« Amyraut, Moise Anabaptists Anachorite »



I. The Sober Anabaptists.

In Switzerland (§ 1).

Anabaptist Tenets (§ 2).

In the Netherlands and England (§ 3).

II. The Fanatical Anabaptists.

The Zwickau Prophets (§ 1).

In Strasburg and Münster (§ 2).

The name “Anabaptists” (meaning “Rebaptizers”) was given by their opponents to a party among the Protestants in Reformation times whose distinguishing tenet was opposition to infant baptism, which they held to be unscriptural and therefore not true baptism. They baptized all who joined them; but, according to their belief, this was not a rebaptism as their opponents charged. In opposition to the Church doctrine they held that baptism should be administered only to those who were old enough to express by means of it their acceptance of the Christian faith, and hence, from their point of view, their converts were really baptized for the first time. Another epithet often applied to them was “Catabaptists,” meaning pseudobaptists, as if their baptism were a mockery, and with an implication of drowning, which was considered the appropriate punishment for their conduct and frequently followed their arrest.

In studying this movement the following facts should be borne in mind: (1) The Anabaptists did not invent their rejection of infant baptism, for there have always been parties in the Church which were antipedobaptists (cf. A. H. Newman, History of Antipedobaptism, Philadelphia, 1897). (2) There are two kinds of Anabaptists, the sober and the fanatical. Failure to make this distinction has done mischief and caused modern Baptists to deny their connection with the Baptists of the Reformation, whereas they are the lineal descendants of the sober kind and have no reason to be ashamed of their predecessors. (3) Even among the fanatical Anabaptists there were harmless dreamers; not all the fanatics were ready to establish a Kingdom of the Saints by unsaintly deeds. (4) Information concerning the Anabaptists is largely derived from prejudiced and deficient sources.

I. The Sober Anabaptists:

1. In Switzerland.

These were the product of the Reformation in Switzerland started by Zwingli. Shortly after he began to preach Reformation doctrine in Zurich, in 1519, some of his hearers, very humble persons mostly, gathered in private houses to discuss his sermons, and Zwingli often met with them. He had laid it down as a principle that what is not taught in the Bible is not a law of God for Christians, and had applied this principle to the payment of tithes and the observance of Lent. In 1522 these friends of Zwingli asked him where he found his plain Scripture authorizing infant baptism and whether, according to his principle he was not compelled to give it up. Zwingli, however, though he wavered at first, decided to stand by the Church, arguing that there was fair inferential support in the Bible for the practise, and that it was the Christian substitute for the Jewish rite of circumcision. Over this point an estrangement took place between him and his parishioners. The little company received accessions of a desirable character, and came to include scholars and theologians like Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, who socially and intellectually were the peers of Zwingli’s followers. Hübmaier was a visitor. In 1524 as the result of letters or visits from Thomas Münzer and Andreas Carlstadt they took very decided antipedobaptist positions; but public opinion in Zurich was against162 them, and the magistrates on Jan. 18, 1525, after what was considered the victory of the Church party in a public debate, following many private conferences, ordered that these antipedobaptists present their children for baptism, and made it a law that any parents refusing to have their infant children baptized should be banished. On Jan. 21 they forbade the meetings of the antipedobaptists and banished all foreigners who advocated their views. Shortly after this the antipedobaptists began to practise believers’ baptism. In a company composed entirely of laymen one poured water in the name of the Trinity on other members in succession, after they had expressed a desire to be baptized, and so, as they claimed, they instituted veritable Christian baptism. Like scenes were enacted in other assemblies. It is noteworthy that these first believers’ baptisms were by pouring; immersion was introduced later. Also that in all the lengthy treatises of Zwingli on baptism there is no discussion as to the mode. These early Baptists practised pouring, sprinkling, and immersion as suited their convenience, and did not consider the mode as of much importance.

2. Anabaptist Tenets.

Though infant baptism was the first and the main issue between the Anabaptists and the Church party, there were others of great importance. The former said that only those who had been baptized after confession of faith in Christ constituted a real Church; the latter, that all baptized persons living in a certain district constituted the State Church. The Anabaptists maintained that there should be a separation between the State and the Church; that no Christian should bear arms, take an oath, or hold public office; that there should be complete religious liberty. All this was not in accord with the times; and thus the Anabaptists were considered to be enemies of the standing order, and were treated accordingly. On Sept. 9, 1527, the cantons of Zurich, Bern, and St. Gall united in an edict which may be taken as a specimen of its class. It gives reasons for prosecuting the Anabaptists, which are manifestly prejudiced and even in part false, and then decrees the death by drowning of all of them who are teachers, baptizing preachers, itinerants, leaders of conventicles, or who had once recanted and then relapsed. Foreigners in these cantons associating with the Anabaptists were banished, and if found again were to be drowned. Simple adherents were to be fined. It was made the bounden duty of all good citizens to inform against the Anabaptists (for the full text consult S. M. Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli, New York, 1903, pp. 259-281). Similar laws against the Anabaptists were made and enforced in South Germany, Austria, the Tyrol, the Netherlands, England, and wherever they went. Such treatment suppressed Anabaptism, or at all events, drove it beneath the surface. How ineffectual it was to extinguish it appears from the fact that early in 1537, four Anabaptists from the Netherlands quietly stole into Geneva, and began making converts. John Calvin, who neglected no opportunity to do God service, as he conceived it, got wind of their presence and had them and their seven converts banished by the magistrates (the incident is described by Beza in his life of Calvin, ed. Neander, p. 8; cf. Calvin’s Tracts, Eng. transl., i. xxx.; Doumergue, Jean Calvin, ii. 242; Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, iv. 272). Anabaptists persisted in great numbers in Moravia, the Palatinate, Switzerland, Poland, and elsewhere.

3. In the Netherlands and England.

Only in the Netherlands did the Anabaptists escape persecution, and there they became quite numerous. They were joined in 1538 by a remarkable man, Menno Simons, who organized them and his name has been given to the sect (see Mennonites). From the Netherlands they passed into England; but no sooner did they make converts there than Henry VIII. included them in a decree of banishment, and those who remained he threatened to put to death. Indeed, in 1535 there is record of ten persons who were burned in London and other English towns on the charge of Anabaptism (cf. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. Townsend, v., London, 1843, p. 44). How little this cruel course succeeded is evidenced by the continued presence in England of the Baptist Church.

That among the sober kind of Anabaptists there were unworthy persons, that some of them held visionary views, and that a few may have been goaded into occasional violence of expression, and possibly of conduct, may be accepted as proved; but that they were as a party guilty of the charges brought against them, as in the joint edict mentioned above, is untrue. As a class they were as holy in life as their persecutors; and their leaders, in Biblical knowledge and theological acumen, were no mean antagonists.

II. The Fanatical Anabaptists:

1. The Zwickau Prophets.

The earliest mention of Anabaptism in connection with the Lutheran Reformation is in the spring of 1521 when Niklaus Storch, Markus Stübner, and a third person, who was a weaver, as Storch had been, made their appearance in Wittenberg and sought to convert the professors of its university to their views, which were the familiar Anabaptist ones of opposition to military service, private property, government by those not true Christians, infant baptism, and the oath, together with the novel one that there should be a dissolution of the marriage bond in the cases where there was not agreement between the married couple in religious belief. These views they pressed with great vehemence and no little success. They also claimed to be inspired to make their deliverances. As they came from Zwickau, they are called the Zwickau Prophets. Carlstadt was impressed by them, and characteristically allowed iconoclastic practises in his church. Melanchthon wavered, but Luther, who at the time of their visit was at the Wartburg, was so much stirred by the confusion they induced that he left his seclusion and opposed them stoutly and silenced them by ridicule rather than by arguments.

2. In Strasburg and Münster.

Among the leaders and followers on the peasant side in the Peasants’ war which desolated Germany 163 in 1525, were those who held antipedobaptist views. After the war Strasburg became the center of the Anabaptists and, after 1529, when it was visited by Melchior Hoffmann, “the evil genius of the Anabaptists,” it was the center of their propaganda. Hoffmann united to the usual Anabaptist views, belief in himself as the inspired interpreter of prophecy and as inspired leader generally. He declared that he was one of the “two witnesses” of Rev. xi. 3; that Strasburg was to be the New Jerusalem, and the seat of universal dominion; and that non-resistance might be given up. These views he preached with great effect through East Friesland and the Netherlands, and his followers called themselves “Melchiorites.” After he had been thrown into prison (1533) Jan Matthys, a baker from Haarlem, appeared in Strasburg and claimed to be the other “witness” of the Apocalypse; but he altered the programme by transferring the capital of the kingdom of the saints to Münster, and advocating force in maintaining it. After sending four apostles, one of whom was the notorious John of Leyden, he came thither himself (Feb., 1535), and led a successful revolt against the magistracy and bishop of the city. In Apr., 1535 he was killed and was succeeded by John of Leyden who caused himself to be proclaimed king, and declared polygamy to be the law of the kingdom. Meanwhile the city was besieged by the expelled bishop aided by the neighboring princes and by the imperial troops. If half that is said to have gone on within the city be true (the reports come from very prejudiced sources), fanaticism was there the order of the day. Hence the defense was lax, owing to dependence on divine power to work deliverance. Nevertheless, the siege lasted many months, and treachery within rather than assaults without at last opened the gates on June 25, 1535 (see Münster, Anabaptists In). The fanatical Anabaptists were universally taken as typical, and to this day when Anabaptism is mentioned it is supposed to be the equivalent of absurd interpretation of Scripture, blasphemous assumption, and riotous indecency. Münster was, however, only the culminating point of fanaticism engendered by persecution, and Anabaptism in itself, strictly interpreted, is not responsible for it.

Bibliography: The sources are the writings of Anabaptists, the official records of proceedings against them, and the writings of their opponents. Of the extensive literature, the following works may be mentioned: C. W. Bouterwek, Zur Litteratur und Geschichte der Wiedertäufer, Bonn, 1864; C. A. Cornelius, Die niederländischen Wiedertäufer, Munich, 1869; E. Egli, Die Züricher Wiedertäufer, Zurich, 1878; idem, Die St. Gallen Wiedertäufer, 1887; H. S. Burrage, History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland, New York, 1882; L. Keller, Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien, Leipsic, 1885; R. Nitsche, Geschichte der Wiedertäufer in der Schweiz, Einsiedeln, 1885; J. Loserth, Der Anabaptismus in Tirol, Vienna, 1892; idem, Der Kommunismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer, 1894; K. Kautsky, Der Kommunismus im Mittelalter im Zietalter der Reformation, Stuttgart, 1894, Eng. transl., Communion in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, London, 1897; H. Lüdemann, Reformation und Täufertum in ihrem Verhältnis zum christlichen Princip, Bern, 1896; R. Heath, Anabaptism from its Rise at Zwickau to 1536, London, 1895; E. Müller, Geschichte der bernischen Täufer, Frauenfeld, 1895; K. Rembert, Die Wiedertäufer im Herzogtum Jülich, Berlin, 1899; G. Trumbült, Die Wiedertäufer, in Monographien zur Weltgeschichte, vii., Leipsic, 1899; E. C. Pike, The Story of the Anabaptists, in Eras of Nonconformity, London, 1904; the biographies of Anabaptist leaders, especially that of Balthasar Hübmaier, by H. C. Vedder, New York, 1905, and works on the Reformation. See also the works mentioned in the article, Münster, Anabaptists In.

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