Born in the German village of Staufen, Michael Sattler (c. 1490 - 1527) enrolls at the University of Freiburg at a young age and then takes vows as a Benedictine monk, serving at a monastery in the Black Forest. His schooling includes a broad theological education as well as biblical studies in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Highly regarded by the Benedictines, he is elected to the position of prior.
While yet in his twenties, he becomes engrossed in Reformation ideas. Though living in relative seclusion in a monastery, he is influenced by the new religious ideas swirling around him. As an avid student of Scripture he is most interested in Luther's examination of Paul's epistles. His studies convince him that monasticism is not the path to true righteousness, but his first personal face-to-face encounter with the new teachings comes through Anabaptists, specifically through peasants with both a social and spiritual agenda. During the Peasants' War of 1525, while living in the Black Forest region, Sattler is converted to the Anabaptist cause.
Turning away from his monastic vows, he marries Margaretha, a former nun who has also converted to Anabaptist beliefs. Later that year he defends his position biblically in a series of disputations in Zwingli's Zurich. In hindsight, the outcome for any such public debate is fixed: that an Anabaptist would lose is obvious. But one after another of the young Anabaptist theologians take the bait, only to be caught in the tangle of political determinism. Sattler is arrested and threatened with torture until he recants and promises not to return to Zurich. His expulsion, like the expulsion of first-century Christians from Jerusalem, only serves to spread the message. He journeys as a missionary in exile and baptizes converts along the way. Unlike other early Anabaptist leaders, he maintains close contact with Magisterial Reformers, interacting on controversial theological issues with Martin Bucer and others in Strasbourg.
By 1527 he is one of the recognized leaders of the movement and helps to formulate the Schleitheim Confession, which outlines Anabaptist beliefs, including the concept of a called-out community of believers separated from the world. The confession also lays out a pacifist position, clearly taking issue with the more radical militants. So significant is this document among the growing movement of Anabaptists that Zwingli caustically concedes: "There is almost no one among you who does not have a copy of your so well founded commandments." Not long after drafting the confession, Michael and Margaretha are arrested by Catholic authorities led by Austrian regent Ferdinand. Ferdinand regards the crime of a monk converting to Anabaptism so heinous that he argues Sattler should be drowned without the courtesy of a trial. But other officials, conscious of public opinion, are determined to at least go through the motions of a court interrogation.
Other Anabaptists are arrested along with Sattler, but he alone is charged with abandoning his vows as a monk and marrying a nun. Among the other charges are denial of transubstantiation, rejection of infant baptism, corruption of the Lord's Supper, failure to properly honor the Virgin Mary, and refusal to take oaths. The matter of pacifism also draws criticism; anyone unwilling to fight invading Turks is deemed a traitor. He responds to the charges with biblical evidence, but the judges are not in the mood for a debate. Their verdict leaves no room for compromise:
Michael Sattler shall be committed to the
executioner. The latter shall take him to
the square and there first cut out his
tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon
and there with glowing iron tongs twice
tear pieces from his body, then on the
way to the site of execution five times more
as above and then burn his body to
powder as an arch-heretic.
Eyewitness reports claim that even after his tongue is cut out, Sattler continues praying for his enemies to the very end. The following week Margaretha is executed by drowning in the Necker River. The multiple martyrdom of Sattler, his wife, and several followers only serves to spread the word and bring greater attention to the Anabaptist confession that is read and studied in households and conventicles all over Europe.