Book Review: The Life of Conrad Grebel

A book review by Todd Lewis

The Life of Conrad Grebel
By Andrew V. St. Marie & Mike Atnip

The Life of Conrad Grebel is a book in the Cross Bearer series authored by Andrew V. St Marie and Mike Atnip. This book discusses the life of Conrad Grebel within the context of the Swiss Reformation. The periods of Grebel’s life are divided into: (1) his Pre-Reformation life, (2) his Pre-Anabaptist Reformation life, and (3) his Anabaptist life. Within his Anabaptist life, we have sections discussing his personal development within the movement which comprise his missionary work and his final death.

The authors are to be commended for concisely and accurately reporting the existing Catholic doctrines regarding confession, intercessory prayer to the saints, indulgences, and purgatory, while at the same pointing out their errors and divergences from pure Christian doctrine.

The early life of Conrad, the son of a Junker family, was one of means and Conrad himself was much given to pagan scholarship and sinful pleasures. When describing the university years of Grebel, the authors give us a brief account of the “bursa.” The “bursa” was a form of lodgings for students and was managed by a professor from that university. In order to pay for his university tuition, Grebel accepted some money from the king of France, which cast a shadow of over him as people wondered what foreign influence might be at work in him. Grebel’s extravagant living often got him into financial difficulties.

The authors discuss the transformation of Grebel from a delinquent into a believer in Christ. Around the same time as Zwingli’s Reformation against the errors of Rome, Grebel had a personal conversion moment; the inexplicable thing about his experience was the absence of obvious external human influences or issues. Being a fellow reformer with Zwingli, Grebel argued against the Catholic Mass, images in worship, usury, and the compulsory tithe. Grebel would later fall out with Zwingli over the slow pace of reform, arguing that weak Christians should not be used as an excuse to hold the rest of the reformation back. When the Zurich Council refused to accelerate reform, Zwingli tacitly agreed to slow down; but this merely disillusioned Grebel with Zwingli and the church-state fusion that was prominent during the Middle Ages. Further disagreements developed between Zwingli and the Anabaptists, of whom Grebel was a prominent leader over the issues of adult baptism and chanting churches (which Grebel opposed and Zwingli approved of). Zwingli, time and time again, sided with the rulings of the city council rather than Scripture, driving the wedges further and further between the two groups. There were a series of debates between Zwingli and the Anabaptists which proved inconclusive, but Zwingli’s kowtowing to an intransigent council facilitated a break with the Anabaptists and the magisterial reformers. Grebel left Zurich to become a missionary to the rest of Switzerland, but was also a man always on the run. He eventually returned to Zurich on the way to other mission fields, and while there he had to keep a low profile. Grebel participated in another round of debates in Zurich after which he was tried as a heretic and imprisoned. He and his colleagues were able to escape out of a window which was blocked only by a loose shutter escape. Grebel continued to evangelize Switzerland, but finally died of the plague in 1526.  Zwingli, the implacable enemy of the Anabaptists, died in the Second War of Kappel, in 1531.

Throughout, the book there are interesting anecdotes: about the sausage eaten on Lent by the early reformers in protest against Catholic teaching, the explanation of the link between baptism and citizenship which rendered adult baptism so subversive. These provide essential period context for the reader.

The only criticisms I have are that I wish more had been devoted to Grebel’s acceptance of pacifism and the arguments he gave in favor of it, which are conspicuously lacking. Also, in the latter half of the book I felt the biographical portion faded in favor of a more general discussion of the Swiss Anabaptists and their struggles during the Reformation. Not that this is isn’t interesting or true, but I felt more biographical content would have been more appropriate.

All things considered, The Life of Conrad Grebel is a fine introductory source for anyone interested in learning about life and work of Conrad Grebel.

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