Most parents would not have their eight-year-olds stand to watch people burned alive. But on September 6, 1529 Peter Walpot, eight years old, stood on the square at the Holzschranne, near Chiusa (now in northern Italy) and saw exactly that. He saw how the emperor’s men tied up Georg Blaurock and Hans Langegger. He heard their shouts to the crowd, calling on all to repent before the judgement of God would fall. Then he saw them engulfed in flames and the sight burned itself into his memory and soul.
As Peter Walpot grew up he faced two choices. Either he would live in a wild unconverted way, like his neighbours in the valley of the Eisack. Or he would live in godly self-denial as an Anabaptist. One choice meant an “ordinary” life, with a fair amount of security among the valley towns, Chiusa, Bolzano, and Bressanone. The other choice meant looking to the snowy Alps on either side for routes of escape.
In the light of the two men singing in the flames, Peter could make only one choice. Eternity, not a few years of comfort in the Süd-Tirol, was what mattered.
Among clandestine groups—sometimes a dozen or more men, women and children, straggling in dark clothes up streams from the Hochpustertal, in among the trees, and up through soaring heights into passes to Austria—Peter found his way to Moravia. There, after his baptism, he found great joy in learning from the Scriptures. He read whatever he could find of the story of God’s people, and by the age of twenty-one the brothers chose him to be a servant of the Word.
The Spirit of Christ moved people through Peter’s teaching. After four years he and his wife set out on a dangerous journey through Schlesien and Poland, visiting seekers, encouraging the faint, and warning the careless everywhere to repent. They travelled as far as Danzig on the Baltic Sea.
Back in Moravia, where they made their home among the brothers at the Neumühl (present day Nove Mlyny in the Czech Republic) Peter sat down to write. Using hundreds of Scriptures and the recorded words of Christ, he wrote in five articles why the brothers in Moravia baptised and gave communion only to adults, why they surrendered their property one to another (Gelassenheit), why they did not defend themselves against physical violence, and why they forsook unfaithful family members to join themselves to the Lord’s community.
Peter did not make things complicated. He took the words of Christ and the apostles at face value, and anyone could understand what he taught:
Out of God’s grace we become members of Christ’s body. Only those who are branches of Christ, green shoots growing from the true vine—those who share their lives in brotherly community as members of his body, the church—should take part in the supper of Christ. We see a picture of this in the loaf of bread made from many kernels ground together. We also see it in the grapes crushed together to make wine. That is why Paul says, “The bread we break shows the unity of the body of Christ. We who are many are one loaf and one body, for we have all become part of the same bread.”
Peter Walpot’s belief that Christians should work one with another as members in a body, blended together in taste and texture like the holy sacraments, did not remain wishful thinking. In his own life, and in the lives of those influenced by the same Spirit of Christ, it became a visible, functioning, reality—and this in the face of persecution and a severe famine from 1569 to 1571.
A contemporary of Peter Walpot compared the brotherhood in Moravia—of whom Peter became elder in 1565—to a clock or a bee hive:
Then they lived in the land God had chosen for them. . . . They gathered in peace and unity to learn from the Gospel twice a week, and many times more often than that. They prayed together about the needs of the community and thanked the Lord for everything they had received. They also prayed for their rulers and worldly powers.
They practised Christian baptism and church discipline. They also gathered to keep the evening meal of the Lord Jesus where they remembered how he had suffered and died for them. They thought of their lost condition without him, and gave thanks to him for redeeming them, for bringing them to unity of spirit and making them members of his body. Yes, it was to them a feast of thanksgiving for his unspeakable goodness toward them.
They held their things in common, like Christ did with his disciples. Regardless of who had been rich or poor, all shared their resources, their food, and their lodging so that all had enough. Their swords and spears they turned into pruning hooks, saws, and other useful tools. No rifles or other weapons were found among them anymore. Everyone was a brother to everyone else and they became a peaceful people that took no part in war or violence of any kind. Neither did they pay money so others could fight in their place. Patience alone was the weapon with which they overcame strife.
They were subject to the government in all things that did not go against their belief or conscience. They paid their taxes and took part in work crews as the law demanded, recognising that governments are put into office by God.
All twelve articles of the Christian faith they confessed and practised, and they sent out messengers on the Lord’s command: “As the father has sent me, so send I you.”
Every year, servants of the Gospel and their helpers are sent to where they are needed in every country. They visit those who long for a better way of life, who seek and struggle to know the truth. People like this, they lead out by day and by night, all threat of arrest and torture notwithstanding. Many give their necks, their bodies, and lives for this cause, and suffer personal loss. But through all this the good shepherd gets the Lord’s people gathered together.
No cursing or blasphemous words are heard among them. Neither do they swear oaths. There is no dancing, playing, drinking or carousing. They do not make fancy, frilly, proud, or immodest clothing. They sing no indecent romantic songs, of which the world is full, but Christian and spiritual hymns and Bible story songs are heard among them.
Their leaders are men who read, teach, and instruct from the word of God. With the word of God alone they bring about reconciliation, they decide things, and determine what to tolerate and what not to allow. Other appointed men see to the congregation’s material needs. . . . Everyone does what he is best able to do, but no one makes money on investments or in big business. Everyone feeds himself with simple day labour, in construction work and farming, among vineyards, cultivated fields, pastures, and gardens. Many of the brothers are carpenters and builders, working not only in Moravia, but throughout Austria, Slovakia, and Bohemia as well. . . . Also there are a good number of millers among them as well as masons, horse shoers, scythe and sickle makers, coppersmiths, locksmiths, clock makers, cutlers, tinsmiths, cloth dyers, furriers, shoe and saddle makers, harness and bag makers, and those who handcraft wagons, ropes, furniture, wood turnings, hats, cloth, clothing, blankets, woven goods, glassware, pottery, fermented goods, and medicines.
Wherever they are, all work for the good of one another. Everyone concerns himself with the other’s needs like so many members of the same body. All function together like the works of a clock or like so many bees in a hive.
Only in Moravia, around fifty Anabaptist communities in Peter Walpot’s time included thirty thousand members. From his home in the Neumühl he answered letters from seekers in many other places in Poland, Italy, and German territories from Austria to the Netherlands. He wrote instruction books in questions and answers and helped set up an effective system to copy hymns and important writings. Then, old and tired from a lifetime spent for Christ, his strength began to fail in the winter of 1577. He called the brothers to his room at the Neumühl. They assured one another of their love. They prayed together, and he departed in peace on January 30, 1578.
The Lord Christ did not ask Peter Walpot to die as a witness for him. He asked him to live as a member of his body on earth, and it grew the stronger for it.
Main source: Zieglschmid, A: J. F. (editor), Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, Cayuga Press, Ithaca NY, 1943