“It began in Switzerland,” wrote Kaspar Braitmichel, the sixteenth-century Hutterite chronicler, “where God brought about an awakening.” The year was 1525. In Zurich a group of young men led by the city’s reforming pastor, Ulrich Zwingli, had been gathering to discuss matters of theology and the new humanistic learning. Two of them, Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, had worked alongside Zwingli to bring about changes in the city’s churches and institutions on the basis of their study of the New Testament. Their initial proposals – abolishing mandatory fast days, conducting church services in the vernacular instead of Latin, and cracking down on the lucrative custom of hiring out local sons as mercenaries – had been supported by the city council, giving Zwingli growing political influence.
But Manz, Grebel, and their supporters had come to believe that, according to scripture, the act of becoming a Christian must be voluntary, not a civic duty enforced by state coercion. Accordingly, baptism should occur only when an individual is mature enough to freely confess his or her faith and commit to Christian discipleship. Zwingli, despite at first sympathizing with his friends’ argument, balked at actually abandoning infant baptism. After all, attacking this time-honored practice struck at the foundation of a society in which church and state were closely intertwined. To press for such a radical rupture, Zwingli believed, would endanger the reform cause in Zurich and beyond. A public debate culminated in the city council issuing an ultimatum: the dissenters had eight days to baptize their infants; if they continued to refuse, they would be banished from the city.
Four days later, on January 21, the radicals took a bold next step: instead of baptizing their infants, they deemed their own long-ago baptisms invalid. As they were meeting that evening in Manz’s house, Braitmichel records, “fear came over them and struck their hearts.” They knelt in prayer and when they rose, Georg Blaurock requested Christian baptism from Grebel, and then baptized the others. Thus the Anabaptist (their adversaries’ description of “one who baptizes again”) stream of the Reformation was brought into being. Anabaptism spread rapidly through the region as the dissenters preached and baptized in defiance of the authorities.
The response was swift and brutal. After two years on the run, Felix Manz was captured and drowned in the Limmat River by city authorities – the first of many Anabaptist martyrs. Blaurock was beaten and exiled the same day. (Grebel had meanwhile died of the plague while traveling as an underground evangelist.)
Yet within a few years, the Anabaptist movement they had sparked would count thousands of adherents. They faced a vicious campaign of persecution throughout the Holy Roman Empire, with around three thousand executions and countless stories of forced migration, dispossession, and family separation. Yet the movement continued to grow. Since then, some of its once-fringe insights – freedom of conscience, economic sharing and community, nonviolent resistance to injustice – have become widely influential in broader society. As a Christian tradition, too, it lives on in Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite, Bruderhof, and other Anabaptist churches around the globe.
I was born and raised at the Decker Hutterite community on the prairies of Manitoba. Beyond the gravel ring road that encircles our community is a vast expanse of wheat fields framed by open blue sky. It’s a landscape very different from the towering Alps my ancestors beheld. Separated by thousands of miles and almost half a millennium from that first fateful baptism, my community is nonetheless a flowering of the seeds planted on that January evening.
My roots go deep into Hutterite soil, but it was only with my own baptism last Easter that I became part of what those first Anabaptists began in Zurich. The striking difference between those baptisms and mine is that while the former represented a rupture with the established tradition, my own represents a grafting onto a tradition that precedes me. Like the church that Manz and Grebel rejected through their baptism, the Hutterite church I joined is often frustratingly resistant to change and in need of reform. What does it mean to be part of a tradition that is founded on the call to break with tradition?
The Hutterites emerged as a distinctive movement in the years after Manz, Grebel, and Blaurock died. In 1528, the castle of Leonhard von Liechtenstein, an Anabaptist sympathizer in Moravia, was under threat of invasion. A group of Anabaptists pledged to support Liechtenstein in his defense of the castle, but another group – committed pacifists – would neither participate in the fighting nor accept Liechtenstein’s armed protection.
Ordered to leave the castle grounds, a group of over two hundred people set out. Destitute and homeless, with many orphans and widows among them, they took a defining next step: a cloak was spread on the ground where “each one laid his possessions on it with a willing heart – without being forced – so that the needy might be supported.” From then on, they practiced full community of goods, and what would later be called the Hutterite movement was born.
“We now find ourselves out in the wilderness, on a desolate heath under the open sky,” wrote Jakob Hutter. “We know of no place to go.” Hutter served as the movement’s first bishop from 1533 until his death at the stake in 1536. “In every direction we would walk straight into the jaws of robbers and tyrants, like sheep cast among ravenous wolves,” he declared in this appeal to the local governor in 1535:
We do not want to hurt or wrong anyone, not even our worst enemy. … Rather than knowingly wrong a man to the value of a penny, we would let ourselves be robbed of a hundred gulden. Rather than strike our worst enemy with our hand – to say nothing of spears, swords, and halberds such as the world uses – we would let our own lives be taken. … You cannot simply deny us a place on the earth or in this country. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it belongs to our God in heaven.
In the years after Hutter’s death, the Hutterites in Moravia were gradually able to establish thriving communities, which spread throughout the region. Newcomers were attracted from across central Europe, swelling the Hutterite population to as high as twenty thousand by the end of the sixteenth century. But this relative peace came to an end with the Thirty Years’ War. Plundered and brutalized by armies from all sides during the war and expelled in 1622 from Moravia, they fled across the border to Slovakia. Those Hutterites who survived into the eighteenth century were targeted for coerced conversion to Catholicism. A remnant fled to Transylvania, then to Wallachia, and finally to Ukraine, from where their descendants (my ancestors) emigrated to North America in the 1870s.
This is the story I have been given – the strange story of a new thing that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob began in Switzerland. Even so, my forerunners would have insisted that they were not beginning a new story but were following the same call that others had heard before them. It is a story that I did not choose for myself, and if left to my own devices it is probably not one I would choose. Yet it is my – our – story.
As a boy, I heard about the capture of the 150 men at Falkenstein and their subsequent escape, about Dirk Willems turning back to rescue his pursuer who had fallen through the ice, about the sixteen-year-old miller’s boy who would rather go to his death than recant his faith. My grandfather vividly described his visit to the prison at Schloss Taufers, where conditions had been so humid that Hans Kräl’s clothes rotted off, leaving nothing but his shirt collar.
In school we studied the history of the Reformation and the movements that preceded it, movements within the established church, such as the Cluniacs and Franciscans, as well as movements outside, such as the Albigensians, Waldensians, and Hussites. We learned both to appreciate and criticize our own tradition and see the Anabaptist movement within the larger context of church history.
In the traditional sermons read at evening Gebet and Sunday morning Lehr services, the voices of our forerunners continue to speak – sometimes rather too loudly. In the songs opening each service – some written by Hutterite martyrs – the voices of our ancestors ring out from the mouths of the congregation.
Our dialect retells our story through words, vowel sounds, and idioms picked up in various places during the Hutterite sojourn across Europe. In certain regions in Germany and Austria, such as the Tyrol or especially Carinthia, the Hutterite dialect can be understood even today.
Now numbering almost fifty thousand, we are in some ways a rootless people: severed from our homelands by persecution, Hutterites have had to make their home in many different places. Even our meals embody this history: the tradition of baking buns each Saturday morning surely has its origins in Germany. Hutterite Worsch soup, made of cabbage or beets, comes from the Ukrainian borscht. A Romanian teacher who taught at our school was delighted to find that our Nuckela was very similar to soup he had enjoyed back home.
Growing up this was simply my world. I could comfortably exist and belong within it without experiencing any kind of division in my sense of self. It wasn’t until my late teens that I became aware of how uncomfortably our established Hutterite culture sat with the radicalism of the Anabaptist pioneers. Like me, they had grown up within a tradition, an entire world of meaning and belonging saturated in its own rites, rituals, symbols, festivals, and narrative structure. For me, this was Hutterianism; for them, it was medieval Catholicism. But then they heard the call: “Come and follow me.” With that first baptism in Zurich, they stepped out of this matrix of belonging, beyond clan, tribe, and family.
They hoped that by breaking with the institutional church, they could establish something closer to the perfection of the kingdom of God. The Hutterite bishop Peter Riedemann wrote in 1542 describing the church of rebaptized believers as “not having spot, blemish, wrinkle, or any such thing, but pure and holy.”
Riedemann’s words echo the apostle Paul’s description of the church made perfect in the age to come (Eph. 5:27). Though borrowing Paul’s language, Riedemann uses it differently, applying it to the Christian fellowship here and now. But this amounts to an almost-fantastical claim, one that fits poorly with the all-too-human reality of the church at any point in time, and certainly not the church in the present. Specifically, the Hutterite church of today hardly matches his description. Instead it stands as the lumbering legacy of its founders, stumbling through history, often unsure of its own reason for being, thwarting the cause of the kingdom it exists to promote. With its rigid traditionalism, internal divisions, self-absorption, and growing materialism, it does not always seem an attractive body.
When considering baptism, I struggled with the prospect of joining a deeply flawed church. What did it mean to embrace the call of Jesus as my early forebears did, leaving behind home, family, and land for the sake of the kingdom? How could I both claim the tradition of the community I loved and answer the radical call of the gospel? To find home, Jesus tells us, we must lose it.
The Biblical story turns on a “stepping out” in answer to the call. The God who pulled the cosmos from the primordial tohu wa-bohu formed the people of Israel by calling a nomadic tribesman out of the land of his fathers. It is Abraham’s response to this call from the unknown God that makes him the “father of many nations.” It is a tradition, a people, a story brought into being by the creative work of God. In the Gospels, God shows up as Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, summoning his disciples with the simple invitation, “Follow me.”
In a sense, each person considering baptism must undergo this basic drama of stepping out of his or her “homeworld” to follow the call into the life of the kingdom. The church is not a body of blood established by familial or cultural ties, but an eschatological community brought into being by the work of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why anyone born into a particular Christian tradition must “step out” of this belonging in order to truly belong. Only by returning to the vital origin of the tradition in the call “come and follow me” can new life be breathed into dead bones. This is not a summons to become first-century Galileans, or sixteenth-century radicals, but a call into the ongoing story of God’s work in the time and place in which we find ourselves.
What, then, does it mean to become part of a broken church? Perhaps it means first recognizing how my own hardheartedness, indifference, and lack of courage contribute to the brokenness of Christ’s body. And then recognizing that the church is a body of broken people, gathered around the broken body of Christ, broken for us.
To be baptized requires faith in the creative work of the Spirit to make us what we are not. It is a faith that hopes there is more to the body of Christ than meets the eye. That there is more to the people who make up this body than their political views and faltering virtues. That the church’s movement through history is propelled by more than economics, force, and power, but is pushed onward by the breath of God.
The history of the Hutterites is a story of contingency and surprise. At several decisive junctures in its history, the fragile movement could have been snuffed out. One of the most critical moments occurred around 1695, when the distinctive practice of communal sharing of goods was abandoned in Transylvania. After severe hardship and persecution from authorities, the Hutterite movement was on the verge of extinction.
But then came a surprise. In 1755, in an effort to suppress Protestantism in her domain, Empress Maria Theresa banished a group of Carinthian crypto-Protestants to the margins of her kingdom, forcing them to settle at Alvinz in Transylvania. This brought the Carinthians into contact with the demoralized Hutterites and the texts they had preserved. Inspired by their conversations and what they read in Hutterite homilies and confessions, the Carinthians joined the remaining Hutterites and established several communities, restoring the sharing of goods and giving the movement a second wind. My own ancestors, the Waldners, along with the Hofer, Kleinsasser, Glanzer, and Wurtz family lines, joined the Hutterites from this Carinthian Revival.
If there is anything a peculiar people like the Hutterites ought to know, it is that we follow a surprising God – surprising not only in what he has done in coming to us in this man Jesus, but also in what he continues to do to carry this story forward. To follow this surprising God requires an attentiveness to what God might be saying and doing in the stuff of ordinary life, the present moment, and the people, places, and creatures around us. Such a life will be characterized by freedom, strange friendships, and an openness to surprising possibilities. The ongoing renewal of the Hutterite tradition depends on our ability to hear and respond to this call. As we are called out of our homeworlds into the waters of baptism, so life in the kingdom of God calls us into foreign lands and friendships with unlikely people.
I, too, have heard the call of this strange God. I stand as the last in a line of nine baptismal candidates. We have all grown up together. We are kin and blood. Now we stand waiting for the water. In unison, we recite the ancient creed of the church, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” My mouth echoes the words that generations before me have spoken. I cannot pretend that my coming to these words was like reaching the conclusion of a syllogism. No doubt the formation I received from my parents, grandparents, and community is a grace that precedes me. In the end, all I can say is that I find myself caught in the net of the kingdom of God.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” I am claiming and being claimed by these words, being encircled by them and by the community that speaks them. We kneel and we pray for the Spirit of God to be among us. The water is poured. It runs through my hair, down my cheeks, and to the floor. It comes dripping down to the light gray carpet, soaking it, and turning it black like dried blood.