Austria’s Christian History
When we think about Austria, we have to remember that our land wasn’t always as small as it is today. Over the centuries, the borders have moved. At one time, they encompassed the whole of Hungary, the northern part of Italy as well as parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia.
The first time “Ostarrichi” is mentioned in historical records was in 996 A.D. We find this was in a deed of gift from Emperor Otto III to the Bistum from Freising, where he gave him 30 Königshufen “in regione vulgari vocabulo Ostarrîchi dicitur” (“an area which is called Ostarrichi in the vulgar tongue”). It is not known where the name descended from or who first used it.
996 A.D. was a year when the Babenberger dynasty had already reigned for 20 years in this dominion of the “Holy Roman Empire”. The Babenberger were replaced by the Habsburgs in 1273 and their reign only ended after World War I in 1918. Sadly, the Habsburgs were used to destroy most of the Christian groups in Austria and to kill their successors.
When we look back, we have to realise that people were taught and brought up with the Roman Catholic church being the dominant religion. Emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus I Maximus (The Great) reigned from 307-337 A.D. and made the Catholic Church the official state religion in the Roman Empire, which included south Germany and modern-day Austria. The Hunnens as well as the German tribes, such as the Lugier, Ostogoten and the Bajuwaren (Bayern), flooded into the land in the 5th and 6th Centuries and fought back the Romans. The majority of the inhabitants of south Germany and Austria today are the descendents of those tribes. However, there were some true Christians who stood up against the Catholic Church, its false teaching and deviations from the Bible.
The 12th to 15th Centuries
This was the time of the Kathars and Waldensians. The latter were founded by Pierre Valdo (1140-1217 A.D.), a man from Lyon who converted to true Christianity in 1176 A.D and who took his teaching directly and exclusively from the Bible. Small groups were established in the whole area of the Alps, but during the time of the Inquisition and the Albigensian war (1209-1229 A.D.) the Kathars together with the Waldensians were persecuted and forced to move away from the German-speaking countries. One well-known historical event that occurred in lower Austria during this time was the 1397 “Blood trial of Steyr” where about one hundred Waldensians were burned alive at the stake.
The 16th to 18th Centuries
In 1525 A.D. the Brethren Churches, or Anabaptists, were established throughout the land. Many of their leaders, such as Konrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Jörg Blaurock and Baltasar Hubmaier, as well as their successors, had their lives ended at the stake because of persecution from the Catholic Church.
The Anabaptist churches adhered to the teaching in the Bible and taught people God’s ways. Anabaptists baptised adults under water and took communion as a remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice. They were strictly against the false teachings of the Catholic Church, such as the sprinkling of water on a baby’s head as a method of baptism. They also preached against the doctrine of ’Transubstantiation’ (the claim that there is a physical transformation of the communion bread and wine into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, miraculously performed by the priest in the Catholic mass).
In 1529 A.D. a hat maker by trade named Jakob Hutter (born in Moos in the Puster Valley, half a mile from Bruneck) joined one of the Anabaptist groups in Tyrol and was soon chosen as a minister and dedicated himself to the service of the Gospel. Jacob Hutter laid down the foundation for the Hutterian way of life, where the members lived together in ‘Brüderhöfe’ (Brethren farms) and shared everything, which still exists today. Based on ACTS 2:44-47; Hutterites believed that the sharing of goods is the highest commandment of love.
Hutter’s main area of work was in Tyrol and later in Moravia, where he had to flee after persecution arose and a price was put on his head in 1533. As the persecution reached Moravia, the church had to send Hutter back to Tyrol, and on November 29th 1535 he was betrayed in Klausen. As a result he was bound and gagged and then taken to Innsbruck where he was tortured and interrogated in prison.
On February 2nd 1536, he was condemned and burned alive at the stake in front of the “Golden Roof/Goldenes Dachl” for refusing to renounce his faith. Hutter’s final words were:
”Come closer ye contradictory people, let’s try the faith in the fire”. (Kommt näher, ihr Widersprecher, laßt uns den Glauben im Feuer probieren.)
Over the next few years, his wife Katharina was captured four times and finally drowned in a water trough. Over the next hundred years there were up to one hundred and twenty-five assemblies of the Hutterites in Tyrol.
The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648)
Soon after the “Imperial Diet in Worms” the teaching of Martin Luther also came to Austria. It was mainly miners, mercenaries, craftsmen and traders who brought Luther’s writings with them and spread them among the people.
From 1520 A.D. onwards, Protestantism spread quickly in this part of Europe, especially with the help of two families in the Austrian aristocracy (Jörger and Starhemberger). At one point Austria was over eighty percent Protestant.
However, as a result of the “Counter Reformation”, Austria was brought back to Catholicism. This was often carried out through violence, for example, Wolfgang Brandhuber and seventy of his followers were executed in Linz in 1528 A.D. because of their belief in the Bible. Others had to hide from persecution, and about one hundred thousand Protestants were forced to flee to Hungary and to Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) in Romania (see Christian History of Hungary).
At the “Munich Conference” in 1579 A.D., Karl of Central Austria, his brother Ferdinand II of Tyrol and his brother-in-law, Wilhelm of Bavaria, declared to systematically fight Protestantism in their respective countries. As a result the following measures took place:
• They attempted to destroy Protestant infrastructure by expulsion of preachers; closing of protestant schools and churches; the burning of books (mainly from Luther), and by filling vacancies in official places with non-protestants.
• Further steps were taken to investigate all citizens and missionaries through the Reform Commission. A call was made for the re-conversion within a certain time period, often with considerable reprisals, with a quarter of the troops being stationed in the houses of the protestants.
• Deportation of all those who did not want to convert to Catholicism. In this case all of the younger children from protestant families had to remain and families had to pay a “moving tax” (Wegzugsteuer) of between 5 and 10%.
The following two hundred years, especially during the reign of Karl VI and his mother Maria Theresa, brought a period of great persecution. To be a Protestant became a crime and heavy fines and penalties such as “Conversion prisons” and jail sentences, at best, and more often death, were imposed. Maria Theresa was responsible for the cruel death of thousands of Protestants all over the empire. In one of these massacres we read that the soldiers crossed the river Danube on their horses, riding over thousands of corpses of dead Protestants.
Some examples of the laws that were introduced by Maria Theresa in 1778 A.D. are:
1. No Lutheran books were allowed.
2. Nobody was allowed to hold Christian meetings at home.
3. Only Catholics were allowed to marry.
4. Nobody was permitted to buy a house without a written certificate from his Catholic priest confirming his faith.
Most of the peasants pretended to be Catholics, but secretly kept the teaching of Martin Luther, hiding Protestant books in stables, mills, trees and caves and from time to time meeting at those places. These people were known as the “Secret Protestants”.
This dark period in the history of Christianity in Austria only came to an end on October 13th 1781, when Emperor Josef II, known as the “Emperor of the People”, decreed the “Act of Tolerance”. This act gave full religious freedom to the Protestants, although the Catholic stronghold of Tyrol only accepted the Act as repealed more than a hundred years later.
The 19th and 20th Centuries
Since the 19th Century, the Protestant church has become more settled in Austria, at the same time losing its fire over the years to the point where it is no longer a threat to the Catholic Church. Today, it is part of the ecumenical movement, and as such, no longer stands for the Biblical truth.
At the beginning of the last century, around 1926, missionaries from the Salvation Army arrived in Austria and started their work. Today, eighty years later, there are only around thirty active members of this formerly mighty Christian work, which was founded by William Booth in the 19th century.
Sadly, not many Protestant groups who set their feet on Austrian soil survived and today only a minority of the people believe in the Bible. There are a number of Charismatic and Pentecostal churches spread across the country, often supported by the USA or Switzerland, but unfortunately few believers are willing to bow their knee to God and live as the Bible commands.
“Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, Today, after so long a time; as it is said, Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” HEBREWS 4:7.