Michael Sattler

The leaves of autumn teach us, that when our time to exit comes, we should do it aflame for God.

During the time of the Reformation there were thousands of martyrdoms. Amidst this throng of worthies few displayed their colors as brilliantly as did Michael Sattler (1490-1527). He stands out as an unforgettable witness in the hour of death.

In May of 1527 a sentence was given at the imperial city of Rottenburg on the Neckar River:

Michael Sattler is to be committed to the executioner, who is to take him to the city square and there cut out his tongue. Then he is to tie him to a wagon and with a red-hot pair of blacksmith tongs twice tear shreds of flesh from his body, doing so five times more on the way to the fire and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.

Who was this man, and what had he done?

Michael Sattler was born near Freiburg, Germany around 1490. As a young man he entered a Benedictine monastery and became a monk. He gained some knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages and was an avid student of Paul’s epistles. His reading created grave doubts about his connection with the monastery. Michael began to detest the vice and hypocrisy of his fellow monks.

Severing ties with the monastery, Michael married a Bequine, whom Anshelm described as “a talented, clever little woman.” For a time the Sattlers embraced Lutheran doctrines, and in 1525 they fled to Switzerland from Austria, because of King Ferdinand’s policy of heresy extermination. Once in more tolerant Switzerland the Sattlers met Wilhelm Reublin, a converted priest, who was rumored to be an “Anabaptist.” It is said that Reublin “expounded the Holy Scriptures in so Christian and excellent a way that nothing like it had ever been heard, so that he gained great numbers.”

Sattler joined forces in preaching with Muntprat of Constance and Konrad Winkler of Wasserburg, who were holding clandestine meetings in the forests. Soon he became the most prominent of the three. The meetings were discovered, and Sattler was expelled from the canton. After his expulsion from Zurich, November 18, 1525, he returned to his native village only to be forced to leave again.

After a time in Strassburg he began to work north of Rottenburg, making Horb his center of activities. At Horb and its environs his efforts were obviously blessed by God.

While a Bible conference at Schleitheim was in progress, the Anabaptists were found out by the powers that be from Rottenburg. Upon returning to Horb, Sattler and his wife, Wilhelm Reublin’s wife, Matthias Hiller, Veit Veringer of Rottenburg, and a number of other men and women were arrested. The government officials gloated over their prize. They had found in Sattler’s possession the Schleitheim Confession and records of Anabaptist activities. Due to the presence of many Anabaptists and sympathizers in the city, the prisoners were moved to Binsdorf.

From the tower of Binsdorf, Sattler wrote a letter of consolation to his beloved congregation at Horb. Typical of Anabaptist prison epistles, it abounds in Scripture references and is completely devoid of bitterness. “Beloved companions in the Lord; the grace and mercy of God, our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and the power of their Spirit, be with you, brethren and sisters, beloved of God.

“If you have love for your neighbor, you will not be envious in punishing or excommunicating, will not seek your own, will think no evil, will not be ambitious, and finally will not be puffed up; but will be merciful, just mild in all things, submissive and compassionate towards the weak and infirm.”

This faithful shepherd’s primary concern, even in the face of torture and death, was the welfare of the sheep. Sattler attempted in the final paragraphs of the letter to prepare his followers for the inevitable.

“And let no man take away from you the foundation which is laid by the letter of the holy Scriptures, and sealed with the blood of Christ and many witnesses of Jesus. . . . The brethren have doubtless informed you, that some of us are in prison; and the brethren being apprehended at Horb, we were afterwards brought to Binsdorf. At this time numerous accusations were preferred against us by our adversaries; at one time they threatened us with the gallows; at another with fire and sword. In this extremity, I surrendered myself, entirely to the Lord’s will, and prepared myself, together with all my brethren and my wife, to die for His testimony’s sake . . . hence I deemed it necessary to animate you with this exhortation, to follow us in the contest of God, that you may console yourselves with it, and not faint under the chastening of the Lord . . . .

“In short, beloved brethren and sisters, this letter shall be a valedictory to you all who love God in truth, and follow Him . . . .

“Beware of false brethren; for the Lord will probably call me to Him, so take warning. I wait for my God; pray without ceasing for all that are in bonds; God be with you all. Amen.”

He was in the hands of Austrian authorities, who had the jurisdiction of Rottenburg. Ferdinand, the Catholic king of Austria, had declared “the third baptism” (drowning) to be the best antidote to Anabaptism. Because of Sattler’s importance, Ferdinand wanted him drowned immediately. Authorities headed by Count Joachim, however, wanted to give the case an appearance of justice.

On May 15, the court convened with twenty-four judges. The chairman of this body was the Landeshauptmann, Count Joachim of Zollern. The attorney for the defense was the Mayor of Rottenburg, Jakob Halbmayer, hardly a sympathetic advocate. Sattler felt that Halbmayer was responsible for the outcome of the trial.

The trial began on May 17. Count Joachim had the charges read. The first seven were against all the accused, and two additional charges were brought against Sattler alone.

1. That he and his adherents act contrary to the decree of the emperor. 2. He taught, maintained, and believed, that the body and blood of Christ were not present in His sacrament. 3. He taught and believed, that infant baptism was not promotive of salvation. 4. They rejected the sacrament of unction. 5. They despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints. 6. He declared, that men should not swear before a magistrate. 7. He has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same. 8. Contrary to the rule, he has married a wife. 9. He said if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks.

When Sattler asked that the accusations be reread the secretary replied, “He has boasted of the Holy Ghost. Now if this boast is true, it seems to me, it is unnecessary to grant him this; for, if he has the Holy Ghost, as he boasts, the same will tell him what has been done here.” Unperturbed, Sattler renewed his request, which was begrudgingly granted.

Sattler’s defense was skillful and courageous. Answering the first charge he said that the imperial mandates were against the Lutherans. They directed that Lutheran doctrine and error not be followed but rather the Gospel and the Word of God. “This we have observed,” he stated, “for I am not aware, that we have acted contrary to the Gospel and Word of God; I appeal to the Word of Christ.” He accepted the second charge as valid, defending his position with many scriptures. The third charge he did not deny, but affirmed believer’s baptism. In speaking to the fourth accusation, he distinguished between oil as a creation of God which is good, and the oil of extreme unction which is no better. “What God has made, is good, and not to be rejected; but that the pope with his bishops, monks, and priests, has made it better, we deny; for the pope has never made anything good.” Concerning Mary, He said:

“The mother of Christ should be esteemed above all women; for she had the favor of giving birth to the Saviour of the world; but that she shall be an intercessor, is not known in Scripture. As to the saints, we say, that we who live and believe are the saints; in evidence of this I appeal to the epistle of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, etc. He always writes: To the beloved saints. We, therefore, who believe, are the saints: those who die in the faith, we consider the “blessed.”

Sattler accepted the sixth charge as justified and defended the Anabaptist position with Matthew 5:34, 37. The seventh charge was ignored.

Sattler then answered the two charges brought against him personally. He defended his marriage on two grounds: first, the gross immorality among priests and monks, and second, that marriage is an ordinance of God.

The ninth charge was the most damaging because no other power on earth struck fear in the hearts of Austrians like that of the Turks. To this Sattler asserted the principle of nonresistance. He then proceeded to restate his position.

“If I approved of war, I would rather march forth against the so-named Christians who persecute, imprison, and put to death, the pious Christians, I assign this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk according to the flesh; but you, wishing to be Christian, and making your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks according to the Spirit.”

In closing Sattler pled with the judges to “repent and receive instruction.” In response the judges chuckled sarcastically at Sattler’s defense. After consultation, the town clerk of Ensisheim said: “Oh you infamous, desperate villain and monk, you would have us engage with you in a discussion! The executioner will dispute with you, we think for a certainty.” Sattler exclaimed: “Let the will of God be done.”

The town clerk became so frenzied he threatened to take Sattler’s life on the spot. The prisoner’s composure obviously exasperated his accusers.

During the hour and a half while the judges deliberated, Sattler was threatened and ridiculed. Some cried out, “When I see you get away, I will believe in you.” One man held a sword and taunted him saying, “See, with this we will dispute with you.”

Eyewitness Klaus von Graveneck wrote, “All this I saw myself. May God grant us also to testify of Him so bravely and patiently.” The trial lasted two days. The sentence was read on May 18. On May 20, Sattler was executed.

Before the execution the torture began at the marketplace where a piece was cut from Sattler’s tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body twice with red-hot tongs. He was then forged to a cart. On the way the tongs were applied five more times. In the marketplace and at the site of the execution, still able to speak, Sattler prayed for his persecutors. Then they tied him to a ladder and shoved him into the fire. Still conscious and composed, he told the people, the judges, and the mayor to repent and be converted. Then he 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 to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.”

As soon as the ropes on his wrists were burned, Sattler raised his two forefingers, as a sign to the brethren that a martyr’s death was bearable. The crowd heard his voice above the crackling flames, “Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands.”

Three others were then executed. Sattler’s faithful wife was drowned eight days later in the Neckar River. They tied a large stone around her neck and threw her off a bridge.

Wilhelm Reublin wrote an account of the martyrdom which was circulated throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic witnesses could not shake off the memory of that infamous day. The Strassburg reformers, Bucer and Capito, were horrified by the report of the execution. Sattler’s witness reads like a paraphrase of Acts 6 and 7. Anabaptist historian, Gustav Bossert, Jr. testifies, “Sattler’s character lies clearly before us. He was not a highly educated divine and not an intellectual; but his entire life was noble and pure, true and unadulterated.”