On a cold January morning in 1527, in Zurich, Switzerland, a man by the name of Felix Manz was taken in a row boat to the middle of the river Lammat. He was made to squat down, his arms were stretched around his knees and his hands were tied. A stick was thrust above his arms and under his knees thus immobilizing him and he was tipped over into the river.
With his mother, brother and fellow believers shouting words of encouragement to him from the river bank, his last words were “Into your hand Oh Lord, I commend my spirit.” With that he became the first brave martyr of the Anabaptist radical reformation.
It had been just ten years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Cathedral door in Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation that would forever change the landscape of Christianity world wide. Christian reform was rampant in Europe and the stepchildren of reformation were people like the Anabaptists. Which by the way are the ancestors of the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites.
Anabaptist means “rebaptizer” and Felix was a leader in that movement. A big dividing line between the reformation and the radical reformation was the issue of water baptism. The reformers held to paedobaptism or infant baptism. Based on their study of scripture the Anabaptists believed in credobaptism – that water baptism was to follow a confession of faith in Christ. The Anabaptists also were of the conviction that the other protestants were too closely aligned with the Catholic Church in continuing to hold to infant baptism.
This controversy reached its flash point in Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli, a paedobaptist and the leading Swiss reformer, convinced the Zurich city council to rule that adult baptism was a crime punishable by drowning. “As they believe, so shall they die.”
When Felix Manz heard the ruling, he along with other leaders in his sect immediately held a meeting and proceeded to baptize one another. Manz was arrested taken to prison and eventually sentenced to his barbaric death.
It is hard to believe that other protestant believers of the likes of Zwingli, could insist on such cruelty to a fellow believer in the name of what today seems such a common doctrinal disagreement. Sadly however, that same spirit is still alive and well in the Church of Jesus Christ yet today. Where ever we see vitriolic criticism and condemnation from one segment of the church against another, that spirit is typically at work. It is demonic, a source of sinister divisiveness and a black mark on the reputation the Christian church.
The truths that we so readily take for granted and the freedom to practice them have come at the highest price. It is important for us not to forget such sacrifices of faith. What Felix Manz did 483 years ago is worth remembering. He is now part of that great cloud of witnesses who are cheering all of us on as we walk uncompromisingly in obedience faith to the revealed truth God gives us. (Hebrews 12:1)