Hesse (Germany)

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Hesse (Hessen) stands near the top among the German territories in which Anabaptism became widespread in the very first years of its rise. The history of the movement in this territory, which at that time contained not only the later Grand Duchy of Hesse but also the greater part of the modern Prussian Province of Hesse-Nassau, furnishes a typical example of how theologians, princes, statesmen, and jurists united to combat a community which thought it could not find the true primitive Christian life in the state church. Nevertheless Hesse has a special place in the history of the Anabaptist movement since in this territory, in contrast to the other Protestant territories, death sentences on account of faith were not passed on the Anabaptists. The clergy in Hesse were not able to put across their viewpoint on the suppression of those who held to the baptism of faith on account of the position of Landgrave Philip of Hesse. He preferred as more Biblical the method of free exchange of opinion. The results of the discussions with the Anabaptists were of real importance not only for the Hessian state church, but also for Protestantism at large.

Landgrave Philip appreciated the religious sensibilities of his subjects. To a certain extent he sympathized with the views of the Anabaptists. For this reason on 20 February 1530 he wrote to his sister: "I see more real Christianity among those who are called fanatics than among those who are Lutheran." The Lutheran theologians, as well as the authorities of Saxony, were aware of Philip's attitude and this may have been one reason why Justus Menius dedicated to him his book on the Anabaptists, entitled Der Widdertauffer lere und geheimnis aus heiliger Schrift Widderlegt (Wittenberg, 1530), to which Martin Luther wrote the foreword.

Philip, realizing that it was impossible to secure agreement on every question of doctrine, was ready, at least at first, to grant tolerance to all the various faiths, with the exception of the Catholic Church. It was only upon pressure from the Saxon authorities that he allowed himself to be moved from his progressive attitude. But in the matter of the punishment of the Anabaptists, he never forsook his original point of view. He looked upon Anabaptism as only a "degenerated child of the Reformation" (entartetes Kind der Reformation) and hoped to be able to bring them into the state church.

Since the neighboring territories issued very strict mandates against the Anabaptists, they fled into Hesse. From the middle of 1528 on, the center of this movement was the region of Hersfeld, especially the village of Sorga. The spiritual leader here was Melchior Rinck, who was a priest at Hersfeld in 1523 and who became a very active leader in the Anabaptist movement after joining it in 1528. Philip spared no pains to bring about Rinck's return to the state church; but neither Balthasar Raidt, the pastor at Hersfeld, nor the professors of theology in the University of Marburg were able to make him change his position. He was imprisoned until May 1531, and finally expelled from the country, with the command never to return to Hesse or Electoral Saxony. Nevertheless Rinck returned to Hesse that very year. On 11 November 1531, as he was preaching on the command of Jesus to baptize, he was arrested together with 11 hearers as the result of a search instituted by the council of Vacha. Since the arrest took place in the township of Hausbreitenbach, which was in the joint jurisdiction of Landgrave Philip and the Elector of Saxony, a lively dispute arose between the two states as to the punishment of the prisoners. John of Saxony demanded the death penalty on the basis of an opinion which was submitted to him by his counselors and the scholars at Wittenberg, moved also by the regulations laid down in the decree of the Diet of Speyer of 23 April 1529. Philip preferred a milder treatment.

In order to free himself from the charge that he had done nothing to stop the spread of Anabaptism in his territory, Philip issued a regulation about the middle of 1531, which placed the major emphasis on the reconversion of the Anabaptists. If there was suspicion that an inhabitant of the country was inclined to accept the views of the Anabaptists it was first of all the duty of the pastor to diligently question him. If the questioning revealed an inclination to leave the faith and an unwillingness to modify his attitude, a report was to be submitted to the superintendent of the district. The latter was then to instruct the person in question in the presence of several learned pastors. If he then accepted the teachings of the state church, he was to be released. If he were caught a second time, he was to confess his error in the church and promise to become a full participant in the church organization and not to admit Anabaptists into his house or to associate with them. If he should backslide again, he was nevertheless to be accepted if he should recant the third time, as in the preceding case, but he was required to sell half of his goods and give the receipts to the treasury for the poor.

But if anyone should refuse to yield to this instruction, the regulations prescribed further that in case he were a preacher of the Anabaptists or had baptized others, he should be expelled from the country under threat of death until he should repent and make public confession. This regulation was based upon the assumption that such a preacher had illegally assumed the office of preacher and had illegally undertaken ceremonial procedure. If the preacher would accept these requirements he should be restored to the church. Those who had merely been baptized and had not preached were required to sell their lands and buildings and all property and to submit to the same regulations as the Jews, who were not permitted to possess land in the country. If the wives and children of the accused parties would return to the state church, they should be permitted to recover the lost property. Whoever was expelled from the country but nevertheless would return and not keep his oath, the same should be handed over to the civil authorities "to receive what was due him."

Melchior Rinck, who had violated his oath and refused to be moved in his convictions, was sentenced to life imprisonment. This Philip reported to John of Saxony on 3 January 1532. In 1540 Rinck's punishment was lightened as a result of the intervention of Martin Bucer. Since John, on the basis of the imperial decrees, insisted upon the punishment of the rest of those who had been arrested at Hausbreitenbach, he and Philip agreed to divide the prisoners and permit each prince to apply whatever punishment he saw fit to those that he took. The prisoners who were assigned to Hesse recanted and were released. On the contrary, the Saxon authorities immediately executed three Anabaptists, Hans Eisfart, his wife, and Berlet Schmidt. In Anabaptist circles these executions aroused great indignation and merely stirred them to still greater zeal for their faith. Even those who had recanted now spoke out boldly in the presence of the commissioners of the Saxon and Hessian governments in favor of baptism on confession of faith. John Frederick, who became Elector of Saxony in 1532, insisted like his father upon the execution of the Anabaptists who had been arrested at Hausbreitenbach, basing his position upon a legal opinion of the high court at Leipzig.

The three provinces of the Grand Duchy of Hesse: Upper Hesse, Starkenburg and Rhenish Hesse.
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The spread of the Anabaptist movement in Hesse led to further pressure upon the Landgrave by the neighboring states. In 1536 a group of 30 Anabaptists were surprised at a service in an abandoned church near Gemünden on the Wohra (district of Kassel). Ten of these Anabaptists were imprisoned at Wolkersdorf (now Oberförsterei in the Frankenberg circuit, district of Kassel), with four of the leaders: Georg Schnabel, previously an official of the church in Allendorf, Peter Lose of Gemünden, Hermann Bastian, printer (supposedly from Marburg), and Leonhard Fälber (Rembert, 450) of Jülich. They had previously been repeatedly expelled, but always returned and therefore were now subject to the penalty which the last mandate prescribed, but which Philip hesitated to carry out, requesting an opinion from the evangelical lawyers and theologians of other countries on the basis of a law issued by the previous Landtag. On 24 May 1536 the request for the opinion was sent out to Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, Duke Ernst of Lüneburg, the lawyers of Strasbourg, Ulm, and Augsburg, and the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg.

The response received merely strengthened Philip in his previous attitude, for several reports opposed the death penalty in matters of faith, as for instance the opinion of the mayor and council of the city of Ulm and that of the theologians at Strasbourg. The other theologians demanded the death penalty, as for instance the theological faculty of Tübingen, Martin Luther, Johann Bugenhagen, Caspar Cruciger, and Philip Melanchthon for the theological faculty at Wittenberg, and Urban Rhegius for the Duke of Lüneburg. In verbose statements Rhegius declared that the worldly temporal authorities could execute with a good conscience the "accursed heretics" who seemed to him to be worse and more deserving of punishment than the most notorious criminals, since the state had the power to do this (Hochhuth, 1858, 556-578). The Wittenberg reformers declared that it was the duty of the secular authorities to kill obstinate dissenters. Philip summoned his counselors and theologians, together with the representatives of the nobility and the cities, to a conference at Kassel on 7 August 1536 to discuss the future policy in the punishment of the Anabaptists. His first act at this conference was to read the opinions which he had just received; then each of the delegates was asked to state his opinion. This procedure naturally developed opposing opinions, but the outstanding influence of the attitude of the ruler of the land was quite evident. There were some, to be sure, who demanded the death penalty for the Anabaptists and pointed to the example of the Emperor Honorius of the Western Roman Empire. However, the more extreme views were not accepted by the conference. One delegate wanted to have the death penalty for those Anabaptists who should return after they were expelled; these would not be executed for their faith, but for disobedience to the authorities. Others demanded life sentence at hard labor. The extreme opinions of the reformers, however, found no support. Among the theologians only Pastor Justus Winther of Rothenburg favored the death penalty on the basis of the laws of the empire.

The theologians who were of a milder opinion recognized the weaknesses of the state church, especially from the point of view of the religious life among the people, and were quite aware of the strength of the oppressed Anabaptists who baptized upon confession of faith. For this reason it was proposed to institute a general prayer throughout the country for the conversion of the Anabaptists, and to endeavor to have the people renounce their sins in order that the Anabaptists should no longer have reason to stay away from the church. Adam Kraft, the noted preacher who had been professor of theology at the University of Marburg since 1528, and who was also inspector of the churches and therefore had good opportunity to learn to know the reasons why the Anabaptists stayed away from the church, expressed his opinion that the Anabaptists would return to the state church as soon as the more offensive sins and vices of the members of the state church should be done away with. Pastor Johann Lening of Melsungen said, "We should pray to God that the people change their manner of life, and admonish the Anabaptists kindly and lovingly, and even if everything which the Anabaptists teach is wicked, yet we must use caution and use every means to convert them before we reach for the sword." And the chaplain Melander said, "The Anabaptist sect represents an affliction from God; for this reason general prayer should be ordained, the preachers ought diligently to preach against sectarians, the people should be admonished to improve their lives and should be told that sins will not remain unpunished, in order that the Anabaptists will find no cause in us to establish a new church. It is the duty of the authorities to punish all the evils and to punish each according to the degree of his sin" (Hochhuth, 1858: 594).

Several delegates insisted upon improvement of the existing regulations, and attacked certain persons in the church whose conduct was offensive to the Anabaptists. What the Anabaptists sought to attain out of inner conviction, namely, a pure life, this the state church should try to accomplish in its members by pressure from the authorities.

The next step was to select a committee composed of several delegates to prepare a new regulation against Anabaptists. The regulations which were adopted the following year in the Visitationsordnung of 1537 marked an intensification of the previous regulations and prescribed the death penalty for the Anabaptists. One can see, however, how much the civil and ecclesiastical authorities endeavored to meet the demands of the Anabaptists in wanting to have religious fellowship only with persons of morally irreproachable character. The pastors and officials were required to exercise careful oversight in regard to all persons of immoral tendencies and it was made their duty to punish acts of immorality whenever they occurred.

According to the new regulations the following practices were not to be tolerated in the "Christian church": the rejection of infant baptism and the repetition of baptism; the view that a Christian cannot accept civil office, cannot punish evildoers, cannot partake in just war, cannot receive or give interest or tithes, and cannot swear proper oaths; the view that the incarnation of Jesus was not accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit; the denial of the forgiveness of mortal sin after baptism; the acceptance of communism of goods; crimes against marriage (bigamy, or separation on the ground of divergence of faith followed by remarriage). The following acts were threatened with the death penalty: unauthorized preaching or conducting of services in the forests in out-of-the-way places, or in isolated houses, and the intentional attendance of such meetings; rejection of civil authority, rejection of obedience to the authorities; return after expulsion (Hochhuth, 1858, 598). The threatened penalties were not actually carried out with great severity. The penalties were in fact due to a confusion of religious and political concepts. It is evident that these regulations were due to the influence of persons who attempted to make the ruler fear that his throne would be endangered if the Anabaptist movement should grow.

Whoever was suspected of transgressing one of the regulations was first of all to be brought to the nearest pastor and to be instructed by several learned theologians. If the attempt to enlighten and convert the erring one would be without success, then according to the regulations the persons involved should be delivered to the superintendent of the district (in Marburg, Kassel, Eschwege, Darmstadt, or St. Goar) and examined by the state counselors of the ruler, and instructed. Whoever admitted his error was required to recant in public. Whoever had previously recanted but had backslidden, and now again repented, was compelled to make a contribution to the treasury for the poor. Those who persisted in remaining true to their faith were treated with greater severity, but the ruler hesitated to actually apply the extreme penalty—death. "No Anabaptist shall be executed, even if the sentence has already been passed, without reporting the matter to us first." In the instructions to the officials a difference was made between the preachers and lay members, as well as between native and foreign persons. The foreign preacher was to be beaten with rods, branded on the cheek, and expelled from the land forever, with a threat of death penalty if he should return. Were he to return, a criminal prosecution was to be initiated against him and he was to be dealt with "according to the present regulations and the imperial laws." The native preachers were to sell their property. If they did not do so within the fixed time, their houses were to be locked, the fire put out, and the property sold. The income from the sale was to be preserved until they should demand it again (which no doubt assumed a return to the state church). They were also required under threat of death to leave the land "forever." They were to be driven out with rods and branded on the face. Whoever should return the third time was to be tortured and executed.

The lay members who were "perhaps misled due to ignorance" were to be expelled from the land if they were foreigners. If they should be caught a second time they were to be driven out with rods and branded. If caught a third time, they were to be put to death. They could however save their lives if they would recant. Native lay Anabaptists were first to be given a month's time for consideration, in which they were to be instructed by the local pastor and other clergymen. "Whoever would not listen to the instruction and join the state church was to sell his property. If this punishment should not avail, then he was to be driven out of the country with rods, but not to be branded on the cheek "because of his ignorance," and if this punishment should be without success, he was to be sentenced to imprisonment and kept there "until perhaps God should give him grace to repent and be converted." Prisons were to be built for these, where they were to be provided with slight food supplies, although they were to be permitted to have spiritual instruction, to hear the proclamation of the Word of God by a pastor of the state church, "so that God might grant His grace to them." Minor children and husband or wife who were not Anabaptists were to be dealt with as mildly as possible.

The officials dealt very leniently with those who were sentenced. The magistrate of Wolkersdorf permitted the wives of the prisoners to visit them in prison. It even became possible for the prisoners to enlarge the hole through which they received their food, by means of a saw which had been smuggled in, so that they could get out. They did not flee, but simply went in and out, sometimes remaining outside for weeks, during which time they would do their work at home, preach, and baptize, although they always returned to prison. This procedure was carried on for almost a year before it was discovered. During this time for instance Georg Schnabel baptized almost 30 people.

In August 1538 Philip sent Gerardus Noviomagus, professor of theology at the University of Marburg, to go with Peter Dietrich Fabritius of Stadt-Allendorf to Wolkersdorf to convert the imprisoned Anabaptist preachers, Georg Schnabel, Peter Lose, and Leonhard Fälber. (The fourth leader of the Hessian Anabaptists, Hermann Bastian, was in Marburg.) They discovered a booklet which Georg Schnabel had written for the brotherhood answering the charges brought against the brotherhood in the Visitationsordnung of 1537. Schnabel especially denied that they practiced community of goods and that they rejected civil authority and had peculiar notions about marriage. In this booklet, which bears the title Verantwurtung und Widerlegung der Artikel, so jetzund im land zu Hessen über die armen Davider, die man Wiedertäufer nent, ausgangen sind, he defends the Scripturalness of several Anabaptist principles with remarkable evidence of familiarity with the Bible (Hochhuth, 1859: 167-181).

In this writing by Schnabel repeated mention is made of the booklets written by Peter Tasch who originally came from Jülich (Bucer mentions four writings, Lenz I: 50), and who had preached and baptized in the Lahn Valley. Schnabel was in correspondence with him. A letter was also found in which Peter Tasch gave information about the quiet progress of the Anabaptist movement in England. This letter caused Philip to send a letter in his name and that of John Frederick to Henry VIII of England, calling his attention to the spread of Anabaptism in his kingdom. A copy of the letter by Tasch was sent to Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. The latter was requested to prepare the letter to be sent to Henry VIII. In this letter Melanchthon spoke of the Anabaptist pestilence which was active in Germany in many places and which did not preach the pure doctrine of the Gospel; but in those regions "where the Gospel truth is preached in its purity, praise God, the people voluntarily flee from this pest because they are made secure against errors by mature doctrine." These remarks by Melanchthon were not quite satisfactory to the Hessian chancellor, Feige, wherefore the letter as written by Melanchthon was modified in many points, so that it was no longer so extreme (Lenz I, 320). In its new form as modified by the Hessian chancellor the letter was sent to Henry VIII on 25 September. Notable is an appendix which the Landgrave added to the letter as follows: "The Anabaptists are not all alike, a portion being simple, good-hearted, misled people, while another portion are dangerous, wicked, stiff-necked fellows." The Saxon translator omitted this appendix. The   English government undertook severe action against the Anabaptists upon the receipt of the letter. On 1 October 1538, the chancellor Thomas Cromwell issued an order to punish "the stiff-necked Anabaptists." Many of them lost their lives at the stake. (See England)

The discussions which Noviomagus and Fabritius had on 9 August 1538 with the prisoners at Wolkersdorf were a failure. The instruction of the theologians made no impression on the Anabaptist preachers. Leonhard Fälber replied with a lengthy discussion about the power of the living Word which could transform a man from evil to good and completely renew him. In the church he said the dead word was taught which did not check the sinful life of the members. Peter Lose expatiated in bitter expressions about the offensive manner of life of the Hessian preachers and teachers. In consequence the theologians could come to no agreement with the brethren. The prisoners were now taken to Marburg and put under the supervision of Statthalter George von Kolmatsch. Here likewise officials and scholars attempted to work upon them, but everything was in vain. In the meantime the movement was spreading throughout the country. Chancellor Feige, who had also conversed with the brethren, was aroused by their resistance and by the openness with which they attacked the sinful life of the members of the church. He urged the Landgrave seriously to take the matter in hand himself "and lay aside all other affairs."

Philip now sent a writing to the imprisoned preachers in which he accused them of having deceived him in that they frequently were absent from prison. He had now good reason, he said, to use severe measures against them, but he wanted to be gracious once more and give them a last opportunity to let themselves be set right by a "God-fearing man."

So a final attempt was made to convert the Anabaptists to the state church by means of a discussion (Religionsgespräch) which was held at Marburg 30 October to 1 November 1538 in the presence of several scholars together with the city council and delegates of the guilds in Marburg. The debate covered these topics: the ban, the church, usury, baptism, magistracy, and the incarnation of Christ. Those who took part were Martin Bucer and the imprisoned Anabaptist preachers Schnabel, Fälber, and Lose. Hermann Bastian was also present. (Hochhuth, 1858: 626-644) At first they were asked to give Biblical grounds for their separation from the state church. Schnabel, who was asked by Bucer to speak on behalf of the group, explained that he had first accepted the Lutheran teaching and had become at once an official in charge of the treasury for the poor. In the course of his work he noticed that the management was not always carried on in the Biblical spirit. He raised objection to his pastor but received no attention for his criticisms about usury and the practice of the ban, as well as his remarks about the bad conditions in the church. He felt his conscience was bound in the sight of God, and so he could not bring himself to the point where he was willing to loan out the money of the church for interest, while many of the poor people in the community were in great need. For that reason he told the pastor, the mayor, and the council of Marburg, that they were not doing right in the matter of usury and the ban. For that reason he separated himself from them.

Bucer denied that the Anabaptists had the right to separate from the church. He said that a separation from the church could be brought about only by the church itself when it expelled those who were not willing to listen to its admonitions. Georg had committed an error by dealing only with the pastor and failing to report to the church the evils which he had criticized to the pastor. When he was not willing to listen to the sermons any more he had not only shunned the pastor, but the pastor's work. Let him furnish a passage of Scripture on the basis of which he would be justified to shun the pastor, the pastor's work, and the whole church, before there had been a public excommunication. There was no justification for shunning the church nor a preacher nor any other official just because the church did not throw a sinner overboard. "Even though officials should be found negligent in punishing evil, yet it was not proper for any particular member to shun them or to hold them worthy of shunning," if the church did not excommunicate them.

The Anabaptists showed no appreciation for such views. Georg declared that the church had not dealt with him and his brethren in the spirit of the Bible. It had taken their books "and plunged them into darkness"; it had driven them from house and home, "and if one should ask the council and citizens of Marburg they would say of those who had been banished that they did not deserve it and they would recognize them as pious people" (Hochhuth, 1858: 633). Although Bucer was not willing to admit that the church in Hesse had dealt unjustly with the Anabaptists since, as he insisted, it was not the church but the authorities which had imprisoned them on account of the discord, yet Georg's argument on this point was not without influence on Bucer's attitude for the future. "We would not want to justify injustice in the church," said Bucer. The church desired "to be one" with the Anabaptists. Bucer endeavored to compromise with the views of the Anabaptists. He stated that he did not reject the ban and that the church did not want to approve of usury. He even was willing to grant the right to refuse obedience to the authorities for conscience' sake, but he said, "If a subject should know that the authorities would demand of him to do that which is wrong he should not obey" (p. 637). Bucer's explanations that little children were baptized in the time of the apostles made no impression on the Anabaptists. Georg declared, "I prefer to stand by what I am sure about, namely, that the apostles baptized those who repented. I prefer to let go points on which I am uncertain." In the matter of the incarnation of Christ he explained that he would abide by the article in the general confession of faith on this point, but he believed "that God would in time help him to understand what he did not understand now."

Even though no agreement was reached on all the points under discussion, and in particular in the matter of baptism, in which the prisoners maintained their position, they ultimately agreed to let themselves be influenced to resume their connection with the state church. The ecclesiastical officials hoped that now all the Anabaptists would join the state church. Possibly the concession they made to the Anabaptists in the matter of baptism, namely, the introduction of confirmation, by which they hoped to bridge over the gap between the two views, was the method by which they hoped to bring about the reunion.

In his discussion on the question of baptism, Schnabel had emphasized the point that in the church the children were only baptized and nothing more was done; the children were not taught repentance and oneness of life. Bucer could not deny this fact. He therefore agreed with Schnabel and admitted that something would have to be done in this matter, namely, "the children should be catechized diligently when they came to an age of accountability and should be taught to observe everything that the Lord had commanded" (Hochhuth, 1858: 637).

The accusations which Schnabel brought against the state church were now to be met by the introduction of a procedure hitherto unknown in the churches of the reformation, namely, the introduction of general instruction for the youth, followed by confirmation, in order that the Anabaptists might no longer be offended by the neglect of the religious care of the youth. Bucer wrote to Philip on 17 November 1538 from Wittenberg, whither he had gone after the discussion at Marburg, that the Anabaptists could not be dealt with in a way that would be of more use to the church and at the same time the common people more effectively guarded against them, "than by a better organization of Christian life and the more earnest application of Christian discipline" (Lenz I, 53).

The Anabaptists did not join the church without conditions. Following the discussion at Marburg they submitted a writing to the Landgrave on 9 December 1538, entitled Bekenntnis oder Antwort etlicher Fragestücke oder Artikeln der gefangenen Täufer und Anderer im Land zu Hessen (Hochhuth, 1858: 612-622). In this writing they pointed out once more how the church was lacking in its conflict against sin among the people and did not bring up the people to thankfulness and love toward God and to the praise of the Gospel. They expressed to him their conception of baptism, of the Lord's Supper, of the ban, and of swearing of oaths, and finally declared, "as soon as we feel that all possible diligence is used to apply the ban, according to the ordinance of Christ and the apostles, we are willing with our whole heart to gladly enter into fellowship with the church, even though perfection may not be attained at once (p. 620). . . . We promise to conduct ourselves toward the whole church and toward everyone in a free, brotherly, just, and serviceable fashion, just as we desire that everyone should conduct himself toward us" (p. 622). This writing, which was signed by Peter Tasch, Georg and Ludwig Schnabel of Allendorf, Leonhard Fälber, Thonig Möler, Christian of Odenhause, Jungheim of Geyssen, Cautz Schmyt of Horbach, and Peter Lose of Gemünden, was turned over by the Landgrave to his theologians for examination (Martin Bucer, Johannes Kymäus, Dionysius Melander, Johannes Pistorius, and Justus Winther). In their reply it is interesting to note that they scarcely contradicted at all the shortcoming and failings of the pastors which the Anabaptists attacked, but much rather expressed themselves in regard to those points which dealt with the doctrine of faith and good works. On this point they hoped that "there are not many among the preachers of our confession who did not frequently and faithfully preach after this fashion. But we do not desire to defend ourselves nor others any further (p. 623) . . . and therefore have no quarrel with them in this first point, but rather agree in Christian peace" (p. 624).

The theologians complained of a shortcoming in the statements of the Anabaptists in that "they were not willing to confess more expressly and willingly their sin and grievous wickedness which they have been guilty of against the church and the congregation of Christ and its ministers and members, along with all sorts of not insignificant errors and false teachings, but rather laid the entire blame for their separation from the church on us and our shortcomings" (p. 625). But if the Anabaptists should desist from their meetings and teachings, should attend the services of the church, should cease to despise and object to infant baptism, should let their children be baptized "since these are born into the church still more than unto their parents," take the oath, assume the obligations of citizens in military service and other matters, and reunite with the church, then they should be accepted with the patience and love of Christ in the hope that they would "by their Christian and kindly association, their faithful admonition, and their devoted living, help to edify the church indeed and bring about true church discipline and the exercise of the Christian ban." Furthermore, no pain should be spared in the church to make matters right and wherever neglect should appear and the Anabaptists or any other persons should call attention of the leaders in the church to the matter, "we faithfully promise to do our best by the grace of God so that men may see that we are concerned about Christian discipline" (p. 626). "These brethren," as the Anabaptists are now called, "should be gladly forgiven for everything they have ever done against the church. On the other hand, the Anabaptists should also forgive if they feel that they have been dealt with too severely."

This opinion of the theologians stands in sharp antithesis to the previous attitude of the Hessian clergy. In it a high regard for the attitude of the Anabaptists can be recognized, a response which was bound to make an impression on the Anabaptist leaders as soon as they were able to realize the emphasis which was being put upon their endeavor to promote holiness, and how much good effect on the church was anticipated as a result of their co-operation. From this point of view it would not be right to say that it was only the noted dialectical ability of Martin Bucer which was the cause of the bridging over of the differences in the discussions with the Anabaptists, but rather the sincere endeavor of the theologians to make available to the state church the teachings of the Anabaptists which seemed to them to be worthy of acceptance.

The new discipline for the Hessian church was undertaken at once. By the end of November 1538 the synod met at Ziegenhain and adopted the new discipline. It appeared in print in the following year. In this discipline it is quite easy to see the influence of the discussions with the Anabaptists. The discipline required that "all children as soon as they are old enough should be sent to the catechetical instruction which shall be arranged at each place at such a time that it will not be a burden to send the children" (Diehl 17).

With this regulation which rose out of the struggle between the state church and Anabaptism, the Hessian state church created an institution which was introduced at first in the evangelical state church in Hesse and then in the following three centuries gradually into all the evangelical churches of Germany under the name "confirmation," that is, a ratification of the baptism which had been performed upon infants which were as yet unaware of what was being done.

The attitude of Philip to the reforms which arose out of the discussions with the Anabaptists is of importance. In his instruction to the government he said:

My dear counselors and retainers: We have read the decisions of the synod which has just met at Ziegenhain concerning the ban, confirmation, and the Anabaptists and desire to make known that we are graciously pleased with the decisions, but we have noticed several points which seemed thus to be in part unbalanced and in part possibly not clear.

As regards the application of the ban, especially at the beginning, in the attempt to prevent a falling away from the Gospel, prevent strife and offense, we have fears that this may be misused just as was the case in former times, and that the ban may not be applied with Christian sympathy and modesty. We also fear that not all preachers and pastors have equal gifts in the matter of teaching or in common sense or in Christian modesty, and feel therefore that the ban should be introduced everywhere in all parishes at once, but should first be applied in the cities and villages where the most able and most learned preachers are to be found, as for instance at Kassel and at Marburg, so that we can see how things go and so that the other preachers and pastors who are not so able should observe and learn thereby how the ban should be exercised. . . . We express ourselves thus also because we have heard that the scholars who were present at the synod are also of this opinion and feel that so far as the ban is concerned, it should not yet be publicly announced in the church or in printed form, but should first be tried out in the various places as mentioned above.

In the matter of the Anabaptists and their punishment, it will be necessary that you, our Chancellor, should go into this matter and should prepare a proper regulation in accordance with our command which everyone may clearly understand and accept. It shall have the following form: If an Anabaptist should do this, he should be punished for it; if he should do that, he should be punished with a more serious punishment. Further, it is necessary to note that when Anabaptists are about to be punished or sentenced they will probably cry out in public and say, for they are well able to speak, 'Dear people, we are suffering very much today on account of our faith, and on account of righteousness.' Thereupon the poor, common, ignorant people will no doubt be much offended and embittered in spirit. Therefore it would be better not to sentence an Anabaptist unless it is made known in advance to our counselors at Kassel and Marburg, and furthermore that they should not be sentenced anywhere except at Kassel and Marburg. Further, if such a one should be sentenced, several officials must be on hand to explain to the people that we are punishing the Anabaptist for this or that transgression, and the preachers are to publicly proclaim to the people that the Anabaptists are in error on this or that point and are misleading the people. All this should be done in order that the people may hear that the Anabaptists are not being punished for the true Christian faith and for righteousness' sake but because of their transgression and disobedience, and also that they may learn that the Anabaptists are in error in this and that point and are unrighteous, in order that these errors may become offensive to the people and that they may learn to save themselves from them. In Kassel the following persons should do this, namely, the Chancellor and two or three of the most able preachers, such as Dionysius Melander and Johannes Pistorius, while at Marburg it is to be the Statthalter and two or three of their most learned preachers, such as Master Adam and others.

These decisions and regulations give abundant evidence of the extent to which the struggle against the Anabaptists influenced the religious and moral life of the country. The officials desired to really educate and train the populace in the proper manner but were aware of the difficulties attending such endeavors. This is the reason for the cautious method of introducing the ban. Compulsory membership in the state church was incompatible with the application of the ban according to the principles of the Anabaptists. For this reason one of the two had to be dropped if there was not to be continual conflict. The principle of the Anabaptists which was based upon the assumption of freedom in religious matters simply could not be applied without modification of the state church. For this reason the introduction of the ban in the Hessian church never got beyond the stage of experimentation.

The Anabaptists in the country appear to have taken a distrustful attitude toward the assurances which had been given their leaders at Marburg. They could not reconcile the threats of punishment in case of refusal to rejoin the state church with their conception of freedom of faith and conscience. They hesitated to enter into permanent union with a church in which the sword of civil authority exercised dominant influence in matters of faith. Martin Bucer understood their attitude, as is evident from the proposal which he made to Philip on 4 November 1538 to send out the Anabaptist preachers who had already entered the state church as missionaries to win over their followers. In this proposal he says: "There are more of the Anabaptists in your Highness' land than I had supposed and among them are many good- hearted people who are so suspicious of us preachers that they will not accept anything or at least very little from us. If therefore they are threatened with punishment the result is that the most pious among them will simply be strengthened in their attitude, for they will thereby think that they are suffering for the Lord's sake, whereas those who yield, usually do it against their conscience and for this reason they will not remain steadfast in their new faith or will forsake all religion and thereby become the most infamous people which can be found, just as I have experienced in many cases" (Lenz 51).

According to Bucer's report Peter Tasch is said to have prevailed upon about 200 members of the Anabaptist group to return to the state church. We learn later of various other commissions which Tasch, Bastian, Georg Schnabel, and Peter Lose received in the matter of winning back their previous comrades in faith for the Hessian church. However, they were not able to accomplish any great success (Lenz I, 325). Peter Tasch followed Bucer to Strasbourg. What Bucer had said to the Landgrave concerning such Anabaptists who yielded to pressure against their conscience (in his letter of 4 November 1538) was demonstrated in his case. Tasch not only gave up his faith but later the ethical principles of Anabaptism as well. He led an extravagant life, fell into debt, deceived his creditors, and finally disappeared from the city about 1560 (Rembert 457).

The Anabaptist movement in Hesse was by no means suppressed by these measures. Quite a number of Anabaptists remained steadfast to their faith. On 22 January 1544, Philip wrote to Master Adam that he intended "to drive out of the country the Anabaptists who were not willing to accept the articles which had been accepted by Schnabel, Tasch, and others"  (Hochhuth 1858: 181).

In order to escape the continued pressure by civil and ecclesiastical authorities, many Anabaptists migrated to Moravia, where they joined the Hutterites, whose missionaries for a long time regularly visited their coreligionists in Hesse. For instance in July 1544 a company of 12 travelers whose leaders, Peter and Jacob, had already suffered several imprisonments in Hesse on account of their teaching and baptizing, were arrested by Hessian officers (Hochhuth 1859: 208). They had decided to emigrate on account of the order which they had received to participate in the war, which was against their faith.

Although Philip was very anxious to restore unity of religious faith in his country and made severe threats against all those who resisted his program, he nevertheless did not permit himself to be brought to the point where he gave his consent to the actual application of the death penalty. At the end of his long reign (he died on 31 March 1567) he could set down these words in his last will: "We have never killed a human being because he did not believe aright." He admonished his sons to follow his example.

After Philip's death his country was divided into four districts. Wilhelm received the principality of lower Hesse with its capital Kassel, Ludwig received upper Hesse with its capital Marburg, Philip received the lower county of Katzenellenbogen with St. Goar, while George received the upper county of Katzenellenbogen with Darmstadt.

In the Reformationsordnung of 1572 which included regulations taken from the mandate of 1539 against the Anabaptists, Landgrave Wilhelm fixed the highest penalty against Anabaptists as expulsion from the country. These regulations also provided that if the instruction of the Anabaptists should be in vain the superintendent should sell the property of such persons within 14 days. However, in contrast to the usual practice in other countries, the guilty persons retained the right to dispose of the proceeds. If the property was not sold within the set time of 14 days the officials were required to sell it at the best possible price and hand over the proceeds to the guilty persons as soon as they had passed a point 12 miles outside of the border. However, if the guilty persons should voluntarily leave the country on request they were permitted to retain their property and rent it and later sell it. If they should return to the state church, their transgressions should be forgiven them.

Landgrave Wilhelm had previously manifested his more tolerant attitude toward the Anabaptists when the synod of Kassel laid before him in 1569 the question whether children of Anabaptist parents should be forcibly baptized. Wilhelm had received several opinions from his advisers. For instance, superintendent Dr. Johannes Marbach of Strasbourg, who had participated in the debate with the Anabaptists at Pfeddersheim in 1557, and who had published a book entitled Prozess in which he recommended to the authorities the death penalty for Anabaptists, recommended that the children of Anabaptists should be forcibly baptized against the will of their parents. Matthias Flacius Illyricus gave the same opinion. Landgrave Wilhelm however could not accept this point of view. It appeared to him that there were more arguments from human reason in the opinions than proofs out of the Bible. According to him, although the authorities had the power to compel their subjects to obey, he thought that it was quite questionable whether this power extended so far as to control the conscience which God alone was to judge. The Landgrave therefore had serious doubts about applying forcible baptism. In his mind a Christian ruler frequently had to make concessions to prevent harm and to maintain Christian love. To drive out of the country the "poor misled folk" or to inaugurate compulsory baptism might encourage Catholic princes to similar procedure against the evangelicals. He was supported in his opinion by the opinion which the Hessian superintendents Johannes Pistorius of Nidda and Johannes Gidarius submitted. Both of them pointed out the prevailing disorderliness among the members of the state church, which was frequently advanced by the Anabaptists as the reason for their separation from the church (see Heppe, ML II, 284).

It is worth while noticing in this letter several expressions by Anabaptist leaders. For instance, Martin Richter declared to the superintendents and preachers: "The teaching on infant baptism is incorrect, and likewise there is little improvement in life to be noticed among the members of the evangelical church." Even threat of punishment against him made no impression, so that he finally said he could not give up the truth which he had accepted but must be patient and suffer whatever he was to suffer. He requested however that he should be dealt with according to the regulations of the ruler and should be permitted to leave the country with his wife and child. Another Anabaptist, Hans Kuchenbecker of Hatzbach, expressed himself as follows to the Chancellor, preachers, and counselors at Marburg on 5 February 1577: he had observed very little improvement of life among the preachers and their hearers, and he did not desire to belong to such a crowd.

The remnants of the Anabaptist church in Hesse were not wiped out until the Thirty Years' War and their influence continued even beyond that time. The superintendent, Dr. Karl W. H. Hochhuth, the first scholar to work through the Anabaptist archives in Hesse, asserts "that the principle of ethical mysticism which lay at the roots of the Anabaptist movement could not be suppressed, and that it is impossible to deny the influence which certainly contributed a great deal toward reinvigorating church life and strengthening the grasp on old and almost forgotten redemptive principles" (Hochhuth 1859: 234). A later scholar, Eduard Becker, writes as follows in a monograph on The Anabaptists in Upper Hesse (Die Wiedertäufer in Oberhessen): "It is noteworthy that a considerable number of villages which were known to have been centers of Anabaptism later became centers of pietism and in our day are now centers of the Gemeinschaften."

Although Anabaptism was suppressed, it exerted its influence upon the public life of Hesse. A modern scholar in church law, Dr. Walter Sohm, comments as follows on the consequences of the reunion of the Anabaptist leaders with the State Church: "It is impossible to fail to recognize that Bucer and the Landgrave accomplished an extraordinary thing in this reunion . . . their procedure did not mean the destruction of the movement as was the case in Electoral Saxony; it meant the fortunate assimilation of the movement, the winning over of opposing forces and the exploitation of the movement with all its strength for the promotion of the purpose of the church. Nevertheless Christian society did not come out of this struggle without a loss. The Anabaptism which had been suppressed breathed something of its spirit into the body of the whole Hessian church life. . . . The conception of the pastoral office as having for its sole function the preaching of the Word was restricted by adding to it a disciplinary task in the church of Christ which was quite un-Lutheran. This was done by the inauguration of the church ban which was set up in the disciplinary regulations of 1539 adopted at Ziegenhain .... The legitimate state church movement and the sectarian side movement were united. In this act the last and decisive word was spoken as to the public character of the Hessian church society in so far as it undertook at all the education of its Christian subjects .... The suppressed Anabaptist revolution had its effect in the life of Hesse. It left a heritage therein which bore its characteristics" (Sohm 163-166).

See also Rhenish Hesse


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Author(s) Christian Hege
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Hege, Christian. "Hesse (Germany)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 23 Jun 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hesse_(Germany)&oldid=145459.

APA style

Hege, Christian. (1956). Hesse (Germany). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 June 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hesse_(Germany)&oldid=145459.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 719-727. All rights reserved.

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