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    mural of a phoenix rising from a city on fire

    Two Anabaptist Martyrdom Stories

    Georg Wagner and Klaus Felbinger, two sixteenth-century Anabaptists, defended their faith – to the point of death.

    December 31, 2022
    • John Wilson, Jr.

      When I think of Anabaptist martyrs I think of Dirk Willems. was an Anabaptist martyr. “Anabaptist” is Latin for “Re-Baptizer.” Anabaptists believing Baptism was for consenting adults, which was a heresy in Protestant Reformation Europe. He was accused and convicted of this heresy. He escaped and the authorities pursued. He ran across a frozen lake and made it safely to the other side. The deputy chasing him wasn’t so fortunate, the ice broke and he went into the water. Fearing the man would drown, believing all life to be sacred Willems went back and pulled him out. After being pulled out of the water, the deputy wanted to let Willems go, but the authorities wouldn’t have it. He was turned over to the court and executed as a heretic. I expect that this story is pretty well known and that I am not writing about anything people do not already know, but this story speaks very powerfully to me.

    During the course of the sixteenth century, thousands of Anabaptists – members of the radical wing of the Reformation – were executed by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Anabaptists collected and remembered the stories of their martyrs, many of which found their way into books such as Martyrs Mirror and the Hutterite Chronicle. The following two stories are taken from the Chronicle, compiled starting around 1565. They were read as part of a Catholic-Anabaptist dialogue in 1995 in Rome that included the then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI).

    Georg Wagner

    In 1527 Georg Wagner of Emmering…was taken prisoner at Munich because of the following four articles:

    1. He did not believe priests could grant a man forgiveness of sins.
    2. He did not believe a man could bring God down from heaven.
    3. He did not believe that God or Christ was present bodily in the bread the priest had on the altar but that the loaf of bread belonged to the Lord.
    4. He did not believe that baptism by water brought salvation.

    He refused to recant on any of these points, although he was tortured so severely that the prince was filled with pity and came to him personally, urging him to recant and promising him a pension for the rest of his life. The prince’s steward also urged him to recant, making many promises.

    Finally they brought his wife and child to him in the prison to make him recant. But he would not give way. He said that he would not sell his beloved wife and child to the prince for all the prince’s lands, yet he would leave them for the sake of his God and Lord.

    Monks, priests, and others came to persuade him, but he was steadfast in the recognition given him by God. He was therefore condemned to be burned alive. He was taken by the executioner and led to his death. When they came to the town, he said, “Today I will confess my God before the whole world.” He had such a joy in Christ that his face did not grow pale nor did his eyes show any terror. He went to the fire with a smile on his lips. The executioner bound him to the ladder and hung a bag of gunpowder round his neck. At that he, Georg Wagner, said, “May this be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” With a smile on his lips he took leave like a Christian. Then the executioner thrust him into the fire, and he joyfully gave up his spirit. This happened on February 8, 1527. A song was written about him, which is still sung in the church.

    The local judge rode home from the burning with full authority and intention to seize others of like faith, but that same night God in his wrath took his life, and he died suddenly in his bed.

    mural of a phoenix rising from a city on fire

    Vela, Rising Phoenix

    Klaus Felbinger

    1560: Brother Klaus Felbinger, or Schlosser, a servant of God’s Word who was still in a time of testing, was arrested while traveling near Neumarkt in Bavaria together with another brother, Hans Leutner. On the Tuesday after Judica [Passion Sunday, two weeks before Easter], during Lent, they were taken to Neumarkt for the sake of their faith. There the prison warden and his guards cross-examined them twice, especially about infant baptism. The brothers proved that Christ had commanded only the baptism of adults who could hear, understand, and believe the Word of God. So, early on Palm Sunday they were chained to two carts and sent to Landshut with a guard of riders and foot soldiers. There they were put in separate cells, and Klaus was put in chains.

    Early the same week, the lords of Landshut, the captain, the old prison warden, the chancellor, and all their attendants summoned the brothers. They talked with them but could not get anywhere.

    Two deans from the city were sent to speak with the brothers about the mass, infant baptism, and their reasons for leaving the popish church. But the brothers gave such a good testimony, founded on divine witness, that they had to give up.

    The prisoners were then cruelly tortured and racked twice to make then tell where they had been going and who had given them shelter. But brother Klaus replied, “We have no obligation to tell you, and it does you no good to know.”

    “Why?” they asked.

    “Because you hound the people and torment them. You rob them and sin against them. Far be it from us to betray those who have done good to us. We do not betray our enemies, much less our friends.”

    “Very well,” they said, “then we’re not going to spare your skin.”

    They left him hanging in agony until at last the torturer put in a word for him, saying, “He has hung there all day and won’t tell anything.”

    The chief justice was malicious, calling him a vile scoundrel and accusing us of damning them. Klaus replied, “We do not damn anyone. But your sins will damn you if you do not repent. We are telling you nothing but the truth.”

    “What is truth?” asked the chief justice.

    Klaus answered, “You won’t understand, even if I tell you.” So the justice knew no more about truth than Pilate, who asked the same question (John 18:38).

    After this, two deans were sent out from Munich (about nine miles away), and they tried in many unusual ways to confuse and dissuade them, but they had no success. The chancellor and ruling lords at Landshut often came to pester them too. But they always found the brothers steadfast in their faith and had to go away leaving them unwavering. It was impossible to win them over with false teaching and tempting suggestions.

    Two priests and a doctor of theology came and argued heatedly with them about infant baptism. But brother Klaus powerfully confuted them from Scripture, so they left him alone.

    After all this, the magistrate and several officials came and tried to win them with friendliness. But they stood unflinching against all the gates of hell and trusted in God’s truth, faithfully defending it on a sure foundation. They vowed they would remain true in the simplicity of Christ. The chancellor finally said to brother Klaus, “I don’t believe you are so simple. I don’t believe one in a hundred could defend himself like you. I don’t take you for a fanatic, like those others who don’t know what they are talking about.” For the Lord himself gave Klaus words and wisdom, as can be seen in the letters he wrote to the church from prison and in the songs he made while in chains.

    He also wrote a confession of our faith addressed to the lords and governing authorities in Landshut, and the church still has a copy.

    After this they were condemned to death by the sons of Pilate. Brother Klaus had his tongue bound to prevent him from speaking to the people at his execution but in the end his tongue was freed long enough for the two brothers to speak to each other. Brother Hans Leutner, who was to be first, said to Klaus, “Now, brother Klaus, if my death will terrify you, then you go first and I will wait till last.”

    Brother Klaus replied, “No! Oh, no! I will not be terrified.”

    So Hans gave his neck to the sword, and Klaus looked on undismayed. He did not even turn pale. Anyone who did not know would have thought it did not concern him. Then he, too, stepped forward, knelt down, and gave his head for the sake of faith and divine truth. Both brothers witnessed valiantly with their blood. They were executed on July 19.

    Source: The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Vol. I, (Rifton, NY: Plough, 1987), 65–66, 369–372.

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