Philipp was known as der Großmütige,
Philip the Magnanimous!
I hope you will see that by the grace of God he truly was magnanimous!
Philipp was Landgrave [Count] of Hesse, a region in Germany. When he was only five, his father died. Until 1518 he was under the regency of his mother Anna.
He introduced the Reformation into Hesse,
founded the University of Marburg,
and was one of the most zealous promoters of the Reformation in Germany.
In his attitude toward the Anabaptists he showed extraordinary generosity and kindness. He saw in their movement a disorder in religious life, which had its roots in error and weakness in the faith rather than in moral error like sedition and revolt, and which must therefore be treated with lenience and consideration.
“On every hand there is no perfect faith in us, so that we must say: Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.”
“Alas, how cold love is among us who call ourselves Christian and those who create such offense must give an account before God and bear a grievous judgment.”
Above all, he said, one must try to lead the Anabaptists back to the church by persuasion and indoctrination. His heartfelt policy was a matter of conscience. He would not agree to execute anyone for a matter of faith, where there was no other ground for taking his life. Otherwise no Catholics or Jews could be tolerated, he said, for they blasphemed Christ and they too would have to be put to death.
He declared in a letter of May 1533, that he had never yet had a man put to death solely on a matter of belief; he had merely banished such or commanded them to sell their goods and move out – only the obstinate who refused to go had he arrested. He could not persuade himself “to punish anyone with the sword because of an error of faith, which is a gift of God, and was adopted at the time, not from malice, but from ignorance.”
When 18 Anabaptists were again seized in Hausbreitenbach and the Elector of Saxony demanded their execution, Philipp refused with the words, “Our Lord will give grace that they may be converted.” His hope was fulfilled in several instances.
After the fall of Münster and the capture and condemnation of the Anabaptist leaders, upon Philipp’s express wish an attempt was made to convert the leaders by the Protestant clergymen Antonius Corvinus and Johann Kymeus. His view was that,
“One should pray God to correct the errors in his own life and to admonish the Anabaptists kindly and in a friendly spirit. . .it is necessary to use caution and not make use of the sword until all other means have been tried.”
His policy included the abolition of vices in his realm because Anabaptists were offended by them. But they also included sharp punishment of foreign and local Anabaptists: beating, branding, and banishment. However, he wasn’t greedy of their confiscated goods but stipulated their return to the Anabaptists if they would depart his realm.
Philipp never confirmed a death sentence. In 1540 he was able to write that in his realm the death sentence had never been inflicted on an Anabaptist. In that day, Anabaptists were executed elsewhere and other German nobles tried to convince him to follow them in this. Instead he took pains to induce imprisoned Anabaptists to recant. He sent a letter in his own hand to those jailed at Wolkersdorf, chiding them but saying that he wanted to deal with them graciously and kindly, and was therefore sending them a God-fearing man who wanted to discuss with them in a friendly way their error and that they should listen to this person:
“. . .he shall show you the right way, so that you may come to the true knowledge of divine truth, which we would most heartily like to see and would rather hear than to proceed against you with rigor, as is our right, since you refuse to desist from your unchristian sect.”
To this end he called Martin Bucer, reformer of Strasbourg, to Hesse. This led to success. The Anabaptist Peter Tasch and his followers declared themselves willing to submit to the church. They presented their modified principles in the document:
Bekenntnis oder Antwort einiger Fragestücke oder Artikeln der gefangenen Täufer und anderer im Land zu Hessen vom 11. Dezember 1538 [Confession or answer of some questions or articles of the captive Baptists and others in the country of Hesse of December 11th 1538].
The statement was accepted by the Lutheran clergy. Eagerly Philipp accepted the proposal of Bucer to have these converts win their own brethren. He did not hesitate to deal with Anabaptists in person, and to his great joy most of them within his realm returned to the established church.
Writing to Johann Friederich in 1545, Philipp gave his general reasons for the policy, citing Matthew 13:24-30; Luke 9:52-56; Romans 14:1-5; and Romans 12 ff. He wrote,
“These quotations block our path to such an extent that we cannot find it in our conscience to proceed with such rigor against a person who errs somewhat in the faith; for the person might accept instruction over night and desist from his error. Now if such a one should straightway be put to death by one of us, we are truly concerned that we may not be innocent of his blood. . .Therefore it pleased us once more, wherever these people are, that they be arrested and indoctrinated by skilled persons with the Word of God; and those who would not return to the church and desist from their error after being instructed should be expelled from the country; if they returned or if they were so completely obstinate that they might infect others they should be kept in prison.”
This letter provides evidence of a generous mind and noble religious tolerance, in which he far surpassed his contemporaries and the reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. He represented a new era, while they were still in the clutches of the Middle Ages. He maintained this position even during his imprisonment by Charles V after the Schmalkaldian War. In 1559, in an opinion to Johann Friedrich of Saxony, he says,
“It is so, many Anabaptists have an unchristian evil sect, as was shown at Münster and elsewhere; but they are not alike. Some are simple, pious folk; they should be dealt with in moderation. Anabaptists who deal with the sword may rightly also be punished with the sword. But those who err in faith should be dealt with leniently, and shall be instructed in accord with the principle of love to one’s neighbor, and no effort shall be spared, also they shall be heard, and if they will not accept the truth and scatter error like a harmful seed among Christians, they shall be expelled and their preaching abolished. But to punish them with death, as happens in some countries, when they have done nothing more than err in faith and have not acted seditiously, cannot be reconciled with the Gospel. Other Christian teachers like Augustine and Chrysostom also violently opposed it.”
Philipp also impressed his attitude upon his sons in his will:
“To kill people for the reason that they believed an error we have never done, and wish to admonish our sons not to do so, for we consider that it is contrary to God, as is clearly shown in the Gospel.”
Philipp’s sons and descendants held to this attitude. His spirit of gentleness and reconciliation lived on among them.
In spite of his zeal in promoting the Reformation, Philipp’s personal life was marred by a licentious lifestyle and a bigamous marriage. In 1523, Philipp married Christine of Saxony and they had 10 children; then, in 1540 he married Margarethe von der Saale with whom he had 9. He argued with various Reformation leaders that because Scripture allowed men such as the Old Testament patriarchs to have more than one wife, he was therefore entitled to have two marriages. This situation led to a weakening of his relationships with other German Protestant princes.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 163-166. All rights reserved.
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