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Anabaptism

You have likely heard about the Amish; you might even have heard about the Mennonites, Brethren, and Hutterites. But did you know these orders are splinter groups of the Anabaptists? This 16th-century religious order originated during the Radical Reformation. While the Catholics persecuted the Protestants and vice versa, both groups persecuted the Anabaptists.

But why were the Anabaptists so relentlessly persecuted? What were their beliefs? How did their views contradict the accepted views of the time? Let's discuss the fundamental ideas, origins, and persecution of the Anabaptist movement, and examine their history and role in modern-day society.

Anabaptist Definition

Meaning 'one who baptises again', Anabaptism is a Christian movement whose origins trace back to the Radical Reformation. Founded by Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, Anabaptists believe in adult baptism, literal adherence to scripture, and opposing violence; the beliefs of Anabaptism were transcribed at the Schleitheim Confession in 1527.

Persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike, the Anabaptists enjoyed some popularity in Germany and the Low regions throughout the early- to mid-16th century. Their political significance culminated in their seizure of Munster in 1535. Over the following centuries, Anabaptism continued to splinter into various sects, with modern-day groups including the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites.

Anabaptist Overview

Here is a brief overview outlining the Anabaptist movement.

  • Name: Anabaptist
  • Founded: 1523
  • Key Figures: Feliz Manz and Conrad Grebel (Founders)
  • Key Beliefs:
    • Delaying baptism until the person is old enough to confess their faith.
    • Following Scripture literally and at all costs.
    • Opposing Violence.
    • Emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, New Testament, and Jesus' life and teachings.

Anabaptism Origin

The Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525. The 1520s were a critical decade in the Protestant Reformation – the German Reformation was in full swing after the Diet of Worms, and Ulrich Zwingli was preaching the Reformed Faith in Switzerland.

While Zwingli initiated the Swiss Reformation and inspired Anabaptism, he was no friend of the Anabaptist movement. Zwingli believed that the Anabaptists were too radical and threatened his Reformed Faith movement. In fact, Zwingli was relieved when widespread persecution forced the Anabaptists to leave Zurich in 1527.

The origins of the Anabaptist movement lie primarily with the work of Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel. These men have become known as the fathers of the Anabaptist movement.

Founders of Anabaptism

Below is a table outlining the key figures that influenced Anabaptism.

Ulrich ZwingliFelix ManzConrad Grebel
Born:1 January 1484c.a. 1498c.a. 1498
Died:11 October 15315 January 1527c.a. 1526
Life at a glance:Founder of the Swiss Reformed Church and a key figure in the Reformation movement.Founder of the Swiss Brethren congregation in Zurich.A radical reformer who performed the first adult baptism in modern history.
Significance:— Founded the Reformed Faith in Switzerland.— Believed the Anabaptists were too radical.— Disagreed with adult baptisms.— Fell out with Manz and Grebel over their support of adult baptisms.— Co-founded the Anabaptist movement.— Became the first martyr of the Radical Reformation.— Founded the first church of the Radical Reformation.— Sentenced to death by Zwingli— Co-founded the Anabaptist movement.— Known as the 'ringleader' of the Anabaptist movement.— Wanted to create a church free from government control.— Arrested twice for his Anabaptist views.

Unfortunately, the three men had a falling out over infant baptism. Zwingli supported infant baptism, whereas Manz and Grebel defended adult baptism. The city council of Zurich sided with Zwingli, ordering Manz and Grebel to renounce their views or face arrest.

Anabaptism Ulrich Zwingli StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ulrich Zwingli

Manz and Grebel refused to renounce their views. Such defiance garnered much attention, with a crowd of supporters gathering at Manz's home on 17 January 1525. Among the group of supporters was a young Catholic priest called Georg Blaurock. Blaurock asked Grebel to baptise him; Grebel obliged, and Blaurock, alongside many other supporters, was baptised as an adult. With that, the Anabaptist movement was born.

Anabaptism Beliefs

To understand Anabaptist beliefs, let's look at how they originated in Scripture and how this affects the views and lifestyle of Anabaptists.

Origins of Anabaptist Beliefs

Anabaptists hold a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, viewing it as a set of rules and laws to follow in everyday life.

The Sermon on the Mount

A collection of parables and religious teachings given by Jesus, as recorded in the book of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

While Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther believed the Sermon on the Mount was impossible to obey, Anabaptists viewed the Sermon as the prescriptive framework for day-to-day life. Anabaptists believed the lessons and teachings at the Sermons on the Mount should be taken literally and pursued at all costs.

Anabaptists believed that during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced new teachings and rules to replace the Mosaic Laws.

Mosaic Laws

The Mosaic Laws were the laws that God gave to the Israelites through Moses in the Old Testament.

Anabaptism Mosaic Law StudySmarterFig. 2 - Moses and the Ten Commandments

Anabaptists believed this because each of Jesus' statements in the Sermon on the Mount began with either:

You have heard that it was said...

[or]

You have heard that the ancients were told...

(Matthew. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43)

After this statement, Jesus discussed a Mosaic Law before stating:

But I say to you...

(Matthew. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44)

Consequently, Anabaptists believed that Jesus introduced new laws and ethical rules that replaced Mosaic Law.

Anabaptism The Sermon on the Mount StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Sermon on the Mount

Adhering to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, Anabaptists don't believe in violence, hate, murder, oath-taking, military action, or government participation. Anabaptists see themselves as citizens of God rather than of earthly governments. Placing increased emphasis on the life of Jesus, Anabaptists seek to model their lives around his.

Core Beliefs of Anabaptism

Twelve essential beliefs constitute the Anabaptist religion:

  1. Emphasis on the Bible: Anabaptists place increased stress on the teaching of the Bible, believing the scriptures are the undeniable word of God.
  2. Emphasis on Jesus: Anabaptists focus on the teachings, lessons, and life of Jesus. While many believers find Jesus' commandments challenging to follow, Anabaptists believe these teachings should be followed at all costs.
  3. Adult Baptism: Anabaptists believe in delaying baptism until the person is old enough to confess their faith.
  4. Emphasis on the New Testament: Anabaptists emphasise the importance of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels (Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  5. Discipleship: Anabaptists live their day-to-day lives as disciples of Jesus.
  6. Equality of the Church: Anabaptists set aside distinctions of race, ethnicity, class, and sex.
  7. The Church as a Community: Anabaptists accept the church as a community, believing in mutual aid, fellowship, and worship.
  8. Separation from earthly government: Anabaptists see themselves as citizens of God rather than of earthly governments.
  9. Christian counterculture: Anabaptists view their movement as an alternative community.
  10. Peace as Paramount: Anabaptists disagree with violence in any given situation.
  11. Servanthood: As Jesus was a servant to humankind, Anabaptists believe Christians should serve one another.
  12. Spreading Christianity: Anabaptists believe Christians should go out into the world and teach the word of the Lord.

Development of Anabaptism

Now that we know Anabaptism's origins, let's look at how the new faith developed during the Protestant Reformation.

Schleitheim Confession

In 1527, at a time of intense persecution, a small group of Anabaptists met in the town of Schleitheim, Switzerland. During the meeting, a list of principles was drawn up, outlining the values and rules of the Anabaptist faith. Authored by former Catholic abbot Michael Sattler, the doctrine has come to be known as the Schleitheim Confession.

Anabaptism Schleitheim Confession StudySmarterFig. 4 - Schleitheim Confession

Let's look at an overview of the seven principles of the Schleitheim Confession.

  • Baptism: Baptism for those who consciously repent.
  • Excommunication: Those who fail three times to live a righteous life should be excommunicated.
  • Communion: Only baptised members can participate in communion.
  • Separation from Evil: There can be no participation in organisations that contradict the teachings of Christ.
  • Pastors: Church elders must be good men and will be disciplined if they sin.
  • Pacifism: Violence must not be used.
  • Oaths: Oaths are prohibited.

Expansion of Anabaptism

By 1527, Ulrich Zwingli had shut down the first Anabaptist church in Zollikon, sentenced Felix Manz to death by drowning, and expelled Georg Blaurock from the city. Despite the persecutory efforts of Zwingli, Anabaptism continued to spread. This was primarily down to the work of Blaurock, who preached the Anabaptist message wherever he went.

Anabaptism Expansion StudySmarterFig. 5 - Spread of the early Anabaptists in Central Europe: Purple = Dutch Mennonites, | Blue = German Anabaptists | Green = Swiss Brethren | Orange = Moravian Anabaptists, Wikipedia

Let's look at the spread of Anabaptism through different regions in Europe.

RegionDetails
South GermanyThe wandering bookseller Hans Huth spread the Anabaptist message throughout villages in the South of Germany. Authorities captured Huth in Augsburg and subsequently tortured and killed him.
Moravia (Central Europe)Balthasar Hubmaier converted many Moravians to Anabaptism during the late 1520s. He was arrested and burnt at the stake in 1528, and his wife was drowned in the River Danube. Jacob Hutter took Hubmaier's mantle and set up eighty Anabaptist colonies in Moravia. Arrested in 1536, many of Hutter's followers fled to Poland.
MunsterThe Anabaptists ruled Munster from February 1534 until June 1535; this event has come to be known as the Munster Rebellion.
The NetherlandsLike Munster, there was a large Anabaptist following in the Netherlands. Authorities persecuted them relentlessly, and by the mid-1560s, there were an estimated 3,000 Anabaptist executions.
EnglandThose who fled persecution in the Netherlands ended up in England. Reports indicate that two Anabaptists were burnt at the stake in London as late as 1575.

The Munster Rebellion

In the wake of the German Peasants War (1525), the Anabaptists took control of Munster – a German city of the Holy Roman Emperor. Governing the city from February 1534 and June 1535, this sect of radical Anabaptists sought to establish 'a totalitarian communist theocracy, a ‘New Jerusalem’ located not in the deserts of Palestine, but in the fertile region of Munsterland'.1

After a lengthy siege, Munster was seized by Catholic troops under the leadership of its expelled bishop Franz von Waldeck. Upon gaining control of the city, the Catholics imprisoned and executed the Anabaptist leaders. The Munster Rebellion marked a watershed moment for Anabaptism; the Protestants and Catholics took measures to ensure that the Anabaptists would never again obtain such political power.

Persecution of Anabaptists

Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted the Anabaptists. Here is an excerpt from Lutheran Philip Melanchthon calling for the execution of Anabaptist Heinz Kraut in 1536:

I beg you not to hasten punishment. For I hope that when his master Heinz Kraut, who lies in Jena, and a few other stubborn ones are executed, he will let himself be instructed. On the obstinate ones it is necessary to inflict serious punishment. And even though some may not be otherwise untractable, nevertheless this harmful sect must be resisted, in which there are so many terrible, dangerous errors.2

Melanchthon Philip Melanchthon was a German theologian and Lutheran reformed during the Protestant Reformation. One of Luther's closest companions, Melanchthon was influential in systematising Luther's teachings.

Anabaptism Persecutions StudySmarterFig. 6 - Whipping of an Anabaptist

Anabaptists and Baptists

Here is a brief table outlining the key similarities and differences between the Anabaptists and Baptists.

AnabaptistsBaptists
Founded:16th Century17th Century
Key Figures:Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel.John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Roger Williams
Similar Beliefs:— Adult Baptism.— The separation of Church and State.— The role of the local church in the community.
Different Beliefs:— Pacifism is a must.— Can't run for public office.— Can't be involved in war.— Emphasise the New Testament.— Pacifism is optional.— Can run for public office.— Can be involved in war.— See the Old and New Testaments as equal.

Anabaptism Today

The Anabaptists occupied a unique space in the sphere of the Reformation, utilising Protestant calls for church reform and the peasant movement's desire for social reform. While their contribution to the Reformation is often deemed "radical" and "extremist", it's more accurate to view it as simply a "different approach" to restoring scriptural importance to Christianity.

Such an approach was more brave, direct, and consistent than other Reformist movements, with the movement unafraid to break societal and cultural ties. Historian Hans J. Hillerbrand writes:

It was among the Anabaptists that the Reformation was brought to its proper conclusion, since they under-took the return to Biblical religion with greater consistency than the Reformers, who were half-hearted compromisers without the courage to break with cultural ties and social considerations.4

After the Munster Rebellion, the Anabaptists' influence – as a political force, at the very least – began to decline. Throughout the following centuries, the movement began to splinter into different sects. These included:

Mennonites: Founded by Menno Simons in the 16th century.

Amish: Founded by Jacob Amman in the 17th century.

German Baptist Brethren: Founded by Alexander Mack in the 18th century.

Plymouth Brethren: Founded by J.N. Darby in the 19th century.

Anabaptism Amish StudySmarterFig. 7 - Amish children playing ball

While the Anabaptists' impact on the Reformation is considerable, their influence on modern Christianity is even more significant. Today adult baptism is a common practice and a regular occurrence in many Christian movements. Similarly, religion as a non-violent movement and the predominance of scripture are standard practices among every Christian denomination. While Anabaptism is synonymous with the Radical Reformation, today, the key tenets of their religion are less "radical" and more "rational".

Anabaptism – Key takeaways

  • Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel founded Anabaptism during the Protestant Reformation.
  • The beliefs of Anabaptism originated from the Sermon on the Mount and were transcribed at the Schleitheim Confession.
  • Anabaptists were persecuted throughout the 16th century by Catholics and Protestants alike.
  • Anabaptists are best known for their opposition to infant baptism.
  • Modern-day examples of Anabaptist groups include the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites.

References

  1. Caecilia Jane 'The Munster Rebellion: The Creation of a 16th-century Theocracy', A Historical Miscellany (2015)
  2. Corpus Reformatorum III in Christian Hege 'Moller, Jobst (d. 1536), Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (1957)
  3. Fig 5. 'The Spread of the Anabaptists' by Maximilian Dörrbecker is licensed by (CC BY 2.0)
  4. Hans J. Hillerbrand, 'Anabaptism and the Reformation: Another Look', Church History 29/4 (1960), p. 4.04

Frequently Asked Questions about Anabaptism

Anabaptists delay baptism until the person is old enough to confess his or her faith and follow Scripture literally. They oppose violence and place emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, New Testament, and Jesus' life and teachings.

Modern-day examples of Anabaptist groups include the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. 

Anabaptists are best known for their opposition to infant baptism.

Anabaptists can't run for public office, can't be involved in war, emphasise the New Testament, and are pacifists. Baptists view pacifism as optional, can run for public office, can be involved in war, and see the Old and New Testaments as equal.

Anabaptists use the same Bible as Catholic and Protestant congregations, however, Anabaptists place more emphasis on the New Testament.

Final Anabaptism Quiz

Question

What does Anabaptist mean? 

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Answer

'One who baptises again'

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Question

What year were the Anabaptist's founded?

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Answer

1523

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Question

Who were the founders of Anabaptism?

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Answer

Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel

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Question

What is The Sermon on the Mount?

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Answer

The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of parables and religious teachings given by Jesus, as recorded in the book of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

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Question

Who wrote the Schleitheim Confession?

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Answer

Michael Sattler

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Question

Name one similarity between Anabaptists and Baptists

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Answer

One of: 


— Believed in Adult Baptism
— The separation of Church and State
— The role of the local church in the community


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Question

Who founded the Mennonites?

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Answer

 Menno Simons


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Question

What is the central belief of Anabaptism?

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Answer

Their opposition to infant baptism 

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Question

Which religious movement came first: Anabaptists or Baptists?

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Answer

Anabaptists

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Question

Which city did the Anabaptists take control of in 1534?

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Answer

Munster

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