Brethren of the Free Spirit

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Brethren of the Free Spirit was the name of a peculiar, quietistic-pantheistic group in the Christian Church in the Middle Ages whose history is still largely unknown. It was influenced by the mystics and leaned toward Libertinism. The fundamental ideas in their doctrine, traced back to Amalarich of Bena (d. 1204 as professor of theology in Paris) are as follows: In the human soul and all earthly things the divine substance is present. The merging of the soul in God is the final goal of all religion. Whoever attains this, the "perfect one," is sinless; his will is God's will. The commandments and means of grace are meaningless to him. Since all human conduct has been determined from eternity, all freedom of the human will is eliminated and moral striving without value. One must permit the Spirit to rule in him freely and allow himself to develop. This doctrine of unrestrained freedom of spirit was attributed to the Waldenses by their Catholic opponents (Keller, Reformation, 156; HRE, 485). It is also charged against the Beguines and Beghards without warrant. It is apparently incorrect to try to define the development and organization of the Brethren as a unified brotherhood, a "sect of the free spirit." They were rather isolated groups that arose within and in opposition to the church. Perhaps some widely circulated writings hostile to the church, like Die neun Felsen in their original formulation and Schwester Kathrei were an important factor in their rise. Among the advocates of the doctrine were Margarete Porete (burned in Paris in 1310), Marie of Valenciennes, Hadewig Bloemmard of Brussels, who opposed Ruysbroek about 1330, Berthold of Rohrbach (burned at Speyer in 1356), and Hermann Küchener of Nürnberg. Whether Walter of the Netherlands (executed at Cologne in 1322), whom Keller calls an apostle of the Waldenses, belonged to them is very doubtful (HRE, 471). Still less should the "Friend of God," Nikolaus of Basel be mentioned in connection with them.

The accusation made again and again against the Anabaptists that they belonged to the "sect of the free spirit" was probably based on the unfounded assumption that they advocated the doctrine of sinlessness.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 278.

Herzog, J. J. and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, 24 vols. 3. ed. Leipzig: J. H. Hinrichs, 1896-1913: v. III, 467-472.

Keller, Ludwig. Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien : in ihrem Zusammenhange dargestellt. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1885: 124, 153 ff.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Date Published 1953

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MLA style

Neff, Christian. "Brethren of the Free Spirit." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 9 Aug 2022.

APA style

Neff, Christian. (1953). Brethren of the Free Spirit. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 426. All rights reserved.

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