What is Anabaptism?

Who were the Anabaptists?

Anabaptism was a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in territories that now comprise parts of Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Alsace and the Netherlands.

Its distinguishing features included putting Jesus at the centre of our understanding of the Christian faith, emphasis on new birth and discipleship in the power of the Spirit, establishment of believers’ churches free from state control, commitment to economic sharing, and a vision of restoring New Testament Christianity.

It drew adherents primarily from poorer sections of the community, though early leaders included university graduates, monks and priests. Assessing its numerical strength is difficult, because it was driven underground by persecution; it certainly influenced many more people than those baptised as members.

Historians identify four main Anabaptist branches – the Swiss Brethren, the South German/Austrian Anabaptists, Dutch Mennonites and the communitarian Hutterites – but these branches comprised numerous groups which gathered around particular leaders and developed distinctive practices and emphases.

Although other factors (such as social discontent) contributed to its emergence, Anabaptism must be understood in the context of the Reformation and owed much to it, as its leaders freely acknowledged. Several things distinguished Anabaptists from the Reformers (e.g. Luther and Calvin):

• Radicalism. Anabaptists criticised the Reformers for their unwillingness to follow through biblical convictions. They were convinced Scripture was authoritative for ethics and church life as well as for doctrine, which the Reformers seemed unwilling to admit. Much to their discomfort, Anabaptists reminded the Reformers of their own more radical early views, which they had jettisoned. Anabaptists championed immediate action rather than the Reformers’ cautious approach.

• Restitution. Anabaptists believed the official church was “fallen” beyond mere reform. Thorough restoration of New Testament Christianity was necessary, which required freedom from state control and ecclesiastical traditions. Anabaptists urged separation of church and society and rejected the Christendom system, in which church and state were entwined, that had dominated European culture since the fourth century. They asserted that for centuries the official church had been in error, not only in certain doctrines, but also on the question of its identity and relationship with society.

• An Alternative Tradition. Anabaptists have been described as “step-children of the Reformers”, but there was resonance with earlier movements, such as the Unitas Fratrum, Waldensians and Lollards. Anabaptists were neither Catholic nor Protestant, but heirs of an alternative tradition that had persisted throughout the centuries since Constantine in the 4th century. Often regarded as heretics and persecuted, these “old evangelical brotherhoods” kept alive beliefs and practices that the official church ignored or marginalised.

• A Church of the Poor. As with these earlier groups, Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with few wealthy, academic or influential members. They were regarded as subversives, although few were primarily politically or economically motivated. It is legitimate, however, to regard some Anabaptists as heirs of the failed Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1526), still pursuing their concerns through the alternative strategy of establishing communities where just practices were fostered. Those whose vested interests were threatened vehemently opposed Anabaptism, a grass-roots revival with disturbing implications for the church/state amalgam at the heart of the European social order. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.

• “Anabaptists”. Anabaptists called themselves Christians or brothers and sisters; their opponents called them enthusiasts, revolutionaries or “Anabaptists”. This label, meaning “re-baptisers”, had negative connotations. Anabaptists objected to this: they did not regard believers’ baptism as rebaptism because they denied the validity of infant baptism, and baptism was not the main issue, although it symbolised their rejection of Christendom.

What did Anabaptists believe?

Anabaptism was a diverse, fluid but coherent movement. Various stimuli enabled it to develop in different places, resulting in regional variations and some sharp internal disagreements. It developed towards greater uniformity of belief and practice by mid-century. Most Anabaptists shared the following convictions:

•The Bible
Anabaptists agreed with the Reformers about the Bible’s authority but disagreed strongly about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. This “Christocentrism” was a hallmark of Anabaptism that radically affected the way in which the Bible was approached. Balthasar Hübmaier (1481-1528), the leading Anabaptist theologian, (Snyder p55) explained: “all the Scriptures point us to the spirit, gospel, example, ordinance and usage of Christ.” Anabaptists started from Jesus and interpreted everything in the light of him – unlike the Reformers whom Anabaptists suspected of starting from doctrinal passages and trying to fit Jesus into these. Anabaptists refused to treat the Bible as a “flat” book, regarding it as an unfolding of God’s purposes, with the New Testament providing normative guidelines for ethics and church life. They challenged the Reformers’ use of Old Testament models and disagreed with them about such issues as baptism, war, tithing, church government and swearing oaths. In debates, Anabaptists complained that the Reformers used Old Testament passages illegitimately to set aside clear New Testament teaching.

•Salvation
The Reformers emphasised justification by faith and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists emphasised new birth and power to live as Jesus’ disciples. The Reformers feared Anabaptists were reverting to salvation by works; the Anabaptists accused the Reformers of failing to address moral issues and of tolerating unchristian behaviour in their churches. “Shame on you for the easy-going gospel,” chided Menno Simons (c1496-1561) .

Anabaptists stressed the work of the Spirit in believers and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed as well as trusted. He was not only Saviour but also Captain, Leader and Lord. Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Michael Sattler (c1490-1527), author of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), complained that, whereas Catholics appeared to advocate works without faith, the Reformers taught faith without works, but he wanted faith that expressed itself in works. Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”

•The Church.
Anabaptists formed churches of committed disciples, denying that all citizens should be regarded automatically as church members. They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful. They acknowledged the role of the state in government but resisted state control of their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way the clergy dominated church life, lack of church discipline and coercion in matters of faith. Although greater formalism gradually developed, early gatherings were sometimes charismatic and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study. Some churches encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in contemporary church or society. They met wherever they could – in homes, woods, fields, even in boats. A Congregational Order (1527) conveys their serious informality: “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it...when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

•Evangelism.
The Reformers did not generally practise evangelism. Where they had state support, they relied on sanctions to coerce attendance (though there are examples of evangelism and church planting by Calvinists in Catholic France where Protestants could not coerce). They assumed within Protestant territories that church and society were indistinct, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than evangelising them as unbelievers. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society and refused to use coercion. They embarked on a spontaneous missionary venture to evangelise Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) travelled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptised converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous.

•Ethics
Anabaptists were socially deviant, challenging contemporary norms and living in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.

They questioned the validity of private property. The Hutterites lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

They rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.

• Suffering.
Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.

What happened to the Anabaptists?

The Anabaptist movement was regarded as dangerous, and a tragic incident in 1535 seemed to justify the concerns of the authorities. Anabaptists gathered in the North German town of Münster, gained control of the town council and instituted a form of society characterised by oppression and extremism. Eventually the town was captured by military force and the inhabitants were slaughtered. Although most Anabaptists dissociated themselves from what happened there, Münster seemed to represent what the authorities feared from Anabaptism. The movement was persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants and was nearly drowned in blood. Those who survived in the regions where Anabaptism began did so by finding refuge in rather more tolerant cities, keeping on the move, meeting in secret and gradually becoming quieter about what they believed as the evangelistic fires cooled.

Many migrated east to find safer homes with greater freedom to worship in the way they wanted and to live without fear of arrest. Gradually Mennonite and Hutterite families and communities moved further into what is now Eastern Europe and on into Russia. From all over Europe, further periods of migration led many to settle in Canada and the USA, where large numbers of the descendants of the Anabaptists now live.

But the majority of Anabaptists now live neither in Europe nor in North America but in the southern hemisphere. During the 20th century, through extensive and creative mission activities, Anabaptism became a global movement. These mission activities included evangelism and church planting, disaster relief and development work, and working for peace and justice in divided communities. In some nations Mennonite churches are flourishing. In several others individuals and churches are discovering Anabaptism as a resource for renewal and faithful discipleship.

Accounts of what Anabaptists believed and how they lived — together with warnings about the danger they posed to society, frequently focused on what happened at Münster — were written by many of their contemporaries. “Anabaptist” became a label used to attack many radicals over the years, even if they had no links with the Anabaptist tradition and believed very different things. For the next four centuries the Anabaptist movement would be ignored or regarded (on the basis of such hostile accounts) as subversive, heretical and or of only marginal significance in the history of the church. Not until the middle of the 20th century did Mennonite historians succeed in presenting the Anabaptist tradition through its own writings rather than those of its enemies – and a very different and much more attractive picture emerged.

What other movements held similar beliefs?

Church history, like all history, has both winners and losers, heroes and villains. And church history, again like all history, is written mainly by the winners and from their perspective. What they wrote may have been deliberately biased and hostile, or they may have attempted to be sympathetic and fair. But the history that emerges is necessarily an interpretation of events, personalities, beliefs and practices. Although there may be other legitimate interpretations or flaws in the official interpretation, it is not always easy to discover these.

When we look at church history, it is tempting to spend all our time on the winners, the mainline churches, establishment Christianity. We may not like everything we find here, but at least we are on safe ground and there are some wonderful saints to be found. The fringe groups that appear in the margins of many textbooks, or are dismissed as ‘schismatics’ or ‘heretics’, sound interesting but dangerous. Are they worth studying, or do we accept the judgment of their contemporaries and later generations of historians? Even if we are interested enough to explore one or more of these groups, it is difficult to discover much about them from these meagre references in the familiar historical textbooks.

This may not simply be because the writers of these books were uninterested in such groups. Often there is limited information about them available to historians. Those whose views and policies prevailed in each generation made sure that their version of events became the official version. The writings of the losers were destroyed, their activities interpreted in the worst possible light, and their memory vilified. What we know of many fringe groups is drawn largely from their opponents, and this is usually open to the charge of being somewhat biased.

However, although many of these difficulties remain, the situation is less bleak than it used to be. During the past fifty years or more, several of these groups have found champions prepared to set aside the traditional evaluations of their significance and present them in a new light, using what little remains of their own writings, and refusing to accept uncritically the accounts given by their enemies. It is now possible to put together what might be termed a ‘Losers’ Guide to Church History’, a survey of an alternative radical church history that is quite different from the official version, based on the research and scholarship of historians who have provided translations of primary sources, revisited earlier accounts and offered new interpretations of the available data.

But there are still difficulties. The few written sources available to us do not give us a complete picture, and it is tempting to fill in the gaps from our imagination, or using doubtful sources. A good example of this is the popular book by E H Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, which attempts to trace a ‘silver thread’ of Christianity from the first century to the twentieth. It is a wonderful and inspiring romance and it contains much historical data. But it assumes too much, makes unwarranted connections, and is frequently unreliable. We simply have to accept that our knowledge of some groups or individuals is very limited, and with most it probably always will be. There is little prospect of new source material being discovered. Many of these groups in any case were poor and illiterate. They spread their teachings mainly by word of mouth, rather than through books.

Another temptation is to create new heroes. In trying to rescue the losers from obscurity and calumny, we can easily gloss over their weaknesses and present an unrealistic and unbalanced picture of them. Around the fringes of the mainline church were real heretics, persistent troublemakers and stubborn individualists. But there were also some wonderful men and women who paid dearly for their faithfulness and courage.

The Anabaptist Network has been primarily concerned to offer resources from the Anabaptist tradition, but it has also from time to time drawn attention to other movements that held similar (though not identical beliefs). Articles in Anabaptism Today have introduced readers to the English radicals and the Waldensians. Conferences have introduced participants to the Celtic tradition, to English radical groups such as the Lollards, Diggers, Levellers and Quakers. Papers from the English Radicals conference have for some time been available on this web site, and further information on other radical movements can now be found here.

Who is interested in Anabaptism today?

After centuries of neglect and dismissal, evaluation on the basis of statements from their opponents, and misinterpretation, Anabaptism has been rediscovered as a potent source of renewal and a highly relevant historical movement. The “Anabaptist Vision” has been glimpsed afresh, not just by the Anabaptists’ lineal descendants, but by Christians from various traditions. The following examples demonstrate the indebtedness of many to the vision, example and writings of the Anabaptists.

The influence of Anabaptism on contemporary Christianity is mediated partly through the direct descendants of the Anabaptists (primarily the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren the Brethren in Christ and the Hutterites) and partly through their indirect descendants. By this is meant those groups that have either some lineal connection with the Anabaptists, or major features that were derived in some way from Anabaptism. The Baptists are an example of the former. The Methodists and the Arminian wing of Dutch Calvinism are examples of the latter.

It was calculated in 1948 that these groups could account for almost a quarter of the membership of the World Council of Churches. The influence of the Baptists and the Mennonites on the thinking and practices of churches across the world has been significant, especially through their missionary activities. If the rapidly expanding Pentecostal movement is included among the descendants of Anabaptism (and it has been suggested that Pentecostalism is its closest contemporary equivalent), then these descendants form a major force in contemporary Christianity alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant streams.

Furthermore, the Anabaptist vision has functioned in recent years as a renewing model for these groups. Mennonites have become aware of the extent to which they have adopted ideas and practices from Protestantism and in many places they have consciously returned to Anabaptist emphases. Among Baptists, also, there is growing interest in their hitherto embarrassing Anabaptist roots and a readiness to explore the implications for their church governance.

Contemporary movements exploring the radical implications of Christian discipleship have drawn on the Anabaptist vision. Among these are Radical Evangelicals in North and South America and some sections of the House Church Movement in the United Kingdom. Other influential free church writers also identify themselves as Anabaptist in perspective, whatever their denominational allegiances.

Perhaps more surprising is the recognition within Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and mainline Protestant circles of the contribution that Anabaptism might make to the contemporary church. Michael Novak, in a famous article entitled “The Free Churches and the Roman Church”, interpreted Vatican II and its developments as moving in the direction of the Anabaptist vision in several areas. Theologians such as both Kenneth Leech and Jürgen Moltmann have urged the recovery of the idea of discipleship found among the Anabaptists but neglected by the Reformers and their descendants. Peter Wagner used the Anabaptists in his writings on church growth as an example of a structure that combined church and mission agency. Rodney Clapp, former associate editor of Christianity Today, has drawn on Anabaptist perspectives in his analysis of the role of the church in a post-Christian society. Popular journals are now prepared to devote considerable space to Anabaptism.

Usually there is no intention of adopting the Anabaptist vision in its entirety, but there is considerable interest in many of Anabaptist perspectives:

• Witness to peace and enemy-loving as an integral part of the gospel

• Concern about discipleship and “doing the truth”

• Commitment to religious liberty and tolerance

• Antipathy to institutions

• Commitment to community and economic sharing

• Witness to the potential of counter-cultural alternatives

• Rejection of Christendom

Some have also made suggestions about the significance of Anabaptist perspectives in wider society. Modern ideas about democracy, the separation of church and state, and consensus decision-making can be traced to various sources, but Anabaptism is one influential source of these now widely accepted concepts.

What about Anabaptism in Britain?

A few Anabaptists fled to England in the 16th century, hoping to escape persecution and find a place of refuge to the west rather than the east. Those who were detected by the authorities were soon rounded up and imprisoned. A few were many others were deported. The story of what happened to one such group of refugees is told by Alan Kreider in the book Coming Home. It was very clear that Anabaptists were not welcome in Britain. Even in the 39 Articles of the Church of England, there are still warnings about Anabaptists! During the next four centuries there were few, if any, overt Anabaptists in Britain.

Not until the end of World War II did Anabaptists begin to come to Britain again, but in the past twenty-five years the Anabaptist tradition has once again become visible in Britain and also in Ireland. Expressions of this include the London Mennonite Centre and the Wood Green Mennonite Church, and two Hutterian communities in the south-east of England. There is also an opportunity to study Anabaptism through a postgraduate programme at
Spurgeon’s College
in London. But there are many others in all the main Christian denominations who are interested in Anabaptism and drawing on its values and practices. To these and others the Anabaptist Network offers resources and opportunities for dialogue.

Extracts from Coming Home

Also, see Fear of "Anabaptists" in Sixteenth-Century England