Clio Speaks: History Today

My Refugee Ancestors: Dr. Heath A. Spencer

October 30, 2023

Two years ago, my wife and I became Mennonites (Anabaptist Christians), and my mother began to share some new stories. One of those stories was about a Swiss ancestor who had been driven into exile for refusing to do military service. Beyond those few facts, my mother didn’t have much information, but she knew there was a Wikipedia page about him, so we looked him up. His name was Christian L. Stauffer, and he was an Anabaptist preacher from the village of Eggiwil in the Emmental region, about twenty miles from the city of Bern. The Wikipedia page mentions that he was exiled in the fall of 1671 and spent the last months of his life in Dirmstein, Germany.1

Blood Tower in Bern SwitzerlandOn its own, that story would have been interesting to me, but not terribly impactful. However, this was not the first time I had seen the name Christian L. Stauffer. In fact, I had been reading books and articles on Mennonite history, beliefs, and practices, and brief references to Christian L. Stauffer had already caught my attention because Stauffer is my mother’s maiden name. I decided to learn more about Bernese Anabaptists, and the books and articles I found included a surprising number of references to the Stauffers and other families with which they were intertwined. I also learned that Christian L. Stauffer was one of approximately 700 Anabaptists who fled in 1671, in what was the largest migration out of Switzerland in the seventeenth century. 2

Täufer (Anabaptists) were present in the Swiss Cantons of Zurich and Bern as early as 1525. Though they shared many core beliefs with Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, they represented a more radical option within the larger story of the Reformation. They differed not only from Catholics but also most Protestants in their rejection of infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism. They also stood apart due to their commitment to nonresistance, refusal to take oaths, and unwillingness to hold government positions that would require them to employ or authorize lethal violence. With few exceptions, they respected governing authorities and obeyed laws that were not contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin considered Anabaptists to be heretical and seditious, and urban councils in Zürich and Bern concluded they were a political threat that had to be eliminated.3 Persecution of heretics was both a spiritual matter and an aspect of state-building.

In the sixteenth century, Swiss authorities executed Anabaptists, but in the seventeenth century they chose other ways to apply pressure. Raids on illegal church services, selective arrests of pastors and prominent individuals, incarceration, transport to Venice to serve as galley slaves, forced exile, and discriminatory laws were the primary mechanisms of coercion. In Bern, the state refused to recognize Anabaptist marriages since they did not take place in the official church and were not formally registered by Reformed clergy. This meant that from the state’s perspective, Anabaptist children were illegitimate and had no right to inherit the family property upon the death of their parents. In 1671, the Bern council intensified the persecution, requiring public oaths of loyalty, announcing a major “hunt” for Anabaptists, and taking hostages to enforce compliance. Faced with these circumstances, many Bernese Anabaptists chose exile and left for the Palatinate (a German state within the Holy Roman Empire) or Alsace (recently annexed to France).4

According to Ernst Müller’s Geschichte der bernischen Täufer (History of the Bernese Anabaptists), the exiles of 1671 included 75 distinct households, among them seven headed by Stauffers. We know this because Dutch Anabaptists traveled to the Palatinate to provide aid to the refugees, and they sent back detailed reports on the humanitarian crisis as it unfolded. The seven Stauffer households mentioned in their communications included four married couples, two single men in their twenties, and one married man whose wife and six children had returned to Switzerland by January 1672. Their ages ranged from 3 months to ninety years old. At least eight children from these families were initially left behind, including five of the six children of Daniel Stauffer (a son of Christian L. Stauffer) and Barbara Neukommet Galli, who was pregnant when they went into exile. One of those left-behind children, Christian Galle Stauffer, was only eight years old in 1671, but we know he made it to the Palatinate by 1696. In the eighteenth century, some of his descendants migrated to colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia, and one of his descendants currently lives in Seattle and is writing this essay.5

It's not hard to identify the “push factors” that drove the Stauffers and other Anabaptists out of Switzerland, but what were the “pull factors” that drew many of them to the Palatinate? It appears to have been a combination of religious toleration, economic opportunity, and migration networks.

Historian Frank Kronersmann explains that in the second half of the seventeenth century, several territorial princes in the Holy Roman Empire began issuing decrees of toleration for religious minorities. Often, their motives were economic rather than humanitarian in nature. The Thirty Years War (1618- 1648) had devastated their territories, and they needed to attract immigrants who would recolonize and farm the land. This was the context behind concessions granted to Anabaptists from Bern by Karl Ludwig, Elector Palatine (1649-1680).6

Though Karl Ludwig was Reformed, he set his religious preferences aside and overrode the objections of Reformed clergy for reasons of state. His Concession of 1664 gave Bernese Anabaptists permission to settle, thereby legalizing the unauthorized immigration that his government had tolerated since the 1650s. To appease the Reformed clergy in his principality, he limited Anabaptists to no more than 20 participants in their worship services, prohibited adult baptism, and required payment of an annual recognition fee of six gulden per household, to which he later added an additional fee of 3 gulden in exchange for exemption from military service.7

Initially, the refugees who arrived in the Palatinate in 1671 were destitute, and many had no possessions with them other than their bedding and small amounts of money. With assistance from Dutch Anabaptists and other Anabaptists already in the Palatinate, the refugees were able to begin reconstructing their lives in a new setting, and over time they gained a degree of stability.8 However, records from half a century later indicate that more than 50% of the Anabaptists in counties surveyed were still quite poor, compared with 32% classified as “average” and 13% as well off. In the early eighteenth century, most Palatine Anabaptists were smallholders or landless agricultural laborers. Their legal status was also uncertain because the concessions that allowed them to be there could be revoked at any time (as Reformed clergy and laity frequently demanded). Reformed and Catholic subjects resented the newcomers, especially those who were economically successful, and sometimes accused them of enjoying special privileges or manipulating markets.9 The precarity of their status and the hostility of neighbors led some to migrate to colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia, including my ancestor Johannes Kreibel Stauffer, who left in 1737.

In June 2023, my mother turned 80, and in July we travelled together in Switzerland, Southwest Germany, and Alsace. We did not expect to find a lot of new information, but we wanted to see the places where our ancestors had lived or through which they had passed. It was a memorable experience, and full of delightful and surprising moments. Early conversations with fellow travelers and restaurant staff indicated that there were still plenty of Stauffers in and around Bern. When we arrived in the village of Eggiwil, one of the first people we met immediately connected the Stauffer name with Luchsmatt farm, from which Christian L. Stauffer and his family had been expelled in 1671. Later that day, we were able to see the farm and talk to the current owners, who also were aware of its history. Apparently, other Stauffer descendants, many of them Mennonites from the United States, had made pilgrimages similar to ours.

In the city of Bern, we visited the “Prison Tower,” the “Blood Tower,” and the site of a former “orphanage” (all former prisons for Anabaptists). A side trip to Sumiswald brought us to Trachselwald Castle, also a former prison, but now home to a museum exhibit on Swiss Anabaptists past and present. We visited the Täuferversteck (Anabaptist hiding place) on a farm near Trub that is still owned by the descendants of those who hid there from bounty hunters in the seventeenth century. Later that same day, we had a long conversation with a man we met while hiking outside of Eggiwil, and just before we parted ways, he revealed to us that he was also a Stauffer.

These forays into family history have given me a lot to think about. Some of my ancestors were refugees, temporarily homeless and destitute, and some of them went through the trauma of family separation. They had to rely on the charity of others and live in a country that grudgingly tolerated them because they were economically useful. Some of them were illegal migrants or unauthorized residents due to arbitrary limits on the number of Anabaptist households in the Palatinate. I can’t help but think of migrants in the present day who have similar experiences: impossible situations in their countries of origin, the semi-toleration of states and corporations that need their labor or their taxes, hostility from nativists who fear a changing ethnic and cultural landscape, and—if they are fortunate—support, compassion, community, and belonging in their new homelands.

Photo: Blood Tower in Bern, Heath Spencer

1 “Christian Stauffer,” last edited 7 June 2023,

2 John D. Roth, Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2006); John D. Roth, Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2005); Delbert L. Gratz, Bernese Anabaptists and Their American Descendants (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1953).

3 Roth, Stories, 59, 65; John D. Roth, “The limits of confessionalization: social discipline, the ban, and political resistance among Swiss Anabaptists, 1550-1700,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89:4 (October 2015): 518-520.

4 Gratz, Bernese Anabaptists, 12, 25, 30-38; Richard Warren Davis, “The Stauffer Families of the 1671 Migration to the Palatinate,” Mennonite Family History 12 (1993): 4; John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Waterloo, ON and Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001); 108-110.

5 Ernst Müller, Geschichte der bernischen Täufer (Frauenfeld: J. Hubers Verlag, 1895), 200-204; see also the more recent English translation: Müller, History of the Bernese Anabaptists, trans. John Gingerich (Alymer, ON and Lagrange, IN: Pathway Publishers, 2010), 220-224; Davis, “Stauffer Families,” 9.

6 Frank Kronersmann, “Toleration, Privilege, Assimilation and Secularization: Mennonite Communities of Faith in the Palatinate, Rhine-Hesse, and the Northern Upper-Rhine, 1664-1802,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82 (October 2008): 535-536.

7 Ibid., 535-541.

8 Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s, 110-113.

9 Kronersmann, “Toleration, Privilege, Assimilation, and Secularization,” 537, 555-556.