed heresy to be
a crime against the empire and the propagation of heresy became punishable by death.
From 400-1000 after Christ, there was little general agreement on theological issues within the church and although church councils were held in an
attempt to achieve some semblance of unity, they failed to resolve many of the differences. Church teachings and dogmas were more often subject to
the moods and personal objectives of its leaders than to the Holy Scriptures. All attempts to confront false teaching outside the church were quickly
suppressed. Church leaders as well as secular rulers repeatedly used the term "heresy" in defining their enemies, but saw no need to define the word
It is interesting to note that Muhammad was a good observer of Christianity, who decided that a church state was superior to the state church, but
decided that it would never happen in Christianity. Islam is both a political and religious concept, and these two aspects are inseparable. He
incorporated Jewish and Christian beliefs to make Islam palatable to these groups. The clear objective of Islam is world dominion with zero tolerance
for other religious and political systems.
Persecution and Diaspora
Early Christians were soon subjected to severe persecution, which caused them to travel to other lands, primarily to Greece, Rome,
Alexandria, and Asia Minor (Turkey).
Many Jews spoke Greek fluently and Greece showed tolerance for just about any religious belief. Rome was the major city of the times, so it is not
surprising that many Christians fled to Rome. Alexandria was the second largest city and boasted the world's largest library and 14,000 students.
It was the center of learning, culture, and thought. Both Clement and Tertullian were influential in Alexandria, which became a cradle of Christianity
among the cultivated during the first two centuries of the church. Asia Minor had a large Jewish population, so many fled to what is now Turkey.
Ephesus was an important seaport and the fourth largest city of the times.
Before long, these growing Christian communities were becoming too popular and the ruling class began to persecute Christians. Both Paul and Peter were
martyred in Rome. Nero was notorious for his cruel treatment of Christians, feeding them to lions for entertainment and using them as human torches at
special events. Consequently, Christians literally went underground, meeting secretly in the catacombs (graveyards) of the city. In Alexandria, Emperors
Decius, Severus, and Diocletian slaughtered an estimated 144,000 Christians over a nine year period. There were many remote areas in Turkey where
Christians could find refuge. Tourists can now visit some of the numerous underground cities and settlements carved out of the unusual limestone
mountains of Cappadocia.
The primary reason for persecution was the Christians' dedication to missions. Wherever Christians went, the gospel was preached and churches were
established. These early martyrs faithfully shared their faith with all who would listen, and they recognized that they were being persecuted in
Christ's stead. They saw themselves as members of the body of Christ. The church has always continued to grow in times of persecution.
The Power of the Gospel
The gospel teachings and Christian testimony appealed to both the common people and the educated.
Appeal to the Common People
Under Greco-Roman philosophy, common man was seen simply as a subject (possession) of the state. This situation remained firmly in
place up until the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The basic classes were nobility (both political and religious) and peasantry. Jesus elevated common
man to a child of God, giving him human dignity. The common people flocked to Jesus and most converts of the early church were commoners. The gospel
was attractive to the common people, which made it dangerous to ruling bodies.
Appeal to the Educated
The educated also become fascinated with the teachings of Christ. Nicodemas is one example and even the leading Rabbi, Gamaliel,
seemed to harbor a certain respect for Jesus' teachings. Saul was a well-educated member of the Pharisees. He viewed Christians as a movement of
ignorant common people which threatened the political and religious status quo. Following his unique conversion, Saul (now Paul) began an intensive
study of the gospel teachings. Through Paul's teachings, the educated also became enamored with Christ's teachings.
Although non-existent in the Old Testament, baptism has been an important identifying aspect of Christians throughout church history.
It has also been a matter of heated controversy. When Jesus was tested by the Pharisees, he countered by asking them about the baptism of John (Matt.
In 1966, we were asked to assume leadership of a new church started by an English mission with strong Anglican theology. We were surprised to discover
that the handful of believers had built an outdoor baptistry in the yard by their meeting house. They baptized by immersion where everyone could see it.
Baptism was to be a public testimony of faith! A veteran Lutheran missionary in Africa once told me that natives insisted on being baptized in a river
The greatest diversity among evangelicals today is the mode of baptism. During the first millennium of church history, this was hardly an issue. Those
who repented and believed on Christ were baptized by immersion. It was not until men began debating on whether baptism is necessary for salvation, that
other forms of baptism came into consideration. There are a few incidents of infant baptisms in the early centuries, but immersion was clearly the
preferred method, if not the only official method of baptizing, for more than a thousand years.
The 816, Concilium Celichyt vorbade priests to baptize infants (effusio aquae super capita infantium) and the Council of Nemours (1284) allowed
the baptism of infants only in emergencies. Thomas of Aquino (1227-1274) still contended that immersio was the proper and best method of baptizing. As
a rule, baptism of adults by immersion was considered to be part of the convert's public profession of faith into the early 14th century. It was not until
the Council of Ravenna in 1311, that the officiating priest was permitted to decide between immersion and pouring. The practice of sprinkling came into
fashion in the latter part of the 14th century when an increased number of infants were being baptized.
There is a large, adult-sized baptistry in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, located in Ephesus. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who died in 997, was
known for his large 8-sided baptisteries, some of which exist today. The reason for the 8-sided baptistery is fascinating, but there is not enough room
in this paper to go into that. I have personally seen adult baptisteries in Greece, Turkey and Austria.
Followers of Peter Bruis, the Albigensians, Waldensians and Apostolicis (1155) were openly critical of baptizing infants. Waldensians and Anabaptists
condemned the practice of infant baptism, but there is no record of them baptizing by immersion. In 1525, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mainz separated from
Zwingli over the matter of infant baptism and started a church that practiced believer's baptism. They then baptized each other by pouring, an event that
historians consider the birth of the Anabaptist movement. Baptism by immersion eventually came back into use, but early Anabaptists did not use this
The Lord's Supper
The Lord's supper, or "communion," is another element of contention among Christians. To this day, ecumenical leaders of mainstream
Christian denominations can agree on many things, but they seldom recognize baptisms of the other churches and are not able to sit together at the Lord's
table. New Testament churches have always recognized this as an important aspect of their worship. It denotes unity of fellowship and encourages the
believer to search out and seek forgiveness of sin. It is the element most closely associated with Old Testament temple worship. In early centuries,
some Romans soldiers who served in Salzburg were Christians. They carved a catacomb out of sold rock in the heart of the city, where they could meet
and bury their dead. Like many early churches, there were separate rooms for the baptized and others in attendance. The fellowship of committed
believers was very special.
That which separates Christianity from all other religions is the matter of church discipline which aims at forgiveness and restitution of fellowship.
This is the primary purpose of the Lord's Supper. It is a reminder of why Jesus died.
Early Christian Movements in Europe
During the first millennium of the Christian Church, numerous protests were staged by Christians upset about church leaders misusing
their positions to gain power and affluence. The church increasingly deserted biblical teachings and adopted traditions and dogmas that were clearly
in opposition to scriptures. Protests soon became movements involving large numbers of Christians. All uprisings were crushed by swift and harsh
military force, so adherents of these movements tended to meet secretively. This allowed them to gain many adherents before they were discovered and
destroyed. French protest groups chose their own Popes between 1307 and 1417. The following protest movements are worth special mention.
Peter of Bruis was an educated Priest who appealed for the church to return to the New Testament model. Early in the second millenium
AD, Bruis preached openly against the dogmas of "transubstantiation" (mystical transformation of wine and bread into the actual blood and flesh of
Christ) and the beginning trend of baptizing infants. He also rejected forced celibacy of the priesthood, giving of alms, prayers for the deceased and
worship of the crucifix and other relics. He even dared to proclaim that men could secure salvation and eternal life only through personal faith in
Christ and not through the faith of parents or the official act of a priest. He taught that a person could pray anywhere and not just in the church.
Peter of Bruis found many ready followers in Southern France, who were baptized according to their faith. Much of what we know about this man and his
teaching comes from the pen of "Peter the Honorable," whose life proved himself to be anything but honorable! Peter the Honorable was perhaps the first
to use the term "Anabaptist" (Latin for "re-baptizers") for the followers of Bruis, also called Petrobrusianer, because they insisted on believer's
Peter of Bruis was burned at the stake in St. Gilles In 1126 under orders from Peter the Honorable. The Petrobrusianer, however, continued to thrive for
many years after his death in spite of brutal persecutions. A widely circulated tract of the later Waldensians, "de l'antechrist" (the Antichrist), seems
to have at least in part been the work of Peter of Bruis or one of his followers.
Catherer or Albigenser
The Catherers (clean ones) or Albigenser (the term reflects their origin in Albania) appeared around the beginning of the 11th century
in the Balkans, and the movement soon spread into Italy, France, Spain and Germany. They were especially strong in Southern France where the Petrobrusianer
flourished. Their teachers, called "Perfect Ones", taught of two opposing kingdoms of Satan and God. Only in places where they were very numerous did
they have meeting houses. For the most part, meetings took place in private homes with very simple services and no imagery. Only a New Testament or Gospel
(hand written of course!) was allowed in the room. The Catherer viewed the Roman Church as a traitor of the Christian faith because it had returned to Old
Testament rituals, tolerated immoral practices in monasteries, and church leaders sought worldly power and wealth. Although we would consider some of their
teachings to be unscriptural today, the main reason for their persecution was their rejection of the papacy and insistence upon the priority of New
During this period of decadence within the Roman Catholic Church, another Christian movement began. A wealthy businessman by the name of
Peter Waldo, from Lyon, France, had a spiritual "conversion" around 1170 after the sudden death of a close friend. He took upon himself an oath of poverty
and devoted himself to the study of scriptures. He soon began to teach others what he had learned from God's Word and even sought and obtained the Pope's
blessing on his endeavor. Many people began to follow his teachings, which were not always in line with church dogmas. In 1179, a papal decree forbade
Waldo and his followers to preach or teach, but the movement continued to grow. Threats of the church were disregarded and soon there was bitter persecution.
In spite of this, the Waldensians continued to claim allegiance to the Roman Church. They felt that church leaders would ultimately recognize New Testament
teachings and reject unbiblical dogmas and practices.
Waldensian preachers were required to memorize large portions of the New Testament. One historian wrote of them, "A genuine Waldensian does not believe that
it is sufficient to own scripture. The scripture should own him." By "ownership", the writer was not referring to printed Bibles, for these did not yet exist.
Nor could he have meant handwritten copies, for these were very rare and expensive. Waldensians committed the Bible to memory and this was considered
The enthusiasm of the Waldensians for God's Word and their insistence on obedience to the scriptures posed too great a threat to the church. Brutal
persecution and mass executions soon became common. Because the Waldensians taught in the language of the people rather than Latin, as was the practice
in churches, they found many followers. Waldensian assemblies grew rapidly in spite of intense persecution.
During the height of the Waldensian era, in the 14th century, the Bishop of Passau appointed spies to search out his Diocese. They reported 42 assemblies
with as many as 500 members in what is now Upper Austria. In order to give a comparison, the total membership of all evangelical churches in Upper Austria
today is less than 500 persons. Official reports of Waldensians in Turin und Embruen gave 50,000 as a modest count. One historian reported that in 1313,
12 % of the population of Upper- and Lower Austria were Waldensians. The Waldensian Bishop, Stephen of Basel, was tortured and burned at the stake in Vienna
in 1471. According to a written report to the Austrian Emporer, Stephen of Basel revealed under torture, that there were around 80,000 Waldensians in Austria
and that they could not begin to be numbered in Bohemia and Moravia!
Waldensians paved the way theologically for Hussites, Lutherans and especially the Anabaptists.
During the Lutheran reformation, Waldensians became divided over issues such as baptism, government and bearing of arms. Some Waldensians continued to
claim Catholicism as their religion in spite of the persecutions they experienced. When the Lutheran teachings and Bible arrived on the scene, however,
many Waldensians saw this as God's answer to their prayers. Many of the nobility had become Lutheran by 1530, and it was considered less dangerous to join
with them than to remain independent.
In September, 1532, Waldensian leaders called a synod of key representatives in Chanforans, in the d'Angrogne Valley. The object of this convention was to
discuss the possibility of a merger with the Lutherans. According to an eyewitness report, there were Waldensian pastors "who caused assemblies of the
valleys and Bohemian brethren to become uncertain." It was not until the following year that the Waldensian Assemblies voted in a second synod to join with
the Lutherans. The second synod took place in St. Martins and little is known about it. It is quite likely, however, that many assemblies stayed away or
were not invited. Whatever the case may have been, some of the Waldensians did not join due to disagreements over baptism, the Lord's supper and over the
bearing of arms. Lutheran sources report great financial sacrifices made by Waldensians in supporting the translation and printing of the Lutheran Bible.
Those Waldensians who rejected the dogma of transubstantiation and infant baptism were henceforth called Anabaptists and persecuted accordingly. This can
explain the sudden increase in numbers of those identified with the Anabaptists in areas where Waldensians had been prominent. Lutherans soon began to treat
Anabaptists as heretics and even joined with Catholics in such persecution. This was anathema to those Waldensians who had joined with the Lutherans and
apparently more former Waldensians left the Lutheran fold. They, once again, felt the brunt of intense persecution, but this time as Anabaptists. Many years
after the merger, former Waldensians were still referred to by their old name. In 1545, twenty Waldensian villages in France were totally destroyed and
citizens were slaughtered by the thousands. Around 4,000 who escaped, found refuge in higher Alpine regions. In 1560, Waldensians requested permission of
the Emperor to retain the faith of their fathers. His response was another great slaughter.
During the next 160 years, both Catholics and Lutherans attempted to wipe out the Anabaptists, but to no avail.
Around 1400, a Professor of Theology in the University of Prague became infatuated with the writings of the English theologian, John
Wycliffe. The professor, John Huss, soon began to preach what he was learning publicly, and his teachings became so popular that the church was always
filled to capacity. Huss was excommunicated by the Pope, but when this brought no change, Huss was burned in 1415. His teachings continued to spread
throughout Bohemia and Moravia as more and more priests became consumed by the teachings of scriptures. Before long, the Hussites had large followings
in Austria as well.
Factors Which Paved the Way for the Reformation
Peasant's Receptivity to the Gospel
The peasants lived under deplorable circumstances in the middle ages. They had virtually no possessions, could not own property and
had few rights. They were considered the personal property of the nobility, which in many cases meant church leaders. Most land was owned and controlled
by the monasteries, which in turn were under the jurisdiction of a Bishop. The taxes and work requirements of the monasteries were often impossible for
the peasants to bear. Many peasants lived close to starvation while church leaders wined and dined in their castles and palaces. Worse yet, many "men of
the cloth" lived in open immorality.
The church used its religious influence to keep people subject to the Emperor and the Emperor sent military force where needed to suppress "heresy." The
coalition of church and state functioned quite well for the nobility, but conditions were unbearable for the bulk of the populace. An uprising against
such powers was inevitable and it would only take a spark to set the entire Hapsburg kingdom ablaze. The only missing ingredients were an opportune
moment and bold leadership.
Power of the Printed Word
When Gutenberg invented printing in 1440, the Bible existed only in hand-written form and in languages which the common people did not
speak. Only the Waldensians had dared to preach the gospel (preachers memorized large portions of scripture) in the language of the people. John Wycliffe,
a precursor of the reformation, translated the Bible into vernacular English in 1382. He had a major influence on John Hus, whose teachings caused quite
a stir in the early 15th century in Prague.
Luther's German New Testament was published in 1522, and other protestant papers and books soon appeared in print. Waldensian Christians welcomed this
development and is quite possible that Luther was aided in his translation work by the existence of handwritten German copies of the Waldensians. Europe
was soon flooded with Bibles and literature. The first protestant books to be printed in Austria were produced in 1524 by Leonhard Friesleben, of Linz.
He was most likely Waldensian or at least very sympathetic to their teachings. Friesleben is later named among the Anabaptists.
The introduction of printed literature, Bibles in particular, opened the door of acceptance in intellectual circles. It also encouraged common people to
learn how to read and write.
Development of Free Churches
The Anabaptists are the true forerunners of the free church movement as opposed to state churches. A free church does not seek official
recognition from the state beyond the freedom to worship God as outlined in scripture. The absolute separation of church and state is very important in
some free churches, and members refuse to vote or hold political offices. Other groups allow or even encourage political involvement of individual members,
but reject any intrusion of the state in church affairs. Members of virtually all free churches are encouraged to seek and nourish a personal relationship
with Jesus Christ. They are expected to express their personal faith publicly both in baptism and in their relationships with others. They seek to model
themselves after New Testament teachings.
The word, "Anabaptist" means re-baptizer and the groups described by this term argued that their baptism was the one true baptism. They preferred to be
called brethren. Sympathetic German church historians call them "Täufer" (baptizers). I feel a bit like a traitor when I use the term "Anabaptist"
in this paper, but most people are familiar with the term and calling them "brethren" or "baptizers" would be confusing to readers.
In my opinion, the Waldensians and Anabaptists should not be considered as two distinctly different groups, but rather two overlapping epochs of a strong
pre-reformation Christian movement which thrived for several centuries in Europe. The primary difference between these two movements is the fact that
Waldensians, at least originally, viewed themselves as part of the Catholic Church, while the Anabaptists clearly distanced themselves.
There are many reports of Waldensians from the 12th century on, but we don't hear of Anabaptists until after 1525. The reason seems quite obvious. The
church and government persecutors began to use different terminology. Like many denominational names and even the term "Christian" (Acts 11:26),
"Waldensian" and "Anabaptist" were names coined by persecutors and not the persecuted. We could say the same about the sub-divisions of Anabaptism such
as the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites. Although named after their founders, early followers of these reformers preferred to call themselves simply
"brethren." The intention of the Roman Catholic Church was to defame and discredit by accusing these groups of being followers of mere men rather than
the Pope, who was acclaimed as the legal representative of Christ on earth. The terminology was designed to strike fear into the hearts of any who might
consider straying from the fold of the church. In reality, Waldensians and Anabaptists were more deserving of the name "Christian" than those who sought
to destroy them.
After alternating periods of persecution and limited freedom, the Waldensians gradually became known for their industriousness, good character and
willingness to suffer for the truth. They not only captured the hearts of peasants, but also of many respected citizens and even members of the nobility.
Reports found in city archives show that local political and church leaders were sometimes reluctant to arrest or harm them even when the Emperor demanded
it. The term "Waldensian" no longer carried the stigma which it had in the past, so the Hapsburgers and Church leaders needed to find another term to
describe them. The Latin term "Anabaptist" (re-baptizer) proved to be a convenient replacement. This change in terminology can also explain why there were
suddenly as many Anabaptists reported in Upper Austria as there had been Waldensians a short time before.
Several free church groups evolved during the early reformation years, first in Switzerland (1525) and then, almost simultaneously, in other parts of
Europe. These churches were loosely organized and showed a strong loyalty for the teachings of their founders. The Mennonites were named after the Dutch
reformer, Menno Simons. The Amish were named for a Swiss reformer, Jacob Amman, and the followers of the Tyrolean, Jacob Hutter, became known as
Hutterites. Hutter encouraged the formation of work colonies, some of which still thrive in the USA and Canada. All of these groups were and still are
classified as Anabaptists.
One extreme Sect in Munster called itself "Kingdom of Zion." It was founded in 1534 and led by a radical named Thomas Muenzer. More political than
religious in nature, the "kingdom of Zion" was ruled by Muenzer as a virtual dictatorship. Other Anabaptists rejected Muenzer's teachings, claiming
them to be contrary to scripture. Neither Muenzer nor his followers were rebaptized, yet Catholic and Lutheran church historians still attempt to
present them as a typical example of Anabaptism. Muenzer was executed near Frankenhausen in 1535 and the Kingdom of Zion was disbanded by government
The "Bundschuh"(Shoe of Brotherhood)
As has already been noted, the peasants were strongly influenced by the Waldensians, who were largely pacifist. The bundschuh was an important symbol
among the peasants. The word and the idea probably came from Psalm 108:8-14. It was a symbol of unity which promised sympathy, comfort, help and
Although the symbol had been in existence for quite some time, it was first used in peasant uprisings in the middle of the 15th century. Peasants
"tossed the first bundschuh" in 1443-1444 in Strassburg, along the Upper Rhine River. This first "peasant war" proved to be beneficial to the Lords,
for the peasants succeeded in routing a French invasion of their territory. The nobility had been unsuccessful in their attempt to do the same with
well-trained soldiers, but the peasants proved to be formidable fighters.
Once the peasants recognized their united strength, they gained confidence and began to make small demands of the Lords. At first, some Lords showed
leniency, but after several successful uprisings, the nobility began to fear the symbolic bundschuh and became determined to suppress the peasants
whatever the cost.
On April 22nd, 1502, a peasant named Joss Fritz led a bundschuh revolt against the Bishop of Speyer in Bruchsal. The expressed object of the peasants
was "to support Godly righteousness" and their banners were emblazoned with the words, "Nothing but God's Righteousness!" Fritz organized another
bundschuh in 1513 in Lehen (Breisgau) and again 1517 in Rosheim/ Elsass. In 1511, peasants revolted in Kammer, Kogel and Frankenburg, Upper Austria
(the area where we served as missionaries). More uprisings took place in 1514-1517 in Croatia, Slowenia, Carinthia and Styria. Governor Siegmund of
Dietrichstein finally defeated the peasants of Styria in a bloody battle. Dietrichstein became a Lutheran in 1525, but his conversion may have been
politically motivated rather than an act of religious conviction.
Many Catholic nobles became Lutherans because they recognized the opportunity to break the yoke of their own demanding Bishops and the Hapsburgers.
During the struggle for supremacy between Catholics and Lutherans, the peasants were sometimes encouraged by their Lords to "toss the bundschuh." Duke
Ulrich, nicknamed "Utz Bur," used the peasants in 1522 to regain dominance over Württemberg. Although some Lords seemed to show genuine sympathy for
the peasants, others made a display of sympathy only to turn on them when it served their own selfish purposes.
Renewed peasant uprisings broke out in 1525. Beginning in Bavaria, they spread to Natternbach and to Attergau. Another rebellion broke out from May
through July, 1525 in Brixen under Michael Geismair. Soon all of Tyrol was a battlefield, and uprisings began to break out in Salzburg, Upper Austria
and Styria. After intense fighting, Emperor Ferdinand was able to defeat the peasants under Gaismair on November 21, 1526. Following this victory, the
Emperor devoted the next 40 years to fighting "heretics" (protestants, especially Anabaptists) in his territories.
It soon become clear to his majesty, the Emperor, that no military might was sufficient to suppress the peasants and rebellious lords as long as these
were being taught "to obey God rather than man." This is documented by a list of demands known as "The Twelve Articles" formulated by the peasants of
Frankenmarkt in 1525. The demands were of a religious nature and can be better understood as a protest against the false teachings of the Roman Church.
They included no personal appeals for leniency of labor or taxation.
Rod and Staff
Early Waldensians and many Anabaptists were pacifists. They would rather have died the martyr's death than to take up arms in self
defense. With the increasing popularity of the bundschuh, however, many Anabaptist peasants began to change their thinking. They deemed it a legitimate
recourse to defend one's family and under some circumstances their country. A pseudo epigraph, Reformatio Sigismundi, originated in 1438 and is
attributed to the Waldensians. It contains much pious content, but also includes demands for religious and political reform. It was later copied and
memorized by Anabaptists. Another author who obviously knew the scriptures well, composed the Oberrheinische Revolutionär (Upper Rhine
Revolutionary), a prophetical utterance that gave peasants hope for better days in which all men would be equal. It was only copied by hand, but became
widespread among the lower classes. Many early settlers in America were convinced that God had fulfilled this prophecy with the discovery of this
The pacifist branch of Anabaptists were called staebler (staff bearers) and those who believed in self defense were called schwertler
(sword bearers). Psalm 23 speaks of the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd. Those Anabaptists who were prepared to defend themselves claimed that using
both the instrument of love (the staff) and the instrument of punishment (the rod) were at times legitimate in furthering the purposes of the church.
Most modern-day Baptists, Methodists and other free church groups are not opposed to military service.
The conflict between schwertler and staebler was at times intense, but never violent. Among the staebler were the followers of
Hans Hut, Menno Simons (Mennonites), Jakob Huter (Hutterites) and Jakob Ammen (Amish). A number of Brethren groups active in Bohemia and Moravia also
remained pacifist in spite of Hussite influences.
Dr. Balthesar Hubmeier was probably the best-known Anabaptist proponent of self defense. A well educated and gifted teacher, Hubmeier served as a pastor
in Waldshut. His motto, "The Truth cannot Die," was printed on the title page of his numerous books and pamphlets. Many of the peasants who were involved
in later bundschuh protests between 1525 and 1626 were likely influenced by Hubmeier.
Although the Anabaptists were divided over the matter of bearing arms in self defense, they were in general agreement on most points of doctrine and they
continued to multiply.
Similar to John Hus, a century previously, the Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther, began in 1517, to point out erroneous teachings and
practices in the Roman church, showing how these were not conform to clear biblical teaching. Actually, most people were well aware of what Luther was
saying, but no Priest of repute had dared to say such things publicly. As a result of Luther's boldness, other priests began to study the scriptures
for themselves. The invention of the printing press in 1440 made this task simpler for many who could read Latin, but it was Luther's translation of
the New Testament into German in 1522, that gave the reformation impetus. Although the majority of the common people could not read, Priests began to
read and teach in the language of the people. Until the reformation, Altarpieces and statues in the churches were the only portrayals of scripture known
to the common people.
Luther appealed largely to educated priests and members of the ruling classes who took their faith seriously and were not happy with the unspiritual
condition of the church. More and more Catholic priests and monks gained sympathy for Lutheran teachings. Visitations carried out by papal emissaries
reported an "alarming quantity" of protestant literature in Catholic churches, monasteries and convents.
The University of Vienna had 661 students in 1519. On July 14th, 1526, the faculty declared that it was no longer able to keep protestant teachings
out of the school. Emperor Ferdinand demanded a pledge of allegiance to the Catholic faith from each professor and student. As a result there were
only 30 students left by 1529.
Priests who embraced Lutheran teachings were especially numerous in Upper Austria where Waldensians and Anabaptists had thrived. An increasing number
of lords, who were not happy with treatment by the Hapsburgers and powerful bishops, discovered that the new teachings were not only superior to
Catholic dogma, but they also provided opportunity to gain freedom from these yokes.
By 1570, Catholics were a small minority in most cities of Upper Austria. In the important industrial city of Steyr, only 16 families remained Catholic,
and it was said of Vöcklabruck, that not a single house was Catholic! Protestant church services were being conducted in 217 castles or fortresses and
in nearly all the churches. Historians recorded 86 cities and 600 dioceses which had converted to the Lutheran teachings.
As exemplified in Luther's battle cry, sola scriptura (the scriptures alone), the new Lutheran teachings were basically a call to return to the
teachings of Christ and the Apostles. But as people read the Bible, they learned that personal faith in Jesus Christ alone brought salvation. Neither
parents, priests, Bishops, the Pope nor the Emperor had a God-given right to determine a person's religion.
Anabaptist influence among the peasants did not diminish at all with the Lutheran teachings. To the contrary, a number of those who became infatuated
with Luther's teachings later defected to the Anabaptist camp. Furthermore, the miserable conditions which prevailed among the peasants had hardly
improved with the switch to protestant Lords. Even though Lutheran teachings had infiltrated most monasteries, moral conditions in these religious
institutions had not improved. A visitation of thirteen Upper Austrian monasteries conducted by emissaries of the Emperor in 1561, discovered 74 monks,
12 wives, 37 concubines and 107 children! Another visitation in 1566 showed that the situation had gotten even worse! When one remembers that these
institutions were considered to be the spiritual centers of the church, it is easy to imagine the impression this made on the general populace. The
monasteries were also economic centers which owned just about all property in the region. The ground was farmed by the lowly peasant class, which
received barely enough to keep food on the table.
The Swiss Reformers
John Calvin was a strong influence during the reformation, especially in France. His followers in that region were called Huguenots
by the Catholics (after another Swiss preacher). They were severely persecuted, but their numbers increased considerably under King Heinrich II
(1547-1559). Things changed drastically when Charles IX ascended the throne. Catherine de Medici and the Duke of Guise orchestrated one of the
bloodiest chapters of the reformation on August 24, 1572. Thousands of Huguenots died in the infamous "Bartholomew Night Massacre" in Paris.
American school children learn that the Spanish Admiral, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founded the first permanent settlement in North America, St.
Augustine, in 1565. What few history students are told, is the fact that there was a special urgency in his mission. In the previous year, a group
of French Huguenots landed in Florida and founded Ft. Caroline. They and not the pilgrims of Rhode Island celebrated the first Thanksgiving on American
soil June 30, 1564. They hoped to establish a safe haven for other Huguenots to follow, but their hopes were short-lived. The Spaniards attacked and
slaughtered the Huguenots in a great massacre. They established St. Augustine near where Ft. Caroline had stood.
The Edict of Nantes of 1598, granted the Huguenots freedom to worship, but Louis XIV recalled this edict in 1685 and continued the persecutions. Most
Huguenots eventually migrated to other European countries and to North America.
The oldest and largest business in Voecklabruck, near where we lived and worked, was founded by a family of Huguenots named Braun. I had the privilege
of sharing the gospel with the present day owner and his family. He is now a believer and active in a Brethren group.
Space does not permit me to mention Zwingli and other reformers.
Persecution of Christians by Christians
Beginning in 386, Christians have persecuted Christians and the number increased steadily in following centuries. Between 1528 and
1571, tens of thousands of Anabaptists were arrested, tortured and burned or drowned for their faith. Yet during this period, the Lutherans multiplied
and became entrenched as a strong political force. There are several reasons for this development:
* The Anabaptist movement was mainly a movement among the peasants. Lutherans found willing converts in many of the Lords and among the educated
* Anabaptists placed little value on organization and government. They felt, even as Luther preached, that the scriptures alone were sufficient.
Luther, however, instituted a rigid organization from the top down, much like that which the people were familiar with.
* Both Lutherans and Catholics took part in the persecution of Anabaptists, whose popularity among the peasants posed a threat to the ruling nobles.
* Anabaptists were, as a rule, poorly educated and had little means to print or purchase literature. Lutheran literature was plentiful.
* Much of Lutheran teaching was similar to teachings of the Anbaptists and certainly preferable to Catholic dogma. For this reason, many Anabaptists
thought it wise to choose peace rather than to risk persecution or death.
Anabaptists taught that Christ alone was Lord and that believers needed no earthly leader. The Bible was a sufficient rule of faith. In the beginning,
Luther also taught this, but he soon recognized the benefits of a well-organized church government. He argued that this was necessary to protect the
church from false teachings, but it was also beneficial in consolidating his followers into strong armies that would fight "heresy"- primarily, the
The first known execution of protestants in Austria took place in 1524 in Vienna when Casper Tauber was beheaded by decree of the Emperor. Tauber was
influenced by both Lutheran and Waldensian teachings and decided that the Bible was sufficient for true faith. Other persecutions and martyrdoms followed
in rapid succession. Hans Hut was burned at the stake in Augsburg (1529) and Hubmeier in Vienna (1528). Hubmeier's wife, Elsbeth, was drowned in the
Danube three days later. At first, such atrocities were carried out by the Hapsburgers and officials of the Roman Church, but soon, Lutherans were also
Luther wrote a discourse in 1528, in which he encouraged the persecution of Anabaptists. Melanchthon wrote a letter to Myconius in 1530, declaring that
all Anabaptist teachers should be executed for heresy. Emperor Ferdinand recognized the Anabaptists as a greater threat than the Lutherans. For this
reason, he gave certain freedoms to the Lutherans in return for their help in fighting the Anabaptists. Between 1522 and 1595, an estimated 20,000 -
30,000 Anabaptists died for their faith in Austria, but martyrs among Austrian Lutherans can be counted on one hand.
A second reason why Ferdinand gave the Lutherans more freedom was the frequent Turkish invasions. The war against the Turks cost a lot of money and the
Lutheran Lords had money. Ferdinand made a contract with the Lutherans in 1529, in which they agreed to help in the Turkish wars. A second part of the
agreement was a cooperative effort to rid Austria of Anabaptists. One reason Anabaptists were held in contempt was because many of them refused to bear
A temporary peace with the Turks was achieved in 1562, and the Habsburger forces and armies true to Luther prepared to wage war against the Anabaptists.
One might think that the unarmed Anabaptists wouldn't have a chance against such formidable odds, but God came to their aid in the form of two successive
natural catastrophes. First, there was a great drought and then the plague, which eventually took the lives of a third of all Austrians. More than 40,000
died of the plague in Vienna alone!
Following the death Ferdinand in 1564, Maximilian I came to power. Maximilian was determined to do battle with the Lutherans which were growing rapidly
and threatening to take full control of his territories. In the fourth year of his reign, he too made a contract with the Lutherans, signing the
Assurection on January 4th, 1571. This time, the agreement was extremely expensive for the Lutherans, costing the Upper Austrian Lutherans alone over a
million Gilder and another 200,000 Gilder in ten annual payments. The agreement included continued help in eradicating the Anabaptists.
For many years, the Emperors were convinced of the existence of a powerful leader among the Anabaptists. They believed that if they could find and
eliminate that person, the sect would soon disband and fade into oblivion. The growth and stubborn resistance of the Anabaptists seemed greater than that
of the Catholics and Lutherans combined, who had well-structured hierarchies and powerful leaders. The Emperor repeatedly called on his subordinates to
extract information about the supposed leader from imprisoned Anabaptists, using any torture methods at their disposal. He also demanded that they
discover their secret greetings and symbols; how they recognized each other. Following is an excerpt from the letter of the Governor of Upper Austria
written to the Emperor Ferdinand on March 4, 1528. (discovered by Professor Dr. Dr. Grete Meccenceffy in old city archives).
Danmals e. kö. Mt. in irem schreiben anzeucht, als sollten wir uns bisher nit erkundigt haben, was der widertauffer grueß, zaichen und pundnuß sei,
darauf zaigen wir e. ko. Mt. underthaniklich an, das wir in solher erkundigung auch kainen fleiß gespart haben, dann wir haben an allen ortten, da die
gefangen tauffer gefragt sein worden, verordnet, sie und ain jeden in sonderhait auf die fragstückh hie beiligundt zu fragen. Darauf dann ettlich
bekhanndt, was ir grueß sei, aber von irem zaichen an häusern oder von irem pundt haben wir noch bishero auf die fragstuckh nichts entlichs vernemen
mugen. Die, so bishero befragt, sagen, sie wissen von kainem sondern pundtnuß oder haimlichen verstand, dergleidien wissen sie von kaiem zaichen, so
sie haben sollen, anderst zu sagen, dann wann sie taufft worden, so taugkh man die finger in ein wasser und streich inen mit demselben wasser ain creiz
an das gestürn, das sei ain zaichen ires tauffs und ires glaubens und pundnuß gegen Gott.
In brief, the letter says that although the authorities had tried every conceivable method of torture, they were not successful in obtaining information
requested by the Emperor. The Anabaptists insisted that their only identifying sign was baptism, administered by dipping the finger in water and making
a cross on the forehead of the person receiving this rite.
On April 18th, 1528, another letter to Emperor Ferdinand contained the following:
Ferdinand usf. Ersam, weiß, besonder lieb, getrew! Uns sein jetzo der widertauffer und irer anhenger practickn, zaichen und ires furnemens halben
khundtschafft zuekhomen, die zu hörn gantz beschwerlich sein. Nemlichen anfangs, welhermassen die widertauffer aneinander erkennen, das sy
nachvolgende zaichen, grueß, wort und gebärd brauchen: So ainer fur den andern geet, greifft der an sein huet oder paret und sprech: Got grueß dich,
brueder im herrn! So im dann der ander dermassen mit disen worten danckh sagte: Got danckh dir, brueder im herrn! sey derselbig ir mitbrueder ainer;
und das der widertauffer und getaufften mainung und vorhaben sey, das kain obrigkait oder herrschafft, dann allain Got, sollte gehabt noch geduldt
werden und alle gueter gemain sein undter inen.
In the above letter, it is said that when two Anabaptists meet, one tips his hat and says, "God greet you, brother in the Lord!" The other returns,
"God bless you, brother in the lord!" The Anabaptists contend that they have no other leader or master other than God and neither would they accept
another. Furthermore, they share their goods equally among each other.
Over and over, Anabaptists insisted under the worst imaginable torture, that they had no leader other than Jesus Christ.
Incidentally, the Anabaptist form of greeting became so popular, that soon everyone was using it! Even after the counter reformation, when Austria
had again become Roman Catholic, people greeted each other in a similar fashion. The most common greeting in Austria today is "Gruss Gott!", a
shortened form of the Anabaptist greeting.
When one Lord after another converted to the Lutheran teachings, peasants began to hope that this would bring relief from the
intense poverty and injustices they were experiencing. Their hopes were soon dampened, however, and it became clear that allegiance to Luther did
not always bring a change in attitude towards subjects. This situation created a fertile soil for the teachings of traveling Anabaptist preachers.
The peasants were not only open for the new teachings. They were also desperately interested in improving their economic conditions and in the
education of their children. Because such changes were not likely to be forthcoming without a show of force, some peasants began to wonder if
another "bundschuh" might be an effective way of breaking the yoke of poverty which kept them dependant on their ruthless masters. For this reason,
Anabaptist groups which were not opposed to bearing arms grew more rapidly than their pacifist counterparts. Both Catholics and Lutherans sought to
destroy the Anabaptists, so many "staebler" went underground, but the "schwertler" showed boldness and attracted a large following.
The first major protest of peasants near Steyr was put down in 1573 at the cost of many lives. This defeat led to relative calm for almost 20 years,
but the situation of the peasants worsened and another uprising seemed immanent. On November 13th, 1594, renewed skirmishes between peasants and the
nobles broke out in the Hausruck region of Upper Austria. Battles took place in Zweispalten and Natternbach, soon spreading westward to Attergau.
For the next two years, the peasants continued successfully to win over one town after another.
The peasants at first fought with crude weaponry fabricated from farm implements, but after capturing weapons from defeated armies, they became a
formidable force. Their determination and the fact that there were many sympathizers in the region, posed an even greater threat to the Emperor.
Knowing that the peasants followed Anabaptist teachings, and that the Anabaptists were popular in many other provinces of Austria, Emperor Rudolf
II rightfully feared that the conflict could escalate throughout his entire kingdom. On May 8, 1597, the Emperor decreed once more that the peasants
were to cease support of the Anabaptist heretics. His order fell on deaf ears.
The mostly Lutheran rulers in the Attergau and Hausruck regions were also determined to defeat the peasants by whatever means necessary. On June 29,
1597, the Lutheran General, Gotthard von Starhemberg, began a systematic campaign to annihilate the resistant peasants. He erected no less than 27
gallows in Upper Austria on which around 600 peasant leaders were executed in the ensuing weeks.
Rudolf seized the opportunity to use the animosity between Lutherans and Anabaptists to his own advantage. He sent troops to support the Catholic
Governor of Upper Austria in their fight against the peasants. On July 16, 1597, Governor Loeibl began the attack. Now outnumbered and completely
overwhelmed by the concentrated attacks of two armies, the peasants suffered great losses and were forced to retreat. In just one month, an estimated
30,000 peasants died in the bloody battles. By mid August, there was little fight left among the peasants.
Lutheran troops were given little time to celebrate this victory, however. Emperor Rudolf II sent out a declaration on August 25, 1597, that all non
Catholic religions were now forbidden and demanded that the Lutherans return all church property to the Catholics. Thus began what is called the
Counter Reformation, which lasted well into the second half of the 17th century.
Another decree of the Emperor followed on October 6th, in which Lutherans and Anabaptists were commanded to either return to the Catholic Church or
leave the country. By this time Lutherans controlled much of Upper Austria and a majority of Austrians in many other parts of the country claimed to
be Lutheran. They felt no need to follow the dictates of a Catholic Emperor in Vienna. Repeated threats were largely ignored. After 1604 some Lutherans
began to sell their properties (if they had any) and migrate to friendlier territories in Northern Europe. The pressure was especially felt in important
industrial centers such as Steyr. A number of prominent families chose to sell their properties and leave rather than risk losing everything they owned
by staying. By 1608, iron production in Steyr was down 75% and eleven hammer mills had been closed due to protestant migrations.
When Rudolf II again appealed to the Lutheran Lords for their help in suppressing Anabaptist teachings on April 19, 1610, the Lutherans interpreted this
as an assurance of their invincibility, but they were wrong.
Turn of Events
On May 23, 1618, protestants threw two Catholic regents out a castle window in Prague. This act made the Catholic Emperor furious
and he determined to begin in earnest, to regain territory lost to the Lutherans and to drive them out of his lands. The Hapsburgers began a bitter
two-year battle against the Lutherans in 1620. At first, the protestants kept the upper hand, but on November 8, 1620, the Catholic General Tilly
defeated them soundly at the battle of White Mountain near Prague. The Lutheran General, Gottfried of Starhemberg was taken prisoner and brought to
Linz, where he died in 1624. The remaining protestant leaders were executed publicly on the Old City Ring of Prague. This marks the beginning of the
Thirty Years War which culminated in the total recatholization of the Austrian Monarchy.
The Anabaptist peasants of Upper Austria were not as easy to defeat as the Lutherans. In early May, 1625, a group of peasants in Frankenburg shut the
Catholic priest out of their church, insisting on keeping their own preacher. On the 15th of May, soldiers were sent by the provincial Governor,
Herberstorf, who ordered the peasants to congregate at a given time in an open field near Voecklamarkt (about three miles from where we lived for ten
years). Any who did not appear would be put to death. Leaders of the peasants were told to cast dice two by two, and the one throwing the higher number
was executed. In all, 36 persons were executed by hanging and the bodies of several were hung from church steeples in surrounding villages as a warning.
Every two years, citizens of Frankenburg now reenact a three-hour portrayal of that historic event in Europe's largest open air theatre.
There were further uprisings of peasants between the 17th of May and 18th of November, 1626 under the leadership of a capable peasant leader, Stefan
Fadinger. Ten thousand government troops and between 30,000 and 40,000 peasants died in these wars. Fadinger and other leaders were captured and publicly
executed in Linz during March und April, 1627.
While digging for construction of a hydro-electric dam in 1996, workers in Lambach, Upper Austria, came upon a mass grave containing victims of those
wars. A Roman Catholic Bishop and Lutheran Superintendent took part in a special re-burial service, but they were probably not even aware of the fact,
that the dead were probably neither Catholic nor Lutheran, but Anabaptists.
Following these incidents, the exodus of protestants began to increase sharply. Around 15,000 Hutterites fled Bohemia and Moravia to
Romania. Later they emigrated to Russia and finally to North America, where they live to this day. Thousands of Europeans began to leave their
homelands for "the new Promised Land" across the ocean. There were Quakers (Shakers") and Puritans from England, Mennonites (named after Menno Simons),
Amish (named after Jacob Aman), Brethren (a name that many groups used) and other groups from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia
and other lands. Many of these settled in what was called "Penn's Colony" or "Penn's Experiment".
Lutherans also left Austria by the thousands, but most of them settled in Northern Germany or other friendly parts of Europe. Some remained in Austria
and went into hiding while others outwardly recanted and professed to be Catholic, yet continued to meet secretly with fellow Lutherans. The "Exulanten"
(those evicted from their homeland) were forced to sell their possessions for worthless money and leave, not knowing where their travels would take
them. There were further persecutions and evictions of non-Catholics during the 17th century. In 1655, 8.000 Waldensians were slaughtered by soldiers
in the Piemont Valley. Even after the Edict of Toleration" was proclaimed in October, 1781, there were reports of further persecutions of protestants.
In many cities, large, ornate monuments were erected to commemorate the victory of the Catholics over the protestants. Some are called "Plague
Monuments" today and because the protestants were blamed for the plague, this is perhaps accurate. Even today, some Austrians contend that the plague
was God's punishment for leaving the true church.
Early American Churches
By Ralph V. Harvey