Leonhard Schiemer


To see a Franciscan brother hurrying down the valley road between the Gleinalpe and the Niedere Tauern of Austria’s heavily forested Steiermark surprised no one in the 1520s. No one, that is, except Brother Leonhard himself.

His brown robe flapping about his legs, and his face nearly hidden in a pointed cowl, Brother Leonhard hurried from Judenburg toward Knittelfeld and did not look back. Six years ago when he entered the Judenburg monastery, he could not have imagined doing what he did now (leave with no intentions to return). Neither could he have imagined the circumstances that would drive him to it.

Brother Leonhard wanted to know Christ. With all his heart he longed for inner purity and peace. He wanted to pray with a clean conscience and to live unattached from the world. All these things the Franciscans had told him about. In the monastery’s beautiful devotional books he had read about living with Christ. But what he met among the brothers—treachery and corruption—he now hated to think about. A kind acquaintance in the valley gave him peasant clothes and a guilder and he continued his flight to southern Germany.

In Nürnberg, Leonhard found work with a tailor. His parents, well-meaning villagers from Vöcklabruck in Upper Austria, would have been disappointed. They had wanted him to be a priest.

Leonhard was disappointed too, not with his lowly trade, but with nearly everything he found in the name of religion. Then, when he heard, in the spring of 1527, that a new movement “just like the early Christians” had taken shape in Moravia, he hurried there on foot, and from Moravia he travelled south to Vienna.

What Leonhard learned of the new movement far surpassed his expectations. It also struck him to the heart. Was he ready to forsake all to follow Christ? He wished he knew.

Here and there in Moravia and Austria he discovered tiny fellowships of brothers and sisters living in community with Christ. Most of them were of the poorest and humblest people. They held no impressive ceremonies. They claimed no earthly power and lived in constant danger of arrest. But they loved one another and Christ came to them as his teaching transformed their lives. After two days of earnest discussion with a small group that met on the Kärntnerstrasse in Vienna, Brother Leonhard knelt before a messenger of the new movement, Oswaldt Glaidt, and got baptised with water on confession of faith.

After his baptism, Leonhard lost no time in returning to his Austrian homeland to tell others what he had found. But his former companions at the monastery became his enemies and tried to catch him. Many who had loved him now feared and hated him as—driven by the reality of seeking young people like himself, and families in spiritual distress—he held meetings by day and night, from town to town, until he came to the city of Steyr.

In Steyr, the centre of Austria’s steel industry, the sweet voice of the Spirit led dozens to conversion. From there Leonhard travelled through Salzburg and into Bavaria. Then he followed the Inn valley to the old town of Rattenberg in the Tyrol where on November 25, barely seven months after his conversion, he fell into the authorities’ hands.

The judge at Rattenberg, Bartholomeus Angst, liked Brother Leonhard and treated him kindly, at first. He let visitors talk with him and bring him paper and ink. Leonhard did not lose the opportunity. For the last seven weeks of his life he wrote letters to new Christians:

Dear brothers, do not quarrel, or you may drive the Spirit of God out from among you. Carry one another’s burdens. Let those who are strong among you sympathise with the weak, for despising the weak is no sign of strength. If you want to have part in Christ, do not neglect his earnest command in the example of footwashing.

For the discouraged he wrote gentle words of advice. For the proud he wrote warnings. For the joyful he wrote songs. In all his writings Leonhard testified to the heavenly light that shines within those who surrender themselves to Christ. One of the articles he wrote in prison he called: 

Three Kinds of Grace

The First Kind

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and God was the Word. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by the Word, and without it nothing was made that is made. In this was life, and that life was the light of the world that shines in this present darkness.

John spoke of the light through which all come to believe—not through John the Baptist as Luther translates it, but through the Light itself. “He was the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” Here also Luther has erred by saying it was “through his coming into the world.” Look at your Latin and Hebrew Bibles! Luther translates it this way because he believes in coming to Christ, to God, to the faith, and to the light. But he does not want to have the light within us. He only wants it beside, under, or around us, as can be seen in this same chapter where he translates: “The word became flesh and lives among us.” All scholars know it should say, “lives in us” and not among us. In Paul’s epistles he translates it the same way, “among all creatures,” because he hopes to God and believes on Christ. But we are to hope in God, believe in Christ, have the word in us, and not just among us.

John writes further in his Gospel about the Light of Grace: “He was in the world and the world was made by him, but the world knew him not. He came into his own, but his own did not accept him. To as many as accepted him, however, he gave power to become the children of God. . . . From God’s abundance we have all received grace after grace. First the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

In this passage John identifies the law of Moses as the first kind of grace and [the Gospel of] Christ as the second kind. He explains how the law was given in an outward way through the Moses and how the Light and the Word dwell within us. The outward (the law) is nothing but a pointer to the inward.

Moses was an outer witness to the grace within us. Christ is an inner witness to the same, as we read: “John was not that light, but testified of that light.” So that we could understand this, Christ said: “The eye is the light of the body. If the eye is single, the whole body will be full of light. But if the eye is bad, the whole body is full of darkness. If the light that is within you is darkness, how great that darkness will be!” Further the Lord says, “If your whole body is light, so that there is no darkness in it, it will light everything up, like the light of lightning.”

From this I take that God enlightens every man that comes into the world. But those who do not accept this light and who put it out, may not blame God for their condemnation, like the Protestants who blaspheme and criticise God by saying, “I do not have grace. I would have loved to do what is right, but God is guilty in that he withheld grace from me and condemns me for it.” In this way they make the Scriptures to lie, and depict God as one who has respect of persons, valuing one person more than the other, taking a liking to one while not to the other.

This is against the Scripture, as Peter says: “Now I see that God is no respecter of persons, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” And it is written, “God is not far from every one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being. Also, Paul says that God’s eternal power and divinity can be seen by looking into the works of his creation in nature, so that no one has any excuse. From the beginning they have seen the obvious, but seeing that he was God they acknowledged him not as God. Then they became vain in their imaginations and their hearts grew dark.” Paul says further, “God is no respecter of persons. Those who sin without the law shall be lost without the law. The conscience, even of the heathen, either condemns or justifies, until the day that God will bring all the world to judgement before Christ.

Christ says the law and the prophets are summed up in this command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” 

The Lord also says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” From this we see that every man has that light within himself to show him what is good and what is bad. Children, however, even though this light shines within them, do not yet know what is good or evil. They are innocent and will come into the promised land—not the earthly land of Canaan but the heavenly Jerusalem. . . . Christ says, “Let the little children come to me for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In this light from heaven everyone may see what he is and what he is not. . . . I am not an eye-witness of how it goes with the Turks and heathens in other lands, but in my heart I am sure that God is no respecter of persons but accepts everyone that comes to him in repentance. At the same time, I am sure that no one comes to belief in God without God revealing himself to him.

All men have this light within themselves, but they respond to it in three different ways as follows:

Some, when the light first shines into their darkness, that is into their flesh, run to put it out as quickly as possible. (I do not speak here of the light of the sun in heaven. I speak of the light of the eternal living Word and of the darkness of flesh and blood. The Light of the Word engenders all that is good and the flesh engenders all that is bad. Between these two stands the soul. Because we all, with the exception of Christ, have turned toward the flesh with our souls, we have all died in our souls. But Christ revives us through his Word so that we have the will, if not the ability, to obey it.) These first ones withstand the light of their consciences so mightily that they become utterly corrupt, and they always withstand the Holy Ghost.

God hardens these rebellious ones—these who wilfully resist the Light—and withdraws his power from them. Because they ignore the knowledge of God within themselves, God gives them over to a corrupted mind to do what is indecent, full of all unrighteousness, immorality, excess, greed, mischief, hatred, murder, slandering, craftiness, flattering, gossip, quarrels, pride, haughtiness, and disobedience to parents. They become enemies of God, uncomprehending, faithless, unfriendly, annoying, and unmerciful. These are the ones who even though they know what God wants them to do, do what is contrary to it and have pleasure in others that do the same. These are the ones who do not listen to St. Peter’s rooster.

As soon as St. Peter heard the rooster crowing after he denied Christ, he went out and wept bitterly. But this first type, when the rooster crows in their hearts, tie his beak shut. His crowing annoys them and they hate him. They continue doing this until they no longer hear his crowing and until they have no more fear of sin. They continue until they go walking blindly into sin and no one can frighten them out of it anymore. Such people make the best and happiest soldiers. Because they no longer worry about any danger they go out to kill and rob as much as they please. They gladly push their way up to the front. They make good fighters, happy dancers, jumpers, singers, players, soldiers, hangmen, womanisers, bishops, archbishops, abbots, traitors, and false witnesses. These are the people the Lord hardens and of whom he says: “Because the light that is in them is darkness, how great is that darkness itself!”

We are forbidden to speak to such hardened people, when we come across them, of the Word of God. They are dogs and sows of whom the Lord says, “You shall not give your holiness to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before the swine. For they will trample it with their feet and turn around to tear up the one who tries to teach them.

A second kind of people is passive about the Light within them. These people do not tie the beak of St. Peter’s rooster totally shut. Neither do they let him open it altogether. Rather, as often at their conscience frightens them they quickly hold their hand over it and think of something else. To these the Scriptures speak in another place: “Oh that you were hot or cold. But since you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth.” These are the five virgins who act like Christians but who do not have the Oil of the Holy Ghost. They fear God half-heartedly but pay too much attention to the fear of man, to wisdom and common sense, to the counsel, power, and talents of others. They are clever (fürwitzig) indeed. They ask many questions and want to know about everything. But they can also be very deceptive, coming around as angels of light. Yes, they are good Christians until they come to the cross. They are morning servants. They are winter berries that would be just like grapes, except for the fact that they ripen too late. They come after the door is already locked. They are not quick to prayer. Therefore they fall in temptation and do not fully realise the pitiful condition they are in.

Of these the Lord says, “The servant who knows his master’s will but does not do it will be beaten with many stripes. These are his wages.” And these make it necessary for the ones who lead out in our community to identify spirits. If a man is approached about anything in his life and he says he will have to think about it for a while, let him go and think about it. As long as he does not take a hold of the situation he is not really sorry for it, and the fire within him burns only as a coal whose flame has gone out.

A third group of people, as soon as this light reveals something within them, hastens to the Word of God. They put on all effort to withstand sin. They pray. They listen to preaching, they read much and ask many questions with a true heart. Even though they hate sin they cannot totally overcome it in their own strength and are often overcome by it. But as soon as that happens they are sorry. It pains them and they humble themselves. To such, God gives grace and he has mercy on them. The Lord says, “I will look after the one who humbles himself and who pays attention to my word”  (Rom. 9). David also says, “A contrite and humble heart, Lord, you will not despise (Psalm 50). Christ says, “Come unto me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Further it stands written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

This third kind of people indeed have complaints, unrest and pain of heart, and no Scripture nor teaching can comfort them, apart from the Word of God. This fire burns them and allows them no rest until God shows them how and with what they can escape sin. These know something to say about hell. They are inwardly the most unhappy that they cannot look cheerful. But because these make correct use of the first kind of grace and do not knock it from them (through which sin is revealed to them), to these alone the second kind of grace is promised.

The Second Kind of Grace

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Blessed are those who study continually how they might be justified, and be filled. Blessed are they when they weep and complain, because they will be comforted.

The second kind of grace is Righteousness. It is a great work of God to make man out of nothing, and it is no less great a work for him to make a righteous people out of sinners. But this cannot and does not happen outside of Christ. 

Christ is our righteousness—through his conception, birth, death, and resurrection, if they become realities in us. He says, “If anyone wants to be my disciple let him follow me” (Luke 9:14). Further, he says, “Without me you can do nothing.” Peter says, “He who suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

The first kind of grace (the light within us) is our trainer to bring us to Christ, the Light of the world. But now, when his Spirit enters into us, we are no longer under the trainer, but under grace. Now the law of works, of sin, of death, and of the members of our bodies end, and the new law of the Spirit, of faith, and life, begins to operate in our consciences. This Spirit, however will not be given to anyone who has not first given himself to the cross and discipline of the Lord. No one grafts a branch into a tree before one has pruned out the old ones. Even God Almighty does not save us without the cross, but salvation and God himself comes to us once we love nothing more than God, once we seek no joy or comfort in another, neither security or life in anything other than God, and once our hearts stop seeking fulfilment among created things. . . .

We cannot know God unless the blanket that covers the heavenly light within us has been removed. That blanket is the veil of created things and the comfort we find in them. The more it is drawn back from us for the sake of Christ, the more the light of God’s Word may shine out.

The one who gives himself to God under the cross is a child of God. But that is not enough. He also separates himself from those who do not surrender themselves to Christ, and he begins to hold community with all who give themselves to God. With them he holds in common the gifts he receives from God, be that teaching, ability, goods, money, etc. What God has loaned to him he invests in the common good, like we state in our articles of faith and like we find in the Scriptures, particularly in the account of the twelve apostles. In third place he commits himself to brotherly discipline (Matt. 18) and to leave off from sin. The one who is not loosened [from the world] and taken into the fellowship of the body of Christ will not be accepted into heaven. John says, “The one who does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” Also the Lord says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”

One can say then that this second kind of grace is the cross. If you ask for it, the cross is what you will get.

The Third Kind of Grace

The Lord tells about a man who went to Jericho and fell among thieves. A pastor went by without attending to his wounds. Next an evangelist went by. He did not attend to them either, but a despised Samaritan came to his aid. He gave him wine and poured oil into his wounds.

Up to now, I have been telling you about the wine, now let me tell you about the oil: the third kind of grace is the oil of joy.

Of this oil St. John says: “You have the anointing of him who is holy and who knows all things. I have not written as if you did not know the truth, for you know it and you know that no lie comes of the truth.” A little later he writes, “The anointing you have received from God stays with you. As this anointing teaches you and is no lie, stay with it.” Of this oil the Lord also says, “The Comforter, the Holy Ghost, whom my Father has given in my name the same will teach you all things and bring to your mind all things that I said.” This oil is the Holy Ghost. But the Holy Ghost comes to no one with his teaching who has not first denied human comfort and securities and stopped trusting in them.

For this reason the Lord says, “Do not be called Master,” and Christ takes no one to be his disciple unless he has first given up and come to hate all earthly things, taken up his cross and come to follow him. Doing this, his disciples find hope in the Lord’s comfort and wait quietly on him as described in many Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, the Prophets, and in the Lamentation of Jeremiah.

The Christian’s strength lies in waiting quietly, in faithfully keeping all of Christ’s commands, and in refusing to become discouraged. The Christian is longsuffering and even in dire need waits patiently on the comfort of the Holy Ghost.

This is the weakness of which the Scriptures speak, especially in Paul’s letters: “When I am weak, then am I strong.” And to the degree that we suffer with Christ he gives us the comfort of his blessing.

Christ said, “Yet for a little while you will see me, then after a little while you will see me no longer.” When the apostles did not understand him he told them, “Of a truth I say unto you, you will weep and complain, but the world will rejoice. And if it kills you it will think it is doing God a service. But I will not leave you as orphans. I will come back to you.”

The world’s life has a happy beginning, but an eternally tragic end. Our life on the other hand has a sad beginning, but the Holy Spirit soon comes and anoints us with the oil of unspeakably great joy! . . . James speaks of this oil, saying that if anyone is sick we should anoint him with it in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will lift him up. If he has committed sins they will be forgiven him. Here James means more than just natural oil. The holy ones, chosen by God, who now in Salzburg and other places are praising God through dying as martyrs for him could have bathed themselves in tubs of oil yet not remained faithful. Not natural oil, but the comfort of Christ in their souls made their martyrdom bearable. The Apostles anointed with it and we do it yet today.

As the day of his trial drew closer, Brother Leonhard faced fears and distress in prison. He remembered the time he had wasted and with thoughts of death his writings grew more vivid:

Oh eternal Father, you know I did not begin this out of my own strength, but only because I trusted your promises. Now my heart rests in the same. You know what kind of person I am. . . . What is my strength? It is nothing! All my energy is crushed like a piece of broken pottery. Of what profit, now, are the worldly joys in which I once sinned against you? They are like a ship that rides over the sea and leaves no track behind, or like a bird that flies quickly through the air without leaving trace nor trail. . . . My life is coming to an end like a piece of cloth out of the loom. . . . The Lord has numbered my days and appointed my end. I cannot get around it. . . . The lion sits in its den, waiting to pounce on me. The Lord has delivered me into his power. A beast with seven heads has me in its claws and rattles its teeth over me. Every moment I think it is going to bite and tear me apart. My food has turned to gall and my drink to myrrh.

Oh beloved brothers, I was going to write more to you. But my flesh failed when I heard the leopard coming. Yes I wanted to write more profitable admonitions to you but my heart compelled me to tell you of my concerns and my frightened condition instead. Oh beloved brothers, keep yourself from light-heartedness! Make good use of your time for the day [of trial] draws near. Think of the hour of trouble that is to come upon you while you are still in peace. I tell you of a truth, if you are not totally turned to God in your hearts, and if you have not learned to pray earnestly or to mix your bread with tears, you will not stand the coming test. It will come upon you like a thief when you do not expect it. Watch out that the Lord finds  you awake!

On one occasion Brother Leonhard thought he saw an opportunity to escape the prison. He took it, got caught, and his treatment grew worse. Under pressure from the regional authorities at Innsbruck the judge agreed to speed up his trial. But before they burned Brother Leonhard at the stake on January 14, 1528, he allowed the executioner to behead him.

Seventy executions followed Brother Leonhard’s, at Rattenberg on the Inn. Within a few years the Anabaptist witness in the town in the town disappeared. But the body of Christ, like Leonhard Schiemer’s epistles, moved, spread and grew from there to places around the world.

Main source: Die Hutterischen Episteln, 1527 bis 1763, Dritter Band, Herausgegeben von den Hutterischen Brüdern in Amerika, Elie, Manitoba, 1988

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