AT 27: What Difference Does It Make?: Guidelines for Worship from the Early Anabaptists

by Keith Jones
Anabaptism Today, Issue 27 Summer 2001

As readers of Anabaptism Today are aware, to use the term ‘Anabaptist’ and particularly to reflect on the Anabaptists in the first hundred years (1520–1620) is to refer to a very diverse group of communities whose roots are to be found in a variety of theological, cultural and national backgrounds. However, there are certain values common to many of the early Anabaptist groups that can encourage our contemporary reflection. The aim of this article is to ask what were some of the values and concerns behind early Anabaptist thinking and how these insights might inform those of us seeking to develop forms of worship and construct liturgies today.

Two specific sources

In looking for influential figures in the field of worship we are inevitably drawn to Huldrych Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier. Their contribution to the development of Anabaptist worship is crucial. Zwingli, of course, was not an Anabaptist, but the reformation in Zürich, which he led, was a formative influence for those who became the Swiss and South German Anabaptists. In the case of Zwingli, it was public preaching in worship that gave birth to the reformation and maintained it. For Zwingli was not the university professor (Luther) nor the systematic theologian (Calvin) but rather the local pastor working within the life and worship of the local church.

Zwingli and worship

The preaching of Zwingli was strongly biblical, and when he came to Zürich he began to preach systematically through the New Testament. On 1 January 1519 he set aside the old Lectionary and began consecutive expository preaching, starting with the genealogy in Matthew 1. Zwingli was particularly concerned with a common breakdown of morals and actually named individuals from the pulpit. Preaching became Christocentric and life-related. These two approaches were vital for his close friends who became Anabaptists. Preaching in the language of the people was placed at the centre of worship, which was in sharp contrast to the prevailing practice in medieval worship.

The Prophezei School

For Zwingli a key initiative was the development of the Prophezei School. This School was held early in the morning before breakfast on every day except Sunday and Friday. Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, George Blaurock and others who became Anabaptists were founding members. The School became notable, not only for its education of preachers, but for the translations and commentaries it produced between 1525 and 1531. Working with the biblical text in Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German this community of scholars explored what it meant, comparing Scripture with Scripture. Townsfolk would join them as the word was proclaimed. It was this rigorous biblical theological preparation which developed into the preaching of the Reformed church and the Swiss Anabaptists.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Hubmaier was one of the leading figures in the early days of the Anabaptist movement. None of the early leaders who emerged from the Prophezei School published significant works on Anabaptist ideas. This task fell to Hubmaier, a trained theologian, who began his radical reformation journey at the side of Zwingli in the Zürich disputations (public debates on theological issues).

Hubmaier and worship

Hubmaier followed Zwingli in his basic ideas for a radical and creative liturgy. In his Eighteen Theses he argued:

  • Faith cannot be idle. It must work itself out in acts of gratitude towards God and in all sorts of works of brotherly love.

  • The Mass is not a sacrifice and so cannot be ‘offered’ for the dead or the living.

  • Faith must be proclaimed in the language of the land – it is better to translate a single verse of a psalm into each land’s language for people to understand than to sing five whole psalms in a strange language.

  • The hour is coming and now is when no one will be counted a priest unless he preaches the word of God.

Hubmaier focused on simplicity of worship. In July 1526 in Mikulov (Nikolsburg), Moravia, the local lords urged him to write a defence of his beliefs. In this we read: ‘I am well satisfied with singing and reading in church, but not as hitherto practised – only if it is done in the spirit and from the heart and with understanding of the words and for the edifying of the church.’ In his catechism (10 December 1526) he goes on to say:

Where do we worship Christ? Not in a particular place. Even though someone says look there on the altar is Christ! I do not believe it. I worship him seated on the right hand of the Father, there he is my own intercessor, mediator and reconciler to God.

Hubmaier produced three texts that give us his liturgical worship structure – On Fraternal Admonition, A Form for Water Baptism and A Form for Christ’s Supper. These three documents, and the catechism, constitute a rounded picture of Anabaptist worship life, unique among the documents of that century.

A Form of the Lord’s Supper

Hubmaier published his Form of the Lord’s Supper in Nikolsburg in 1527. This has proved to be one of the most influential writings on Anabaptist liturgy, and at the heart of that liturgy is the meal of the believers’ church. The order of worship was similar to that of Grebel’s, with a strong emphasis on the ‘breaking of bread’.

His notes advise that brethren and sisters who ‘wish to hold the table of the Lord’ shall gather at a suitable place and time – people being advised not to come early or late, thereby neglecting evangelical teaching. He wants the table to be prepared with ordinary bread and wine. People are encouraged to be respectably dressed and sit in an orderly way.

Both Zwingli and Hubmaier favoured people receiving bread and wine sitting down and meeting around the table. They argued against the ‘Holy Table’ being set apart from the people (a practice still common in most Protestant churches today) in favour of the vision of the church gathering around the important things – table and word.

For Hubmaier the first element was community confession. This was to be led by the leader of the flock. He advocated, as part of the response, a time of silence and also developed something that has been linked with him in Anabaptist theology and has been recovered in contemporary reflections on Anabaptism – the Pledge of Love, an expression of commitment from believers to each other.

After the believers’ church had responded to the Pledge of Love, then the leader offered the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, including the Words of Institution and Invocation of the Holy Spirit. Then the meal was shared. Hubmaier preferred to place bread into the hands of the believers. Zwingli wanted wooden communion vessels (for the avoidance of pride). Hubmaier was indifferent to this. Zwingli, Hubmaier and the Swiss Anabaptists reformed the meal in a very similar way.

Thus we have the outline structure of Anabaptist worship in Switzerland, South Germany and Moravia in the 1500s. However, we need to be clear that though Hubmaier had a fixed concept and a liturgical form, this does not appear to have been the case with other early Anabaptists. Hubmaier, being a well-trained theologian and pastorally responsible for a church parish, was in a most unusual situation. His work represents one application of Anabaptist themes, theologically creative and pastorally challenging. In other written documents for worship there are general rubrics rather than specific prayers. The Swiss brethren, especially as we detect them in Grebel’s letters to Thomas Muntzer, developed a simpler and strongly biblical liturgy. The Hutterite Chronicle, recording events in 1569, says:

The people met and celebrated the Lord’s Supper to remember and continually refresh the holy memory of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ … It was a celebration of thanksgiving for his love and his unspeakable kindness in what he has done for our sakes: this we in turn should do for his sake in thanksgiving. Such a celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the opposite of the idolatrous sacrament of the priests.

The Swiss Anabaptists had, by 1527, a Congregational Order, which asserted:

  • We recognise the need for the word to be properly preached to us; therefore the brothers and sisters will gather at least three or four times a week.

  • We will read something together and explain it to one another, but not so that two or three are talking at the same time.

  • The Lord’s Supper shall be held as often as the brothers and sisters are together, thereby proclaiming the death of the Lord.

  • The Psalter shall be read daily at home.

It is worth noting here that most Anabaptist communities at this time sang hymns in their worship but, of course, replaced the mediaeval hymns with their own writings, and the Swiss Anabaptists developed their own hymnbook, the Ausbund. The hymns were essentially ones of praise and supplication, and reflected the martyrdom spirit of the Anabaptist communities. In Europe the Ausbund was often an illegal publication and subject to confiscation.

Anabaptist worship today?

Having mapped out some of the principal concerns of two influential thinkers in the development of Anabaptist worship, what values can we identify as we look at our worship today?

The setting

Both Zwingli and Hubmaier were concerned about the setting. We might suggest that their theology speaks of the gathering of the believers around the things that matter – the table and the word. This raises questions about traditional Protestant church architecture and marks it out as being anti-Anabaptist. Hubmaier implies that any place might be used. In the Martyrs Mirror there is one famous etching of Dutch Anabaptists holding their worship in a boat (which, in itself, has interesting theological undertones).

The idea of covenanted believers gathering around the things that matter rules out the architectural principles of the high church. Not for Anabaptists the separation of action and people – the altar cordoned off and a great way distant, guarded from interference by the people of God. Also condemned is a typical preaching-centred Protestant architecture designed to make the preacher visible to the audience, who see only the word proclaimed. This thinking was often based on the model of the Greek emphasis on rhetoric: the pulpit high and central and all else subservient to it, often with a small communion table almost hidden under the pulpit, with long rows of the faithful, or at best theatre-style to hear the word and watch the preacher.

Anabaptist theology appears to call for the gathered community to draw near around the things of importance. Can we propose an Anabaptist church architecture for the third millennium? The community of worshippers meeting around the table and the word all on one level in an architectural setting that draws people together as participators? Here the table would be at the centre with either a simple reading desk adjacent or the word proclaimed out of the midst of the community.

The shape of worship

The normative form of worship for the early Anabaptists appears to have been the word and the meal. This resonates with the biblical description of worship in Acts 2:42 ff. Here is the key weekly event of the gathering people. We may conclude from our reflections on the first Anabaptists that the principal community act of the week was the opening up of the word, sharing in mutual confession and teaching, and breaking the bread in thanksgiving together.

The nature of that worship might be understood as having eight parts, based on the elements discerned from the New Testament and in the reflections of Zwingli, Hubmaier and others:

The Gathering (Hubmaier calls for this to happen in a timely, ordered way)

  • The Confession (the importance of community confession)

  • The Hearing and Proclaiming (Christocentric reading and expounding of the word)

  • The Response and the Silence (the word needs a response)

  • The Recognition (Pledge of Love and the kiss of peace)

  • The Thanksgiving

  • The Breaking and Sharing (around the table together)

  • The Dismissal

Of course, it is possible to see the links with classic Orthodox/

Catholic and Protestant liturgies, but there are also fundamental differences – the accent on the gathering of the community and the crucial point of the Christocentric proclamation. Following that the Recognition – which carries a greater significance as Hubmaier and others understand it than the contemporary formulation of the Peace in modern ecumenical liturgies, declaring much more about the intimate covenanted community.

Proclamation in worship

The word stands central to and at the heart of the worship. The reading and reflection on Scripture is crucial and should have a Christ-centred focus, but also include readings from throughout the canon. This would run counter to much current evangelical worship practice, which often appears to minimise the place of reading the Scriptures together. The word is focused in the community, so the work of interpreting and expounding is not exclusive to one person. Though one person might be the mouthpiece, in the way the word was reflected on, understood and then articulated in Anabaptist communities, there are insights about communal interpretation, about the spectacles we choose to wear (Christocentric) as we approach the Scriptures, and about the importance of a response. The word is not simply proclaimed, it has to be acted on.

The bread and wine

Hubmaier and the first Anabaptists went for the simple table setting, with the normal bread of the community and wine from the local vineyard. At the IBTS Seminary in Prague simple ceramic ware made by a local potter is used, no fancy silver ware or pewter as found in most Protestant congregations. The seminary uses the bread the baker brings each day for ordinary meals and wine from Mikulov (Nikolsburg, Hubmaier’s base) in Moravia. Sign and symbol are important, so the bread is passed around – one loaf, as we are one body. Again, ought we not to abandon the ‘doll’s tea cups’ of the health and hygiene movement and return to the shared cup?

The participants

Most Anabaptists saw the nature of the fellowship to be very deep and binding. Early Anabaptists put a strong sacramental emphasis on this, the gathering people becoming the body of Christ by their participation in the meal, which came out of what they believed about Christ. So, principally the meal was for believers known within the community. Today, with increased travel and movement, we often have people present we do not know and we might want to argue against denying anyone the chance of table fellowship, but that must mean taking a real interest in all who receive and explaining to them the sense of recognition and belonging that participation in the meal implies.


So, I have tried not so much to enter the deeper mystical and theological insights of worship among some Anabaptist groups, but rather to look at certain significant figures and then offer comments from other key participants and to take those biblical and practical insights and set out a contemporary framework for further reflection. For we need to move beyond our understanding of the past and our theologising about Anabaptism to ask what needs to be changed so that our practice reflects our theology.

Keith Jones is the Rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary of the European Baptist Federation, which is located in Prague, Czech Republic.

For Further Reading

Dale R. Stoffer (ed.), The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1997).

John D. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck and Dirk Philips (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993).Eleanor Kreider, Given For You: A Fresh Look at Communion (Leicester: IVP, 1998).