In summer the Bavarian valley of the Lower Inn is a pleasant place. The scent of drying hay wafts among its apple orchards and Benedictine monasteries. Kraiburg, Altötting, Garching, Tacherting, Mermos . . . tile-roofed villages sit among the bends of the Inn and its tributaries rushing down from blue lakes at the foot of the Austrian Alps. But winters in Bavaria are cold, and the winter of 1555 was especially so.
For the eleventh time, soon after Christmas, the judge of Mermos set out on a Täuferjagd (Anabaptist hunt). Rumours had grown that three Anabaptist messengers from Moravia had come to hold meetings. Here and there candles glowed behind snow-laden windows. Muffled forms of villagers in dark over-clothes appeared hesitantly, peering around corners before crossing frozen streets and squares. With every meeting successfully held those who hungered for Jesus’ teachings had grown bolder, while baptisms and secret communions became more and more common. But tonight the judge of Mermos rode confidently. A “Judas” had betrayed the Anabaptists’ meeting!
With twenty-four men on horseback, armed to the teeth, the judge rode in to surround the suspected farm-worker’s house. But the sound of hooves in the frozen snow and bright moonlight worked against him. He found the house empty.
“The devil tells these people everything!” the judge roared in helpless rage. Then, with a zeal the likes of which no one had seen, he set out to exterminate the Anabaptists once and for all. By day and night his men fell on village homes, sticking spears into ovens and chests, through hay and straw, and flinging everything about. When one farmer’s wife refused to answer their questions they picked her up and threw her down her stairway into the cellar. Posted spies lurked everywhere, under windows, in wash houses and behind wood piles. No one felt safe to speak in public places anymore.
Finally, after a two-month campaign, the judge of Mermos had caught eleven believers whom he locked into the frigid village jail. He tried them separately, alternating blows and excruciating tortures with kind words and promises should they recant. Little by little their resolve gave way. Bruised and bleeding, hungry, and almost dying from cold, all the prisoners recanted but one.
One villager, named Christl, would not recant.
Week after week torture and interrogations dragged on. Those of the town council did not want to kill Christl. He was too young, they thought, for a criminal’s death. “Come Christl,” they told him, “All your friends have given up and forsaken you. The messengers from Moravia have gone away. You are the only one left in Bavaria who holds to your beliefs. Just come and be like the rest of us!”
“I will continue with what I began,” Christl answered them.
“We are not telling you to make drastic changes,” one member of the town council explained. “You can lead a good life among us while belonging to our village church. All we ask of you is to swear one time, just one little oath, and we will set you free!”
“My Lord says, ‘Swear not at all,’” Christl replied. “I will obey him before men.”
Seeing that their efforts to change Christl’s mind only made him stronger in what he believed, the judge and town council of Mermos finally condemned him to death. They led him out to the square in the spring of 1555.
Christl’s long cold winter was over. The willows had turned green. Facing the people with calmness for a youth not wasted he knelt at the executioner’s feet. No earthly benefit had come to him for choosing the way of Christ. No community of believers stood around him. With one curse he could have escaped capital punishment. But he lost his head and blood to the sword to belong to the body of Christ forever.
Main Source: Zieglschmid, A. J. F. (editor), Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, Cayuga Press, Ithaca NY, 1943