Very early in the Reformation, a group of like-minded, energetic young men found themselves in Zürich, Switzerland and gathered around the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. The lives of these young men and their mentor became intertwined and much would change due to their relationship. But not all was going to go well and much would go quite poorly. This is a story that is as much about youthful impatience, wasted opportunity, plague, schism, and irreconcilable differences as it is about reform of the church. The effects of what happened during the turbulent years of the 1520’s are still very much felt today. Among these young men was the son of a wealthy and influential German-Swiss family: Conrad Grebel. It is the life and deeds of this young man which sparked a powerful movement.
Conrad Grebel was born in the Canton of Zürich around 1498 to Jakob and Dorothea Grebel. He was the second of child of six. Conrad’s father was a very successful iron merchant and he served as a magistrate in Grüningen from 1499 to 1512. After serving as a city magistrate, he served as a representative on the council of the Canton of Zürich, and also served as an ambassador for Zürich in meetings of the Swiss Confederation and even in foreign negotiations. Conrad had all of the benefits of his birth and spent approximately six years studying at the Carolina Latin School of the Grossmünster Church in Zürich. It is after his studies at the Latin School that he enrolled at the University of Basel in 1514, but his father secured a four-year imperial scholarship for him in Vienna and he enrolled there the following year. It is at this time that we begin to see some of the character of the young scion of this prominent family.
Even though his time in Basel was short, he was exposed to the new wave of humanist scholarship spreading over Europe. (For example, Erasmus had just arrived and would remain through the winter. Oecolampadius would arrive the following year.) Since he was enrolled in the philosophical curriculum, Grebel was required to live in one of the associated boarding houses (bursae), and he chose to live in the bursa established by the Swiss humanist, Heinrich Loriti (Glarean). His short exposure to this academic environment would have a significant effect on his future.
Grebel studied in Vienna from 1515 to 1518, and while he was there he naturally gravitated to the Swiss students and faculty. Partly under the influence of the alumnus of the University of Vienna, Ulrich Zwingli, many students from German-speaking Switzerland arrived to study. The Swiss students were befriended by a Swiss humanist professor, Joachim Vadian. Vadian saw in Grebel a young man of immense potential and thought that his student was destined for great things. The relationship between Grebel and Vadian was such that there are 56 letters extant which show that Grebel considered Vadian his “dearest teacher and most faithful friend.” (Vadian also married Grebel’s sister, Martha, in 1519.)
In 1518 the plague was raging in Vienna and in June, Vadian left Vienna for Switzerland. He returned to his home town of St. Gall and pursued a career in medicine and Grebel followed. It should be noted that Grebel had not completed his studies. So, shortly thereafter, Conrad’s father secured a royal scholarship for his son at the University of Paris. At this time, the King of France awarded only two scholarships to each Swiss canton. This was a tremendous opportunity for Conrad to complete his education at one of the preeminent universities in the world. So, he set out to resume his studies that September. While there, he happily lived in the bursa of his old friend, Glarean. But the happy times in Paris were not to last.
In a short time, he and Glarean had a quarrel which was so hot that Glarean left Paris and did not return for a year. In the summer of 1519, his education was interrupted again when the plague struck Paris and the students were forced to flee the city for six months. The quarrel with Glarean was just the preamble to further quarrels and even brawls with fellow students. His health also began to suffer because of his loose living. His behavior became so troublesome that his dear friend (and brother-in-law) Vadian threatened to break off his relationship with him and when his father heard reports of his behavior, he cut off financial support to Conrad. At this point, he was forced to leave the University of Paris without a degree and return to Zürich in the hopes of repairing his reputation and his relationships with his friends and family. He returned to Zürich a young man full of unrealized potential. He had spent six years at three different elite universities, yet he had no degree and had a trail of ruined relationships. Nevertheless, during his education he learned Latin, Greek, and he probably learned Hebrew. In fact, he learned much, but a careful reader will note that something is missing. Grebel had not yet developed or expressed any particular concern for matters of religion or of any necessity of a personal faith. This was about to change.
In 1521 he joined a group gathered to study with Ulrich Zwingli. The study was wide-ranging. They studied the Greek classics, the Latin Bible, and the bible in the original Hebrew and Greek. Not only did he become more familiar with Zwingli, but it was in this study group that Grebel met and developed a close friendship someone who would be a fellow innovator: Felix Manz. It was also at this time that Grebel’s religious life came to life. The following year he experienced what many assert was a Christian conversion. Regardless of what happened, his letters show a marked difference in perspective. Suddenly, the questions and controversies raging around Zwingli and the greater Reformation were of keen interest to him. It appeared that the young Grebel had found his passion and he became an ardent supporter and disciple of Zwingli and a leader among his young followers. Sadly, the road forward was to be as fraught with difficulties and controversies as the road behind him. Grebel’s impetuous nature was to appear once again and it would not take long.
The first crack in the support of, and tutelage under, Zwingli appeared in October of 1523. For many years Zwingli had been preaching reformation in Zürich and he thought that the time had come to abolish the Roman mass. He argued strenuously before the City Council but discerned that the council was not ready for such a drastic step and accepted their decision to wait. Zwingli thought that patience would be rewarded and did not press the matter. Grebel was stunned and disappointed in his mentor. He knew that Zwingli had preached against the mass and viewed this as a betrayal of principle and conscience. Zwingli had even agreed to continue to officiate at the mass in the meantime! The mass would be abolished shortly thereafter in 1525, but this was too much. This “betrayal” was more than Grebel and about 15 others could endure and they broke with Zwingli. Zwingli considered Grebel and his supporters as irresponsible. The cleft went so far as to cause Zwingli to publically condemn Grebel and his followers from the pulpit as “Satans going about as angels of light.” Grebel, on the other hand, responded by condemning Zwingli and his supporters as “false shepherds” and that they were not true to the divine calling and the divine Word.
Having broken with Zwingli, this group met for Bible study and prayer. They also began making contacts outside of Switzerland seeking the like-minded. They wrote to Martin Luther and to his antagonist, Andreas Karlstadt. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to contact the violent radical, Thomas Müntzer, and discourage his advocacy of revolutionary violence. None of these attempts bore fruit and another controversy would soon provide the catalyst for a final break with the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation. Grebel was fully aware of the possible consequences of the path he was walking. He wrote to his dear friend Vadian, “I do not believe that persecution will fail to come….” He was not wrong.
On January 17, 1525 a public debate was held on the question of infant baptism. Zwingli argued for infant baptism and Grebel, Manz, and George Blaurock argued against infant baptism. The mentor was now the opponent. The City Council judged in favor of Zwingli and ordered Grebel and his group to cease and desist. They also ordered that any unbaptized infants had to be presented for baptism within 8 days. Disobedience was to be met with exile. This was no academic question for Grebel. He had married and his wife had born him a daughter only two weeks before and he had refused to present his infant daughter for baptism. The judgment of the council did not have the desired effect on Grebel. Grebel said that she, “had not yet been baptized and bathed in the Romish water bath.” He had no intention of changing his mind. On January 21, the group held an illegal meeting in the home of Manz. It was at this meeting that a monumental decision was made. Blaurock asked for Grebel to re-baptize him on the basis of his profession of faith and Grebel consented. In turn, Blaurock baptized the others present. At this point, the schism was complete and this innovation would soon spread all over Central Europe. The group meeting in the home of Felix Manz would band together with a pledge to live the faith according to the New Testament alone and without any other accountability or formal structure. The fact that neither Grebel or Blaurock had ever been ordained never seemed to bruise their consciences. The Anabaptist movement had begun.
Grebel knew that because he was well-known he could not stay in Zürich, so he left the work there to others. Having fled Zürich, Grebel fled to St. Gall and quickly gathered another convert, Wolfgang Ulimann, who he baptized by immersion in the Rhine River. For several months, these two went about preaching with much success. But it did not take long for Grebel to run afoul of the magistrate and the response of the magistrate was swift and extreme. In October of the same year he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, Grebel was able to prepare an apology of the Anabaptist position on baptism although he could not find a printer to publish it. Five months later, through the help of some friends, he escaped his imprisonment. He immediately set about to seek converts to his position. At some point between March and July he was also able to find a printer willing to print his apology. (There are no copies of his pamphlets extant, but Zwingli quotes from it in a refutation.)
Even though the members of this new movement were arrested, fined, and imprisoned, the movement grew. Soon, huge numbers were rebaptized. In Waldshut, three hundred adults were rebaptized. And in St. Gall, about five hundred were rebaptized at one time. The Zürich City Council called upon the other cantons of Switzerland to help stop the movement. Eventually, in November, 1526 the City Council of Zürich enacted the penalty of death by drowning for participation in the new movement. But this was not to be the fate of Grebel.
Eventually, Grebel arrived in the Maienfeld area of the Canton of Grisons where his oldest sister lived. Not long after arriving in Grison in 1526 he died not having reached his 30th year. He likely died in July or August due to contracting the plague there. Although he left very little written record of his theology and practice, in his short life he lit a fuse which led to an explosion of controversy, schism, and “movements” over Europe and eventually the world. It is not a stretch to call him the father of not only what became the Swiss Brethren, but also a theological forefather of the Amish, Baptist, Schwarzenau Brethren (German Baptists), and the Mennonite churches. Many subsequent pietistic and free church movements can also be traced to the fateful decision of January 21, 1525 in the home of Felix Manz.
One can appreciate the zeal of the young Conrad Grebel, but also wish that he had learned a little more patience and humility from Ulrich Zwingli. His impatience led him to break with the mainstream Reformation in its infancy. Grebel and his followers self-consciously sought to restore a “primitive” Christianity according to their understanding of the New Testament alone. His followers were reported to have cried out at one time, Habend it Zwingli’s, wir wellend Gotts wort haben. (“You have Zwingli’s word, but we want God’s Word”) Sadly, the eventual result was the fracturing of the church and the erection of different “traditions”. It is a strange twist of history that a son of the Reformation would also be the father of the Anabaptists, and that after his death, his relatives would raise Grebel’s own children in the Reformed faith.