Balthasar Hübmaier was born in Friedburg, Bavaria in 1481. A good student, he attended the University of Freiburg and earned a Masters degree in 1511. At that point he ignored his academic advisors, who regarded his prospects as excellent were he to be trained as a physician, and devoted himself to theological studies. In this he was so gifted that he earned a chair in theology at the University of Ingolstadt and became that university's vice-rector by 1515. He was then called to be the pastor the cathedral at Ratisbon, where he was greatly admired as a preacher and where he had ample opportunity to pursue independent study.
On a visit to Zurich in 1523, Hübmaier came into contact with Ulrich Zwingli, the pastor of the Grossmünster church in that city. You might say that Zwingli had organized a house church there, although that was probably not his intent at the time. Zwingli was an advocate of the "humanist method," a product of Erasmus of Rotterdam who Zwingli had met years earlier. Being a humanist in those days did not mean what it did today--rather, it meant engaging in the study of great works of antiquity by seeking the oldest available copies and learning their original languages. Zwingli had organized a group of bright young men who met with him several times a week. After studying a number of secular works, they soon turned to the New Testament, using Erasmus' Greek New Testament as their source. It is difficult to understand exactly what transpired as they studied the original text, but from the accounts that have survived it seems that most of them became deeply committed believers with a growing sense that the establishment Christianity of their day was contrary to the true New Testament texts. Through the Zurich city council, which regulated all matters of religion, Zwingli and his group had managed to persuade the city to repudiate the Roman church and install an evangelical church in its place. Martin Luther's successes may have prepared the soil for this development; he had followed a similar path of humanist study, and at this time was in hiding to escape the aftermath of his famous "Here I stand" testimony at the Diet of Worms.
After disposing of the Roman church, a gradual schism began to develop in Zwingli's study group. While Zwingli seemed content to rid Zurich of Catholicism, most of his protegés wanted to press their reformation further. In particular, they wanted to end the practice of the baptizing of infants because the New Testament seemed to suggest that candidates for baptism had to be old enough to understand the nature of the commitment they were making. Hübmaier and Zwingli had agreed that the practice would have to go during his 1523 visit, but Zwingli had changed his mind by 1525. It was in that year that things became unglued, the Zwingli and the city council becoming less and less patient with the agitation of members of the group, which, by this time, no longer included Zwingli. The group was banned from meeting, but that did not keep them from gathering in the evening on the same day that the edict was passed and to put their theology into action by baptizing each other into the "true Christian faith" (This meeting at the home of Felix Manz is described under the heading counter-culture).
As things were coming to a boil in Zurich, Hübmaier had moved to pastor the church at Waldshut, in Austria, where he began experimenting with ways to bring that parish into the deeper faith that he had become convinced was necessary to be a true disciple of Christ. He broke the rules of the mass, offering the cup to the common people--and this brought him into conflict with the Bishop of Constance. Despite his popularity among the people at Waldshut, the pressure from the Bishop forced him to seek safety among the many friends he had in Schaffhausen in August of 1524. It was here that he wrote one of his more significant tracts, Heretics and Those Who Burn Them, and hardened his position against infant baptism. He also married at that time, an action that would deepen the tragedy of his life.
As Hübmaier and his followers continued to experiment, the reaction from Austrian authorities grew stronger. The Austrian army captured the city in December, 1525, forcing Hübmaier to flee to Zurich where he hoped to find refuge with his friend Zwingli. But Zwingli had read one of his tracts condemning infant baptism and had him seized on the spot. After some persuasion at the hand of Zurich's torturers, Hübmaier made a partial recantation and was allowed to leave Switzerland. He eventually made his way to Lichtenstein where his Anabaptist evangelism converted many--perhaps over 12,000. He wrote many tracts that were circulated throughout Europe, adding fuel to the Anabaptist reformation.
Somehow, around 1527, Hübmaier was seized and taken to Vienna along with his wife. He was tried for heresy, convicted, and taken through the streets to the public square. As he was being prepared for the fire, his wife shouted exhortations to him to hold steadfast to his faith. Three days after his execution, his wife was taken to the River Danube and drowned with a large stone tied around her neck.
This is the reflection of historian Henry Vedder on Hübmaier's life:
Hübmaier was one of the Anabaptists against whom his enemies [could] bring no charge of immorality or unchristian conduct. We may be sure they would have found or invented such charges against him had it been possible. He was eloquent, learned, zealous, a man in every way the equal (to say no more) of Luther, Zwingli, and Clavin. His name has been loaded with unjust reproaches; he has been accused of teaching things that his soul abhorred; but in spite of his weakness at Zurich he stands out one of the heroic figures of his age.
Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1907), 149-157, and Balthasar Hübmaier, The Leader of the Anabaptists (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1905).