Looking for inspiration among sixteenth-century Anabaptists is a bit like exploring your family tree: along with heroes and saints you are certain to find some dubious characters you would rather not claim as relatives. Dubious characters, in fact, often play a prominent role when modern historians explain the place of Anabaptism in the Reformation. We hear of so-called Anabaptist revolutionaries who agitated mobs in the 1525 Peasants’ War in Germany, l or millenialist visionaries at the city of Munster who practised polygamy and sought to inaugurate the “New Jerusalem” by force (1534-35). Contemporary opponents of such enthusiasts condemned them as “Anabaptists”, and for centuries that was a term of opprobrium no self-respecting religious group wanted to own.
Rehabilitating the Anabaptist label
In the twentieth century a variety of scholars and church leaders have sought to rehabilitate the word “Anabaptism”, insisting it is a useful term to describe a creative nonconformist branch of the Reformation.2 Modern efforts to reclaim Anabaptism as a valid tradition often highlight two early milestones of the movement: the first re-baptism of believers by radical reformers associated with Ulrich Zwingli at Zürich in 1525 and the Schleitheim Articles of 1527 (a brief Anabaptist statement of ecclesiological distinctives that helped shape the tradition for generations). Eager to find the good in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, some modern scholars point to these two expressions as normative for the early movement. The same interpreters dismiss millenarian or violent expressions of Anabaptism as aberrations.3
An accurate picture of early Anabaptism must reflect complexities and abiguities of the movement. Recent interpreters of the Reformation era tend to emphasize that Anabaptism sprang from multiple roots and exhibited a wide variety of expressions.4 Instead of pointing to only one fountainhead of “authentic” early Anabaptism, historians now are likely to identify a range of radical reformers as belonging to a broad movement. The wider scope of Anabaptist studies now encompasses both pacifists and violent revolutionaries,5 free church and territorial church advocates.6 Historians now note that some early Anabaptists (especially the rebels at Munster) centred their faith and practice on Old Testament models, while others (such as the Zürich circle) were strongly Christocentric.
With such a broad spectrum of theological species early in the movement, it is impossible to state the Anabaptist view on almost any topic. Nor is it possible to tell the Anabaptist story. Because the early movement was often illegal and operated on a grassroots level, it did not develop a stable institutional or geographic base. In the heat of persecution, or in the fever of apocalyptic expectation, early leaders did not develop a comprehensive or systematic theology. Rather than finding one “original” expression of Anabaptism in the sixteenth century, the historian finds a plethora of radical movements that opponents all lumped together under the label “Anabaptist”. However, like a genealogist investigating hundreds of ancestors, we can identify those parts of the movement that exhibited healthy genes and produced succeeding generations of a vital Christian movement. We can examine individuals or theological streams that might inspire and instruct us today, without claiming every individual in the story as a hero or role model.
A change in the concept of church
By either measure – inspiration value or enduring legacy – the group of Anabaptists that emerged at Zürich in 1525 deserves careful attention. Frustrated with the slow pace and limited scope of Protestant reform at Zürich, these radical reformers parted ways with their mentor Zwingli, leader of Protestant reform in the city. Baptism was the issue that “broke the camel’s back”. When the radicals at Zürich re-baptized each other they broke not only with Zwingli, but with a concept and definition of church that had dominated Europe for centuries.
In addition to being a reformer and priest at the Zürich cathedral (Grossmunster), Zwingli was a classics scholar and articulate theologian. Around him gathered a circle of young intellectuals and students with whom he read classical literature, discussed theology and studied the New Testament. Among this circle were Conrad Grebel (theology student from an upper class Zürich family)7 and Felix Mantz (Hebrew scholar and illegitimate son of a chief canon of the Zürich cathedral).
Zwingli and his followers began to question whether there was a biblical basis for certain long-standing practices of the Christian church in Europe. Practices in question included celibacy for clergy, indulgences, use of images and fasting during Lent. Zwingli persuaded the Zürich City Council to authorize significant reform in several of these areas, but would not make changes in the church without Council approval. Like all major Catholic and Protestant leaders of his day, Zwingli believed the welfare of society depended on church and state working together in close harmony (a model of church-state relations that goes hack to the fourth century and the Roman Emperor Constantine). At a series of public disputations, Zwingli and his followers presented the case for radical change in the church. Much as Luther emphasized sola scriptura in his reform at Wittenberg, Zwingli and his followers argued from the Bible in pressing for change at Zürich
Faced with a choice
In 1524 differences regarding baptism arose between Zwingli and some of his followers. Despite his earlier reservations about it, Zwingli held to the centuries-old tradition of baptizing infants; Grebel, Mantz and others declared the New Testament taught that only believers should receive baptism upon profession of faith. Zürich city council held a public disputation on the question in January of 1525. In the end, the city council decreed infant baptism was mandatory for all children in Zürich. Such a decision was understandable for people who accepted the Constantinian model of a Christian society. Allowing members of society to make their own decisions about faith might significantly have weakened the social and political influence of a state-sponsored church.
Zwingli’s radical associates now faced a choice: should they accept the decision of city council and keep their reform effort legal, or should they follow what they understood to be scriptural teaching on believer’s baptism? More was at stake than just baptism; these reformers were on the verge of restoring a voluntary church, free from government control. Apart from sporadic or marginal movements,8 such a free church had not existed in Europe for more than a thousand years.
When the city council decided in favour of infant baptism, they also prohibited Zwingli’s radical followers from meeting again to discuss the matter further. On the very day the council issued that decree, however, a group of them met in Zürich at the home of Felix Mantz. After earnest conversation and prayer, a former priest named George Blaurock knelt and requested baptism. With no “appointed servant of the Word” present to administer the rite, Conrad Grebel stepped forward and poured water. All present received believers’ baptism before the evening was over, making that meeting in a private home the first believers’ church gathering of the modern era.9
Participants in this circle (soon known as the “Swiss Brethren”) were now outlaws, and scattered to the countryside. Near Zürich the first Anabaptist congregation came into being when virtually all the inhabitants of the village of Zollikon received believer’s baptism. Radical priests at the villages of Zollikon and Witikon had been in contact with the Zürich circle earlier, and already in 1524 had ceased to baptize infants. Following in the wake of Zollikon and Witikon, Anabaptist congregations sprang up in many Swiss villages and rural areas.
Rapid spread of a grassroots movement
Anabaptism spread quickly throughout central and northern Europe, fueled by the fervour of its proponents and by a combination of theological and sociological tensions. Grebel and certain other Anabaptists denounced payment of the hefty church tithes, an idea attractive to the impoverished peasantry. Some rural districts of Switzerland were eager to escape heavy-handed political control from urban areas, and Anabaptism provided theological justification.
Anticlericalism was already widespread, preparing the way for an Anabaptist concept of the “priesthood of all believers”. In Germany, quite independently of the Zürich circle, the discontent of peasants erupted into full-fledged revolt. Thomas Muntzer, with his “Anabaptist” theology, fanned the fires of insurrection. Catholics and Protestants alike responded to the widespread discontent by imprisoning or executing thousands of Anabaptists of many persuasions, including pacifists from the Swiss Brethren circles. Zwingli himself gave approval for the drowning of Felix Mantz in 1527.
In our pluralistic Western society it seems strange that the simple act of rebaptism was once a capital offence. The authorities were correct, however, that Anabaptism (including the nonviolent strain) was a revolution that turned medieval society on its head. By gathering in a private home to baptize each other, Zürich Anabaptists signaled their conviction that New Testament teaching takes precedence over the demands of any ecclesiastical or civil authorities. By making baptism an adult choice, Anabaptists redefined church and reshaped the congregation on a New Testament model. Radicals at Zürich thus challenged the dominant idea that every individual in a given geographic area should join, at infancy, the religious faith of the ruler. Harbingers of the modern idea of religious freedom, Zürich Anabaptists set out to found a “believers’ church” made entirely of individuals who voluntarily acknowledge Jesus as Lord and request baptism.
Schleitheim and the enduring legacy
Christian groups today that trace their spiritual heritage back to the Swiss Brethren at Zürich include Hutterian Brethren, Amish and Mennonites. An early document that had an impact on all three movements is the Schleitheim Confession (1527). This brief statement of Anabaptist distinctives describes a church in which believers experience conversion and voluntarily join a disciplined faith community. It envisages a church of individuals committed to nonviolent love (even of enemies) and mutual aid. It calls on church members to be accountable to each other under the Holy Spirit and the Bible. The Swiss Brethren (and generations of followers in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, America and elsewhere) believed Christians can and should follow the example of Jesus, living out practical directives of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
These classic elements of Swiss Anabaptism – conversion, imitation of Christ, nonviolence and community – constitute the core of an Anabaptist movement that has endured for centuries. Because Christians from many traditions seek to be faithful in these areas, insights and experience of early Swiss Anabaptism provide fertile ground for study and ecumenical dialogue.
1. The most famous being Thomas Muntzer. Though technically not an Anabaptist (he never re-baptized anyone), opponents of sixteenth-century radical reform movements used Muntzer’s s reputation to besmirch the entire Anabaptist movement.
2. See, e.g., Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London, 1909), 369. Cited by Mennonite historian Harold S. Bender in his presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1943. Church History in (1944:3-14) and Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944:67-88). Bender’s address (and related scholarship) was seminal to a generation of Anabaptist research.
3. See, for example, Fritz Blanke, “Anabaptism and the Reformation,” in Guy F. Hershberger,
ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1957), 5768.
4. For a recent treatment of diversity among early Anabaptists, see J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist.- The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987), and James M. Stayer et al, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975:83-12 1).
5. See James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1972).
6. For discussion of the territorial church strain of Anabaptism, see Charles Nienkirchen, “Reviewing the Case for a Non-Separatist Ecclesiology in Early Swiss Anabaptism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 56 (1982:2274 1), and Arnold Snyder, “Me Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983:5-26).
7. Grebel’s extant letters provide vivid insight into development of the Anabaptist enclave at Zürich. See Leland Harder, ed., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1985).
8. Two prominent examples are the Waldenses and Hussites.
9. For an early account of this gathering, see The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (Robertsbridge: Plough Publishing House, 1987), vol. l, 43-47.