Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.
John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).
This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).
This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).
Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).
The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).
As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).
The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.
Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from
Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from
Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.
Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.