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Cover Letter
The Seven Articles:
 I. Baptism
 II. The Ban
 III. Breaking of Bread
 IV. Separation
 V. Shepherds
 VI. The Sword
 VII. The Oath

Congregational Order

The Cover Letter
John Howard Yoder's Introduction
Background, and an Interpretation, by Philip Bender
Point of View
by Jan Gleysteen


Home Historical Committee

The Schleitheim Brotherly Union, 1527
Brüderlich Vereinigung etzlicher Kinder Gottes seiben Artikel betreffend . . . )

Translated and edited by John Howard Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Herald Press, 1973

Introduction by John Howard Yoder,
The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation, Vol. 1, Herald Press, 1973

At the beginning of 1527 the Swiss Brethren movement stood in serious danger of disintegration. The repression from the Protestant side had reached for the first time the level of capital punishment, with the execution of Felix Mantz in Zürich, January 5. In eastern Switzerland, where the movement had met with an initial wave of popular success, it had been put down very firmly in the city of St. Gall but the authorities continued to have difficulty in the surrounding countryside, especially in the canton of Appenzell, where the combination of governmental pressure, inadequate leadership, and the socioeconomic ferment of the times led to a degree of disorder which Conrad Grebel was probably attempting to counteract when he died of illness in the summer of 1526. Strasbourg was the place where the greatest likelihood had remained open that an understanding, or at least the possibility of a continuing conversation, might be reached, between the Anabaptists and the official Reformation; but this possibility had to be abandoned after Sattler's visit in Strasbourg.[1]

Strasbourg should have been the best, and was therefore also the last, chance to break through to serious understanding with leaders of the "mainstream" Reformation movement. Martin Bucer was the most ecumenically and pastorally minded of the major Reformers, Capito the most open to radical ideas, the Strasbourg government the most cautious and tolerant. When conversations broke off there, not quite two years after the first break in Zürich, it had become irrevocably clear that Anabaptism would have to go it alone, not only in the territories remaining strictly Roman Catholic, but everywhere.

This marks the end of Sattler's investment in "interchurch relations." He forsook the effort to convince the Reformed leaders; at the same time he forsook the possibility of extending his movement in the Protestant territories where it would have been both easier (due to the undercurrent of sympathies for his concerns) and safer (due to the slightly milder persecution). Henceforth he would work in the smaller towns of the Black Forest. This area was partly directly under Austrian (i.e., faithfully Catholic) sovereignty, partly under the administration of Austria's Statthalter of Ensisheim, and elsewhere under Austria's allies and vassals, like Count Joachim von Zollern of Hohenberg, who was to become Sattler's judge.

This stretch of Catholic countryside, with no major cities between UIm and Freiburg or between Tübingen and Schaffhausen, could be spoken of as the northern growing edge of the Swiss Brethren movement. In the triangle Schaffhausen/ Waldshut/Zürich its territory intersected with the southern wing. Sattler and Wilhelm Röubli/Reublin were its only prominent leaders in this earliest period.

Sattler may well have been quite conscious that little time now remained to consolidate the movement he had planted. Just as October-December 1523 marked the first self-awareness of the Zürich radicals and December 1524-January 1525 the first formal breach, so early 1527 must be recognized as the coming-of-age of a distinct, visible fellowship taking long-range responsibility for its order and its faith.

Pressure from the outside, confusion from the inside, loss of the guiding influence (which had never been especially clear or authoritative) of the Zürich founders, and the growing realization that instead of holding forth a vision for widespread renewal the young movement would have to accept a continuing separate, suffering identity, combined to make it quite possible that the entire movement might now filter away into the sand.

It was to this need that the Schleitheim meeting spoke. We know nothing of how the meeting was called, the precise provocation which led it to take place just at this moment, or who participated. The tradition according to which Michael Sattler was the leading spirit in the meeting, and the author of the document reproduced below, is so widespread as to be worthy of belief, [2] even though none of the early traditions to that effect are eyewitness reports. This tradition is confirmed by obvious parallels in thought and phrasing between the Schleitheim text and the other writings known genuinely to be from Sattler's hand.

The Seven Articles, which are the heart of the text, were presumably discussed, rewritten, and approved in the course of the meeting. Here Sattler's contribution may well have been some drafting prior to the meeting. The Seven Articles are imbedded in a letter written in the first person after the meeting, which is presumably altogether from the pen of Sattler.

Scholars have for some time been divided about the primary focus of this meeting. Jan Kiwiet has stated most strongly the argument that the primary polemic focus was upon the threats from within the Anabaptist movement, represented by the broader minds of men like Hans Denck in Germany, with their criticism of the more rigorous discipline of the Swiss Brethren movement. [3] The strength of this interpretation lies not in the Seven Articles themselves, but in the cover letter, and in the spirit of some of the other writings in this collection.[4]

The other interpretation begins with the observation that, differing from a balanced catechism or creed, Schleitheim concentrated upon those points at which the brothers differed from the rest of Protestantism. It was thus a common man's handbook on Anabaptist distinctives. This interpretation I is supported by the content of the Seven Articles themselves, i
which often circulated without the cover letter. This is the way this text was understood by the Reformers [5] and it is today supported by Beatrice Jenny. [6]

The present editor sees no real need to choose between I the two interpretations. If there were persons vying for leadership within the young Anabaptist movement, the most obvious direction in which they would have led, in conflict to the orientation set by the Zürich beginners and Michael Sattler, would have been toward a spiritualizing of the distinctiveness of the visible Anabaptist congregations, with the effect of greater subservience, at least superficially, to the state church authorities, and greater conformity to the patterns of behavior they required. The later documents in this collection confirm that one of the traits of "false prophet" and "evil overseers" was that they justified attendance at state church gatherings. [7] Even the antinomian "carnal liberty" of those who argued that since one is in Christ one can do anything without harm [8] to one's faith may be applied to arguments for conformity to the state church in externals just as appropriately as to drunkenness or disorderly social relations. The idea that if one is a believer one can do anything at all without harm to one's faith was not a peculiar and licentious invention of some marginal Anabaptist; it was (at least according to the misinterpretation of the popular mind) one of the outworkings of Lutheran preaching when distorted by the desires of the listener. [9]

There is thus no reason to need to decide between the two foci referred to above. [10] The clear statement of what distinguishes the Swiss Brethren movement from the Protestant and Catholic churches was at the same time the solidest defense against confusion and cross purposes within the ranks of the brotherhood as it began to take form as an autonomous movement.

The strategic significance of the achievement of Schleitheim is well demonstrated by the rapid and wide circulation of our text. Zwingli received his first copy in April from Johannes Oekolampad, who in turn had received it from Johannes Grell, a country pastor near Basel. Soon he received another copy from Berchtold Haller in Bern. This copy had been seized by the Bern police in the course of a search of homes, following an effort of four Anabaptists to converse with Haller. Haller called it "their aims and grounds." Zwingli responded immediately with a refutation. [11] By the time Zwingli wrote his Elenchus in the summer of that year he had in hand four different copies which had come to him from as many different sources. We have surveyed above [l2] the number of reprintings and translations which the Brotherly Union, together with some of the other following materials, underwent; in these pamphlets it was the Schleitheim text which appeared first and which gave its name to the title page of the entire collection.

According to Zwingli, "There is almost no one among you who does not have a copy of your so well founded commandments."[13] Calvin describes the outline as "seven articles to which all Anabaptists in common adhere. . . which they hold to be a revelation come down from heaven." [14] The authority which came to be ascribed to the Seven Articles within the Anabaptist movement is demonstrated on one hand by the nearly universal acceptance of the positions it represents, visible even in the repetition of phrasing and arguments in later documents. Especially is this true with re- gard to articles VI and VII, on the sword and the oath, and results in a relatively great uniformity in Anabaptist positions on these matters from now on. [15] As late as 1557, we find the importance of the meeting being underlined by reference to the fact that one man at the 1557 Strasbourg conference was the person in whose home the agreement had been drawn Up.[16] The text of Schleitheiltl can also be cited explicitly. [17]

The textual basis of the present translation is that prepared by Dr. Heinold Fast in his edition of the Täuferakten for eastern Switzerland, graciously communicated before publication. The effort to establish the original text by critical conjecture must work with four sources: (a) Zwingli's Elenchus, within which the full text is translated into Latin on the basis of the four copies Zwingli had in hand. This was the basis for the earliest translation into English. [18] (b) The manuscript preserved in the Berner Staatsarchiv, [19] reproduced once partially by Ernst Mueller, Geschichte der Bernischen, Fraueneld, 1895, Taufer, 38 ff., and more fully but still not with complete accuracy (cf. Fast), by Beatrice Jenny, Bekenntnis. There are good reasons to believe that this was one of the four texts Zwingli had before him, but it does not always coincide with his Latin translation and a few times the other reading reflected in his translations seems preferable. (c) The early print reproduced by Bohmer in 1912. [20] (d) The early print reproduced by Kohler in 1908. [21]

The two early prints are very similar. They were the basis for all the later printings, for the translations into French and Dutch, and for the manuscript copies preserved by the Hutterian Brethren and later reprinted by Wolkan, [22] Beck, [23] and Lydia Miiller. [24] Kohler's reprint is the basis as well of the widely used English translation by J. C. Wenger. [25]

Since its recognition by the Dutch historian, Cramer, perhaps the first modern witness to the deep significance of Schleitheim, comments on the text and its importance have been frequent. [26] Several summaries of the history of the text are available. [27] Modern translations have been prepared in English [28] and French [29] and Heinold Fast has published a modern German version as well as re-editing the original.[3O]

To the Brotherly Understanding, which in the past two generations has come to be widely recognized as a theological landmark, we append another text which may well have been equally significant at the time. This set of instructions concerning congregational order and worship was circulating in April 17, 1527, together with the Schleitheim text, apparently in the same hand as the Bern text of the Brotherly Union. It therefore must have been seized at the same time in April, within six weeks of the Schleitheim gathering. It therefore has circumstantial grounds for being considered as linked with Schleitheim and with Sattler. It is the oldest known text on its subject, and has not previously been published in full.

John Howard Yoder, Introduction to "The Schleitheim Brotherly Union," (Chapter 2), The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Herald Press, 1973, pp. 27-34.


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