Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Martyrdom of Felix Manz

Felix Manz is not exactly a household name for most people, although he is widely known in Anabaptist circles. (The family name is sometimes spelled Mantz, as in the name of the library named in his honor at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas).
A man of strong faith and conviction, Manz was martyred 486 years ago today, on January 5, 1527. On that fateful day, Felix was bound, taken to the middle of the Limmat River in the heart of Zurich (Switzerland), and executed by drowning.
Felix Manz was born around the year 1498, the son of one of the priests at the magnificent Grossmünster Church in Zurich and the priest’s concubine, who lived (at least later) in her own house on Neustadt Lane very near the church.
By Oliver Wendell Schenk, 1972
Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli became the head priest at Grossmünster at the end of 1518 and soon began to preach about reforming the Catholic Church. The young man Felix Manx became one of Zwingli’s ardent students. But by 1524 Felix, and a few others such as his good friend Conrad Grebel, became increasingly dissatisfied with Zwingli, whose reforms did not go far enough, they thought.
Finally, a group of people met in the house where Felix lived with his mother, and they formed a new faith fellowship on the basis of baptism following an open confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Grebel baptized an older man, George Blaurock (c. 1491-1529) and then he baptized Grebel and the others gathered there that day, January 21, 1525.
The group called themselves the Swiss Brethren—but their opponents, mainly Zwingli and the leaders of the Grossmünster Church as well as the Zurich city council, derisively called then Anabaptists (re-baptizers). In March 1526 the city council passed an edict making re-baptism punishable by drowning.
On January 5, 1527, Manz was sentenced to death, “because contrary to Christian order and custom he had become involved in Anabaptism.” About 3 p.m. that afternoon he was taken by boat onto the Limmat River, which runs not far from the front of Grossmünster Church. His hands were bound and pulled below his knees and a pole was placed between them—and then he was shoved into the river to die by drowning.
Manz was the first person to be martyred by Protestants. Some referred to his watery death as his “third baptism.”
In 2004 the Evangelical-Reformed Church of Zurich had a six-month commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), Zwingli’s successor as the head priest of Grossmünster. On June 26, that Church confessed their sins of the sixteenth century and asked for forgiveness by the descendants of those first Anabaptists.
That evening, a historical marker was unveiled on the bank of the river when Manz was matryred 477½ years earlier. June and I were quite moved when we visited that spot and saw the marker in May 2005. (In the picture, the marker is on the lower left, and the “twin towers” of Grossmünster Church can be seen in the background.)
The issue for Manz the other early Anabaptists was not just the rejection of infant baptism. The larger issue was the question about the nature of the church and the meaning of Christian discipleship. Those are topics that still merit serious consideration today.
1/8 -- Bob Carlson, a fellow member of Rainbow Mennonite Church and good friend, shared the following picture of the historical marker pictured, but unreadable, above: 


  1. A local Thinking Friend wrote (by e-mail): "Leroy, I read every word. Bless you for telling his story. I did not know of him."

    "I'll See You Again!" (1989) by Myron S. Augsburger, is a fictionalized biography of Felix Manz and well worth the reading. (I have read it twice.)

  2. Thanks Leroy for the baptistic historical marker. I have always been puzzled at Baptists' hesitancy to acknowledge their courageous forerunners as ancestors.

    1. I agree; that first meeting of the Swiss Brethren and the beginning of "believer's baptism" was a full 88 years before the formation of the first Baptist church (in 1609).

      Of course there have been some Baptists who have been very positive toward Anabaptism, such as William Estep who taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years and who wrote "The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism" (3rd edition, 1996)

  3. As a young Mennonite, I was brought up on these stories of anabaptist martyrs. The question was always posed, and we were all supposed to dwell on it deeply, whether when the times comes, would I have the same courage to die for my faith as these martyrs (and in many a Sunday School class - depending on the teacher - the executioner could be "the State," "Catholics" or most often, "invading Communists," etc.) I am amazed as an adult to talk with friends now who hardly even remember those "silent meditations" where we were to examine our hearts and our courage - for them, it was just another time in church where your were supposed to be quiet and think about whatever comes into your head - mostly baseball statistics. But for a child like myself, who each time introspected deeply and seriously, until it invaded even my night dreams, it was very frightening, and something I now consider to be pretty much in the category of psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse (although like the corporal punishment that was also just an accepted and ubiquitous part of the subculture, I understand that it was intended "for good" and practiced mainly out of traditionalism and ignorance.) I went on to study anabaptists in depth, including a PhD dissertation, only finally to come to what for me was a very liberating realization/affirmation, that, no, I WOULD NOT die for "The Truth" of what are essentially verbal disagreements on how extremely symbolic ideations should be phrased. Furthermore, I also found out that while modern Mennonites extol the "Radicals" of 500 years ago, the very last thing they want among them presently is any sort of actual radicalism that poses deep and fundamental questions of the denominational status quo. I assume my story would be multiplied across most any of the "baptistic" denominations.

    PS: While Manz was drowned (a direct analogy to baptism) most male anabaptists were burned at the stake (mainly women were drowned) and so the "third baptism," martyrdom, quickly became most associated among them with "the baptism of fire," which in turn was associated with what we today would call the baptism of the Holy Spirit (not necessarily in the Pentecostal/Charismatic sense, though not excluding that either.) Hans Hut, mentioned in Larry's posting, wrote a very influential tract on the subject, entitled "Gehymnus der Tauf" (the mystery of baptism), a translation of which is in my book "Early Anabaptist Spirituality" (Paulist Press 1994 - Classics of Western Spirituality series.)

    1. Daniel, thanks much for posting these most interesting comments. Your experience was far different from mine growing up as a Southern Baptist rather than an Anabaptist.

      At some point I would like to deal more with the idea of martyrdom, particularly why there were some Christians in the past but few now who would willingly become martyrs. Or is it just that some become martyrs in a different way now?

      Thanks, too, for the word about the two types of martyrdom for the 16th century Anabaptists. I knew this was true for the Sattlers, whom I mentioned in my March 20, 2011, blog posting. He was burned at the stake and she was drowned, as I recall it.

  4. It is worth noting that when Zwingli wanted this atrocious deed done he had to get the city council to pass the law and define and I presume carry out the punishment. We are reminded of the Romans and Jesus. A lesson as well as to how low we may fall when seeking to propagate our own opinions and negate the opinions of others.

    We can debate long and hard about what is worth dying for and what is not. But suffice it to say that living and dying while maintaining the liberty of our conscience is an asset to treasure. The most memorable statement I ever heard in seminary had noting directly to do with the content of the class. Dr. Hugh Wamble said to us one day that "if he lost his job tommorrow and maintained the liberty of his conscience it would be worth it." Those were not empty words for Dr. Wamble had already lost one job for following the liberty of his conscience. His words have been an encouragement to me many times through the years.

    1. Brent, thanks for your comments--and for your mentioning Dr. Hugh Wamble, whom I did not know well, but a man for whom I had great respect.

  5. Bob Carlson, whose picture I have just added to the blog posting above, send the following comments with the picture:

    "I appreciated the lovely story you told about Felix Manz. The family details and the setting made it more 'alive' and story like. I had not recognized the 'anniversary' date of his birth.

    "I still wonder what all moved those 16th century folks to live out their faith in such an unfriendly environment.

    "And of course, Manz probably did not anticipate that he would be drowned for his action. True, they acted in secret, and yet they acted with conviction they were doing something important."

    1. Bob, I very much appreciate your comments and the picture.

      As I mentioned above, I want to think more and make another post at some point about martyrdom.

  6. I too found this piece very edifying, and I look forward to your (eventual) thoughts on martyrdom.

    I am reading Rudolf Wentorf's Paul Schneider:Witness of Buchenwald (English translation by Daniel Bloesch, 2008), the first protestant pastor to be martyred by the Nazis.

    One of the factors which lead to Ps Schneider's "preventive detention" and eventual martyrdom at Buchenwald concentration camp was his denial of communion to some members of his parish.

    This made me recall the reason for John Wesley's return from the US to Great Britain, and left me wondering what I am willing to suffer for, even till death.