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.