“Unkillable” is not a word in the English language. However, it is the best translation of a word in the motto that Balthasar Hübmaier, the greatest theologian of the early Anabaptists, used on all his writings: Die Wahrheit ist untödlich (“Truth is unkillable”).
The brilliant Hübmaier was born around 1481 in a small town called Friedberg just outside of Augsburg. He attended the University of Freiburg and there came under the tutelage of the great Catholic theologian Dr. John Eck. Hübmaier completed both the bachelor’s and master’s degrees then followed Eck to the University of Ingolstadt where he received the Doctor of Theology degree. Because of his great preaching ability and keen theological mind he accepted appointment as preacher at the cathedral in Regensburg in 1516. Five years later he became a parish priest in Waldshut and there came into contact with Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation. Two years later, he became publicly identified with Zwingli’s reform in Zurich, but soon developed Anabaptist ideas.
Along with his preaching, Hübmaier’s pen became a powerful voice for spreading Anabaptist ideas. Soon, he came into conflict with Zwingli and in late 1525 Zwingli had both Hübmaier and his wife arrested. He was forced to enter the pulpit of the Fraumünster in Zurich and recant publicly. As he began to speak instead of recanting he said, “Oh what anguish and travail I have suffered this night over the statements which I myself have made. So I say here and now, I can and I will not recant.”[i] Zwingli immediately stopped Hübmaier and had him arrested again. This time he underwent torture at the hands of Zwingli and eventually produced a written statement recanting of his Anabaptist ideas.
In early 1526 he left Zurich for Nikolsburg in Moravia where once again he took up the Anabaptist cause, this time with greater force than before. Moravia was one of the most tolerant regions in Europe and Hübmaier had a great amount of freedom to preach Anabaptist ideas there. It is estimated that more than 6,000 were baptized in the one year of Hübmaier’s ministry in Nikolsburg. But this year of relative peace was not to last long. The fortune of Anabaptists in Moravia soon changed and Hübmaier was arrested, taken to Vienna, and burned at the stake on March 10, 1528. Although tortured mercilessly for several days before his death, this time he refused to recant. He was urged to confess to a priest and receive last rites before his execution but he steadfastly refused. An eyewitness to his execution described Hübmaier’s death this way:
To the people he said, “O dear brothers, if I have injured any, in word or deed, may he forgive me for the sake of my merciful God. I forgive all those that have done me harm.”
While his clothes were being removed: “From thee also, O Lord, were the clothes stripped. My clothes will I gladly leave here, only preserve my spirit and my soul, I beseech thee!” Then he added in Latin: “O Lord, into thy hands I commit my spirit,” and spoke no more in Latin.
As they rubbed sulphur and gunpowder into his beard, which he wore rather long, he said, “Oh salt me well, salt me well.” And raising his head, he called out: “O dear brothers, pray God that he will give me patience in this my suffering.” As his beard and hair caught fire, he cried out, “O Jesus, Jesus.”[ii]
[i] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 92.
[ii] Ibid., p. 103.