'The Anabaptist martyrs are not dead'
Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite churchby John D. Roth
Early on April 12, 1528, members of the Anabaptist congregation in the German city of Augsburg gathered in the home of Susanna Doucher, located along the Bürgergässchen, for an Easter Sunday sunrise service.
At the time, Augsburg was a vibrant center of the Anabaptist movement in south Germany. Already in 1526, only a year after the first Anabaptist baptism in Zurich, the congregation had grown to include between 700 and 1,000 people, despite the fact that they were forced to meet in secret.
By 1527, the group had developed its own organization for poor relief, a regular Bible study for members, a rudimentary job-placement program for immigrants and a plan for training evangelists. That August, the congregation hosted a mission conference that included dozens of Anabaptist leaders from Switzerland, the provinces of Austria and numerous surrounding German territories.
At the same time, however, resistance to the movement from Augsburg and elsewhere was growing. During the fall of 1527, most of the leaders of the Augsburg congregation were arrested, tortured and banished, and the city issued dire warnings against anyone caught baptizing or meeting in secret. Indeed, in the aftermath of the August mission conference, so many of the leaders present there were executed that the gathering became known as the “Martyrs Synod.”
Yet, despite these storm clouds on that April morning of 1528, the beleaguered congregation of Augsburg gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Early in the service, Hans Leupold, who had received a warning that authorities might break up the meeting, encouraged anyone who was afraid to leave.
At around 7 a.m., the police arrived and arrested all 88 members who had remained—“men and women, old and young, servants and maids, citizens and foreigners.” The foreigners, about half the group, were immediately banished; the rest were imprisoned, tortured, interrogated and forced to flee upon their release. Although individual Anabaptists continued to live in the city, by the early 1530s the congregation in Augsburg had ceased to exist.
On April 12, 2013, 485 years later, the mayor of Augsburg gathered with a group of Mennonites, representatives from the Protestant church and Friedrich Aschoff, a 14th-generation direct descendant of Susanna Doucher, outside Susanna’s former home to unveil a plaque commemorating the Augsburg Anabaptists and the events that had taken place there.
The ecumenical gathering was one of many initiatives organized by Wolfgang Krauss, a Mennonite historian, theologian and peace activist. For more than a decade, Krauss has directed a project known as Wieder Täufer in Augsburg und Anderswo—a play on the word Wiedertäufer (Anabaptists) that calls attention to the fact that Mennonites are alive and well in Augsburg today.
As a young adult, Krauss encountered Christ in the midst of a personal crisis and soon thereafter became a convinced member of the Mennonite church in Germany. Since then, he has been a tireless promoter of Anabaptist history, ecumenical encounters and the renewal of the Mennonite church and its peace witness.
Krauss recognizes that a focus on Anabaptist persecution can encourage attitudes of self-righteousness among contemporary Mennonites and may seem to be at odds with his commitment to ecumenical dialogue. But he is equally clear that forgiveness does not imply forgetting. “The Anabaptist martyrs are not ‘our’ martyrs,” Krauss insists.
“They died as witnesses to Christ, and like all the martyrs of the church, they belong to that cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). They point us to Christ, … and if we ignore them, we obscure the witness of Christ and weaken the gospel.” “This is not about an identity of victimhood,” Krauss says. “But the Anabaptist martyrs are not dead. They live on as those who have been resurrected and are part of the contemporary cloud of witnesses in the fellowship of the church today.”
Stories of 16th-century Anabaptists may seem like ancient history to Mennonites in North America. But for many brothers and sisters in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church, the account of Susanna Doucher and the Augsburg Anabaptist congregation is almost certain to sound familiar, particularly to those groups who face the challenge of persecution and suffering still today.
As Wolfgang Krauss reminds us, we remember the Anabaptist story not as a Golden Age we must return to but as a living testimony to Christ’s presence that joins the church today with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. I am grateful for people like Krauss who keep these stories alive as a gift to the whole church.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.
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