Elsbeth and Balthasar Hubmaier
Renewal 2027 testimony: historical profile
Renewal 2027 is a 10-year series of events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. This series highlights leaders in the movement from history to the present.
What was it like for a Christian who defends the state’s use of force to have the force used against him? Or for a wife, after her husband’s imprisonment and torture, to watch as he is burned at the stake? Or, three days later, for her to be tied to a large stone and dropped from a bridge into the Danube River?
The couple was Elsbeth (Elizabeth) and Balthasar Hubmaier.
Christian Neff and Christian Hege sum up Elsbeth’s life: “Elsbeth (Elisabeth) Hügeline, the wife of Balthasar Hubmaier, was the daughter of a citizen of Reichenau on Lake Constance, whom he married on 13 January 1525. She was an energetic and courageous woman, who shared the very sad fate of her husband with devoted love and faithfulness. When he was seized and after cruel torture condemned to death, she spoke words of comfort to him. Three days later she also suffered a martyr’s death in Vienna. With a stone tied to her neck she was thrown from the large bridge over the Danube on 13 March 1528, in Vienna.” Her birthdate is not provided.
Balthasar Hubmaier (ca. 1480–1528) was connected with the Peasants’ War in Germany. People wanted freedom from some taxes; the ability to use the land, water, and forest (and its creatures) for their benefits; and the right to choose their own pastors. It’s suggested that he even assisted in writing a list of the commoners’ demands.
A former priest who held a doctorate in theology, Balthasar was an able theologian who opposed Catholic and Protestant abuses, defended believer’s baptism and was imprisoned for his views.
After physical torture, he agreed to recant his Anabaptist beliefs, but, when he was to make a public statement before Ulrich Zwingli, he spoke up for believer’s baptism. Zwingli had him taken back to prison where he was stretched on the rack.
Balthasar Hubmaier held that the state was divinely ordained to use force to protect the innocent, that a king could rule better if a Christian and a Christian could defend others with force. He did not do so in ignorance of other Anabaptists’ positions.
In the same year that the Schleitheim Confession was prepared (1527), Balthasar had earlier written a booklet On the Sword in which he challenged non-resistant views among Anabaptists. Because of his views on the use of force, Hubmaier has been set aside in some nonresistant Anabaptist circles and highlighted in some wider circles, including Baptist.
Some people think it is ironic that Balthasar defended the government’s use of force, yet he was tortured by officials. They are confused. What Balthasar defended was good government; what he suffered from was an abuse of government. Both are realities in our world.
Elsbeth suffered equally. Think of her if ever you gaze upon the beautiful waters of the Danube River.
—Terry M. Smith is editor of The Messenger, a publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, based in Canada. This article first appeared on their website 30 April 2017.