Conrad Grebel

1498-1526

A little house squeezed in among tall, old, buildings on the Neustadtgasse in Zürich. Fifteen young people in serious discussion. Twinges of fear, with visions of Christ and life after death. A frosty night: January 21, 1525. 

Even though Jakob Grebel, the iron merchant, would have been horrified, his son Conrad was there too:

And it came to pass that they were together until fear rose up within them and came upon the gathering. They were constrained in their hearts. Then they got down on their knees before the highest God of heaven. They cried to him because he knew their hearts. They prayed that he would help them to do his will and show his mercy to them, because flesh and blood or human instigation had not brought them to this place. They well knew that their patience would be tried and that they would have to suffer for this. 

After the prayer, Georg of the house of Jakob got up. He had asked God to show him his will. Now he asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him with the correct Christian baptism upon his faith and testimony. When he knelt down with this desire, Conrad baptised him because at that time no servant had been ordained to handle such a work. After this the others asked Georg to baptise them, which he did upon their request. In this way they gave themselves together to the name of the Lord in high fear of God. They commended one another to the service of the Gospel. They began to teach and hold the faith, to separate themselves from the world, and break off from evil works.[1] 

To become “Anabaptist” was far from Conrad’s first act to meet with his family’s disapproval. And, considering the opportunities they had given him, they thought it made little sense.

Conrad was the second of Jakob and Dorothea Grebel’s six children. At a young age his parents sent him to a Latin school. Then he attended classes in Basel and travelled from there to the universities of Vienna and Paris.

All the Grebel children turned out well. His sister Martha married a college professor, Dr. Joachim von Watt. His brother Andreas became a page in the emperor’s court. But Conrad had problems.

In the University of Paris Conrad quarrelled with his superiors and skipped classes for a year. Not long after he returned, a plague struck the city and his college closed down for a while. Then things grew worse. Conrad got into fights. He drank, and contracted a terrible disease from the way he lived. Thoroughly disgusted, his father stopped sending him money and he had to return home in disgrace.

For a short while, Conrad worked as a copy editor in Basel. But he soon lost that job and returned to Zürich. There—while his father was out of town—he married a girl beneath his social status. His parents disowned him completely and he found himself alone in the “real world” for the first time.

After his marriage in February, 1522, Conrad came to the end of himself. With a wife, and soon a child, to support, his freedom was over. He had squandered his opportunities. He had tried many pleasures, only to find them vain. He had known great people and high places. Now that did him no good. In darkness and confusion, Conrad turned to Christ.

By the middle of 1522 a new Conrad Grebel showed his face in Zürich.

Where he had dressed in style and walked with a swagger, people now saw him friendly and humble. Where he loved to pick quarrels and quickly showed his fist, people now saw him compassionate and seeking peace.

Huldrych Zwingli, the new preacher in the Zürich, liked the change in Conrad. He had known the Grebels for years and hoped that Conrad’s conversion would bring him back into the family circle. But it turned out otherwise.

After his great change, Conrad found Christ and his teachings more fascinating than anything he had ever been into. It seemed like every day he discovered more truths to ponder, more ideas to try out, and more startling facts to tell others. Like his friends with whom he met on evenings in the city his enthusiasm with Christ and his way knew no bounds.

Huldrych Zwingli also studied the New Testament. He also believed the Catholic church of Switzerland stood in need of reform. But he did not agree with Conrad and his friends on how to bring it about.

Huldrych Zwingli was an older man with common sense. He knew that to reform the entire Swiss church he needed the co-operation of the government. When Conrad Grebel and his friends would not wait on him, he turned against them. He attacked them across the pulpit and blamed Conrad in particular for ungratefulness. “After all I did to help you get your life together,” he stormed, “you do nothing but make life complicated for me.”

Huldrych begged Conrad to stop pushing people faster than they were ready to go. He begged him to wait and work more cautiously. But neither Huldrych nor the people of Zürich could hold Conrad back. Compelled by the Spirit of Christ he made contacts near and far. He prayed and studied and met with others who longed for the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the first things that became totally clear to them was that Christians cannot kill nor fight. In a letter of 1524 Conrad Grebel wrote:

The Gospel of Christ and those who live by it have no need of protection by the sword, neither should they take up the sword to protect themselves. . . . True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptised in anguish and affliction, in tribulation, persecution, suffering and death. They must be tried with fire in order to reach eternal rest. But their trial does not come through fighting bodily enemies. It comes from killing the spiritual enemies of their souls. Those who live by the Gospel do not use worldly weapons or war. All killing has ceased with them—unless, indeed, we would still be under the old law.

Another teaching of Christ that became clear to Conrad and his friends was that of  communion. In the same letter he wrote:

Christ established a supper of fellowship. . . . But we should use nothing other than ordinary bread to celebrate it, and we should attach no idolatrous rituals or additions to it. . . . Elaborate rituals detract from true worship and from appreciating the meaning of communion. We should remember that the bread of communion is nothing but bread, even though in faith it becomes the body of Christ, when Christ and the church become one. We must commune in the Spirit and in love. . . . Even though the bread of communion is only bread, if we receive it in faith and brotherly love, we may do so with joy. It shows us, in our common fellowship, that we are truly one bread and one body. It shows us that we are and want to be—true brothers and sisters. If anyone does not want to live in this brotherly way, he takes part in communion unto damnation because he does so without discerning. He simply eats bread like at any other meal. He dishonours love, the inner bond [of the body of Christ], and refuses to live and suffer for Christ the head, and the other members of his body.

Along with descriptions of Christ’s peaceful kingdom, Conrad Grebel began, in 1524, to write and speak about baptism. It made no sense to him and his friends to baptise infants into a state church where membership was compulsory. From the words of Christ he understood that everyone has a free choice to make. Membership in the Church of Christ is voluntary and baptism only becomes meaningful when converts repent, believe, and ask for water baptism as the outward seal of inner faith.

During 1524 some Swiss parents (friends of Conrad Grebel) decided not to have their babies baptised. The government quickly passed a law that would force them to do so. But before they could put it into effect the meeting on the twenty-first of January, 1525, took place. . . .

Conrad Grebel and his friends hurried from Felix Manz’s mother’s house on the Neustadtgasse to announce the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. More baptisms followed in Zürich, in Swiss valley towns, in Schaffhausen and southern Germany. By springtime Conrad was back in Sankt Gallen baptising hundreds in the Sitter River. During that summer he preached to crowds in the fields and in October he fell into the authorities’ hands.

All winter Conrad languished in prison. When he escaped in the spring of 1526 his health was broken. He found refuge at his oldest sister’s place in Maienfeld, in the Grisons where he died.

After his death, Conrad’s Protestant family raised his children. None of them became part of the fast-growing fellowship that grew out of his labours to spread into countries around the world (the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement). A great-great-grandson, also named Conrad Grebel, became chief magistrate of Zürich and in the 1900s another descendant, Hans von Grebel, served as Protestant pastor of Zürich’s Groszmünster church.

Flesh and blood lost the way, but the Spirit that transformed Conrad Grebel keeps bringing seekers like him—disoriented students, young men and women—into the body of Christ he loved.

Main source: Bender, Harold S., Conrad Grebel, Mennonite Historical Society, Goshen, 1950

[1] Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder

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