The 16th century was a period of many profound changes. Among other things the events of the time precipitated changes in the practice of midwifery and also in the standards applied to that vocation. The AnabaptistsAnabaptism influenced some of these changes, for in certain areas there appear to have been a large number of midwives among the Anabaptists. This was no doubt occasioned by the fact that some Anabaptist midwives were willing to say they had conducted an emergency baptism of an infant ostensibly in danger of dying, when in fact the child may have been healthy and the midwife had not baptized it at all. In such a way the child could be recorded as having been baptized when it was not. Furthermore, Anabaptist women needed to be able to trust their midwives in order to be sure the midwife would not baptize in the case of a sickly newborn child, and it may be that this was another reason why they took up the calling themselves. Another area in which Anabaptists were a factor is that they argued that if unlettered midwives, never formally ordained to do so could conduct a valid baptism, why should not Anabaptist leaders be authorized to baptize adults?
The time of baptism had always been something of a problem in the church. Codifying the traditional practice of the 1st and 2nd century church, 6th century church councils decreed that Easter and Pentecost were the proper days for baptism; only when there was danger of death were exceptions to be made. By the 11th century this rule had been relaxed in some areas to permit baptism on any day of the year.
Although some theologians held that unbaptized infants would go to heaven, or to an intermediary state (limbo), others feared otherwise, and, especially anxious parents, pushed baptism to an ever earlier age.
Laypeople were permitted to baptize in an emergency (when the child was near death). There is a pamphlet from the 16th century which clearly indicates the Anabaptist involvement in the issue of emergency baptism. It is anonymous, entitled, An instruction for midwives, how they are to baptize in an emergency. It is undated and is available as far as is known only in the British Museum Library. On the basis of style and contents it should be dated around 1570.
It was provoked by the Anabaptists who made fun of emergency baptism (the author calls it Jachtauff [a joke baptism]) and ridiculed it in order to promote their "heresy" more strongly and to ridicule the true, correct baptism. The tract's author then sets out to establish that a baptism is valid no matter who performs it, if it meets three conditions: (1) A normal child has to be born; no severely disfigured child or any unborn child is to be baptized, "for one has to be born before one can be reborn." If the child dies before birth we can commend it to God for he is able, by his grace, to give the rebirth without water. The author rejects intrauterine baptism because that is given mainly for the comfort of the mother. (2) Water is necessary for real baptism. At every birth water for baptism should be available so that substitutes are not used, e.g., snow, wine, or whatever. Babies should not need to be carried away for baptism because of the absence of water. (3) The trinitarian formula, which the midwives should know and when demanded, "speak in considered courage, forthrightly, and so that it is clearly understood, so that other wives can also hear it and bear witness to it later." Similar instructions to laypeople about emergency baptism were included in standard medieval catechisms and manuals for parish priests.
Midwives had been receiving more recognition soon after they became a more visible and more socially acceptable group and their performance was monitored. The first name of a midwife, Frau Aleyt, appears in Koblenz in 1298, from where we also have our first oath taken by all midwives which already included the line: "I promise ... to care for the children in order that they may come to baptism, and to be faithful in the house. Also not to keep any gifts given to the child at baptism but to hand them faithfully on to the mother." By 1460 major efforts were made to control the quality of midwives. In Regensburg in 1452 the oldest order for midwives placed them under the authority of the doctor (Franken).
Among the Anabaptists there is considerable evidence that women practiced this profession. Thus the court records reveal that a certain Elizabeth Salmen, the wife of Jerg, was ordered to Stuttgart for the second time but did not come because she was very pregnant ("gross Schwanger"). The court continues: "The suspicion exists in this market town that the midwife takes money and says that she carried out emergency baptism on the children of the Anabaptists so that they will remain unbaptized. The pastor and other trustworthy people say that when the child was brought to church it had a quite lively color and healthy scream. Since no one attended the emergency baptism except two wives, one of whom is related to Elizabeth, the observer in the presence of the bailiff and the pastor of Fellbach asked the midwives under oath if they had baptized the child, which they affirmed, "for the child was weak at that time" (Bossert, 380). Another directive instructs the official "to insist that the midwives cease baptizing infants without specific authorization, and not in the presence of people who are suspected of being Anabaptists. If they violate this rule they will be punished seriously."
Evidence also is given of a certain Martha, the wife of Michl Rielin, from Medelsbach, also a midwife. She had not been coming to church and repeated orders have been given to her to desist her midwifery and she was even punished with fines. in the spring of 1574 the record reads: "Martha is still a midwife, even though she is no longer authorized. We have dealt with her often, but to no avail." Again in 1577 and as late as the fall of 1578, this "evil Anabaptist" is often seen, continues her work but does not come to baptism (Bossert, 390, 505, 516). In May 1598 a certain Anne Mayer is accused of taking communion only once in nine years, never coming to church. She affirmed that she "will not sponsor a child at baptism, rejects emergency baptism by midwives because Christ commended baptism to his disciples" (TA Württemberg, 725) and, on these grounds, was suspected of being an Anabaptist.
Research deserves to be conducted on the subject of Anabaptist midwives. Did they perhaps see in the deeds of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-22) a precedent, perhaps even a justification for their deviousness? At any rate their deeds will always stand as part of the record of dissent against practices and a system that violated values which we today take for granted.
In the rural Mennonite communities of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, midwives were common, as they were in non-Mennonite communities (Rich). In the late 20th century, as part of the ecology movement some Mennonites have gone back to midwives and natural birth techniques as a protest against the "clinical" removal of the process of birth from the home. In St. Jacobs, Ontario, one midwife, Elsie Cressman, attracted international respect and also the respect of her colleagues in the medical community for the way in which she had brought the birthing process back into the family. Her birthing clinic served many Old Order Mennonites and others and took a vigorous lead in making midwives socially and legally acceptable.
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Cite This Article
Klassen, William. "Midwives." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 31 Mar 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Midwives&oldid=92854.
Klassen, William. (1989). Midwives. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 31 March 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Midwives&oldid=92854.
Herald Press website.
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