Sabbatarians in 16th Century Germany (Part 1)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
This article begins a two-part series on Sabbatarians in 16th century Germany. It is a fascinating page out of Sabbatarian history as these Sabbath keepers had no known connections to any pre-existing Sabbath group. Through a series of events, including a failed prophecy about Jesus’ return, a small group of reformers would obey and teach the seventh-day Sabbath.
Sixteenth century Germany was a country ripe for change. The invention of the printing press in the prior century had enabled ideas of all kinds to be spread faster than ever before. Religious and political revolts contributed to a very unstable situation.
In 1517, Martin Luther initiated a reformation of church practices that he deemed as non-Scriptural with his 95 Theses. It started a religious revolution that questioned and threatened the traditional establishment, which was the Roman Catholic Church. Several years later, wary rural commoners of Germany rallied together to protest their treatment by feudal lords; they desired more freedom. In 1524, these protests devolved into violence and a formal revolt began which is historically called “The Peasant’s War” (this was the name it was given by German princes; people who were non-peasants participated).
One ardent defender of this revolt was Thomas Muntzer. He proclaimed that Jesus was coming soon and that the peasants needed to overthrow the existing rulers to hasten His return. Among the men who heard him was Hans Hut; he was an Evangelical Lutheran who sold books by trade. He was inspired by Muntzer’s message and ensured that one of his books was published. Hut fought in the peasant’s army.
People in this rebellion hoped that Martin Luther would side with them in their quest for political freedom. They saw their movement and Luther’s reforms as complimentary and contributing to the same overall goal of overthrowing a corrupt establishment power structure. Things did not turn out the way they desired; Luther encouraged the princes of Germany to crush the rebellion with maximum force, even calling for the revolters to be killed like mad dogs. Within a year of fighting, at least 100,000 peasants died in this revolt.
Just before or perhaps during the events of the 1524-1525 Peasant’s War, a separate movement emerged in Germany called Anabaptists. Among their core beliefs was the rejection of infant baptism in favor of adult baptism upon a personal conversion experience. After Luther’s rejection of the commoner’s rebellion, people looked for a Christian religious ethic that promoted individual religious freedom. For many, the Anabaptist movement was the answer. They promoted local leadership in congregations and a personal relationship with God.
Among the first Anabaptist ministers in Germany and Austria were Balthasar Humbaier, Hans Denck, and Hans Hut. The instability of the period seemed to create opportunities and obstacles that did not exist years beforehand. These Anabaptist leaders often did not have long ministry careers because they were usually martyred. Despite the brevity of their service times, they made a tremendous impact. The printing press allowed their influence to spread far and wide.
Hubmaier started preaching Reformation doctrine in the early 1520s, but he also participated to some degree in the Peasant’s War. In 1525, he was baptized and composed a very influential tract on the importance of Christian baptism. The next year, he moved to Nikolsburg, Moravia where religious toleration was allowed. He found success and turned the local Lutheran congregation into an Anabaptist group. This included prominent persons such as the feudal ruler of that area – Count Leonhard von Liechtenstein.
For a time, Hubmaier led a congregation of as many as 12,000 people. One of his assistants was Oswald Glaidt, who had previously been a Franciscan monk and Lutheran. He composed works to help Hubmaier’s cause, including a fourteen-point tract explaining Anabaptist beliefs and a song written in 1526 or 1527 entitled “The Ten Commandments.” In the song, we can see the importance that German Anabaptists placed on the Decalogue. At that time, Glaidt still only thought of the Sabbath as something to be spiritually observed.
Hans Denck was also baptized by Hubmaier and led an Anabaptist congregation of 1,100 people in Augsburg (1526). He taught that Luther’s view of justification was too flaccid and that it allowed one to live as they wished. He wanted people to focus on living like Jesus. Hans Hut was among those he baptized.
After Hut’s baptism, he diverged from some earlier views, such as those of Muntzer, about the Peasant’s War. Instead, he began to teach that God would have to bring about revolution and change by His own power and authority. As a result, his teachings had an eschatological tone which echoed Muntzer minus the militancy. Scholars debate whether the failure or the Peasant’s War or Baptism caused him to have a different perspective on the subject.
Hut traveled to Nikolsburg and conflicted with Hubmaier. The two had several points of difference, including the use of the sword by secular authorities and Hut’s prophetic views. Hubmaier tried to have Hut arrested, but Hut fled the area and traveled to Austria. Glaidt followed Hut and the two worked together to spread the message. Hut preached the gospel and Glaidt followed his efforts by baptizing and instructing the new converts. Among their new followers was Andreas Fischer.
Hut taught that God was gathering an elect Body of believers. When Christ publicly returned, this elect group would fight in the spiritual army of God to defeat their enemies (based on Rev. 17:14 and Rev. 19:11-18). Moreover, he taught his followers that they were to suffer for the cause without picking up arms to fight back. He thought that these events would happen very soon and predicted that Christ would return on the day of Pentecost 1528.
In 1527, Oswald wrote a song called “Awake You People In These Final Days.” Fortunately, this writing has survived the centuries. The heavy eschatological focus provides precious insight into the eschatological teachings of Hut and Glaidt.
The song promoted the idea that the return of Jesus was imminent. The Anabaptist followers of Hans Hut viewed themselves as living in the last days prophesied in the book of Daniel; they put together a medley of prophecies from this book (mainly from chapters 8, 9, and 11). They viewed the Anabaptist water baptism and the taking of communion as the restoration of True Temple sacrifices described in Daniel. The martyrdom of their people resulted in Temple sacrifices ceasing. They viewed the Pope as the man of lawlessness from 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 and the originator of worldliness and false doctrine in the Christian world.
From 1527 onward, Ferdinand I, the King of Austria, issued edicts against Anabaptists which hindered their evangelistic efforts. Bounty hunters and others were commissioned by the king to hunt down Anabaptists and arrest or kill them on sight. Beheading was their favored form of execution against these Christians (Liechty, Andreas Fischer and the Sabbatarian Anabaptists, pp 36-38).
Hut was arrested and died in prison in 1527. He only preached for about a year but had a tremendous impact for Anabaptists, especially in Austria. Jesus did not appear in 1528 as he had predicted. Despite this failure, many of his followers continued with the Anabaptist movement in one way or another. Oswald Glaidt was one of their leaders.
What About the Sabbath?
Oswald Glaidt was the first of these Anabaptist ministers to teach the literal observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. How and when he came to understand the Sabbath is still debated. The theory espoused by contemporary authors such as Luther and Erasmus was that the Jewish people convinced them to keep the Sabbath. Modern scholarship has definitively proven this to be false. In modern times, two very credible ideas on this subject have been developed. The first comes from Daniel Liechty in his work Andreas Fischer and the Sabbatarian Anabaptists. In it, he borrowed material from Werner Packull’s work.
Apparently, Hans Hut had a concordance of the seven judgments found in Revelation. In it, he employed the Sabbath in an allegorical sense. One of his early disciples was questioned about the seven judgments and testified that “[As] Christ had labored six days, and [then] celebrated the seventh, so God’s Word had been persecuted six times and now for the seventh time, [but] it would be brought into rest through the Anabaptists after they experience the same [persecution]” (idem, page 62). Liechty argued that from this allegorical focus on the Sabbath, Oswald derived a need to literally observe the seventh day.
The second view comes from Martin Rothkegel, who wrote about 20 years later. His approach and material greatly impacted this subject. He discussed one of the issues which divided Anabaptists, which was the issue called “The Sword.” Should a Christian hold positions in government, and, if so, to what degree should they use violence as part of their judgments against law breakers?
In 1527, Hubmaier wrote a work called On the Sword. He advocated the idea that Christians could hold secular government positions and use violence to punish evildoers. He also believed that God mandated the use of the sword in these situations. Hans Hut took the opposite view on this subject. He claimed Christians should never serve in government and advocated for non-resistance against violence.
Rothkegel introduces a piece of evidence not previously explored on this subject. In 1530, Glaidt composed a book where he advocated the sword. He explained that the Ten Commandments were required for all Christians to follow in the literal sense. This included the Sabbath. This was a departure from his previous view in 1527. He went on to say that it was the duty of Christian rulers to put to death people who violated one of the commandments requiring that penalty.
As discussed earlier, Glaidt spent time under Hubmaier’s leadership. While Glaidt joined Hans Hut’s group, he seems to have held onto Hubmaier’s view of the sword.
I consider both authors to have a valid point and it is likely that both Hans Hut’s eschatological focus on sevens in the Bible, including the Sabbath, and Hubmaier’s view on the sword contributed to Glaidt’s conclusion. As Liechty pointed out, Hubmaier was anti-Jewish and thought that Sunday was the Sabbath (p 61). Hubmaier focused on the literal observance of the Ten Commandments, except the Sabbath. Hans Hut was using the Sabbath in an allegorical sense. In a way, Glaidt merged these two ideals into a new way of thinking about the subject. As we will see in the next article on this subject, Glaidt used eschatological arguments in other works (which shows continued influence from Hans Hut).
While conducting the evangelism campaigns with Hans Hut, Oswald met a man named Andreas Fischer. Next week, we will examine the lives of these Sabbatarians and their work for the Lord.
Encyclopedia of the Reformation (1996, hardcopy): Anabaptists, Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Thomas Muntzer, Oswald Glaidt, Sabbatarians.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO – accessed through gameo.org): Anabaptism, Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Oswald Glaidt, Martin Luther, Thomas Muntzer, Peasant’s War (1524-1525), Sabbatarian Anabaptists.
Hasel, Gerhard F.. “Sabbatarian Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century: Part I.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 5.2 (1967): 101-121.
Hasel, Gerhard F.. “Sabbatarian Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century: Part 2.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 6.1 (1968): 19-28.
Liechty, Daniel. Andreas Fischer and the Sabbatarian Anabaptists. Herald Press; Scottdale, PA. 1988.
Liechty, Daniel. Sabbatarianism in the Sixteenth Century. Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, Michigan. 1993. pp 1-41.
Rothkegel, Martin. “Anabaptist Sabbatarianism in Sixteenth-Century Moravia.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, vol. 87, no. 4, 2013: 519-573.