By Rex Butler, NOBTS
On January 21, 1525, George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him. Following his baptism, Blaurock proceeded to baptize the dozen or so men assembled at the home of Felix Manz in Zurich, Switzerland.
This seemingly innocent event marked one of the most significant turning points in the history of the church and was considered so radical in its day that, in less than five years, all three men would be dead as a result of their doctrine of believer’s baptism.
Zurich was the site of a major movement of the Reformation, paralleling the more famous one led by Martin Luther in Germany. In 1523, Ulrich Zwingli, pastor of Grössmunster (“the Great Church”) convinced the City Council to abolish Roman Catholicism and adopt his evangelical reforms, which included the authority of Scripture and the denunciation of the papacy, the priesthood, clerical celibacy, purgatory, and the use of images in worship.
Zwingli had attracted the following of a group of young students, known as the Swiss Brethren.
Included in this group were Conrad Grebel, a son of a Zurich councilman; Felix Manz, an illegitimate son of a priest; and George Blaurock, a former priest. Together, Zwingli and his disciples studied the Bible in its original languages. As a result, they all, including Zwingli, came to the conclusion that biblical baptism is intended only for believers, not for infants.
Infant baptism, however, had been practiced by the church for over a thousand years, and even the leaders of the Reformation clung to that tradition. Infant baptism was considered initiation not only into the church but also into the state and, therefore, was woven into the fabric of civic life.
Also troubling to the Swiss Brethren was the church-state union, which had been the norm in Christendom since the fourth century and continued through the Reformation and beyond.
In both Protestant and Roman Catholic nations, any dissent from the state-established church was considered treasonous. When the Zurich City Council did not take the reforms far enough or fast enough to suit the Swiss Brethren, Zwingli, forced to choose between his convictions and the political clout necessary for his reformation, chose the council and opposed his students.
On January 17, 1525, Zwingli conducted a public disputation to debate his students on baptism. The Swiss Brethren were too well trained in Scripture for Zwingli to defeat them in that arena.
Customarily, Grebel and Manz began their affirmation of believer’s baptism with Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:16, and the story of the Apostle Paul’s baptism in Acts 9.
Unable to defend infant baptism from Scripture, Zwingli resorted to insults, naming his opponents “re-baptizers,” or Anabaptists.
The council declared in favor of Zwingli and issued edicts against the dissenters: They must cease their private meetings; they must submit their unbaptized children to baptism; if they refused, they must leave Zurich within eight days or be subject to imprisonment.
Only a few days later, as reported earlier, Grebel, Blaurock, and several others gathered at Manz’s house. Grieved by the verdict against them, they prayed, asking God for his guidance and mercy. Suddenly, Blaurock was moved to ask Grebel to baptize him with true Christian baptism based upon his faith in and knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Grebel agreed and poured water over Blaurock as he knelt.
Then Blaurock in turn baptized Grebel and the others. Afterward, they covenanted together to live separately from the world, to teach the Gospel faithfully, and to hold steadfastly to the truth.
This act of believer’s baptism was an even more radical act than Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany. With this one action, the Anabaptists recovered the biblical practice of believer’s baptism, denied the authority of the state over the church, constituted a church based on the New Testament, and affirmed the Christian doctrines of the lordship of Christ and the believer’s voluntary commitment of faith.
The newly baptized believers scattered into nearby communities to preach the Gospel. The next day, John Brötli baptized a number of converts at the village well of Zollikon. During the following week, Brötli and other Anabaptists baptized enough believers to form a congregation.
In February, on his way to Schaffhausen, Grebel encountered Wolfgang Ulimann, a former monk, who not only agreed to be baptized but also insisted on immersion as the biblical method. So they went to the Rhine, where Grebel put Ulimann under the water and covered him over with the waters of the river.
Ulimann, in turn, took the Gospel to his home town of St. Gall, and such revival broke out that Grebel and Manz were called in to help. Preaching in the open and going from house to house, the Anabaptists were converting and baptizing hundreds in the region of Zurich and beyond.
The Anabaptist revival, however, was countered with severe reprisals from Zwingli and the Zurich City Council, who declared re-baptism a seditious crime punishable by imprisonment and death. Thus, Zwingli betrayed his former students and began to hunt them down.
Grebel, Blaurock, and Manz were arrested and condemned to life imprisonment in the Witch’s Tower in Zurich. But, soon after this sentence, an unknown sympathizer left the doors unlocked, and the prisoners escaped.
After he escaped from prison, Grebel continued his itinerant ministry. Weakened by months of imprisonment, however, he succumbed to the plague in late summer 1526, becoming the first of the three Anabaptist leaders of Zurich to die. He survived less than 20 months after his baptism.
Like Grebel, Manz did not allow danger to liberty or life to deter him from preaching the Gospel. He was imprisoned multiple times before he was finally sentenced to die. The council had determined that the appropriate method of execution for re-baptizers was death by drowning – a “third baptism.” Therefore, on January 5, 1527, Manz was taken to the banks of the Limmat River in Zurich. On the way, he witnessed to the bystanders that believer’s baptism was the only true baptism and praised God aloud that he could die for the truth.
As Manz’s hands were bound to his knees and a stick thrust between arms and legs, he cried out, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!” He was cast into the icy waters and thus became the first Anabaptist to die at the hands of the Protestant church.
George Blaurock was, if possible, even more zealous than his comrades. One Sunday, he entered the village church in Zollikon and interrupted the preacher, saying, “You were not sent to preach, it was I!” And he proceeded to mount the pulpit and preach. His zeal, however, was met with zealous persecution.
On the day of Manz’s martyrdom, Blaurock was taken also to the site of the execution, was stripped to the waist, was beaten with rods until his blood flowed, and then was banished from Zurich.
After traveling throughout Switzerland, he ended his ministry and his life in the Catholic region of Austrian Tyrol, where he was burned at the stake on Sept. 6, 1529.
Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock were only three of at first hundreds and then thousands of Anabaptists who were martyred during the three centuries following that first, fateful baptism. The heritage of the Anabaptists, however, continues to live in such doctrines as believer’s baptism and religious liberty.
These doctrines we hold as precious since they are clearly taught in the Word of God, and we remember that many Christians gave their lives in proclaiming these truths rather than deny their validity.