Martyrdom, Theology of

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In 1933 the German church historian Ethelbert Stauffer (of Palatinate Mennonite parentage) published a study in the Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte (III, 1933, 545-98), entitled "Täufertum und Märtyrertheologie" (English translation under the title, "The Anabaptist Theology of Martyrdom" in MQR XIX, 1945, 179-214), which soon became a minor classic in the ongoing discussion of interpreting the essence of Anabaptism and its implied "theology." Stauffer's thesis is briefly as follows: In the period of post-canonical Judaism (since about 175 B.C.) a new viewpoint impressed itself on the then flourishing apocryphal literature: the idea that suffering and martyrdom for one's faith are the very meaning of the happenings of history, for a double reason: (a) they represent a causal necessity in the great fight between the divine and the satanic order. The great Adversary does not allow a pure realization of God's plan, at least not in this present aeon or world period. (b) Such suffering, however, serves at the same time a very great purpose: it ushers in the new aeon. Death becomes victory, martyrdom is an expiating sacrifice, and Satan will be overcome only by such nonresistant suffering. That was the teaching of Daniel 3 (the three men in the furnace) and of the Second and Third Book of the Maccabees (e.g., the story of the mother and her seven sons). In short, the apocalyptic, pre-Christian literature offers this double justification of martyrdom: causally it is inescapable, and teleologically ("what for") it is absolutely meaningful.

The New Testament continued this apocalyptic trend even further; the Cross becoming the very center not only of salvation but also the vindication of all martyrdom for conscience' sake. In fact the idea of Nachfolge or discipleship would almost be without meaning if it were not connected with such earthly tribulations. The believer's conflict with the "world" is the surest indication that the disciple is true to the master, testifying for another reality and preparing for the coming of the kingdom. Two figures of speech soon became generally accepted: the disciple must become a "soldier" [occasionally also called a "knight"] of Christ who "fights the good fight" to the bitter end, and secondly, baptism is called death just as death is a sort of baptism by blood. This remarkable "theology of history" may be found with many writers of the first centuries after Christ (sometimes called the period of the "Church under the Cross"), and received its final formulation in the famous Church History of Eusebius, a favorite later on with the Anabaptists.

Stauffer later claimed that this "theology of martyrdom" (which he occasionally also called appropriately the "apocalypse of martyrdom") is the "hidden sanctuary or crypt of Anabaptist Christianity" (MQR, 205). It is the very core of Anabaptist thought, its "theology of history," and the final directive toward the narrow path of renouncing the world and accepting conflicts and death, if need be. The true Christian must suffer in this world, but in so doing he is preparing for the kingdom of God which might come at any time (i.e., when the number of martyrs is full). The "suffering church" is the true church of God throughout all history. In documenting his thesis, Stauffer could refer to an outstanding array of original source material: Conrad Grebel's famous letter to Thomas Müntzer of 1524, Balthasar Hubmaier's Taufbüchlein of 1525, with its motto "Die Wahrheit is untödtlich," Menno Simons' tract Of the Cross of Christ (of 1556), the Hutterite Chronicle with its long list of martyrs and its special register of all these witnesses to truth, and finally the numerous martyrs' books, ending with van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror of 1660. The Ausbund and the Hutterite Lieder, as well as the numerous Dutch Mennonite hymnals, likewise contain ample material in this regard; in fact all evangelical Anabaptists are one in this basic outlook, theology, vision, or whatever this position might be called. A summary of the main ideas of Stauffer's essay follows.

(1) "The path of martyrdom of the people of God through history." The 45th hymn of the Ausbund (by Hans Biichel) has the characteristic title: "A new hymn in which a disciple laments because he met tribulations for the sake of God's Word; but the Lord answers kindly by telling him how He has fared in this world." This hymn very well reflects the mood and outlook of a typical Anabaptist believer. He is supposed to have "the patience and faith of the saints" (Revelation 13:10; see Gelassenheit), understanding that he is one in an endless tradition of fighters for God who thus challenge the prince of this world, and reach victory only through the Cross. Menno Simons' great tract Of the Cross explains this necessity in so many words: expect the Cross and be glad, for suffering (for the sake of Truth) is the sign of election. Letters and hymns produced on the eve of execution abundantly show this generally accepted attitude and faith, for which God is more real and concrete than anything else on this earth.

The Cross is the measure and the center of all Anabaptist "theology of martyrdom." No escape into a religion of either pure inwardness (like Pietism) or of pure spiritualism (like the Spiritual Reformers, or later the Quakers, appears possible from this point of view. "The Anabaptist apocalypse of martyrdom is the testimony of a theological realism to which God is more real than anything called world" (MQR, 204). In the great controversy between Pilgram Marpeck and Caspar Schwenckfeld, for instance (to Stauffer apparently not yet known), the distinction is well formulated: while Schwenckfeld seeks the "halo of glory," Marpeck knows that the disciple will find nothing but a "crown of thorns" (Marpeck, Verantwortung, 160).

(2)  "The apocalyptic interpretation of persecution." The new world epoch or aeon, the kingdom of God, which began with Jesus Christ, stands altogether under the sign of the Cross. However, Christ's disciples possess also the great promise of the "Holy Remnant" (as the prophets of old called it); they will inherit the kingdom and will see how those who once persecuted them now will find their bitter reward, namely, closed doors to the new and shining realm. The martyr stands in the center of a battle of two aeons (see, e.g., the Ausbund, 78th hymn); life is nothing but "the warfare of the Cross" (Menno Simons), which must be carried out to its very end. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the coming aeon, martyrdom is actually victory over the victor. And this triumph was foretold long ago in Revelation 1:7, "They shall see whom they have pierced."

At this place a word of caution might be appropriate. Although the basic theology of the Anabaptists seems to have centered around this idea of the two aeons (the "City of God" vs. the "City of the Devil"), it would yet be erroneous to assume that the Anabaptists were radical believers in apocalypses, such as adventists or millennialists. Nothing is further from their thought. They almost never speculated about "the end" (with perhaps the exception of Melchior Hoffman, and to some extent Hans Hut. At all times they were more concerned with the narrow path to be walked on than with the goal to be expected. Of course, this path receives its meaning and justification from this particular "theology of history." In a sense they felt that their walking the narrow path and their obedience to God's commandments realized already in the here and now some aspects of the coming aeon. That becomes especially clear in Stauffer's third section of his study,

(3) "Baptism, Confession and Defenselessness." Anneken of Rotterdam's moving "Testament to her infant son" (1539, Mart. Mir. D 48-50, E 453 f.) serves as a fine illustration that the life and death of an Anabaptist receives its deeper meaning alone through this "theology of martyrdom." Baptism is the sealing unto suffering and death. Conrad Grebel said the same in his letter to Thomas Müntzer. Occasionally martyrdom is called "the dubbing of the retainer of Christ." It is always understood as the Bundessiegel, the seal of the covenant of God with His people.

Confessions with Anabaptists are something basically different from the formulated creedal systems (called Confessions of Faith) of the established churches. For the Anabaptists they are rather testimonies in the old sense of being statements of the "confessors of faith," that is, expressions of their concrete and substantial faith. "I shall testify with my blood," said a martyr in the early days, "what I have taught and confessed with my mouth."

Defenselessness, nonresistance, and "Gelassenheit" are then the natural consequences of such a martyr attitude. Compare Menno Simons' pertinent passages in his tract Of the Cross (Works, p. 184 f.). The disciples of Christ are sent out like sheep among wolves (Grebel), and must accept their fate with true yieldedness to the will of God. It is taken for granted that no Anabaptist can ever wield a sword. Naturally, he will be obedient to the authorities of this world as long as no conflict arises with his own conscience. Beyond that he is bound to deny such obedience since he is bound to a higher authority. Actually, he is already living in a world of a different dimension, and therefore stands under its laws rather than under those of this world.

Critical Evaluation. When Stauffer's article was published in 1945, the editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Harold S. Bender, wrote a lengthy editorial (178) in which he claimed that in a certain sense this "theology of martyrdom" is no "theology" at all. This set of ideas certainly moves the disciple to his fight, but it does not tell concretely what he is fighting for. "We must look elsewhere for a statement of the positive contents of the faith for which the Anabaptist bleeds and dies." Thus Stauffer's study gives us the background or mood of the Anabaptist movement rather than its very theme. If genuine Anabaptist theology is to be recovered, our search has to go on until a proper formulation of the positive contents is found. H. S. Bender's own suggestion of a "theology of discipleship," to be sure, may find a somewhat similar criticism, namely, that discipleship, likewise, is not really a "theology" in the proper sense of the term. But it seems that in the background of both discipleship and martyrdom there may easily be found a common denominator which gives meaning and content to both. And that is the dualistic idea of the "two realms" (or cities): that of God and that of the prince of this world. Tentatively one could call this idea the "theology of the kingdom". It is true that the Anabaptists rather seldom developed this theme; yet it is still their basic outlook. Only upon such an idea of two different dimensions of the world (or of human existence) will the idea of martyrdom assume meaning, answering the eternal question, "Why is it that the just (or the saint) must suffer at all times?" The Christian answer will always have an eschatological if not a downright apocalyptic aspect. It is the philosophy of history of the Christian, or (from another angle) his dynamic theology of salvation.

In general, it may be said that the idea of the suffering church (or the church under the Cross) is a part of the very core of the Anabaptist genius, without which the entire problem of evangelical Anabaptism cannot be understood nor can it be properly demarcated against related Christian movements such as Pietism and Spiritualism.


Stauffer, Ethelbert. "The Anabaptist Theology of Martyrdom," Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (1945): 179-214.

H. W. Meihuizen has published a number of important studies on the theology of the martyrs as found in the Offer des Heeren: "De Geloofswereld onzer Martelaren, voor zover die af te lezen valt uit het Offer des Heeren," in Algemeen Doopsgezind Weekblad V (1951) Nos. 35-50.

Kühler, W. J. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem, 1932: 247-69

Swartzentruber, A. Orley. "The Piety and Theology of the Anabaptist Martyrs in van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror," Mennonite Quarterly Reviw. 28 (1954): 5-26, 128-42.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1953

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Friedmann, Robert. "Martyrdom, Theology of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 11 Dec 2023.,_Theology_of&oldid=162867.

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Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Martyrdom, Theology of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 11 December 2023, from,_Theology_of&oldid=162867.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 519-521. All rights reserved.

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