The Anabaptists were a group of radical religious reformists formed in Switzerland who suffered violent persecution by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.
- Explain why the Anabaptists were ostracized by much of Europe
- Anabaptists are Christians who believe in delaying baptism until the candidate confesses his or her faith in Christ, as opposed to being baptized as an infant.
- Anabaptists were heavily persecuted during the 16th century and into the 17th century by both Protestants and Roman Catholics, including being drowned and burned at the stake.
- Anabaptists were often in conflict with civil society because part of their belief was to follow scripture at all costs, no matter the wishes of secular authority.
- Continuing persecution in Europe was largely responsible for the mass emigrations to North America by Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, some of the major branches of Anabaptists.
- Magisterial ProtestantsA phrase that names the manner in which the Lutheran and Calvinist reformers related to secular authorities, such as princes, magistrates, or city councils; opposed to the Radical Protestants.
- infant baptismThe practice of baptizing infants or young children, sometimes contrasted with what is called “believer’s baptism,” which is the religious practice of baptizing only individuals who personally confess faith in Jesus.
- Ulrich ZwingliA leader of the Reformation in Switzerland who clashed with the Anabaptists.
Anabaptism is a Christian movement that traces its origins to the Radical Reformation in Europe. Some consider this movement to be an offshoot of European Protestantism, while others see it as distinct.
Anabaptists are Christians who believe in delaying baptism until the candidate confesses his or her faith in Christ, as opposed to being baptized as an infant. The Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites are direct descendants of the movement. Schwarzenau Brethren, Bruderhof, and the Apostolic Christian Church are considered later developments among the Anabaptists.
The name Anabaptist means “one who baptizes again.” Their persecutors named them this, referring to the practice of baptizing persons when they converted or declared their faith in Christ, even if they had been “baptized” as infants. Anabaptists required that baptismal candidates be able to make a confession of faith that was freely chosen, and so rejected baptism of infants. The early members of this movement did not accept the name Anabaptist, claiming that infant baptism was not part of scripture and was therefore null and void. They said that baptizing self-confessed believers was their first true baptism. Balthasar Hubmaier wrote:
I have never taught Anabaptism…But the right baptism of Christ, which is preceded by teaching and oral confession of faith, I teach, and say that infant baptism is a robbery of the right baptism of Christ.
Anabaptists were heavily persecuted during the 16th century and into the 17th century because of their views on the nature of baptism and other issues, by both Magisterial Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Anabaptists were persecuted largely because of their interpretation of scripture that put them at odds with official state church interpretations and government. Most Anabaptists adhered to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which precluded taking oaths, participating in military actions, and participating in civil government. Some who practiced re-baptism, however, felt otherwise, and complied with these requirements of civil society. They were thus technically Anabaptists, even though conservative Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites, and some historians, tend to consider them as outside of true Anabaptism.
Spread of the Anabaptists 1525–1550 in Central Europe
After starting in Switzerland, Anabaptism spread to Tyrol (modern-day Austria), South Germany, Moravia, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Anabaptism in Switzerland began as an offshoot of the church reforms instigated by Ulrich Zwingli. As early as 1522 it became evident that Zwingli was on a path of reform preaching when he began to question or criticize such Catholic practices as tithes, the mass, and even infant baptism. Zwingli had gathered a group of reform-minded men around him, with whom he studied classical literature and the scriptures. However, some of these young men began to feel that Zwingli was not moving fast enough in his reform. The division between Zwingli and his more radical disciples became apparent in an October 1523 disputation held in Zurich. When the discussion of the mass was about to be ended without making any actual change in practice, Conrad Grebel stood up and asked “what should be done about the mass?” Zwingli responded by saying the council would make that decision. At this point, Simon Stumpf, a radical priest from Hongg, answered, saying, “The decision has already been made by the Spirit of God.”
This incident illustrated clearly that Zwingli and his more radical disciples had different expectations. To Zwingli, the reforms would only go as fast as the city council allowed them. To the radicals, the council had no right to make that decision, but rather the Bible was the final authority on church reform. Feeling frustrated, some of them began to meet on their own for Bible study. As early as 1523, William Reublin began to preach against infant baptism in villages surrounding Zurich, encouraging parents to not baptize their children.
The council ruled in this meeting that all who refused to baptize their infants within one week should be expelled from Zurich. Since Conrad Grebel had refused to baptize his daughter Rachel, born on January 5, 1525, the council decision was extremely personal to him and others who had not baptized their children. Thus, when sixteen of the radicals met on Saturday evening, January 21, 1525, the situation seemed particularly dark.
At that meeting Grebel baptized George Blaurock, and Blaurock in turn baptized several others immediately. These baptisms were the first “re-baptisms” known in the movement. This continues to be the most widely accepted date posited for the establishment of Anabaptism.
Anabaptism then spread to Tyrol (modern-day Austria), South Germany, Moravia, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, resorting to torture and execution in attempts to curb the growth of the movement. The Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute the Anabaptists, with Felix Manz becoming the first martyr in 1527. On May 20, 1527, Roman Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler. King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) “the best antidote to Anabaptism.” The Tudor regime, even the Protestant monarchs (Edward VI of England and Elizabeth I of England), persecuted Anabaptists, as they were deemed too radical and therefore a danger to religious stability. The persecution of Anabaptists was condoned by ancient laws of Theodosius I and Justinian I that were passed against the Donatists, which decreed the death penalty for any who practiced re-baptism. Martyrs Mirror, by Thieleman J. van Braght, describes the persecution and execution of thousands of Anabaptists in various parts of Europe between 1525 and 1660. Continuing persecution in Europe was largely responsible for the mass emigrations to North America by Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.
Burning of an Anabaptist
The burning of a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist, Anneken Hendriks, who was charged by the Spanish Inquisition with heresy.