As Ulrich Zwingli preached in Zurich, he sought to bring reformation to Switzerland within the context of the established state church. In Zurich and throughout Europe, there was little difference between state and church. All babies baptized were thereby considered members of the church and citizens of the city. But Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, impatient with Zwingli’s reforms, began holding Bible classes in private homes, and their investigation of Scripture raised questions about state-sponsored sprinkling of infants.
When Grebel’s wife gave birth to a son, the stage was set for conflict. On January 17, 1525, the Zurich City Council arranged a public debate on the issue. Zwingli insisted that all children be baptized by their eighth day, while Grebel and Manz argued that baptism symbolized a believer’s commitment to Christ. They lost.
Four days later under the cloak of darkness, a dozen men trudged through falling snow to Manz’s house. After kneeling in the prayer, one of them, George Blaurock, asked Grebel to baptize him in the apostolic fashion – upon his confession of personal faith in Christ. Grebel did so, then Blaurock, a former priest, baptized the others.
Zwingli was incensed, and these radical reformers were soon driven from Zurich. There’s a congregation in the nearby village of Zollikon, the first “free” church of modern times. But they weren’t free from Zwingli, who hounded them or from Zurich’s arm of persecution.
Grebel, his health failing in prison, died of the plague. Blaurock was burned at the stake. And Zurich officials decided that if Manz wanted baptism so badly, they would give it to him. Taking him from Wellenberg prison, they bound his arms and legs. As they rowed down the middle of Zurich’s Limmat River, his mother shouted over the splashing oars for him to remain true to Christ. After he sang “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” he was rolled overboard, and the cold waters of Lake Zurich closed over his head.