The Protestant Reformation

The Anabaptists and other Radical Reformers

This lesson is structured a little different from the others. I have given each section its title in the form of a question. Where Luther and Zwingli have been summarized, dissected, and rejoiced in, the Anabaptists, I believe, stand in judgment upon history. Rather than being summarized and studied, the Anabaptists rise up and judge me and all my love of the Reformers and their followers. Can I get to the end of this lesson and still love the Reformers? It will be a challenge.

I should also say that there is hardly an assertion below that cannot be questioned and contradicted. The Anabaptists, the most persecuted people of the Reformation, were not allowed the luxury of extensive written records. They were known to history for centuries mostly from the writings of their enemies, and Calvinists have been among the worst offenders in this regard.

1 - Who Were the Anabaptists?

The Anabaptists are hard to define because it depends on how you look at them. If you take the view (see below) that says they are simply the continuation of centuries of underground Christianity, then you are not going to agree with the following definition, which is an approximate view of current thinking:

The Anabaptists were one of several branches of "Radical" reformers (i.e. reformers that went further than the mainstream Reformers) to arise out of the Renaissance and Reformation. Two other branches were Spirituals or Inspirationists, who believed that they had received direct revelation from the Spirit, and rationalists or anti-Trinitarians, who rebelled against traditional Christian doctrine, like Michael Servetus.

The Anabaptists, on the other hand, were characterized generally by believers' baptism, refusal of infant baptism, an emphasis on piety and good works, an aversion to the state-run churches whether Catholic or Protestant, a policy of nonviolence and nonresistance, believing that it was not right to swear oaths, and other beliefs. They mostly held to a soteriology that resembled Protestantism, with an emphasis on the reality of free will and the necessity of good works to accompany faith.

The evangelical Anabaptists that we are concerned with, originated in Zurich in the 1520's as a result of the teachings of Zwingli. Zwingli did not go far enough, they believed, and so George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz began to agitate for truly biblical reform, including believer's baptism and a "gathered" church, i.e. a church where members were there because they had believed and been baptized, not because of State intervention or mandatory church attendance.

The Anabaptists, as well as the other groups named above, were persecuted cruelly by the Catholics and Protestants alike. Historic Protestant literature, with which I am passing familiar, treats them as scandalous groups who always preach false doctrine and lead people astray. Outside of Anabaptist circles, it has only been in the 20th century that the rest of the world has begun to give the Anabaptist movement its due place in church history.

Did they always exist?

According to Estep, this discussion has not been settled definitively. "Almost everything that could be said has, at one time or another, been said--and by competent scholars at that" (The Anabaptist Story, 2nd ed., p. 16). You will find every kind of claim out there. Let's stake out the possibilities.

There is ample evidence of several outbreaks of evangelical "heresy" in medieval times. See the classic Leonard Verduin book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. This doesn't mean we have to accept Verduin's unsubstantiated claims about a continuous line of underground believers, although the book opens one's eyes to that possibility.

Advocates of the view that Baptists have always existed need to deal with the fact that the church before Constantine in no way resembled any Baptist or evangelical church. In fact, the pre-Constantinian church looks a lot like the post-Constantinian church, only without the political power.

What names did they go by?

The Anabaptist name was not taken by themselves. It is a term of abuse and means "rebaptizers." Of course an Anabaptist would not think of believer's baptism as "rebaptism," only Baptism properly administered for the first time. There were many other terms of abuse. Some were:

The Anabaptists had their own names for themselves: brethren and believers and Christians.

What was their theology?

It was not often that the Anabaptists were enough at peace in their environment such that they could write theology. We must not deny that there were some very strange people who were at times associated with Anabaptist thinking, but they were not the majority. Anabaptist theology is basically Protestant, and it is easier to define it by listing where the differences were between them and the mainstream Reformers. Indeed, the Anabaptists themselves seemed content to do so; where they listed articles of faith, they usually consisted only of their differences with their surrounding neighbors. Two examples will suffice here.

In 1529, Michael Sattler and others put forth the Schleitheim Confession. Its main points were:

  1. Baptism was to be administered to believers only. Infant baptism, "the greatest and first abomination of the pope," is not to be practiced.
  2. The "ban" should be observed by local churches against those who fall into sin, after a first and second private warning.
  3. The bread and wine should only be broken with baptized believers, and no others.
  4. True Christians should be separated from the world system, including its "church attendance", oaths, the sword, etc.
  5. There should be shepherds among the flock, who will preach, etc., and will be supported by the church. If a pastor is taken from the flock, another should be ordained in his place.
  6. The "sword," i.e. the magistracy or rulership, is outside of Christ's perfection and is to be left to the world to exercise. Christians should not exercise self-defense nor become magistrates, nor use the secular sword against spiritual offenses.
  7. Christians should not make an oath, but let their yes be yes and their no be no.

In 1524, when the disputations at Zurich were still very recent, Balthasar Hubmaier (living in Catholic territory) published several articles representative of his theology. Those below are taken from Estep:

  1. Faith alone makes us holy before God.
  2. This faith is the acknowledgment of the mercy of God which he has shown us in the offering of his only begotten son. This excludes all sham Christians, who have nothing more than an historical faith in God.
  3. Such faith can not remain passive but must break out to God in thanksgiving and to mankind in all kinds of works of brotherly love. Hence all vain religious acts, such as candles, palm branches, and holy water will be rejected.
  4. Those works alone are good which God has commanded us and those alone are evil which he has forbidden. Hence fall away fish, flesh, cowls, and tonsures.
  5. The mass is not a sacrifice but a remembrance of the death of Christ. Therefore, it is not an offering for the dead nor for the living. . . .
  6. As often as the memorial is observed should the death of the Lord be preached in the language of the people. . . .
  7. As every Christian believes for himself and is baptized, so each individual should see and judge by the Scriptures if he is rightly provided food and drink by his pastor.

And so forth. Hubmaier, had he been allowed to continue in this vein in Waldshut (not in Zurich territory, but rather in Austria), would have simply created an evangelical church worthy of the name. And so desired most Anabaptists. We must not confound the biblical evangelical Anabaptists with the other anti-Reformer groups, which the mainstream Reformers always did.

What was done to the Anabaptists and by whom?

It is important to note that the Anabaptists were first persecuted by the Protestants under Zwingli. They had arisen on his watch, in his town, and were his former disciples. Perhaps he was afraid that the existence of several rival versions of Protestant would irreparably harm his chances of accomplishing any reform. Perhaps... but nothing can justify his actions. He had the magistrate's ear; he was in charge of Reform. The council declared that rebaptizing was a capital crime. Well, then let's enforce that.

Felix Manz became the first Anabaptist martyr in 1527, ten short years after Luther had nailed up his theses. He was drowned in the river right in the middle of Zurich. Other Anabaptists were beaten or banished. These became standard practices in Protestant territories.

On May 20, 1527, Michael Sattler, the author of the Anabaptist Schlietheim Confession, was executed by Catholic authorities. Even though the Catholic King Ferdinand had declared drowning (the "third baptism") the best antidote to Anabaptism, Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his flesh cut with hot irons, and then to be burned at the stake. Others were burned or drowned by Catholic authorities. Burning seems to have been favored by Catholics, less by Protestants.

In addition to the above, Protestant and Catholic nations alike resorted to torture and other forms of abuse. Estep estimates that thousands died in Europe in the sixteenth century, but hard numbers will never be available.

Did they go too far and invite the hate that they received?

The Anabaptists were often far from the stereotype of a quiet people who just wanted to worship God accurately and privately. In the early days, which is when they established their reputation, they often challenged the Reformers publicly. They used the usual sixteenth century names for their opponents. They publicly denounced the reformers in their preaching to the people, attempting to draw them away from the public worship that was being established and reformed. Estep records one incident: "Like the first English Quakers, Blaurock's zeal sometimes exceeded his judgment. He even disrupted the worship services of the Reformed churches. An event that took place on the first Sunday in February at a church in Zollikon is typical of Blaurock's methods. As the minister was making his way to the pulpit, George asked him what he intended to do. 'Preach the word of God,' was the reply. 'You were not sent to preach, it was I,' declared Blaurock. Thereupon he proceeded to the pulpit and preached." (The Anabaptist Story, 2nd ed., p. 34)

Another thing that will always be mentioned in this connection is the events at Münster. In this city, where the Lutheran minister repudiated infant baptism, several other radicals arrived, certainly not all Anabaptist in belief. The congregation determined to expel the godless from the city and create a pure realm. Communism was instituted in 1534, about the same time a prophet named Jan of Leyden arrived. The people believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, and proclaimed Münster the New Jerusalem. They sent missionaries into the surrounding areas. Jan of Leyden took the name King David on August 31, 1534. The city was taken and crushed by combined besieging Protestant and Catholic troops sent by neighboring rulers. From that day, unjustly, Anabaptist theology has been held to result in revolutionary upheaval.

But most Anabaptists were not like this. When we compare Felix Manz's actual actions to the punishment meted out to him, or Michael Sattler, or most any other Anabaptist, we must say with the utmost conviction that the Reformers were wrong and the Anabaptists were right. (The Roman Catholics were even more severe with the Anabaptists, but I didn't expect any better from them. They were busy burning any kind of Reformer they could get their hands on.)

2 - Who are We in relation to the Anabaptists?

Who are today's Anabaptists?

Historically, they have operated under several "denominational" names:

What is the heritage of the Anabaptists?

We are indebted to the Anabaptists for many things. They were the first large body of believers to proclaim that church and state should be separate. By sticking to their guns, by being willing to die for their faith, and by continuing to do the same for decades and even centuries, they constantly challenged the Protestant church and even the Catholic church to move towards toleration of all types of Protestants. As mainstream Protestants themselves began to fragment under the influence of Puritanism, Pietism, and the two Great Awakenings, to say nothing of migration of groups to different countries, the Anabaptist challenge began to be taken up. Far too slowly, those of the Reformed faith began to realize what a devil's bargain they had made with the State. Toleration became common, if only because so many different types of Protestants were now clamoring for it. So-called "voluntarism," i.e. that the only reason a person would affiliate with Christianity is because of his unforced desire to do so, turned out to be the key that unlocked everything -- for instance world missions (started by a Baptist Calvinist, William Carey).

We also should not overlook the Bible-only emphasis which the Anabaptists bequeathed to history. They were not impressed by the Reformers' insistence that they were properly reforming the church. Anything that seemed to contradict the Bible, they rejected, whereas the Reformers seemed to be looking for excuses to keep certain aspects of the church not found in Scripture, e.g. infant baptism. This Bible-alone emphasis became a mark of the free churches everywhere, even those who still practice infant baptism.

Did we get these insights directly from the Anabaptists? Not always, but they laid down the challenge, and the Reformers knew it. When we say that the Reformers persecuted heretics because "that's how it was done and they didn't know any better," the fact is that they did know better. They just didn't like the consequences of choosing the new (or New Testament) way.

Are the Baptists the Anabaptists?

Not really. What we know as Baptists -- and this includes most Baptists in the world since they are largely the result of English and American missions -- are a different group which started in English-speaking countries as an offshoot of Puritanism and congregationalism. Out of the many groups which agitated for further reform in England during the 17th century, almost all of whom agreed on Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) doctrines, some believed in remaining in the Church of England, some believed in Independent infant-baptist churches, and others came to believe in believers' baptism.

Actually the General (i.e. non-Calvinistic) Baptists were formed slightly earlier (around 1608), who arose from Separatism (akin to the Pilgrims who came to America), and one of their congregational leaders, John Smyth, applied for membership in the local Mennonite church in Holland where they were exiled. These separatists, upon their return, formed the first known Baptist congregation in England. (They incidentally had repudiated John Smyth for his Anabaptist theology.) But the main stream of English Baptist life, and the stream from which most of today's Baptists arose, was called the Particular Baptists. These were Calvinistic Baptists who first arose in the 1630's. From them came John Bunyan and his mighty ministry of writing, including The Pilgrim's Progress.

Even the founders of the American Baptists pretty much converted to Baptist theology after coming to these shores, so they don't really come from either the English Baptists or the Anabaptists. None of this is to say that there weren't influences in various directions via the spread of writings. But Anabaptist writings generally weren't spread around too much, since they were still being persecuted in most countries during the American colonial period.

Also, Baptists all immerse for baptism (but only since about 1633 in England1), whereas historically the Mennonites practiced pouring.

Are Evangelicals all Anabaptists now?

This is an interesting question to me, because I am a lover of the old Reformers and especially the Puritans. But in my studies I have come to the conclusion that the Reformed thinking as expounded in Calvin's Institutes, the Puritans, and the Westminster Confession, sound though it was, was inadequate for the world until finally supplemented by the insights of the Great Awakening under George Whitefield and John Wesley. It was they who said to the stone-cold church members of their day that "ye must be born again." Their theologies were Calvinistic and Arminian respectively, but they shared a belief and a ministry that amounted to "your infant baptism and upright life are not enough. You must personally trust in Christ." This trust in Christ was no more and no less than the justification by faith taught by Luther and Calvin, but now the sons of the Protestant Reformation had to hear it again! They had to hear it again because for two hundred years, infant baptism had deadened the church, and Protestantism had degenerated into the belief that a proper baptism plus an outwardly upright life was sufficient to hope for the mercy of God. This was a twisting of the original Protestantism which asked for believers to look for signs of God's election of them (cf. 2 Peter 1:10).

The English-speaking church was never the same after the Great Awakening. Even in infant-baptist circles, the necessity for the new birth was preached. Of course, Arminianism made its inroads, and Charles Finney definitively corrupted revival theology with a new semi-Pelagianism that is now the reigning evangelical doctrine, but the outline of the truth was and is clear - YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN. This is what the proponents of the State church believed, but could not preach effectively because of their illicit relationship with the magistrate. The doctrine of the Anabaptists, even if not the churches or the practices of the Anabaptists, that a man must personally and voluntarily and consciously be in relationship with God, and should build churches likewise, became the doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism.

Puritanism, stripped in Anabaptist style of its Anglican and state-church overtones, and preached to the "Christian" populace, was what made Protestantism into more than a parochial, local, ethnic religion. Baptists, although not the leaders of the Great Awakening, were by far its greatest beneficiaries, at least in America. The explosion of modern missions took place soon after, and it is not too much to say that, with the vast majority of missionaries having come from the English-speaking world, almost every non-Catholic Christian worldwide owes their existence (historically, that is) to the merging of traditional Protestantism with the Anabaptist emphasis on the "gathered" church of believers.

No, we are not all Anabaptists yet. But we are grateful for their testimony to these truths.

Can we love both the Reformers and the Anabaptists?

I believe so. I have recommended and have been challenged by the book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren; however, I think Verduin goes too far in some of his analysis. As a Reformed scholar who converted to Anabaptist views, he is a little like an ex-smoker, rampaging about the evils of the Reformers in their persecution of the Anabaptists. Specifically, I worry about his contentions that:

For the same reasons as I have trouble believing everything Verduin says, I have trouble believing either the Reformers' or the Anabaptists' contention that the other side was heading for eternal damnation. In reality the situation was tragic and perhaps unavoidable, a bit like the American Founders' writing the American Constitution to include slavery because they could conceive of no other way to make the Union work. It was left to the two sides, one more correct in doctrine and one more correct in practice, to hurl anathemas at each other until their quarrel was overtaken by events in places like England, where, one might say, toleration and denominationalism were almost invented.

I love the Reformers, and I love the Anabaptists. They are both my forefathers. Notwithstanding the Anabaptists' more attractive lifestyle, they were deficient in the areas of salvation-by-grace in their insistence on free will. They didn't give enough thought to God's creation ordinances to all mankind in Genesis, which by implication included the magistrate, and were pre- both the Mosaic Law and the Cross. This led them to the rejection of a Christian ever serving in any government. And the Reformers' deficiencies have been documented above. But their heirs can appreciate that it took both the theologies of the Reformers and the Anabaptists to create modern Evangelicalism in its stronger forms.


1 - See article "Baptism," The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.

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Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.