In Spite of Dungeon, Fire and Sword

Michael-Sattler burned at the stake
The death of Michael Sattler

By Alan Bean

I know very little about my family history, partly because it is so complicated. My ancestors came to Canada and the United States from Scotland, England, Sweden and Germany (and who knows where else). It’s easy to get tangled up in the roots of so many family trees. My forebears arrived in North America penniless. No one remotely famous is related to me (with the possible exception of Judge Roy Bean).

But my ignorance is largely a function of indifference. As a boy I lived in Yellowknife, an isolated mining community on the shore of Great Slave Lake in the Canadian Northwest Territories. It was 1,000 miles south to Edmonton, the nearest city, and our summer vacations consisted of interminable road trips through the Prairie Provinces of Canada visiting relatives. I had the grandparents and the aunts and uncles sorted out pretty well, but beyond that circle everything got fuzzy. Most of my relations were strangers to me, but my great aunts knew who I was and insisted on kissing me full on the mouth.

But at the tender age of 63, I am suddenly fascinated by my ancestors. A few months ago, while in Canada for a funeral, I was given a big red book called Biehn/Bean Family of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada 1700-1986. The author drew on a wide range of sometimes conflicting source material, but the basic outline of the story is pretty clear, and it explains a lot.

My Bean ancestors were Anabaptists — Mennonites, to be more precise — and they moved frequently to escape religious persecution. Anabaptists weren’t satisfied with the half-measure reforms proposed by John Calvin in Geneva or Martin Luther in Wittenberg. They wanted a radical reformation of the Christian church and they weren’t asking for anyone’s permission.

The Anabaptists wanted to throw out practices and beliefs that couldn’t be squared with the New Testament, in general, and the Sermon on the Mount, in particular. They practiced foot washing (a sign of humility instituted by Jesus); they either held all property in common or encouraged the generous sharing of community resources; they restricted baptism to believing adults; they said they were competent to interpret Scripture apart from church authority; they called for complete religious tolerance (even for Muslims, Jews and atheists), and, following the clear teaching of Jesus, they rejected violence in all its forms.

The warring branches of European Christianity embraced one common premise: the Anabaptists must be exterminated. In the early decades of the 16th century, religion was the glue that held society together. Because uniformity of belief was considered essential, heresy was viewed as subversive, dangerous and devilish.

Regrettable aberration

franklin littell
Franklin Littell

Until recently, church historians dismissed the Anabaptist movement as a regrettable aberration. “Generation after generation,” Franklin Littell lamented in 1958, “the Anabaptists have been called up for trial by the historians, the words of their accusers have been heard, and the persecuted forerunners of the Free Churches have been sentenced to oblivion without having an opportunity to speak in their own behalf.”

Mercifully, things have changed. Originally seen as a homogeneous movement, the Radical Reformation is now understood as a rich tapestry of reform movements that disagreed with one another as much as they agreed. In recent decades, a neo-Anabaptist movement has taken hold, especially in North America and Great Britain. Writers like Stuart Murray and Greg Boyd have argued that the rapid breakup of “Christendom” casts the Radical Reformation in an entirely different light.

The Anabaptists taught that Christianity went wrong when, in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Once the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ joined hands with the kingdoms of this world, the liberating and demanding words of Jesus (especially the call to non-violence) became an embarrassment. In a post-Christendom world where Christianity is but one religion among many, can we finally take Jesus at his word?

And if we want to grapple with the words of Jesus, the Anabaptists can help us. They’ve been grappling with Jesus for half a millennium.

My ancestors trace their faith back to Michael Sattler and the Swiss Brethren. Like Martin Luther, Sattler was a Roman Catholic monk (he may even have been an abbot) until the Peasants’ War overwhelmed his monastery in 1525. Sattler joined a branch of the Anabaptist movement known as the Swiss Brethren, was re-baptized in 1526 and burned at the stake in 1527.

At the conclusion of his heresy trial, the charges against the ex-monk were read aloud: denying that the body and blood of Christ were literally present in the bread and wine of the Mass; a rejection of infant baptism; a refusal to worship Mary and the saints; and a rejection of oath taking, warfare, extreme unction and communion in one kind. Sattler, moreover, “had left the order and married a wife.”

To say that Sattler was burned at the stake is gross understatement. “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner,” the sentence of execution read. “The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”

This sentence was executed to the letter and by the time the gruesome procession arrived at the place of execution, it is doubtful that much of Sattler’s body remained to be burned. In a touching show of mercy, Sattler’s wife, Margaretha and several other Anabaptist heretics were drowned before their bodies were consigned to the flames. The irony was intentional.

Compromise and oppression

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia brought the wars of religion to an end with a crude compromise. The official religion of each principality was the religion of whoever ruled the region. Religious non-conformists (so long as they were Roman Catholic, Reformed or Lutheran) were to be tolerated. The Anabaptists were left out in the cold, lumped together with Jews, Turks and other infidels.

Facing horrible persecution, my Mennonite ancestors exchanged their native Switzerland for the relative safety of the German Palatinate, a region that had been decimated by the wars of religion and needed skilled farmers to work the land. They were barred from entering most professions, they couldn’t marry outside their faith and they were relegated to the countryside, but, like the Jews with whom they were frequently compared, they were able to subsist.

Gradually, the noose of oppression tightened once again. Mennonites were subjected to a steadily worsening burden of taxation. Their land could be confiscated by anyone willing to pay the original purchase price, generally a fraction of the market value of the property.

By 1739, Johannes Biehn had had enough. He gathered his family, abandoned his modest farm and sailed down the Rhine to Rotterdam. My ancestor was following a familiar script. Pennsylvania Quakers, fearing that their distinctive beliefs would be overwhelmed by a flood of European immigration, reached out to potential allies. Agents from Pennsylvania discovered the Mennonites living in the Palatinate and wooed them with glowing stories (mostly true) of life in a Pennsylvanian paradise were all faith traditions were respected. It sounded like a good deal, and it was.

After making a brief stop in England, Johannes Biehn and family crossed the Atlantic to the New World. Immigrant ships were impossibly filthy and crowded and the passengers often subsisted on starvation rations. Children and the elderly were the most vulnerable and, according to family legend, the Biehn family lost an infant daughter during the passage to America (hardly a rare occurrence).

According to one family historian, Johannes Biehn and the rest of the Mennonite passengers feared that they were being starved so there would be plenty of food for the crew. In a shocking departure from the doctrine of non-violence, passengers commandeered the ship and locked the captain in a makeshift brig. A quick inspection confirmed their suspicions; plenty of food was on board.

Safely in Philadelphia, Biehn and the other Mennonites reverted to form by forgiving the captain and allowing him to return to England with his crew.

Like most Mennonite immigrants of the mid-18th century, my Biehn ancestors began life in the New World as indentured servants. After swearing allegiance to the British king they negotiated terms with established residents. In most cases, the price of passage was paid in exchange for seven years of free service. The contract of indenture stipulated that, when the seven years ended, each member of the family received two suits of clothing and $50, enough to purchase a modest farm.

Whether in Europe or America, Mennonites largely kept to themselves. The first generation of Anabaptists was evangelistic, but dungeon, fire and sword quickly forged a tradition of silence. Mennonites like Johannes Biehn weren’t out to convert the world; they just wanted to be left in peace so they could follow Jesus.

Moral dilemma

In 1688, several recent converts to the religion of William Penn found themselves in a moral dilemma. Quakers owned slaves, a practice Mennonites abhorred. Four men signed their names to an anti-slavery manifesto and begged their religious leaders to adopt its provisions. The statement goes on for several pages, but here’s the gist:

There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not alike? Here is liberty of conscience, which is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of the body, except of evil-doers, which is another case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed which are of a black colour.

Mennonites empathized with African slaves because they were intimately acquainted with oppression. Anabaptist piety revolved around the Bible (in German or Dutch translation) and a Martyrs Book chronicling the horrific deaths of hundreds of heroes and heroines of faith. Since they were prevented from witnessing to their faith (their tongues were often removed or bolted to their jaws prior to execution), Anabaptist martyrs spent their last days composing hymns that survived as priceless relics. The ghastly details of Michael Sattler’s execution have a familiar ring for anyone familiar with the Southern tradition of lynching in which hanging was often proceeded by unspeakably cruel torture.

The Radical Reformation unchained the same demons on display in the Jim Crow South in the age of lynching. We must understand that, whether we be Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians or Southern Baptists, our spiritual ancestors were terrorists in the most literal sense of that awful word. They used dungeon, fire and sword to make the very thought of resistance impossible. The miserable methods used to stamp out a nascent Christian movement in the pre-Constantinian period have been employed repeatedly by faithful Christians desperate to secure their place in the sun. Christian non-violence is incompatible with power politics.

I grew up singing Faith of Our Fathers, a hymn about standing strong “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.” The hymn was written by Frederick William Faber, an English Catholic. Protestants sing the hymn (or at least we used to), but it was inspired by the sins of British Protestants. We owned the dungeons, we lit the fire, we wielded the sword.

So I was also pleased to learn that the combined force of Quakers and Mennonites kept Pennsylvania from declaring war on the Indians or the French until 1756, the year in which the pacifists lost control of the state’s politics. The French and Indian War (as it is known in the United States) worked out well for the British and (as the Acadians of Louisiana will tell you) badly for the French, and horribly for the native population.

The American Revolution placed the Mennonites of Pennsylvania in an impossible position. They had sworn allegiance to the king, a commitment they would not lightly renounce. But the Mennonites weren’t pro-British Tories bound to the status quo; they were opposed to revolution on biblical grounds (see Romans 13) and because they opposed violence. A non-violent revolution, had such a thing been contemplated, would have been acceptable.

Where Mennonites were numerous and their non-violent ways well understood, accommodations were usually made in times of war. But in towns where Mennonites were few in number, their refusal to bear arms looked like cowardly sedition. If Mennonites would not fight, they should at least be prepared to serve as fire fighters, medics and to assist “in suppressing insurrections of slaves or other evil-minded persons during an attack.”

Following the war, all residents of Pennsylvania were asked to renounce loyalty to the British crown and swear allegiance to Pennsylvania as an independent state. Moreover, those who had refused to bear arms were forced to pay steep fines. A few Mennonites were willing to pay up, but virtually all refused to take the oath of allegiance and those who succumbed were excommunicated.

On the move again

Once again, Anabaptists were being treated like a suspect minority out of favor with the larger society. As taxation increased and the price of farmland soared, hundreds of Mennonites made their way north to the wilds of southern Ontario in Canada. It was an opportunity to begin again in a country desperate for experienced farmers who were eager to break new land.

Johannes Biehn Jr. was 2 years old when his family arrived in Pennsylvania and 63 (my present age) when he headed north with his family. In Ontario he was known as “Old John Bean.”

I’m not sure why I was raised Baptist instead of Mennonite. My grandfather, Wilber Eusebius Bean, moved from Ontario to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1914 and promptly married Caroline Carlson, a recent arrival from South Dakota. Caroline’s family, as the name suggests, was Swedish, and I know next to nothing about her ethnic and religious roots (perhaps some of my relatives can help me here). My grandmother was in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease by the time I was born, so I never really knew her and, until now, I have given her family story very little thought.

Wilbur Eusebius Bean was known to his friends as “Bill.” He cut hair for a living and ran the beauty parlor next door to his barber’s shop. I don’t know when Grampa Bean became a Baptist, but I suspect the switch was part of his transition to Saskatchewan. Johannes Biehn Sr. came to America with several other Mennonite families. When his son journeyed to Canada 61 years later he too was part of a mass migration. When Wilbur Eusebius Bean headed west to Saskatchewan he was on his own. Anabaptist faith isn’t for individuals; it can only be lived in community.

Grampa Bean was never comfortable with religious talk. He counted the money at the Baptist church, but was more interested in curling and raising prize gladiolas than the fine points of theology.

But although I was raised Baptist I have always been drawn to the Anabaptist tradition and the simple “follow me” of the human Jesus. Maybe it came from reading too much Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe it was my fascination with the non-violent spirituality of the civil rights movement. Maybe it was Glenn Stassen’s ethics classes at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Maybe it was marrying a woman who loved my Anabaptist heart as much as I loved hers.

But the seeds of my Anabaptist faith were planted, unintentionally perhaps, by Baptist parents who, in their own quiet way, were always searching for a faith bolder and deeper than anything their religious environment offered.

Is faith a biological inheritance? Certainly not. But I learned to love the spiritually of my ancestors long before I knew their story. Reading about old Johannes Bean is like looking in a mirror.

Faith of our fathers living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword.