Probably no group in Christian history has been so unfairly judged as the Anabaptists.
The early reformers referred to them as monsters. Yet the Christian world has been profoundly shaped by the doctrine and religious practices of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists advocated a complete reformation, going further than the early reformers in accepting biblical truths.
The name Anabaptists comes from their concept of baptism—”the rebaptised”—ana meaning “again” or “the second time.” The Anabaptist movement has its origins in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and is, in fact, the radical wing of the Reformation. Most historians place the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, in the Swiss Brethren movement led by Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and others. They were dissatisfied with Swiss reformer Zwingli, whom they regarded as a man of half-measures, because although he introduced the Reformation in Zurich, he refused to impose the changes demanded by the Word of God.
The Anabaptists were pioneers in many areas of religious and social life through the biblical teachings they spread. They can be seen as the forerunners of all later religious movements that took a stand against paedobaptism. The seriousness and vigour of their protest against infant baptism is one of the hallmarks of the Anabaptist movement. At first, they practised baptism by sprinkling, but later adopted baptism by immersion.
They were also the first major religious movement to proclaim the principle of separation of church and state. The state had no right to interfere in matters of conscience. The doctrine of religious liberty, adopted and expanded by many churches over time, was a fundamental principle of the Anabaptists.
Most Anabaptists declared themselves pacifists, considering war, even in defence of the country, to be contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, and were willing to suffer death rather than bear arms. They rejected the public oath, and the death penalty was considered anti-Christian. Certain branches of the Anabaptist movement (the Hutterites) practised a communal way of life modelled on the early church.
Through their teachings, the Anabaptists had a strong influence, especially on the Puritans, Baptists, and Quakers. The Anabaptist movement is the spiritual ancestor of the modern Mennonite (descendants of Meno Simon in the Netherlands), Amish, and Hutterite churches around the world. Their radical teachings attracted persecution from the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans, and followers of Zwingli. The first Anabaptist martyr was Felix Manz, who was drowned in a river in 1527, the method of execution a cruel travesty of the act of baptism.
Following persecution, Anabaptists from Zurich emigrated to southern Germany and Moravia (Czech Republic), where they established strong communities. The leading representative of German Anabaptists in Moravia was Baltazar Hubmayer, who succeeded in transforming the Lutheran church in Nikolsburg into an Anabaptist congregation. Thousands of other Anabaptist refugees settled here and established several strong congregations.
However, the “Patriarch of Nikolsburg” was handed over to the Austrian authorities, who burned him at the stake in Vienna in 1528 and drowned his wife in the Danube. In 1529, the Edict of Speyer outlawed the Anabaptists. It made it the duty of both Catholics and Protestants to kill them wherever they were found, after the most summary trial possible.
The increase in persecution of the Anabaptists can be explained mainly by the existence of extremist groups within the movement. Thomas Müntzer, a fanatical Anabaptist, started the German Peasants’ War in 1525, which killed over 100,000 people. Jan Matis and Johann Leyden proclaimed Münster the new Jerusalem and established a theocratic state. Lutherans and Catholics fled. After more than a year of siege, the city was recaptured by Catholic forces, who unleashed a veritable massacre. It was almost universally agreed that the fanaticism in Münster was the result of Anabaptist doctrine.
Yet these radical extremists did not represent the Anabaptist movement, which had made an important contribution and impact on Christianity. The Anabaptists were willing to go deeper than Martin Luther, Zwingli or Calvin in discovering and confessing biblical truths, even if this led many to martyrdom. It is to this vibrant and important branch of Christian thought that we owe, among other things, the notion of religious freedom that is so important today.