Strasbourg in Alsace, a more tolerant city than most places in Europe in the 16th century, was the scene of at least six conferences of Anabaptist ministers in 1554, 1555, 1557, 1568, 1592, and 1607.
1. The conference of 1554 is known solely through a note in the record of the Strasbourg city council meeting of 9 March 1554, reported by Hulshof (p. 218), which reads (in translation): "On the previous Saturday a meeting of Anabaptists was held at the Long Bridge, at which 600 are supposed to have assembled."
2. The conference held 24 August 1555, is known solely through a letter sent to Holland, containing the "Agreement Made by the Brethren and Elders at Strasbourg, Assembled Because of the Question of the Origin of the Flesh of Christ." This document of about 800 words was first published in Hans Alenson'sAlenson, Hans Arentsz Tegen-Bericht of 1630 (pages 124 f.) who says he "took it from the copy which had been faithfully translated from the High German into the Netherlands language by I.H.V.P.N. [Carel van Gent?] in Amsterdam, 1 September 1610." A copy of the Tegen-Bericht is in the Zürich University Library. The Agreement is also found in the reprint of the Tegen-Bericht in Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica 10 v. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1903-1914: v. VII, occupying pages 226-28. S. Blaupot ten Cate published it from a copy in the [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Amsterdam Mennonite Library]], since lost, in his Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Groningen, Overijssel en Oost-Friesland I (Leeuwarden, 1842), pp. 254-57. Hulshof reprinted it from ten Cate in his Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1525 tot 1557 (Amsterdam, 1905), pp. 220-22. The Agreement clearly states that the meeting was called because the brethren had repeatedly been requested and urged to speak about the Incarnation, and now recently again by the Hofmannites and by the brethren in the Netherlands. They had "gathered from many places." The concern of the Agreement is to bring harmony into the brotherhood by holding to the simple statements of Scripture regarding the Incarnation and going no further. It is more important to keep the commandments of Christ than to press to an understanding of the mysteries of how Christ became flesh. Hulshof assumes that Dutch and High Germans (Swiss Brethren) took part in the meeting. He rightly rejects several statements by Ottius (Annales Anabaptistici, 120) who knew about the meeting from the Alenson report, and claims, clearly without foundation, that Moravians (Hutterites) and Germans were together, and that the parties in the dispute excommunicated each other, here basing erroneously on a statement in the Protocoll of the Frankenthal disputation of 1571, p. 14, which makes no reference to the Strasbourg Conference of 1555.
3. The conference of 1557 is known solely through a letter written to Menno by two High German ministers, Zylis and Lemke, on behalf of the Strasbourg conference, giving a report of the conclusions. Hulshof printed the rather lengthy epistle (some 1600 words) in full, because so many incorrect statements about the conference had been made by German historians, who apparently had never seen the text of the letter. He used the reprint by J. G. de Hoop Scheffer, "Opmerkingen en mededeelingen betreffende Menno Simons, VIII," Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1894): 10-70. The letter is reprinted on pp. 47-53 from a handwritten copy (now in the Amsterdam Mennonite Archives) made by J. Cuperus in November 1769 from a printed book, Een gansch duytlic ende bescheyden antwoordt . . . door L.D.W. According to this letter, some 50 elders and ministers assembled from Moravia, Swabia, Switzerland, Württemberg, Breisgau, and Alsace, as far as 150 miles away, among whom was a preacher in whose house the Schleitheim confession of 1527 had been drawn up. The occasion for the meeting was a controversy between two elders, Theobald of Worms and Farwendel of Kreuznach, over original sin and the sin of the soul and of the flesh, a controversy which had seriously divided the brotherhood. The controversy was overcome at Strasbourg and harmony was restored. The second topic for discussion was the question of the severe application of avoidance or shunning in connection with the ban, including marital avoidance, as advocated by Leenaert Bouwens, who had also won Menno to his view. Bouwens and Menno had called a meeting of Dutch and High German leaders at Cologne in the spring of 1557, at which they had hoped to win the High Germans for their position. But very few High Germans had appeared, and the attempt was a failure. The epistle from the Strasbourg conference, addressed to Menno and the Dutch leaders, was actually a reply to the letter from Menno to the High Germans. It rejected in a kindly spirit the proposals for a strict application of the ban, and expressed the strong hope that differences regarding this matter should not be the cause of a break. Unfortunately their hope was to be disappointed, for this break came in 1559; Menno rejected the proffered hand of reconciliation, and the Dutch elders pronounced the ban on the High Germans at a meeting of delegates of both sides held in that year.
Hulshof reports that the large gathering of Anabaptists at the conferences of 1554 and 1555 led the city council of Strasbourg to renewed action against the brethren, but that the examination of arrested persons by the newly appointed (August 1555) Anabaptist Commission produced no information about the conferences. Petrus Novesianus, a schoolteacher, but not an Anabaptist, reported that there were many Anabaptist sects, naming five: Hutterites, Hofmannites, Swiss, Bilgrammites (Pilgram Marpeck), and Zabites(?).
J. J. Kiwiet, in his Pilgram Marbeck (Kassel, 1957), interprets the conference of 1555 as a gathering whose purpose was to unite all the divergent Anabaptist groups, holding that it was really the fruit of Pilgram Marpeck's efforts to unify the groups, and that it succeeded. He offers no documentary proof for his claim, grounding it rather on the evidence of Marpeck's long campaign for unity. It is possible, as he suggests, that Marpeck was present at the conferences of 1554 and 1555. Since he died in 1556 he could not have attended the conference of 1557. The conference of 1557, as the above report shows, was indeed called to bring about unity between the groups in controversy over the doctrine of original sin, and it succeeded. In this sense the conference of 1557 would better fit Kiwiet's thesis than that of 1555, which was called to deal with a theological difference which separated the Dutch and the Hofmannites from the High Germans. However, no unity was achieved at this conference between the disputing parties. It is of interest to note that at this conference it was reported that there were "50 congregations from the Eiffel to Moravia, some of which had 500 to 600 brethren and sisters."
4. The conferences of 1568 and 1607 are known solely through a discipline adopted at the 1568 conference and confirmed at the conference of 1607. It is called "Agreement of the Ministers and Elders of Many Localities in Conference at Strasbourg in the Year 1568, and Reaffirmed at the Strasbourg Conference of 1607." The discipline is known only from handwritten copies handed down from the past, several of which are to be found in the Goshen College and Bethel College Mennonite historical libraries. An edition was printed in 1905 at Elkhart, Indiana, together with the disciplines adopted at several later conferences in Europe and America. The oldest manuscript copy extant in America was made in 1836 by Peter Unsicker at Beissenhofen, Germany. H. S. Bender edited and published in German and in English translation a manuscript copy of 1860, "The Discipline Adopted by the Strasbourg Conference of 1568," Mennonite Quarterly Review I (1927): pp. 57-66. Here he reports an earlier text in the possession of Peter Kipfer of the Emmental congregation near Langnau, Switzerland, which had been published in paraphrase by Mathias Pohl of Sembach, Palatinate, Germany, in the Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender for 1906, pp.134-43. Ernst Müller's report in his Geschichte der bernischen Täufer (Frauenfeld, 1895), pp. 50-52, apparently was based on the Kipfer copy. The twenty-three articles of the 1568 discipline deal largely with practical questions such as the provisions for traveling ministers to visit the congregations, for selection and ordination of ministers and bishops to fill vacancies, the care for orphans of the brotherhood, moderation in the practice of shunning apostate members, restricting the holy kiss to members, not requiring rebaptism of outsiders who have already been baptized, maintaining simplicity in costume, no rigid uniformity in mode of distributing the communion bread, etc. One article refers to the question of the Incarnation, calling for abiding by the Scripture on this point and avoiding as far as possible all disputing. This is the only known Anabaptist discipline after the Schleitheim discipline of 1527.
5. The conference of 1592 is known solely through a letter written on behalf of the participants of the conference to the Socinians in Poland, in reply to a letter from a Socinian leader, Christian Ostorodt, dated 20 October 1591, found in the City Library of Bern, Switzerland, and published by Theodor Wotschke with an introduction and notes in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte XII (1915) 137-54. The reply of the Strasbourg conference was published under the title (translated), An Answer of the Swiss Brethren, also Called High Germans, to the Polish, Concerning the Point of the Incarnation and the Deity of Jesus Christ, in Handelinge der Vereenigde Vlaemse en Duytse Doopsgesinde Gemeynten Gehouden tot Haerlem Anno 1649 (Vlissingen, 1666). A postscript to the letter adds the note (translated): "Passed at the general gathering of the elders and ministers from many countries, held in the year 1592 at Strasbourg. . . . Translated from the High German into the Low German from Rauf-bits' [Rauf Bitsch] own handwriting." Rauf Bitsch was a leading spokesman of the Brethren in the disputation at Frankenthal in 1571.
The repeated meetings at Strasbourg suggest not only that Strasbourg was tolerant, but that there must have been a continuing Anabaptist congregation at Strasbourg (as indeed we know there was down to at least 1880), that there may have been other congregations in the neighborhood (as we know there were both north and south of Strasbourg in Alsace), and that Strasbourg had an established reputation as a meeting place. Outside of Schleitheim and Augsburg (both in 1527), no other Anabaptist conferences meeting in the 16th century south of Cologne are known.
Horsch, John. "The Faith of the Swiss Brethren." Mennonite Quarterly Review II (1931): 24-27.
Hulshof, Abraham. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1525 tot 1557 (Amsterdam, 1905) particularly Ch. XIII, "Algemeene Vergaderingen door Doopsgezinden uit verschillende Landen in 1554 en volgende Jaaren te Straatsburg gehouden," 218-34.
Ottius, J. H. Annales Anabaptistici. Basel, 1672.
|Author(s)||Harold S Bender|
Cite This Article
Bender, Harold S. "Strasbourg Conferences." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 29 Aug 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Conferences&oldid=114139.
Bender, Harold S. (1959). Strasbourg Conferences. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 August 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Conferences&oldid=114139.
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