No. 22, Winter 2003
Helena von Freyberg: Woman of Noble and Spiritual Stature
Helena von Freyberg, a noblewoman from the sixteenth-century Austrian territory of Tirol, was a remarkable Anabaptist woman. She was one of the few members of the upper class who risked persecution and death when she and her whole household chose to be baptized as adult believers. The laws of the Holy Roman Empire forbade such action and Ferdinand I, ruler of Tirol, rooted out heresy ruthlessly. Helena’s faith gave her courage to establish a house church in her castle at Münichau and to live in exile for many years. Her story, as told in the court records of the time and in her own hand-written confession, reveals her powerful commitment and deep experience of God’s grace.
In 1527 Helena became an Anabaptist, but it took the government two years to obtain firm evidence against her. When an Anabaptist martyr stated in his interrogation that Helena was indeed a member of the outlawed sect, the authorities acted quickly. On January 2, 1530, an armed guard came to arrest Helena. She fled into Swiss territory to the city of Constance.
Like the Catholic authorities in Austria, the Lutheran leaders of Constance opposed the Anabaptist meetings Helena conducted in her home. They especially disliked her support for a prominent Anabaptist whom they despised, the former Austrian, Pilgram Marpeck. Late in 1532 the authorities expelled Helena from Constance and she returned to Münichau.
Due to Helena’s far-reaching influence as an Anabaptist leader in her native Tirol, the government insisted she recant publicly in the local church if she wanted to remain at Münichau. It was not unusual for some Anabaptists to renounce their faith. It was a means of survival and later they rejoined the movement. Helena agreed to recant but refused to do so publicly. Finally, in 1534, the authorities compromised and allowed her to recant in private to a government officer in Innsbruck. However, Helena decided to leave her homeland for good, which suggests her recantation was only a formality.
Helena went to live in Augsburg where, until 1535 Anabaptists enjoyed toleration. In the mass arrests of that year Helena was taken into custody and interrogated by the city council but without torture. They questioned her about her three sons, her husband and the financial support she received from them. She named prominent citizens and Protestant preachers with whom she had contact but would not name any fellow believers. She downplayed the Anabaptist meetings held in her home by saying these had not been large. “Only two, three or four brothers came and went,” she said, “and they talked about the Word of God.” She went on to say that no one had been baptized in her house. Her carefully worded answers did not spare her from punishment. Because she was an Anabaptist and had been teaching others, she was laid in chains overnight and then driven out of the city. Her son’s intervention allowed her return. Helena remained in Augsburg until her death in 1545.
Sometime during the last ten years of her life, Helena wrote to her congregation in Augsburg to ask forgiveness for a sin she had committed. This six page hand-written confession preserved in a Swiss library is the only piece of her writings to survive. It is a rarity to have a piece of writing from a woman of that time period, especially an Anabaptist one. But Helena’s confession is significant because it reveals her sincerity and profound faith.
It is not clear why after years of persecution and exile, Helena was disciplined by members of her congregation in Augsburg. Was her earlier recantation the sin that caused the spiritual crisis she wrote about? Her admission that, “Especially I have sinned and become guilty concerning those in civil authority,” points in that direction. Perhaps her situation was not unlike that in modern-day China where preachers who recanted under pressure were later confronted by fellow believers.
The many scripture references included in the margins of her confession indicate that for Helena, as for all Anabaptists, the Bible was the basis of faith. The sin that God had revealed to her had caused her “to have failed completely in loving God first and my brother” as commanded by God in Matthew 7. Thus, it had to be dealt with in the congregation, which was central to the believer’s life.
Helena asked forgiveness from her congregation and especially from her old friend Pilgram Marpeck. She compared herself to the prodigal son who had made a “useless mistake” that had prevented the Holy Spirit’s work in her. The recurring phrase “from the bottom of my heart” stresses how deeply Helena felt her guilt and likewise how deeply she had experienced God’s grace. As she said: “Due to the great love from God (through Christ) I have experienced grace and mercy.”
Helena fully yielded to God and laid aside the privileges of her noble birth. In the process she became a woman of great stature in the Christian faith.