Upon This Rock: the Geiststein
by David Rempel Smucker
While visiting Germany in the summer of 2002, I came across
a note in a book on local sites of interest in the region of
Württemberg. Because the account concerning a large rock
described a link to Anabaptists of the 1500s, I became curious.
Armed with a train schedule, a good map, and strong hiking boots,
I set out to visit this site and learn more about it. Skilled
German foresters manage this extensive wooded area in the Schwäbisch-Fränkischer
forest with selective cutting, but their activity does not apparently
scare away animals, such as owls and deer, which I saw on my
pleasant ascent. After some twists and wrong turns and many kilometers,
the rock finally came into view amidst hundreds of stately pine
The massive sandstone rock formation, the Geiststein, translated
in English as "spirit rock," stands near a quiet and
lonely mountaintop in the Welzheimer forest, northeast of Stuttgart.
The rock is exposed about fifteen feet on one side and about
four feet on the other. From the short side, one can sit on a
type of throne-like depression in the top of the rock. As I took
a well-deserved rest on this impressive geological formation,
only the sound of the gentle wind and birds reached my ears.
Its setting gives few hints of the significant role the rock
played in local history and folklore. Further exploration revealed
a small metal plaque, which had been affixed to one side of the
Geiststein. Set in 1968 by the local Baptist (Evangelische Freikirchliche
Gemeinden) congregations, in translation, it read: "At this
site in 1575 and following years the Anabaptists gathered from
the nearby towns for worship during the night. They suffered
persecution in their struggle for Biblical baptismal truth and
freedom of conscience. From the faithful families of the glassmakers
named Greiner of Walkersbach, the leaders of this Anabaptist
movement are mentioned in documents."
Further research in various sources reveals a fascinating
story. The Anabaptist Greiners, a clan of three generations associated
with this area, are noted in various writings on sixteenth-century
Anabaptism, including those of the late John Oyer of Goshen College.
To highlight a few facts, brothers Blasius and Andreas Greiner
were masters of the glassworks in Walkersbach. Tradition has
it that they converted to Anabaptism in 1562 through night preaching
at the Geiststein, where Anabaptists worshipped in secret. The
Greiners drew many people from their community into Anabaptism.
From 1567 to 1569 the authorities imprisoned Blasius Greiner
in Maulbronn, a former monastery that had been turned into a
prison. He escaped by cutting the iron bars but was again captured.
He recanted his Anabaptist convictions, then retracted the recantation.
At some point in time before 1584 the account states that the
Greiner brothers actually destroyed the church building in Walkersbach
because they disagreed with the preaching there.
So intense was the "heretical" Anabaptist movement
in this region that a special theological examination was held
in 1598 to attempt to identify Anabaptists. The authorities
found fourteen self-confessed Anabaptists, twenty-seven suspected
ones, and eleven people who sheltered them. From 1570 to 1620
about sixty-nine Anabaptists from the Urbach and Walkersbach
area migrated to Moravia, where they joined the Hutterites.
Although not all left for Moravia, the remaining Anabaptists
either migrated to other regions or their children did not remain
Anabaptists. In 1644 the last Anabaptist was documented in that
region. No Anabaptist congregations are continuous from that
time period of sustained persecution.
Further research on this site uncovered legends that the Geiststein
served as a cultic site for pre-Christian Teutonic tribes. In
the 1700s and 1800s the nobility used the rock as a focus of
their hunting parties. Legend has it that around 1800 the Kurfürst
King Friedrich of Württemberg used the Geiststein as a hunting
"throne." He would sit in the rock depression with
his gun and shoot the wild pigs, which his assistants would drive
into his line of fire.
This visit to such an authentic site out of our Anabaptist
past initiated some reflection. I tried to imagine staying in
the forest during the entire night, as the harried Anabaptists
did. The rock could provide a focal point, a place of "spirit"
shelter and security for a group. If Mennonites and Amish in
North America lived in a persecuted and underground church, where
would we gather for worship and fellowship? Not in air-conditioned
rooms of an urban conference facility. Not in a plain Old Order
meetinghouse. Probably not even in houses and barns, as the Amish
do. Perhaps at that rocky outcrop in an Iowa field where the
soil is too poor to farm. Perhaps in the unused part of the New
York City subway system. Perhaps in the middle of a very sparsely
populated U. S. state-North Dakota, for example. North of its
55th parallel, Canada has many wonderfully inaccessible locations,
if we would just have the faith and skill to withstand the elements.
However, in our age of video and electronic surveillance,
cell phones, global positioning systems (GPS), and airplane reconnaissance,
I suspect that an underground church in North America would struggle
even more than in sixteenth-century Europe. Would our faith testimony
elicit any sympathizers, Christians or non-Christians, who would
be willing to hide and protect us? Would a Mennonite recant and
give the police the GPS location of worship sites?
Perhaps we should not further pursue such speculation on the
future. When we study the church's past and present, we may learn
at least one lesson: Be Prepared. The people of God have no guaranteed
insurance policy against the vicissitudes of cultural, political,
and environmental change. The situation of religious freedom
and economic security in which many North American Anabaptists
find themselves could reverse in a few years. We need the equivalent
of the Geiststein, a "spirit rock," where we can gather
in the night to commune together and worship God in Christ. My
visit to this site, a metaphorical bridge to the sixteenth century,
did not show me exactly where such a physical place could or
should be for the twenty-first century. It did help remind me
that believers with Jesus Christ as their theological Geiststein
need to be prepared for sacrifice.
David Rempel Smucker is a genealogist, editor of the Pennsylvania
Mennonite Heritage, Managing Editor of the Mennonite Sources
and Documents Series, and is on the staff of the Lancaster Mennonite