Hans-Jürgen Goertz

The Conrad Grebel Review 17, no. 3 (Fall 1999)


In 1996 the memory of Menno Simons was celebrated, who first saw the light of day five hundred years ago. He was not a founding father but a pastor to the persecuted Anabaptists who, in the Netherlands, along the Rhine, and in Northern Germany, were experiencing a crisis. He conferred a new identity on them. Under his leadership they became “the Quiet in the Land.” The resolute and gentle character and the comfort that Simons offered, and the firmness he showed when necessary, could certainly arouse the feelings that father figures evince. For this reason he is still lovingly honored. Such feelings did not immediately arise when the 500th anniversary of Conrad Grebel’s birth was commemorated in 1998.1

     His year of birth is not known precisely, but Grebel was doubtless a young man when he became a co-founder of the Anabaptists in Switzerland. In fact, he was the first person who dared break with the time-honored, legally-protected practice of infant baptism, and performed baptism upon the profession of faith on a former priest in a private house in Zurich “because at that time there was no appointed servant to perform such work,” as stated later in a biblically stylized account of the origins of the Anabaptist movement.2 Grebel was steeped in personal difficulties; he was impetuous and lacked self-restraint, and was perhaps even violent-tempered. He had a humanistic education, but he was anything but composed and moderate. He was relentless, when it came to carrying through perceived truth. He was prepared to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, but he could also, when the signs indicated stormy weather, pour oil on the fire of the peasants’ revolts and forget any thought of self-sacrifice as soon as the opportunity arose to build an Anabaptist people’s church and avoid the path to a Free Church. He was restless, intemperate, torn this way and that way, and he kept at a distance everyone who came close to him. He does not arouse feelings of timeless devotion and is not an easy person to celebrate.

     Nothing had turned out well for Grebel. He had broken off studies in Basel, Vienna, and Paris, and had fallen out with his parents; he could find no way to a secure professional existence. He was dissatisfied with the course of the Reformation in Zurich, though at first he had supported it. Then he turned against Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of the city. He left his young family and went underground. After performing the baptism of the runaway priest Georg Blaurock of Graubünden, he strove in vain to re-establish the pure form of the church. While fleeing the henchmen of the authorities he hid away in the vineyards of Maienfeld and died of the plague. It was the brief life of a nonconforming, self-willed, radical. It is inconceivable how such a life could produce something worth remembering.

     In the 1930s Harold S. Bender wrote the first academic biography about Grebel. It was the subject of his doctorate in Heidelberg in 1936, but it was not published until 1950.3 The visionary beginnings of the Reformation’s Free Church tradition interested Bender. In 1943 he described “The Anabaptist Vision,” a clearly outlined model following Christ that led to the separation of church and state and to a church that would refuse to have anything to do with religious justifications of the state’s military actions, indeed, would not tolerate the killing of anyone by human hands. In the meantime, it has been shown how difficult it is to verify Bender’s vision historically. The origins of Anabaptism are cloudy, unclear, and contradictory. What interests me is not the vision that can be held out as the standard for the “true” church, but rather the question of how it came about that Grebel took a path leading to radical religiosity. Was it the boldness of thought, the religious virtuosity of a humanistically-educated layperson, or everyday experiences that steered him onto a new path?


Conrad Grebel was not the “Founder of the Swiss Brethren, Sometimes Called Anabaptists.” Bender exaggerated slightly with this as the title of his biography. As far as organization is concerned, others were more successful. Grebel was not the “coryphaeus of the Anabaptists” - a suggestively intended metaphor taken from the ancient world of sport used by Zwingli to characterize the humanistically educated, forceful champion of the Anabaptists. He neither set the tone for good or evil nor conceived the slogans with which the Anabaptists defied ecclesiastic and secular authority or on which they built their theological structure. Often the ideas were supplied by others. He took them up, transposed them, and pursued them with rigor and single-mindedness, not sparing himself when it was necessary to commit himself to the Anabaptist rejuvenation of Christianity. He was not an original theological mind, even though he used his education in the service of Anabaptism. The Anabaptist theologian of substance was Balthasar Hubmaier, one-time professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt. In Zwingli’s eyes, Grebel belonged, after he had fallen into disfavor, to the theologically ignorant like Wilhelm Reublin whom Zwingli judged as “stupid and brazen, verbose and of corresponding less understanding.”4

     Grebel was not a comforter of souls like Menno Simons, who accompanied the brothers and sisters with encouragement and comfort on their path into martyrdom. Perhaps Grebel would have been able to offer support in the extreme trial of life when called upon, drawing from the well of his ideas on the following of the suffering Christ. However, he died before the wave of severe persecutions came upon the Anabaptists. He was surely a critical agitator. Zwingli experienced how his educated disciple from a good family suddenly turned against him in 1523, showing solidarity with preachers in the countryside and redirecting toward Zwingli and the city council the effective agitation of emotions against the traditional clergy. That obviously affected the reformer very deeply. Again and again he referred to it: “When they first appeared, many of our own were taken in by them and were driven to hate us through their lies, cries for help, and hypocrisy.”5 Zwingli was not about to tolerate that. He interpreted hate against his own person as betrayal against the Gospel which, he believed, was on the right course in Zurich.

     Grebel’s strength lay in his ability to bring others into discussion, not to slacken off but to be relentless, even toward himself and his family when fighting for the truth as he perceived it. His proclivity for polemical criticism fit well into the existing anticlerical milieu of controversy. With merciless perspicacity he criticized the mistakes and deficiencies of priests, monks, and nuns, showing disdain for everything that they represented, including the appearance of piety they spread around themselves and their cult. Zwingli was as much disturbed by the hypocrisy among the clergy as he was by the feigning humility of the radicals.6 In essence, Grebel connected with Zwingli’s criticism of the clergy and intensified it, one-sidedly, forcefully, and without compromise. In contrast to the image of the deceitful clergy he upheld the image of the pious lay person. He did not limit his criticism to insults and denunciation but also outlined fundamental principles for a renewal of Christianity, as represented and embodied practically by devout lay people. The personalization of the criticism resulted in the personalization of the key ideas of the reform movement.

     Grebel had consciously absorbed the anticlerical environment of conflict, and thus his thinking received a very definite orientation. (1) He related the anticlerical contrast to his own existence. He experienced the crucial turning point in his own life as the conversion and rebirth described in the New Testament and as a transition from the old to the new creation. The single morality of the humanists changed to a rigid form of Christian sanctity. (2) He willingly opened himself to the concept of the priesthood of all believers and took aim at the misdeeds of the church. (3) Sola scriptura could be combined with the priestly self-image of the lay person. The reading and discussion of Holy Scripture within the circle of brethren became the germ cell for a new understanding of the church. (4) The postulant of purity gains validity in his letters to Thomas Müntzer as a reaction to the impure lives of the clerics. The layperson perceived the reforming sola gratia not just as an act of existential purification but as an admonition to submit oneself, through the “rule of Christ,” to a permanent, communally controlled process of purification. (5) It can thus be explained why the radicals placed such emphasis on the practice of faith. Not only what the layperson believed, but also, and above all, what he did, determined the possibility of a fundamental renewal of Christianity. (6) Accompanying this was the particular attention Grebel devoted to the problem of church ordinances. They were not “adiaphorous,” irrelevant to the faith, as Zwingli maintained, but rather ordinances in which the life of Christians was actualized. Otherwise they would not have been biblically advised. The reformers wanted to wait before renewing the ordinances in order not to burden the conscience of traditional believers and not to anger them unnecessarily towards the newly discovered Gospel. The radicals saw it differently. They could not countenance overburdening those who had just come to the faith and were dependent on supportive regulations in order to maintain their allegiance to Christ. They lost faith in the phrase “protection of the weak” and felt abandoned; but, in view of the sole saving grace of God, they considered themselves to be the weak who were unable to achieve anything on their own. (7) The anticlerical self-image corresponded to the radicals’ views of secular authority. An authority that is not prepared to utilize its power uncompromisingly in the service of church which has already been led to godly truth has forfeited its claim to be “God’s servant” (Rom. 13:4). There is nothing that such an authority “will not stoop to,” and one can not expect such an authority to contribute to the renewal of Christianity. It has no say in the church and may not be cooperated with. In this experience is rooted the subsequent demand of the Anabaptists: to strictly separate the Christian and civil communities, to distinguish between the order within and outside of the “completeness of Christ” as stated in the Schleitheim Confession of 15277; in modern terms, to distinguish between church and state.

     At first glance this anticlerically-conceived framework gives an impression of soundness. One thing fits the next. On closer observation, contradictions are apparent. At one point Grebel refers to Zwingli as having opened his eyes and those of his brethren to the Gospel; at another he maintains that the truth of the Gospel was first revealed to them when they went from being listeners to reformatory preaching to becoming readers of Holy Scripture. Grebel would dispute any claim that he experienced conversion through his encounter with Zwingli. At times he followed Scripture to the letter, at other times he followed the spirit of Scripture or outlined far-reaching connections in order to determine the meaning of a biblical word. Here he sank into a exegetical method of which he reproached Zwingli in the Second Disputation on baptism. On the one hand, he observed the small, defenseless community prepared to suffer as the model of the future church, as in his letter to Müntzer in September 1524. On the other hand, he allowed all thought of a church that evolved from the free choice of believers and was visibly distinguishable from the civil community to recede into the background when a chance to advance an Anabaptist people’s church again presented itself. His criticism of Müntzer’s revolutionary militancy was not as fundamental as might be assumed, if we consider how Grebel became involved in the revolutionary situation in the Grüninger district and how he supported the Zurich citizens’ struggle for freedom. Sources indicate a fundamental agreement between Grebel and the rebels. Nowhere is there criticism of revolutionary militancy and self-assertion.

     The early Anabaptists, foremost among them Grebel, did not have a uniform conception of reformation at their disposal. Nor did some simply represent the idea of a people’s church and others the idea of a free church. On the contrary, especially the peace-loving, ready to suffer, signatories of the letter to Müntzer,8 Conrad Grebel and Johannes Brötli, are the best examples to show that the same Anabaptists stood for the concept of a free church in one situation and for the concept of a people’s church in another. Everything was still provisionary.

     Accordingly, one could accuse Grebel of inconsistency, as did his brother-in-law Joachim Vadian of St. Gallen later on. We could also gain the impression that he developed a kind of improvised theology. The reasons for it are difficult to explain. Perhaps it was the only appropriate form in which a lay person could make theological sense of the events in which he was involved. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt not to be pushed to the fringe in the dispute over the Reformation. Perhaps Grebel surmised that the Christian’s existence would remain provisional in light of the “perfection of Christ.” Should this supposition be true, then he stood nearer to Zwingli than he wanted to admit, because in Zwingli’s On Divine and Human Justice (Von göttlicher und menschlicher Gerechtigkeit, 1523), the deficient, provisional character of human existence and order is derived from divine spiritual working that alone is perfect. Humankind’s search to achieve a degree of divine justice and love remains desirable but unattainable. However, Grebel drew a different conclusion than Zwingli. The reformer justified the secular authority’s say in the church. It cannot act godly, but rather humanly – like any member of the community – and is compelled by duty to align the morals of political action with the will of God. Grebel instead entrusted himself to the social movement, whose realizable goal is never set once and for all but must first be sought in a concrete attack on the existing power structure. Like the social movement, the corresponding theology was provisional. Zwingli thought in terms of a city order, as became evident at the end of the Second Disputation (October 1523), while Grebel and his friends followed the movement of communal self-liberation.

     We can thus see that the same approach, namely an ontological differentiation between the divine working of the Spirit and human action, two divergent, indeed mutually antagonistic, positions could arise. From this viewpoint Zwingli certainly interpreted the facts incorrectly when he pronounced this terse judgment on apostates: “They are gone out from us; but were not with us, otherwise they would have remained with us.”9 Essentially, this was not an objective judgment but a biblically cloaked denunciation. The author of the first letter of John from which these words are taken (I John 2:19) had apostates in mind who were causing unrest and confusion in his community: “Children, it is the final hour! And as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, so have many become Antichrists; therefore we recognize that the final hour has come” (verse 18). During the final days the radicals were stigmatized as “Antichrists,” as diabolical monsters. Here Zwingli adopted an anticlerical argument and turned it against his former followers. The radicals, likewise, did not spare Zwingli; they decried him in a similar way: “publically . . . with great anger, without restraint, [they say] that I am a heretic, a murderer, a thief, the true Antichrist, falsifier of the scriptures and had done worse than the pope.”10 Zwingli and the Anabaptists had sunk their claws into one another and resorted to the most extreme measures of malediction, denunciation, and condemnation in order to stand up to each other – with one exception: Zwingli was on his way to power, whereas the Anabaptists daily became more powerless.

     When looked at rationally these adversaries appear to have stood on the common “ground of the reformatory gospel,” as Walther Köhler once thought.11 However, the gospel took on a different form in the civil situation of the city than in the revolutionary movement of the countryside. In the villages the Scriptures were interpreted differently than in the city; rulers drew different conclusions from the word of God than did the ruled; the powerful heard sermons differently than the powerless. When the reforming camp suddenly showed fractures and gradually broke apart, the reason was not theological – at least not primarily. Rather, the break took place because the political-social realm of experience to which the Gospel was applied was already torn apart. The experience not of an ideal world but of a broken one was given theological consideration and led to the break-up of the community of reformers.

     Again, it would be erroneous to suggest that Zwingli and the Anabaptists lacked fundamental commonalities or otherwise would have remained united and not come to blows. But it would also be incorrect to believe that the break was not theological in nature, but solely a problem of church order and practice, of obedient faith vis-à-vis the commandments of Holy Scripture and the judgment of the divine Spirit.

     The break between Zwingli and the Anabaptists began before the first confessional baptism, with the experiences that both had had with secular authorities. Zwingli had experienced how the council in the city got behind him, and his former followers had experienced how the council in the country went against them. However, this would explain only the opposition between Zwingli and Simon Stumpf, who rose against each other at the Second Disputation of Zurich, and not that between Zwingli and Grebel, because both lived within the social realm of the city. But Grebel, through his conversations with the preachers in the countryside and in the circle of the book dealer Andreas Castelberger, was aware that the true nature of the secular authority, with which he had collided in the past, showed itself in the countryside. It was this authority with which Zwingli had joined forces. This observation led Grebel to join forces with Simon Stumpf in the future and not with Zwingli.

     Harold S. Bender claimed that Zwingli proceeded step by step to find a way for the reformation in Zurich; the same was also true of his followers. As demanded by the prevailing experience, they grew step by step in their radicalism and finally into Anabaptism. This also explains why Grebel tried, on the one hand, to develop consistent views, and why, on the other, he became entangled in contradictions. It was not his theological view that vacillated, but his experiences that he reworked theologically. The more sensitively he reacted to them, the more provisional became what he thought and did.

     Grebel did not put his stamp on Anabaptism but rather thought and believed as his brethren did; he acted and suffered as they did. Perhaps he was shrewder, more critical, in any case more unrelenting when it was necessary to push through the recognized “truth” of Holy Scripture. His temperament possibly played a role, as did the experience of feeling inferior and abandoned in conflicts with his father and with his family, teachers, and the aristocracy. He felt like a “Nemo” ( a nothing and no one, “no longer Grebel”), as he very early adopted Ulrich von Hutten’s famous self-accusation in order to comprehend himself in his desolate situation.12 A psychic pattern of experience had begun to develop that suited the unassimilated, nonconformist tendency of his Christian faith, with the conviction that God is everything and man nothing. It was a faith which embraced the authority that does not disappoint, with a willingness for martyrdom and acceptance into a community which casts aside everything that stands in the way of the workings of the divine Spirit. In a similar way Heinold Fast has spoken of a “foundational psychological structure” to which, above all, Grebel’s death urge could be attributed.13 The isolated son of a patrician, who was not able to find the way to a secure profession but who longed for security, he found this security in the fellowship of outcast brothers and sisters.

     Grebel stood at the forefront of a movement that was on the way to a new church community. He did not, like Menno Simons, come upon it, but rather contributed to its emergence. It was not yet developed to the point that he could find peace and fulfillment in it. In his short life we can recognize how unclear and confused the beginnings of Anabaptism in Switzerland were, how contradictory, flustered, aggressive, and fragile. The movement’s emergence was euphoric, marked by a deep earnestness of faith but also by opinionatedness, human weakness, denunciation, violence, and quiet suffering.

     No one knows what Grebel looked like – this non-conformist son of a patrician, the critic of pious pretense, the first Anabaptist – and no one knows his final resting place. All traces have been washed away. Some of the impetus of his work did live on in Swiss Anabaptism, which soon traveled the hitherto unclear path to the Free Church. It was still risky to base its existence on Anabaptist non-conformism. Gone was the provisional, the groping and seeking, that is difficult to understand in view of Grebel’s subversive activities and that was replaced with set-phrases and hardened rules. But the provisional form of existence respects the signs of the times, and does not recoil from the looming end of the world.


Grebel fell by the wayside, Zwingli was successful. Who was right: the powerful or the powerless? Each thought and acted according to the truth as he perceived it in the Holy Scripture. Did the one understand it because of his theological education, but the other misunderstand it because he was a layperson who had only an incomplete theological education? Such a question does not touch on the crux of the controversy, because both Zwingli and Grebel were deeply convinced that Holy Scripture was open to the learned and unlearned, the theologian and the layperson alike. Indeed, compared to the priests of traditional belief, the lay person was virtually predestined to understand the Scripture and to judge the teachings of the theologians. Zwingli and Grebel also agreed that the Holy Spirit working within people opens up the meaning of Scripture. Although each accused the other of a godless employment of the word of God, the question of their correct or false interpretation of Scripture remains undecided.

     The reason for Zwingli and Grebel’s divergent interpretations lies elsewhere, namely in the experiences that shaped each of them. Zwingli, it has been said, had good experiences with the patricians, whereas Grebel had bad experiences. The latter joined forces with the preachers in the countryside and began to see the circumstances of the beginning of reform through their eyes. Harmony with secular authority led to the positive view of the relationship between God’s word and the secular sword, whereas the dissent with authority led to a negative assessment of this relationship. The respective experiences awakened the particular interest with which Holy Scripture was read. They gave the readings form and determined how they were read. They were not the source of religious content and did not determine what impacted on the people’s faith. There was much room for the creativity of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the divided world, with the will of the rulers above and the resistance of the people below, left behind traces in the relations between Zwingli and Grebel. Both men found this hard to bear.

     A sense of tragedy pervades Grebel’s life, as has sometimes been noted. Zwingli also came to a tragic end. The “man with the sword,” as Hans Rudolf Hilty called him,14 died by the sword during the Kappel War in 1531. His body was quartered and burned. Both Zwingli and Grebel were carried off – as heretics and somehow also as martyrs. History, to which we at times entrust the rendering of equitable judgment can apparently not decide whether to declare one or the other correct. Out of this entangled contradictoriness a thought emerges which Ernst Troeltsch develops in The Social Teachings of Christian Churches and Groups. He states that church and sects did not coexist in irreconcilable, mutual exclusivity but rather complemented one another. Neither the church (the established territorial protestant churches) nor the sects (the communities of Anabaptists) succeeded in presenting the entire truth of Holy Scripture. Each exercised its right to cull its own biblical truth from the deficits of the other.15 While Grebel was alive, Anabaptism had not developed into a sect. The later separatist tendencies were indicated, but nothing more. Troeltsch did not perceive this. Nevertheless, the idea of complementarity, in which one side completes the other is helpful.

     Zwingli spoke for some and Grebel for others. In a divided world, it was obviously not possible for only one voice to proclaim Holy Scripture. Had the newly discovered Gospel reached everyone, then Zwingli and Grebel would have been well advised not to fight but to complement one another. Yet it was necessary that one give way. Some voices nonetheless, suggested that people should treat each other more respectfully than had hitherto been the case. Wolfgang Capito wrote to Zwingli: “ I am really, truly happy that in our church a gentleness prevails such that no one is judged peremptorily: we offer ourselves to the weak, yes, we surround the needy with support and direct the power of love especially to where imperfection is in greatest need of it. With this gift we will be victorious, my brother.”16 The Strasbourg reformer found these words in 1527, after Grebel had already died. No one had longed more for this love than the first Anabaptist. For the people of that time Christian burial was a deep expression of brotherly love: one was ushered by brothers from this life into the next. But nowhere is it reported that Grebel was given a Christian burial. Not only was his life provisional, but the mourning of his death was also improvised.

Hans-Jürgen Goertz is a professor at the Institute for social and Economic History at the University of Hamburg. Translation by Michael Zimmerman, University of Waterloo.


1 This article is based on an passage from my book Konrad Grebel. Kritiker des frommen Scheins: 1498-1526. Eine biographische Skizze (Konrad Grebel. Critic of Pious Pretense: 1498-1526. A Biographical Sketch). (Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, Bolanden/Pfalz und Kümpers Verlag, Hamburg, 1998).

2 Heinold Fast, ed., Der linke Flügel der Reformation. Glaubenszeugnisse der Täufer, Spiritualisten, Schwärmer und Antitrinitaner (The Left Wing of the Reformation. Confessions of Faith of the Anabaptists, Spiritualists, Zealots, and Anti-Trinitarians) (Bremen, 1962), 7.

3 Harold S. Bender, Conrad Grebel, ca. 1498-1526: The Founder of the Swiss Brethren, Sometimes Called Anabaptists (Goshen, IN, 1950).

4 Ulrich Zwingli to Konrad Sam, September 1527, quoted from Mira Baumgartner, Die Täufer und Zwingli. Eine Dokumentation (Zürich, 1993).

5Ibid., 191.

6 Huldreich Zwingli’s Collected Works, ed. Emil Egli, Georg Finsler, Walther Köhler, et al., (Zürich, 1905). Volume III, 421; Volume IV, 209.

7 Fast, 66.

8 John C. Wenger, ed., Conrad Grebel’s Programmatic Letters of 1524 (Scottdale, PA, 1970).

9 Zwingli, Works, IV, 208.

10Ibid., 208.

11 Walther Köhler, “The Zürcher Täufer” in Gedenkschrift zum 400jährigen Jubiläum der Mennoniten oder Täufergesinnten (Commemorative Writing for the 400th Anniversary of the Mennonites or the Anabaptists) (Ludwigshafen, 1925), 63.

12 Conrad Grebel to Joachim Vadian, 14 October 1524 (from Zurich), quoted from Leland Harder, ed., The Sources of Anabaptism. The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (Scottdale, PA, Kitchener, ON: 1985), 296, 686.

13 Heinold Fast, “Conrad Grebel: The Covenant on the Cross,” in Hans-Jürgen Goertz, ed., Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus. (Kitchener, ON; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982), 130.

14 Hans Rudolf Hilty, Risse. Erzählerische Recherchen (Rifts. Narrative Studies), (Bern, 1977).

15 Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (London, 1931); Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (Tübingen, 1912). Compare Hans-Jürgen Goertz, “Religiöse Bewegungen in der Frühen Neuzeit,” Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte (München, 1993), Volume 20, 60.

16 Wolfgang Capito to Ulrich Zwingli, 7 November 1527, in Baumgartner, Die Täufer und Zwingli, 221