Konrad Grebel: Kritiker Des Frommen Scheins, 1498-1526. eine Biographische Skizze

By Grieser, Dale Jonathan | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Konrad Grebel: Kritiker Des Frommen Scheins, 1498-1526. eine Biographische Skizze


Grieser, Dale Jonathan, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Konrad Grebel: Kritiker des frommen Scheins, 1498-1526. Eine biographische Skizze. By Hans-Jurgen Goertz. Bolanden: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein; Hamburg: Kumpers Verlag. 1998. Pp. 167.

Hans-Jurgen Goertz offers a compelling biographical sketch of Conrad Grebel in commemoration of the early Anabaptist's five-hundredth birthday in 1998. In the first book-length scholarly treatment of Grebel since H. S. Bender's definitive biography of 1950, Goertz seeks to inform the reader of recent scholarly developments on the emergence of Anabaptism in Zurich and on Grebel's role in it. Grebel emerges from this depiction as a complex figure: a young man who experienced personal failure and considerable conflict with his parents yet who forged out of this a strong personality; a man whose rashness caused him no end of difficulty but also gave him the strength to take the fateful step of receiving adult baptism and radically challenging the religious status quo.

As Goertz points out, the sources for Grebel's life are among the most extensive for any early Anabaptist. The son of a prominent Zurich citizen, he was educated in the town's Latin school before embarking on a checkered university career. His letters to Vadian, teacher at Vienna and later brother-in-law, provide considerable information concerning his personal life and his religious development. From this material Goertz provides a fascinating portrait of Grebel's early life. Grebel's promising academic career ended in failure. He studied at Vienna, Basel and Pads but did not receive a degree. In Goertz's portrait of the student Grebel, the future Anabaptist comes across as a dilettante. He did not give his studies the attention needed to complete them successfully. He was in constant conflict with his father for failing to provide adequately for his financial needs and critical of him when he secured foreign support for Conrad. In Paris Grebel's activities brought him in such disrepute that he had to abandon his studies and return to Switzerland.

Back in Zurich, Grebel continued to rely on his father financially. In addition to the ongoing financial conflict with his father, Conrad also aroused his parents' wrath with his choice of marriage partner. His wife Barbara was apparently from a lower class. They married secretly in February 1522, lived with Conrad's parents and were the parents of three children.

With Grebel's student years and family relationships largely as background, Goertz then moves into the oft-traversed terrain of the early reformation movements in Zurich, beginning with Zwingli's arrival in Zurich and his early agitation for reform. Goertz places Zwingli's reforming activity firmly in the context of a wider circle of reform-minded humanists, clerics and artisans. To Goertz, following recent Zwingli scholarship, Zwingli comes off as a reformer feeling his way through to his position. The movement led by Zwingli included more radical members, many of whom would later break with him. But in 1522 and even into 1523 Zwingli used the more radical positions of his followers as cover. From the moment they broke the Lenten fast in 1522 with their sausage supper to their iconoclastic acts in the fall of 1523, the radicals acted on Zwingli's preaching. Goertz suggests that this may have been a calculated move on Zwingli's part--a way of presenting himself as the moderate to a reluctant city council.

By the summer of 1522 it is clear that Grebel was part of this radical group. We hear of him disrupting sermons of traditionalist priests and leading Bible studies. A fateful move occurs when this group of towndwellers begins to associate with a group of rural pastors who have been at the forefront of efforts at communal reform. They were seeking greater autonomy from the Zurich city council. At the heart of their efforts was tithe reform. This issue finally brought a division of the camps as Zwingli supported the council's refusal to budge. …

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