The reason my family today is American and not Swiss is due to religious persecution.
How to explain this?
My religious ancestors left behind few words for future posterity. Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, the earliest Anabaptists, were well-educated, ardent seekers during the early Reformation, who disputed with the leader of the Reformed movement, Ulrich Zwingli, in the city hall (Rathaus) of Zürich in 1525. The issues were infant baptism, required tithes owed to the state, and military service — all of which the younger men rejected and their mentor defended.
Zwingli was declared the winner of the debate, and his ideas were published. The two radicals were told to be silent, and their request to publish their own position papers was denied. Anyone who refused to baptize an infant was expelled. Felix Manz, who was rebaptized in his mother’s house, was drowned in the Limmat River in 1527. Many others suffered the same fate until finally, in 1614, the last Anabaptist martyr in Zürich, Hans Landis, was beheaded.
Sixteenth-century Europe had no wall between church and state. “Heresy in the early sixteenth century was a capital crime. The sixteenth-century perspective was that a nation could not remain united without a common religion. This is because religion was not considered to be a mere private or subjective opinion. Rather, religion was understood to constitute a way of life and a key basis for the political order. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) insisted that secular rulers must enforce Christian orthodoxy through coercive measures. To assist in this, the Inquisition was also established later in that same century.” (from Reformation Martyrs)
The Anabaptists argued that government officials should not have the authority to determine a citizen’s church affiliation or a church’s theology, and they therefore called for the separation of the church and the state. They were two centuries ahead of their time.
“The authorities all over Europe recognized the threat the Anabaptist (meaning “rebaptizers”) movement posed to the state and to whatever official form of religion sustained the state. And so, those authorities—kings, princes, and even reformers like Zwingli, John Calvin, and Martin Luther—called for their extermination or expulsion. When the bloodbath finally ended, thousands upon thousands had been martyred. Their crime was their allegiance to the radical Jesus and the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Those who escaped eventually followed the lead of a Dutch [former Catholic priest] named Menno Simons and eventually took the name, Mennonite.” (Richard Hughes, The Promise and Peril of Christian Higher Education, forthcoming)
Hundreds of them accepted William Penn’s invitation to Pennsylvania, where they became farmers free to worship in their own peculiar ways and free to petition the government for exemption to military service. The Mennonite minister who wrote the petition (excerpt below) was my immigrant ancestor, Benjamin Hershey.
Quaker William Penn recruited persecuted Anabaptists to his huge Pennsylvania land grant, thus offering both religious freedom and the opportunity to own and farm one’s own land (which we now know to be problematic because it displaced native peoples). Penn believed in freedom of religion. In this way, he differed from Puritans in New England and Anglicans in Virginia, who established state churches in their colonies in America. Penn invited not just Quakers, and not just fellow pacifist Mennonites. He invited all religions to come live in a place without an established church — and to tolerate the existence of Lutherans, Reformed, Catholics, and Jews, groups who had fought and/or experienced persecution in Europe.
In 1644 in America, another believer in adult baptism, Roger Williams called for separation of church and state, and eventually the founding fathers established the first amendment prohibiting the establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson spelled out the meaning of this amendment in 1802 in his letter to the Danbury Baptists saying the Constitution had built “a wall of separation between church and state.” On his gravestone he chose being the author of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (disestablishing the Episcopal Church) as one of the three accomplishments that defined his life.
Today, however, William Penn’s legacy of religious liberty is being seriously distorted by believers in Christian Nationalism who live in my home state of Pennsylvania. When they tour the capitol in Harrisburg, they point to this Penn quotation: “There may be room there for such a Holy Experiment. And my God will make it the seed of a nation.” To them, Penn’s vision is one of triumph and dominion, a warrior vision that gives historical grounding for their own warrior faith today — a desire to reunite church and state in a Christian nation by whatever means necessary. I cannot help but think that William Penn would turn in his grave. He would especially recoil at the idea of a holy war being conducted from his dream.
To the Quakers who continued the “Holy Experiment” into the 19th century in American, William Penn’s vision looked like this:
Today we know that Penn, and especially his sons and the land agents who succeeded him, were far from perfect exemplars of Christian faith when it came to their relationship to Leni Lenape people. (See This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair by John L. Ruth.) But Christian Nationalism would not call that failure a tragedy. For the most extreme believers in this ideology, whiteness is intricately tied to faith and tied to nation. American history is not about the original people who lived here and certainly not about genocide. It is about white Christians who founded a Christian nation.
Here is an excellent webinar that summarizes much of the literature on the subject. One of the simplest definitions I have read of Christian nationalism comes from the evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today: “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” A visual representation of these beliefs was evident by the banners carried by the rioters into the capitol on January 6, 2021, included many Christian signs and symbols next to nooses or flag poles used as spears.
History shows us that when a religion and a state are entwined and protected by the sword, other citizens, even other Christians, are in danger of being burned at the stake, or drowned, or beheaded, if not literally, at least through modern means of cancellation on social media, intensive surveillance, and loss of privacy and freedom of speech and assembly.
As voices of Christian nationalism grow louder in America, I find myself turning back to the place of origins for my faith — Zurich. This fall Stuart and I made a sojourn with other family members to our places of origin, trying as we went to reconstruct as many stories of courage and sacrifice as possible.
If you want to travel with us, here is a short slide show depicting modern places with deep histories.
I also hope you will understand my most recent calling to be a Grandma for Love even better. We are not all religious in our group, but we are all ardent defenders of the founders’ wisdom in separating church and state.
In 2025, Anabaptist groups from around the world will be invited to gather in Zurich, to celebrate 500 years of our tenuous existence. Stuart and I hope to be among them, carrying our small flames for our faith, hoping the freedom to do so in America will live on long after we are gone.
What small flames are you trying to preserve for posterity? They don’t have to be religious or political! Maybe you want future generations to remember a particular place, a story, foods, or something else . . .