The Anabaptists

The first real academic research paper I ever wrote, as as undergrad in 1977. For what it’s worth, the subject matter has helped shape my understanding of history and is important today for the public discourse about separation of church and state, among other things.

The Anabaptists

(The Radicals of the Reformation)

In approaching the matter of the origin and development of Anabaptist thought, I rather expected to find a number of sources, unconnected to each other, springing up in numerous places and only finding a common identity (of sorts) in later circumstances. My expectation seems to have been largely unfounded. The origins of the “Left Wing of the Reformation” can be traced to two localities not unrelated to one another: Zurich and Wittenberg.

Radical tendencies appeared in Wittenberg during Luther’s absence in 1521. Influenced by the implications of Luther’s own teaching, Luther’s disciple Melanchthon in September received communion in both kinds, and by Christmas Day Dr. Andreas Carlstadt, another colleague, went so far as to distribute both bread and wine to the laity, himself dressed as a layman. Earlier in the year there had been some mob violence, smashing of images, etc., and not much later there arrived the so-called Zwickau Prophets, who claimed greater inspiration for themselves than for the Holy Scripture. Luther, feeling his cause to be in jeopardy, returned quickly to Wittenberg to establish order (as [Owen] Chadwick puts it) by the force of his personality.

It was not long after this that the preaching of one Thomas Müntzer began to stir up the seeds of unrest in the German peasantry. He advocated a violent overthrow of the social order, to make way for the Kingdom of God. He was critical of Luther’s conservatism, and wrote tracts advocating a more thorough reform. Some of these pamphlets were circulated as far as Zurich.

It is to Zurich, not Wittenberg, that we must look for the beginnings of what came to be the predominant stream in Anabaptist thought: here the emphasis is not on apocalyptic vision or social revolution, but on a strict Biblicism coupled with a repudiation not merely of secular authority over the church, but of the use of secular means to gain spiritual ends. Like Zwingli, they took their cue first from Erasmus, later from Zwingli himself, and still later from what they viewed as the logical extension and application of Zwingli’s way of interpreting Scripture.

In the First Disputation of January, 1523, the radicals stood with Zwingli in a common defense against Bishop Constance; and it was around this time that Zwingli himself is said to have wondered out loud about the validity of infant baptism, and to have spoken highly of Conrad Grebel. The opinions of Grebel and his associates (Felix Manz, Wilhelm Reublin, George Blaurock and others) can be discerned from a letter written September 5, 1524 to Thomas Müntzer. Some pamphlets of Müntzer’s had reached their attention, and they wrote (that is, Grebel wrote) both to encourage him in his opposition to Luther, and to discourage him from continuing in certain opinions with which they disagreed. One of these was Müntzer’s advocacy of violent revolution, which was to contribute to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1525, in which Müntzer himself was to meet his end. It is doubtful that the letter ever left Switzerland, or that Müntzer and the Swiss Brethren ever made contact; but it was through his influence, and that of similarly minded men like Melchior Hoffman, that the uprising at Münster in 1535, with its disastrous results, was made possible; and through theirs that the more representative groups of later times (such as the Hutterites and Mennonites) with their pacifistic and communalistic tendencies, trace their origins.
Zwingli’s position, along with the City Council at Zurich, came down hard on the side of infant baptism, which was made mandatory on pain of expulsion from the canton in January of 1525. Adult baptism was quickly established as a characteristic of the new group, and there was much activity on the part of the leaders in going from town to town, disputing, baptizing new converts, and thus establishing their churches.

Persecution followed fast. Grebel, Blaurock and Manz were temporarily imprisoned; and in March, 1526, it was ordered that all Anabaptists be drowned; and by early 1527 the movement in Swizerland was effectively suppressed. The leaders were dead or exiled, and the followers dispersed. It is interesting to note that the ministry of Conrad Grebel (like that of Christ) lasted a mere three years, from the first discussion with Zwingli in 1523 until his death in 1526 at the age of twenty-eight.

The rapid spread of Anabaptist ideas to the Netherlands, northern Italy, Germany, Poland and Moravia can be attributed to the movements of those who were trying simultaneously to escape persecution and to spread their Gospel wherever they could. The Great Commission of Matthew 2819-20, regarded by the Reformers as applying only to the Apostles, was taken literally and personally by many of these radicals.

Such a rapid and disorganized spread of dissenting religious opinion and practices could not avoid attracting people of widely divergent views and attitudes; and into the growing ranks of radicals came strict Biblicists, visionary mystics, orthodox Trinitarians, anti-Trinitarians, pacifists and revolutionaries. In 1527 a large representative group convened at Schleitheim to discuss these matters and to hit upon some common ground. The resulting agreements were put into writing by one Michael Sattler and are known as the Schleitheim Confession. Based on this document and the teachings and practices established by men like Grebel, Menno Simons, and Jakob Hutter, several distinct points of emphasis emerge.

The first is Believer’s Baptism – infant baptism is declared to be an unnecessary, unscriptural and Popish practice, and Baptism is declared to be a sign of the entrance of the adult believer into the community of the faithful. Hand in hand with this emphasis goes the idea of a voluntary, or “gathered” church – separate from “the world” and not to be confused with the secular community. This was the point at which Zwingli and the Swiss Brethren had first come into conflict, and was based on conflicting views of the nature of the church. To the Anabaptists, the Church necessarily consists only of the “faithful remnant”, a persecuted minority in every age of the world.

There is a strong ethical concern to be found which tended to supersede arguments of doctrinal exactness (it may be noted that Menno Simons, the primary Dutch leader from 1536, held to a heterodox Christology not adhered to by most of his followers). The emphasis is on the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teaching of the Gospels, much more than on matters of Pauline theology. The Christian life is seen s a personal discipleship to the Christ of the Gospels. Hence the teachings concerning love and non-resistance find practical application in the standards set forth by Grebel, Sattler, Menno and others. Secular government is to be obeyed in all things where such obedience does not violate Scripture; however, oaths, the use of the courts, and physical violence, including war, are repudiated. The severest punishment the church can mete out is the Ban, or excommunication as set forth by Christ in Matthew 18; the offending member is “not to be killed; his is to be treated as a heathen or a publican and let alone.” Some of the earliest modern arguments for religious toleration came from Anabaptist sources.

The other most prominent characteristic of ethical concern in Anabaptist thought and practice – that of commonality of goods – finds its greatest expression in the Hutterite Brethren. This group grew up under the leadership of two Swiss Brethren – Jacob Hübman and Jacob Hutter – who made their way into Moravia and established congregations. A group of about 200 continued eastward, binding themselves together to be of “one heart and one soul” – and through a number of able leaders were able to develop a workable, self-sustaining economy based on the principle of community of goods, both in consumption and production. The system survived persecution and more migrations, and is still operative in some 200 communities in and near the Dakotas of the United States. The attitudes among other groups, such as the Mennonites, to this issue remained somewhat less radical: Christians were not to withhold what was theirs from a brother in need, but no enforced communism was attempted.

The impact of Anabaptist thought on later religious development, especially in the United States, can be seen in a number of ideas peculiar to them in the sixteenth century, but much more widely accepted today. The first and most obvious of these is the separation of church and state – and with it a rationale for religious toleration. To be noted also is the notion of the church as a voluntary association – congregational polity – the idea of Believers Baptism – and may I suggest that the pacifist position with regard to war is likely to be an issue, or already is of increased discussion among Christians of the late 20th century.


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