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.