Soul Sleep of the Swiss Brethren
During the period of Martin Luther’s challenges to the church, a somewhat parallel yet independent course of reform was taking place in Zurich. This Swiss Reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli was just as convinced as Luther that Scripture should take precedence over traditions, but how that worked itself out was very different. Both were strongly committed to ‘Sola Scriptura’ and both began to question some long standing practices. Zwingli had a freer hand in Zurich than did Luther, and wanted to implemented changes slowly in full view of Council. He thought he should preach only as much as the church was ready to absorb, but a group of young radicals, most notably led by Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock, pressured for immediate compliance to scripture. We will look at only one aspect of this reformation movement; that of Soul Sleep.
While Luther boldly stated that “the notion of the soul’s immortality and endless monstrosities belongs on the Roman dunghill of decretals;”1 the Zurich Brethren never clutched the idea of soul sleep so tightly. They did in fact hold to soul sleep for the intermediate state between death and resurrection, but they didn’t consider the matter a priority.
John L Ruth describes a scene where Zwingli and the radicals are deliberating on ecclesiastical matters: “In general, the trend throughout the day is to declare the mass unscriptural. But Conrad, who is eager to see just how serious the assembly is about carrying out the scriptural teaching, is disturbed when he finds they are about to move on to another topic – purgatory.”2
While the afterlife was opened before the floor for discussion, Grebel’s reaction to the agenda is indicative of the group; purgatory wasn’t of first importance. They were focused on other matters.
Philip Schaff explains:”The two ideas of a pure church of believers and of the baptism of believers were the fundamental articles of the Anabaptist creed. On other points there was great variety and confusion of opinions. Some believed in the sleep of the soul between death and resurrection…”3
Private conferences between the radicals and officials turned into debates, and debates into public disputations. Shortly after what history records as ‘the second disputation’, Zurich Council proclaimed the matter closed and ordered a stop to further agitations.
The next evening as they met to decide their course of action at Felix Manz’s house, George Blaurock asked Grebel to baptise him. Blaurock followed up by baptising Grebel, Manz and the others. Their course was set, they were declaring autonomy. With church and state virtually indivisible, and pastors being paid by the city, tithes and taxes confused, separating oneself from this authority was tantamount to treason.
As the original Swiss Brethren grew in numbers and their influence spread, their teachings began to appear in letters and circulars. The Brethren didn’t major on personal eschatology, their focus was on living a ‘new life’ in Christ and how that looked for them, but views on the afterlife were also being reshaped as a result. The doctrine of soul sleep was soon seen as particularly Brethren. Supplied with a copy of a since lost Grebel tract and the Schleitheim Confession, Zwingli published a lengthy “Refutation of Anabaptist Tricks”4
Zwingli addresses the Brethren’s views on the intermediate state in his appendix:
“The Catabaptists teach that the dead sleep, both body and soul, until the day of judgement, because they do not know that ‘sleeping’ is used by the Hebrews for ‘dying’. Then they do not consider that the soul is a spirit, which, so far from being able to sleep or die, is nothing but the animating principle of all that breathes, whether that gross and sensation-possessing spirit that quickens and raises up the body, or that celestial spirit that sojourns in the body. That celestial spirit then that we call soul the Greeks call entelecheia (i.e. actuality): this is so lively, enduring, strong, tenacious and vigilant a substance that its nature forbids the absence of action or existence.”5
Soul Sleep of the Swiss Brethren
Grebel didn’t live to see the Refutation, nor his character referred to as “a shade, in mocking allusion to the doctrine of psychopannychism”6 having recently died of plague. Manz however, was undaunted. Imprisoned, he penned a hymn still in use today, in which we see views consistent with soul sleep implied:
Mit Lust so will ich singen
“I will sing with gladness!
My heart rejoices in God who made me wise enough to escape eternal death!”
Or, an alternate translation offers; “that I from death depart. Which lasting ever, hath no end”7
“And I praise you Christ from heaven who turns away my grief – you whom God sent for my example and light, to call me into your kingdom before my end.
There (in the Kingdom of Christ) I will be joyful with him forever, and love him from the heart.
I love his righteousness that guides all who seek life – here as well as there.
Righteousness lets itself be scorned as well as praised.
But without it nothing survives.”8
Felix Manz was martyred shortly afterwards. He was bound and drowned in the river that flows through Zurich. With Grebel dead, Manz martyred and Blaurock beaten and driven from town, the burden of leadership fell to Michael Sattler during the height of persecution. Sattler had been the lead author of the Schleitheim Confession and, in turn, also faced trial as a radical. He was accused, among other things, “of having despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints.” This was the same charge brought against Blaurock earlier; that he “disallowed of invoking or worshipping the mother of Christ.”
In Sattler’s case, as he and others in his company stood trial, they were read the list of accusations against them and were told that: “Fifthly, they have despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints”9 To which Sattler replied as the group’s spokesman” We have not condemned the mother of God and the saints; for the mother of Christ is to be blessed among all women; for to her was accorded the favour of giving birth to the Saviour of the whole world. But that she is a mediatress and advocatess, of this the scriptures know nothing; Paul said to Timothy: Christ is our Mediator and Advocate with God. As regards the saints; we say that we who live and believe are the saints; which I prove by the epistles of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians; and in other places where he always writes: To the beloved saints. Hence we that believe are the saints; but those who have died in faith we regard as the blessed.”10
Concerning the Virgin Mary, author and historian C. Arnold Snyder further explains that; “Sattler grants that she has “given birth to God”- but adds “according to the flesh” – but Mary cannot intercede for us since she awaits judgement. Only Jesus can intercede for us with the Father, likewise, the saints are to be honoured as “blessed” but the true saints are those who are living in obedience. Sattler’s reply brings out several interesting points. Important are Sattler’s assertions that Mary and the saints cannot intercede, since they are not yet ascended, and that Christ alone can intercede for us. This assertion destroys the rationale on which rested the entire edifice of Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin and on which rested also indulgences, prayers for the dead, and appeals to the saints, which had formed such an important part of Sattler’s life as a monk. It appears that Sattler came to hold the doctrine of psychopannychism, or sleep of the soul, rather than the traditional Catholic view. Catholic theology taught that on death, souls proceed directly to heaven, hell, or purgatory, according to the merits of each individual. This meant that the church universal included the living and the dead as active members. The Blessed Virgin and the saints could be entreated through prayer intercede for the living and the dead, and further, the suffering of those in purgatory could be alleviated by acts of penance done specifically on their behalf. Thus Michael Sattler’s statement that all mortals, no matter how holy, do not arrive in heaven prior to judgement and the resurrection undermines a central rationale for the penitential system and takes away one of the primary ‘works’ traditionally done by monks, the intercession for the dead.”11
Michael Sattler was burned at the stake that same year. Even without central governing church and no unifying systematic theology the Swiss Brethren still managed to exert influence to a larger area. The Swiss and South German Brethren, armed with the Schleitheim Confession martyred by Sattler’s blood, began conflicting with William Farel in Neuchâtel, prompting Farel to urge John Calvin to publish his first book Psychopannychia.12
Calvin’s book is clear as to whom it is written against: “I am referring to the nefarious herd of Anabaptists, from whose fountain this noxious stream did, as I observed, first flow.” It is also just as clear on its subject: “Our controversy, then, relapses to The Human Soul. Some, while admitting it to have real existence, imagine that it sleeps in a state of insensibility from Death to The Judgement-day, when it will awake from its sleep; while others will sooner admit anything than its real existence, maintaining that it is merely a vital power which is derived from arterial spirit on the action of the lungs, and being unable to exist without body, perishes along with the body, and vanishes away and becomes evanescent till the period when the whole man shall be raised again.”13
Soul Sleep of the Swiss Brethren
Calvin’s harsh pen was the mildest form of opposition the Anabaptists faced.
Another Anabaptist rose to prominence; Menno Simons in the Netherlands. Under Menno the Anabaptists circled the wagons and unified their theology somewhat. A more systematic theology was formed and while soul sleep wasn’t further developed, it did survive. Menno wasn’t given to speculate on the nature of the soul, as we can see in a pastoral letter he wrote to comfort the faithful: “Therefore we ought not to dread death so. It is but to cease from sin and enter into a better life. Nor should we sorrow about friends who have fallen asleep in God, as they who do not look for a reward of the saints.” Unconcerned about setting clear timelines, Menno reassures believers that they “shall rest in peace” and be “summoned to the eternal, holy Sabbath.” Their “souls are in lasting rest and peace in the Paradise of grace” under the throne of God “waiting henceforth until the number of their brethren be complete.”14
This type of soul-vagueness prompted Nancey Murphy to write, “Anabaptist writers never made this (intermediate state) a part of their teachings, and many argued for soul sleep, which could mean either the unconsciousness of a surviving soul or death pure and simple.”15
Given time to breathe and think, the Mennonites authored the Dordtrecht Confession which builds from, and expands on, Schleitheim. Within Dordtrecht we still see a plastic period of time between death and judgement but a period of time none the less, for all to be gathered and judged on that fateful ‘last day’:
“Finally, concerning the resurrection of the dead, we confess with the mouth, and believe with the heart, according to Scripture, that in the last day all men who shall have died, and fallen asleep, shall be awakened and quickened, and shall rise again, through the incomprehensible power of God; and that they, together with those who then will still be alive, and who shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trump, shall be placed before the judgment seat of Christ, and the good be separated from the wicked; that then everyone shall receive in his own body according to that he hath done, whether it be good or evil; and that the good or pious, as the blessed, shall be taken up with Christ, and shall enter into life eternal, and obtain that joy, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, to reign and triumph with Christ forever and ever.”16
This belief survived over time and ocean on into North America. The Mennonite Confession of Faith begins by anchoring themselves to their European past. In its introduction it asserts that:
“Statements of what Mennonites believe have been among us from earliest beginnings. A group of Anabaptists, forerunners of Mennonites, wrote the Schleitheim Articles. Since then, Mennonite groups have produced numerous statements of faith. The Mennonite Church, organized in North America by several regional conferences of Swiss-South German background, has recognized a number of confessions: the Schleitheim Articles, the Dordrecht Confession, the Christian Fundamentals, and the Mennonite Confession of Faith.”17
Article 24 is of particular interest to us, in that it says:
“We believe that, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, we also will be raised from the dead. At Christ’s glorious coming again for judgment, the dead will come out of their graves–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. The righteous will rise to eternal life with God, and the unrighteous to hell and separation from God. Thus, God will bring justice to the persecuted and will confirm the victory over sin, evil, and death itself.”18
On the surface this appears to be the most defined statement on the nature of the soul we have seen up to now; but in true Swiss Brethren or Michael Sattler fashion, and in keeping with Menno Simons, a commentary is added to article 24, which creates a certain amount of obfuscation, but also ends with a great deal of hope:
“For some, the idea of God’s final judgment is problematic, because it seems to emphasize God’s wrath at the expense of God’s love and mercy. God’s loving patience is so great that God will not coerce anyone into covenant relationship, but will allow those who reject it to remain separated from God. Moreover, God’s justice means that unrepentant evildoers will not go unpunished. The New Testament says much about the resurrection. It speaks much less frequently and clearly about the state of persons between the time of their deaths and the resurrection. Yet, we who are in Christ are assured that not even death can separate us from the love of God”19
With this parting thought, that the Bible says much on resurrection and little on our personal intermediate state, and that those in Christ are indivisible from God’s love, we will close where we began, with the last stanza of Felix Manz’s hymn penned so long ago in prison and still sung today by Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish congregations:
“I will stay with Christ,
With this I will close
But take note, all Godly souls!
We should not neglect to study Adam’s fall
He took the serpent’s advice, disobeyed God, and death came upon him
So it will be with those that withstand Christ, those that set their affections on worldly lusts and do not know the love of God
Now this is the end of my song
I will stay with Christ who knows my earthly distress!”20
More Church History Articles
- A brief tour of Reformed Conditionalism
- The legacy of Millerism
- Conditional Immortality in the 19th Century
- Assertion of all the articles of M Luther condemned by the latest Bull of Leo X, article 27
- John L. Ruth, Conrad Grebel: Son of Zurich
- Philip Schaff, Modern Christianity, The Swiss Reformation
- William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story
- Ulrich Zwingli, Refutation Against the Tricks of the Anabaptists
- George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation 3rd edition
- John J. Overholt
- Ausbund 6, Mit Lust so will ich singen
- Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyr’s Mirror
- Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyr’s Mirror
- C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler
- Neal Blough, Calvin and the Anabaptists, Evangelical Theology
- John Calvin, Psychopannychia
- John C. Wagner, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons
- N. Murphy, Anabaptist Science and Epistemology
- Article 18, Of the Resurrection of the Dead, and Last Judgement
- Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963
- Article 24, The Reign of God
- Commentary to Article 24
- Ausbund 6, Mit Lust so will ich singen