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Who Are the Anabaptists and What Can We Learn from Them?

Who are the Anabaptists, and what can we learn from them?

To understand the Anabaptists, it is helpful to see their story in the larger context of church history. When I teach church history, I simplify it by using game board pieces to make it easy to remember:

  1. Thimble: The Monopoly thimble represents the early church up against persecution (think sharp metal objects like needles) and yet driving the opposition back.
  2. King: The chess king represents the church under Emperor Constantine.
  3. Iron: The iron is the season when the church ironed out some core theology during councils.
  4. Knight: The chess knight symbolizes the invasion of barbarians which brought down the western half of the empire and initiated the Dark Ages.
  5. Bishop: The chess bishop is the pope, whose leadership during the dark times cemented his supremacy.
  6. Checker: The checker is the “Holy Roman Empire,” initiated when the pope crowned Charlemagne (“King me.”).
  7. Rook: The chess rook, which can only go two directions, represents the two directions the church split, when West and East finally separated in the “Great Schism.”
  8. Top Hat: The Monopoly top hat stands for the growing prominence, then pride, then pragmatism of the church hierarchy.
  9. Pawn: The chess pawn symbolizes the Reformation which ordained the common Christian a priest.
  10. Ship: The Monopoly ship is for the discoveries of the New World, a world which Catholic and Protestant missionaries would largely convert.
  11. Dice: Dice is for the emergence of new philosophies of chance, like Darwinism, which cast doubt on there being a divine purpose behind everything.
  12. Shoe: Finally, the Monopoly shoe stands for the church which continues to march on.

“The chess pawn symbolizes the Reformation which ordained the common Christian a priest.”


The problem with the simplicity of the 12 steps is that, in actuality, numbers 6-9 seem to actually happen twice. The first time, pope crowns emperor (checker), church splits in two (rook), pope enjoys prestige (top hat), and Reformation champions common man (pawn). The second time follows on the heels of the first and rushes through them much more quickly. The reformers soon began “kinging” their own alliances with princes and city councils (checker). Meanwhile, the Protestants split into their own divisions (rook). Alliances invited new Protestant prestige (top hat).

Not surprisingly, the new powers made for new pawns. Protestants proudly remember the German Diet of Speyer in 1529 as when Protestant princes boldly stood up to the Holy Roman Emperor and successfully protested the religious persecution against them. That is the Diet from which the movement derived its name “Protestant.” Yet it is also the Diet at which both Catholic powers and new Protestant powers joined together against a new band of pawns.[1] Politics had successfully aligned itself with the Reformation, as it had with Rome, and, yet again, a formerly persecuted minority all too quickly forgot what persecution had been like. Lutherans, Calvinists, and Zwinglians removed their “pawn” labels and hung them around the necks of a group called Anabaptists.

Reformation Radicals

In Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli himself had originally agreed with the Anabaptists. Would not it be more meaningful to wait to baptize the child until the child has a say in the matter? As the initiation into the body of believers, shouldn’t baptism be something voluntary if it is to mean anything? However, Zwingli knew that to continue to hold such a stance would alienate the powerful and threaten the church-state relationship. So Zwingli decided that the alliance was worth the compromise.[2]

Meanwhile, the “rebaptizers” (Anabaptists) were fine with bypassing an alliance they did not believe should exist in the first place. Furthermore, they were not rebaptizers anyway, because baptizing a disinterested infant wasn’t exactly, well, baptism.[3] They simply preferred to call themselves “brethren.”[4] The brethren were convinced that to join the church should be a choice, and a weighty one at that.

So, in 1524, when the Conrad Grebel family was blessed with a baby boy, they had a somber decision to make. Should they follow Zurich’s custom and baptize their infant? Seeing infant baptism nowhere in Scripture, the Grebels refused, their stance encouraging other families to do the same.


Who are the Anabaptists? “The ‘rebaptizers’ (Anabaptists) were fine with bypassing an alliance they did not believe should exist in the first place.”


Then came 1525. On January 17, the Zurich city council decreed that all families with unbaptized children would baptize them within the week or be banished from Zurich. Four days later, the night of January 21, these families made their decision at Felix Manz’s house, where they decided it was time to sever themselves from the church of their city council.[5] Though sprinkled as infants, they walked to the city square under nightfall and baptized each other in the city square’s fountain. Former priest George Blaurock was baptized first.[6] Then they withdrew to the neighboring village of Zollikon.[7]

Persecution Against the Anabaptists

Quite the riotous mob. And yet the authorities were determined to stamp them out. Where bad scriptural arguments failed (e.g., Luther contended that infants can believe—remember John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb?[8]), perhaps the pressure applied by the church-state alliance could work. But just as the Anabaptists had searched the Scriptures for infant baptism and come up empty, so with the church-state alliance.

To them, the point of infant baptism was to sustain an unbiblical Christendom.[9] So they felt the threat was only human. By making membership “opt-in,”[10]  Anabaptists were dangerous not on account of their biblical interpretation but rather for their subversion of the clean-cut social order which baptized babies into the state church.[11]

Unsurprisingly, the move to Zollikon proved to be flimsy protection. Zurich’s city council sent police who threw the newly baptized dissenters in jail. But apparently protection was the last thing on their minds, since upon their release they immediately scattered to neighboring towns to baptize more people. Aware they were losing control, the Zurich council decided jail was not only too ineffective but also too lenient. It had also tried fines and exile, but to no use.[12]

Meanwhile, in 1525, Catholic areas of Switzerland had already begun executing Anabaptists.[13] So, on March 7, 1526, the council decreed that, in cruel parody, anyone caught rebaptizing was to be drowned. In 1527, Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist martyr to be killed by Protestants; he was publicly drowned in the Limmat, a river flowing through Zurich.[14] In 1528, Balthasar Hubmaier, a leader of the German Anabaptists, was banished to Moravia where he was burned at the stake and his wife was drowned.[15]


Who are the Anabaptists? “On March 7, 1526, the council decreed that, in cruel parody, anyone caught rebaptizing was to be drowned.”


In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, Anabaptists were sentenced to execution throughout the Holy Roman Empire, with the joint approval of Lutherans and Catholics. The mandate condemned these “pseudo-preachers, instigators, vagabonds, and tumultuous inciters” to capital punishment wherein they would “by no means be shown mercy.”[16] Blaurock, the first to be baptized, was among those burned at the stake in 1529. The extent of the persecution? All over Europe during its Reformation years, between 4,000 and 5,000 Anabaptists were executed by fire, water, and sword.[17]

The Value of It All

Did their resistance work? Perhaps it did from a telescoped perspective, for many of their beliefs went underground for a time and reemerged later in some prominent pockets as self-evident Christian doctrines (e.g., distinction between church and state, believer’s baptism).[18]

In their time, however, the early Anabaptists did not win. One is reminded of Dirk Willemsz, the Dutch Anabaptist who escaped prison and was pursued by a policeman. When the policeman fell into the ice, Dirk doubled back to rescue him, only to be recaptured and burned at the stake.[19] Though some fringe Anabaptists responded to marginalization with force (e.g., the ones who took over Munster, Germany, decreed polygamy, and waited for the millennium), the authorities were, in general, persecuting peace-loving pacifists.[20] Perhaps their refusal to fight back ought to have made the powers reconsider their harshness, but their pacifism became instead one more reason to hate them for their societal subversions.

The truth is, Anabaptists were basically wiped out of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. They did better in Eastern Europe, ironically perhaps best of all in Ottoman-controlled regions.[21] They survive today as Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterites,[22] yet survive is nearly too strong a verb for them during those Reformation years. Did it work? Hardly.


Who are the Anabaptists? “Anabaptists were basically wiped out of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.”


Unless we are asking which way of doing church does the best job of revealing the real person. When it came to drawing the real person into full devotion to Jesus, the Anabaptists were the clear winners. If the goal is a gospel that transforms you, it was their faith that worked.

Is a church that chases you out of town for not joining their cchurch really living the tough path Jesus spoke of, where “the gate is narrow and the way is hard” (Matt. 7:14)? It certainly takes the barbs out of belief to persecute you for not believing. It seems that the real you—whether unbelieving or immoral at core—calmly escapes detection under a tangle of establishment and ease.

On the other hand, sure, it is risky to allow your child to grow up and make the decision whether or not to join, but it is also real. It is the type of Christianity one would expect Jesus to value. Society would value it as well, if it knew what was best for it. For, unhinged from society’s civil religions and unearthed from under society’s regalia, such Christians can view things from a transcendent perspective, unhindered for society’s renewal.


Who are the Anabaptists? “Such Christians can view things from a transcendent perspective, unhindered for society’s renewal.”


Soren Kierkegaard and the State Church

For centuries, the state-church alliance would triumph in Europe. Still donning the top hat, state churches enjoyed luxury and got lazy. In the 19th century, the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (not an Anabaptist, though there are similarities of conviction) became convinced that the Danish state church he had grown up in had become too watered down to even be called “Christian.” There was no life in this polite moralism which no longer took its own beliefs seriously. Kierkegaard maintained that, for the sake of honesty, the church ought to admit that it was offering something besides Christianity.[23]

Above all, it was the “Christianity” of philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that made Kierkegaard’s toes curl. Perplexing as Hegel’s philosophical-theological system was, one problem was easy to spot. Hegel’s system confused what should remain very separate categories: God and humans. To Kierkegaard, this fusion of their identities not only demeaned God by confusing him with sordid company, but it demeaned humans as well by taking away their individuality.

When a person stops being an individual, by merging with the state or humanity or Hegel’s “Objective Spirit,” something precious—the real person—is lost.[24] Moreover, God is no longer a mystery. And where there is no mystery, belief in God becomes easy, even inevitable. Merged with creaturehood, God can be laid before us, stretched out, and dissected so that nothing remains ambiguous. When God is no longer “other,” then “knowing God” no longer requires anything but a yawn.


“There was no life in this polite moralism which no longer took its own beliefs seriously.”


Where is the real, authentic, willful Christian? A person on the list of official members can drowsily assent to a list of official beliefs, but that hardly makes one a Christian. Someone can merge with God via a philosophical theology, but that hardly makes one godly. The individual, the real person, is lost in all this foggy automation. How pitiable to be “the man who drifts with the crowd, who merges himself in the anonymous One.”[25] On the other hand, according to Kierkegaard, authentic existence demands passionate choice. Real living is “a willed self-commitment of the whole man.”[26]

The real God makes real living possible. For he always has an “otherness” about him. (And, true, Kierkegaard took the “otherness” of God so far that he obscured God’s nearness. I don’t agree with him that the gulf is so wide that we must take a completely blind leap of faith to believe in him. Rather, God has given us plenty of clues that make faith in God reasonable.) The unmistakable otherness of God fills the human heart with wonder, and this wonder presents that heart with a choice: follow or remain unperturbed in bland pseudo-existence.

Without otherness and wonder, there is no choice: people simply believe what they are told, whether by authorities or creeds or their own self-evident certainties they cannot help. Where there is neither otherness in God nor wonder about him, a coercive certainty fills the void and smothers passionate choice. An entirely comprehensible God asks for no more than apathetic assent. Where all questions are pre-answered, no choice is left. One merely assents to what is obvious.


“Without otherness and wonder, there is no choice: people simply believe what they are told, whether by authorities or creeds or their own self-evident certainties they cannot help.”


The Lesson of Job

Kierkegaard and the Anabaptists teach us the same lesson, the lesson of Job. The real Job was revealed when everything was taken away. At the end of the book, we see the real person as he stands, just himself, before God.

The Anabaptists cleared away baby baptisms meant for effortless assimilation and political protections meant for extra reinforcement. They just wanted to be the people of God standing directly under the Word of God. Though the officials tried to make the Anabaptists look weak by drowning and burning them, it was clearly the other way around, for the state church admitted it was too weak to suppress them except by cowardly violence. Against the backdrop of mediated Christianity, Anabaptist resolve showed us something valuable.

Kierkegaard cleared away a coddled church’s security blanket, a vague moralism set up between it and God that blurred the distinction between the two. No, maintained Kierkegaard. God is other. We are finite. No machinery of state church or philosophical theology is capable of mass-producing instant Christians. Individuals become Christian when they intentionally commit themselves entirely to Jesus. Against the backdrop of mitigated Christianity, Kierkegaard’s resolve showed us something valuable.

And the thing of value they showed us is this: Amid officials blending church and state or philosophers blending God and humans, we follow Christ most authentically when it’s a cost-counting choice and not a seamless, automated process.


“Amid officials blending church and state or philosophers blending God and humans, we follow Christ most authentically when it’s a cost-counting choice and not a seamless, automated process.”


That is what makes us pause and ponder the beauty of Job’s stubborn commitment to a God he couldn’t feel, of Kierkegaard’s fear-and-trembling faith, and of the Anabaptists’ somber decision to baptize in the very waters they might someday be drowned in.


[1] George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Truman State University Press, 1992), 358-359.

[2] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries: a History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), 305.

[3] John H. Yoder and Alan Kreider, “The Anabaptists,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 401.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christian: the Reformation to the Present Day, vol. 2 (New York: HarperOne, 2014), Kindle edition.

[5] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 250.

[6] Gonzalez.

[7] Shelley, 250

[8] Philip Schaff, Modern Christianity: the German Reformation Modern Christianity the German Reformation, vol. 7 of History of the Christian Church, Accordance electronic ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910).

[9] Shelley, 248.

[10] Peter Marshall, The Reformation: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Kindle edition.

[11] Gonzalez.

[12] Cairns, 306.

[13] Gonzalez.

[14] Shelley, 250-251.

[15] Cairns, 306.

[16] Williams, 359.

[17] Shelley, 251.

[18] Yoder and Kreider, 403-404

[19] Nanne van der Zijpp, “Dirk Willemsz (d. 1569),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1956, accessed August 21, 2015, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dirk_Willemsz_%28d._1569%29.

[20] Yoder and Kreider, 403.

[21] Marshall.

[22] Cairns, 305.

[23] Frederick Copleston, Fichte to Nietzsche, in A History of Philosophy, Book Three (New York: An Image Book, 1985), 339.

[24] Copleston, 340-341.

[25] Copleston, 347.

[26] Copleston, 341.

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