BECK index

Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites

Jan Hus
Chelcicky's Nonviolence
Erasmus on Peace
Menno Simons and Mennonites

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Whoever is not of God cannot truly enjoy
or hold anything belonging to God,
except as the man of violence unlawfully
enjoys and holds what is not his own.
Peter Chelcicky

Peace is the highest good
to which even the lovers of the world
turn all their efforts.
Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian 1:3

War is such a monstrous pursuit
that it's proper only for beasts, not men;
so crazy that even the poets suppose Furies bring it upon us;
so infectious that it spreads moral corruption far and near;
so unjust that it's most effectively waged
by the most cruel of thieves;
so impious that it's utterly detestable to Christ.
Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

And so at last shall appear, how great madness it is,
with so great tumult, with so great labors,
with such intolerable expenses, with so many calamities,
affectionately to desire war:
whereas agreement might be bought with far less price.
Erasmus, Against War, p. 25

[Christians] use neither the worldly sword nor engage in war,
since among them taking human life has ceased entirely,
for we are no longer under the Old Covenant.
Conrad Grebel, Letter to Thomas Muntzer, September 1524

Their weapons of conflict and war are carnal
and only directed against the flesh,
but the Christian's weapons are spiritual
and directed against the fortifications of the devil.
Worldly people are armed with spikes and iron,
but Christians are armed with the armor of God ­
with truth, with justice, with peace, faith, and salvation,
and with the word of God.
In sum, what Christ, our head, thought,
the members of the body of Christ
through him should also think,
so that no division of the body may triumph
through which it would be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession (Sixth Article)

We will not do a wrong or an injury to any man,
yea, not to our enemy.
As everyone sees and knows,
we have no weapons of defense, such as spears or guns.
In short, in our preaching and speaking and our whole walk of life
our object is to live in peace and unity
according to the truth and will of God,
as the true followers of Christ.
Jacob Hutter, Letter to Moravian authorities, 1535

Our weapons are not weapons
with which cities and countries may be destroyed,
walls and gates broken down,
and human blood shed in torrents like water.
But they are weapons with which
the spiritual kingdom of the devil is destroyed
and the wicked principle in man's soul is broken down.
Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense;
the Word of God our sword; and our victory
a courageous, firm, unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ.
And iron and metal spears and swords we leave
to those who, alas, regard human blood and swine's alike.
Menno Simons, The Foundation of Christian Doctrine 198

Jan Hus

Jan Hus was born about 1370 at Husinec in southern Bohemia to poor Czech parents, but he managed to study at the university in Prague by working as a choir boy and began lecturing there in 1396. Hus studied and taught Wyclif's realist philosophy, but in 1401 Jerome of Prague brought Wyclif's Dialogus, Trialogus, and De eucharistia. Hus preached in Czech at the large Bethlehem chapel in Prague. In 1403 university authorities condemned 24 articles that had been banned by a London council in 1382, and then they forbade the teaching or preaching of 45 articles. After several German professors left Prague in 1409, the remaining Czechs elected Hus rector of the university. That year a church council at Pisa deposed Pope Gregory XII and "anti-pope" Benedict XIII, and in electing Alexander V, Europe now had three popes. When Alexander prohibited preaching in chapels and ordered Wyclif's writings seized and burned, Hus and others appealed to Pope John XXIII (r. 1410-15); but the reformer's books that included nontheological works were thrown into the flames. Two days later Hus was excommunicated but continued to preach and declined a summons to Rome.

In 1411 Pope John XXIII was driven out of Rome and declared a crusade against King Ladislas of Naples for supporting the deposed Gregory. Those who promised to take up the sword were promised remission of their sins, and Pope John also ordered the sale of indulgences to finance the military campaign. Hus denounced the war and condemned the Pope's granting of indulgences. In Prague people protested the papal bulls with a mock burning. Czech King Vaclav IV (r. 1378-1419) had three men beheaded because they opposed the sale of indulgences and had cried out in church that the papal bulls were lies as Hus had proved; they were mourned as martyrs. The city was put under interdict, but Hus preached that the Pope's prerogatives were from the devil. Hus was persuaded to withdraw from Prague and spent two years in exile, enabling him to write his most important treatise on the Church, De ecclesia. In this work he argued that the Roman bishop should be equal to other bishops but had usurped authority since Constantine. Alexander's bull prohibiting preaching was against what Jesus told his apostles to do, and Hus denied that the Pope had a right to go to war or to appeal to secular force. Hus took many of his arguments from the writings of Wyclif.

Hungarian king Sigismund was elected king of Germany in 1411, and three years later he invited Jan Hus to a council at Constance, promising him safe conduct. After a month Hus was imprisoned in the dungeon of a Dominican convent in December 1414. During the spring of 1415 Hus was held in chains at the Gottlieben castle until he was moved to a Franciscan friary when his public hearings began on June 5. Shouting did not allow Hus to be heard. When his statement that no heretic should be put to death was read, those attending shouted in mockery. To his argument that kings in mortal sin have no authority, King Sigismund replied that no one lives without sin. Hus declared that he would revoke any statement that could be proved untrue by the scriptures and good arguments; but this was not done, and he did not recant on any article. Finally thirty articles were pronounced heretical and seditious, and Hus was condemned for being a disciple of Wyclif. It was later reported that when Hus reminded the king of his safe conduct, Sigismund turned red but said nothing. The council turned Hus over to Sigismund as a heretic, and on July 6, 1415 he was burned at the stake as he prayed and sang hymns.

Jerome of Prague was burned the next year, and Bohemia's leading citizens gradually organized a revolt, which grew into open rebellion against the royal government in 1419. The next year the Hussites summarized their main concerns in the Four Articles in which they called for preaching the word of God without interference, communion in two kinds to all believers (allowing the laity the cup), confiscation of secular possessions held by priests and monks, and punishment of mortal sins violating divine law (including simony). Conservative Utraquists were led by Jan of Pribram. Radical Taborites were expecting the second coming of Christ in February 1420 and were led by Jan Zelivsky (d. 1422). When their hopes were disappointed, they rebelled and murdered Catholic magistrates. When Vaclav IV died of a heart attack in a fit of rage, the Bohemian crown went to his brother Sigismund. The radical Taborites gained a military leader in Jan Zizka (d. 1424); after Pope Martin V proclaimed a crusade against the Hussites in Bohemia on March 1, 1420, Zizka's troops defended Prague twice from attacks by the imperial forces of Sigismund. The Taborites' leading theologian Jakoubek of Stribro argued that a war could be just and cited Wyclif for this belief.

Chelcicky's Nonviolence

Peter Chelcicky was born about 1380 in southern Bohemia and was either a peasant or chose to live like one. He read the Bible in Czech. Chelcicky disagreed with Jakoubek and continued to renounce all violence, referring to the New Testament and complaining that Jakoubek had given up his conscience to shed blood. Like the Waldenses, Chelcicky cited the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), that both should be allowed to live until the harvest. Thus it is wrong to kill, even the sinful. Christians should refuse to perform military service and accept the consequences. If many refused, the lords would have no one to go to war with them. Chelcicky taught that those who think they can arm themselves with weapons to destroy the devil are deluded, because when they use their war machines to smash the walls and destroy the evil people, the devil goes out from those walls and into them, dwelling in their cruel hearts. Thus no physical power can destroy evil.

During the war Utraquist Hussites made compacts with the Catholics in 1433; but when the Taborites rejected the Four Articles, their socialist experiment was overthrown the next year. The Bohemians accepted Sigismund as their king in 1436, but he died the following year. Hussite leader George of Podebrady organized an army, captured Prague in 1448, made Utraquist Jan Rokycans archbishop, and became governor of Bohemia in 1452. Pope Nicholas V declined to recognize Rokycans, and the Hussites thought of joining the Greek Orthodox Church; but the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the year the Taborites were finally wiped out by the campaigns of Podebrady, who was elected king of Bohemia in 1458.

Chelcicky left Prague in 1420 and resided for the rest of his life in his native village of Chelcic. His friends and disciples became the nucleus for the Unity of Brethren that eventually was formed into a church in 1467 by those who held to nonviolence and followed the teachings of Christ as interpreted by Chelcicky. As educated men from the university in Prague joined the new sect, those holding to the original ideas of Chelcicky came to be called the Old Brethren. In the 1490s the majority followed Lukas, who favored accepting state offices and did not object to military service. In the first half of the 16th century the Old Brethren died out, and the Unity of Brethren was no longer a pacifist church.

In probably his first and most important work, On Spiritual Warfare, Chelcicky argued that the Taborites had been deceived by the devil into participating in violence through lust for the world's glamorous rewards. He criticized the absurd prophecies of the chiliasts, who tried to terrify people into believing strange things. Chelcicky opposed all warfare, even that which claimed to be defensive, because he believed in the example of Jesus and the gospel of peace. Chelcicky noted that the Taborites abolished their common treasury and equal distribution of wealth after they adopted violence, and then they retracted their democratic methods and reimposed rents and dues on the peasants. Chelcicky criticized the obligations of debts and trade which gave some power over others, castigating those who bind with rents and fees on those

... for whom they show no mercy in their burdens,
but extort from them the most they can,
exacting by the day or the year
to earn their money by such rates,
never valuing their strength of life,
but only their increase in profits.1

Chelcicky complained that they no longer served their flock like a shepherd but used people to "serve their bellies and elevate their pride." Chelcicky believed they had no Christian prerogative to either subject people or to tax them.

Chelcicky believed that Christians in following the law of love should be removed from the compulsion of state authority as had been the case with the early church before Constantine. The way to convert people is by loving God and one's neighbor, and conversion must come from free will and not from any compulsion. If persecution comes, Christians should suffer without retaliating. One may obey authorities only so long as that is not contrary to God's law. Chelcicky was concerned about anarchy in which the wicked try to reign over the honest and take the fruits of others' labor, but still he did not believe that a Christian should rule as a king. He wrote that God did not set up magistrates, and he argued that violent punishments are wrong and that no Christian could apply them; he was particularly critical of capital punishment and cruel mutilations. Chelcicky wrote, "The executioner who kills is as much a wrong-doer as the criminal who is killed."2 He suggested that Christians could expel evil ones from their company.

The sixteen years of war he witnessed convinced Chelcicky that his views about violence being wrong were correct as he saw people robbed, imprisoned, and killed with want and fear on every side. Working people were stripped of everything as they were taxed by both sides, and their living was eaten up by armies. Jesus commanded his followers not to take life, and he did not even defend himself; but all people are to be brothers and sisters. Chelcicky complained that in war the nobles did not do the fighting themselves but sent the peasants to fight for them like sheep to the slaughter. When princes and prelates command such evil things, they should not be obeyed. He said that it is our Christian duty to help with love anyone in need, whether they be a Jew or a heathen or a heretic or an enemy. He objected to tithes which were based on robbery and violence. Chelcicky condemned their refined luxuries, sophisticated pride, loose morals, contempt for work, and oppression of workers. He advised people to avoid profit-making occupations so as not to harm their souls. He encouraged people to understand the Bible for themselves, and the first complete Bible in Czech was published.

In his book On the Triple Division of Society Chelcicky criticized the nobility, clergy, and the middle class, believing that only the poor were genuine Christians. He wrote that they consider themselves better members of the body of Christ than the common people whom they subject and ride as if they were beasts. Chelcicky wrote Net of the Faith in 1440. In this work he noted that the apostles treated each other and people as equals, and they considered Christ as the head. Chelcicky found that the teaching of the Christ does not coerce in any way nor does it recommend any kind of vengeance against the wicked; but they should be improved only through brotherly goodwill so that they can be led to penitence. Chelcicky aimed his diatribes at the religious orders of monks and friars, the priests, the nobility, the cliques of university professors, and the growing business class. He argued that these evils resulted from the two great whales that burst the net of faith, namely the emperor and the pope. He complained that to see the Church in a material way led to concepts of the priests as eyes, nobles as arms, and peasants as legs such that in this body the first is to pray, the second is to fight, and the third is to work, resulting in two insatiable gluttons riding around on the peasants living in debauchery from their sweat and misery. This he concluded was the Antichrist's explanation of the body of Christ.

Erasmus on Peace

Desiderius Erasmus was born on October 27, 1466 at Rotterdam; he was the second illegitimate son of a priest and a widow. He was educated by the Brethren of the Common Life who emphasized personal reform through Christian inwardness, though Erasmus later complained that they suppressed natural gifts by blows, reprimands, and severity. However, he was impressed with the classical learning by Alexander Hegius and the eminent humanist Rudolph Agricola. In 1484 both of his parents died, and Erasmus, who wanted to go to a university, was reluctantly lured into a monastic career by the promise of access to many books. In a 1489 letter Erasmus already echoed Cicero's sentiment that he hated civil war so much that even the harshest peace is better.

In his "Oration on Peace and Discord" Erasmus argued that going to war for temporal possessions is both wicked and foolish, and he suggested that a divided society is like a disease in the body that endangers the whole structure. No one, much less a Christian, can maintain one's dignity while fighting. Holland was being torn apart by strife between the two noble families of the Hoeks and the Kabeljauws. Erasmus asked what land would be more opulent if it were not ruined by the petulant factionalism. Harvests and villages are burned; laborers are killed; women are abused; no road is safe; cities starve; justice is buried as laws are overthrown; and liberty is oppressed. Concord creates wealth and builds cities; but war dissipates and demolishes. Erasmus implored them to seek peace as he wanted to reform society and the Church through education.

Erasmus disliked monastic life, and seeking greater intellectual stimulation in 1492 he was ordained a priest and became secretary to the bishop of Cambrai. He was given leave to attend the University of Paris for four years where he taught himself Greek and studied classics. However, just as the monastic rituals did not fulfill his deep spiritual longings, neither did the scholastic theology and logic-chopping of Scotus and Ockham which he later satirized. Erasmus did not complete a degree in theology.

Erasmus tutored some Englishmen in Latin in 1499, and one of them, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited him to England for a year. There he met the humanists John Colet and Thomas More, and he began to study the early Fathers of the Church for a more real and alive theology. In commenting on Paul's letter to the Romans, Colet had noted that war is not conquered by war but by the peace, patience, and faith in God by which the apostles overcame the world. Colet believed that significant reforms could only be achieved by peaceful means because to correct evils by violence only produces fresh evils. While traveling in Italy, Colet had learned of the four main points of Savonarola, namely fear of God, commonwealth, universal peace, and political reform, and he knew of the antiwar views of the Lollards. Erasmus lived and traveled in various places in Europe and became a cosmopolitan citizen. His constitution was very sensitive, and he fled often from plagues and uncomfortable circumstances. He lived in the university city of Louvain, visited Renaissance Italy, spent several years in England, and resided for many years in the peaceful city of Basel.

His first major work in 1500 was a collection of classical quotations, Adages, and Erasmus continued to add to his commentaries throughout his life. In the 1515 edition he wrote a long discourse on why war is sweet to those who have not tried it (to the inexperienced). The adage goes back to the Greek poet Pindar, who added that war horrifies anyone who knows it. Erasmus believed that war should be avoided by every possible way because nothing is more wicked, disastrous, destructive, loathsome, and unworthy of humans. Erasmus noted that princes, lawyers, and theologians support war so much that it has become accepted and respectable, and people are astonished when someone disapproves such crimes. He wondered how creatures made for peace can rush so madly into mutual slaughter. More than any other animal, humans are made for friendship because they depend on mutual aid and loving kindness. Only humans shed tears or laugh, can use speech and reason, and delight in serving all in devotion to God. Once again he described the tragedy and miseries caused by war, which spreads like a contagious disease to other countries. Its poisoned darts and hellish contraptions must be products of the infernal regions.

Humans invented arms to defend themselves and missiles to destroy the enemy; it is brigandage and murder on a large scale. Where else is the devil if not in war, and yet people drag Christ into it. War takes all that is joyous and beautiful and quickly smashes it. For war princes mulct their subjects with taxes to hire mercenaries, fit out navies, construct fortresses, manufacture weapons, and pay armies. The expenses of bloodshed are ten times more than the costs of peace with results so much worse. Some argue it is like punishing a criminal, but in war thousands of those killed and injured are innocent. Princes assert their rights to territory; but Erasmus asked how many times that land has changed its owners and sovereignty as people have migrated, and why assert a claim that soon will belong to someone else? Surely the sword is no way to make good Christians. He objected to using evil to combat evil. Erasmus observed that the young go to war out of rashness, and some princes use it to exercise tyranny over their subjects. Yet to entrust the territory to soldiers, he must hire dirty scoundrels. Finally Erasmus asked why is there such a contrast between the example of Jesus and the way they live if Christ is their authority.

In 1503 Erasmus published his Handbook of the Militant Christian, which laid down the principles for a spiritual Christian life. The book became quite popular and established his reputation. He exhorted Christians to be ever watchful and use the weapons of prayer and knowledge. The highest wisdom is to know yourself. We must learn to distinguish the inner man from the outer man. Erasmus wrote,

This then is the only road to happiness:
first, know yourself;
do not allow yourself to be led by the passions,
but submit all things to the judgment of the reason.
Be sane and let reason be wise,
that is, let it gaze upon decent things.
You say it is difficult to put this advice into practice.
Who denies it?
Plato has a fitting saying:
"Those things which are beautiful are also difficult."
Nothing is harder than for a man to conquer himself,
but there is no greater reward or blessing.3

Humans are a combination of spirit and flesh. "The spirit has the capacity of making us divine; the flesh tends to bring out our animal nature."4 Spiritual love is not based on physical pleasure but is loving the Christ in another person. Erasmus listed guidelines for living a Christian life: have faith in the teachings of Christ; act in accordance with the teachings; analyze fears and dissolve them; make Christ the only goal; turn away from visible things to seek the invisible; love and follow Christ; stay free of vice; etc. He concluded the work with special remedies against lust, avarice, ambition, pride, and anger, about which he wrote:

When resentment goads you to revenge,
remember that anger is a false imitation of fortitude,
and fortitude is the antithesis of anger.
Nothing manifests a weaker will,
nothing requires a feebler and weaker mind
than enjoyment of revenge.
In trying to appear brave
by not allowing an injury to go unpunished,
a person displays only immaturity,
since he cannot control his mind in a particular situation.5

The most famous book of Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, was written in England and dedicated to Thomas More in 1511. The satire shows how popular and respected folly is among mankind and pokes fun at the foibles of the time. The Church is not spared by Erasmus' caustic wit. Pope Julius II had recently led troops into battle. So Folly points out how the popes make war their only duty while morals are disregarded, and how this is hypocritical and contradicts Christ's teachings and principles.

In 1516 Erasmus published his new translation of The New Testament in Latin and also the Education of a Christian Prince. This latter work is in sharp contrast to the amorality of Machiavelli's Prince, which was being written at this time. Erasmus advised current monarchs to maintain peace through justice, limit taxes to luxuries, and convert monasteries into schools. The good and wise prince will preserve peace with everyone, especially with neighbors, and will develop the arts of peace so that in the future there will be no need for the science of war. Erasmus encouraged all men and women to read the Gospels and the writings of Paul, and his New Testament encouraged religious reform and paved the way for Luther, who burst on the scene with his Theses in 1517. Erasmus supported many of Luther's reforms, but he was always wary of fanaticism and intolerance. He never really took sides between Luther and the Pope, although in 1524 he challenged Luther's theology by defending the freedom of the will. He cringed at peasants' rebellions and religious wars.

An example of the satire of Erasmus was his colloquy "Charon," which was printed in 1529. In this dialog Charon, whose job is to ferry souls of the dead over the river Styx, talks with the avenging spirit Alastor. Charon notes that three rulers (Emperor Carlos V, Francis I, and Henry VIII) are currently clashing in mutual destruction, drawing in others by their alliances; not even the Danes, Poles, Scots, nor Turks are at peace. Alastor explains they are warmongers because they profit more from the dying than from the living. Alastor claims that those who die in a just war do not come to Charon, who says that all seem to come to him. He informs Alastor that 200,000 are still waiting for him to cross.

The rest of his life Erasmus struggled in the face of criticism from both sides to plead for peace and tolerance of differences within the Church. He advised Pope Adrian VI to refrain from punishing anyone and encouraged him to reform the abuses against which many had been protesting. In 1533 Erasmus tried to bridge the widening the gap between the Protestants and Catholics by writing On Mending the Peace of the Church; but his tolerance was not accepted by either side, and some even thought he was suggesting a third Church. Ill and upset by attacks made on him by Protestants and Catholics, Erasmus finally died in 1536 without the sacraments of the Church but repeating the names of Mary and Christ.

Humanism was an intellectual and educational movement which began in Italy and spread throughout Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was based on the discovery of classical literature and culture, and in liberalizing education it led to the Renaissance and the Reformation. Erasmus was probably the most influential humanist in northern Europe. In a time of religious fanaticism, which was to continue for over a century, Erasmus used his pen as a weapon for peace. As a humanist he always sought clarity and intelligent solutions to problems. He pointed out the futility and madness of war, especially for people who claim to be Christians. Even wild beasts do not murder each other in such large numbers over such trivial causes. How can those who are part of the unity in Christ war on each other? There is no real glory in war which injures people on both sides and causes such destruction. Human beings were given bodies designed for friendship not war; unlike other animals which have armor, horns, claws, tusks, prickles, poison, or speedy flight, humans are naked, weak, and tender with soft flesh and smooth skin. Furthermore, the inward nature of humans expresses reason, kindness, humor, tears, and speech. Erasmus asked if there is anything in the world better than friendship and love.

These ideas and others are expressed in a work called Against War, which Erasmus wrote to persuade Pope Julius II not to make war on Venice. Having described the original human nature, Erasmus contrasted this to the corrupted man of his time who slaughters other people and destroys towns. Humans are supposed to be superior to other animals. Yet beasts of the same species rarely fight each other; beasts kill or fight only from hunger or for self preservation, and they use only natural weapons and armor; beasts usually fight alone and do not engage in mass violence. How has man degraded himself? Erasmus outlined the stages of man's development of war. The first use of violence was probably in self-defense against wild beasts, and this led to the hunting of dangerous animals and the custom of using their skins for winter clothing. In the second stage people gave up vegetarianism and began to gain pleasure from the cruel killing of animals as they became accustomed to flesh-eating. The habit of killing in the third stage led to occasional manslaughter. People began to praise those who punished "evildoers" by killing them. Men began to band together and use weapons. In the final stage empires developed and used offensive wars for greed and conquest. Tyrants made war their policy, and devious reasoning was employed to make the murder of strangers seem honorable. This for Erasmus was the contemporary situation. "War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, the which, the farther it sprawls abroad, the more mischievous it is?"6

What, then, can we do about it? Erasmus took the position that even from self-interest war is extremely expensive and wasteful. If the leaders of both sides counted all the costs of a war, they would realize that it would be wiser to settle the disputes by arbitration. Even the worst natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, and plagues are not as bad as the man-made calamity of war. People have the use of reason to solve problems. Erasmus described the suffering of the soldiers, who must slaughter or be slaughtered. Neither is their material gain in war, which must destroy towns before rebuilding them. The empire builders are really the enemies of humanity.

Erasmus contrasted the peace of Christ and the early Church to the frequent warfare of the Christians of his time. They tried to justify themselves by scholastic sophistry and reference to civil laws. Erasmus refuted the six major arguments that had been used to rationalize a "just" war by Christian nations. Even if war was sanctioned by the Old Testament, Jews were not Christians, and Jesus ordered Peter to put up his sword. The use of both temporal and spiritual swords to war on heretics and infidels likewise was unjustifiable. The word of Christ himself has more authority than that of the theologians, even of Thomas Aquinas. Punishing evildoers is not socially beneficial because thousands of innocent people suffer in a war. Princes are not justified in fighting for their right because they gain power only by the "consent of the people," who are "free by nature." People have the right to take their power back if the king abuses it by injuring the people. The traditional view that Christians can war against infidels like the Turks is hypocritical to the teachings of Christ and is hardly the way to convert anybody.

In The Complaint of Peace Erasmus pleaded for peace by letting Peace speak. Peace laments that people have rejected the source of all their happiness, prosperity, and security. Peace observes the harmony and concord in the universe and how elephants, sheep, cranes, jays, storks, dolphins, bees, and ants get along and work together.

Unanimity is of absolute necessity for man,
yet neither nature, education, nor the rewards of concord
and the disadvantages of disunity
seem to be able to unite mankind in mutual love.7

The human abilities to speak, reason, and cultivate friendship ought to lead to peace. People benefit from reciprocity and mutual support, and thus cities have been constructed. Children depend upon parental care. Humans are capable of peace, and the teaching of Christ is a powerful influence for peace; but somehow men have an insatiable desire for fighting, and dissension haunts the courts of princes. Peace turns to the scholars and philosophers but here finds continual disputing. Even the monks are divided into factions. Peace hopes that in marriage concord might be found, but strife creeps in; even within individuals inclinations and reason struggle with each other. Yet the angels proclaimed peace on Earth at the coming of Christ, who also taught peace. The princes of this world put men in uniforms as a sign to whom they belong, but the Christ said that his disciples would be known only by the love they have for each other. Peace describes the love of Christ and the peaceful qualities of true Christians. Humanity is one; all Christians are of the same religion and hope for the same salvation.

Christians should war against vice.
Yet they ally themselves with vice to war against men.
All pretense aside,
ambitions, anger, and the desire for plunder
are at the base of Christian wars.8

Peace is ashamed at the vain and superficial reasons, which princes use to plunge the world into war. The desire for power is the most criminal of all causes of war. Peace complains, "Christians attack Christians with the very weapons of hell."9 Older and experienced leaders in government and in the Church perpetrate war; thus a few cause the destruction of many. Peace asserts, "If they examined their consciences, they would find that the real reasons are anger, ambition, and stupidity."10 It is stupid because they are not able to find a more intelligent solution. God is not deceived by the pretenses. Peace advises, "There are laws, learned men, pious abbots, and reverend bishops, whose mature counseling can bring these matters to a peaceful solution."11 Even if their arbitration decisions are not perfectly just, the result would be far superior to the ravages of war. Peace warns that confederations do not guarantee peace and often cause war.

We must look for peace
by purging the very sources of war,
false ambitions and evil desires.
As long as individuals serve their own personal interests,
the common good will suffer.
No one achieves what he desires
if the methods employed be evil.
The princes should use their wisdom
for the promotion of what is good for the entire populace.12

The king should be like a father of a family and remember that the people are free citizens and fellow Christians, and the people ought to respect the king and support the common good. Consent and approval by the citizens is the check on the ambition of the prince. Those who work to secure peace and concord ought to be honored. Advisors to the ruler should be neither inexperienced such that they find war attractive nor in a position to profit by warfare. Peace concludes, "Nothing is more conducive to genuine peace than a sincere desire that comes from the heart."13 Every effort must be made to remove obstacles even though concessions must be made. Divisive hatreds and prejudices must be overcome. The costs of waging war must be weighed carefully - destruction of cities and fields, theft, murder, immorality, injury, and death, all at enormous expense. Finally Peace pleads with the princes, priests, theologians, and bishops to promote peace. Those who love peace must not allow the few who gain from war to have their way. In peace kingdoms will be ruled by law rather than by arms; the people will enjoy productivity and tranquility, and friendship and happiness will abound.


Scholars believe that the Anabaptist movement began in Zurich on January 21, 1525 when Conrad Grebel baptized the priest George Blaurock at the home of Felix Manz. Grebel was born about 1498 in Zurich and received a humanistic education at universities in Basel, Vienna, and Paris, where he was influenced by the pacifist ideas of Erasmus. In the early 1520s he became a supporter of Zurich's leading reformer Ulrich Zwingli, but by 1524 Grebel had broken with the moderate reformer for relying too much on the city council for change. During the Peasants' War in the Black Forest, Grebel sent a letter to their Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer on September 5, 1524, urging him to give up the violent methods that he had adopted after his followers burned a chapel at Mallerbach. Grebel wrote,

Also one should not protect the gospel
and those who accept it with the sword,
nor should they protect themselves,
as we have learned from our brother
that you believe and that you subscribe to.
Truly believing Christians are sheep in the midst of wolves,
sheep for slaughtering.
They must be baptized in fear, need,
grief, persecution, suffering, and dying.
They must be tested in the fire,
and they must not find the haven of eternal rest
by killing their bodily enemies;
rather they must attain it by killing their spiritual enemies.
Also, true Christians use neither the worldly sword nor war,
for among them killing has been totally abolished.
Indeed, believers practiced these things
at the time of the old law, during which time
after they had conquered the promised land,
war became a plague.14

In the second letter Grebel wrote that he had learned that Müntzer preached against the princes, that they must be combated with the fist. Grebel advised him not to defend war but desist from that belief to become a hero and soldier of God by using the Bible as his defense.

Grebel traveled as a missionary for the Anabaptist cause, advocating a nonviolent and separatist church. He was arrested on October 8, 1525 and was to be kept in prison until he recanted, but he escaped with Manz and Blaurock on March 21, 1526. About three months later Grebel died of the plague. Manz and Blaurock were arrested in December 1526, and Manz was executed by drowning. Since Blaurock was not a citizen, he was whipped and expelled.

Müntzer led a military contingent to join the peasants at Frankenhausen in May 1525; but after the peasant army was defeated, Müntzer was arrested, tortured under interrogation, and beheaded. Another Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier, opposed the Jews and their usury, supported the peasants in their war, but later repudiated the war and recanted on baptism. In his short book On the Sword in 1527 Hubmaier wrote in favor of government having the authority to use force, criticizing the nonresistance of the Stablers (people of the staff). Hubmaier was arrested and convicted of heresy and insurrection, and on March 10, 1528 he was burned at the stake in Vienna; his wife was executed by drowning.

Andreas Castelberger of Zurich gave testimony against war as early as 1523, and he helped organize the first congregation of Swiss Brethren two years later. Michael Sattler was a Benedictine monk from southern Germany, but in 1525 he left the monastery to the rebelling peasants, married, and joined the Swiss Brethren in Zurich. In February 1527 at a gathering in the canton of Schaffhausen he was the main author of "The Brotherly Agreement of Some Children of God concerning Seven Articles" known as the Schleitheim Confession. In May 1527 Sattler was tortured and burned, two days before his wife was drowned. The Schleitheim Confession acknowledges that the sword is ordained by God to punish and kill evil people while protecting and defending the good; but the authors believed it was outside of the perfection of the Christ, which recommended only the ban be used to admonish and expel sinners. Article VI asserts that love and the way of the cross should be the Christian's response to violence and evil. Christ teaches being humble. Jesus chose not to punish the adulterer nor to judge between brothers, and he refused to act as a king. Worldly princes may rule but not those who follow the Christ; Christians should not be magistrates. The carnal weapons of conflict and war are directed against the flesh by worldly people, but the spiritual weapons of God are truth, justice, peace, faith, and salvation. Christ is the head, and the members of that body should not triumph over each other so as not to destroy that body.

Peaceful nonresistance became the practice of the Swiss Brethren, and in the civil wars of 1529 and 1531 between the Protestant and Catholic cantons many Anabaptists refused to fight. Because they refused to bear arms, hold office, or take oaths, the Swiss Brethren often had restricted rights and occasionally suffered persecution. In Germany most of the Anabaptists gave in to violence and followed the leadership of Hubmaier, Hans Hut, and Melchior Hoffman, though the Hutterites often refused to serve in the military. The Anabaptist groups that resorted to violence were quickly destroyed in warfare; only the Swiss Brethren, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites survived the persecutions. The Swiss Pilgram Marpeck took the moderate position that one could serve in the government as long as one did not compromise the belief in nonviolence by letting others carry out those functions.

The Stabler carried a staff instead of a sword as a symbol of nonviolence. After Hubmaier was executed in March 1528, his Anabaptist followers divided between the Schwertler, who followed his teaching on the sword, and the Stabler, who renounced it and were led by the Swabian refugee Jacob Widemann. In 1529 Clemens Adler wrote that the coming of Christ brought the new ethic of nonresistance to transcend the holy wars of the Mosaic law. He believed that true Christians should not use the sword at all and warned them:

Beware, you hanging judges, kings, princes, and lords,
you who sit in judgment over life and death
and yet want to be considered Christians.
Such a thing is unknown in the Kingdom of Christ.
In fact, you often condemn the innocent as well as the guilty
and you are still chasing many people from this life!15

Among the Polish Anabaptists the Lublin pastor Marcin Czechowic wrote an eloquent defense of nonviolence in Polish in his Christian Dialogues, published at Cracow in 1575. A Teacher, apparently representing the author, answers the questions of a doubting Pupil. The Teacher begins by saying that a true Christian is willing to renounce the world and take up the cross. Thus Christians must be ready to suffer persecution and be prepared to lose their property and possibly even their lives to endure and tolerate whatever injuries are inflicted upon them without resisting. Thus the Christian renounces the use of any injurious force even for self-defense or for the defense of others. The wars of the Old Testament gave way to the law of love in the new covenant of Christ. When the Pupil asks if Christians wage war at all, the Teacher replies,

Christian warfare has nothing in common
with the instruments of war in use in this world,
which godless people employ among themselves
lying in wait to hurt each other.
But it has its own weapon in the word of God
as revealed in the New Testament,
and with this weapon it fights but does not kill
or take away the life of any mortal being.16

The Teacher then lists the Christian weapons as faith, hope, love, humility, gentleness, patience, truth, justice, peace, spiritual joy, petitions, prayers, and other virtues. The faithful disciples of Christ obey their commander Jesus. Czechowic's Teacher precludes any participation in government or recourse to law courts. Kings and magistrates are to be obeyed except when their commands are wrong. Servants of the Christ are not to wield a sword nor train for war nor participate in an army even without a weapon. Czechowic wrote an appendix in Latin in which he cited early Christians such as Tertullian and Lactantius as well as many of the writings of Erasmus.


When the Hapsburg government levied a tax for a war against the Turks in 1531, Wilhelm Reublin opposed the autocratic Widemann and advised against paying what he called "blood money" because "there is little or no difference between slaying with our own hands and strengthening and directing someone else when we give him our money (to slay) in our stead."17 This idea influenced Jacob Hutter, who had become an Anabaptist in Tyrol in 1526. As he took over the leadership of the Austerlitz community from Widemann, they began to develop a communitarian way of living together. Many Hutterites migrated from Tyrol to Moravia, hoping to find religious tolerance from the Hussite tradition; but in 1535 they were persecuted and refused to give in to any form of violence. Hutter wrote to the governor of Moravia,

Ere we would knowingly do injustice
to anybody for a penny's worth,
we would rather suffer to be deprived of a hundred florins.
And ere we would strike our worst enemy with our hand,
let alone with pike, sword, or halberd, as the world does,
we would rather die and have our lives taken from us.
Moreover, we do not possess material arms,
neither pike nor gun, as anybody may well see
and which is known everywhere.18

Hutter himself was burned at the stake in 1536. His followers continued to practice communal sharing because they believed that private property was the root of human conflict. Their fellowship spread and grew in the next century to more than twenty thousand members in about a hundred Brüderhofe communities.

Hutterite ideas on nonviolence were explained well by Peter Ridemann, who wrote his Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith (Rechenschaft) while he was in a Hessian prison in 1540 and 1541. He agreed with the Schleitheim Confession that no Christian is a ruler, and no ruler is a Christian, and so Christians in abandoning the sword must divest themselves of authority. Ridemann considered the Hutterites a separate people in a world of sin who endeavored to preserve the Christ's message intact. Not only would they not fight in wars, but their metallurgists would not manufacture any weapons such as swords, spears, and muskets so as not to be "partakers of other men's sins." Knives and axes could be used as tools because they were not made for slaying and harming. Ridemann also said they refused to pay taxes that were raised for the purpose of war, although they did pay taxes for useful purposes.

Starting in the 1570s the Hapsburg war with Turkey led to government confiscation of Hutterite property to cover their taxes, and this happened again in 1584 and 1589 and every year from 1596 to 1622, when the Hutterites were expelled from Moravia. Hutterites survived in Hungary, but in 1685 outside pressures caused them to relinquish complete communal sharing. Yet they used admonition and banning to maintain their nonviolent discipline, and many migrated to Russia.

Menno Simons and Mennonites

Menno Simons was born into a peasant family at Witmarsum in the Dutch province of Friesland in 1496. In a monastic school he learned Latin and Greek, and he was ordained a priest at Utrecht in 1524. Two years later with trepidation he began to read the Bible. He had doubts about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine during the mass and discovered that the New Testament did not necessarily back up the Catholic dogma. In 1531 Menno commented on the strangeness of the city of Leeuwarden executing a tailor for being baptized a second time. He came to the view that infant baptism was a deception, because based on scripture he believed that baptism should be a confession of faith in Christ. Menno admitted that his attachment to his large income kept him performing the mass and baptizing infants for two more years. After Melchior Hoffman was imprisoned at Strasbourg in 1533, the radical Jan Matthys became the leader of the Melchiorites. His agents won over the evangelical preachers at Munster in January 1534. Matthys arrived at Munster, but he was killed during a sortie in April and was succeeded by Jan of Leiden. Menno objected to their violent methods, and early in 1535 he wrote "The Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden." He asked how Christians could fight with weapons of war, and he was shocked by the armed attack by those in the Münster kingdom on the Cistercian abbey at Oldeklooster. Menno knew some of those killed and began to preach against the errors of the radicals.

In January 1536 Menno Simons renounced his Catholic priesthood, and one year later he was baptized and ordained, probably by Obbe Philips. Unlike Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli who maintained their professional positions and were protected by their provincial governments, Menno became homeless and faced persecution. About this time he married Gertrude and while traveling with her raised a family. In 1539 the first of several people was executed for having sheltered Menno. That year Menno published the Foundation of Christian Doctrine. He was appalled that reasoning humans shaped in the image of God and born without fangs, claws, and horns with tender flesh could be so cruel and full of hatred, especially when Christ taught and demonstrated peace so well. He believed that two opposing kingdoms have opposing princes and that the Christian should not act as an official in the Antichrist's realm of strife, although he did make an exception that the ordinary sword of the judicial magistrate may be used. In his True Christian Faith Menno exhorted rulers to be both spiritual and worldly kings by using wisdom and by living in the peace of God.

In 1541 Dutch regent Mary offered a reward for the arrest of Menno, and the next year German emperor Charles V announced a reward of 100 guilders with an edict of death for Menno Simons. The empire had decreed death for all Anabaptists in 1529, but the persecution in some parts of Germany was less than in the Netherlands. In 1541 Menno went to Amsterdam and spent two years preaching in northern Holland. In January 1544 he debated the Zwinglian reformer John a'Lasco for three days in East Friesland. Countess Anna allowed Menno to leave in peace, and Menno went to Cologne. For many years his talks were not publicly announced, and his influential writings appeared without naming a printer or a location. Many Anabaptists began calling themselves Mennonites to distinguish themselves from the violent policies of the Melchiorites. After spending two years in the Rhineland, Menno took refuge with his ill wife in Holstein at Wustenfelde on the estates of the German nobleman Bartholomaus von Ahlefeldt. He was joined there by Mennonites.

Although Menno agreed with Pilgram Marpeck that one could serve some legitimate functions of government, he later clarified his position by opposing punishments that are not humanitarian. He admired the ancient Spartans for assigning criminals to hard labor instead of using capital punishment. In the Cross of Christ he denounced false Christians who devastated lands and killed thousands, robbing and plundering the innocent poor because of the quarrels of princes. Even Lutherans such as the Hanseatic League in 1553 forbade Anabaptists from living in their territories. In 1554 the Reformed theologian Martin Micron in a debate at Wismar accused Menno of rejecting Christian government. Menno replied that bloodshed did not befit a Christian government. He argued that the criminal who is executed is not given a chance to repent, and he thought it strange that a Christian could hang or torture anyone. Menno came to believe that criminals should be punished but in a Christian manner with fairness and modesty. Within the Mennonite community he approved of avoiding or shunning those who were excommunicated.

After Menno died in 1561, many Anabaptists followed his nonviolent way and were called Mennonites. In 1568 at the Waterlandian conference in East Friesland the Mennonites decided to excommunicate anyone who took part in drilling for military service unless the person repented and asked forgiveness. When the Netherlands went to war against Spain in 1572, the Dutch Mennonites refused to participate and used the ban against those who did. That year Mennonites collected money and gave it to Prince William of Orange, asking for his friendship if he should gain the government. William used the funds for the cause, but in 1575 his representative exempted Mennonites from the obligation for every able man to guard with weapons; this is the first law known to grant conscientious objection to war, and it was confirmed by Prince Maurice of Orange in 1593. The Mennonites did, however, pay commutation money that supported war.

In 1693 a schism began among the Mennonites that resulted in the forming of the Amish church. In 1788 Mennonites began migrating from the Vistula Delta in Prussia to the Ukraine. By the first world war these settlements had grown to 120,000 members. However, during World War II most of the Mennonite communities in Russia were destroyed, and after the war the Soviets dissolved the rest.

Mennonites began emigrating to North America in 1663, and starting in 1683 they were welcomed to Pennsylvania by the Quakers. Many Mennonites refused to fight in the wars of the United States, and along with the Quakers they helped to develop the option of alternative service for those who conscientiously objected to killing.


1. Drobné spisy by Petr Chelcicky, tr. Eduard Petru 75/1690 quoted in Petr Chelcicky by Murray L. Wagner, p. 89.
2. Postilla I by Petr Chelcicky, p. 131-2 quoted in Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren by Peter Brock p. 55.
3. Handbook of the Militant Christian 1:5 by Erasmus in The Essential Erasmus tr. John P. Dolan, p. 46.
4. Ibid. 1:7. p. 50.
5. Ibid., p. 90.
6. Against War by Erasmus ed. J. W. Mackail, p. 23 quoted in The Better Part of Valor by Robert P. Adams, p. 100.
7. The Complaint of Peace by Erasmus in The Essential Erasmus tr. John P. Dolan, p. 179.
8. Ibid., p. 188.
9. Ibid., p. 189.
10. Ibid., p. 192.
11. Ibid., p. 192.
12. Ibid., p. 193.
13. Ibid., p. 196.
14. "Letter to Thomas Muntzer" by Conrad Grebel tr. Michael G. Baylor in The Radical Reformation, p. 42-43.
15. Geiser ms. by Clemens Adler, p. 88 quoted in Anabaptists and the Sword by James M. Stayer, p. 170.
16. Christian Dialogues 260 by Marcin Czechovic, quoted in Freedom from Violence by Peter Brock p. 73.
17. Wilhelm Reublin quoted in James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, p.172.
18. Jacob Hutter quoted in Freedom from Violence by Peter Brock, p. 51.

Copyright © 2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Prophets of Israel
Chinese Sages
Upanishads and Yoga
Mahavira and Buddha
Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes
Stoic Philosophers
Jesus and the Early Christians
Zarathushtra, Mani, and the Cathars
Sufis, Philosophers, and Nanak
Francesco and Bonaventure
Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch
Magna Carta to Wyclif
Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites
International Law Pioneers
Quakers: Fox and Penn's Holy Experiment
Peace Plans of Rousseau, Bentham, and Kant
Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on World Peace
Tolstoy on the Law of Love
Suffragettes and Women's Rights


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index