Theological ponderings from William Loewen

An Anabaptist Pilgramage (and no, that’s not a typo)

My theme of “(Re)Discovering Ancient Spiritual Practices” at the Mennonite Church where I serve as the pastor seems a little odd to some.  Those religious rituals having little to no bearing with our Radical Reformation past.  In fact, our spiritual ancestors would likely reject many of these activities as human creation and therefore unhelpful in our walk with Christ. In many ways I agree with these sentiments.  It is easy for us as human beings to ascribe more worth to the activities than what the activity is supposed to point toward.  Still, I would like to make the case that it might be possible to design a pilgrimage that would be perfect for Mennonites/Anabaptists/Free Church folk.

Most pilgrimages in use today retrace steps taken by an important person within that faith tradition.  Anabaptism has a number of important people, many of whom made significant trips as a part of their faith expression.  Pilgram Marpeck was just one of them.

As a young man, he had been trained as an engineer and was growing in influence and prominence as a member of a political family.  The Radical branch of the Reformation meant not only that new and “dangerous” ideas were spreading across Europe, but also that the people holding those beliefs often needed to find safe places to hide from persecuting church-state authorities.  The hills and mines of Austria provided just the relief that these radicals were looking for, but an impending war between Turkish and Austrian forces also meant that loyalty was being tested in every possible way.

Pilgram Marpeck’s job was to manage the supply of wood and other building materials, co-ordinate employee housing, etc.  By all accounts he was good at that, but his superiors added something to his job description.  As a show of religious and civic loyalty, Marpeck’s mining company was asked to give the names of any suspected re-baptizing dissidents or risk being branded as a sympathizer.

It was obvious to everyone in town what happened to people who had joined the re-baptizers. Leonhard Schiemer, who was also an Anabaptist of some note, was executed in the same town Pilgram Marpeck lived.  The specifics of what come next aren’t a part of the historical record, but it’s fair to speculate. Whether or not he came to follow Anabaptist Christianity because of these miners, he would have still lived and worked in close quarters with them.  These friends and coworkers would have been killed if he followed through on his orders.

Marpeck refused to submit these names and soon he had to leave town.  Did he leave to find work somewhere else? Did he leave because of family pressure?  Did he leave because he had already embraced the radical faith of the people whose lives he had tried to save?  Whatever the reason, he left Rattenberg, Austria in 1528 and next appeared in Strassbourg.

What happened in between?  Did he visit other Anabaptist communities in Moravia, Switzerland, or the Black Forest?  Did he wonder if he had made the right decision?  Did he come to a new faith position as he walked?  Did he assemble his new beliefs after having already changed his mind in Austria? Did he lay the foundation of future faith changes which came to fruition once he reached his destination?  I would love to know, but I would also love to retrace his steps.

Pilgram likely did most of his travelling by boat, and even if a modern pilgrim wanted to walk from the same origin to the same destination, contemporary Europe isn’t as free to traverse by foot than it would have been in the era of the reformation.  I will likely never be able to embark on this pilgramage, but maybe someday this will be a route that other Anabaptists take.

Strassbourg was a free imperial city, meaning that neither the catholic holy roman empire or the German city states could exercise full authority.  Religious rebels flooded into the city and Pilgrim Marpeck was allowed to live and work there for many years.  He was an engineer again and was a very successful one.  He worshipped with other Anabaptists in freedom.  Years later that freedom would expire and he fled again.  He continued writing and offering leadership to various Anabaptist congregations and communities.  He traveled often, and his safety wasn’t always guaranteed.  These later Pilgramages took on a different meaning than the original one, but I would be honoured to be able to retrace those steps as well.


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