Vorarlberg, the westernmost province of Austria, situated between the upper Rhine and the Arlberg Pass, with Bregenz on Lake Constance as capital. The population is Alamannic, hence akin to the Swiss and the Swabians. In the 16th century the country was composed of four manorial jurisdictional districts (Herrschaften), and was administered politically by the provincial government in Tyrol. It had, however, a top magistrate (Oberster Hauptmann) as local authority. Around 1580 this was Count Hannibal of Hohenembs, who played a role in Anabaptist history. In spite of the openness of the country to Switzerland and Swabia and its proximity to Tyrol in the east, Anabaptism was never very active here, except for the brief period of 1577-90. Only three death sentences of Anabaptists are known: Melchior Platzer in 1583 and two cases as late as 1618, Jost Wilhelm and Christine Brünnerin, neither of whom had yet received adult baptism but declared themselves as Anabaptists nevertheless.
The center of Anabaptist activities was the area of the "Farther (Hinterer) Bregenzerwald," a rather remote district with the parish of Au on the Eck River as its main place. The local authorities were inclined by and large to leniency. In spite of the fact that some Anabaptists had several times broken their "oath" never to return, they did not suffer the ultimate penalty, even though the Innsbruck government urged greater harshness. But the Vorarlbergers more or less resented these Tyrolean interferences and in most cases disregarded them.
A number of family names appear both in the court records of the time and in the Hutterite chronicle, such as Seyfried (or Seiffert), Mosbrugger (Mosbrucker), Sailer, Wilhelm, Albrecht, Rusch (Ruesch), Berwig, and Beer. A certain Jacob Seyfried was apparently the first to have been active as a "street corner preacher" and promoter of Anabaptist ideas (c1577). In spite of his "promise" to stay away he returned no less than three times to the Bregenzerwald district. In 1579 Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol ordered that he should be sentenced to death if he returned once more. This was the rather short period when Hapsburgs were slightly more lenient in religious matters than ever before. Emperor Maximilian II is said to have shown leanings toward Protestantism; he died 1576, and soon afterwards the full sway of the Counter Reformation came into play. In 1580 Anabaptist books were confiscated and one year later publicly burned; their list was sent to Innsbruck.
Between 1580 and 1585 a lively emigration to Moravia set in, mainly from the parish of Au; the County Council of the "Hinterer Bregenzerwald" reported in 1581 that forty persons had already left and more were preparing for this transfer, selling their property as best they could. Time and again one reads in archive records of "suspect people," their secret meetings, and of sectarian books all over this district. Now and then one hears also of a few returnees who had been dissatisfied in Moravia "with food and drink," but they represent a small minority. Often it happens that Anabaptists are even supported by the lower magistrates of the "Herrschaft" as was also often the case in Tyrol. Loserth names in particular a certain councilman Philipp Koler (of the Bregenzerwald court district) as such a sympathizer and helper.
The climax of Anabaptism in Vorarlberg happened around 1583; in this year the former apothecary of Rankweil, Vorarlberg, Melchior Platzer, who had become a schoolmaster at a Bruderhof in Moravia, returned as a missioner and was said to have been most successful in winning new converts to the Anabaptist way. Eventually he was caught, imprisoned, and treated in the traditional way (tortured). Still, the authorities would have released him also if he had been willing to pledge never to return to country and county. As he refused to do so he was handed over to Count Hannibal of Hohenembs, who apparently wanted to please the Innsbruck authorities and approved the death sentence. After 26 weeks of imprisonment in chains he was executed by the sword in Rankweil, 6 November 1583. He met his fate with the traditional Anabaptist attitude, singing and admonishing the assembled people to repentance. Hans Kräl, the bishop of the Hutterites in Moravia and himself a Tyrolean, had previously sent him a very fine epistle of comfort and encouragement. An anonymous hymn of 29 stanzas tells the story of his martyrdom (Lieder der Hutterischen Brüder, 756-60).
After this period of 1577-90 we hear only now and then of new happenings in this area concerning Anabaptism and migration to Moravia. The Seyfried (or Seiffert) family was the most active of all over a period of 36 years (1577-1613). Also the Wilhelm family deserves mention. Thomas Wilhelm of Au had become a Diener des Wortes (preacher) with the Hutterites in Moravia 1617, but somehow came into conflict with the brotherhood, moved to Alwinz in Transylvania, and finally was said to have ended somewhere in Switzerland. The records of 1613, 1617, and 1618 contain references to several men and women who recanted from their Anabaptist faith, admitting that their children or other members of their household had gone to Moravia to join the Hutterite brotherhood (during all these years one hears of only one case where a brother went to Switzerland to join a congregation there).
The year 1618, finally, saw the two last cases mentioned above: Christine Brünnerin (in court records named Brenner) of the village of Au wanted to join her daughter in Moravia, but was caught while preparing to emigrate. She was badly tortured yet remained steadfast. Contrary to the usual practice in Vorarlberg, she was sentenced to death and executed by the sword 8 Aug. 1618. "Although she had not yet received water baptism and had not yet come to the brotherhood, God gave her the strength to acquire the baptism of the Spirit and of blood which is more important." (Beck, 370).
The other case is that of Joss Wilhelm and his wife Elsa (nee Mosbrugger), "pious, God-fearing, and well-to-do people" (Beck, 368). Their son (was this the above-mentioned Thomas?) had been in Moravia long before and had told them of the true Christian life in the brotherhood, and also that life in the world was wrong and sinful. Thereupon the two prepared likewise to migrate from Vorarlberg to Moravia but were caught and kept in prison for more than one year. The Innsbruck government insisted on a trial at the court of Bregenz. Joss was severely racked but betrayed no one. Finally, on 14 May 1618, he, too, was executed by the sword. The Hutterite Chronicle reports that the question was raised at which place his body should be buried. The Catholic priest of Au is said to have decided, "Bury him in my churchyard; I have no more pious man in it." (Beck, 369). His wife was sentenced to life imprisonment and loss of all property. The Lieder der Hutterischen Brüder contains a hymn of 24 stanzas commemorating the martyrdom of these two witnesses to the faith (817-21).
The last name recorded is that of Hans Mosbrugger (possibly a brother of Elsa Wilhelm) who lived in Moravia in 1621.
Beck, Josef. Die Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer in Oesterreich-Ungarn. Vienna, 1883; reprinted Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1967: 283-86.
Bergmann, Joseph. "Die Wiedertäufer in Au im Bregenzerwald und ihre Auswanderung nach Mahren im Jahre 1585." Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Ahademie der Wissenschaften I. Vienna, 1843.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. IV, 438-439.
Horsch, John. "Ein Geisteszeugnis aus den wehrlosen Gemeinden des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts." Mennonitischen Familien Kalendar. Scottdale, 1928: 20-26;
Horsch, John. "Ein Sendschreiben Hans Kräls an einen Martyrer." ibid., 1914, 32-35.
Lieder der Hutterischen Brüder. Scottdale, 1914.
Loserth, Johann. "Die letzten Züge der Wiedertäufer nach Mahren." Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für die Geschichte von Mahren und Schlesien, 1922.
Cite This Article
Loserth, Johann and Robert Friedmann. "Vorarlberg (Austria)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 12 Aug 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Vorarlberg_(Austria)&oldid=146319.
Loserth, Johann and Robert Friedmann. (1959). Vorarlberg (Austria). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 August 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Vorarlberg_(Austria)&oldid=146319.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 853-854. All rights reserved.
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