Michael Sattler was born in Germany in 1490. He lived his adult life during one of the most revolutionary times in human history, the Protestant Reformation. Unlike many of the more well-known figures during that time however, Michael’s legacy is unknown to most, and the small memorial above shows it.
Sattler had become a Benedictine monk at the St. Peter’s monastery in Frieburg. He had risen to second in authority, and was in charge of collecting taxes from the peasants who lived on the land owned by the monastery. The massive wealth & exploitation of the common people by the church was a primary cause of the revolts brewing across Europe. Between 1523 & 1525, much changed.
Like many monks, Sattler had joined the monastery to seek a serious, devoted life to God, but discovered what was common in those days (and perhaps still): those who gave the common people the most polished veneer of “holiness”, were often the furthest away from it & filthiest in reality. From his own study of the New Testament he concluded that if he truly wanted to follow Jesus, he had to leave.
Leave he did, and he married a nun.
Her name was Margarita and she was from the “Beguine” sisters, a Catholic order that was particularly concerned with the poor. They both broke with the tradition that had until then structured their entire lives.
A few years later, in 1525, Sattler found himself in prison in Zurich Switzerland, for meeting and discussing the Bible with Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Georg Blaurock, all who had landed in prison with him. These men had just broken off from the Roman church in a movement later labeled as “Anabaptism”. Since this label was given to them by their persecutors though, it misses what seemed to be their own core reasons for breaking off from the Roman church.
While both the Roman church and the most respected Protestant Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin) believed that the state had a God-given-duty to enforce religious practice (with the use of force if necessary), these men believed the state had no authority to enforce or prohibit decisions made within the church. The argument behind-this-reason was that they believed Christian scripture made it clear that God’s kingdom was an alternative to, and ultimately not subordinate to, the governments of the world. On top of that, they saw that many of Jesus’ commands to those in his kingdom are in direct contradiction to how all wordly kingdoms and governments enforce their rule: by the threat of violence.
They paid for their beliefs dearly. In a little over a year, Zurich, like many towns both Protestant and Catholic, would institute the death penalty by drowning (in practice, being burned alive was the preferred method for men, and drowning for women) for anyone associated with Anabaptism.
On February 24 1527, Sattler wrote “The Schletheim Confession”, a discussion of seven topics that key Anabaptist leaders had agreed were central to their understanding of the Bible. It spread so rapidly & widely that both Ulrich Zwingli & John Calvin wrote refutations of it to curb conversions in their regions of oversight. The movement which this document lit was one of the first in modern Europe to assert any kind of separation of church and state.
In March of 1527, Sattler was arrested again by Roman Catholic authorities along with fourteen other Anabaptists on their way back from establishing alternative Christian communities in other towns near and around Germany.
They were tried & sentenced to death on 9 charges,the last two which were specifically for Michael: the crime of abandoning the monastic order and marrying, and being an “arch-traitor” to the empire for writing that he would not fight against the turks if they were to invade Germany. The reason for Sattler’s writing this of course, was based on the conviction that followers of Jesus were to obey his calls to non-resistance no matter the cost. As the Schleitheim Confession had put it: “The child of God is to follow absolutely the law of love as taught by the New Testament, and leave the worldly sword to the officers of the state as ordained by God.”
For Michael, the sword of the state was used against him, and like many who have followed Jesus’ footsteps, the cost for refusing to take one up for himself was his life. Below is an excerpt on his execution:
First Sattler was taken to the market place and a piece cut from his tongue, but not enough to prevent speech. Then pieces were torn from his body twice with glowing tongs. Then he was forged to a cart, and between the city gate and the place of execution the tongs were applied five times again… The sentence ordered two and five applications… The place of execution is a quarter hour’s walk from the town… On the market place and the site of the execution he prayed for his persecutors and Klaus von Graveneck [a guard of the court that sentenced Michael]. When he was bound to the ladder with ropes to be pushed into the fire, he admonished the people to be converted, to repent and fear God, and to intercede for his judges. Then he turned to the judges. He especially remembered [reminded] the mayor and the admonition given him in private. The mayor replied defiantly and angrily that Sattler should concern himself now only with God. Then Sattler prayed, “Almighty, eternal God, Thou art the way and the truth; because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with Thy help on this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.”
…a sack of powder had been tied around Sattler’s neck to hasten his death. He was now thrown into the fire on the ladder; then his voice could be heard bright and clear with prayer and praise. Soon the ropes on his hands were burned through. He could now raise the two forefingers of his hands, thereby giving the promised signal to his group, and prayed, “Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands.”