The Course Of The Church Through The Centuries
1400 To 1800 AD
(Dates are highlighted in red)
In 1400 an annihilating blow struck the congregation which was perhaps the oldest church in Germany, Strasbourg, in which according to tradition of the Alsatian Old Evangelicals there were said to have been New Testament Christians even from the time of Julian the Apostate. In a raid based on Denunciation 32, "Winkler" ("Cornerers")—as common folk here called the orthodox believers on account of their secret meetings in ole corners (Winkeln) and vaults—were arrested, submitted to torture and in their torture terribly mutilated. The persecutors extorted from these victims the confession that their sole authority was not the church but the New Testament, which should be studied in the language of the country. They rejected all adoration of Mary and of the saints and all veneration of pictures or crucifixes; they disavowed the authority of the consecrations by priests and bishops along with the clergy’s claim to the keys of salvation and heaven. Of feast days they kept only Good Friday, Easter, Whitsunday and the first day of the week. They called the baptism of children useless, since there could not yet be any belief in these little ones. Only the intercession of the commander of the knights of Saint John, who was favorable to them and of the city clerk Johann von Blunstein saved the imprisoned ones from the funeral pile. They were banned from the city "for eternal years" and disappeared in the loneliness of the valleys of the Vosges and Jura Mountains.
During the years of struggle and strife within the state church wherein rival popes vied for power and influence and the state church continued its persecutions against such men as Wycliffe and Huss and their many followers—during these years of shedding of blood and of terror the churches of New Testament Christians also suffered unspeakably. The little old congregation at Regensburg was ferreted out, its elder Grueneisen with three other members were executed after many tortures as allies of the Hussites. The churches of Dresden, of Lausitz and of Ukermark fared similarly. On the Rhine the Saxon nobleman Henry of Schlieben was burned at the stake as an alleged Hussite spy; even in North France small groups of primitive Christians were rooted out; the accusations against them ran: "Hunt the Prague game out," referring to the murdering of Catholic clergymen, such as occurred in Prague in the days of July 1415.
For years and years the "bloodhounds of the Lord," as the Dominican monks engaged in the service of the Inquisition proudly called themselves, endeavored to seek out the secret threads of association with which undoubtedly the scattered little congregations united with each other in some manner or other. The brains of the Inquisitors believed they represented some rival church under a heretic-pope in some secret central cathedral, so when the primitive itinerant Bishop Frederick Reiser was treacherously arrested in Strasbourg, this picture seemed to be confirmed. Reiser, born in Swabia, scion of a family that had for centuries given martyrs to the gospel, had tirelessly endeavored to effect and to blend together the Waldenses and the New Testament churches. He visited and preached for these many scattered groups of Central Europe, but close to his heart were the countless small assemblies which had been formed in the guild rooms of the weavers and the lodges of the stonemasons in the imperial cities of South Germany. With them he broke bread, among them he baptized and preached. In Donauworth, Augsburg, Nuremburg, and Strausbourg he had the centers of his missionary work. When the Hussite storms broke loose he journeyed at once to Bohemia, determined to create there, where everything stood in ferment, an asylum for the persecuted comrades of the faith.
The great army of the Hussites at Tabor was a swarming ant-heap of bohemians of all shades of belief who agreed fully in only two points: The church of the Babylonian beast, the popish church, and her priests must be rooted out, just as the priests of Baal were rooted out by Elijah; and the chalice of the Lord must be taken away from the clergy and be given to all baptized believers. The Roman church had created this great chasm between the clergy and the laity, and herein were many of the great struggles between them and the Hussites. Thus there gleamed on the chalice in the hands of the preachers who came galloping in before the armies of the Hussites the glow of a new time as to the equality of mankind before their heavenly Father. For in Tabor the layman stood holding the same privileges and rights as the preacher, the knight stood beside the burgher and the peasant—having become one as a sign of the dawning time of redemption that knew no order of rank but only the paradise-like good fortune of brotherhood and equality. Here the rigorous ruler Procope proclaimed that that only should be accepted in Bohemia which was expressly demanded in the Holy Scriptures. And so purgatory, veneration of the saints, transformation of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, worship of relics, definite time of fasting, and all church festivals, oaths, capital punishment, and ecclesiastical rank all were rejected and preaching should be done only in the language of the country and lay members also have full authority to preach.
Friedrich Reiser came to Tabor about 1431 and visited all the scattered Christians in Bohemia and Moravia and got in contact with the Waldenses of the adjacent Austrian districts. The Taborites, who were inclined toward the New Testament, esteemed the daring evangelist very highly for to them he was the connection with the long chain of congregations believing the teachings of the apostles, a "bishop of God’s grace in the midst of the Roman church corrupted by the gifts of Constantine." He was one of the fellow elders of the Taborite congregation in Landscron, and was in position to attend the church council in the entourage of secular delegates sent at the request of the frightened emperor in 1433. He was able to attend this council in its discussion concerning a reform of church and state. A plan of reformation conceived by him at this time, which was printed and circulated, contained definitions as they were to be found current 93 years later in the peasant parliament at Heilbrenn. When the skillful diplomacy of the Roman Catholic Curia succeeded in breaking up the front of the Hussites who at first maintained unity, and the majority of the Bohemian-Moravian delegates declared themselves satisfied with the granting of the chalice for laity, just then civil war broke out in the Czech districts.
Reiser had warned in vain against trying to protect churches of Christ with the sword. The Taborites, incensed at the betrayal of the common cause, began the two-front war against those who had capitulated in their own camp and against the crusaders on the borders. They were annihilated near Lipan in 1434 as a military force by the combined forces of their opponents, and about the middle of the century they vanished as a religious party also. Now Reiser tried to bring his mission to a close by creating a place of refuge for the gospel in this Bohemia that was still reeking from the blood of civil war, for, as he thought, the compromise of the majority of the Hussites made at least a space in Central Europe that did not stand directly under the jurisdiction of the popes, a region in which a certain mutual tolerance necessarily would have to arise through the coexistence of two different forms of worship and faith. Fugitives from Picardy had already found shelter near Tabor, also Waldenses from Upper and Lower Austria. Reiser now wished to set about bringing the message to the hard oppressed brothers and sisters of the Upper Rhine and in Brandenburg so that no hindrances might stand against their entrance into Bohemia. But he was recognized in Strasbourg by the guards of the Inquisition and burned at the stake along with one of the deaconesses of the church, Anna Barbara von Weiler. Even in death he professed: "God is love. Only he who abides in love abides in God."
As he had foreseen, the work of the Lord in Bohemia and Moravia was to develop in a most gratifying way during the next hundred years. The former military captain of the Taborites, Peter von Cheltsehitz, long before the outbreak of the civil war, through conversations with Reiser had come to the conviction that Christ had also given us a law in answer to a question of a lawyer in Matthew 22:35-40 with these words, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." In his letter to the Galatians Paul repeated the same law (6:2): "Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." In his spiritually significant book, The Net of Faith, Reiser had developed out of this "law of Christ" the entire position of a New Testament church, coming in detail to the same conclusions of the primitive believers in Syria, Armenia, Kurdistan, Spain, Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia, Italy, and France.
Reiser broke off his connections with his former comrades at arms and retired to his estate near Senftenberg. After the final destruction of Tabor by the humbled, restrained Hussites the remains of those stern scripturalistic Taborites and Picards came to this refuge near Senftenberg in 1452 where under Reiser"s influence and the spiritual guidance of Gregory, a nephew of the Hussite bishop of Prague, they were developed into a separate congregation. The persecutions that shortly set in strengthened them in their separation from the Hussite church and in their efforts to form a purely New Testament church. In 1467 in the Forest of Lhotka near Reichnau, there was held a decisive discussion of some sixty seekers after God of all New Testament tendencies among whom were former Taborites, people from the district of Peter von Cheltschitz, former Waldenses, and Christians of the ancient faith. In ardent prayers they besought God’s blessings upon the new brotherhood that was being formed, and they chose three from their midst to be elders, commissioned to conform this developing church to the apostolic pattern. The three chosen were separated for the duty conferred upon them by the laying on of hands: a former Catholic priest and two Waldenses elders. The assembly resolved to stand by the Savior’s way of non-violence, therefore through constant appeal to the New Testament they rejected service in war, the death sentence, and the office of secular judgeship, and the giving of an oath in court. In regard to the possession of earthly goods they decreed that the apostolic principle should prevail that those possessing goods should so live as though they possessed nothing and that they should be conscious of the fact that they were only stewards of possessions that had been entrusted to them through God’s grace. The work of the elders lay first of all in the spiritual condition of the congregation and in church discipline. The Lutheran researcher, von Zetschwitz, later had to acknowledge, even against his will:
The impartial historian will be obliged to acknowledge that since the times of the apostolic churches no community of churches has in gradually approaching manner performed similar results in actually pure and noble life as the Bohemian brethren.
In Grugenheim, (Pit-Men)—thus the Catholic and Hussite clergy called in derision of the Christian brethren in Bohemia and Moravia who assembled in the caves of Sudeten and Rissengebirge—those believers soon realized a mighty increase in numbers. In 1940 their churches in these lands numbered more than 300 with more than 100,000 members. It was no wonder that among these so recently added to them there were many who had not rightly understood God’s way of salvation. The learned, widely traveled Master Lukas of Prague, who after the dying out of the first generation came more and more into the foreground, drew to himself a great throng of nobles whose sons he had instructed in the university and thus brought them into the so-called "United Brotherhood" which suited them better than the Hussite church, which to be sure celebrated the Lord’s Supper under two forms (the bread and the wine separately) and celebrated the mass in the Czech language, but otherwise retained all the Roman customs, rites and ranks of the clergy. When Lukas in 1494 summoned to Rychnow a "synod" which tried to do away with the renunciation of the oath and the equality of all in church life, the old Christian minority of the United Brethren Churches resisted this deviation from the principles of the New Testament. Under the leadership of the smith, Amos from Wodnian, they withdrew from the communion of the brethren and as a "little flock" still kept in contact only with the remains of the old evangelical churches in Steiermark, Slavonia, Dalmatia and Southern Italy. But the majority, the Unitas Fratrum (United of the Brethern) became the third largest church of Bohemia and Moravia precisely in the decisive years of the Reformation; the principle that Christians should not defend themselves by arms was abandoned by them, their clergy lived in comfortable parsonages, churches and chapels arose in more than 100 places; as early as 1505 a uniform songbook was produced, then a uniform liturgical set of regulations for the new church; then there followed a beginners’ catechism—still from the hand of Lukas of Prague. They kept drawing nearer and nearer to the doctrines and practices, not of the Lutheran churches which were now rising, but to the church of Rome. In a letter sent to Luther, Lukas defended the sacraments, especially the "holy Number Seven," and the celibacy of the priests. In 1575 this movement even finally set up its own confession of faith, the Confessio Bohemia, in which the baptism of adults, which had been continually practiced up to 1535, was dropped entirely. On the basis of this Confession of Faith there followed in the same year their reunion with the Hussite church; however, the few loyal believers were derided as "fanatics" and "legalists." In 1621 disaster befell the Bohemian-Moravian association of United Brethern: "Thousands of those who had become lukewarm fell victims to the Catholic counter-revolution, others were compelled to leave their beloved homes and, deprived of all their possessions, most of them returned to the great Roman church organization under the pressure of the state and of its church.
In Zurich in 1521 two followers of Zwingli, Felix Manz and Konrad Grebel, announced the following theses:
It is necessary to separate oneself from the evil way and found a pure church and communion of the genuine children of God, who have the spirit, and are ruled and led by him.
The church of the Lord, they said, must now, after it has run wild, be gathered completely anew according to the pattern of the New Testament. The true Christian life, continued they, begins with baptism, but only that one who believes can be baptized. Infants cannot believe, therefore cannot be baptized.
A bookdealer in Zurich, Andreas auf der Stuelze, called their attention to the remains of churches of secret believers in the Bernese Highlands from whose lineage he had sprung. Those religious leaders made contact with these worshipers—even though hesitatingly since there was a suspicion that some of them were friends of the mutinous fanatical preacher Thomas Muenzer—but as they became convinced that the sober people who relied only on the Word of God and accepted the Word as the only standard for the truth, and that they did not have the slightest thing to do with the mystic premillennialism of the prophet from Zwingli, they joyfully opened their hearts to the influence. On January 25, 1525, Manz baptized in Lake Zurich Georg Majakob-Blaurock, former monk of Grisons. Two years later, almost to the day, at the recommendation of Zwingli and at the instruction of the Great Council, Manz was drowned in the Limmat River.
The small number of believers scattered. In the upper Black Forest Mountains area, in the mountain regions on both sides of the Rhine between Constance and Basel, in the imperial cities of Regensburg, Nuremberg, Augsburg, Memmingen, Linden, and Strasbourg, in Tyrol, Stiermark, Salzburg, in Austria, Moravia and Slovakia they found comrades of nearer and more distant ways of thinking religiously, with whom they could pray but with whom also they had to come to agreement, for the Anabaptists, as their adversaries called them, but as a whole hardly to be considered as a direct continuation of the pre-reformation churches of Christ; more than that, these united too many mutually contradicting elements in their ranks. The 500,000 and more baptized believers (Anabaptists) in Central Europe did have in common with the churches of Christ the rejection of infant baptism, the union of church and the state, the rejection of the oath and the refusal to serve as judge; their rejection of the worship of images, and the organization of their churches; nevertheless they differed sharply in some other matters. Their opinion, for example, that all men, Christians and non-Christians, were endowed with a certain quantity of the Holy Spirit, which they usually named the "inner Light," and that this inner Light was a real voice of God which could lead to salvation of all who listened to it—this idea led them to fanatical "revelations" and to dangerous "visions," and finally this resulted in their belief that the Holy Scriptures still needed the complement through personal messages of the Spirit of God to sinful men. Their feverish expectation of the thousand years kingdom of Christ on earth standing immediately before them, their fiery wish to help realize this empire by restoration of the falsely so-called apostolic communism, brought them into close union with the Dutch Baptists who in 1533 and 1535 in Muenster undertook to put an end to the evil one through the power of weapons, and to bring to reality the New Zion under almost complete rejection of all New Testament teachings, but under all the stronger approach of the Old Testament ideas.
With this state of things it is not surprising that the imperial parliament took the sharpest measures against all the sects which spoke against infant sprinkling and for baptism only upon faith. They were declared "dangerous enemies of all spiritual and secular rule," and were condemned to death all together. The result of this decree was the complete eradication not only of the Anabaptists who assented to the use of the sword and were fanatically premillennialists, but also of the sternly scriptural churches of God in Central Europe.
Among the approximately 100,000 executed as Anabaptists and opponents of church-statism of all shades, who were executed, tortured to death, or died from hunger in prisons in the Netherlands, Friesland, Westphalia, in the Mountainland, in Thuringen, in Rheingau, the Palatinate, in Alsace, Mainfranken, Upper Bavaria, Austria, Salzburg, Carinthia, Carmiola, Hauenstein, Tyrol, and Switzerland—just to mention some of the most important centers of persecutions of Christians—in these lands there were some 42,000 primitive evangelicals. The "Little Flock" in Bohemia was just about completely annihilated, and the same fate befell the defenseless Christians in the Palatinate and in Alsace. Only in Hesse and in the Free Imperial City of Strasbourg no funeral piles blazed: here the first Hessian reformer, the former Franciscan Lambert of Avignon—who in his mother’s side descended from Catharist circles—and in Strasbourg the great Mountain-and-Water Pilgrim Marbeck of Tyrol, who had joined the primitive evangelicals, these two had exercised such restraining influence that procedures against baptists and New Testament Christians were "only" imprisonment (in given cases imprisonment for life), confiscation of property and banishment.
It is not superfluous to point out that by no means was it in the Roman church alone which poured out in streams heretic blood. The new reformation churches of Lutheran and Zwinglian and Calvinistic stamp vied with the Roman church in rooting out the disturbers of graveyard quiet. The churches, under the protection of the basic principle Cuius regio, eius religio (The sovereign decides about the religion), had begun to expand in the "Holy Empire of German Nations." Even Melanchthon, who was praised as the gentle Lutheran man of God, gave out for his sovereign ruler theological decisions which were intended to justify the execution of defenseless of advocates of baptism.
Little by little the churches of Christ in Europe ceased to exist. Whatever remnants of them had been left by the bloody era of persecution from 1525 to 1575 perished in the disorders of the Thirty Years War. Many of the churches joined themselves to the halfway tolerated peaceful groups of baptizing Mennonites and Familiarists, others joined the remaining followers of Schwenkenfeld in Lower Silesia. In the year 1688 there were some 1,000 faithful believers scattered in the remote hamlets of the Vosges Mountains, and of the Tunsrueck, in the estates along the Rhone River, on some islands of the Frisian coast, in the swamps and marshes of East Prussia, in the sawmills of Bearn and Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the Witosch Plateau of Bulgaria, on the Zab valley in Kurdistan, and in Northern Armenia. More than 5,000 settled among the deported Russian schismatics in the Cossak region along the Kuban and Terek and in the steppes of Siberia.
What the dark centuries of the blood-covered torture racks and the reeking funeral piles had not been able to bring about an end, namely, the complete destruction of the churches of the Lord, that was brought about by the centuries of tolerance, with the domination of enlightened absolutism beginning with the rules of emperor Joseph and King Frederick. Emerging out of the night of catacomb-like existence, many of the members could not see their way clearly any longer in the sun of the light of freedom of belief. They did not prevent their children from intermarrying with Mennonites, Amish, or baptists, since these after all practiced baptism of adults upon profession of faith. They sympathized with other groups of previously persecuted believers who likewise professed to represent Bible groups and truths, such as the Inspiration-Groups and New Baptists, radical Pietists and Quakers. The spirit of Evangelical Alliance, that spirit that conceded to everyone membership in "the church of his choice" and granted the same rights to the legalistic-Mosaic Seventy Day Adventists as it did to almost antinomistic Pregizerianers, to the unbending Calvinists who quaked in their thoughts of the "inner sin" along with the Arminian Methodists who defended mankind’s freedom of will, to the Lutherans who consented to the sacrament of sprinkling children along with the Baptists who affirmed that only believers should be baptized—this shifting spirit undermined the surviving churches.
The descendants of martyrs became lukewarm and many fell away. When the First World War broke out there were only three small churches of 20 families or less which professed the apostolic order of their lives and baptism for the remission of sins.
The Course Of The
Church Through The Centuries
Seed In Good Soil 1800 to 1955