The discussions held between Zwingli and the Anabaptist leaders constitute an important chapter in the history of baptism. A few modern historians have asserted that Zwingli in the public debates on; the question of baptism was victorious over his opponents. It is true that he often made this assertion. His testimony on this point, however, can not be uncritically accepted.
The first public debate between the Swiss Anabaptists and Zwingli was held on January 17, 1525, in the city hall of Zurich. The Zwinglian historian Bullinger, who was present at the discussions, testifies that Grebel, Mantz and Roublin presented their arguments for believers’ baptism as follows:
Infants can not believe and do not understand what baptism is. Baptism should be administered to believers to whom the Gospel has been previously preached, who have understood it and of their own accord desire baptism and who are willing to mortify the old man and lead a new life. Of all this the infants know nothing whatever, therefore baptism is not intended for them. Here they cited the Scriptures from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and showed that the apostles did not baptize infants, but only those who had come to an age of understanding; therefore the same should now be done. And infant baptism, being not administered in accord with Scripture, was invalid and it was necessary to be baptized anew.
Bullinger does not tell us in particular how Zwingli met these arguments, but says simply, his grounds and arguments were the same as he afterwards set forth in his Book on Baptism.
On the day following the debate the Council (the civil authorities) of Zurich published a decree demanding that all unbaptized infants must be baptized within eight days and those who would not comply with this ruling must leave the country. In this decree the debate on baptism is mentioned but, remarkably enough, it is not asserted that Zwingli successfully refuted the arguments of his opponents against infant baptism. Zwingli, in his Book on Baptism, and elsewhere, makes this assertion, however, and also says: “We have the testimony of the whole honourable Council that the Anabaptists have always been overcome.” He knew that in Zurich the Council would decide against those who defended believers’ baptism.
Again, Zwingli informs us that after the debate of January 17 all theologians “were of the opinion that it were not proper but dangerous to have further debates with them.” It is a remarkable fact that the Council of Zurich showed evident uneasiness when information reached them that a public discussion on the question of infant baptism was to be held in Schaffhausen (in which, doubtless, Hubmaier would take part). The Council, on February 8, 1525, addressed the authorities of Schaffhausen as follows:
Having heard that you intend to hold a convocation or debate concerning infant baptism in your city and have invited for this purpose a number of learned men, to ascertain the teaching of the Scriptures, we – desire to say that our theologians have recognized the Anabaptist doctrines as erroneous. And we would further inform you that Ulrich Zwingli will forthwith publish a book [on the said question] and we ask you to postpone the debate until you have read Zwingli’s book. But if you will not wait, then inform us of the appointed day that we may send our representatives and theologians.
“This letter betrays that the Council of Zurich entertained the fear that a religious debate at Schaffhausen might lead to different results from those of the debate held at Zurich,” says C. A. Bachtold. Instead of welcoming a discussion on the burning question of the day and offering, as might have been expected, to send their leading reformer for the defence of the opinion for which they stood, the Council of Zurich feared that a debate would serve to convince the authorities of Schaffhausen of the rightfulness of Anabaptism. Again, at other places, notably at St. Gall, the state-church party found itself in desperate straits in the combat with the dissenters, but we do not hear of Zwingli offering himself to come to the assistance of his friends. The Council of Schaffhausen complied with the desire of the authorities of Zurich and did not arrange for a debate.
On March 20, 1525, a discussion was held between leading Anabaptists and the Zwinglian reformers in Zurich. The Anabaptist spokesmen were, one after another, brought up from the prison for a hearing and to be instructed by Zwingli and his helpers, Leo Jud and Oswald Myconius; it was in every instance an unequal combat of three against one.
The Anabaptists desired a public debate in which they would have permission to present their arguments and speak freely without being interrupted and hindered by their opponents. They complained that they were refused the right to publish books or tracts and in the public discussions Zwingli had all liberty to interrupt them and prevent the full presentation of their argument. Bullinger says:
They asserted that although a debate was held with them, they had found it impossible to get a rightful hearing and Zwingli did not permit any one [of his opponents] to express himself unhindered.” “He has a way to make it impossible for his opponents to give voice to the truth. He has maintained his cause not with God’s Word but through talking more and louder than anyone else, and through the authority of the government.
From at least three sides the Council was petitioned to arrange for a public debate with the Anabaptists. The civil authorities of the principality of Gruningen in the Canton Zurich sent four deputies “to ask Our Lords [the Council] earnestly and urgently to have another debate held with the prisoners.” Further the four men were instructed “to petition the Council that Zwingli be admonished to let the Anabaptists have their say and not to interrupt them when they bring forth their arguments. — But if Our Gracious Lords would deny this right to the poor, honest men and would not permit them a debate (which we do by no means expect) in such case the four deputies will inform us of their decision.”
Two written petitions of Anabaptists for a debate at this time are preserved in the archives of Zurich. They are touching appeals, addressed to the Council, “to let the divine Word prevail and decide these matters.” They say further:
We desire the divine, clear, unadulterated Word of God without any additional suppositions and opinions. For what is not contained in the Scriptures, we do by no means desire. — Gracious Lords, we ask you for God’s sake to arrange a public discussion of this question similar to the debate concerning pictures [in the churches] and mass. — If in a discussion it be found from Scripture that we err, we shall willingly yield, be it in the matter of baptism or in other points.
The Anabaptists desired a debate although they were aware that the judges who were to decide concerning the results would be of their opponent party. Since it was impossible for them to defend themselves through the press, they entertained the hope that a public discussion would serve to stop the mouth of the slanderers and to persuade the Council of the harmlessness of their views. They overlooked the fact that a majority of the Council, under Zwingli’s leadership had espoused the cause of state-churchism and believed with him that infant baptism was indispensable for the prosperity of the church. It need not be repeated here that to the principle of an exclusive state-church, the Anabaptist tenets were destructive.
Urged from various quarters the Council finally decided to have a debate on infant baptism. It has been pointed out above that in Zwingli’s opinion further debates with the Anabaptists were “dangerous,” but even he finally consented. Bullinger informs us that four judges were appointed to preside, in order that no one would be interrupted or permitted “to speak contrary to good rules of order.” The judges were leading representatives of Zwinglianism: Wolfgang Joner of Cappel, Conrad Schmidt of Kiissnach, Sebastian Hofmeister of Schaffhausen and Joachim Vadian of St. Gall.
The great debate was held on November 7, 8, and 9, 1525, in the Great Minster Church. A glance over the sentences which were made the basis for the discussions shows at once that the Anabaptists had no voice in their adoption as questions for the debate. The last of the sentences has the assertion that to rebaptize on the confession of faith is “to crucify Christ anew.” Bullinger informs us again that Zwingli’s arguments in this debate are the same as those found in his reply to Hubmaier’s book on Believer’s Baptism. At the close of the last session Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz and George Blaurock were “layed into the New Tower” while Michael Sattler and others were banished. After a short time the prisoners were released with the announcement that “if they persist in their separation [from the state-church] the most severe punishment would be meted out to them.”
Immediately after this debate the Anabaptists again complained that “they were not given a proper hearing.” Bullinger, speaking of the debates in general, does not deny that they were interrupted but naively enough, asserts there was a reason: “For they would say only what they desired, and not what they ought to say.” One of the judges in this debate, Conrad Schmidt, published a sermon delivered at the time of the disputation of Bern, 1528, against the Anabaptists. This sermon is of importance, not for its intrinsic worth and the reliability of its statements but because it shows strikingly the attitude of one of the judges toward the Anabaptists. On the basis of the text Phil. 3:18, 19 (“….whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly,” etc.) Schmidt has the following to say:
“No one has ever portrayed the Anabaptists more faithfully than Paul in these verses. — To advance their Caiaphas-like knavery they preach first of all that one should not say the ‘Hail Mary’ [the well known prayer to Mary]. Fy upon the devilish, impertinent Anabaptists that they are not ashamed to refuse due honor to the Virgin Mary. Who could rebuke me, if without ceasing; I said: ‘Hail Mary’ etc? And again who would not severely rebuke me if I permitted the unchristian Anabaptists to scare me that I should never again say the ‘Hail Mary’? But nothing is too much or too scandalous for the impudent, devilish spirit of Anabaptism. — The truth does not sound well to their ears; the water of Anabaptism got into their ears that they let them hang like swine,” etc.