Pilgram Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg


Pilgram Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg

In 1555, Charles V agreed to a treaty with members of the Schmalkadic League to institute what is now referred to as the “Peace of Augsburg.” This treaty provided Lutherans with religious toleration under specified districts via the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, but it by no means authorized religious pluralism, or even freedom of religion for other Protestants, such as those in the Zwinglian reform movement.[1] The Anabaptists knew quite personally the difficulties facing those who espoused neither the Roman Catholic faith nor the tenets of Lutheranism. As noted by Harold J. Grimm, “It is difficult to classify the various movements of the radical reformers, especially because they seemed to spring up almost simultaneously wherever conditions permitted, and their leaders, persecuted in one place, would appear at another.”[2] Pilgram Marpeck, though not as famous among reformers such as Martin Luther or John Calvin, was one of the most influential Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. He died in 1556, just one year after the Peace of Augsburg’s signing, and had been living in Augsburg for the final twelve years of his life.[3] Contrary to many prominent figures in church history that have, for their careers, served in an ecclesiastical office, Marpeck worked as a civil engineer. This research will attempt to demonstrate how Marpeck managed to utilize his occupation for the advantage of spreading his religious convictions. Overall, it will be argued that his skillful craftsmanship allowed him to have the greatest possible amount of acceptance from non-Anabaptist civic leaders during a historical context that shunned alternative religious sects.

An Evaluation of Anabaptist Historiography

Before analyzing primary and secondary sources to arrive at conclusions concerning Pilgram Marpeck’s religious toleration, it will be necessary to evaluate the different historiographical positions pertaining to Anabaptist identification. Sebastian Franck, a contemporary of Marpeck, who was the first historian to have written on the Radical Reformation, admitted, “Even though all sects are divided among themselves, the Anabaptists are especially torn and disunited, so much so, indeed, that I can say nothing with certainty or any degree of finality about them.”[4] Since Marpeck’s time, historians have managed to sort out many of the details in Anabaptist history, though there are certainly different interpretations. James R. Coggins, in the latter part of the twentieth century, provided one of the most comprehensive overviews of Anabaptist historiography.[5] He described five historiographical schools of thought: (1) The Protestants, (2) the Marxists, (3) the Goshen School/Benderites, (4) the New Mennonites, and (5) the Syncretists.

Protestant Reformers, as Coggins notes, who were opposed to the Anabaptists especially highlighted the extremists in Anabaptism, such as Thomas Müntzer and the Zwickau prophets, and explains that the reformers’ views were believed over the marginalized Anabaptists.[6] However, as William R. Estep notes, C.A. Cornelius was one of the first historians in the nineteenth century to reevaluate the Anabaptists.[7] Thus, this first category may be better defined as “Non-Anabaptist.” The Marxist historiographers, according to Coggins, still talked much about the more radical Anabaptists, but considered their actions as being positive. Discussions of social class were at the forefront as well.[8] Harold J. Grimm hints at this interpretation by stating, “The political, economic, and social teachings of the Anabaptists, ranging from opposition to tithes and the taking of interest to Christian communism, reflected lower-class interests.”[9] The first two views are limited in the source material they implement, which erroneously focused almost entirely on the extremist Münsterites, a small sect within the Radical Reformation as a whole.

To gain a familiarity with the Goshen School/Benderites, none other than Harold Bender himself offers valuable insights into this school of thought. He is perhaps best known for his proclamation, “The Anabaptist Vision,” which included the following address:

There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who for the first time clearly enunciated them and challenged the Christian world to follow them in practice.[10]

Meanwhile, New Mennonite historiographers, Although similar to the Goshen/Bender view, offer some important clarifications. George H. Williams, for example, distinguished the three groups of the radical Reformation as having been Anabaptists, spiritualists, and evangelical rationalists. Furthermore, “discipleship soteriology,” which was basically seen as a “continuation of medieval asceticism,” was stressed to show how Anabaptists were committed—even more than other Christians from the Reformation era—to matters of holiness.[11] Views three and four—the Goshen School/Benderites and New Mennonites—are so similar to one another that it is hard to fit the writings of a particular historian into one historiographical position or the other. Interestingly, even some modern-day Baptist scholars, especially in America, are Benderites who extol the work and beliefs of the Anabaptists, so much that the Anabaptists are hard to distinguish from modern American evangelicals.[12] Such a method is a bit questionable. However, the Goshen School/Benderites as well as the New Mennonites have contributed in immense ways to how historians and non-academics alike have come to understand the beliefs and practices of the Anabaptists.

More recently, Syncretist historiographers have looked beyond the writings of the Anabaptists themselves to allow for a wider scope of applicable source material. These historians, mostly Canadian and European (as opposed to the Goshen/Bender view, a predominately American historiographical school of thought), have attempted to “reconcile the Mennonite and Marxist views of Anabaptist history.”[13] Much of their emphasis concerns the differences among Anabaptists, particularly after the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Thus, interpreters currently have different options to choose from when analyzing topics related to Anabaptist history. It will be proposed within this research, nevertheless, that the New Mennonite historiographical position provides the best framework for comprehending the significance of Pilgram Marpeck’s ideological motivations for seeking toleration in Augsburg.[14] However, Syncretist historiographers have also supplied Anabaptist historians with valuable insights for understanding the social factors of the Radical Reformation, such as sectarianism and the spread of ideas.

Marpeck’s Life Leading Up to Augsburg

The journey of Marpeck’s life that would eventually end in Augsburg is filled with both ordinary and extraordinary events. Marpeck was born and raised in the city of Rattenberg just a couple of decades prior to Martin Luther’s movements of reform in Wittenberg. His family lived comfortably, but once he entered into his career as a civil engineer, Marpeck earned a substantial income and his family “accumulated a considerable legacy.”[15] He accepted his appointment to become Rattenberg’s mining magistrate on April 20, 1525, a duty he would fulfill until January of 1528.[16] In that very month, an Anabaptist named Leonhard Schiemer was executed for his faith. It seems that Rattenberg’s leadership did not support Emperor Ferdinand’s mandate, and it was this command that likely led to Marpeck’s decision to resign as mining magistrate.[17] Marpeck fled his hometown as a religious refugee by April in order to avoid Ferdinand’s warning of executing all Anabaptists in the city.[18] He had possibly become one of the “heretics” during Schiemer’s imprisonment in Augsburg, though it is hard to tell with certainty.

Having witnessed the severest form of religious persecution in Rattenberg with the execution of Schiemer, Marpeck seems to have found security in the small town of Austerlitz. As Martin Rothkegel, an Anabaptist historian with Syncretist leanings, writes:

Marpeck’s activity as an Anabaptist leader—or, more precisely, the two documented phases of his activity from 1528 to 1532 and from 1540 to 1556—should be understood as part of a larger effort to establish an Anabaptist ‘church’ initiated by the Anabaptist congregation in Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna) in Moravia, also known as the ‘Austerlitz Brethren,’ whose early history from 1528 to 1531 played an important role in the narrative of the Hutterite chronicles.[19]

Rothkegel backs up the claim that the South German Marpeck network of people was indeed the founding group of the “Austerlitz Brethren” by citing a report from Johann Weisenkircher, which was found in the Regensburg archives.[20] Marpeck did not stay in Austerlitz past the summer, and Syncretist scholars in addition to Rothkegel, such as Werner Packull and John D. Roth, argue that his departure to the city of Strasbourg was not for religious protection, but was, in fact, commissioned by the Austerlitz Brethren to serve as an elder of an Anabaptist congregation.[21]

In reference to Marpeck’s stay in Strasbourg, Harold Bender, the historiographical progenitor of the Goshen School, is helpful in describing how Marpeck managed to gain the respect of those in the city: “Pilgram Marpeck’s four years of relatively unhindered life and ministry as an Anabaptist leader in Strasbourg can thus be explained in the light of a very complex and fluid religious situation in the city, and the tolerance of Burgomaster Sturm and the Council, as well as by the need for his engineering services.”[22] Strasbourg was more lenient towards Anabaptists than most cities at the time, but it would appear that Marpeck’s usefulness to the people as a skilled engineer made him, though a “stubborn heretic” according Martin Bucer, a valuable member of the community.[23] And yet, after much theological engagement with the city’s leaders, particularly Martin Bucer, Marpeck was banished. Marpeck’s views of separation between church and state can be found in his Confession of 1532, written as he prepared to leave:

I admit worldly, carnal, and earthly rulers as servants of God, in earthly matters, but not in the kingdom of Christ; according to the words of Paul, to them rightfully belongs all carnal honor fear, obedience, tax, toll, and tribute. However, when such persons who hold authority become Christians (which I heartily wish and pray for), they may not use the aforementioned carnal force, sovereignty, or ruling in the kingdom of Christ…Because of this recognition, I conclude before my God that worldly power, for all its work, is not needed in the kingdom of Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, and I further conclude that all who attempt to preserve the kingdom of Christ by stooping to the government authority will be punished for it and come to shame. For our citizenship is in heaven.[24]

For the next twelve years, however, Marpeck’s earthly citizenship seems to have been largely undetectable, as he moved from one place to another in Switzerland and Moravia fairly regularly.[25]

Marpeck’s Arrival in Augsburg

In 1544, Marpeck arrived to the city of Augsburg with fine timing. Augsburg’s city records tell of Marpeck being hired to assist in their wood shortage and to repair the water flumes.[26] William Estep, a Goshen School/Benderite or possibly New Mennonite historiographer, says the following about Marpeck’s acceptance in Augsburg: “That [Marpeck] was an active Anabaptist was known to the council and the cause of frequent reprimands. Apparently, he was too valuable a man for the city to lose.”[27] Augsburg had a rather early presence of Anabaptism, housing major leaders such as Balthasar Hübmaier, Hans Denck, and Wilhelm Reublin.[28] However, both an imperial mandate and the city council at Augsburg prohibited Anabaptism by 1527, and continued this ban through the 1520s and 1530s.[29] By the following decade, Caspar Schwenckfeld, a theological opponent but fellow Anabaptist, was surprised of Marpeck’s toleration, having stated, “Leonhard Hieber writes that Marpeck had to present his book to the Council. I did not think that he was there any more. Thus it sometimes happens when it is to your benefit, otherwise the Council would hardly give him shelter.”[30] Therefore, the causality for Marpeck’s admittance into the community of Augsburg is an apparent anomaly.

Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg

Marpeck’s own words provide key insights concerning his views of how an Anabaptist ought to live in a society that is religiously opposed to Anabaptist beliefs. In 1555, he stated, “[O]ne should be quiet and not give the authorities occasion to persecute if one meets together unnecessarily. That one should exercise moderation and discretion in such a case, to this end a government often presses out of respect for its own punishment, since they do not like to persecute us.”[31] Clearly, Marpeck intended for his “brethren” to be peaceful, despite their sharp disagreements with the beliefs of the legal religion of the land. He likewise stated, “However, if God’s honor and truth are at stake, then we are obligated to give up all and to endure all persecution unto death.”[32] Thus, Marpeck’s congregation was neither deliberately confrontational nor negligent of maintaining principles.

Such a cautious methodology may have hurt the overall potential for growth, but it is important to also remember that Anabaptists had the revolutionary stigma attached to them, thanks to the extreme actions of the Münsterites and the rather forceful personalities of others such as George Blaurock.[33] By contributing to the welfare of the city through his engineering occupation, Marpeck managed to earn a measure a trust from the Protestant leaders. And by practicing their religion tactfully, the small group of Anabaptists in Augsburg was able to continue residing there. Marpeck was warned four times about his illegal religious activity in Augsburg, but David C. Steinmetz interprets these as “wrist-tapping warnings,” since no actual discipline resulted.[34] The end goal for Marpeck, according to his writings, was that Augsburg and other cities might experience “a spiritual real justice” (geistlicher wesentlicher gerechtigkeit), which William Klassen defines as “the personal and social transformation which took place when the cross of Christ was accepted.”[35] Though he was likely unsatisfied with the few converts to Anabaptism by the end of his lifetime, Marpeck’s peace in Augsburg was secured and retained through much of his own efforts as a hard-working and vigilant citizen. When Marpeck died in 1556, he was buried to finally “rest in peace” in an Augsburg graveyard.


This case study of how Marpeck’s actions positively affected his ability to find modest peace in Augsburg reveals not only sociological principles for peace making, but it also opens up the discussion for how Anabaptist historiography plays a critical role in interpreting the past. Benderites/Goshen School historiographers, New Mennonites, and Syncretist scholars have been cited throughout this research. Although there are contradictions among the schools of thought, especially in relation to Anabaptist origins and identity, the topic of Marpeck’s religious toleration in Augsburg draws from multiple historiographical perspectives with relative ease. This seems to be the case due to the nature of this study. Since Benderites/Goshen School historiographers and New Mennonites focus on the religious motivations of the Anabaptists, one can observe Marpeck’s writings and numerous secondary source interpretations to see that Marpeck’s Anabaptist values were crucial to his existence. But on the other hand, Syncretist scholars add the societal dimensions necessary for such a topic. Marpeck’s peace in Augsburg, in other words, can only be accurately interpreted if both religious ideals of Pilgram Marpeck and societal factors are given a fair treatment. As James M. Stayer notes, “[The] second generation of [Syncretist] interpreters is now moving into retirement and in the last decade they have, in their turn, been criticized for undervaluing the weight and independence of religious motives behind Reformation radicalism.”[36] Syncretist historiography, therefore, is in the process of revision, but Benderites/Goshen School historiographers and New Mennonites also can learn from the Syncretists’ interpretations. Therefore, a suggestible method for future historiography is that historians take seriously the personal writings and religious underpinnings of the Anabaptists, but to supplement these foundational sources with external data, particularly in reference to the spread of ideas and the evolution of Anabaptist identity.[37]

[1] Paul M. Zulehner, “Early Modern Religion Peace Agreements: Their Effects on the Ideological Development of Europe” Society 51:6 (December 2014): 606.

[2] Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), p. 217.

[3] For a brief biographical sketch of Marpeck’s years in Augsburg, see William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, trans. and ed., The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), p. 39-41. [abbreviated hereafter, WPM]

[4] Quoted in Abraham Friesen, “The Radical Reformation Revisited” Journal of Mennonites Studies 2 (1984): 124.

[5] James R. Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism: Twentieth-Century Historiography of the Radical Reformation” Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1986): 183-207.

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] See Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 5.

[8] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 85.

[9] Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650, p. 219.

[10] Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision” https://www.goshen.edu/mhl/Refocusing/d-av.htm [accessed July 26, 2015].

[11] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 189-196.

[12] See Malcolm B. Yarnell III, ed., The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity, Essays in Honor of Paige Patterson (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2013).

[13] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 196-197.

[14] For clarification, one does not need to be a practicing Mennonite to prefer this historiographical position, just as one does not necessarily espouse the economic principles of Marxism to see the value of Marxist historiography.

[15] Stephen B. Boyd confirms that Marpeck, based on tax records, was one of the highest paid city employees. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck: His Life and Social Theology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 6.

[16] Ibid., p. 11-12.

[17] Michael D. Wilkinson, “Suffering the Cross: The Life, Theology, and Significance of Leonhard Schiemer” in Malcolm B. Yarnell III, ed., The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists, p. 51-52.

[18] See John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren, 1540-1700” in Roth and Stayer, eds., Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, Volume 6 [abbreviated hereafter, BCCT] (Boston, MA: Brill, 2007), p. 357.

[19] Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85 (January 2011): 8. Rothkegel’s Syncretistic historiographical approach is supported by his statement, “Marpeck may have been more sectarian than generally assumed by current scholarship.”

[20] Ibid., p. 19.

[21] Rothkegel cites Packull in Ibid., p. 24. See also John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren, 1540-1700” in Roth and Stayer, eds., BCCT, p. 358.

[22] Harold S. Bender, “Pilgram Marpeck” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (July 1964): 243.

[23] Bucer’s remarks cited in J.C. Wenger, “The Life and Work of Pilgram Marpeck, “ Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (July 1938): 147.

[24] WPM, p. 150-151.

[25] For a discussion of his whereabouts during this period, see Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant,” p. 26-27.

[26] WPM, p. 39. Estep provides the date of his employment as being May 12, 1545. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 124. Thus, there was some overlap of time between his arrival and his official employment. Nevertheless, he was busy writing, having composed at least four somewhat lengthy letters in 1544, and another three in 1545. See WPM, p. 13.

[27] Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 124-125. “Frequent reprimands” is an overstatement, as only four warnings are recorded in the historical record.

[28] See Ibid., p. 61 and John Howard Yoder, “Balthasar Hübmaier and the Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism” Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (January 1959): 9.

[29] Michele Zelinsky Hanson, Religious Identity in an Early Reformation Community: Augsburg, 1517 to 1555 (Boston, MA: Brill, 2007), p. 80-82.

[30] WPM, p. 40.

[31] Ibid., p. 514.

[32] Ibid.

[33] At a service in Zollikon, for example, Blaurock shockingly told the minister in the presence of the congregation, “You were not sent to preach, it was I.” See Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 50.

[34] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings: From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 157.

[35] William Klassen, “Pilgram Marpeck and Our Use of Power” The Conrad Grebel Review 17:1 (Winter 1999): 45.

[36] James M. Stayer, “Introduction” in Roth and Stayer, eds., BCCT, 1521-1700, p. xiii.

[37] For example, Martin Rothkegel’s work, as already cited in this research, on the identity of the Austerlitz Brethren provides a helpful sociological background to Marpeck’s life, but it cannot adequately explain his religious motivations, which were arguably the central driving force behind his actions. Marpeck’s own writings would support such a claim: “It is only that God in His love takes pleasure in us His children, and we receive everything from the Father in Christ. It is this love alone which motivates us to perform the services of Christ to one another by grace…We do not serve ourselves but rather serve to the praise of God and our own salvation, because the Lord Himself has served us.” WPM, p. 553.


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