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Pilgrimage to the Emmental

Jean Würgler (left) and Stirling Watts visit the house of Anabaptist martyr, Hans Haslibacher


The Emmental region was a hotbed of radicalism during the Reformation, and leading the attempts to overthrow the existing order were the Anabaptists. Today there are few obvious signs of their activism, but their stories come to life for those who know where to look.

An American tourist, Stirling Watts, lifts a set of arm and leg irons to gauge their weight. The irons are bolted to the walls of small wooden cells in the castle tower of Trachselwald and were once used to hold Anabaptist prisoners.

It's Watts first visit to the Emmental region in canton Bern even though he has been coming to Switzerland for years to study Swiss-German.

A website he produces about the dialect brought him into contact with American Amish communities - descendants of the early Swiss Anabaptists - which spurred his trip to the Emmental to find out more about the roots of the Amish.

"It's well known that many Anabaptists lived in the area surrounding the castle," says Watts' guide, Jean Würgler, who is also secretary of the Swiss Mennonite Historical Society. "The Anabaptist hunters took many of them prisoner. They were held here before being transferred to Bern."

Persecuted for beliefs

The Anabaptists, who later split into several sub-groups such as the Amish and Mennonites, were persecuted for their rejection of infant baptism, military service and their refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

Scrutinising the names carved by previous visitors into the walls of the prison cells, Watts recognises many as common among the Amish in his native Ohio and neighbouring states: Yoder, Miller, Gingerich, Kaufmann. They attest to the fact that the castle has become an important place of pilgrimage for Amish and Mennonite tourists.

Würgler takes Watts and his son on a drive deeper into the Emmental. It is a patchwork of high hills, narrow valleys and dense forests.

Along with the Jura region in western Switzerland, it was an ideal place of refuge for Anabaptists fleeing persecution by the state authorities. They held secret gatherings in forest clearings and caves, aware that capture often meant torture and execution.

The small pulpits

Würgler stops his car on a side road in a narrow valley. He shows Watts two small rises in a forest clearing called the "small pulpits" by the early Anabaptists. The site is not signposted, and Würgler says it's not mentioned in any historical documents, but it was believed to have been one of the places where the Anabaptists would gather.

"I feel these are significant historical sites, but there is no documentation about them," says Watts, who is surprised to find that few of the historical Anabaptist sites are promoted by the local or Swiss authorities.

"I would have thought there would have been some way to get funding from the Swiss government to make these places better known. They could be of interest to the general public, but one just assumes they are not."

A large farmhouse in the idyllic hamlet of Haslenbach is an exception. A small plaque nailed to the wall is dedicated to an Anabaptist martyr.

"Hans Haslibacher was beheaded in 1571 in Bern because he was an Anabaptist," Würgler explains as Watts inspects the plaque underneath the wide eaves of the house.

"The farmhouse has been renovated but it belongs to direct descendants of Haslibacher," Würgler continues. "It's an important place in Anabaptist history because it's a witness to the 1600s, which was a time of repression."

A small English guide to Anabaptist sites which Würgler carries points out that "a detailed description of Hans Haslibacher's imprisonment and execution is found in a 32-stanza poem composed, as the last verse states, by another Anabaptist prisoner".

The last martyr

Haslibacher was the last martyr from the Emmental. His family converted to the state church and, by the end of the 18th century, the Bernese authorities were successful in driving hundreds of thousands of Anabaptists out of the region.

The Swiss Anabaptist community now numbers little more than 1,000 - one of the smallest groups among a worldwide community of more than a million.

Driving through the lush green hills of the Emmental countryside, Watts is impressed by how little urban development there is, but also realises that the Anabaptist story - in Switzerland at least - is a near forgotten chapter of the Reformation.

"There's a large gap of understanding of who the Amish are, particularly among Europeans because they have no contact with the Amish whatsoever!"

by Dale Bechtel

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