Learning About Schneebeli…and Religion and Pilgram Marpec

I’m researching and writing about Anabaptists in the early 16th century. (BTW, they didn’t call themselves “Ana”baptists, “ana” meaning “twice” — they believed in baptism of believers, grown up people who could choose for themselves. They were — in their own eyes — baptists. Infant baptism was not baptism at all.) I’m reading the work of a lesser known Anabaptist leader, Pilgram Marpeck, who seems to have sought and maintained a clear line between fanatic spiritualism and what was called “magisterial Christianity.” In those days (and now) there was a tension, and much disputing, about the role of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of man and the role of the Gospel. As a whole, Anabaptists shunned any government office as they refused to bear arms, take oaths or obey laws that went counter to their conscience and the law of God. There were fierce schisms; some groups were all about the gospel and the rules, and others were all about the holy spirit in the heart of man. They argued this to the point of murdering each other.

My guy, Pilgram Marpeck was a talented mining engineer who worked for a couple of governments in the Imperial Free Cities such as Strasbourg. The more I learn about him the more I like him. On the spirit vs. gospel question, Marpeck took the line that the spirit awakened man to the true meaning of the gospel; the rules and the spirit worked together.

It’s very difficult reading deeply into the reformation period. It was bloody and cruel and narrow minded and bigoted — in the name of God, so I was happy to find this man who seems to have been a man of God and a man who understood the needs of the people on earth for whom he was a leader.

On the question of whether or not Christians should be government leaders, he wrote (and this hits home for today, I think).

“There are many rulers, many temporal and spiritual tyrants who while appearing to be Christian, violate, judge and condemn…They rule before [they have known] patience distress and suffering even though tribulation has to precede glory. They become powerful before they have humbled themselves, they rule and govern before they serve, they condemn and judge before they have judged themselves.”

I was raised Baptist. My mother was raised by a Mennonite mother and a dad who? I do not know what my grandfather believed. But my grandmother descended directly from the culture about which I’m reading. It’s difficult for me to remove my own biases from the texts I’m looking over, but I have a new understanding of how dire things were for the small communities of people who attended “the church of the wood” because they had to hide. They weren’t good people either, necessarily; not at all. They were as narrow-minded and unkind as the deacons that threw me out of church back when I was 18. Apparently they were about the law and I was about the spirit, back then.

In looking at the religious struggles of the 16th century, I realized that the first thing I had to do was jump from HERE, 2014, the RESULT of the turmoil in which they lived (and a world of comparative religious freedom) to a world and people who had grown up with ONE religion that was both temporal and eternal master, that defined the culture, that essentially unified that world for a thousand years. The Catholic church. (Which, while writing Martin of Gfenn I came to like very much for many different reasons — anyway, I’d live in the 13th century rather than the 16th any day…).

With all I’ve been learning, I get very agitated when I read an article (diatribe?) about protecting the constitution of the United States, and I learn the article is written by a Fundamentalist Christian whose cry is no different from the cry of the Zürich reformers who were the FIRST to execute fellow protestants. So much of the foundation of this nation came not from the Iroquois or George Washington or the Enlightenment philosophers, but from the RECENT experiences of immigrants who had taken that journey just so no one could tell them how to pray. My ancestors arrived in 1735. A large number of those people settled in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. There were enough of them that when the cry went up for a new nation the answering cry had to have been, “Fine. On one condition. We want religious freedom. We do not want the government and lawmakers to have anything to say about how we worship or how we pray or what we believe.”

My ancestor — Hans Kaspar Schneebeli — and his cousin came without papers. I don’t know if it was a bureaucratic oversight (hard to imagine because even in the 18th century, the Swiss kept track) or they ran away. They were told that if they went back to Zürich, they would be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. Their family in Switzerland was worried, but Hans Kaspar Schneebeli wrote back, “It’s all right. I’m not coming back. Here I don’t have to lift my hat to any man.”

This man lost his wife, his daughter and one son on the voyage. He — the son of a well-to-do innkeeper in Canton Zürich, was completely broke by the time he and his family got to England and the ocean going vessel that would bring them to America. As indentured servants, he and his son worked off their passage and the passage of the family members who had died enroute.

9 thoughts on “Learning About Schneebeli…and Religion and Pilgram Marpec

    • It’s all for a novel I’m writing — 🙂 You don’t think I’d read this for fun!

  1. Wow, that’s quite a history! I’m impressed that you can do all this research from your home in Colorado. I wouldn’t know where to start, but I wouldn’t actually have the inclination to start. I tend to be more interested in the recent history of my family, figuring out where in Vermont my mother’s people lived. Even my father seems exotic, coming from midwestern Canada.

    I hope whatever you write is as good as Martin. I am almost finished, and I love it. I agree that there was a warmth in the 13th century that I would not have expected to find in a world where the church was everything. I am too accustomed to our world of religious freedom. Even with the drumbeat from those who would make this a “Christian” country, I find my ability to believe what I want and worship how I want is untrammeled, and that part of the founders’ work remains intact in this corner of the country.

    • Before I wrote Martin, I’d never been inside a Catholic church and I had never attended a mass. My “opinion” was based on something handed down through 9 or 10 generations. Now I’ve been to mass — once even in Latin in the Basilica of St. Ambrogio in Milan. As I worked on Martin I came to see history not in the sweeping generalizations that make it possible to teach, but as individual human lives (lives invisible to us) and individual dreams and struggles cast in the background of the prevailing myth and the necessities of life.

      The 13th century was (I think) the high point of medieval culture. In the 14th century came the plague and the 100 years war leading to what we usually think of as “medieval.” After that it was easy for the Inquisition to take hold… My theory anyway.

      Would you consider writing a review for Martin? I’d be very grateful.

  2. Martha, I really liked what you said about how you’ve come to understand history – it would probably be a good way to teach history in schools. It’s hard to understand how people could have accepted being crammed into such narrowly confining belief systems – I surely would have been burned at the stake:0)). Guess we’re fortunate to be free to subscribe or not to subscribe to different avenues of spiritual thought ……from Thomas Merton to Buddhism to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Dennet, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens).

    • But people make those narrow belief systems — we do it too. We’re no different now. We’re just as absolute and opinionated though a bit less deadly. I believe people cram themselves into these narrow systems — and for good reason; they really believe they will be damned OR they really believe their way is the only way to be saved. It’s crazy. “Protestantism” hadn’t even been in existence for 5 years before they were killing each other and shunning each other and chasing each other out of cities over little bits of disagreement. It’s really sad. And then I drive through a modern American city and I see 20 million different subcategories of Baptist churches… Just imagine what a bloodbath we would have if church and state were not separated. On on hand, it’s funny. On the other, it’s pitiful.

  3. My first husband’s grandfather came from Germany as an indentured servant. They dumped their aristocratic name and adopted the name of the family they worked for. They were the kind of aristocrats who have a title,but no money, land, or prospects. Von something or other. As far as anyone can tell, they practiced no religion and my husband’s family couldn’t actually identify any faith with which the family had ever been associated. Odd for that time in history. I’ve always wondered what they were hiding. It’s hard to believe a 19th century family had no religious affiliation at all.

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