Down a stone street from the Wellenberg castle to Zürich’s fish market, soldiers led Felix Manz. A cold wind swirled in across the river. Little huddles of people stood about, curious and fearful in mid-afternoon. Horses appeared with wealthy men in furs, and the city clerk.
“I die for the truth!” With a clear voice Felix—the Großmünster choir director’s illegitimate son—told all who could hear what he had to say. He praised God and warned the people. The soldiers tied his hands, slipped them over his knees in a sitting position, and shoved a stick in above his arms to keep them in place. Then, in a boat, they took him out from the stone-walled quay.
It was January 5, 1527, and cold.
Beside Felix, a preacher of the Protestant church sat in the boat. The preacher talked to him. But Felix did not listen. His eyes shone with the excitement of leaving Zürich and Switzerland forever. His heart beat fast. Within minutes he would stand before Christ!
Felix Manz’s journey from his childhood home in Zürich to the site of his execution in the Limmat River had not been easy. His single mother had done what she could for him. With the support his father sent, he had studied faithfully and to get a church position looked hopeful. But events in Zürich led him into another direction.
In school Felix learned to read the Bible in its original languages. He also learned to know Huldrych Zwingli, the new priest who took charge of Zürich’s Großmünster church in 1519.
Huldrych Zwingli spoke boldly of errors in the Roman Catholic church. He criticised the priests for their shameless living, and doubted what they taught. After listening to him, Felix Manz doubted too, and began to read the Hebrew and Greek Bible for himself.
What he read changed his life.
In the New Testament Felix found the pattern for a totally different kind of church from what he had known. Eagerly he read descriptions of a church where everyone lived like Christ and his disciples in loving community. A church of voluntary members, committed one to another. A church where none were rich nor poor, low nor high, lord nor servant, for all functioned as members of one body under Christ the head.
For some time Felix shared his growing enthusiasm in Christ’s church with Huldrych Zwingli. But it did not take long until the two discovered they had utterly different goals. Huldrych wanted to reform Swiss Catholicism. He began to allow the people of Zürich to eat meat on fast days, and its priests to marry. (He married himself and got into trouble with the Bishop of Konstanz.) But he had no plans of “going back to living by the Sermon on the Mount.” He saw Felix Manz and his friends as visionary dreamers, too young to know what was best.
Felix saw it otherwise. What Huldrych Zwingli brushed aside as “so many impractical ideas” were his deepest convictions. With his friends he came to believe it was unnecessary and wrong for churches to demand the paying of tithes, to baptise babies, and to celebrate mass. Early in 1525 he acted on what he believed, and had Conrad Grebel baptise him in a meeting in his mother’s house.
For Huldrych Zwingli and the city government of Zürich, this was too much. They passed a law forbidding “Anabaptism” in March they locked fourteen men and seven women into the Hexenturm (the witch’s tower) prison. Felix found himself among them—and among those who escaped a short while later. Then he hurried to Chur in the Grisons, joyfully pointing seekers to Christ and baptising them before he fell into the hands of state officials again
Three more times Felix escaped or was released from prison. But on December 3’d, surprised in a secret meeting, the police caught him for the last time. In a cold cell, sleeping on straw and receiving nothing but bread and water, Felix awaited his trial on the day before the feast of the Holy Kings.
For “desiring to gather all who wanted to follow Christ and unite them through baptism,” as well as for celebrating communion “contrary to Christian order and custom,” the Zürich court sentenced Felix Manz to die. But Felix knew he would not die. To his friends he wrote:
I will sing with gladness! My heart rejoices in God who made me wise enough to escape eternal death! And I praise you Christ from heaven who turns away my grief—you whom God sent for my example and light, to call me into your kingdom before my end.
There [in the Kingdom of Christ] I will be joyful with him forever, and love him from the heart. I will love his righteousness that is of value to the one who seeks life—here as well as there. Righteousness lets itself be scorned as well as praised. But without it nothing shall stay standing. That is what the Holy Scriptures show us.
The one who opposes righteousness poisons others. Now we find many like that—many who preach God’s word but stand in hatred and jealousy. They have nothing of God’s love within, and their cheating and treachery is evident to all. We have seen in these last times how those who come in sheep’s clothing are ready to tear others apart like wolves. They hate all the pious on earth. They block the way to life and to the right sheepfold.
That is what false prophets and hypocrites do: They curse and fume until their faces change. They call on the authorities to kill us because Christ has abandoned them. But I will praise Christ who—moved by grace—is patient and friendly to us. Like his Father he shows love to us, something no hypocrite can do. We must discern the difference!
Listen carefully to me: Lambs on the meadow that seek nothing but God’s honour have no reason to worry about possessions and goods. Christ holds their wellbeing in his hands. Christ forces no one into glory. Only the one who comes through right faith and true baptism—the one who repents with a pure heart—will manage to enter it. Christ purchased heaven for him with the pouring out of his blood.
[Christ] did [his work] willingly. It caused him no regret. He reveals it to us and gives us his holy power. The one who practises his love grows with the sap of God. Love to God through Christ is the only thing that counts. Neither boasting nor complaining will make him change his mind about who pleases him. The one who cannot show evidence of his love will find no place to stand before him.
Pure love in Christ leads to the sparing of one’s enemies here. The one who will inherit all things with Christ understands that he must show mercy after his Lord’s teaching. Doing this he will be forever joyful. Christ accuses no one, like the hypocrites do today. Those who do not carry the love of Christ nor understand his words, yet who want to be shepherds and teachers, will come to no good end. Their wages are eternal torment.
Christ hates no one. Neither do his servants who stay on the right path and follow his steps. In him they have the light of life for which they thank him with all their hearts. This is the mind of the pious. But those who show evidence of jealousy and hatred cannot be Christians. Inclined to evil they strike with their fists and run before Christ like murderers and thieves. They spill the blood of the innocent and love everything false. In this one may know who is not on Christ’s side and who pulls his commands apart like the children of Belial. [They do what] Cain did to his brother Abel when God accepted his offering, bringing himself into great need.
With this I will close. Take note, all you pious ones! We should not neglect to study Adam’s fall. He took the serpent’s advice, disobeyed God, and death came upon him. So it will be with those who withstand Christ, who set their affection on worldly lusts and do not have the love of God.
This now is the end of my song. I will stay with Christ who knows all my distress.
Across the river Felix saw his mother waving to him. With her stood some of the brothers. They shouted encouragement—daring souls, in broad daylight! Would they be next to drown? But he had no time to warn them nor say Good-bye. “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum!” he managed to say before they dropped him into the river and waves closed over his head.
Following the sign of Felix Manz’s life and death, the body of Christ grew powerful in Switzerland.
Main sources: Ausbund . . . etliche schöne christliche Lieder, first published in 1564, Mennonite Encyclopedia