Dangerous Radicals

16th century interrogations could be harsh

What it took in 16th century Augsburg to be branded — in some cases, literally — a radical might surprise citizens of the 21st century. Feeding refugees from other towns, and putting itinerant preachers up for the night, like Susanna Doucher. Circulating a letter from an out-of-town pastor, like Katharina Wiedenmann. Hosting the wrong kind of prayer meetings, over and over again, like Barbara Schleiffer.

Of course, it did not help these women, and their sisters in faith, that they adhered to such radical views as that a person ought to be baptized on their own profession of faith; most had, indeed, been baptized as adults — only once, according to their testimonies, “again” in the view of the authorities who arrested, questioned, sentenced and punished them for their deviance. In other words, what it took in Augsburg in 1527 and 1528 to be branded a radical was that one be an “Anabaptist.”

It is not clear that Anabaptist women were as “fully emancipated . . . in religious matters” as was once claimed; on the other hand, there does seem to have been some change in women’s roles in Anabaptist circles, particularly in the early years of the movement. (Joldersma and Grijp, 14) If nothing else, Anabaptist women seem to have come closer than women of other reformation groups to suffering for their faith in numbers equal to those of men — 30% of the stories in a leading Anabaptist book of martyrs are those of women, compared to 6% in a comparable Reformed collection.

And indeed, much of the historical evidence for the lives of these women comes from the official records of their arrests and interrogations, which routinely included at least the threat of torture, from surviving letters to families — especially their chidren — written from prison, or from “martyr songs,” ballads enshrining their stories and theology. Thus, what we know about women like Weynken Claes, “the first female Protestant martyr in the territories of Holland,” or Agnes Zender, a widow expelled from Bernese territory in Switzerland in 1526, is fragmentary and incomplete.

Even so, the evidence indicates that these women located their own authority in their determination to honor God’s authority over the authority of state and church. They encouraged others to do the same, despite the high costs. As a closing stanza of the song dedicated to the martyrdom of Martha Baerts, of Ghent, exhorts:

I pray all those who hear this Song
Pray, do not be frightened off
From taking on the cross:
God can help us to endure.

Read More . . .

Internet sources are limited, but there is an online preview of the comprehensive Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, eds. (Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, 1996)

See also Hermina Joldersma and Louis Grijp, eds. and translators, Elizabeth’s Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001)

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About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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