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Balthasar Hubmaier and Reformation Day

Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) and Reformation Day 

[There is some disagreement among scholars over precise dates in Hubmaier's life.  The following paper is my best attempt to present a brief chronology of the man and his times. More needs to be written, however, on his life and ministry.]

Imagine reading your Bible and finding something there that no one was talking about or had talked about in your entire lifetime. Something like Luther reading Romans 1 and seeing for the first time justification by faith, not by works. Consider how your whole perception of the world would begin to unravel!

Add to this a hefty dose a political threat, in the form of "if you do what you read in this Bible, you will break the laws of the land." And imagine that the punishment was life imprisonment or even death. We often think of the Reformers as preachers and authors, in the same way we think of preachers and authors today. We forget what the world was like into which they were born.

Constantine, however well-intentioned, began the process of joining the Christian church to the state (the civil government) in the early 300's. By the end of the first millennium, there was essentially one Christian church that was as much a monarchial / political power as it was a spiritual body.

In the city-state structure of the day, to live in a generally walled city was to live by the laws of that city. Where religion was decided by law meant citizens were forced to adopt the religion of the city or be held in treason - as enemies of the state! Disobeying a priest was equivalent to disobeying any other civil authority - such as a police officer or Federal agent today. For example, it would be like saying you must be Protestant to live in Toronto. We would make that the law and cast out, kill or convert every non-Protestant that attempted to gain citizenship in our fair city!

"Freedom of religion" was unknown- where you were born (or where you lived) determined what you believed! And by the 1500's, there was hardly any true religion left in the state church - the Roman Catholic Church. This makes sense, in some ways. There was too much to lose for a person to resist the church - possessions, property, power, and even life. Thus, "everyone was a Christian" and sin was tolerated. Unbelievers clamored for positions of power in the church. Preaching shriveled up into a rehearsed repetition of languid superstition in a foreign tongue. 

One year before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door, another doctor of theology began preaching in South Germany. He was a mighty preacher and popular among the common people - but he was not yet born again.

Balthasar Hubmaier was born in c. 1480-81 to poor tenant farmers. The young Balthasar showed promise in school, however, and through hard work he managed to pay his way through to a doctorate. He was 31 years old. He joined the priesthood and soon moved to Waldshut on the Rhine in 1521. 

Hubmaier did what a good pastor should do - he studied his Bible and taught what it said. That may sound simple to us, but it was truly revolutionary in his context. He read Luther and kept testing what he was learning against the Word. At some point in 1522, the Lord saved him (c. 41 years old).

Soon after this he connected with Ulrich Zwingli, the lead reformer of the Swiss reformation in Zurich. It was with Zwingli that Hubmaier found much agreement on matters like the removal of the Mass, the destruction of idols, the Lord's Supper and believer's baptism. That's right. In 1523, Zwingli was teaching his followers what the Bible taught - saving faith must precede baptism.

But 1524-25 were to prove difficult years! First of all, Balthasar the priest found himself a wife, Elsbeth Hügline,... and, as the Apostle wrote, 28 "...those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that."1 I will explain this a little later... 

Hubmaier was back in Waldshut and wonderful things were taking place - reform was underway, the Gospel was going forward, souls were being saved and Hubmaier himself was finally baptized - months after coming to Baptistic convictions and writing about them. There is some evidence to suggest that a local revival was taking place and hundreds were converted under his ministry - in the space of about 18 months! Such renewal got the quick attention of the Holy Roman Empire and Ferdinand I (the Catholic King charged by the Pope to quench the Reformation) was intent on crushing the Protestant upheaval. Knowing that Waldshut would be attacked by Ferdinand's army if he stayed, Hubmaier went to see Zwingli in Zurich in order to spare his city.

But in the two years since his last visit, Zwingli had changed. Corad Grebel and Michael Sattler were already "feeling the heat" of this change. Zwingli's view of Reform was to gain the city council's approval for every change. Men like Grebel thought more in terms of "if the Lord says it, we must do it!" Earlier in the year these men had been forced out of Zurich by Zwingli.

When Hubmaier arrived in Zurich, Zwingli had him immediately arrested, and a disputation on baptism was convened. Being in Zurich, Zwingli, of course, was ruled to have won the debate and Hubmaier pressured to sign a recantation of his Baptistic views. Sign this he did, but when Zwingli ordered him to read his signed statement at the church, Hubmaier recanted the recantation and began to teach believer's Baptism. Pulled from the pulpit, he was subject to 7 months of torture. This culminated with being stretched on the rack... where he recanted his Baptistic views.2

Again this poor man recanted. He was quietly released from the city by a mocking Zwingli and fled Zurich for Moravia - at that time, a safe haven for Anabaptists. 

In his two years of ministry in Moravia, it is estimated he baptized 6000 new converts! Revival was coming again, this time to Nicolsburg, Moravia. But it was not to last. Ferdinand was sending troops wherever Protestantism progressed and when Nicolsburg fell, Balthasar and Elsbeth were arrested and sent to Vienna. For the next 8 months, Hubmaier remained in prison on meager rations and prepared for death.

On March 3rd he was again brought to the rack and tortured there for 7 days. This time he bore the pain with fortitude, strength and grace. On March 10th he was burned alive at the stake with his dear wife exhorting him to remain faithful until death parted them in this life. Three days later they tied a stone around Elsbeth's neck and threw her into the Danube river to drown.

When the Council of Trent met in 1645 and condemned the works of the Reformers, Balthasar Hubmaier was grouped with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin as a heretic to the Church of Rome. 

Although Hubmaier died at the young age of 48, he was used of God in two powerful ways: 1) the conversion of many! And 2) his writings. Two of his more important works are:


On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them

It consists of thirty-six articles and is framed by Hubmaier's motto, Truth is Unkillable. He promptly begins his defense by declaring that heretics are those who "wantonly resist the Holy Scripture" thus declaring all Roman clerics, monks and priests as the true herectics! That doesn't make you many friends.


On the Christian Baptism of Believers

This has often been described as Hubmaier's most significant writing. It is a response to Zwingli's Concerning Baptism, Rebaptism, and Infant Baptism the work "addressed numerous New Testament passages dealing with the subject of baptism. [It] was enormously popular and provoked an inflamed response by Zwingli as well as a reply by John Calvin. Although the work is an in-depth look at baptism in the New Testament, the argument is fairly simple. Hubmaier demonstrated that no passage commands the baptism of infants and that only believers are baptized. He demonstrated that a pattern exists in the New Testament passages concerning baptism. Generally, the texts begin by explaining that the word of God is preached, followed by an emphasis on hearing, then a change, repentance, or faith is displayed. Only after faith or repentance is evident does the person receive baptism. Often, external works follow baptism in the New Testament passages.3


What can we learn from the life of Balthasar Hubmaier?

1. True courage is driven by conviction. Hubmaier was not what would some would call a naturally courageous man. He didn't have the Luther bravado or the Zwinglian march into battle. In fact, his manly courage failed him on several occasions. But Hubmaier always made matters right. It takes another kind of courage to recant a recantation. That is a lonely place! You have abandoned your friends and now your enemy is doubly set against you. Yet, Hubmaier would not die a denier! In his Short Apology he wrote: "I may err, I am a man - but a heretic I cannot be... O God, pardon me my weakness!" Take courage Christian - God forgives those who fail under pressure. And the true Believers will prove themselves in the end. Mark 13:13 "You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." 

2. A short life can accomplish much. Although Hubmaier's earthly spiritual life lasted only 7 years, he was used by God in the conversion of thousands, wrote works that are still in some use today and he lived faithfully in tumultuous times. Most Mennonite groups hold Hubmaier as "their Calvin," a man well-versed in the Scriptures and, had he lived longer, a man of remarkable Biblical insight. 

3. Be ready to die. Would you die for the right to be baptized as a believer? We can barely fathom the question! Don't we just "agree to disagree" on this matter in our day? Well, yes. But for those of us who delight in the Bible's teaching of Believer's baptism, we ought to hold it with a degree of reverence. Our right to baptize believers, and our right to not baptize our children, was bought with blood. Men and women died over this. It is estimated over 4,000 of them. Are we prepared to follow them? For something as simple as believer's baptism? Can we say with Hubmaier, "Truth is Unkillable!" all the while knowing we are not? 

Hubmaier was not perfect, but there is much in his life for which we can give glory to God. May He make us men and women of equal conviction, passion, evangelistic zeal and obedience.


1The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 . Standard Bible Society: Wheaton

2 Because of its mechanically precise, graded operation, it was particularly suited for hard interrogation, as to extract a confession. One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments or bones. Eventually, if the application of the rack is continued, the victim's limbs are ripped right off. One powerful method for putting pressure upon a prisoner was to merely force him to view someone else being subjected to the rack. A person stretched on the rack presented a spectacle of the body in pain. A victim would often be placed on the rack naked or nearly so, and their taut skin would run with the sweat of their agonies. Wrists and ankles would be swollen and bloodied from the bite of ropes or manacles. The spread-eagled posture left no part of the body invulnerable from the application of other devices like hot irons or pincers, or immune from the attention of those gathered to observe the torture.