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War against the Täufer

December 8, 2011

Catholicism appeared in the western valleys of the Oberland region of Bern starting in the beginning of the 15th century (that’s the 1400’s for those who don’t know). And it was in this time that the village of Adelboden received its first church. In the year 1433 a few men built this church, which building has changed very little since. Out of around 500 residents of the village at the time, 56 were willing to vouch for the salary and support of a priest.

But what does this church have to do with anything?

This church, it would appear, was the center of a clash between two faiths. On the one hand, we have the old farmers of the valley who held on to their ancient customs, including their simple understanding of the Gospel. On the other we have the Catholics, likely those who had been under some level of influence from the authorities of Bern which had acquired this valley a few years prior and which was at this time a devoutly Catholic city.

There is evidence that these people would have preserved an old Christian practice, long since abandoned by Rome. It would certainly seem as if they failed to baptize their infant children as was the practice of the newly arrived Catholic Church. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to trace baptismal records at all in these valleys back before a time well after the Reformation moved in.

This was obviously a matter of great trouble for the Catholics, and something they apparently fought very hard against. For it is on the side of the old church in Adelboden that the debate found permanent expression. Here there is an old Fresco which depicts the Last Judgment. This is a very common image on a Medieval Catholic church.

On the left portion of this picture are the blessed, those who at the judgment are allowed to enter into heaven. This side has been washed away by 500 years of weather. On the right, still quite visible, are those condemned to hell.  This is all very usual, except for one portion which stands out, and is not found elsewhere on last judgment paintings. There condemned to an eternity of suffering are the heads of unbaptized children.

This stands out, and makes a bold statement. This is not a common thing to place on the side of one’s church, and I can only imagine that it was put here quite deliberately. It certainly seems to make a bold statement against the baptizing of adults, and stands as a sharp warning to those who did not wish to have their children baptized.

Consider this in light of the following: Many Anabaptists today can trace their own heritage back to this very valley, or one of the neighboring valleys. And many of the old Anabaptist names can be shown to have originally come from this region. Adelboden, or at least the Engstligental in which it lies,  stands right about at the center of the Western Oberland region from which nearly all of the Amish faith hail. And if we follow this valley out north to the Thunersee, it is straight across this lake in a cave on the steep slopes of the Niederhorn that a Christian of the first century, an acquaintance to Paul by the name of Beatus, spent the last decades of his life. The valley in which Adelboden lies points directly at this cave, known as the Beatus Hölen.

Perhaps I am making too much of this. But I do not think so. Too me, this is far too much to merely be a coincidence. How strange that the rare depiction warning against adult baptism would be found in this same land where in half a century Anabaptism would be the most deeply rooted of any place in Switzerland or indeed, as it may seem, in all the world?

This painting was made in the year 1471. The practice of Adult Baptism supposedly began with the baptisms of the Zurich circle in 1525.

For those who don’t want to do the math, this message against adult baptism (in a future Anabaptist haven) was made 54 years before the practice supposedly began.

Maybe we should look at this and realize, our history is not shared with Protestantism, and our origin is not one of rebellion. Rather, we may after all possess a faith that comes down to us in a direct line from the Apostle Paul.


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