Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity. By Walter Klaassen and William Klassen. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008. 423 pages. Hardcover, $32.99.

The sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader, Pilgram Marpeck, has garnered much deserved attention through recent scholarship. In 2007, Martin Rothkegel served as final editor of a monumental work begun by Heinold Fast: a critical edition of the Kunstbuch, forty-two tracts produced by Marpeck and his circle, which is one of the most important additions to Anabaptist research in the last thirty years. (John Rempel will publish an English translation of the Kunstbuch in the spring of 2009). Also in 2007, Malcolm Yarnell produced The Formation of Christian Doctrine, in which he relied on Marpeck’s thought in developing a believer’s church theology. That same year Neal Blough provided a study of Marpeck’s Christology, Christ in Our Midst. In the fall of 2008, Walter Klaassen and William Klassen published what has now become the preeminent biography on the life of this important shaper of Anabaptism.


As an engineer and public servant, Pilgram Marpeck, a native of the Austrian Tirol, earned the respect of those in power. Archduke Ferdinand appointed him “Superintendent of Mines” at the age of 30. It was Marpeck’s struggle in carrying out Ferdinand’s orders to find and arrest Anabaptists in late 1527 and early 1528 that presaged what would become his life’s mission. It is probable that Marpeck witnessed the trial of Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer (12 January 1528) and his execution two days later. Merely days after Schiemer’s death, Marpeck resigned his position as mining superintendent and began his life as an Anabaptist (102–03).


Marpeck fled Rattenburg in early 1528, heading for Krumau, a small silver-mining village in what is now modern-day southwest Czech Republic, because he learned a growing number of Anabaptists had settled in Moravia and Bohemia (107). It is likely that Marpeck was baptized in Krumau and there met his second wife, Anna, a fellow Tirolean refugee (Marpeck’s first wife died in late 1527; 109–11). Marpeck eventually settled in Strasbourg, a city in which about one percent of the citizens espoused Anabaptism (119). He became a citizen in late 1528 and in 1530 Strasbourg hired him as Holzmeister, the city’s manager of timber resources (149). Klaassen and Klassen do exceptional work in providing the reader with the details of Marpeck’s various engineering exploits, including mining development, water transportation services and the design of a fulling mill for the finishing of linen cloth.


In Strasbourg, Marpeck came into contact with many of the leaders of Reform, including Bucer, Capito, and Sturm. He also interacted with prominent dissenters such as Entfelder, Bünderlin, Schwenckfeld, and Hoffman. Marpeck disagreed with each of them on various matters and debated the issues of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, bearing arms, and the role of government in matters of faith (122–23). In 1531 he published three important works: A Clear Refutation (a response to Bünderlin’s claim that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were to be avoided because the antichrist had ruined them and polluted their use); A Clear and Useful Instruction (a response to Entfelder’s claim that a literal interpretation of Scripture led to divisions among the Church); and Exposé of the Babylonian Whore (his attack against those who had favored a union of church and state) (137–58). Marpeck debated Bucer toward the end of 1531, submitting his Confession of Faith to the city council that December. In his Confession, Marpeck stated that “if rulers use the power of the sword to defend the gospel, they are perverting and exceeding their mandate. They are never permitted to coerce anyone in matters of faith” (176). Marpeck was expelled from the city in January 1532 (176–77).


Marpeck spent the remainder of his life encouraging, guiding, and nurturing Anabaptist communities throughout Switzerland, Moravia, and southern Germany. He resided primarily in Augsburg, where he served as the director of public works for the city, and was responsible for the maintenance of water towers and their wooden pumping units (325). He also remained an active participant in the reform debate through his writings, including a long theological debate with Caspar Schwenckfeld. Marpeck’s death in 1556 was a significant setback for the Augsburg Anabaptist community and for the churches he guided throughout Switzerland and Moravia. Six years after his death, a fellow Anabaptist under interrogation by authorities declared, “those of his faith were all such because of Pilgram of blessed memory” (339).


The novice student of Anabaptism knows the names of Grebel, Sattler, Hubmaier, Denck, Simons, and even Marpeck. However, Klaassen and Klassen do a superb job in introducing the reader to lesser-known, yet vitally significant Anabaptists from the Marpeck circle, such as Leupold Scharnschlager, Jörg Maler, and Helena von Freyberg. It may be advantageous to introduce those figures here.


Leupold Scharnschlager became a close associate of Marpeck while both men were in Strasbourg. He, like Marpeck, was well-educated and economically successful. Coming to Anabaptist faith around 1530, he was an active baptizer, teacher, and leader in Strasbourg prior to his expulsion in 1534. Before the Strasbourg council he defended the position that there were two legitimate swords: one was secular and was to be used by the government to punish evil and protect good; the other was the sword of the Spirit and was to be wielded by the Christian community for internal correction only. The secular, or killing, sword of the magistrates was legitimate, but it had no place in the community of faith. Scharnschlager reminded the council that he was asking of them exactly what they were asking of the emperor and pope for themselves (195–96). Scharnschlager cooperated with Marpeck on a number of writings, including a revision of a volume by Bernard Rothmann, the Admonition (201–03). Scharnschlager died in 1563, like Marpeck before him, escaping a martyr’s death. An effective leader of Anabaptists from 1530, Scharnschlager can best be described as Marpeck’s “right-hand man.”


Jörg Maler, an Augsburg native and painter by trade, was imprisoned for assaulting a young maiden in a drunken stupor. Subsequently, he was drawn to Anabaptism and rebaptized in the home of George Nessler in March 1532 (261–62). Maler, like most Anabaptists, spent the majority of his life on the run from ruling authorities. On several occasions he was interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually expelled for his faith. He learned the weaving trade and spent six years in St. Gall and eight in Appenzell. He probably met Marpeck in the summer of 1534 and, after some early disagreements, later developed a positive working relationship with him (264–65). Maler authored An Account of Faith in 1547 in which he detailed his thoughts on the virtue of patience, the Christian life as discipleship, and the meaning of suffering for Christ (266). Before his death in 1562, he compiled the Kunstbuch, which enabled the reader to see Marpeck in a clearer light “as a pastor, theologian, and passionate advocate of change” (272).


Helena von Freyberg, a Tirolean noblewoman, became a leader in the Anabaptist movement and a lifelong friend of Marpeck (248). By 1527 Helena was welcoming Anabaptists to her castle and soon accepted their faith. She supported the Anabaptists by assisting its leaders and providing financial aid. In 1529 an order was issued for her arrest, so she fled to a home she owned in Constance. Because of her wealth and position she was afforded a full pardon upon recantation. After recanting in 1534, she moved to Augsburg in 1535, where she became an active member of an Anabaptist fellowship (249–50). On 13 April 1535 she was imprisoned and expelled from Augsburg. Later allowed to return to the city, she lived out her life there until her death in 1545. She was close to Marpeck and his wife and may have influenced them to settle in Augsburg. Helena’s leadership position among the Augsburg Anabaptists reveals the level of equality that existed among the male and female believers in that community. She authored a “confession of guilt” that was included by Maler in the Kunstbuch, in which she repented of her recantation (251–58).


This biography consists of twenty-one chapters plus an epilogue on the life of Pilgram Marpeck, alongside short introductions to his circle. Two appendices include excerpts from Marpeck’s Response (directed to Schwenckfeld) and the Kunstbuch. The writing is clear and concise. The presentation of the sixteenth-century political, religious, and economic climate in which Marpeck lived is as fascinating as it is apparently impeccable. Marpeck is the modern-day bi-vocational minister’s hero. He was an accomplished engineer as well as a gifted pastor and theologian. The title of chapter eighteen encompasses the essence of Marpeck: “Engineer by Day, Theologian by Night” (301). He balanced both the secular and the spiritual and did it effectively. His societal position probably kept him from the martyr’s pyre and he was able to use his financial stability to enable him to spread the Anabaptist message.


This work should not be confused as a treatise on the theology of Pilgram Marpeck, for that was not the authors’ goal. However, the authors do an effective job in highlighting Marpeck’s main emphases, including the notion that “the humanity of Christ [was] the theological axiom on which everything else in his theology depended (331).” (For a more in-depth examination of Marpeck’s theological tenets one should see Yarnell’s and Blough’s works mentioned earlier in this review). Instead, this work is the model of biography. Klaassen and Klassen have provided a readable text which details not only the life of Pilgram Marpeck but provides the contextual setting, the economic and social environment, in which he lived out his faith. This biography will be an essential part of any Anabaptist library as it provides the student of Anabaptist history with the most comprehensive work on the life of Pilgram Marpeck to date.


Jason J. Graffagnino

Fort Worth, Texas

Published in Southwestern Journal of Theology, 52 (Fall 2009): 123–26.