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Im Berner Oberland

August 22, 2011
Coat of arms city of Adelboden (Switzerland)

In the year 1528, a man by the name of Hans Bähler was born. Hans was born in the village of Wattenwil, in the Oberland region of the Canton of Bern. The birth of this ancestor of mine, 483 years ago, coincides with a number of important events. It was in this year that Bern officially adopted the Protestant Reformation. It was also in this year, as part of the official Protestant stance of the Canton, that Anabaptist doctrines were officially condemned by the state. It was also right around this time that the Anabaptists gained a great many converts in the Oberland. The village of Wattenwil lies right in the middle of the Oberland Anabaptist region, which was centered around the nearby city of Thun. This village is thought to have been an important center of Anabaptist activity.

As far as the Bernese Anabaptists are concerned, most are familiar only with the community in the Emmental, a region east of the city of Bern, one of the lower valleys north of the high Alps of the Oberland. The Anabaptists of the Emmental endured some of the harshest persecution imaginable. Their history resonates down through the years, because of all they went through, but mostly because they happened to keep very good records of it.

The persecution of the believers in the Oberland was every bit as severe, if not more so. The believers here were every bit as numerous as in the Emmental, probably far more. It is hard to say, because they did not keep any records. The government was far more zealous in exterminating the Oberland community, so much so that it does not exist at all today and there are virtually no good records to be found.

History does reveal itself to us, if we look close enough.

During the 17th century, thousands of Anabaptists fled their homes in the Canton of Bern. First they moved to the Swiss Jura, and then to the Alsace, which today is a part of France. Today, the majority of Anabaptists in America trace their heritage to those who fled to these lands. By observing the names common with these people, something becomes immediately obvious. Almost all of them come from the Oberland. Very few trace their origins to the Emmental. In America today, there are far more Anabaptists of Oberland origin than of any other region. This region is so undeniably important to our history and our heritage, yet we have almost totally forgotten about it. To many, Bernese Anabaptist and Emmentaler are one in the same.

But instead, for much of us our heritage does not go back to the castle of Trachselwald and the hills of the Emmental. Instead, our ancestors were thrown into dungeons in the great castle of Thun, and sought refuge high on the snow-covered peaks of the Alps and in the dense forests of Oberland valleys. Our ancestors came from villages such as Wattenwil, Adelboden, Sigriswil, Uetendorf, Frutigen,  and Kirchdorf, nestled in alpine valleys or along the shores of Lake Thun. They did not farm the fertile hills of the Emmental, but herded cattle in the high mountain pastures.

It is right into this land, to the village of Adelboden, that the doors seem to have opened for me. It is here, I am told, that the name Bütschi, which is remembered in English as Beachy, has its origins. A testament to the fact that once, perhaps 250 years ago, there were Anabaptists in this place. Today it is a popular tourist destination. It is well known for its ski slopes, and even hosts the world ski championships every winter, but its involvement in the history of the Anabaptists has been completely lost. For many people here, this may be a very real part of their own heritage. But they have long ago forgotten.

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