Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Test Everything; Hold Fast to What Is Good": How Menno Caused a Reformed Pastor to Travel from Murten to Moravia

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Test Everything; Hold Fast to What Is Good": How Menno Caused a Reformed Pastor to Travel from Murten to Moravia

Article excerpt

Abstract: Jakob Gelthuser, a Reformed pastor from the Swiss village of Murten, broke the boundaries of state toleration when, in the 1580s, he tried to understand the Anabaptists of his time, not only through reading polemical literature denouncing the movement but also through direct and authentic personal contacts. Gelthuser established wide-ranging contacts with Swiss Brethren adherents, he acquired and studied the first German edition of Menno's Fundamentbuch of 1575 and he undertook an investigative journey to Moravia in order to become better acquainted with the Hutterite colonies there. When authorities called him to account for his actions, Gelthuser made several very revealing statements about the Anabaptists of his day that open up numerous new insights into a phase of Anabaptist history about which very little is known.


As is well known, the relationship between the Dutch and Upper German Swiss Anabaptists of the sixteenth century was anything but tranquil. Despite several colloquies (especially those in Strasbourg in 1555 and 1557), it proved impossible to resolve the existing theological differences between the two groups. Above all, the two factions could not reach consensus on the issues of Christology, excommunication and shunning. (1) Reciprocal relations came to a tentative low point in 1559 when Menno Simons terminated spiritual fellowship with the Upper German group on account of these issues and then placed them under the ban. (2)

Surprisingly, however, there was no lack of attempts in the ensuing decades to pick up the mutual discussions. Although the conferences at Neckartal (1575) and Cologne (1591) did not lead to comprehensive agreement, they did reflect a desire by the representatives of both sides not to break off contact with each other. (3)

Quite possibly this ongoing contact was encouraged by the publication in 1575 of a German translation of Menno Simons' writings. The translation from Low German--entitled Fundamentum: Ein Fundament und klare Anweisung vonder Seligmachenden Lehre unsers Herren Jesu Christi--was based on the third edition of Menno's work (1567). It remains unclear who requested or financed this printing, who translated it into German, or where it was finally printed. It does seem plausible, however, that interest in a German edition of Menno's works was greatest in those areas with the most contact between the High German-Swiss and the Dutch Anabaptists, which points especially to the Eifel region and to that part of the Rhineland around Cologne.

It is thus all the more surprising--as Heinold Fast noted already 40 years ago--that a sixteenth-century codex including, among other items, two longer texts by Menno Simons, was found in the deep Anabaptist south, namely in the Burgerbibliothek in Bern. (4)

Fast's analysis clarified two points: first, that the German Fundamentbuch of 1575 served as the source for both of the handwritten copies of Menno's writings; second, that the copyist can be identified as a Swiss Anabaptist, both by the dialect used and by distinctive changes that were made in its contents. From a theological standpoint, the omissions and revisions of Menno's passages that argue for rigorous practice of the ban and shunning are characteristic of the Swiss Brethren. Unfortunately, very little is known about this manuscript; we know virtually nothing concrete about its origins, the motives that brought it into existence, or the identity of the copyist.

As much as I would have liked to solve the riddle of the publication of the first German edition of Menno's Fundamentbuch of 1575 or the origins of Codex 693 of the Bern Burgerbibliothek, I must admit that I have not yet been able to do so. During the course of my research on the Anabaptist movement in Basel, however, I stumbled upon the fact that the Fundamentbuch of 1575 was available in Switzerland very soon after its publication. The turbulent and exciting story of its appearance--pieced together from archival sources--is both informative for Anabaptist research and offers clues to several questions that have hitherto remained unanswered. …

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