Remembering the Martyrs: The Trial of Michael Sattler

Stuart Murray Williams

Anabaptism is a martyr tradition. Although Catholics and Protestants were also executed for their beliefs in the sixteenth century, killing each other as well as Anabaptists, proportionately many more Anabaptists were killed in this era. The Mirror of the Martyrs is an extensive and poignant account of martyrs through the centuries, with a large collection of trial accounts, interrogations, correspondence and other documents pertaining to the Anabaptists.

Although persecution of Christians is rare in Britain (and instances of mockery, media misrepresentation and discrimination should not be included), globally there is sustained and extensive persecution of Christians – and of some other religious communities. Accordingly, it is important to remember the martyrs and reflect on the issues of religious violence and persecution. There is an annual international day of prayer for the persecuted church. Anabaptist Christians may want to join with others on that occasion, but we may also want to pay tribute to early Anabaptist martyrs, who advocated religious liberty and suffered for their convictions.

The account of the trial of Michael Sattler reveals many of the charges that were frequently levelled against the Anabaptists in Catholic jurisdictions (not all of them would have been brought in Protestant courts). It demonstrates also his courage and the sufferings that might be inflicted before execution. The date of his trial is an appropriate one to remember the Anabaptist martyrs.

Michael Sattler, a former Benedictine prior, may well have drafted the hugely influential Schleitheim Confession, one of the founding documents of the Swiss Anabaptists. He was an important first-generation Anabaptist leader, whose life was prematurely ended in the first decade of the movement.

A dramatised account of the trial

Narrator: The date is the 17th of May 1527. The place: the imperial city of Rottenburg in Germany. The court is in session with Count Joachim of Zollern in the chair. On trial is Michael Sattler and thirteen other alleged Anabaptists.

Count:  Defendants, you may choose a lawyer to represent you.

Sattler:  Thank you, Sir, but we choose not to be represented. Though we know you are servants of God in your capacity as judges, we also know that the Word of God gives you no right to judge matters of faith. This court is not competent to try us.

Count: You insolent fellow! You will soon see what we are empowered to do to you.  Clerk, read the charges.

Clerk:  The charges against Michael Sattler are:

(1) that he and his adherents have acted contrary to the decree of the emperor;

(2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament;

(3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism does not promote salvation;

(4) that they rejected the sacrament of extreme unction;

(5) that they despised and scorned the Mother of God and the saints;

(6) that he declared that one should not swear before a magistrate;

(7) that he has commenced a new and unheard-of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, that is, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking of them;

(8) that he has left his religious order and has married a wife;

(9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks, who are the greatest enemy of our holy faith.

Count:  Michael Sattler, how do you answer these serious charges?

Sattler: May I ask for them to be read again so that I may fully understand them?

Clerk: He has boasted that he has the Holy Spirit. If that is true, we do not need to read the charges again – the Holy Spirit can inform him!

Sattler:  Please read them again.

Clerk:  Very well.

Count:  Will you now reply to these charges?

Clerk:  The charges against Michael Sattler are (1) that he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor.

Sattler:  This first charge was directed against the Lutherans which urged them to preach only the gospel and the word of God. We have obeyed this for we have not acted contrary to the word of God.

Clerk: (2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament.

Sattler:  The second charge I accept as true and I will show you many Scriptures to defend this.

Clerk: (3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism does not promote salvation.

Sattler:  The third also is true, for baptism is for believers, not for infants, as the Scriptures clearly show.

Clerk: (4) that they rejected the sacrament of extreme unction.

Sattler:  We have not rejected oil, for it is made by God and so is good.  But a blessing by the pope or other clergymen does not improve it.

Clerk: (5) that they despised and scorned the Mother of God and the saints.

Sattler:  We do not dishonor the Mother of God, for the mother of Christ is to be praised above all women because God gave her the grace to give birth to the Savior of the whole world.  And we do not revile the saints.  But the Scriptures do not allow us to treat Mary or the saints as intercessors for us.

Clerk: (6) that he declared that one should not swear before a magistrate.

Sattler:  The sixth charge is true, for swearing oaths is forbidden by Christ himself.

Clerk: (7) that he has commenced a new and unheard-of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking of them.

Sattler: I will make no response to the seventh charge, for it is not worth defending.

Clerk: (8) that contrary to the rule he has married a wife.

Sattler:  As to my marriage, this is an ordinance of God. How many chaste priests do you know?

Clerk: (9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks, who are the greatest enemy of our holy faith.

Sattler:  As regards the Turks, we will not fight them, for we are told in Scripture “Thou shalt not kill”. We are to beseech God with earnest prayers to repel and resist them. But if it were right for Christians to fight, I would rather go into battle against the so-called Christians who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians than against the Turks.  Because the Turk is a genuine Turk and knows nothing of the Christian faith.  But you claim to be Christians, boast of Christ, and still persecute the faithful witnesses of Christ.  You are Turks according to the Spirit.

Count:  Is this your full reply?

Sattler:  I am happy to discuss these matters in greater detail with you if you will allow me to appeal to the Scriptures.

Narrator:  The judges became infuriated at Sattler’s calm confidence and began to ridicule and threaten him, but he did not lose his composure. At length they conferred, pronounced him guilty and declared the sentence.

Two days later Sattler was executed. His ordeal began in the market place where a piece was cut from his tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body with red-hot tongs. He was tied to a cart and the tongs were used five more times on the way to the site of execution. To the guards’ amazement, Sattler was still able to speak and he could be heard praying for his persecutors.  Then he was bound to a ladder and pushed into the fire.

Sattler: Almighty God, eternal God, you are the way and the truth. Because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with your help this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.

Narrator:  When the ropes on his wrists burned through, Sattler raised the two forefingers of his hands, giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr’s death was bearable. Then the crowd heard him say through seared lips:

Sattler:  Father, I commend my spirit into your hands.

Sources: sixteenth century court records in Martyrs’ Mirror, 416-418; supplemented with documents in John H. Yoder, ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1973), 69-80; and adapted.

A Hymn of Michael Sattler

The Ausbund is an early collection of hymns written by Swiss Anabaptists (still used by the Amish community). It contains a hymn written by Michael Sattler:

As Jesus with his true teaching
Gathered to himself a small flock
He told them that each with patience
Should daily carry his cross.

And he said, You my beloved disciples
You should always be glad.
On earth love nothing else
Than me and follow my teaching

The world will persecute you
And mock and scorn you
Hunt you and publicly say
You have Satan in you.

When others blaspheme and mock you
For my sake persecute and strike you
Be glad, for your reward
Is already prepared for you in heaven.

Look to me, I am God’s son
And have always done well.
I am the best of all
But was killed anyway.

Because the world called me
An evil spirit and seducer of the people
And denied my truth,
It will not be easy for you either.

But do not fear the man
Who can only kill the body.
But fear only the true God
Who has power to judge.

God tests you as gold
And holds you as his children.
If you keep my teachings
I will never leave you.

For I am yours and you are mine
Where I am, there you should be.
And who touches you touches my eye
And will be punished on judgment day.

Your misery, fear, anxiety, need and pain
Will then turn to joy
And you will receive praise and honour
Before the hosts of heaven.

The apostles took such on.
You should teach it to everyone
Whoever will follow the Lord
Should expect the same.

O Christ, help your people
Who follow you truly
So that through your bitter death
They will be saved from all need.

Praise be to God on his throne
And to his beloved son
And to the Holy Spirit also
Who draws many to his kingdom.

Daniel Liechty (Ed.): Early Anabaptist Spirituality, 54-56.

Prayer of the Salzburg Martyrs

Eighteen Anabaptists were martyred at Salzburg. The Mirror of the Martyrs contains their prayer before execution – perhaps a prayer we could pray on behalf of persecuted Christians today:

O God of heaven,
watch over your sheep,
who are such a little flock,
that we may not depart from you
or be led astray.
Keep us under your protection
and sustain us in your will.
Grant that those who teach false doctrine
may amend their steps and do your will.
Fill us with your divine power, O God,
for we have no other Lord in heaven and earth
but you. Amen

Martyrs’ Mirror, 427.