Hubmaier's Letter to Johannes Sapidus

By Macgregor, Kirk R. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Hubmaier's Letter to Johannes Sapidus

Macgregor, Kirk R., Mennonite Quarterly Review

This previously untranslated Latin letter of Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) to the humanist scholar Johannes Sapidus (1490-1561), written on October 26, 1521, sheds important light on a hazy yet pivotal period in Hubmaier's life. We know relatively little about Hubmaier's activities between late 1520 - when the staunch Catholic left his post as chief cathedral preacher (Domprediger) at Regensburg for the provincial Swiss town of Waldshut in order to avoid a monetary dispute with the Dominicans - and late 1522, when he resumed his priestly duties in Regensburg with a new evangelical reforming program. It is clear, however, that following Hubmaier's return, the citizens of Regensburg were unwilling to embrace the Reformation even at the behest of their acclaimed cleric, forcing Hubmaier to return to Waldshut in March 1523. (1) The original text of this letter predates both the statements at the Second Zurich Disputation, which are the earliest sources in Pipkin and Yoder's standard English translation of Hubmaier's works, (2) and the Eighteen Articles (Achtzehn SchluBriften) - the earliest material in the critical edition of the Hubmaier Schriften. (3) The letter is contained in the Strasbourg city register of documents spanning the years 1522 to 1532. (4)

The reason why this 1521 letter - carried by Hubmaier's nephew Leonhard from Waldshut to Selestat in Upper Alsace--found its way into the Strasbourg collection concerns the history of the letter's recipient. From 1511 to 1525 Johannes Sapidus served as rector of the Selestat grammar school. Once his Reformation ideas drew the ire of the Inquisition, however, he relocated in 1526 to the University of Strasbourg, where he spent the remainder of his life as a professor. (5) That Sapidus kept this letter and brought it with him to Strasbourg suggests his continuing friendship with Hubmaier and Leonhard.

This letter marks a turning point in the future Anabaptist leader's religious development, as Hubmaier openly displayed his newfound sympathy for Luther as well as the evangelical principles of sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, and the regeneration of the heart accompanying justification, Hubmaier claims to have personally experienced such a regeneration through a conversion experience, triggered by his study of the Pauline epistles, through which he gained adoption into God's family. As a result of this conversion, Hubmaier professes an unswerving commitment to living out the teachings of Paul.

Although privileging the Bible over purely human works, Hubmaier also evinces his penchant for humanism and his love and deep knowledge of the sources of classical antiquity. In his masterful biography of Hubmaier, Torsten Bergsten points out that Hubmaier was drawn to humanism and to Luther through his relationship with the Ulm physician Wolfgang Rychard, a very educated humanist whom he had visited in January 1521 on his journey from Regensburg to Waldshut. (6) Consistent with humanistic trends and Lutheran polemic, yet somewhat shocking for a sitting parish priest, Hubmaier expresses here a biting anti-papalism and anti-clericalism, explicitly denouncing Leo X as the Antichrist and blasting the greed of his fellow clergy. In the telling poem which concludes this letter, Hubmaier positively compares Luther--who was presumed dead at the time due to his May 4, 1521, "kidnapping" at the hands of Frederick the Wise and subsequent disappearance--to the crucified Christ. Conversely, Hubmaier negatively associates Pope Leo X with Herod Antipas and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with Pilate. Like their biblical counterparts, both Leo X and Charles V became friends, despite their former animosity, in order to rid themselves of a common enemy. Thus, Hubmaier's religious outlook at the time of this letter would best be classified as an evangelical humanist.

The immediate occasion of the letter was threefold. First, Hubmaier wanted Sapidus to admit Leonhard to his grammar school and to personally tutor him.

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