Swiss Brethren

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Swiss Brethren, the oldest and most influential body of German-speaking Anabaptists. The Anabaptist movement had its origin in Zollikon, now a suburb of Zürich, Switzerland, in January 1525 and spread from there in a short time into the surrounding German-speaking area of Switzerland (St. Gall, Appenzell, Aargau, Grisons, Bern, Basel). It spread rapidly beyond the Swiss borders into Tyrol, South Germany, and Alsace, and shortly into Middle Germany, down the Rhine as far as Cologne, into Hesse, Thuringia, and Saxony. It is therefore not surprising that the group came to be known as Swiss Brethren, indicating their geographical origin, although the movement was quite indigenous and not a Swiss mission with resident Swiss leaders living in foreign countries.

However, the name soon came to be a designation for a type of Anabaptists differing from other types, first of all distinguished from the Hutterites with their communal living. The Hutterite Chronicle first uses the name in connection with events dated in 1543, where a certain Hans Klöpfer is stated to have "formerly been a minister of the Swiss Brethren." In Moravia a sharp distinction was made between Hutterites and Swiss Brethren, where the former were by far the larger group in number, but the latter nevertheless maintained themselves until at least 1618. The contest between the two groups was sharp also in other places. In Hesse (and elsewhere) Hutterite missioners did not hesitate to "raid" the Swiss Brethren congregations to secure converts for "the Church of God" in Moravia, as a document of 1587 (TA Hessen, 494) indicates. Hans Kuchenbecker, called a "Swiss Brethren minister" as late as 1587 (TA Hessen, 562), in 1578 insisted in a court hearing (TA Hessen, 393) that his group "was not in agreement with those in Bohemia; he and his people were Swiss Brethren." Kuchenbecker submitted an outstanding confession to the court in 1578 which the editor of the TA Hessen (404-40) published under the caption, "Confession of the Swiss Brethren." The Hutterite Chronicle consistently refers to Thomas von Imbroich (executed in 1558) as a "Schweitzerbruder." The first known official use of the name "Swiss Brethren" is found in a decree of the government of Württemberg, issued at Stuttgart in 1559 (published in TA Württemberg, 194): "1559. Ducal decree concerning Schwenckfelders and Anabaptists, also other Sects. Item, what kind of a sect and brotherhood [the one is which is] called Swiss Brethren." The published record of the Frankenthal disputation (Heidelberg, 1571) speaks of three major groups among the Anabaptists, "the Hutterites," "the Mennonites," and "you," where "you" quite clearly means the Swiss Brethren who were apparently the leading group and therefore not in need of a label. The first documentary use of the name by the group itself is found in the title of its hymnal, the Ausbund (1564-1583, 1602, and later), "Some Christian Songs as they were written and sung in the Castle Prison at Passau by the Swiss Brethren." The name "Swiss Brethren" is not a geographical designation, as is clear from the above instances of use. The Swiss Brethren in prison were Philippites en route from Moravia to South Germany. None of them had ever been in Switzerland. The name does, however, connote that this group was later counted as belonging to the Swiss Brethren.

The above usage seems to show that there were only three continuing groups of Anabaptists in the 16th century, the Mennonites of Holland and North Germany, the Hutterites of Moravia and Slovakia, and the Swiss Brethren of Switzerland and South and Middle Germany. Recently several scholars who have studied Marpeck and his work (Jan Kiwiet, William Klassen, Heinold Fast, and Torsten Bergsten) have concluded that there was a fourth major group, the Marpeck brotherhood, led by Marpeck and Scharnschlager, in South Germany which differed somewhat from the Swiss Brethren, though its views were substantially the same, and which owed its origin more to Hans Hut than to the Zürich Swiss Brethren group. They laid much weight on the evidence found in the recently discovered Kunstbuch of 1561 (see Rothenfelder and Marpeck). Here the most striking evidence is supplied by the compiler and copyist, Maler or Rothenfelder, who not only heads two letters of 1541 and 1543 "Pilgrim Marpeck to the Swiss Brethren," but in a marginal note says, "Each church wants to have this power, takes the key, that is of the Holy Spirit, especially the Hutterites, the Swiss, the Bilgisch (Pilgramites, from Pilgram Marpeck), etc., and no one group has peace with the others in God; each judges the others, and yet all come short in the judgment [of God]" (Kunstbuch, folio 42b). Hulshof (Straatsburg, 234) quotes from the Strasbourg archives a statement of Petrus Novesianus of c1555, which lists the religious groups of that time as "Papists, Zwinglians, Lutherans, Schwenckfelders, Anabaptists, and the latter as Hutterites, Hofmannites, Swiss, Bilgramites, Zabites, etc." And a complaint by certain ministers to the Strasbourg authorities in 1561 lists the Anabaptist groups in Strasbourg as Bilgerer (Pilgramites), Sattlerische (Swiss Brethren), and Gabrielites.

Evidently the Pilgramites were a distinct group from the Swiss Brethren as late as 1561 (Maler), though Kiwiet holds that the Strasbourg Conference of 1555 united the differing groups. However, the Pilgramites must have been small and localized; the Swiss Brethren extended north as far as Cologne and Hesse. The Pilgramites left no continuing separate congregations, and may well have merged into the Swiss Brethren upon the death of Marpeck and the withdrawal of Scharnschlager to his retreat at Ilanz. The Swiss Brethren continued in the later Swiss, Alsatian, and Palatine Mennonites (including the Amish).

By the last quarter of the 17th century the name "High Germans" or "Upper Germans" was given to the Swiss Brethren, at least in some quarters. For instance, the reply of the Strasbourg Conference of 1592 to the Socinians (see Strasbourg Conferences and Ostorodt) has the title, An Answer of the Swiss Brethren, also Called High Germans, to the Polish, in the form in which it appears in the Dutch Mennonite publication of 1649 entitled Handelinge der Vereenigde Vlaemse en Duytse Doopsgezinde Gemeynten. The phrase "Swiss Brethren, also called High Germans" is not in the text of the document but was added by the Dutch editor, and therefore reflects Dutch usage. In the article High Germans (ME II, 739) van der Zijpp calls the Strasbourg Conferences of 1556 (1555) and 1559 (1557) "meetings of the High Germans." A note by Leenaert Clock in the Concept of Cologne of 1591 says that this confession was approved by "the ministers and elders and congregations of the regions of Alsace, Breisgau, Strasbourg, Wittenberg [Weissenburg], Landau, Neustadt, Landesheim, Worms, and Kreuznach," which congregations the beginning of the confession itself calls "High German" in the following words, "we, ministers, elders, and brethren of both sides, whom men have named with two kinds of names, Netherlandish or Frisian, and Upperlandish or High German." The original meaning of "High German" therefore was in effect the Swiss Brethren located in the Palatinate and Strasbourg or along the Upper Rhine.


Bossert, Gustav. Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, I. Band: Herzogtum Württemberg. Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte XIII. Band. Leipzig: M. Heinsius, 1930.

Franz, Günther. Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, IV Band: Wiedertäuferakten 1527-1626. Marburg: N.G. Elwert, 1951.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1959

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MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Swiss Brethren." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 17 Apr 2024.

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Bender, Harold S. (1959). Swiss Brethren. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 669-671. All rights reserved.

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