This article is incorporated in a larger document posted on this site. See "European Origins of American Churches"


By Ralph V. Harvey

In Austria, we often heard people say that the free churches (Baptists and other protestant groups) were religious imports from America. In reality, the free church structure and teachings is as old as Christianity itself. Furthermore, the free church movement in America has its roots 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 for 600 years 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 few freedoms. Even governments of nations which have a Christian majority often show favoritism towards a specific brand of Christianity. Russia, Greece and Serbia are Orthodox while many European and most Latin American countries are Roman Catholic. England is Anglican.

The above described 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 would prefer the status of a state church. World dominion is an expressed aim of Islam, but the American Constitution forbids this. Our nation was largely founded by religious refugees from Europe who had suffered much for their faith under such coalitions. They were determined that this nation should never become a church state and that no religious group should become a 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 intervention in churches.

Early Years of the Christian Church

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 predicted and advised his own disciples to follow Jesus.

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.

The first Christian church came into being in Jerusalem when Peter preached at Pentecost. He 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).

Early Christians were soon the object of severe persecution, which caused them to travel to other lands, primarily to Asia Minor (Turkey). Everywhere they went, the same gospel was preached and churches were established. Baptism and the Lord's table were important identifying aspects of early Christians and they were often persecuted for this as much as for their teachings.

In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine brought about a dramatic historical change in recognizing the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the new freedoms were misused by some leaders of the church to achieve power and affluence. This was one reason Constantine decided to move the capitol of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (Istanbul).

It was not Constantine, but his follower, Emperor Theodosius (279-395) who made the Christian Church the official religion of the empire. He too misused the popularity of the Christians to unify his holdings, requiring all subjects to be baptized into the church. Thus the first "state church" or "unfree" church was formed. In 386, the same year St. Augustine converted to Christianity, Maximus Priscillian and six followers were executed in Trier for false teachings. 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. Roman citizenship and church membership was thus made synonymous. It was only after this time that we read of occasional infant baptisms.

In the following centuries, there were protests against church leaders who misused their positions to gain power and affluence, but even more common were protests against the church's departure from true biblical teaching. Most of these uprisings were crushed by swift and harsh military force. In time, protesters tended rather to form secretive movements which often gained a large following before they were discovered and destroyed. To these we could relegate the French splinter groups which chose their own Popes between 1307 and 1417.

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 of 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 itself.


Peter of Bruis was an educated Priest who appealed for the church to return to the New Testament model. Bruis preached openly against the dogmas of "transubstantiation" (mystical transformation of wine and bread into the actual blood and flesh of Christ) and the growing 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") because they insisted on believer's baptism.

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.

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 had flourished. Their teachers, called "Perfect Ones", taught of two opposing kingdoms of Satan and God. Only in those 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 Testament teachings.


During a period in which the Roman Catholic Church increasingly neglected biblical obligations and violated scriptural teachings, seeking instead worldly powers and material wealth, another Christian movement began. A wealthy businessman by the name of Peter Waldo, from Lyon, France has a special spiritual "conversion" experience 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 which differed from current church dogmas.

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 ownership.

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 had 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!

The Hussites

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.

The Peasant Wars or Thirty Years War

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, these "men of the cloth" lived in open immorality.

The coalition of church and state functioned quite well for their nobility, but conditions were unbearable for the bulk of the populace. The church used its religious influence to keep people subject to the Emperor and the Emperor sent military force where needed to suppress any resistance. 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.

The "Bundschuh"

The "Bundschuh" was an important symbol among the peasants. The word literally means "Shoe of Brotherhood" and the idea probably came from Psalm 108:8-14. It was a symbol of unity which promised sympathy, comfort, help and solidarity.

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 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.

During the struggle for supremacy between Catholics and Lutherans, the peasants were sometimes encouraged by their Lords to "toss the bundschuh." Many Catholic nobles became Lutherans because they recognized the opportunity to break the yoke of their own demanding Bishops and the Hapsburgers. Herzog 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 made by the peasants in 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. The "Gastein and Frankenmarkt Articles from 1525" were directed towards the church and not the political powers in Vienna.

Power of the Printed Word

When Luther's German New Testament (1522) and other protestant papers and books appeared in print, the Waldensian Christians welcomed them with open arms. After all, these were not new to them, but beloved and holy words of God which they had committed to memory. It is quite possible that Luther was greatly aided in his translation work by the existence of handwritten German copies used by the Waldensians. Austria was soon flooded with 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.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper

Throughout church history, the subject of baptism and the Lord's supper have been matters of heated controversy. When Jesus was tested by the Pharisees, he countered by asking them about the baptism of John (Matt. 21:25). Ecumenical meetings of leaders of the main Christian bodies 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.

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. We have 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. 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 method.

From Waldensians to Anabaptists

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 that thrived for several centuries in Europe.

Like many denominational names and even the term "Christian" (Acts 11:26), the terms "Waldensian" and "Anabaptist" were 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 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.

There are reports of Waldensians being the object of persecutions throughout the Lutheran reformation and counter reformation, but persecutions of Anabaptists became much more common. The reason seems quite obvious. The church and government persecutors began to use different terminology. 

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. The term "Waldensian" no longer carried the negative impact which it had in the past, so the Hapsburgers and Church leaders needed to find another term to describe them which carried a stigma. 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.

Waldensians paved the way theologically for Hussites, Lutherans and especially the Anabaptists. Early Waldensians and many Anabaptists were pacifists, but Hussites and Lutherans were not quite so willing to die for their faith without putting up a fight. With the increasing popularity of the bundschuh, many Anabaptist peasants began to change their thinking. 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.

During the Lutheran reformation, Waldensians were inwardly torn apart over issues such as baptism and bearing of arms. Many 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, many saw this as God's answer to their pleas for relief from sufferings. The Lutherans had become so popular among the nobility by 1530, that it was considered less dangerous to join them than to remain Waldensians.

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. The sudden increase in numbers of those identified with the Anabaptists in areas where Waldensians had been prominent indicates that the Waldensians which did not join were no longer to be tolerated. 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. Lutheran sources report of great financial sacrifices made by Waldensians in supporting the translation and printing of the Lutheran Bible. 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.

Those Waldensians who rejected the dogma of transubstantiation and infant baptism were called Anabaptists and persecuted accordingly. During the next 160 years, both Catholics and Lutherans alike attempted to wipe out the Anabaptists, but to no avail.

Although the Anabaptists were divided into two factions over the matter of bearing arms in self defense (see next section), both sides of the divide continued to grow in number.

"Baptizers" and Free Churches

The Anabaptists never accepted this terminology, arguing that their baptism was the only true baptism. They preferred to be called brethren, but the term "baptizers" was also acceptable. They 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 government positions. Other groups allow or even encourage the 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.

Several free church groups evolved during the early reformation years, first in Switzerland (1525) and then, almost simultaneously, in other parts of Europe. Although these churches were loosely organized, they showed a strong loyalty for the teachings of their founders and were soon called by their names. 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 Tirolean Jacob Hutter, became known as Hutterites. Hutter encouraged the formation of work colonies, some of which still thrive in USA and Canada.

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 Münzer's teachings, claiming them to be contrary to scripture. Neither he nor his followers were rebaptized, yet Catholic and Lutheran church historians still attempt to present him as a typical example of Anabaptism. Münzer was executed near Frankenhausen in 1535 and the Kingdom was disbanded by government troops.

Most Anabaptists, like their predecessors, the Waldensians, were pacifist. They would rather have died the martyr's death than to take up arms in self defense. One branch of the Anabaptists, however, deemed it a legitimate recourse to defend one's family and under some circumstances their country. The conflict between these two factions was at times intense, but never violent. The terms "Schwertler and "Stäbler" (sword-bearers and staff-bearers) are used in German to this day to describe the two sides of this issue.

Dr. Balthesar Hubmeier was probably the best-known Anabaptist proponent of self defence. 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 all his many books and pamphlets. Many of the peasants who were involved in the above mentioned "bundschuh" uprisings between 1525 and 1626, were likely influenced by Hubmeier.

Among the "Stäblern" (reference to the shepherd's staff) 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. Although most modern-day Baptists, Methodists and other free church groups are not opposed to military service, the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and some Brethren groups still refuse to bear arms.

The Reformation

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 common man.

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 also learned that personal faith in Jesus Christ alone brought salvation. Neither parents, nor priests, Bishop, Pope or Emperor had the God-given right to determine a person's religion.

Soon more and more Catholic priests and monks gained sympathy for the Lutheran teachings. Protestant literature found entrance into churches, monasteries and convents all over Austria. Visitations carried out by papal emissaries, discovered an "alarming quantity" of protestant literature in Catholic institutions.

Luther delegated Michael Stiefel as "Castle Preacher" to Tollet Castle near Grieskirchen in 1524. Priests who embraced the Lutheran teaching began to multiply in Upper Austria, where Waldensians and Anabaptists had thrived. An increasing number of lords, who were not happy with treatment by the Hapsburgers and demands of powerful bishops, discovered that the new teachings were not only superior to Catholic dogma, but also provided opportunity to gain freedom from their yokes.

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. By 1570, Catholics were a small minority in most cities of Upper Austria. In the important industrial city of Steyr, only 16 families claimed to be Catholic, and it was said of Vöcklabruck, that not a single house remained 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.

Persecution of Christians by Christians

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 Catholic clergy.

  •  Anabaptists placed little value on organization and government. They felt, even as Luther preached, that the scriptures alone were sufficient. Lutheran teachings, however, included 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 the believers needed no earthly leader. The Bible was 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 those who perpetrated "heresy"- primarily, the Anabaptists!

The first known execution of protestants in Austria took place in 1524 in Vienna when Casper Tauber was beheaded by the 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.

Luther wrote a discouse 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. Emporer 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, 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 they refused to bear arms.

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 yearly 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.

Even after Lutheran teachings infiltrated most monasteries, moral conditions in these religious institutions did not improve. A visitation of thirteen Upper Austrian monasteries conducted by subordinates 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 Huguenots

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) and were severely persecuted. Their numbers increased considerably under King Heinrich II (1547-1559) but 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.

The Edict of Nantes of 1598, gave 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 shared the gospel with the present day owner and a fellow believer later led him to Christ.

Counter Reformation

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 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 of 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 into retreat. In just one month, an estimated 30,000 peasants died in the bloody battles, and 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.

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 of surrounding villages as a warning. Every two years, citizens of Frankenburg re-enact a three-hour portrayal of that historic incident 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 thousands of 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.

Mass Exodus

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 Amen), Brethren (a name that many groups used) and other groups from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria 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.

Ralph V. Harvey