In 1529, after the last of the Anabaptists’ first leaders had died at the stake, the recent convert Jakob Hutter became a pastor to their underground congregations. These fellowships held their goods in common and abjured violence, seeking to live according to Jesus’ teachings. Ferdinand, ruler of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor), sought to stamp out this movement through a campaign of surveillance, torture, and executions. Many Anabaptists fled to more tolerant Moravia; as the repression in Austria intensified, Hutter and his wife Katharina followed them. But in 1535, Ferdinand pressured the governor of Moravia to expel the refugees from their homes. (The Hutters would be captured by Ferdinand’s forces the following year; Jakob would be burned, Katharina eventually drowned.) Hutter wrote this from the open heath near Tracht, where the community was encamped.
This article is part of the Anabaptism and Politics series.
We want to let you know, dear governor of Moravia, that we received the order delivered by your servants. This is our answer:
We have given ourselves to God the Lord in order to live according to his divine will and keep his commandments in the way Jesus Christ showed us. Because we serve him, do his will, and keep his commandments, we are persecuted and despised by the whole world and robbed of all our goods. King Ferdinand, that cruel tyrant and enemy of God’s truth and justice, has mercilessly put many of our innocent brothers and sisters to death. But through God’s grace we were able to move here to Moravia. We have not troubled or harmed anyone and have lived faithfully in the fear of God. Everybody will confirm this. But now even the marshal has given us notice and forced us to leave our houses and property.
So we now find ourselves out in the wilderness, on a desolate heath under the open sky. For your sakes we feel great pain of heart, that you treat God’s faithful children so cruelly. We cry to him about your hard-heartedness and about the enormous injustice that increases daily.
Now since you have commanded us to leave without delay, we give you this answer: We know of no place to go. We are surrounded by the king’s lands. In every direction we would walk straight into the jaws of robbers and tyrants, like sheep cast among ravenous wolves. Besides, we have among us many widows and orphans, many sick people and helpless little children who are unable to walk or travel. Their fathers and mothers were murdered by that godless tyrant Ferdinand, that prince of darkness and enemy of divine truth and justice.
We do not want to hurt or wrong anyone, not even our worst enemy, be it Ferdinand or anyone else. All our words and deeds, our conduct, our way of life, are there for everyone to see. Rather than knowingly wrong anybody 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.
We know of no place to go. In every direction we would walk straight into the jaws of robbers and tyrants, like sheep cast among ravenous wolves.
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.
Therefore, woe, woe to you Moravian lords into all eternity! You have given in to Ferdinand, the awful tyrant and enemy of divine truth – you have agreed to drive those who love and fear God out of your lands. You fear a weak, mortal man more than the living, eternal, almighty God and are willing to expel and ruthlessly persecute the children of God, old and young. God has made it known through the mouth of his holy prophets that he will avenge innocent blood.
We wish you could escape this fate. How we long that you and all people might be saved and inherit eternal life. For the sake of God we plead with you to accept his Word and our warning and to take them to heart. We do this purely out of fear of God and because we love God and all humankind.
Source: Abridged excerpt from The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1 (Plough, 1987).