Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Swiss Anabaptists and the Miraculous

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Swiss Anabaptists and the Miraculous

Article excerpt

   He also said: 'God will let you see,
   three signs that you will understand indeed;
   you will see these soon. /
   When you cut off my head, /
   it will leap into my hat and laugh aloud.

   The second sign will appear, /
   seen upon the sun. /
   Notice carefully the third sign: /
   the sun will become red as blood /
   and the town's spring will sweat blood.
   --Hasslibacher Lied (1)

Abstract: Historians frequently neglect the role of miracles in the life of theft subjects. An attempt to fill a small part of this lacuna revealed surprising insights into sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptism. Miracles played a remarkably small role in both their theology and experience; this, despite their emergence from a medieval religion of immanence, their emphasis on the biblical Gospels replete with accounts of miracles and their status as a persecuted minority desiring confirmation of the validity of their experience. Rather than suggesting a proto-Enlightenment skepticism of the supernatural, the limited role of miracles among the Swiss Anabaptists reflects both a rejection of the Catholic cult of the saints and an ecclesiastical vision of "the true church" that does not need miraculous affirmation.

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According to the hymn memorializing his martyrdom, neither torture nor the threat of execution could persuade Hans Hasslibacher to recant his faith. When the executioner arrived, Hasslibacher confidently proclaimed: "Now eat and drink, be of good cheer / today you will / offer up my innocent blood / but it is for the good of my soul." (2) Fortitude in the face of torture and execution is a common theme in Anabaptist martyr accounts. Far less common, however, were the miraculous events the song goes on to record. Three divine signs, claimed Hasslibacher, would accompany his execution to attest to his innocence: his head will fall into his hat and laugh; the sun will appear red; and the town's well will run with blood. Hasslibacher then requested permission to leave his hat on the ground before kneeling and praying "a Lord's Prayer or two." Then, to the amazement of the assembled townspeople, as the executioner beheads Hasslibacher, "his head springs into his hat / the signs are seen / the sun becomes like red blood / the town spring was dripping blood." (3) According to the hymn, preserved in the well-known Anabaptist collection known as the Ausbund, the miracles that accompanied Hasslibacher's execution--and his accurate prediction of them--made their significance explicit: his death was unjust. The song goes on to record the onlookers agreeing that no more Anabaptist blood would be shed. Indeed, Hasslibacher's execution in 1571 was likely the last execution of an Anabaptist in the territory of Bern. (4)

The account of Hasslibacher's martyrdom will strike many modern ears as rather grotesque. Not only are we likely to be skeptical of the very idea of supernatural intervention, but flamboyant miracles involving laughing, decapitated heads seem particularly questionable. Furthermore, Hasslibacher received no divine deliverance preventing his execution. Surely, if miracles occur, they should be useful interventions that heal people from illness or deliver them from unjust imprisonment.

Yet the Hasslibacher hymn serves both as a revealing illustration of the function of miracles among Swiss Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and as a reminder of a basic religious conflict at the time of the Reformation in which competing claims over the nature of "the true church" were fundamental. Hasslibacher's head is an Anabaptist head, and it laughs at the Reformed persecutors not as gratuitous grotesquery but as public testimony to the veracity of the Anabaptist claim. Rather than serving primarily to support the material or physical welfare of the devout, miracles in this context function as divine attestation to religious claims.

At the same time, despite the popularity of the Hasslibacher story and other accounts of miraculous interventions, especially in the context of martyrdom, miracle stories play a surprisingly small role in the theology and experience of Swiss Anabaptism. …

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