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December 6, 2011

The high mountain passes of the Bernese Alps, known as the Berner Oberland, have for centuries been a distant, remote, and isolated place relatively free from any outside influence. A look at the local geography quickly reveals why.

Just south of the ancient city of Thun, which is in age perhaps more ancient than Jerusalem and maybe even a rival to Damascus, the jagged peaks of the Alps soar heavenward, piercing the clouds with their snowy heights. Between these peaks run a great number of valleys, with their rivers and tributaries which run on most cases down to the crystal clear Thunersee. In these valleys, walled in on all sides by towering peaks and monolithic guardians, live an ancient people known in times past as the Waldleute, or forest people.

The ancestors of these people and their unique culture have lived in these valleys for thousands of years. Many kingdoms and empires have passed through and ruled the lands below, but the mountains have always provided a stronghold.

The Niesen rises up from the shores of Lake Thun, and stands as the guardian of the western Oberland valleys. At its base, the Kander and Simme rivers merge and flow on to the lake, each one having descended from high up in the mountains. These two turbulent rivers with their valleys and tributaries mark the chief center of the land of an ancient people. For it is the Kandertal and the Simmental from which the earliest predecessors to the Anabaptist faith arise, along with their tributaries, the Kiental, Engstligental, and Diemtigtal.

It can be said with full assurance that the people of the upper valleys were never Catholic. There are three points which can be made which readily illustrate this point. First, their children were not baptized or christened in any Catholic church. Second, their marriages were not ever performed by a priest. Third, they never attended the mass or took part in the Eucharist. Indeed, throughout their entire history these people did not participate in any of the Catholic sacraments, and therefore it is impossible to say that they were Catholic or in any way affiliated with or under the dominion of Rome.

At the time of the establishment of Roman Christianity, which led in time to Catholicism, these lands were already on the very fringes of the Roman Empire. Their ancestors were given the gospel at the close of the first century, and carried it by themselves for over a millennium.

So what does this have to do with Anabaptism, exactly?

On the eve of the reformation, in the mid 15th century, the very first churches were built in these valleys. These were built by the Bernese, who had only begun to expand their territory into this region. However, even after the churches were built it was another matter to place priests in them. Most of these churches would in fact never have a priest, owing to the fact that within decades the Catholic church was driven forcibly from Bernese territory.

Here one might raise the point, if there were never churches in these valleys, how can we call them Christian? But here we must make an important point. The Church of Christ is not any building built by man’s hands, but is the body of believers brought together and built up by God. The people here had a simple yet penetrating faith that ruled their lives in many ways. This can be shown by the custom of engraving scriptures and invocations to God onto their homes, and by the deeply religious nature that to this day has been passed on to their descendents.

So when can we say that Anabaptism begins?

With the coming of the Reformation, the city of Bern sought to impose the mandated religion on all of its subjects. Prior to this, religious life in the Oberland was a very informal and unorganized affair. But if the traditions were to survive, and if this ancient faith were to prosper, then it would need at least some level of organization against the oncoming persecution.

It was at this time that God raised up leaders for His Church. First with the brethren in Zurich, whose ideas caught on to some degree in their own lands, but whose enduring effect would be to rally the believers in Bern. Through this movement, which was originally separate, a system was formed. Michael Sattler can said to be responsible for establishing and unifying a strong leadership. It was through the Schleithheim Confession, which Sattler organized and largely wrote, that the beliefs of the Anabaptists were firmly established. These important events gave these people the structure they would need if they were to survive.


From → History

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