The martyrdom of Michael Satter, an Anabaptist sentenced to death in 1527 because he rejected some dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church

 

Martyrdom became an Anabaptist  hallmark. Among those who died at the hands of the authorities for their faith were countless worthy, often unknown, unforgettable witnesses. However, there were none who surpassed Michael Sattler in the hour of death. His superlative witness became a symbol of Anabaptist fidelity in the eyes of the sixteenth-century world wherever the story of his heroic martyrdom found an audience.

On a spring day in May, 1527, Michael Sattler was sentenced to death at the imperial city of Rottenburg on the Neckar River. The sentence read: ‘Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic’ [1].

Who was this condemned man? What had he done to bring down upon his head the unmitigated wrath of the judges? The answer is to be found, in part at least, in a study of Sattler’s life.

Michael Sattler was born at Stauffen in the Breisgau, near Freiburg, Germany, around 1490. At an early age he entered the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter at Freiburg. While here he probably took advantage of the opportunity to attend the lectures at the local university. Somewhere, he had obtained a knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages. At the time of his departure from the monastery, he had risen to the office of prior. During his stay in the monastery, Sattler had begun the study of the Pauline epistles. This increased his dissatisfaction with the vice and hypocrisy of his fellow monks. Sattler’s new-found evangelical faith finally precipitated a crisis which was only resolved with a severance of all ties with the monastery and the Church of Rome.

Upon leaving the monastery he married a Beguine, whom Anshelm described as ‘a talented, clever little woman’. Her moral earnestness and faithfulness marked her as a worthy companion of her husband. Since Sattler had embraced Lutheran doctrines, he was forced to leave Austria in 1525 because of Ferdinand’s announced policy of heresy extermination. Switzerland was nearby and free from the tyranny of Ferdinand. Consequently, he turned to Zurich, where, under the influence of Wilhelm Reublin, he became an Anabaptist. At once he threw himself into the forefront of the new movement. He joined forces in a preaching ministry with Muntprat of Constance and Konrad Winkler of Wasserburg, who were holding clandestine meetings in the forests. Soon he became the most prominent of the three [2]. The meetings were discovered, and Sattler was expelled from the canton. After his expulsion from Zurich, November 18, 1525, he returned to his native village only to be forced, after a brief stay, to leave again.

Like many others before and after him, Sattler went to Strassburg, at that time the freest city in Europe. Here, he gained the respect of Bucer and Capito but failed to win them for his cause. However, the efforts expended were not in vain. During the unsuccessful attempts at winning the Strassburg reformers for Anabaptism, Sattler’s own position became more sharply defined. He was now well prepared for his next assignment and the most important work of his tragically brief career.

Turning to Germany on the invitation of Reublin, he began to work north of Rottenburg, making Horb his center of activities [3]. At Horb and its environs his efforts were accompanied by a gratifying response. The extent of his influence is indicated by the fact that he preached at a conference of Anabaptists assembled at Schleitheim (Schlaten am Randen), just north of Schaffhausen, on February 24, 1527. It is from this meeting that the Schleitheim Confession was approved. Sattler had probably drawn it up prior to the meeting and circulated it among the German and Swiss Anabaptists. It is a testimony to his zeal and administrative ability. Early Swiss and German churches owe their doctrinal and organizational stability to his work.

The Schleitheim Confession was not intended to be a doctrinal formulation. There are no strictly theological concepts directly asserted in it. Such topics as God, man, the Bible, salvation, the church, and eschatology are not discussed. The articles are concerned with order and discipline within congregations. Baptism, excommunication, the Lord’s Supper, separation from the world, pastors, the sword, and the oath are the subjects to which attention is given.

The articles are in the nature of a church manual, such as the Didache of the second century.

An implied theology is present in this work. There is a clarity of thought regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper which defies any sacramental interpretation. The articles concerning discipline, the sword, and swearing indicate a fundamental fidelity to the faith and practice of the Swiss Brethren. The precarious existence of the small Anabaptist congregations scattered across southern Germany is revealed in selections from the section on pastors.

The pastor of the flock should be … some one who has good testimony from those who are outside the faith. Let his office be …. in all things that pertain to the body of Christ to watch how it may be sustained and increased, that the name of God may be honored and praised through us, but the mouth of blasphemy may be stopped. But know that a support, if he is in need of it, ought to be supplied by the church which elects him …. But if a pastor be either expelled or led to the Lord through the cross another ought to succeed him at once that the people or flock of God be not scattered but preserved through exhortation and may receive consolation’ [4].

While the Schleitheim meeting was in progress, the Anabaptists were discovered by the authorities of Rottenburg. Upon returning to Horb, Sattler and his wife, Reublin’s wife, Matthias Hiller, Veit Veringer of Rottenburg, and a number of other men and women from Horb were arrested. The importance of Sattler was immediately apparent to the government officials. They had found in his possession the Schleitheim Confession and documents relating to the strength and activities of the Anabaptists. Due to this fact and the presence of many Anabaptists and sympathizers in the city, the prisoners were moved from Horb to Binsdorf.

From the tower of Binsdorf, Sattler wrote a touching letter of consolation to his beloved congregation at Horb. Typical of Anabaptist prison epistles, it abounds in Scripture references, emphasizes love to all men, and is completely devoid of bitterness. He opens the letter with a trinitarian salutation: ‘Beloved companions in the Lord; the grace and mercy of God, our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and the power of their Spirit, be with you, brethren and sisters, beloved of God’.

The emphasis upon love as the undergirding motivation of the Christian life finds characteristic prominence in the admonition of Sattler.

If you have love for your neighbor, you will not be envious in punishing or excommunicating, will not seek your own, will think no evil, will not be ambitious, and finally will not be puffed up; but will be merciful, just, mild in all things, submissive and compassionate towards the weak and infirm. I Corinthians XIII.15. Galatians V. Tab. IV.5. Romans XV.8. I Corinthians VIII.32.

Like a faithful shepherd whose primary consideration, even at the prospects of his own death, is the welfare of the sheep, Sattler attempted in the final paragraphs of the letter to prepare his followers for the inevitable.

And let no man take away from you the foundation which is laid by the letter of the holy Scriptures, and sealed with the blood of Christ and many witnesses of Jesus …. The brethren have doubtless informed you, that some of us are in prison; and the brethren being apprehended at Horb, we were afterwards brought to Binsdorf. At this time numerous accusations were preferred against us by our adversaries; at one time they threatened us with the gallows; at another with fire and sword. In this extremity, I surrendered myself, entirely to the Lord’s will, and prepared myself, together with all my brethren and my wife, to die for his testimony’s sake …. hence I deemed it necessary to animate you with this exhortation, to follow us in the contest of God, that you may console yourselves with it, and not faint under the chastening of the Lord …. In short, beloved brethren and sisters, this letter shall be a valedictory to you all who love God in truth, and follow him …. Beware of false brethren: for the Lord will probably call me to him, so take warning. I wait for my God; pray without ceasing for all that are in bonds; God be with you all. Amen [5]

The prisoner’s apprehension of execution was fully justified. He was in the hands of Austrian authorities, who had the jurisdiction of Rottenburg. Ferdinand, the Catholic king of Austria, had declared ‘the third baptism’ (drowning) to be the best antidote to Anabaptism. Because of Sattler’s importance to the movement, Ferdinand suggested that he be drowned immediately. Authorities headed by Count Joachim, however, wanted to give this ‘ecclesiastical case’ some semblance of justice. The delay in securing theological representatives from the Roman Catholic universities made it necessary to postpone the trial until May 15. Finally, two doctors from the university did agree to take part in the trial. They were not doctors of law, as had been requested, but doctors of the arts. Two representatives also came from Ensisheim, a city notorious for its bad government and heresy trials.

On May 15, the court convened with twenty-four judges. The chairman of this imposing body was the Landershauptmann, Count Joachim of Zollern. The attorney for the defense was the Major of Rottenburg, Jacob Halbmayer, hardly a sympathetic advocate. Sattler felt that Halbmayer was responsible for the outcome of the trial [6].

The trial actually began on May 17. There were fourteen defendants on the bench of the accused. At first they were given their choice of attorney. Sattler, who acted as spokesman for the group, declined the offer upon the basis that this was not a legal matter. According to the Word of God, he said, they had no right to go to law over religious affairs. His manner was courteous but definite. In this reply Sattler wisely addressed the judges as the servants of God, recognizing their authority but denying their jurisdiction. He also questioned the competence of the court.

Count Joachim then proceeded to have the charges read against the defendant. The first seven were against all the accused, and two additional charges were brought against Sattler alone.

1. That he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor. 2. He taught, maintained, and believed, that the body and blood of Christ were not present in his sacrament. 3. He taught and believed, that infant-baptism was not promotive of salvation. 4. They rejected the sacrament of unction. 5. They despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints. 6. He declared, that men should not swear before a magistrate. 7. He has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same. 8. Contrary to the rule, he has married a wife. 9. He said if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks, notwithstanding, it is an important matter to set the greatest enemies of our faith against us [7].

These charges revealed a gross misunderstanding of the Anabaptist teachings and no sympathy for the teachings which were understood. The fifth charge was clearly a caricature of Anabaptist views and the seventh, a baseless rumor. Charges one, six, and nine were grounds for a civil case. The first charge was based upon the premise that ‘the emperor is the protector of the church, this was the premise and conclusion of the medieval church – and the church is the Roman Catholic Church. The church, its doctrine, its organization, its law were alone valid on Austrian soil [8]. The ninth charge was the most damaging. No other power on earth struck fear in the hearts of Austrian like that of the Turks. Conscious or not of misstating Sattler’s position, the authorities intended to use this as a final blow to condemn him before the world.

After the reading of the charges and discussion of them, Sattler asked that the articles be reread. At this the secretary, who was from Ensisheim, tauntingly sneered: ‘he has boasted of the Holy Ghost. Now if this boast is true, it seems to me, it is unnecessary to grant him this; for, if he has the Holy Ghost, as he boasts, the same will tell him what has been done here’ [9]. Unperturbed, Sattler renewed his request, which was begrudgingly granted [10].

Sattler’s defence was both skilful and courageous. In answer to the first charge he pointed out that the imperial mandates were against the Lutherans. They directed that Lutheran doctrine and error not be followed but rather the gospel and the Word of God. ‘This we have observed’, he stated, ‘for I am not aware, that we have acted contrary to the gospel and word of God; I appeal to the word of Christ’. He accepted the second charge as valid, defending the Anabaptist position with numerous scripture references. The third charge he did not deny, but used the opportunity to affirm believer’s baptism. In speaking to the fourth article, he distinguished between oil as a creation of God which is good and the oil of extreme unction which is no better. ‘What God has made, is good, and not to be rejected; but that the pope with his bishops, monks, and priests, has made it better, we deny; for the pope has never made anything good. Concerning the Virgin Mary, he said: ‘We never reviled the mother of God, and the saints; but the mother of Christ should be esteemed above all women; for she had the favor or giving birth to the Savior of the world; but that she shall be an intercessor, is not known in Scripture …. As to the saints, we say, that we who live and believe are the saints; in evidence of this I appeal to the epistle of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, etc. He always writes: To the beloved saints. We, therefore, who believe, are the saints; those who die in the faith, we consider the ‘blessed’ [11].

Sattler accepted the sixth charge as justified and defended the Anabaptist position with Matthew 5. 34,37. The seventh charge was ignored. He evidently felt it unworthy of consideration.

Next, Sattler turned his attention to the last two charges brought against him personally. He defended his action in taking a wife on two grounds; first, the gross immorality among priests and monks, and second, that marriage is an ordinance of God. Regarding his teaching about the Turks, Sattler asserted the Anabaptist principle of nonresistance. He then proceeded to restate his position with complete candor: ‘If the Turks should make an invasion, they should not be resisted; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We ought not to defend ourselves against the Turks and our persecutors; but earnestly entreat God in our prayers, that he would repel and withstand them. For my saying, that if I approved of war, I would rather march forth against the so named Christians who persecute, imprison, and put to death, the pious Christians, I assign this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk according to the flesh; but you, wishing to be Christian, and making your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks according to the Spirit. Exodus XX. 30. Matthew VII. 7. Titus I. 16 [12].

In his closing appeal Sattler established the legitimacy of the office of magistrate, defining its jurisdiction, limitations, and responsibilities. His final plea was for an opportunity to discuss the Scriptures with the judges in any language of their choice. He expressed fervent hope that the judges would ‘repent and receive instruction’.

The response according to the account, reminiscent of apostolic days, was indicative of the spirit of the court.

The judges laughed at the discourse, and after consultation, the town clerk of Ensisheim said: ‘Oh you infamous, desperate villain and monk, you would have us engage with you in a discussion! the executioner will dispute with you, we think for a certainty. Sattler exclaimed: Let the will of God be done. [13]

Much more of the same followed. The town clerk of Ensisheim became more and more violent. Caught up in an emotional frenzy he threatened to take Sattler’s life on the spot. The prisoner’s patience and composure were obviously exasperating to his would-be judges.

During the hour and a half while the judges deliberated, Sattler was alternately threatened and ridiculed. Some cried out: ‘When I see you get away, I will believe in you’. Another seized his sword and said: ‘See, with this we will dispute with you’ [14]. A voice from the crowd asked why he had not remained a lord in the monastery. Sattler replied: ‘I was a lord according to the flesh, but it is better thus’ [15]. Seemingly nothing could destroy Michael Sattler’s calm self-composure. Even the sentence, to which reference has already been made, failed to shake him.

Klaus von Graveneck, an eyewitness, wrote of Sattler’s conduct: ‘All this I saw myself. May God grant us also to testify of Him so bravely and patiently’ [16]. The events recorded above took place over a two-day period. The sentence was read on May 18. Two days later, on May 20, Sattler was executed [17].

The torture, a prelude to the execution, began at the market place where a piece was cut from Sattler’s tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body twice with red-hot tongs. He was then forged to a cart. On the way to the scene of the execution the tongs were applied five times again. In the market place and at the site of the execution, still able to speak, the unshakable Sattler prayed for his persecutors. After being bound to a ladder with ropes and pushed into the fire, he admonished the people, the judges, and the mayor to repent and be converted. Then he prayed: ‘Almighty, eternal God, Thou art the way and the truth: because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with thy help to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood’.

As soon as the ropes on his wrists were burned, Sattler raised the two forefingers of his hands giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr’s death was bearable. Then the assembled crowd heard coming from his seared lips: ‘Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands’ [18].

Three others were then executed. After every attempt to secure a recantation from Sattler’s faithful wife had failed, she was drowned eight days later in the Neckar.

 

Notes

 

1. There are four extant accounts of the trial and death of Michael Sattler. Wilhelm Reublin’s account is found on pp. 250-53 of Quellen. Klaus von Graveneck’s account is in the Wolfenbuttel library. An original German account is edited by W. J. Kohler in Flugschriften aus den ersten Jahren der Reformation, II, 1908, no. 3. Another account is found in the Hutterite Large Chronicle which differs in some slight detail from the others, It is this last account from which the Mirror version is taken.

2. Gustav Bossert, Jr., ‘Michael Sattler’s Trial and Martyrdom in 1527,’ trans. Elizabeth Bender, MQR, XXV (July, 1951), 205.

3. Ibid., 202-3.

4. W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), pp. 5-6. John H. Yoder, in a recent work The legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), pp. 28ff., provides a new translation of the Schleitheim Confession. Many Sattler letters are also translated by Yoder in this first publication of ‘Classics of the Radical Reformation’ series. See also Beatrice Jenny, ‘Das Schleitheimer Tauferbekenntnis, 1527’ in Schaffhauser Beitgrage zur vaterlandischen Geschichte, edited by Historischen Verein des Kantons Schaffhausen (Thayngen: Verlag Karl Augustin, 1951). For the serious student who can handle the German, Jenny’s work is well worth careful study. The title of the Confession in German is Bruderlich Vereinigung etzlicher Kinder Gottes.

5. Mirror, pp. 346-48.

6. Bossert, op. cit., 206.

7. Ibid., 209-10.

8. Ibid.,

9. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel Mergal, p. 139.

10. Bossert asserts the articles were not read even then but rather only their substance given, op. cit., 209.

11. Mirror, p. 345.

12. Ibid.,

13. Ibid., p. 346.

14. Bossert, op. cit., 214

15. Mirror, p. 346

16. Bossert, op. cit., 214

17. A difference of opinion about the date of Sattler’s execution exists. It was either on Monday, May 20, 1527, or Tuesday, 21. See ibid., 215, for a rather detailed discussion of the problem.

18. Ibid., 216.

 

From: William R. Estep, The Anabaptist story, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan,  Reprinted February 1992, reprint of the edition published by Broadmaan Press, Nashville, pages. 40-47

 

 

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