St. Gall (Switzerland)

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St. Gall (St. Gallen) the capital (pop. 67,865 in 1959; 74,538 in 2007) of the canton of St. Gall, Switzerland, the next canton east of Zürich, was the seat of a brief but substantial early Anabaptist movement in 1525-27. The Reformation in St. Gall was secondary to that of Zürich, as was the Anabaptist movement. Joachim von Watt, called Vadian, who returned in 1519 from the University of Vienna, where he had been an outstanding humanist teacher (also a physician) but not a priest or theologian, became its leader. He served as burgomaster of the city 1526-32. Although he was a brother-in-law of Conrad Grebel, and although Grebel tried to persuade him to at least tolerate if not join the Anabaptist movement, he followed Zwingli completely in his opposition to it. Since in St. Gall the Reformation was borne by the people rather than by the clergy, Anabaptism had a greater opportunity to rise in the midst of the people. Johannes Kessler's "Bible study" group, a weekly (Sunday) popular meeting in which Kessler (born 1502), who had returned in December 1523 from a period of study in Württemberg and in early 1524 had begun (with knowledge and approval of the church authorities) to teach evangelical doctrine through Bible exposition (I John, Romans, etc.), furnished the starting point for Anabaptism proper. (Note the similar situation in Zürich, where Castelberger's "Bible study" of 1522, followed by the Grebel and Manz "Bible study" of 1523-24, was the starting point for the Anabaptist movement there. In St. Gall, however, Kessler did not become an Anabaptist as did the leaders in Zürich, nor was the Zürich Bible study ever approved by the authorities. Zwingli overshadowed all.) Lorenz Hochrütiner, a native of St. Gall, who had lived for a time in Zürich and in 1522-23 was a member of the Grebel group but had returned to St. Gall in November 1523, was the channel for the first introduction of pre-Anabaptist ideas. In the summer of 1524 he challenged infant baptism in Kessler's meeting, supported by a letter from Grebel which condemned Kessler's teaching on baptism. But it was Wolfgang Uolimann, of an old upper-class St. Gall family, a former monk of St. Lucius in Chur, who took charge after the city council forbade the Kessler meetings on 15 September 1524, and in November began public preaching in the open, and later in the weavers' guild house. In February 1525 he was baptized by Grebel in the Rhine near Schaffhausen. Grebel himself appeared in St. Gall in April (two weeks' stay) and on Palm Sunday baptized several hundred in the Sitter River at the edge of the city. Upon his leaving, Anthoni Roggenacher and Hippolyt Eberli (see Bolt, Eberli), who probably had accompanied him from Zürich, joined with Uolimann in the leadership of the newly established Anabaptist congregation. The movement spread rapidly, also into the surrounding countryside. There is evidence that it had sympathizers in the city council. The leaders were invited to a discussion in the burgomaster's residence. The movement reached a remarkable height.

But soon measures of suppression were taken. The foreign leaders were expelled from the city. Eberli was executed in Schwyz about this time, the first Anabaptist martyr. Uolimann was called before the council, where a lengthy discussion on baptism, "communion, and other matters" took place. Uolimann was first requested, then commanded to cease for a time conducting baptism and communion. The council promised a thorough consideration of the issues. A disputation, with written statements from both sides, was ordered. Vadian submitted a paper, and the St. Gall Anabaptists called on Grebel, who sent a lengthy document. Unfortunately both papers have been lost. Zwingli's chief anti-Anabaptist book, Vom Tauf, Wiedertauf und Kindertauf, dedicated to St. Gall, appeared just in time to be used; it was ordered read to the people in the St. Lorenz church by the St. Lorenz schoolmaster Zili. In the course of the reading, two Anabaptists, Uolimann and Giger, interrupted, and opened a discussion which finally led to the leaving of the church by the Anabaptist element. Tension mounted in the city and surroundings. It seemed likely that a majority of the peasants in the countryside, who had already been stirred by a peasants' agitation, would swing over to the Anabaptists. Actually the village of Toblatt was won over by Hans Kern (Krüse) of Klingnau. On June 5 Vadian read his anti-Anabaptist paper in the presence of the council and representatives of the Anabaptists. The next day the Anabaptists read to the same gathering their reply to Vadian (no longer extant). A disputation followed, which resulted in a negative decree by the council. All irregular Anabaptist meetings were now forbidden, although special privilege was granted them to hold meetings in the St. Lorenz church on open Sundays. The mandate, dated 7 June 1525, called for fines for those who had themselves baptized, and exile for those who attended the irregular Anabaptist meetings. A special militia of 200 men was sworn in to handle a possible revolt. It was forbidden to receive foreign visitors who might teach and baptize. Hans Denk apparently appeared in St. Gall about this time, as Kessler reports (Sabbata, p. 229), but nothing further is known of his work here.

The measures of repression broke the back of the Anabaptist movement in St. Gall as they did in Zürich. By the end of 1526 little was left of a once powerful movement. Manz appeared here for a brief time in 1526. Uolimann, banished from the city, worked elsewhere after 1526. There must still have been a few Anabaptists in St. Gall for some decades as well as in the adjoining canton of Appenzell.

Some Anabaptists from other regions appeared in the city in 1529, coming from Zürich, the district of Allgäu in South Germany, and from the Adige Valley in Tyrol. Niklaus Guldi, formerly an active Anabaptist preacher, was "converted in Strasbourg in 1530, returned to St. Gall where he was rehabilitated," and became a major source for Kessler's reports on the Anabaptists in his Sabbata. In 1532 there was a mild revival of Anabaptism, led by Hans Marquart, a former priest of Wissenborn. The Anabaptists made a formal request for toleration as a free church, but were refused. Vadian held a disputation with them in 1532. Jörg Maler, the copyist of the important recently discovered collection of Anabaptist documents called the Kunstbuch, lived here 1535-41. Pilgram Marpeck addressed several letters to him. In 1553 a disputation was held in the castle of Lütisburg near St. Gall with some imprisoned Anabaptists who rejected infant baptism along with the teaching that baptism cleanses from original sin. As late as 1639 the St. Gall official records refer to an Anabaptist schoolmaster by the name of Joseph Hochrütiner. Marpeck was employed by the city as a water engineer in the late 1530's.

After the forcible suppression of Anabaptism in St. Gall excesses appeared. As reported by Kessler they included infantile expressions demonstrating "becoming as little children" and other extreme literalistic applications of Biblical passages, which are reported at length by Egli, who recognized them as a fanatical excrescence (Ausartung) of the Anabaptist movement. The notorious Thomas Schugger, who is reported to have beheaded his brother, has been shown by John Horsch to have been a marginal figure rather than an Anabaptist.


Egli, Emil. Die St. Gallen Täufer. Zürich, 1887, on which the above article is largely based.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967, II, 30-34.

Kessler, Johannes. Sabbata edited, Ernst Götzinger.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1959

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Bender, Harold S. "St. Gall (Switzerland)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 30 May 2024.

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Bender, Harold S. (1959). St. Gall (Switzerland). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 401-402. All rights reserved.

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