This article is adapted from the introduction to the graphic novel By Water: The Felix Manz Story.
Five hundred years ago, in an age marked by war, plague, inequality, and religious coercion, there were people across Europe who dared to imagine a society of sharing, peace, and freedom of conscience. These radicals were ready to die for their vision. They were executed by the thousands in both Catholic and Protestant states. By Water is a true story of friendship and betrayal set in the Swiss city of Zurich. It chronicles the conflict between establishment reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) and his student Felix Manz (1498–1527), who at first reveres Zwingli as a father figure but ends up drowned on Zwingli’s orders for insisting that only adult believers should be baptized. His fellow believers, called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) by their enemies, saw him as their first martyr. Facing intense persecution at the hands of both Catholic and Protestant authorities, the Anabaptists’ courage and vision pioneered ideals that we still aspire to today: nonviolence, economic justice, peaceful social reform, and freedom of conscience.
Five years ago, I began seriously researching the story of Felix Manz and the Anabaptist movement he helped spark. I read dozens of books and traveled to locations in Europe including the street where Felix Manz lived, a cave where he may have hidden, and the place where he was drowned. The title of By Water comes from an early Anabaptist text describing the punishments threatening anyone who was rebaptized: along with torture and loss of property both men and women faced execution “by water, by fire, or by sword.” All named characters in this book are historical figures, and the plot follows documentary sources, though some scenes have been imaginatively recreated.