January 5: Felix Manz Executed by Baptism

Anabaptist Felix Manz
Executed by “Baptism” (1527)

It was on this date, January 5, 1527, that Swiss Anabaptist reformer Felix Manz was drowned in punishment for preaching adult baptism — as opposed to the infant baptism most Protestant sects approved. That he was drowned for punishment in the Limmat, near the current Rathaus bridge in Zürich, seems somehow ironic, if unjust, for what makes one superstition superior to another is the police power of the one who holds it. Manz was a co-founder of the original Swiss Brethren Anabaptist congregation in Zürich, Switzerland. The term “Anabaptist” was coined by their detractors and means Protestants who “baptized again.”

By all accounts, Felix Manz was well educated in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and became a follower of Hulrich Zwingli after he (Manz) relocated to Zürich in 1519. But Manz began questioning the mass, the nature of church and state connections, and infant baptism, eventually breaking with Zwingli over this. Manz formed the first church of the Radical Reformation and the movement spread rapidly, although he was arrested and imprisoned on a number of occasions between 1525 and 1527.

On 7 March 1526, an edict of the Zürich council had made adult baptism punishable by drowning. The 29-year-old Manz was arrested. He protested that he wanted only “to bring together those who were willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps, to unite with these by baptism, and to leave the rest in their present conviction.” But Zwingli and the council were unpersuaded. That and the little-known fact that the Anabaptists were semi-Rationalistic, which is always heretical, and many followers of Manz rejected the Trinity and developed advanced (for the time) ideas of social reform.

Baptism in the original Greek (βαπτίζω) means wash or immerse. To Christians, it is a sacrament — for Catholics, the foremost of their seven: “Holy Baptism holds the first place among the sacraments, because it is the door of the spiritual life”* — signifying either cleansing and purifying or washing away “original sin” inherited from Adam and Eve.

Manz’s death by “baptism” made him not only the first victim of the new Zürich law that dictates the drowning of heretics, but Manz’s death also made him the first Protestant in history to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. Catholics, of course, were quick to exterminate Anabaptists wherever they could find them.

*From the 1439 “Decree for the Armenians”, in the Bull Exultate Deo of Pope Eugene IV (p. 1431-1447), quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Originally published January 2004.

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Posted in History, Religion, Theology

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John Mill

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