The Radical Reformer
A radical among radicals, Conrad Grebel’s vision for the church is a familiar one to most evangelicals today. But at the time it made him an exile, not just from Roman Catholicism, but even among the Reformers.
Grebel was born in 1498 to a prominent family in Zurich. In 1524, Grebel’s university career began in Basel with what seemed like a promising start. But things unraveled as Grebel’s differences of opinion with his teacher, his brawling, and his loose living caused his father to cut him off. Chastened, he returned home to Zurich, where he fell in with a small band of humanists studying Greek, Hebrew, and the Latin Bible under the instruction of Ulrich Zwingli.
Sometime in the year following his stint with Zwingli, Grebel’s life changed. He married a woman below his class, which caused a further break with his family, and he was converted, as evidenced by a dramatic change in his lifestyle. It didn’t take long for Grebel to become one of Zwingli’s most enthusiastic supporters and earn a reputation as a gifted gospel witness.
Dispute and Disrepute
But just a little more than a year later, in October 1523, a wedge began working its way between the two men. The culprit? Mass. In a public disputation, both men favored abolishing the Mass, but when Zwingli saw that the city councilmen were not ready to go that far, he relented. This was unthinkable to Grebel, who felt that the clear word of God must be obeyed without delay. Both sides felt betrayed: Grebel felt Zwingli agreed to do what he had condemned as abominable (that is, continue performing the Mass), and Zwingli felt Grebel was ungrateful and demanding.
This dispute got to the heart of one of Grebel’s deepest differences with the mainstream Reformers: To whom does the church answer? Grebel was convinced that the city councilmen should have no authority over the church and its practice — more so, they should have no authority over the word of God itself. On the flip side, he didn’t think the church should have authority over the state either, and he opposed compulsory tithing and the like. The seeds of a separation between church and state were germinating. To us, this separation is as familiar as the air we breathe; to them, it was revolutionary.
A Romish Water Bath
The last nail in the coffin on Grebel’s association with the mainstream Reformers was over infant baptism. Grebel had hoped that Zwingli might be amenable to his conviction that only believing adults should be baptized, but it was not to be so.
On January 17, 1525, Zwingli called for a public debate to force the issue. Grebel was joined by Felix Manz and George Blaurock for the side of believers’ baptism. In the end, the city council agreed with Zwingli and ordered Grebel’s group to cease meeting for Bible study. They also ordered all unbaptized infants to be brought for baptism or else be exiled. Grebel’s daughter was two weeks old at the time and, in Grebel’s words, “had not yet been baptized and bathed in the Romish water bath.” Nor would she be while Grebel drew breath, which wasn’t for long.
A few days after the debate, Grebel gathered at Felix Manz’s home with the exiled radicals, and he performed the first adult baptism on Blaurock, a married former priest. In the months following, Grebel preached the gospel of “repent and be baptized” in St. Gall, and around five hundred people responded by doing just that.
Grebel was arrested and imprisoned in October 1525. After escaping from prison the following year, he continued preaching the gospel until he died of the plague just a few months later.
Preach and Obey
The driving force behind Grebel’s actions and doctrinal reforms could be summed up this way: preach and obey the word without compromise. In his own words,
Seek earnestly to preach only God’s word unflinchingly, to establish and defend only divine practices, to esteem as good and right only what can be found in definite clear Scripture, and to reject, hate, and curse all the schemes, words, practices, and opinions of all men, even your own.
Even if it means exile or worse.