Introducing the Anabaptists

The Original Anabaptists


Sixteenth-century Europe was in the throes of major cultural changes that were disrupting the political, economic, social and religious arrangements that had persisted for several centuries. In particular:

  • Medieval feudalism was giving way to capitalism and a new urban middle class was growing in influence and threatening traditional social power structures.
  • Nationalism was becoming an unstoppable force, as hundreds of principalities and several free cities vied for authority with the old Holy Roman Empire.
  • These economic and political changes were causing serious hardship among the peasants, provoking a widespread but short-lived revolt in the mid-1520s.
  • Attempts to reform the massively wealthy, bureaucratic and corrupt institutional church had been unsuccessful, but demands for reform were insistent.

Anabaptism emerged on the back of two very different attempts to bring transformation to church and society:

(a) The Protestant Reformation – calling for reform in the church

(b) The Peasants’ Movement – calling for reform in society.

Some early Anabaptist leaders were involved in the reform movement that Luther started, especially several colleagues of Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich. They became frustrated with the slow progress there and withdrew their support in order to pursue a more radical vision.

Others were caught up in the peasants’ movement, but gradually realised that there was no prospect of implementing the political and economic changes they had fought for and decided to pursue their vision of a just and harmonious community in other ways.

Anabaptism emerged as scattered communities seeking alternative strategies for reform coalesced, offering fresh hope to men and women who had been disappointed by other attempts to reform church and society.

Anabaptists in Switzerland

On the evening of 21st January, 1525, less than eight years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, a small group of Christians were meeting secretly in a house in Zürich to talk and pray together. They had been enthusiastic followers of Ulrich Zwingli, minister of the Grossmünster, who was attempting to reform both the church and the city of Zürich. But they were now deeply troubled by his apparent reluctance to follow through on what he had been preaching and to implement what they regarded as clear biblical teaching on a number of issues – including the baptism of believers rather than infants.

The meeting on 21st January was considering a very radical step. The Bible, they believed, taught that believers should be baptised. They had all been baptised as infants, but they now regarded this as unbiblical and ineffectual. So they wanted to be baptised as believers, as men and women who were freely choosing to become followers of Jesus and had counted the cost of discipleship. This would be very costly indeed. They might discount their baptism as infants, but in the eyes of the authorities what they were considering was ‘rebaptism’ – an offence punishable by death.

Nevertheless, after a time of heart-searching and fervent prayer,

George [Blaurock] stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him.

In these famous words, The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren reports the first recorded instance of believers’ baptism in the Reformation era and the start of what became known as the Anabaptist (‘rebaptising’) movement.

George Blaurock and Conrad Grebel were two early leaders of the Swiss Brethren (as the Anabaptists who originated in Zürich are often known). Another significant figure was Felix Manz, a biblical scholar, the first Anabaptist to be executed by the city authorities, drowned in the Limmat River. This execution was intended to demonstrate that the authorities would not tolerate Anabaptism. Persecution followed the Anabaptists wherever they went. But the movement was already spreading beyond the city and taking root in the countryside – partly because the Zürich group were determined to evangelise elsewhere, and partly because Anabaptists deported from the city found themselves in the neighbouring towns and villages.

Within months the movement had spread east, west and north; then (across the border into Catholic territory) to Waldshut. This town was moving in the direction of reform under the leadership of Balthasar Hubmaier, who would become the foremost Anabaptist theologian There was popular support also in Hallau. Here, and elsewhere, the Anabaptist movement intersected with the peasants’ movement, recognising shared concerns and offering mutual support.

But, by the end of 1525, the peasants’ movement had been destroyed and the authorities were determined to snuff out any further threats, including Anabaptism. Most Anabaptists realised that, if they were to survive, their only course was to pursue their vision within separatist, underground communities.

In February 1527, representatives of the scattered Anabaptist communities gathered in the village of Schleitheim. Out of their conversation came the Schleitheim Confession, seven articles setting out the distinctive convictions of the Swiss Brethren. Not surprisingly, these articles are separatist and uncompromising in tone. They are also thoroughly pacifist. This confession would be the rallying point for most Swiss Anabaptists.

If it was dangerous being an Anabaptist, it was even more perilous being an Anabaptist leader. The authorities targeted the leaders and few survived for long. There were no safe places. Catholic and Protestant authorities alike imprisoned, fined, tortured and executed Anabaptists – Catholics usually burned them, Protestants beheaded or drowned them.

Some Swiss Anabaptists survived by going underground, especially in remote rural and mountainous regions. But most eventually emigrated in search of refuge. Many fled east into Moravia, where they joined Anabaptists fleeing from other parts of Europe; some travelled north or west into Germany and the Netherlands, evangelising as they went. But these territories offered no more than temporary respite, and the Swiss Brethren found freedom to practise their faith only when they eventually emigrated to Pennsylvania and other regions of North America.

Anabaptists in South Germany and Austria

Anabaptist communities began to emerge in South Germany and Austria very soon after the first baptisms in Zürich and before the movement was widespread in Swiss towns and villages.

Three founding figures were:

  • Hans Denck, a school-teacher with an emphasis on love and unity.
  • Hans Hut, a passionate evangelist. A bookseller by profession, he travelled widely, baptising thousands and planting Anabaptist churches in major cities, towns and villages across South Germany and Austria.
  • Melchior Rinck, a classical scholar who travelled around Hesse and Saxony, preaching and baptising, until he was arrested and imprisoned in 1531.

South German and Austrian Anabaptists were different from Swiss Anabaptism. They displayed a passionate concern for social justice, mystical spirituality, and a deep conviction that the end of history was near. They lacked the cohesion of the Swiss Brethren. Like the Swiss, they suffered the loss of key leaders very early, but unlike the Swiss they did not coalesce around a confession of any kind. Four groups evolved: one was apocalyptic; another embraced mystical spirituality; a third combined these emphases; and a fourth turned in a more separatist direction.

The other main figure in this branch of the Anabaptist movement was Pilgram Marpeck, a former mayor and mining magistrate of Rattenberg. Marpeck was disappointed by the lack of discipleship in most churches and became an Anabaptist. Moving to Strasbourg, where he worked as an engineer, Marpeck assumed leadership of an Anabaptist community in the city until exiled in 1532. After a period on the move, he settled again in Augsburg and led an Anabaptist community there until his death in 1556 (one of very few Anabaptist leaders to survive so long unmolested). Marpeck’s social position meant that he needed to wrestle seriously with the question of how far to engage with the power structures of his day without compromising his Anabaptist principles

Anabaptists in North Germany and the Netherlands

The origins of Anabaptism in North Germany and the Netherlands can be traced to a single charismatic and enigmatic leader – Melchior Hoffman. A furrier from Schwäbisch-Hall, his journey illustrates how those yearning for reformation might gradually become more and more radical in their views and activities.

Hoffman initially identified with the Lutheran movement and by 1523 was working as a lay preacher in Livonia, until he was expelled. After a meeting with Luther in Wittenberg in 1525, he moved to Dorpat, where his anti-clericalism and message of social justice made him popular with the poor, but caused him to fall out with his Lutheran colleagues. He went to Stockholm as a Lutheran missionary and again stirred up controversy before moving to Schleswig-Holstein in 1527. Here he turned decisively away from Luther and branded his former colleagues false prophets. In 1529, his property was confiscated and he was expelled once more.

Moving to Strasbourg, he interacted with reformers, spiritualists and several varieties of Anabaptists, blending different elements into his own theology. He was baptised there but formed his own group rather than joining an existing congregation. But his revolutionary and anticlerical views alarmed the authorities and he fled to escape arrest. During the next three years he travelled widely, evangelising and baptising hundreds of people, especially in the Netherlands.

Hoffman was imprisoned in 1533, apparently allowing himself to be arrested in the belief this was necessary for the New Jerusalem to be established in Strasbourg. He spent the remainder of his life in prison, dying perhaps ten years later, still awaiting the events he had prophesied. His movement grew and spread across the Netherlands and in parts of North Germany, but Hoffman’s imprisonment left it without adequate leadership.

In the next two years a disaster would occur, which authorities across Europe would seize on as demonstrating that Anabaptists were indeed dangerous subversives. Jan Matthys, a Haarlem baker, assumed leadership of the movement and sent out twelve apostles to evangelise and baptise. Among the places they visited was the German town of Münster, where their reception convinced Matthys that Hoffman had been right that the New Jerusalem was imminent, but wrong about its location: Münster, not Strasbourg, was the chosen site. A group of Anabaptists won the support of the local electorate and issued a call to Anabaptists everywhere to make their way to Münster and become citizens of the New Jerusalem. Thousands attempted to reach the city, although most were turned back by the authorities.

Münster was quickly surrounded by troops under the command of the local bishop. Two failed assaults were followed by a blockade to starve the town into submission. Matthys led a desperate breakout, believing that God would deliver him, but was killed. He was succeeded by Jan van Leiden, a young tailor, who instituted sweeping and violent reforms, using Old Testament legislation as his mandate, introduced polygamy, mandated capital punishment for minor offences, and awaited the descent of the New Jerusalem. After a prolonged siege, Münster was finally captured and its inhabitants massacred.

Münster was the greatest catastrophe of early Anabaptist history, resulting in increasing persecution across Europe, even in previously tolerant areas. Anabaptism in North Germany and the Netherlands survived the fall of Münster but the movement lost coherence. Most renounced violence. The most significant leader during the next few years was David Joris, who urged pacifism and emphasised interior spirituality to the extent that external marks of Anabaptism were regarded as unimportant. Communities of his followers persisted for several decades, but Joris failed in his attempts to reunite the movement under his leadership and he eventually left the area.

The future of Anabaptism in the Netherlands rested with those who had rejected Münster all along and maintained a pacifist position. The key leaders were Obbe and Dirk Philips, and an ex-Catholic priest, Menno Simons, from whom the Mennonites take their name. Menno joined the movement in 1536. The following year he was ordained as an elder. He spent the rest of his life travelling among scattered Anabaptist communities, teaching and pastoring them, and gradually welding them into a coherent movement. His extensive writings and patient ministry enabled Dutch Anabaptism to survive and thrive. Despite being a wanted man, he repeatedly escaped capture and eventually died peacefully.

An evolving movement

The Swiss, South German/Austrian and North German/Dutch branches of Anabaptism, as we have seen, were not isolated from each other. There were significant theological and cultural differences between these communities. But letters, visits and conversations enabled the exchange of ideas and provoked passionate debates.

The flight of Anabaptists in various directions in search of refuge from persecution mixed up the different groups even further. In the 1550s, another round of discussions took place in Strasbourg. Although these discussions did not bring about immediate uniformity, a single movement began to emerge. And the gradual disappearance of the more mystical, apocalyptic and revolutionary groups meant that those elements were marginalised within the emerging tradition.

Further emigration to Moravia and beyond continued the process of integration, even if the traditions each group brought with them sometimes led to disruption. Persecution pursued these communities further east into Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine and Russia, before they eventually found safety (if not wholehearted acceptance) in North America.

The multiple origins of the Anabaptist movement are still visible among contemporary Anabaptists, in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to speak of an Anabaptist movement, Anabaptist tradition or Anabaptist vision.

Among the convictions widely shared by Anabaptists by the end of the sixteenth century were:

  • Christians are to follow Jesus and obey his teachings, whatever the consequences.
  • The Bible is authoritative on ethical and ecclesial issues as well as theology.
  • Church and state are both divinely ordained but are to be kept separate.
  • Churches are communities of baptised disciples accountable to and for one another.
  • Church discipline (including the use of the ‘ban’) is crucial to maintain the purity and distinctiveness of the church.
  • Followers of Jesus are to share their resources freely with one another.
  • Non-violence and truth-telling are essential aspects of discipleship, so Christians should not fight or swear oaths.
  • Suffering is normal for faithful disciples and is a mark of the true church.

Whatever diversity there may have been among early Anabaptists, the authorities were in no doubt that they were facing a single movement that represented a serious threat to both church and state. The number of people actively involved in this movement is difficult to ascertain, but it certainly ran into tens of thousands within the first generation. And many more people were attracted to Anabaptism but were not baptised as members, aware of what this step might cost them. Thousands of Anabaptists were martyred in the sixteenth century. But the movement survived and has become a global community.

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