views updated May 17 2018


ANABAPTISM. Anabaptism is the name for several related branches of continental European lay Protestantism. These groups first began emerging after 1525 and were most prominent in (but not limited to) German- and Dutch-speaking territories. In German and Dutch the terms Wiedertäufer and wederdooper (rebaptizers) carry old, negative connotations. By contrast, Täufer or dooper (baptists), Taufgesinnten or doopsgezinden (the baptism-minded), and Mennonites (strictly speaking a group-specific term that is sometimes applied loosely as an umbrella category for all later Anabaptists except the Hutterites) are used more widely today. In current scholarly English the name Anabaptist ("one who baptizes again") is widely accepted as a neutral term that has lost its older, polemical sense. While the first Anabaptists were often baptized twice, once as infants in the medieval church and again as adults in the early years of the Reformation, the overwhelming majority throughout the early modern era were baptized only once as adults, after first confessing their faith publicly.

There were some features common to most Anabaptist groups throughout the early modern period. Like other Protestants, Anabaptists rejected papal authority in favor of biblical authority. However, while most other Protestants began establishing new professional clerical elites soon after the initial ferment of the Reformation, Anabaptists maintained their reliance on lay leadership much longer, and it was not uncommon among early groups to believe that ordinary men and women could receive direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Like other Protestants, Anabaptists emphasized the importance of grace for salvation, but they also placed a great deal of emphasis on the need for true faith to result in the transformation of believers' lives. And like other Protestants, Anabaptists accepted only two sacraments, communion and baptism. Their symbolic, commemorative understanding of communion was similar to that held by Reformed Protestants. But unlike the majority of other major Christian communities, Anabaptists rejected child baptism in favor of believers' baptism as practiced by the earliest Christian communities.


One of the dominant twentieth-century interpretations of Anabaptist history was outlined by the Mennonite historian Harold Bender in an influential essay from 1944 entitled "The Anabaptist Vision." In it he argued that "Anabaptism proper" had a single point of origin (Zurich) and an unchanging core of ethical features (discipleship, brotherhood, and nonresistance) that defined it. The reason for this narrow definition was to establish a clear distinction between true and false Anabaptists. The latter were those who, although they practiced believers' baptism, also participated in revolutionary politics and/or held mystical, spiritualist beliefs. From the point of view of church historians trying to establish an appropriate pedigree for modern Mennonites, these kinds of "fanatics" were not appropriate forebears.

By contrast, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxist historians were among the first sympathetic interpreters to raise the theme of radical politics to prominence in Anabaptist studies. They were interested in Anabaptists as defenders of an ideology of the poor at a crucial stage of the Reformation when mainstream reformers were allying themselves with the interests of capital and the feudal ruling class. Few historians of Anabaptism today are Marxists, but issues the Marxists addressedthe social character of Anabaptist groups and the centrality of revolutionary events like the German Peasants' War of 1525 and the period of Anabaptist rule in Münster from 1534 to 1535continue to be prominent.

Scholars since the 1960s and 1970s have generally rejected these interpretations. If the older Mennonite scholarship has influence today, it is mainly in the general interest in ethics and beliefs. Scholars since the later twentieth century have continued to investigate these themes, usually without imposing modern denominational assumptions about "Anabaptism proper." In part because of the influence of Marxist research, most acknowledge today that the first Anabaptists held a wide range of views about the use of force, as well as the proper relationship between believers and secular rulers. The newer social and intellectual history has shown that regional diversity was one of the hallmarks of Anabaptism. The way ideas spread among Anabaptist groups plus the important role of women in early Anabaptist groups have also received more attention in recent scholarship.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it was common to write about Anabaptism as part of the "Radical Reformation." In the 1960s George Williams had defined this term in contrast to the "Magisterial Reformation" and the "Counter-Reformation" and gave it a meaning that emphasized intellectual and theological features. By contrast, in the 1970s the German historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz had proposed defining as "radical" those groups and individuals who broke with the social, political, and ecclesiastical norms of their day. In Goertz's interpretation, anticlericalism and laicism were key impulses shared by the first reforming movements in the early 1520s. By the mid-1520s rifts developed among reformers. Those who founded mainstream Protestant churches moderated their once radical positions when it became possible to establish alliances with secular authorities. Anabaptist groups were among the early campaigners for radical reforms who refused to compromise with authorities and therefore eventually found themselves forced to the margins of society. The early coalitions of radicals included not only Anabaptists, but also spiritualist opponents of child baptism. While leaders at first could campaign for a complete Anabaptist reformation of society, separatism became the main option left open to those proponents of adult baptism who were active a few years after the Peasants' War and the period of Anabaptist rule in Münster. The focus on radical reform is significant, because it integrates Anabaptist history into the main currents of early Reformation studies.

After the first stage of the Reformation, Anabaptist groups underwent a transformation from dynamic early reforming movements to more established communities. The concentration of Anabaptist and Radical Reformation studies on the period until about 1550 has meant that the character of institutionalized Anabaptism of the early modern period remains largely unexplored.


Throughout Europe the first generation of Anabaptists included men and women from a wide range of social backgrounds. University-educated scholars, former priests and monks, and artisans and other commoners were among their first leaders. Even the educated, many of whom quickly fell victim to executioners, tended to hold anti-intellectual prejudices, preferring the simplicity of a life lived according to Christ's example to the intricacies of academic theology. Like medieval dissenters and reformers, most early Anabaptists emphasized active holiness and ascetically disciplined lives as prerequisites for salvation, and they frequently held apocalyptic, prophetic, spiritualistic, mystical, and anti-institutional understandings of their connections with God. Radical reformers like Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, Thomas Müntzer, and Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig were among those who rejected child baptism before 1525. Although they never baptized adults, their influence on Anabaptist groups was strong.

Ever since Klaus Depperman, Werner Packull, and James Stayer published the essay "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis" in 1975, it has been common to make distinctions among three regional forms of Anabaptism: Swiss, southern German and Austrian, and northern German and Dutch. The authors' further research has shown that there were many interactions and exchanges connecting groups, especially in Swiss, southern German, and Austrian territories. Nonetheless, it remains useful to chart differences, as well as interactions, between regional cultures of Anabaptism.

In Swiss, southern German, and Austrian territories there was a strong affinity between the Peasants' War and Anabaptism. In the aftermath of the conflicts of 1525, disillusioned activists sought to give religious expression to the ideals that the peasants and commoners had fought for earlier. The Anabaptist practice of community of goods emerged as a result.

The first adult baptisms began in Swiss territories in early 1525. The Swiss Brethren included many of Huldrych Zwingli's early supporters, who had become dissatisfied with his conservative turn. Key leaders in this branch included Konrad Grebel (14981526), Balthasar Hubmaier (14851528), Felix Mantz (14981527), and Wilhelm Reublin (c. 1484after 1559). Their Christianity tended to be legalistic, literal, and scriptural in character. The Schleitheim Articles of 1527 are a famous expression of Swiss Anabaptism in its most radically separatist mode.

Compared to Swiss Anabaptists, southern German and Austrian Anabaptist groups were influenced much more strongly by Thomas Müntzer's brand of spiritualism and mysticism. Apocalyptic expectations among believers were also especially strong into the later 1520s. Key leaders in this branch included Hans Denck (c. 15001527), Hans Hut (d. 1527), Pilgram Marpeck (14921556), and Melchior Rinck (c. 14931553?). After the 1520s these groups became indistinguishable from the Swissexcept for Marpeck's group, which was prominent for publishing ventures in which writings by such diverse figures as Luther and Schwenckfeld were edited to serve Anabaptist doctrinal objectives.

Anabaptists were faced with often severe persecution. From an anti-Anabaptist point of view, the baptism of adults was an anti-Christian rebaptism that threatened to disrupt unity and order in the Christian polity. Thus, sixteenth-century rulers tended to interpret the act of baptizing adults as an act of rebellion and heresy. Although Anabaptists amounted to only a small minority in most territories, the attention paid them by authorities meant that their impact was much greater than their numbers might suggest. At the 1529 Diet of Speyer rebaptism was declared a capital crime in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Both Catholic and Protestant governments executed unrepentant Anabaptist men and women.

Anabaptist responses to persecution varied. In the immediate aftermath of the Peasants' War a small minority chose to fight back, though futilely. Some believers recanted when threatened with punishment, while others stayed steadfast in the face of hardship, hoping for rescue upon Christ's imminent return. When confronted with the choice, some preferred martyrdom over the betrayal of their faith; about two thousand died for their faith, about as many as the martyrs drawn from the far more numerous Protestant churches. Another option was Nicodemism, hiding their forbidden faith from central authorities while pretending to conform. Many chose exile.

One region where persecution was particularly intense was the Catholic Habsburg Tyrol. Here Anabaptism in the late 1520s was the main form of popular reform. Jakob Hutter (d. 1536) and other leaders arranged the relocation of large numbers of believers from the Tyrol to Moravia, where some members of the local nobility were willing to provide the Anabaptists with land to live in peace. The relative safety of Moravia also attracted many refugees from Switzerland and southern Germany. In the Moravian sanctuaries, competing branches melded into new hybrid forms of Anabaptism.

In Dutch and northern German territories, where the Peasants' War was of little consequence, Anabaptism had a largely (although not entirely) separate history. Melchior Hofmann (c. 14951543/1544) began baptizing believers in these territories in 1530. In 1531, after harsh repression, he decided to suspend baptisms until the End Times, which he felt were then soon approaching. The suspension of adult baptism did not halt the movement's spread. A turning point came in February 1534, when an Anabaptist faction won elections in the Westphalian city of Münster. By that time the city had become a New Jerusalem for believers from the surrounding region and the Netherlands after baptisms had resumed. Catholic and Protestant authorities in neighboring territories reacted by laying siege to the city. Under the stresses of the siege, community of goods and polygamy were practiced. The siege armies broke through the city's walls in June 1535. The captured leaders, including Jan van Leyden, the self-styled Anabaptist king, were executed in gruesome fashion.

Dutch and northern German Anabaptists after 1535 had to come to terms with the shock of the Münster years. Melchior Hofmann's distinctive belief in Christ's nature untainted by human corruption remained a characteristic of successor groups for many decades. A number of leaders vied for influence among the Melchiorite remnant after 1535. These included Jan van Battenburg, who led a militant minority; David Joris (1501/15021556), whose brand of spiritualism attracted many adherents before 1540; and Menno Simons (14961561), a former Catholic priest who advocated the formation of disciplined, separatist communities of nonresistant believers as an alternative to the excesses of Münster. The Mennonites were the most successful faction after about 1540.


The character of Anabaptist groups went through some significant transformations over the course of the early modern era. While the first Anabaptists were voluntary converts to the new faith, most Anabaptists after the middle of the sixteenth century were born into established communities of faith. They accepted both adult baptism and political discrimination as part of their inheritance. It was only after the first generation of the Reformation that nonresistance (which denominational historians emphasized in their interpretations) rose to the central position that it enjoyed throughout most of the rest of the early modern period. Over the course of the sixteenth century the separatist Anabaptists' radical rejection of mainstream society diminished, and secular governments tended to be more accepting of the peaceful, withdrawn dissenters the Anabaptists had become.

In southern territories, persecution forced believers to relocate from cities and towns to the more secluded countryside. Anabaptists in the Swiss highlands were hunted by authorities until the middle of the eighteenth century. The Amish, followers of Jakob Amman (c. 1644c. 1730), formed in the 1690s, in part to try to establish pure communities of the faithful without any compromises. Many emigrated eventually to North America. Unlike the single-family households the Swiss Brethren preferred, a unique feature of Moravian Anabaptism was that a portion of its members organized themselves in large social, religious, and economic cooperatives that have remained typical of Hutterite communities (named after Jakob Hutter) to the present day. Hutterites thrived in Moravia beside other non-communitarian Anabaptist groups until the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, when they lost noble protection and migrated to new havens in Slovakia, after which they were driven farther east, until in the late nineteenth century they joined the wave of Russian emigration to North America.

Anabaptist groups thrived in the Protestant Netherlands and northern German territories, largely because they had received special privileges from secular authorities after the 1570s. Mennonites, the dominant group of Anabaptists in these regions, had strong communities in the Dutch countryside (as in Friesland) and in urban centers like Amsterdam, and even as far east as Danzig (Gdańsk). Under the stresses of war and persecution, Anabaptists had left the southern Low Countries in the sixteenth century for the relative safety of Protestant-controlled territories to the north. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new Anabaptist communities formed. These included groups known as Waterlanders, Flemish, Frisians, and High Germans, and later also Lamists and Zonists. Although their ecclesiastical affairs were organized mainly locally and congregationally, conferences or synodal structures did emerge in the seventeenth century to link communities. The Dutch and northern German Mennonites were the first Anabaptists to employ professional, university-trained clergymen.

Most Mennonites were what we might call "conforming nonconformists." They were religious nonconformists in their unique practice of believers' baptism, as well as in their refusal to swear oaths or bear arms. In the seventeenth century, they (like other Protestant groups) commonly expressed their desire to preserve a unique confessional identity by using confessions of faith. In these statements, they also typically emphasized their adherence to the basic doctrines of the Christian creeds, and their politically conformist view that true Christians were obedient subjects. As communities they paid taxes, even war taxes. In some jurisdictions Mennonites held minor political offices, but in most cases they accepted exclusion from positions of public authority.

Early modern Mennonites were instrumental in creating a sense of pan-Anabaptist identity. They argued that their Anabaptist forebears were not fanatics, heretics, or rebels, as many Catholic and mainstream Protestant polemicists alleged. Rather, they were believers who had been especially faithful to Christ's teachings. A rich martyrological tradition emerged in which Mennonite writers memorialized executed believers from groups all across Europe. Significant numbers of Mennonites prospered economically in the early modern era, and some were able to establish substantial merchant enterprises. They used part of their wealth to support coreligionists suffering hardships in other regions.

In the eighteenth century, Dutch Mennonites tended to be well integrated into their societies, and some even participated in Pietist or Enlightenment circles. In the 1780s a significant proportion were active in the Dutch Patriot Movement during its rebellion against the Orange regime. Some even gave up the principle of nonresistance to bear arms against the government. After the early nineteenth century this radical phase was eagerly forgotten.

See also Leyden, Jan van ; Münster ; Patriot Revolution ; Peasants' War, German ; Pietism ; Reformation, Protestant ; Zwingli, Huldrych.


Driedger, Michael D. Obedient Heretics: Mennonite Identities in Lutheran Hamburg and Altona during the Confessional Age. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2002.

Dyck, Cornelius J., ed. An Introduction to Mennonite History: A Popular History of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites. Scottdale, Pa., 1993.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus. Scottdale, Pa., and Kitchener, Ont., 1982.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Reference Work on the Anabaptist-Mennonite Movement. 5 vols. Hillsboro, Kans., 19551990.

Mennonite Quarterly Review. Goshen, Ind., 1927. One of the key forums for scholarship on Anabaptism. Includes important essays like "The Anabaptist Vision" and "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis."

Packull, Werner O. Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation. Baltimore, 1995.

Snyder, C. Arnold. Anabaptist History and Theology. Kitchener, Ont., 1997.

Snyder, C. Arnold, and Linda A. Hecht. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers. Waterloo, Ont., 1996.

Stayer, James M. Anabaptists and the Sword. 2nd ed. Lawrence, Kans., 1976.

. The German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. Montreal, 1991.

. "The Radical Reformation." In Handbook of European History, 14001600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Vol. 2. Edited by Thomas A. Brady Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy. Leiden and New York, 1995.

Stayer, James M., and Werner O. Packull, trans. and eds. The Anabaptists and Thomas Müntzer. Dubuque, Iowa, 1980. A collection of influential essays and excerpts from books, many translated from German and Dutch.

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. 3rd ed. Kirksville, Mo., 1992.

Michael D. Driedger


views updated Jun 08 2018


ANABAPTISM . Anabaptist comes from the Greek word meaning "rebaptizer." It was never used by the Anabaptists, for whom baptism signified the external witness of an inner faith covenant of the believer with God through Jesus Christ. Baptism was always administered in the name of the Trinity, usually by pouring water, but sometimes by sprinkling or immersion.

The Anabaptist movement had multiple origins. An earlier view saw it primarily as an effort on the part of Conrad Grebel (c. 14981526), Felix Mantz (c. 14981527), and other co-workers of Huldrych Zwingli (14841531), the Zurich reformer, to complete the reformation of the church. Researchers are now aware, however, of additional influences in bringing the movement to birth. These include peasant unrest brought on by social and economic injustice; the rhetoric of the fiery German peasant leader Thomas Müntzer (1488?1525); the writings of Martin Luther (14831546) and, especially, Andreas Karlstadt (14801541); the influence of late medieval mysticism and asceticism; and the dynamics of reform in specific monasteries. Anabaptism arose as a radical reform movement out of the economic, social, political, and religious situation in early sixteenth-century Europe.

Anabaptism began formally in Zollikon, near Zurich, on January 21, 1525, when Grebel, Mantz, Georg Blaurock (c. 14921529), and others baptized each other on confession of faith, thus forming a separatist congregation. This event, however, was preceded by debates with Zwingli and the Zurich city council, beginning in 1523, over the nature of desired reforms. On issues like abolition of the Mass, dietary regulations, the authority of scripture over tradition, and the veneration of relics, these first Anabaptists were in complete agreement with Zwingli. Nor was infant baptism, which they believed to be contrary to scripture, a critical issue, although it had great implications for the nature of the church. The ultimate break with Zwingli concerned the authority of the city council (the state) over the church, which Zwingli affirmed and his disciples denied. The immediate and final event that precipitated the first baptismal ceremony was a decree issued by the city council demanding the baptism of all infants within eight days, on pain of banishment of the persons involved.

The (Swiss) Brethren, as the new group preferred to be called, found strong support among the people, not so much on the issue of baptism but in the Brethren's anticlericalism, their desire for local congregational autonomy, their rejection of excessive taxation, and their involvement in small Bible-study groups and other practices that met apparent spiritual needs of the people. As a result, the movement grew rapidly, and with its growth there was increasingly severe persecution. Mantz became one of the first martyrs when he was drowned in the Limmat River at Zurich in January 1527.

In 1530, Melchior Hofmann (c. 14951543), a widely traveled Lutheran preacher with chiliastic tendencies, came to Strasbourg, where his contacts must have included not only Swiss Brethren but also spiritualists and other "free spirits," as well as the major Strasbourg reformers Martin Bucer (14911551) and Wolfgang Capito (14781541). Hofmann left the city the same year, under the duress of the reformers and the city council, because of an inclination to Anabaptism, although it is not clear whether he himself received believers' baptism. On arrival in the northern city of Emden he soon attracted a large following, in part at least because of his apocalyptic message of the imminent return of Christ; and in a short time more than three hundred persons had been baptized. Selected leaders were ordained, and they in turn ordained others to help bring in the Kingdom.

Hofmann was pacifistic, content to await God's own time, but others armed themselves to bring in the Kingdom by force. In May 1530 there was an abortive attempt to take the city of Amsterdam. Other incidents followed. In 1534 the city of Münster in Westphalia was declared to be the New Jerusalem and fell under the control of the Melchiorites, though Hofmann himself had returned to Strasbourg and lay in prison there. In 1535 Münster fell before the onslaught of the regional bishop's troops, and most of its inhabitants were killed. The Münster episode was in large part responsible for the centuries-long designation of Anabaptism as violent and revolutionary. It was also in response to these events that Menno Simons left his nearby Roman Catholic parish and, after going underground for a time of reflection and writing, emerged as the primary leader of peaceful Anabaptism.

Meanwhile, the Swiss and South German Brethren grew in numbers even as persecution increased. As a result, many migrated to other areas, particularly Austria and Moravia. As refugees arrived, a sharing of goods with them seemed both practical and biblical. This practice began in 1529, and by 1533 it had become normative for many in the area under the leadership of Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), who made it a central article of faith. Those who followed this group became known as Hutterian Brethren, or Hutterites. Numerous congregations also emerged in south-central Germany under the leadership of Hans Hut (d. 1527), Hans Denk (c. 15001527), Pilgram Marpeck (d. 1556), the more radical Melchior Rink (c. 14941545), and others.

The variety of centers from which Anabaptists emerged and the various influences upon them make it difficult to talk about one all-encompassing faith to which all confessed. There was a great deal of pluralism. Nevertheless, there was in all the sixteenth-century Anabaptists a common core of beliefs by which they recognized one another and that in time became normative. The elements of this core came from their statements of faith, the testimony of martyrs, court records, hymns, letters, records of disputations held with authorities and others, and the writings of major leaders. The extent to which the ideals of these affirmations of faith were practiced in daily life, or were simply held as embodying an ideal vision, also varied from person to person.

In September 1524, Grebel and his friends wrote to Luther, Karlstadt, and Müntzer to seek counsel. Only the two letters to Müntzer are extant. In them several emphases are already clear: the primary authority of the scriptures; the Lord's Supper conceived as a memorial and a sign of love among believers; the importance of redemptive church discipline according to Matthew 18:1518; the belief that baptism must follow a personal profession of faith and that it is a sign of such faith rather than a saving sacrament; the belief that children are saved by the redemptive work of the second Adam, Christ; a conviction that weapons of violence have no place among Christians; and the belief that the church is called to be a suffering church.

In 1527 the Anabaptists convened a conference at Schleitheim, on the Swiss-German border. The death of many early leaders led to some discontinuity with their thought and spirit. A more separatist-sectarian view emerged. Seven articles constituted the "Brotherly Union," as it was called, a statement summarizing the central issues of faith in which the framers of the statement differed from the "false brethren." Who these brethren were is not clear. The prime mover at the meeting and the author of the articles was Michael Sattler (c. 14901527), a former Benedictine monk from Saint Peter's monastery near Freiburg, Germany. In addition to most of the above emphases, three others were added: a radical church-world dualism that asserted complete separation of believers from all others; the importance of church order and the necessity of pastoral leadership as discerned by the congregation; and rejection of the oath as an affirmation of truth.

The other documents mentioned above amplify but do not add significant new doctrinal affirmations to the two early statements from Grebel's letter and the Brotherly Union. The primacy of the New Testament over the Old Testament is affirmed, as well as the doctrine of separation that naturally excludes participation in civil or political office. Simons stressed that the church, as the bride of Christ, must be pure; he also stressed the importance of witness and mission, which most Anabaptists took for granted as a part of discipleship. Dirk Philips (15041568) affirmed the ordinance of foot washing. In their verbal and written statements, most Anabaptists confirmed their intention of restoring the church to its early New Testament pattern and practice.

See Also

Mennonites; Müntzer, Thomas; Simons, Menno.


The standard reference work in English is The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Scottdale, Pa., 19551959). A helpful bibliographical tool is A Bibliography of Anabaptism, 15201630, compiled by Hans J. Hillerbrand (Elkhart, Ind., 1962). In the area of historiography, James M. Stayer's "The Anabaptists," in Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research, edited by Steven Ozment (Saint Louis, 1982), pp. 135159, indicates the direction of present research generally. Walter Klaassen has edited a convenient collection of source translations on most Anabaptist theological themes in his Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, Pa., 1981). For all of this literature, George H. Williams's massive The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962) provides an indispensable contextual framework, as does his edited volume Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, "Library of Christian Classics," vol. 25 (Philadelphia, 1957). In The Believers' Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism (New York, 1968), Donald F. Durnbaugh places the various movements within Anabaptism into a narrower and more definitive context.

Cornelius J. Dyck (1987)


views updated Jun 11 2018


The term Anabaptist, meaning literally "rebaptizer," occurs from the fourth century onward and was first used to designate those who insisted on the rebaptism of persons baptized by heretics or by clergy who had fallen away from the faith under persecution.

In the sixteenth-century it was applied to those elements in the Reformation movement who denied the validity of infant baptism. It became a pejorative term, used by their Catholic and Protestant opponents to associate them with a heresy condemned for centuries by both ecclesiastical and civil law and incurring the death penalty according to the Justinian Code, and was applied indiscriminately to a heterogeneous group of the "left wing" of the Reformation. The association with donatism was inaccurate, since the sixteenth-century Anabaptists were not concerned with the validity of the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism but rather denied its sacramental character. Their attitude toward baptism with water ranged from seeing it as an important act of public confession (e.g., Swiss Brethren) to the denial of the necessity of any physical baptism (e.g., Schwenckfeld). Thus the Schleitheim Confession of the Swiss Brethren (1527) states: "Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ." By contrast, Caspar Schwenckfeld asserts summarily: "God does not tie his grace to water." Since the differences among those who rejected infant baptism are vast, it is advisable to divide the so-called Anabaptists into four separate but related groups: (1) New Testament-oriented pacifists, (2) Old Testament-oriented revolutionaries, (3) spiritualists, and (4) rationalists. It should be noted, however, that in the 16th century the lines between these groups were somewhat fluid and that they exerted considerable influence upon each other.

New Testament-oriented Pacificists. This segment had its origin in lay Bible study groups in Zürich, Switzerland (152325). The movement was led by men close to zwingli (Conrad grebel, Felix Manz, Georg Blaurock, and later Balthasar hubmaier), impatient with Zwingli's hesitation and vacillation in his interpretation and administration of the sacraments, his attitude toward political authority, and the nature of the church. On Jan. 21, 1525, Grebel baptized Blaurock, and "believer's baptism" became the outward mark of the movement. When those rebaptized were soon expelled from Zürich, they spread their new teaching all over central Europe. Later some, following the example of the early Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 4.3235), organized Christian communist communities that have survived to the present (see hutterites). In northern Europe the New Testament-oriented pacifist Anabaptists eventually found an eloquent leader in Menno Simons (14961561) (see mennonites).

The theology of the group was expressed in the Schleitheim Confession. Besides condemning infant baptism and favoring adult baptism as confession of faith, it advocated the "ban" (the strict discipline of the community of the baptized), a memorial view of Holy Communion, complete separation from all who did not share their views, and the refusal to bear arms and participate in political life.

Old Testament-oriented Revolutionaries. This group originated in Zwickau in Saxony (c. 1520) among the impoverished weavers of that town. Led by Nicholas Storch, they were soon joined by Thomas mÜnzer, who became one of their most voluble spokesmen, and participated actively in the Peasant War. While they also opposed infant baptism, they distinguished themselves from the pacifist Anabaptists by their emphasis upon the Old Testament call to war against the "Canaanites," their stress upon direct revelations from God independent of the Bible, and their elaborate millennial speculations based on an allegorical interpretation of the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse. Although Münzer perished (1525) in the fiasco of the Peasant War, views similar to his own were later expressed by the Münster Anabaptists, who, influenced by the millennial hopes of Melchior hoffmann and under the leadership of Anabaptist refugees from the Netherlands, the "prophet" John Mathijs and his successor "king" John Beukels (John of Leiden), attempted to establish a communist and polygamous "kingdom of God" in this Westphalian city by force of arms (153335). After the utter collapse of this "kingdom" the surviving Anabaptist elements were absorbed in the New Testament-oriented pacifist Anabaptists under the leadership of Menno Simons.

Spiritualist Anabaptists. This group, whose rejection of infant baptism was not accompanied by an equally clear endorsement of baptism for adults, saw in the organizational structures of the church, as well as the sacraments and even the Bible, regulations applicable only to the infancy of God's people. Thus Sebastian Franck (14991542) suggested that in its childhood the church could not dispense with such crutches, but when it discarded them in its maturity, the Father would be pleased rather than angered. Similarly Caspar Schwenckfeld (14891561) advocated the suspension of infant baptism, since he considered it so utterly immersed in superstition and abuses as to be worthless (see schwenckfelders).

Central in the thought of Spiritualist Anabaptists such as Franck and Schwenkfeld was the denial of the absolute claims of all the contending religious movements of the time, from the Roman Catholics and Lutherans to the pacifist and revolutionary Anabaptists. They believed in an invisible church, which might well include not only sincere Christians but also good Muslims and pagans obedient to the "inner Word" wherever they might be. Such emphasis upon the inner Word of the Spirit distinguished the Spiritualist Anabaptists from the other groups and their Biblical literalism.

Rationalist Anabaptists. This last body had its roots primarily in the Romance lands. The Spaniard Michael servetus (151153) as well as the Italians Laelius (152562) and his nephew Faustus Socinius (15391604) were not only opposed to infant baptism but rejected the Trinitarian theology of the ancient Church as well (see socinianism). In this they were influenced by the Arianizing tendencies of Renaissance humanism (e.g., Florentine Academy under Marsilio ficino), by the Biblical literalism and the rejection of non-Biblical language typical of Anabaptists, which brought the complex Christological formulations of Nicaea and Chalcedon into disrepute, and by the confidence in the God-given ability of human reason to comprehend and follow the council of God. The rationalist Anabaptists tended to identify "spirit" with "reason" and saw Biblical truth as that which contributed to the moral improvement of humanity. Thus they tended to depreciate the confession of Christ as God and Savior, considering Him the great ethical teacher and example.

Anabaptists have survived in some contemporary denominations. Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites carry on the tradition of the New Testament-oriented pacifists. The Schwenckfelder Church originated in the spiritualist tradition, and the Society of Friends (Quaker) has incorporated many of its teachings. Unitarians are loosely related to the rationalists. Only the Old Testament-oriented revolutionaries have found no permanent institutional expression although some of their millennial claims can be found in groups at the fringe of Protestantism. In the scholarly investigation of the Anabaptist movement, the following questions have been debated: (1) the influence of medieval sects on Anabaptists (e.g., L. Keller); (2) the place of origin in Switzerland (e.g., E. Troeltsch) or Saxony (e.g., K. Holl); (3) the definition of Anabaptism restricting it to the New Testament-oriented pacifists (e.g., H. Bender); (4) Anabaptist contributions to the doctrine of the church (e.g., F. Littell); (5) Anabaptist contributions to concept of separation of Church and State (e.g., G. H. Williams).

While the influence of medieval sectarianism is vague, the origin of the 16th-century movement can be considered settled if the distinction between the various groups of Anabaptists is maintained. Switzerland applies to the New Testament-oriented pacifists, and Saxony, to the Old Testament-oriented revolutionaries. The attempt to restrict the term Anabaptist to the pacifists is not accurate. Some groups of Anabaptists like the Münster prophets did stage armed rebellions. Others refused to take up the sword. The Anabaptists did make a major contribution to the voluntaristic view of the church and their impact on the development of notions of the separation of Church and state was important, too. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century the numbers of all those involved in these groups was extremely small. It was in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century North America that groups like the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish were able to flourish. And as a result, the religious beliefs of these groups came to exert an influence on Christian thinking in general out of proportion to their numbers.

Bibliography: h. e. fosdick, ed., Great Voices of the Reformation (New York 1952). h. j. hillerbrand, A Bibliography of Anabaptism 15201630, (Elkhart, IN 1962). menno simons, Complete Writings, tr. l. verduin, ed. j. c. wenger (Scottdale, PA 1956). g. h. williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia 1962); ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia 1957). The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4 v. (Scottdale, PA 195560). k. holl, "Luther und die Schwärmer," Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte, 3 v. (Tübingen 192728) 1:420467. f. h. littell, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York 1964). j. lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, 2 v. (Freiburg 1949). e. troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, tr. o. wyon, 2 v. (New York 1931; repr. 1956). a. l. e. verheyden, Anabaptism in Flanders, 15301650, tr. m. kuitse et al. (Scottdale, PA 1961). h. fast, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:601604, bibliog. a. baudrillart, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 1.1:112834. y. congar, Catholicisme 1:500501. p. bernard, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart (Paris 1912) 2:13831405, bibliog. p. j. klassen, The Economics of Anabaptism, 15251560 (The Hague 1964). e. gritsch, Thomas Müntzer (Minneapolis 1989). l. gross, The Golden Years of the Hutterites (Scottdale Penn. 1980). h. j. goertz, Die Täufer (Munich 1980). w. e. keeney, The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539 to 1564 (Nieuwkoop 1968). m. lienhard, ed., The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism (The Hague 1977). p. matheson, ed. The Collected Works of Thomas Muentzer (Edinburgh 1988). t. scott, Thomas Müntzer (London 1989). j. m. stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence KS 1972).

[g. w. forell]


views updated May 11 2018

Anabaptists (‘re-baptizers’) Various radical or left-wing Reformation groups who reinstated the baptism of believers on profession of personal faith. Two Zürich Reformers, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, formed the first congregation at Zollikon in 1525 (later called ‘the Swiss Brethren’). Others were established in Moravia, led by Jacob Hutter (so Hutterites), in S. Germany, led by Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Denck, and in NW Germany and the Low Countries, inspired by Melchior Hoffmann, a leader who combined unorthodox christology and millenarianism with deep piety. Forced by persecution to leave their homes, many Anabaptists came to regard baptism as initiation into Christian suffering, with Christ as the proto-martyr of their faith. Some Anabaptist exiles, influenced by the fanatical views of Jan Matthys and Jan Bockelson ( John of Leyden), introduced polygamy in the city of Münster (1533–5) which was eventually besieged. The episode was not only a stigma on Anabaptism, but led inevitably to increased persecution with the loss of many thousands of lives. The Münster débâcle also issued in a fresh definition of Anabaptist thought by writers such as Dirk Philips, and especially Menno Simons, whose spirituality, pacifism, and social ideals continue to be treasured by the Mennonites.


views updated May 23 2018

Anabaptists Radical Protestant sects in the Reformation who shared the belief that infant baptism is not authorized by Scripture, and that it was necessary to be baptized as an adult. The first such baptisms were conducted by the Swiss Brethren sect in Zürich (1525). The sect were the first to completely separate Church from State, when they rejected Ulrich Zwingli's Reformed Church. Aided by social upheavals (such as the Peasants' War) and the theological arguments of Martin Luther and Thomas Münzer, Anabaptism spread rapidly to Germany and the Netherlands. It stressed the community of believers. The communal theocracy established by John of Leiden at Münster was brutally suppressed (1535).


views updated May 14 2018

anabaptists or re-baptizers held that baptism should be postponed until people were capable of understanding the promises made and obligations accepted. But the hatred and persecution they encountered stemmed from the widespread belief that they intended to overthrow the whole social order. There were different groups within the movement but those anabaptists who held power in Münster 1533–5 were radical, advocating common property and practising polygamy. This served to smear the whole movement and ‘anabaptist’ became a term of abuse. Henry VIII thought them ‘a detestable sect’ and burned a number: James I in the preface to Basilikon Doron denounced them as ‘a vile sect’ and burned more. Their doctrinal influence was on the Brownists, baptists, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 23 2018

An·a·bap·tism / ˌanəˈbapˌtizəm/ • n. the doctrine that baptism should only be administered to believing adults, held by a radical Protestant sect that emerged during the 1520s and 1530s.DERIVATIVES: An·a·bap·tist n. & adj.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Anabaptists the doctrine that baptism should only be administered to believing adults, held by a radical Protestant sect which emerged during the 1520s and 1530s, following the ideas of reformers such as Zwingli. Anabaptists also advocated complete separation of Church and state and many of their beliefs are today carried on by the Mennonites.

Recorded from the mid 16th century, the name comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek anabaptismos, from ana- ‘over again’ + baptismos ‘baptism’.


views updated May 29 2018


ANABAPTISTS. SeeBaptist Churches .