Rubbing Shoulders with Anabaptists

David NeufeldDavid Y. Neufeld is a historian of religion, culture, and everyday life in early modern Europe. His research and writing examine post-Reformation dynamics of conflict and coexistence, processes of minority formation, and archival cultures and practices through investigation of the experience of Anabaptists.

Lienhard Wäber died in the early winter of 1631 in the village of Brütten just outside of Zurich. His death was self-inflicted. Anna Richi, his wife, found him hanging from a tree in an oak grove near their small home, having followed his footsteps through freshly fallen snow. Wäber’s passing shocked his community, not least the newly arrived Reformed minister Hans Rudolf Fischer, who was charged by the authorities with investigating how such a thing could have happened in his parish. The pastor had known Wäber only as a dedicated school teacher. But as he set out to canvas those in the area who had spent time with the deceased man, the pastor discovered that, despite outward appearances, Wäber had long been mired in deep turmoil.

Earlier in life, Wäber had laboured as a mercenary, relatively well-paying work that young men in the impoverished Swiss countryside had taken up for generations. Many brought the violence of the battlefield back to their streets and families. Wäber appears to have returned home to Brütten with despair. He spent his remaining years struggling with spiritual unrest. One witness remembered Wäber’s persistent but unfulfilled desire to share with another person an unnameable horror he had perpetrated. “Could a man like him be saved?” Wäber had asked another confidant. Fellow day-labouring peasants recalled that, at mealtimes in the field, Wäber would distance himself from the group, going off on his own to kneel and pray aloud, his voice becoming so agitated that it disturbed them. Wäber was harassed by the devil, he claimed, who in one instance appeared in the form of a large black rat. His daughter testified that, with her own eyes, she had seen the demonic rodent stretch out its neck and threaten to snare her father in the same trap he had laid for it. No matter what he did, Wäber lamented, his heart continued to cause him intense distress.

During this period of searching, Wäber frequented meetings of Anabaptists in a nearby forest at night. His visits were sporadic, but they appear to have left a significant impression on him. After these encounters, Wäber began to question the legitimacy of the baptism of children. He acquired and read an “Anabaptist book” which he hid from those around him. Richi complained that, when the couple attended the local Reformed church, she was subjected to running commentary on the content of the sermon. If the minister preached about the consolation that came from knowing that God had forgiven the sins of the congregation’s members, Lienhard would lean over to her to complain that the pastor was proclaiming the lie of cheap grace. “They should preach that the immoral are punished,” he had told his wife, a view that reflected his sense that his own heavy burden of guilt required a reckoning with God.

For the time period and subject—the social experience of early modern common people—the source from which this account is derived, the product of some local minister’s unusually diligent notetaking, is exceptional in both its detail and dramatic framing. It provides a rare window into the inner life of a troubled man and how a parish, faced with his suicide, understood their collective culpability. From my vantage point, that of a historian who examines the long-term survival of Anabaptists in and around the edges of parishes like Brütten, the source provides privileged insight into the nature of relationships across the boundaries of belief. It prompts an imaginative exercise: what might Anabaptist women and men have made of this unfamiliar man with whom they were rubbing shoulders, gathered close together in the woods around the candlelight?

It’s likely that the strong emphasis that Anabaptist dissenters placed on the ethical demands of a life of faith, their call to repentance and a change of life, appealed to searchers and the dissatisfied. It was what drew Wäber, at the risk of harassment and punishment, to their illegal gatherings. It’s also true that, in some instances, this focus could harden into callousness toward those deemed to have fallen short of high standards. Maybe dissenters placed Wäber in this camp, given his previous willingness to maim and kill for pay, and turned their backs to him.  Bruten Village ExcerptAn excerpt from the protocols of the morals court of the village of Brütten for the year 1631, containing a report of Lienhard Wäber’s interactions with local Anabaptists. Staatsarchiv Zürich TAI 1.562, ERKGA Brütten, IV A 1 a, part 1, p. 4.

Wäber’s presence may have been frightening. His reported penchant for crude language and unpredictable outbursts of aggression may have communicated hidden trauma in his past. It was men like Wäber, war veterans paid and deputized by local governments, who raided and sacked Anabaptist homes, threatened their lives, and chased them down with arms. At the very least, dissenters would have been concerned about unwanted attention Wäber’s presence might attract. When news about Anabaptist activities reached the wrong sets of ears, trouble for them often ensued. Association with a volatile character like Wäber represented a risk, one which needed to be weighed against a call to lead him towards wholeness.

Or, more likely, Anabaptists didn’t push Wäber away. While it’s possible that dissenter estimation of Lienhard was distorted by fear or by reflexive moralism, this case suggests, in line with other evidence, that their circles remained open to outsiders. Anabaptism in that time and place was not an insular, family matter. The composition of these minority congregations was dynamic. As one contemporary Anabaptist leader remarked to an official, “people come to us more than we would like.” If separation from a corrupt society was an aspiration for many Anabaptists, it remained an unrealized one. Family ties, relationships of interdependence, and participation in a shared economic and social life that demanded regular encounters with members of dominant religious majorities made this so. Even though Wäber’s story intersects only briefly with that of local dissenters, it expands our appreciation of the possible impacts these encounters may have had on the lives of people who did not seek full membership in Anabaptist communities.

As I jump between early modern Europe and the present, between research and opportunities for teaching and community education, I’m struck by the ways that our work in Mennonite studies makes room for unexpected encounters. We certainly don’t seek separation, but we do elevate and explore particularity. For this reason, our work is sustained by and serves a community with deep-rooted commitments to learning more fully about the Mennonite past and present. At the same time, our circles—in the classroom, lecture hall, or library—remain open, extended and reshaped as much by those who come to check us out as by ourselves. In a course that provides a deep look at the Radical Reformation, students find opportunities to draw broader insights about religious conflict and minority experience. Undergraduate researchers use the Mennonite Archives of Ontario both as a resource for producing knowledge about the Mennonite past and as a tool for understanding changing media environments. A conference on Indigenous-Mennonite Encounters, while encouraging Mennonite historical self-examination, brings new partners into conversation and relationship. These connections, while often brief , enrich our work and sense of purpose, even if their impacts on those we rub shoulders with aren’t always visible to us.