The Anabaptist creed emphasised the premise that Bible truth was accessible even to secular readers and listeners with only a rudimentary education.
The Anabaptists are sometimes called the third wing of the Reformation. In the 16th century, when the Reformation took place, the two main groups that resulted from it were the Lutheran and Reformed churches.
However, some followers of these two groups felt that the rift with Rome was not total. The early Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525. Three men, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, along with a few others, started their own movement.
The most important point of contention between these leaders and other reformers was their position against infant baptism. The new movement boldly rebaptized adult believers who had been baptized as infants. For this reason, they were called “anabaptists” or “rebaptised” by their enemies. However, the group was identified internally by the term “brethren”, a name retained by the Anabaptist churches in Switzerland to this day.
Members included Heinli Aberli (baker), Hans Offenfuss (tailor), Wolf Ininger (carpenter), and Lorenz Hochrütiner (weaver). Although in the beginning Zwingli encouraged them to exercise their enthusiasm to pressure the authorities in Zurich to change the law regarding the Catholic liturgy, the Anabaptists later became a source of embarrassment for the reformer.
The Swiss government/church saw the brethren as a threat because they preached against infant baptism. Therefore, they tried to destroy the movement. Anabaptists, and also those associated with them were tortured, imprisoned, and exiled. In 1527, some of the brethren were sentenced to death.
The Anabaptists sought refuge in other countries, but wherever they went, church-controlled governments sought to destroy them. For 300 years, the Swiss government campaigned against the brethren without success. To this day, there are still brethren churches in Switzerland.
In other countries, the Anabaptists were not able to resist so well. In South Germany and Austria, the brethren were forced to flee. Only one branch of the church of the brethren, the Hutterites, lasted until the end of the 18th century, when they were forced to emigrate to Russia.
The persecution of the Anabaptists was widespread and was led by both the governments of the Roman Catholic countries and the governments of the Lutheran and Reformed countries. Henry VII executed many Anabaptists in England and it is estimated that almost 80% of the executions under Mary I were of Anabaptists.
The most important reason for this persecution was the position taken by the Anabaptists against the baptism of children.
When they insisted on the invalidity of infant baptism, the Anabaptists began to be seen as a danger to the unity and harmony of society. “They baptized one another and in the same moment commissioned each other to build Christ’s church on earth.”
In 1536, a Catholic priest named Menno Simons converted to the Anabaptist faith. Menno Simons began to have doubts about the Catholic faith in his first year of the priesthood, in 1525. To resolve these doubts, he began reading the New Testament for the first time in his life. Simons had never read the Scriptures before. Since he believed that the Catholic Church was infallible, he had followed what the Roman Church had taught him.
Upon reading the Holy Scriptures, Simon began to discover that the doctrines he believed to be true were not present in the Scriptures. His conversion was not sudden, but occurred after years of study and prayer. Menno Simons’s influence was so great that the brethren became known as Mennists and later Mennonites. At the end of the 18th century, the Mennonites were divided into two main groups, the Amish and the Mennonites. The Amish, under the leadership of Jacob Amman, left the Mennonites because of what they perceived to be a lack of discipline in the Mennonite Church.
At the beginning of the 18th century, many Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Amish emigrated to the New World. Pennsylvania was the first stop of the Anabaptist settlers, but they soon spread to Delaware, New York, Ohio, and many other American states.
Today, there are over one million members of Mennonite churches worldwide. It is also estimated that there are about 134,000 adult members of the Amish communities.
The Anabaptist creed
From a hermeneutic perspective, the Anabaptists emphasized not only the principle of Sola Scriptura, but also the premise that the truth of the Bible was accessible to lay readers and listeners with only a rudimentary education.
The Anabaptists adhered unreservedly to the Apostolic Creed and the Nicene Creed. They agreed with the Reformers on the doctrine of God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, human depravity, being born again, and the literal return of the Lord Jesus. However, their biblical hermeneutics on infant baptism and the fallen nature of humanity set them apart from the Reformers. These two teachings led both Catholics and Protestants to condemn them as heretics and to persecute them harshly.
From an ethical point of view, the Anabaptists argued that every Christian should live according to the Sermon on the Mount. In the theological literature of the time, this passage was seen as a utopia, the principles of which could be followed only in the atmosphere of heaven. The difference with the opposition was obvious.
The Anabaptists did not place so much emphasis on the intellectual dimension of biblical theology. For them discipleship was the essence of Christianity.
No one can claim to be a Christian unless they are a disciple of Christ. The perspective of discipleship entailed the existence of discipline in the ecclesiastical framework, an aspect that did not exist in the Protestant churches of that time. In the Anabaptist view, discipline is done primarily in the context of preaching the Word of God through rebuke, correction, encouragement, and, last but not least, through discipline itself. Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-20 and that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 were the foundation for the Anabaptist practice of church discipline.
In terms of their relationship with society, they set out to rebuild apostolic Christianity. Loving their enemies, doing good, and praying for them meant enduring evil, even death, rather than seeking justice or revenge. They were convinced that these teachings applied to all human relationships, not just during war.
The Anabaptists accepted the fallen nature of humans and the need for justification by faith. The belief that human nature is fallen has led them to be reluctant to get involved in public life.
1. Refusal to participate in forms of government: The Anabaptists believed that there were two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. The Kingdom of the World is characterized by fighting and war, aspects in which the government (the magistracy) is also involved. Belonging to the Kingdom of God means promoting peace.
2. Refusal to take the oath: At that time, the oath was linked to loyalty to political authority, especially in time of war. The refusal to take the oath led to the persecution of Anabaptists suspected of rebellion.
3. Refusal to participate in war: The Anabaptists argued that people could not come to the truth through violence and murder. One can only work with patience, love, and kindness in the Kingdom of God.
4. Insistence on religious freedom: The Anabaptists insisted on freedom of faith, which is the way of Jesus in ministry.
The Anabaptists’ attachment to the Bible, their desire to translate its principles into real life, and their determination to keep the faith even at the cost of martyrdom made this movement a major milestone in the process of recovering Scripture in church and society. Although most of their teachings were legitimate interpretations of Scripture, the perception of their radicalism was due to their attempt to hasten the reform within Christianity.
The Bible describes the lengthy process by which God intended to form and reform the people of Israel. The Protestant Reformation still had many problems to solve. Perhaps the initiators of Anabaptism would have been more successful if they had given society time to assimilate and better understand the theological and social reforms they proposed.
Marius Mitrache believes that the Anabaptist movement continued the theological reform, recovering some of the other basic biblical teachings.