I Wish I'd Been There .
MHB readers respond to
the question: What is the one event in Anabaptist-Mennonite history
you wish you could have witnessed -- and Why?
by Arnold W. Cressman
I wish I could have seen the face
of Zwingli at the Fraumünster back there in 1525. It was
December the 29th, on a Friday, which was a regular congregational
meeting. The town was abuzz with the word that the great Dr.
Balthasar Hübmaier was to read a recantation of his views,
in favor of the views that Zwingli promoted on infant baptism.
We need a little background. Balthasar Hübmaier had probably
been a peasant boy who discovered rather late in life that he
had great academic gifts. Lacking finances, his education started
late. When he did get into the academic circle, he advanced rapidly.
He studied under the great Dr. John Eck, a noted Catholic theologian.
Balthasar Hübmaier rapidly made his way through the university,
met all his requirements in a very short period of time, got
his doctor's degree, and was invited to become the main preacher
at the noted Catholic cathedral in Regensburg. There he became
the congregation's beloved preacher. He had many friends and
hardly any enemies. He was noted also for setting up in Regensburg
a sort of cathedral to which people would come to be healed,
and many miracles were purported to have been performed. In his
heyday, after only a few years, Hübmaier suddenly left town.
He became a popular preacher at a little church in Waldshut,
just north of Zürich. People poured in from some distance
to hear him preach. Waldshut, however, was in the Austrian Empire.
During this time he did what Menno Simons had done: he began
to study the New Testament. He studied particularly the epistles
of Paul. And like Menno, he discovered that he had been misled.
The Bible did not say what the Catholic church said it did. He
became disillusioned, and tried even harder to discover the truth,
especially on the matter of infant baptism. He discovered that
there was not a word of affirmation for this Catholic doctrine.
So he began rejecting it.
After King Ferdinand, the head of the Austrian Empire, had put
down the Peasants' Revolts in 1525, he was then free to concentrate
on cleaning up the "heresy" in his kingdom. Dr. Balthasar
Hübmaier was obviously a threat. Hübmaier had been
re-baptized as an adult by William Reublin, who was one of the
earliest Anabaptists. Hübmaier, in turn, baptized 300 people
from the congregation at Waldshut and then 60 more a little later.
These inroads of the "heretical" religion had to be
stopped, as far as Ferdinand was concerned. Waldshut was the
place he intended to start. He descended with his army on the
Hübmaier had so little time to leave that he had no organized
plans. He and his wife made their way to Zürich, no safe
place, but at least he avoided the war which followed. Waldshut
was totally defeated. Within a few days it was discovered that
Hübmaier was in the city of Zürich. Thus Zwingli's
mortal enemy, right under his feet, was found, incarcerated and
punished. Hübmaier requested a disputation on the question
of infant baptism versus adult baptism. Surprisingly, this was
Zwingli debated Hübmaier but he was surprised by the fact
that Hübmaier took an unusual approach to the debate. He
had done his homework well. He noted the times, places and the
exact content of what Zwingli had said earlier on the subject
of adult baptism. In earlier times Zwingli was in favor of adult
baptism. Now he had compromised simply to satisfy the city council.
It is certain that people with some intellectual savvy would
have noticed that Zwingli was totally discomfited in this theological
duel. In any case, the town council, as expected, declared Zwingli
the winner. And Hübmaier was asked to write a statement
of recantation and to sign it. He was also to promise to read
it before the city council, and before the congregation at the
Fraumünster church, and later he was to read it to the congregation
at Grüningen. All this Hübmaier agreed to do, because
he had tendencies toward depression and discouragement. Now he
felt totally devastated.
So the day was set--January 29. The congregation had been informed
that the great Dr. Hübmaier would be reading a recantation
statement. This would prove that Zwingli had been right all along.
It should be noted in terms of theological excellence, Hübmaier
was equal to Luther, and had far more finesse. This Nab was the
Anabaptists' theological Goliath. And here he was asked to read
a recantation. Hübmaier himself admitted that one of his
weaknesses was the fear of bodily pain.
So the moment arrived. Zwingli stood in the main pulpit. Hübmaier
was brought to stand behind a smaller podium. Certainly one could
see on the face of Zwingli the gloating of success that an athlete
demonstrates just when he knows that he is about to win a match.
Instead, something altogether different happened. Hübmaier
laid aside his prepared recantation, and recanted the recantation.
He spoke ad lib with deep emotion, saying, "Oh, what anguish
and travail I have suffered this night over the statements which
I myself have made. So I say here and now, I can't and will not
recant." He then proceeded to defend believers' baptism.
Zwingli, totally discombobulated, his face red from embarrassment
and anger, tried his best to quell the uproar. Balthasar Hübmaier
was hustled off to the Wellenberg prison. He was kept in prison
for some time. His torture included the rack. For some reason
he was released. Hübmaier and his wife traveled east to
Moravia, which was about the only oasis of tolerance still left
in the persecuting world at that time.
But how I wish I could have seen Zwingli's face, when after setting
up everything for his own purposes and glory, he was discomfited
by a theologian greater than himself.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1997