Hans Schlaffer

? – 1528

To gather in the dark and sing the Office of Our Lady at midnight, to join in wavering Carthusian chants (“A good monk must so sing that lamentation, not the joy of music, be in his heart.”), to hide his shaven head under a cowl and refrain from talking five days out of seven—nothing in monastic life seemed too severe to Hans Schlaffer.

For years Hans had served the people of Austria’s upper Inn valley as a priest. But he was a wicked priest and knew it. His mind was full of impurities and his heart condemned him. So deeply and terribly had his condemnation fallen on him that he looked to the Karthäuserhof (one of the strictest Catholic orders) as a place of penance and escape.

No way of escape presented itself. No fast or vigil released him from the terror of his guilt until he turned, in desperation, to the “forbidden book”: the New Testament itself. There he found Christ and the promise of forgiveness for sins.

After Hans Schlaffer read the New Testament he no longer toyed with the idea of becoming a Carthusian. He began, instead, to tell everyone he could the joyful news of the Gospel. Healing and peace, after it came to his own life, flowed out to touch the lives of many others. But with it came new trials.

Church authorities stopped Hans Schlaffer from preaching to the people, and in 1526 he informed them he would no longer be priest. A travelling messenger, Hans Hut, baptised him. Two months later he fled to Nikolsburg in Moravia where for a short time he found refuge with Jakob Wideman and a small group of defenseless believers.

From Nikolsburg Hans continued on to Augsburg. Everywhere he found men and women anxious about the Truth and their souls. All German lands, it seemed, had awakened to stand confused, angry, or troubled in the light of an unfamiliar day.

In Augsburg, Hans prayed and studied the Word with Ludwig Haetzer and Hans Denck. Then he visited Regensburg and turned back to Austria. The leaves had started to come down. At Brixlegg and Rattenberg he visited family and friends. For a short while he was sick. Just before the snow fell he decided to go to Hall on the Inn for the winter.

On his way there, on the dark evening of St. Nicholas’s day (December 6), 1527, he stopped in the mining town of Schwatz to attend a secret meeting of the brothers. The police came. They caught him and Lienhard Funck, another Anabaptist, and hustled them off to the Frundsburg Castle jail.

Trial followed trial. The castle turned frigid but a new warmth flowed through Hans’ inner being. Even though he remembered his family as Advent came and went, nothing could extinguish the light of Christ into which he had come. Alone in his cell he thought of his whole life, and eternity. He thought of his friends. He thought of God and moved by sudden conviction, he grabbed his pen and wrote:

I will begin by remembering the days of my youth in which you, true and faithful God, illuminated me with your goodness and allowed me to discover your will. I came to know that you had no pleasure in sin, rather, that you strictly prohibited it. But the sin that in my conscience (illuminated through the light of your grace) stood in greatest opposition to you, to that sin I was most inclined. I did not oppose my evil inclinations, neither did I pray to you for grace. Rather, the older I grew the more I became involved in them, until vice overcame me completely. In spite of this, you continued to warn me with your good Spirit that gave me no peace in my conscience. But I stubbornly refused to listen to the voice of your Spirit and drove it out.

Oh my God, what shall I say about this? My heart could break for what I did. If I had a thousand mouths they would not be enough to speak of all my wickedness. Therefore, all I can do is lay everything down before you, my mouth and my heart, and my whole corrupted being that you created good and lovely in the beginning, but that I broke and spoiled. I cannot fix myself again, but you can, and you want to. All I know how to do is wreck things, but help and healing for the great damage is to be found in you, eternal God.

Many times I tried to free myself from my sins by going to confession and to partake of the sacraments, as was our yearly custom. But every time after I did it, I promptly fell back into sin, and deeper than before. Then, when I became a man I became presumptuous and began to teach and discipline others, even though I was untaught and undisciplined myself. Oh Lord, here I sinned greatly, by neglecting to be an example to the young and tender, placed under my care. Instead of helping them onto the right way I was a bad example for them in word and deed, also with my nasty temper, bad judgement and improper methods of discipline.

In all this, even though I was totally unfit and unprepared to serve in a position of leadership, I sought—like Satan himself—to climb to yet greater ranks. In a presumptious frame of mind I foolishly took the vows of the priestly office. . . . Before the bishop, with my fingers placed in a Bible I promised to live in poverty, obedience, chastity, and other virtues like moderation, patience, and humility. But even children (let alone adults) know how poorly my office and such a lifestyle fit together. . . . In comfort and affluence, eating and drinking, with the best of everything, and at the same time lying around with no work to do at all—it is like laying Petrol into the fire and forbidding it to burn.

Yet in all this, heavenly Father, your good Spirit did not let me rest. Because of my sinful, damnable, unclean and totally carnal—even bestial—lifestyle, my conscience frequently plunged me into anxiety and fear. What more shall I relate and complain about my disorderly and wicked life, in the midst of which I attempted several times to become a Carthusian? I ran from place to place in search of Roman grace, confessions, and what not all. But in all this I could find no rest for my conscience, nor could I find peace before you, eternal God. Then, in this last and dangerous time, your eternal Word was opened up to me through the witness of the Holy Sciptures.

Through the writings and preaching of Martin Luther and others I was moved to study the Bible—above all the Gospels and the Epistles. There I learned that works will not justify or save us (not the works of Moses’ law, and much less the works men have thought of since). We are only saved through faith in Jesus Christ, your Son.

I also became aware of the fact that the mass that we celebrated daily was no offering at all, and that Christ did not order us to keep it this way. . . . I began to value the witness of your Scriptures more than the words of councils, popes and the traditions of the fathers. Along with a great many other monks I discontinued holding masses. . . . But dear Lord, in all this little change occurred within me for the better. I was no less inclined to evil fleshly lusts and (to my great regret, heavenly Father) I often committed serious, lamentable, and grievous sins. My old Adam was so clever he managed to hide his wickedness under your Holy Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of that it almost became a trap to me, because I used it more for fleshly than for spiritual freedom.

Oh my dear and precious God, what more should I say? I wasted all my days in such grievous sinning against you that according your righteousness, the earth should have opened up and swallowed me into the pit of hell, like it did Dathan and Abiram, whose sins were much less in number. I even kept on sinning like this, after I knew your Gospel. That happened because I only knew it in the letter, but not in Spirit and Truth. But in the end, my heavenly Father, you did not reject me for my wicked, sinful life. You drew me to your Son, the crucified one, and let me see how I should live.

Then I heard and learned from you how to cast off the proud, selfish, and vain world. I learned how to free myself from all creatures, deny myself, take up the cross, and follow Christ. . . . Oh Lord, this is a very heavy burden for the old Adam. The world in its wisdom sees it as a ridiculous and foolish teaching, and those who only profess your Word with their mouths are offended by it. But to us who believe it is godly wisdom and power.

After this, and with much calling on you, most faithful Father—“Lord teach me to do your will, for you are my God,” etc.—I took as my witness the baptism of water, according to the command of Christ in Matthew 28, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. . . . Then, for nine weeks you let me stay “in the nest.” That was comfortable for my flesh. But then you took me out to discipline me. I had to flee for my life, and from the day of the feast of Peter and Paul (June 29) until now I have scurried from place to place like a lost sheep through the wilderness of this wicked world.[1]

In his writings in prison, Hans described the life of those who choose to follow Christ:

The one who desires to be a Christian will not get by with much sleep, comfortable living, idleness, crying, singing, repeating vain prayers, burning candles, etc. No, the one who chooses Christ does so at the risk of his body and life.

It is a hard thing to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood!

Even the Lord’s disciples found this a hard saying, and when they heard it, many turned back from following him. In the same way, all professed Christians with the “scribes and Pharisees” of today gloss over the Lord’s words and claim to eat his flesh in the bread and drink his blood in the wine. But that involves no difficulty, and they can do it in all proud lust and sinfulness. They do it year after year, yet remain worldly. But Jesus said, “The one who eats my body and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Here we see that this eating and drinking is not like the world thinks. Rather, it is to suffer persecution and death for the Lord’s sake, as can be seen in the example of all who have lived in a godly way. . . . We eat the body of Christ and drink his blood when we give our bodies to die for him and our let our blood be poured out for his sake. . . . In short: to eat Christ and drink his blood is nothing else but to become one flesh with him, to live, suffer, and die with him, and to become conformed to him in all things.

Hans also wrote long “letters to God”:

Oh Lord, great and awe-inspiring God, you who keep the covenant and show mercy to those who love you (and show their love by keeping your commandments), we have sinned. We have done wrong and acted in a godless way. We have fallen. Yes, we have disobeyed all your commands. We have sinned toward you even though you have warned us in many ways and on many occasions through the prophets, and now in these last days through your Son whom you have made heir of all things.

Oh Lord, truth and righteousness belong alone to you. By way of contrast, we are nothing but false, unrighteous and openly shameful. In all the world one shouts at the other. Everyone accuses everyone else and follows his own ideas. Indeed, this is the case even among our kings and lords, our elders, priests, and prophets. That all have sinned against you, we openly confess.

Considering this, oh almighty Father, we thank and praise you for having called us out of this terrible world, out of this undisciplined and adulterous generation, into your marvellous light. That light is Jesus Christ, the one who enlightens our hearts and seals them with the Holy Ghost so that we may acknowledge you alone as our God and Father. Through him you have made a new covenant with us, and written your laws onto our hearts. Through him you have forgiven our sins and promised to remember them no longer. Through him we have become your children and will remain your children forever.

For this we thank you, dear Father. We thank you for keeping us with your power, through all tribulations, offences, anxiety, and distress. We thank you for helping us to stick to your training and work, to stand firmly, and to persevere to a blessed end. It is through your grace and mercy, and through patient faith in Jesus Christ, that we expect to depart in joy from this world. Amen.

Oh merciful God, we pray for all our brothers and sisters, wherever they find themselves—persecuted, driven apart, scattered, imprisoned, and slaughtered every day. Look down on them and on us, from your dwelling place in heaven! Look down on us with the eyes of your fatherly mercy and goodness, to keep the lions, wolves, seven-headed monsters, and dragons from swallowing us up!

Further, we pray for all good-hearted souls who acknowledge the truth (through your merciful knocking on the door of their hearts), but who are too weak and fearful to confess you openly before the tyrants. Strengthen them, dear Lord, and graft them into your holy community—into the little fellowship of the poor—so that they may become members of the body of Christ with us.

We also pray, kind Father, for all governors and regents of this world. You have loaned them authority from above. We pray now that you would help them to use their power and office, not for their own, but for your purposes. Help them to protect the pious and just, to punish the wicked and evildoers, and keep them from washing their hands in the blood of the innocent and those who believe in you. Let this be done, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.

Oh heavenly Father, we pray with greatest diligence and respect for your holiness, for the hour (known only to you) when you shall justify us completely. (It is for your name that we are killed daily, and counted as sheep for the slaughter. It is for your name that we are daily led to the butchering house.) Now when your servants, the tyrants who rule over us, come to punish, torture, and kill us, keep us from being too frightened, or from falling into doubtful anxiety. Help us rather to accept your work with a willing spirit, to overcome the weakness of the flesh, and to hold still in joyful patience! We know your fatherly goodness and faithfulness. We know it is not your desire that we, your children, should be destroyed. Rather, you must chastise us for being disobedient children.

Give us your Holy Spirit that we may pray as you have taught us (not like the poor blind world that prays without understanding and with many empty words). Then you will hear and care for us. After it is all over, we will be with you. It will be well with us. We will live with you and your son Christ Jesus, our Saviour, in your kingdom, under your power, in unspeakable glory for ever and ever.  Amen

Through the month of January Hans’s case dragged on. After every interrogation it became clearer that the judges would soon condemn him to death. Assured of Christ’s love, he was ready. But when he heard it for real, on February 3, 1528, he shrank from the thought:

          “Tomorrow I am going to die!”

          “Tomorrow, ready or not, I will stand before Christ!”

No sleep came to Hans and Lienhard that night. Instead, by the light of a candle, Hans hurriedly wrote his last “letter to God”:

Almighty God, we come to you in our need and distress—we who are ridiculed, shamed, and forsaken by the whole world—to remind you of your promises to the ones you have called and chosen. You have promised to be the helper of the poor, the comforter of the sad, the power and strength of the weak, the hope of the faint, the refuge of the persecuted and those in distress. You have promised to protect those who die for your name’s sake, and to keep your eye on them wherever they go. You have given your angels charge over them. In six tribulations you will stand with them, and in the seventh (that is in the last tribulation) you will not abandon them. Such promises you have showered on us, out of grace, in your eternal Word. You have enveloped us in them, as in the clouds, and we know that your truth stands forever and your mercy is sure. You are a faithful God in all your words, and holy in everything you do. There is no lack nor fault in you. But in us we see nothing but sadness, doubts, fears, anxiety, tribulation, and unspeakable distress. Strife and quarrels surround us on every side, with struggles for power, tyranny, the sword, fire, water, judges, the police, and the hangmen.

Therefore come, dear Father! The hour of great need is upon us. The time we expected has come. Hold your promises and keep us from doubting them! Cover us with your hand and deliver us from the fire, sword, and water. Deliver us from the hands of your strange and wicked children, those who say lies about us, and whose power is the force of evil.

In the midst of the greatest tribulation you will deliver us. You will free us and make us alive. We wait for this in grace.

Our souls are sorrowful unto death. Oh Father help us in this hour! Amen.

The third witness is about to be ours. That is the witness of blood, described in 1 John 5. Like the sons of Zebedee we will baptised in it, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Father, into your hand we commend our spirits, with Christ. Amen.

Now we go out to pray with the Lord on the mountain of olive trees: “Oh Father, not ours, but your will be done! Help us through this sad night into your holy eternal Sabbath. Amen.

Written on the Monday after Candlemass, this most dangerous twenty-eighth year.

Your poor imprisoned brothers in the Lord, at Schwatz, to be delivered tomorrow:

Hans Schlaffer and Lienhard Funck

Austrian officials beheaded Hans and Leonhard, and gave his last letter to those who had known him, on February 4, 1528. A voice and testimony for Christ had been removed from valley of the Inn—only to shine from his body in heaven and earth, forever. 

Main source: Maler, Georg, Das Kunstbuch . . . Episteln oder Sendbriefen auch anderer Schriften etlicher deren so man nennt die Widertöuffer, Augsburg, 1561.


[1] All citations from Hans Schlaffer’s Beicht und offenbare Bekenntnis dem Herren meiner Sünden and Ein einfältig Gebet durch ein Gefangner armen Bruder im Herren, zu Schwatz, gebetet und betrübt bis in den Tod, as recorded in Georg Maler’s Kunstbuch of 1561. From the copy transcribed at the Burgerbibliothek Bern by Samuel Geiser in 1957 (Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen IN).

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