Jakob Hutter | biography


Jakob Hutter (d. 1536)

It is a false assumption to consider the simple and unlearned hat maker Jakob Hutter the founder and beginner of the Anabaptists in Tyrol; for the Anabaptist movement had long been thriving when Hutter entered it.

But it is certain that none of his predecessors or successors in the eastern Anabaptist movement equalled him in importance; for none was so successful in creating and reforming.

He not only afforded the cause a strong support when it had begun to waver in the extremely difficult times;

he was also the founder of that peculiar organization which preserved itself in Moravia with its communistic character to the end, the founder of the brotherhood named for him, which still has shoots growing on the American continent.

It is therefore easy to understand when the History Books of the Anabaptists speak of him in highest praise, beginning, "At that time one came, by the name of Jakob."

He was a native of the hamlet of Moos near St. Lorenz near Bruneck in the Puster Valley of Tyrol. Scantily educated by the school at Bruneck, he went to Prague to learn hatmaking there. Then he began his extensive journeys for the sake of his trade and finally settled at Spittal a.d. Drau in Carinthia.

In Klagenfurt he probably made his first contact with the teachings of the Anabaptists, which became so significant for his inner development.

He was never in Silesia or Bavaria, and learned of Gabriel Ascherham and his Silesians only when in 1529 he came to Moravia to find a quiet place for his little congregation.

It is not known when he was baptized, but after he had "accepted the covenant of grace of a good conscience in Christian baptism with true resignation to lead a godly life and God's gifts were richly felt in him, he was chosen and confirmed in the service of the Gospel."

In this position he first travelled through the Puster Valley, Tyrol.

One of the first small congregations he headed was that at Welsperg. Here his adherents assembled alternately in the house of his relative, Balthasar Hutter, or Andreas Planer, a scythe-smith. At the latter place he baptized ten persons on one day.

The government had word of this "synagogue" in May 1529 and now ordered Christoph Herbst, the sheriff at Toblach-Welsberg, to surprise and seize the Anabaptists. Some were captured, but Hutter and others escaped. The statements of the prisoners were sent to Innsbruck.

They gathered from them that Jakob Hutter, a real leader, "baptized the others for money"; what is meant is that each had to make a contribution to the common treasury.

Though the leader escaped this time, the authorities seized his sister Agnes in 1529. She had a short time previously been pardoned, but had at once returned to the brotherhood. By this act her sentence was already pronounced.

The persecution of the "pious in the land" gradually grew intolerable:

On every side one saw the blood of the martyrs and the burning stakes, prisons filled with captives, children forsaken and starving at home, with never a ray of hope except in God.

Then some recalled that the Lord of Hosts had gathered a people in His name in the city of Austerlitz in Moravia. The elders decided to send Brother Jakob and Sigmund Schützinger to them to gather information. After hearing their favourable report the brotherhood in Tyrol decided to join the one in Moravia.

Hutter appointed his co-worker Jörg Zaunring (or Zaunried) to lead them, and sent one small group after the other to Moravia. Most of them were members of Georg Blaurock's orphaned congregation (he had been burned at the stake at Klausen on 6 September 1529).

Singly and in groups, driven by the persecution prevailing throughout the land, the Anabaptists sought the road to Moravia. There was hardly an alternative:

The government pointed out in a letter to King Ferdinand in Vienna that for two years hardly a day had passed in which Anabaptist matters had not come up in the council:

"and more than 700 persons have been in part executed, in part expelled, in part have fled into misery, who left their property as well as their children behind."

All the rulings were of no avail:

"These people not only have no horror of punishment, but even report themselves; rarely is one converted; nearly all only wish to die for their faith."

Here Hutter worked on without fear. In the early summer of 1530 he wrote a letter about it to Moravia.

But while he was devoting all his energy to the care of his brethren at home, conflicts arose in Austerlitz in the winter of 1530, which threatened the very existence of the congregation, and finally split it into two hostile camps:

The causes of this division were misapplication of church regulations by ordained ministers, irregularities in church discipline, mismanagement of possessions, lack of tact in critical cases, the ambition of certain individuals, all of which Reublin sharply criticized in his letter to Pilgram Marpeck of 1531.

A part of the congregation then went to Auspitz, but not without having sent a messenger to Hutter, asking him to investigate the difficulty. The Austerlitz group did the same.

Therefore Hutter and Schützinger went back to Moravia, investigated "where the error in dispute lay, and found that the Austerlitz group was most to be blamed."

After they had settled the quarrel they returned to Tyrol, but had to go back to Moravia the next year to establish order once more. At this time Anabaptism came to full bloom in Moravia. From Silesia, Swabia, the Palatinate, and Tyrol came a long procession to Moravia.

At this time begins the struggle of the Tyrolean Anabaptists for their existence:

The year 1533 marks the climax of the persecution of the Anabaptists in Tyrol, for the government neglected no measures for their suppression.

Special efforts were made to capture Hutter, "who had brought so many people of the district into the sect." But no one was found who could claim the reward offered for his capture.

When it was finally decided by the Anabaptists in the Gufidaun region that tyranny had reached the highest degree, so that it was no longer possible for "the saints" to live there, Hutter was commissioned to go to Moravia to prepare a new home for the emigrants.

On 11 August 1533, he arrived in Auspitz with one companion:

The majority of the brotherhood there wished to accept Hutter, who was known for his energetic action, as their leader, but this ran counter to the wishes of their current leaders, Schützinger, Philipp, and Gabriel.

And yet in view of the continued frictions in the congregation, there was imperative need for clear-sighted leadership:

These leaders had shown themselves incapable of energetic execution of original Anabaptist doctrine:

They had no clear grasp of true brotherhood, and tended to cling to family ties, which were incompatible with unadulterated Anabaptist doctrine.

Reublin's complaints about the education of the children, the difference in the treatment of the members in food and clothing and in respect show how inadequate their leadership was.

Hutter's attack on the problem was different. The court records relate that he distributed to the poor the money collected from the members:

"This Jakob," say the History Books, "also brought a temporal gift, a sweet sacrifice, a little food, so that they could repay their debt of the time of need."

More important to Hutter than choice by the lot was inner awakening:

"The Holy Spirit called him for leadership." He could not escape it. It was his duty to reform matters. He stated this emphatically in his first address before the brotherhood.

After a few days he began the improvements. But he was opposed by Schützinger, who claimed the office of leadership on the strength of his election by the brotherhood.

He therefore betook himself to Gabriel in Rossitz:

"He wanted to see clearly whether the people wanted him as their leader or not. To be quiet and not perform the duties of his office he was not free to do before God. If he was not needed, he would move on, wherever God directed him."

With great difficulty he managed to have the brotherhood recognize him as leader, "that he be our bishop and shepherd."

The Hutterites now formed a brotherhood and Hutter was able to lead them with a firm hand. The History Books say, "He put the true church in pretty good order by the help and grace of God, hence we are still called the Hutterites."

The loss created by the withdrawal of Schützinger and of the dissatisfied elements under his leadership was replaced by fresh additions from Tyrol: In a letter written immediately after the separation Hutter named 120 to 130 persons who had come in the last few weeks.

The reports he sent from the "holy" church at Auspitz to Tyrol caused a veritable mass migration of Anabaptists to Moravia; they came singly and in groups.

To provide for the continued growth Hutter was compelled to look about for new homes; thus in the same year (1533) Schäckowitz, a half mile south of Auspitz, was settled.

The only serious difficulty arose from their relationship with the adherents of Philipp, his opponent, who also lived in Auspitz.

The additions from Tyrol continued in increasing numbers; even Tyrolean noblemen, like Sigmund von Wolkenstein, made pilgrimages to Auspitz. At the beginning of 1534 the movement was general among the Anabaptists of Tyrol.

Soon the government was shocked by reports that nearly all the valleys in the Sterzing district were full of them; three leaders had come from Moravia and were agitating in the region of Schwatz.

Almost at the same time it was rumoured that Hans Anion was planning "to send the common people, whom he had misled from the true faith in the Puster Valley and other places," to Moravia in the coming spring.

Although orders continued to be issued to guard the boats on the Inn River, nevertheless the emigrants managed to get to Moravia.

It can be imagined what pleasure the report - false, to be sure - created in Brixen, that Hutter and Hans Amon had been seized in Linz.

A considerable number of brethren were captured at Hohenwart in Lower Austria; to them Hutter wrote a long letter of consolation: Here in Auspitz, he said, there was also great tribulation.

In Tyrol there were no longer many brethren. These, too, were preparing to go to Moravia under the untiring leadership of Hans Amon.

But in Moravia affairs had also taken a turn for the worse for the Anabaptists:

The blow that was to strike them here had long been in preparation and was in essence the consequence of the events that had taken place in Münster; but it did not materialize until 1535.

The Moravian rulers, which were attended by Ferdinand I in person, acceded to his wish to have all Anabaptists expelled.

In vain they lamented that they were illegally being driven from their possessions. No one in Moravia had ever had cause for complaint to the government:

But if the sovereign or the feudal authorities demanded tribute or taxes they were willing to pay as much as they were able, if they were only permitted to keep their work and their religion.

A petition did indeed reach the court, but was disregarded.

Marshall Johann von Lipa, who took them into his protection, was threatened with the disfavour of the king. They had to move out into wretched poverty.

Hutter took his bundle on his back, as did his assistants; the brethren and sisters with their children went in pairs:

"They were thus," their History Books relate, "driven into the field like a herd of sheep:

Nowhere were they permitted to camp until they reached the village of Tracht in the possessions of the lord of Liechtenstein. There they lay down on the wide heath under the open sky with many wretched widows and children, sick and infants."

In touching words Hutter wrote to the governor Kuna von Kunstadt:

"Now we are camping on the heath, without disadvantage to any man. We do not want to wrong or harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk in life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity. We do not hesitate to give an account of our conduct to anyone.

But whoever says that we have camped on a field with so many thousands, as if we wanted war or the like, talks like a liar and a rascal. If the entire world were like us there would be no war and no injustice.

We can go nowhere; may God in heaven show us where we shall go. We cannot be prohibited from the earth, for the earth is the heavenly Father's; may He do with us what He will."

The step merely resulted in greater efforts to capture Hutter:

Now the brotherhood itself insisted on Hutter's leaving. He committed his office to Hans Amon and bade his relatives farewell; with pain and grief they saw him leave.

Those remaining scattered, some here and some there. A little group settled at Steinabrunn in Lower Austria, some on the estates of lords who did not feel bound by the latest decree.

Hutter's ideal, "the brotherhood," was now broken up, but preserved itself in numerous small groups. Many who were unable to endure the trials of the brethren returned home.

Thus many returned to Tyrol. There, led by Hutter, they began anew their evangelization:

"The ungodly tyrants," he writes to his forsaken church, "do not yet know that we are here. God grant that they do not find it out."

But even before Hutter appeared in Tyrol the cry resounded on every hand: "Anabaptists from Moravia are roaming through the country!" Orders were at once issued for their arrest.

During the period from early September to the end of November 1535, Hutter wrote three letters to the brethren in Moravia. In one he wrote:

"God has again set up a church. His people are increasing in numbers daily. The harvest is nearly ripe, but the labourers are few";

in another he spoke of the "raging" of the foe:

"They threaten with hangmen and bailiffs." "The Sodomite sea is raging madly. I fear it will not come to rest until the pious Jonah is cast into it." He warned the brotherhood of treachery.

Hutter's last letter, written shortly before his capture, indicates the great danger hovering over him. With so many enemies he could not hope to remain undiscovered:

When he and his pregnant wife were spending the night in the home of Hans Steiner, a former sexton, at Clausen, they were surprised by the clerk of Seber and the city judge Riederer,

and together with Anna Steiner of St. George and the aged wife of the sexton they were taken to the neighbouring episcopal fortress of Brandzell.

The capture of Hutter was immediately reported to Brixen and from there on 1 December to Innsbruck, where the news was received with pleasure, and orders were issued to transfer Hutter to Innsbruck, for he was not an ordinary prisoner, but a leader; the hearing of his wife was to take place before the city judge in Clausen.

In Hutter's bag were found letters from Hans Amon in Moravia, which were sent to Innsbruck with the statements of the arrested women.

Hutter was then taken to Innsbruck under strong escort on 9 December in severely cold weather, and was cross-examined two days later.

The attempts made by Dr. Gallus Müller to convert him were fruitless.

Even if he had recanted, his tragic fate would not have been averted, for the final decision of Ferdinand I was:

"We are determined that even if Hutter should renounce his error, we will not pardon him, for he has misled far too many, but we will let the penalty which he has merited so abundantly take its course."

He was to be closely questioned on his activity within and without the land, and precautions taken not to let him be replaced with other leaders from Moravia; orders to this effect had already been sent to Moravia.

Apparently it was expected that Hutter would ultimately be converted, but this was not achieved, neither by the torments of the rack nor by the barbarous whipping.

Hutter was firmly resolved not to yield in matters of faith or to betray his brethren. He endured every degree of terrible torture and "remained steadfast to the end."

The sentence condemned him to death by fire:

The court had doubts concerning the advisability of a public execution; but the king would not consent to having him executed with the sword in the quiet of dawn; he insisted on a public execution at the stake.

He died on 25 February 1536, and in the words of Hans Amon, "he gave a great sermon through his death, for God was with him." A trusted brother was at once sent to Moravia by the orphaned brotherhood to bear the news of his departure to the brethren there.

Hutter's wife had meanwhile been examined in Brandzell, but as the official report says, persisted "in her obstinate foolish opinion."

She was transferred to Gufidaun, where a learned and tactful man was assigned to convert her from her error, but she escaped before he arrived. Two years later she again fell into the hands of the government and was executed at Schöneck.

Hutter's death was commemorated in song by his adherents.

But his old opponents - a Gabriel Ascherham - carried their rancour beyond his death. Only Philip Plener, also an opponent in Hutter's Moravian period, gave a juster verdict:

"No one provided so faithfully for the people in temporal or spiritual matters as Hutter. Never was he found unfaithful. Through him the Lord gathered and preserved His people."

In general his brethren recognized his service to the Moravian Anabaptists in:


re-establishing discipline and order, confirming the "community" in opposition to destructive private ambitions, cleansing it of impure elements, and averting the abuses that brought dissolution of the groups in other places.

The Hutterite brotherhood, after the death of its founder in Moravia, has developed and maintained its sharply defined communistic character to the present time.

Of Hutter's writings only his eight epistles have been preserved.