Long before he left school, Jakob Walter already knew the story of the Sabatisch Christian Community in which he lived. In the evenings he sat with his brothers and sisters to listen to his father, Zacharius Walter, tell how it began.
Zacharius Walter was the elder at Sabatisch and the leader responsible for the last three Anabaptist churches in Slovakia. This is the story he told:
Our family came from Württemberg in Germany. In the 1500s, during terrible persecution against those that believed and were baptised, we Walters came from Germany to Moravia where we settled in the community at Pribitz on the left bank of the River Iglau. We made clocks at Pribitz. Some of our brothers were doctors. Under the leadership of our elder, Peter Walpot, we sent brothers out, every spring, to visit seekers throughout German lands and invite them to come to us in Moravia. Thousands responded, travelling by night at risk of their lives, and we continually had to look for more space.
In 1545, the year they drowned our messenger Oswaldt Glaidt in Vienna, and burned Hans Blütel at the stake in Bavaria, we started eighteen new communities in Moravia and one across the mountains, in Slovakia. That one we called Sabatisch.
For a good number of years we lived at Sabatisch and prospered. We had fertile land. Our cattle and hogs did well. But in the 1590s the Turks banded together with the Hungarians to attack our land. We held special meetings for prayer, in the evenings and even during the day. We prayed the Lord would make us strong for whatever was to come.
On May 3, 1593 our Sabatisch community was the first to fall into Turkish hands. All of us fled to the hills before they arrived, except for two brothers we left to meet them. They pulled one brother’s tongue out of his throat, tore their joints apart and chopped them to pieces. The next day they fell on the community at Grosschützen, also in Slovakia, and within a week they entered Moravia. Community after community fell to the Turks. They burned down our buildings, plundered everything they could, struck down and killed many believers and left thousands of us homeless. Only from our communities the Turks carried off 240 people, many of them women and children. They tied the children together by their feet, heads hanging down, to sling over their horses and gallop off. We prayed the Lord would soon let our little ones die.
Year after year the war continued. Many of us perished while living in caves and in the wooded hills. But by 1613 we were able to return to Sabatisch and start to rebuild.
Five years later another war began in our land. It was between the Catholics and Protestants and lasted for thirty years. During this time all our communities left in Moravia were plundered, burned, and in the end completely destroyed. The front moved over us time after time. The soldiers—many of them Spanish and Polish men fighting for the emperor—took our horses and stole our cattle, hogs, and sheep. They broke into our houses and treated our women in ways I cannot describe. They hung our brothers from the ceiling and cut many of us to pieces.
Because we at Sabatisch were safer than those in Moravia, over three thousand believers crowded into our living space. We were only too happy to take them in, but we could not feed them all. Neither could we keep our place clean. Hundreds turned sick and died.
Then, in the midst of this war, the Turks attacked again, burning or shooting sixty-nine from our brotherhood, and carrying thirty souls away. By this time all of us were living at Sabatisch and the surrounding area. We did not have enough to eat and many died.
Seven years later, while we celebrated communion in the spring, a great rain fell. Flood waters hit our community washing away the rope maker’s shop, the book bindery, the pottery, and our hat-making shop. All the other buildings with thick straw roofs were damaged.
Six years later, at eight o’clock on a windy morning, our entire community burned to the ground. We could do nothing but run to save the people as more than sixty houses went up in roaring flames. All floors collapsed and roofs caved in but thanks to God only nine of our people burned to death. We lost all our grain, our flour, cloth, wool, clothes, bedding, pots, tools, and livestock. But by the coming of winter we again had a place in which to stay.
The following years, 1637 and1638, were dry and many starved in the famine. Four years later the Swedes came through our land and stole what we had, and the year after that our Sabatisch community burned to the ground again. Two years later the Hungarians attacked. Their soldiers set up camp around our place and brought the plague. Many of us died from it. But we did not lose heart. We had a good leader at this time, Andreas Ehrenpreis. He encouraged us and showed us how to follow Christ.
The year after Andreas Ehrenpreis died the Turks and Tartars fell on us again, early in the morning of September 4, 1663. They killed and kidnapped seventeen of us and burned Sabatisch to the ground once more. They raided all our remaining communities and carried forty thousand people (including some of our brothers and sisters) away as captives. Just over a year later our community at Sabatisch burned down for the fourth time.
We did not know what to do. Our children were starving in miserable conditions. So we sent two of our brothers to look for help. They walked more than a thousand miles, to the Netherlands, to find the Mennonites. The Mennonites were good to us and sent us money to rebuild. That is how we have survived until now, thanks to God!
Jakob Walter grew up at Sabatisch, constantly mindful of the danger the believers were in. Many of the believers, in fact, had become fearful and disheartened. Would they survive as a Christian community? Even his father, the elder of the church, did not know for sure, and little by little Sabatisch began to fall apart.
By the time Jakob was grown the believers no longer worked together, joyfully sharing their possessions, as in years gone by. Everyone worked on his own and saved up what he could for himself. And when the Austrian government commanded them to baptise their babies into the Catholic Church, the believers consented. “What does it matter?” they asked one another. “We can still baptise them for real once they grow up and get converted.”
Little did they guess how things would go!
On November 25, 1759, the authorities appeared at Sabatisch with several wagons on which to carry off all Anabaptist books. Some books, including the handwritten chronicle of the church, remained hidden, but hundreds of others fell into their hands. A year later they came back and with a great display of force ordered everyone to attend the Roman Catholic Church. There was such shouting and commotion that one sister fainted and died, but everyone steadfastly refused to obey.
The authorities would not give up. Herding everyone into the communal meeting room with soldiers posted at the door they forced the brothers and sisters to listen to a Jesuit priest speaking on infant baptism. The priest wrung his hands and wiped his eyes. One brother, Abraham Tschetter, spoke up boldly against him. But the soldiers dragged him out, locked him up, and tortured him until he recanted. Then, on the Saturday before Easter, 1761, they arrested Zacharius Walter and all the other leaders of the church at Sabatisch.
Jakob and Benjamin Walter watched their father ride off in chains to the Jesuit monastery at Ofen in Slovakia. Would he come back? Would they kill him? No one knew for sure, so with all the other men from the community they fled to the hills.
Jakob Walter, just turned 21, had married a few months earlier. His wife was expecting their first child. Sometimes at night Jakob would dare sneak into Sabatisch to see her, but at great risk of getting caught. Spies watched all roads in the area. The community’s workshops stood silent, the fields lay unplanted, and food grew scarce.
When winter came all the women and children moved into a few rooms at Sabatisch to stay warm. But the men fared worse. One day when they made a camp fire in the woods their persecutors saw the smoke and rounded them up. With clubs and ropes they bound over fifty of them and led them to a nearby castle. There, in unheated cells, they hung them up by one hand or stood them with one foot in the stocks, too high to let them sit or lie down. They gave them barely enough food to stay alive, and after nine weeks began to flog them to make them give up what they believed.
Hans Schmidt, the first brother flogged from Sabatisch, did not give up. Even though they stretched him out on the ground and whipped him so severely they had to roll him in a sheet to carry him away because the flesh was falling from his back, he kept his faith. But the next brother, after seven or eight lashes, recanted. The third one said, “If I am going to flogged every day until I give up, I may as well do it right now.” So they did not touch him at all.
Within a few days all the men at Sabatisch, including Jakob and Benjamin Walter, gave up their faith and shamefacedly, sadly, reappeared at home. A month later, Jakob and Katherina Walter had their first baby, baptised into the Catholic Church as Susanna.
Jakob felt terrible. He felt even worse after he learned that all the leaders of the church (except one whom the authorities killed) had also given up the faith in prison. His father, Zacharius Walter returned to Sabatisch, and with a priest at his side, renounced his faith publicly before the congregation, swearing that he would remain a Roman Catholic until the day he died.
For twenty years a strange quietness hung over Sabatisch. Every Sunday the congregation knelt before a crucifix in the community chapel that had become a Roman Catholic church. They did not dare speak one to another how they felt for many among them had become informers, telling the priest everything they saw and heard.
But as Jakob and Katherina Walter’s family grew—three girls and five boys, several of who died as infants—his uneasiness increased. Deep in his heart he knew he had done wrong. He felt guilty and defiled. Every time he took the priest’s communion he felt as if he betrayed Christ again.
Secretly Jakob called on God to help him out of this distress.
God answered his prayer.
Suddenly, in 1780, a letter came from Russia, from the brothers at Vishinsk on the Desna. The letter said that a new community had taken shape and all were invited to come and join it!
Jakob Walter could not believe his eyes. Was this the answer? Was this the way out of the terrible apostasy at Sabatisch? A year later he heard that two brothers from Vishinsk had actually come to Slovakia to see if anything remained of the churches there. But Roman Catholic authorities drove them away and Jakob never saw them. All he managed to do was send them a parcel through secret means. It contained a few Anabaptist books, two jackets, two pairs of pants, and two pairs of shoes once made by the brothers.
Not long afterward, Jakob wrote to Russia:
Grace and peace to you, the servants of the Word and the whole church in Russia, through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Beloved brothers, I must tell you that we received your letter with great joy. . . . As far as our own leaders are concerned, they have become altogether children of Satan, intent on suppressing the truth in every possible way. . . . I beg you for the mercy of Christ to stand by us with help and advice in whatever way you can, for in Sabatisch there are thirty men who have committed themselves to join you, with their wives and children, if we can only get out of here. We have already tried several things, but the best we can do is trust God. . . . He knows our situation. We beg you not to forget us but always to include us in your prayers.
Touched by Jakob’s letter the believers in Russia decided to send two brothers to Slovakia as soon as possible. In the meantime the Walter, Schmidt, Miller, Tschetter, Dangler, and Koller families at Sabatisch stopped attending mass and with eager hearts made plans to travel to Russia.
Their joy was short-lived. When the Roman Catholics (including some of their former brothers and sisters) learned of their plans, they had the men arrested. They threw all of them, including Jakob Walter, into a stinking dungeon and told them they would put their children out for adoption into Catholic homes.
One by one they all recanted again, except Jakob, who escaped and went into hiding. Once more the apostates had to swear in public, by Christ and the Virgin Mary, that they would never leave the Roman Catholic Church again.
Jakob Walter, alone and in distress, wrote to Russia that the fire had gone out at Sabatisch. Nothing remained but ashes and the brothers should not bother coming. Bidding his wife good-bye at night, he set off on foot, toward the north, to make his way to freedom alone.
Through Catholic Silesia Jakob found his way through the forests, travelling by night. He suffered from hunger and tiredness, but his joy was very great on coming to the Moravian Brothers’ community at Gnadenfrei in the fall of 1782. At Herrnhut, another German community, the friendly count, Nicholas Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, made him a passport and with good courage he set out through Lemberg and Kiev to find the believers in Russia. He arrived three days after Christmas, and on New Year’s day was re-instated as a brother.
Great was Jakob Walter’s joy to be back in peace with Christ and his church. But the thought of his wife and children in bondage lay heavy on him. As soon as the snow melted and warm weather came, he set out with Hans Stahl to get them.
The journey was rough. To Jakob’s great surprise his daughter Susanna had married a Catholic boy, Tobias Pullman, during his absence and could not leave. Katherina and the rest of the children still wanted to go, but to get papers for them proved impossible. Finally, with Hans and Andreas Stahl and his son Matthias (the latter two also from Sabatisch), the little group sneaked out under cover of darkness and walked the thousand miles to Russia.
Jakob could not forget his daughter. The next year he returned again to see if he couldn’t persuade her to come. But to his great surprise he met her with her husband (who had gone through a change of heart) and forty seven others from Sabatisch—the Tschetter, Wollman, and Stahl families—already on their way! With great joy they returned to Russia together. But the Walter family did not stay united at Vishinsk for long.
The following summer, Jakob, who had become the community’s schoolteacher, took the children out to the river on a Sunday afternoon. The boys raced to see who would get into the water first. Tobias Hofer, a lively eight-year-old, won the race, but he swam out of his depth and went under. Jakob jumped in to save him and they both drowned. Russian fishermen helped find their bodies and with many tears the congregation laid them to rest among the cherry trees.
A valuable life had ended, but a great example lived on. Jakob Walter’s son Darius (only ten years old when the family walked from Slovakia to Russia) grew up to marry Esther Kleinsasser. Their son Tobias came with his family to Bon Homme in South Dakota. His daughter Rachel married Michael Wurtz whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in many Anabaptist communities in America as well as at Rocky Cape in Tasmania.