Anabaptists: Separate By Choice, Marginal By Force(1)

by Elizabeth Scott

Bachelor of Arts, History
College of Wooster, Wooster, OH
Master of Arts in Religion
Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT
Master of Science in Library and Information Science
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY



(* For the purposes of this study, the term "Anabaptist" is used as a descriptive term for the group of people who are best known to history for their practice of adult baptism. It is not meant to be a definitive term for their beliefs, nor is it meant to imply that there was any sort of coherent grouping among those people it is describing.)

The Anabaptists* of central Europe evolved in a time of social and religious chaos, developed unique ideas concerning the church and state, and retained a wildly radical view of society. They maintained this posture not only through serious persecutions at their beginnings, but retain many of these differences up through the present day.

Who the Anabaptists were and what made them into a recognizable group have remained difficult questions to answer, despite varied scholarship in recent years.

The Anabaptist beginnings have been linked to both medieval heresies and the medieval church by modern scholars, which helps little in answering the questions of who they were and what kept them together.

Their main impulse seems to have been a restitution of a New Testament church, which has become one of the most recognizable attributes of the Anabaptists since Franklin Littell's work on the subject, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, first appeared.

Some of their most well known teachings, such as the teachings on the Sword and the Ban, have been looked at by such scholars as James Stayer with this idea in mind.

Other attributes of the Anabaptists, especially those which marked their place in Reformation society, have also been the subjects of recent studies, such as Claus-Peter Clasen's A Social History of Anabaptism.

As these, and some other studies note, the Anabaptists were trying to revive what they perceived to be a New Testament church through a wide variety of teachings and actions.

Yet the Anabaptists, although always insistent on the New Testament church model, were undergoing many mundane problems only partially associated with the restitution of the early church.

Among the problems facing the Anabaptists, some of the most pressing illuminate the impact that Anabaptism held during the early years of the Reformation.

The teachings and way of life of the Anabaptists, according to the Anabaptists themselves, were merely ways of trying to reinstate the true church, a church of true believers. It did not seem this way to the Magisterial Reformers or to the Roman Church, however. It was those very teachings and acts that made the Anabaptists into the object of numerous persecutions at the hands of both church and state.

The dialogues and discussions between the Anabaptists and the Magisterial Reformers show some of the main differences between the groups, while the reactions of both the Roman Church and society to the Anabaptists show that their teachings and manner of living did affect the greater society. Many of these effects are reflected in the historiography of the Anabaptists, which is largely hostile to them and their teachings.

It remains one of the largest problems in modern scholarship to separate the hostility of their biographers from the circumstances of Anabaptist existence.

This problem in scholarship, which helps in illuminating how marginal the Anabaptists were from their beginnings, leaves many questions for the less hostile scholars to discern. Where did the Anabaptist impulse for separatism come from?

Was it Reformation society that forced the Anabaptists to become a community of separatists, or was it the Anabaptists and their teachings that had a bigger effect? The impulse to join and remain within a society of martyrs is certainly hard to pinpoint. According to the most recent scholars, the Anabaptists had enough unique teachings to exclude them from the churches, especially as most of these teachings were hostile to the churches.

But the Anabaptists also remained a small sect while other reformers and their churches grew in huge numbers. In turn, this helped in reasserting the differences between the Anabaptists and others.

This marginalization of the Anabaptists by Reformation society, as a result of the very teachings which forced them to be separate, served to limit the impact of the Anabaptists.

Anabaptist Teachings and Controversy

Anabaptism, according to Franklin Littell, is an inaccurate term to describe the groups in question. Anabaptism officially means re-baptizes, yet the group of people who have come to be known as Anabaptists never considered that any rebaptism took place. They instead refuted the entire concept of infant baptism.(1)

Still, they have become known as Anabaptists as a result of the adult baptisms which they practiced. The differences between they and other reformers lies much deeper than the outward sign of baptism, however. The Anabaptists were much more concerned with the restitution of the true church on an apostolic model than with any other sort of reform.(2)

This desire for a change in emphasis from an external, evaluative church to one steeped in inward authority was the main cause of dissension between the Anabaptists and their contemporaries.(3)

The Anabaptists were first treated as a movement, per se, following the baptisms of George Blaurock, Hans Denck and Conrad Grebel in 1525.(4) These rebaptisms cemented the fact that there was a group of people who did not agree with the Roman Church concerning certain practices, but who also did not conform to the newly emerging Magisterial Reformers either.

Some of the major distinctions which became evident in the years following this act are found in a 1527 document attributed to Michael Sattler, one of the earliest influential Anabaptist martyrs, and some of the other early Anabaptist leaders.

Although it is by no means normative, it does offer a clearer view of some of the basic themes that were seen as Anabaptist theology.

In The Schleithem Articles, Sattler makes clear that the differences between him and his followers and their contemporaries were not to be easily dismantled. Included in the articles are discussions on: "baptism, the ban [excommunication], the breaking of bread [Lord's Supper], separating from the abomination [the existing polity], shepherds in the community [ministers], the sword, the oath, etc."(5)

The articles, which are in-depth discussions of these Anabaptists' teachings on the above issues, make very clear that these Anabaptists are refuting both existing Roman Church policy and the newly forming policies of the Magisterial Reformers.

Based on the apostolic model of the church that they were hoping to reinstate, the Anabaptists had no intention of allowing the priests and monks to mediate their faith.

The articles on both baptism and the Lord's Supper make clear that both acts were for those who had "been called by one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one spirit, and to one body in the community of all the children of God."(6)

The other issues make clear that separation was the only way to ensure the purity of God's community. "Concerning separation, we have agreed that a separation take place from the evil which the devil has planted in the world. We simply will not have fellowship with evil people, nor associate with them, nor participate in their abominations."(7)

The Anabaptists writing this obviously considered the Reformers and the Roman Church evil. To deal with this evil, they were calling for a complete separation from those influences.

This came out in the attempt to reinstate the early church, a relatively easy way to draw attention to the lack of purity in the Magisterial Reformers attempts to reform an already existing, very evil Roman Church.

Another aspect of this debate, the debate as to whether their should be a restitution on the apostolic model of the church or a reformation of the Roman model of the church, becomes clear in tracing the development of the Anabaptists in their earliest years. In their earliest years, many of the Anabaptists were followers of Zwingli in Zurich.(8)

Yet, as has been shown, the Anabaptists were far more radical than reformers such as Zwingli regarding the notion of the church model, and especially about the manifestations of these notions.

One of the main manifestations of this problem is the Anabaptist notion of baptism, as the Schleithem Articles pointed out. This formed a main point of contention between Zwingli and his followers. John S. Oyer describes the basis of this disagreement very succinctly:

The disagreement arose as to what specifically the act symbolized. The Anabaptists administered it as a symbol of an experience of regeneration of the individual through faith, and of his promise to obey Christ, a pledge of ethical behavior.

Obviously infants could not receive baptism because they were incapable both of faith and of voluntary commitment to any program of ethics.

Zwingli viewed baptism as a symbol of membership in a religious body, as a New Testament parallel to the Old Testament practice of circumcision. As such, infants must be baptized.(9)

At the heart of this disagreement lies the notion of the church model, although the language does not make it as clear as one would hope. For the Anabaptists, baptism symbolized a spirit of life in the church, not a symbol of mere membership.

The act of baptism, as Oyer pointed out, was for the Anabaptists an act of regeneration. This act culminated with a pledge to the congregation and Christ, and would mostly likely end in martyrdom.(10)

Another aspect which led to disagreement, and subsequent refutation by the Magisterial Reformers, was the Anabaptists' particular vision of the breaking of the bread. This was found in the Schleithem Articles, and was inherent in the idea of a church of true believers.

As Luther and other reformers had already established, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper had become a large point of dissension for all of the Reformers. Among these controversies was the issue of the real presence, something which Luther affirmed.

He differed from the Roman Catholics on the basis of faith as relevant to salvation, but he was insistent upon the fact that the recipients of the sacrament were not partaking in a mere symbolic act.(11)

The Anabaptists, however, were not concerned with the presence issue. Their main concern was with the remembrance of the death of Christ through the symbolism of the act, not with the sacrificial aspects of the sacrament.

The belief in the mass as a sacrifice incorporated many aspects of the Roman religion that the Anabaptists were striving to change, including the external focus of the church, the rule of the church over the people and their salvation, and the usage of the church in various matters.

In a letter to Thomas Muntzer, Conrad Grebel and other Swiss Brethren delineate some of the problems they have with the sacrament. They write:

Although it is simply bread, where faith and brotherly love prevail it shall be partaken of with joy. When observed in that way in the congregation it shall signify to us that we are truly one loaf and one body, and that we are intended to be there brothers with one another ... thereby the mass, with its individual eating, would be abolished. The supper, however, is to be an exhibition of unity.

It is not a mass or sacrament ... like the most learned and outstanding evangelical preachers do, making the supper an actual idol which they have set up and established in the whole world.

It is far preferable that a few be rightly instructed in the word of God, believing aright, walking in virtues, and observing[biblical] rites that many through adulterated doctrine falsely and deceitfully believe.(12)

As the document makes clear, the Anabaptists were very adamant about both the importance of their sense of community as discovered within the Lord's Supper, and the corruption of it by the Roman Church and the Magisterial Reformers. These differences concerning the Lord's Supper clearly did not arise solely out of theological reflection.

They were a refutation of the papist teachings long in evidence in the Roman Church, and only mildly changed by the Magisterial Reformers. The act of partaking in the Lord's Supper in the manner of the Anabaptists was also a reflection of what they felt to be a return to the true biblical nature of the rite.

Reformers such as Luther refused to understand the Anabaptist interpretation of the rite in the manner the Anabaptists wished, however. For Luther, the denial of the real presence signified that the recipients had the power to earn their own salvation.

This represented not only a works righteousness theology, but also a loss of the people who believed such things to the forces of evil.

The Anabaptists considered their own religious experience as authoritative and therein lay the largest aspect of Luther's disregard for them.(13)

Inherent in Luther's disregard for the highly personalized authority of the Anabaptists was the threat that he saw occurring to the civil order as a result of such personalization. Other reformers noted this aspect of Anabaptist theology as well.

The Threat of a Free Church

Both Zwingli and Bullinger felt that the overriding motive for the Anabaptists was in the division of the Church.(14) As the Anabaptists and the Zurich leaders did have vastly different views of the nature of the church, this is not a far fetched concept.

After all, Zwingli and his followers believed that the existence of believers and the proclamation of true faith were the signs of the true faith.

The Anabaptists took the view that this could not happen unless a complete and utter split with the Roman Church occurred. They could not abide by a reform which took place within the Church itself.(15)

The Anabaptists held the view that the Roman Church was a work of the devil. Because of this, they found it necessary to run from the abhorrent thing. They write:

From all this we should learn that everything which is not united with our God and Christ is the abomination which we should flee.

By this we mean all popish and neo-popish works and divine services, assemblies, ecclesiastical processions, wine shops, the ties and obligations of lack of faith, and other things of this kind, which the world indeed regards highly, but which are done in direct opposition to the commandments of God.(16)

As a result of these beliefs, so clearly in revolt against both the teachings of the Roman Church and the reforms of the Magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists were for the most part forced into a position of persecuted people.

The Magisterial Reformers saw the Church as somewhat redeemable from the level of sin into which it had fallen. The Church, of course, saw itself as somewhat redeemable as well. The Anabaptists however, saw both of these views as essentially wrong, which set both groups against them.

As becomes clear with even the most cursory glance at Anabaptist scholarship, the Anabaptists were not always treated favorably by their chroniclers. Their contemporaries saw them as threats to society, as did later scholars. It is easy to see why they would, as a group, be seen as troublesome.

The Anabaptists did not attempt to fit easily into the mode of the society in which they were formed. As Littell has noted, the reason for this stems mainly from their belief in a restitution of the true church, one which was completely separate from the worldly society and from the church which had grown up in that worldly society.

Often times this manifested itself in civil rebellion; much of which was a result of their strict, and highly developed, teaching on the Sword, or on the efficacy of coercion.

Teachings on Civil and Church Order

As the above discussion implies, the threat to the civil order that the Anabaptists represented was serious enough to make them into a sect of martyrs.

Although much of this persecution was a result of their peculiar religious teachings on baptism and the Lord's Supper, much of it was also a result of their belief in the evil nature of the world's society and the fact they had to distance themselves from it.

In order to do this, they developed a highly structured teaching that has become known as the teaching on the Sword. This teaching on the Sword has been one of the subjects of a recent study on the socio-historical nature of the Anabaptists.

In addition to building upon Littell's teaching of the church model theory, the social historian James Stayer uses political/philosophical discussion to illuminate the tension between the Anabaptists and their contemporaries.

The Anabaptists belief in the evil nature of society and the use of force in it was never distanced from their religious teachings, nor with their dealings with society, unlike some of their contemporaries.

As Stayer makes clear throughout his work, the Anabaptists were not the only Reformers to formulate strong views about the nature of acts of coercion and the involvement of the church therein. He writes:

Early reformers and Anabaptists divided on similar lines among those who put the political below the Christian, those who saw it as an instrument for the limited realization of Christian objectives, and those who demanded that it bring the full victory of Christ.(17)

As this statement intimates, for many of the reformers, the use of force to cement a social order in which their reforms could be implemented was central to their teaching.(18)

Among those who believed this way were Luther and Zwingli, as well as some of the early Anabaptists, such as Balthasar Hubmaier. For these reformers, whom Stayer calls both realpolitical and moderately apolitical, the use of force was so closely aligned with the secular government that they could divorce its corruption from the main purpose of the church and get on with their reforms.

Many Anabaptists agreed with this basic premise; some, such as Pilgrim Marpeck, even went so far as to advocate Christians in government as a way of ensuring a more Christian society. Other Anabaptists did not, however, see the two spheres as at all compatible in such an undefiled manner.

Stayer has two remaining groups into which he places the majority of Anabaptists. The first of these groups is of less concern here, for those who followed the path of crusading sword, or belief that the force was as good a tool as prayer in realizing their goals, were the more apocalyptic of the Anabaptists.(19)

For the most part their concern with the end time and the use of the sword in delivering them resulted in the end times coming sooner than anticipated for the practitioner. Although it is this group who received the most attention from their contemporaries and the hostile camp of historians, their beliefs on this matter were not very enduring.

It is however, his last grouping, the radical apolitical group, who have survived most successfully. They developed the ideas of non-resistance and non-intervention to one of its most refined states. Among the radical apoliticals, who included the Hutterites and the post-Munster Anabaptists who evolved into the Mennonites, the view of the church on a New Testament model was central to their teaching.

For these Stabler sects (men of the staff), the teaching on the Sword as a viable option was a part of the Old Testament teaching, and a tenet of Old Testament law. For these groups, the New Testament law, which signified the end of Old Testament law, and its teaching of love, was of overriding concern.(20)

These groups attempted to live out this teaching of love by withdrawing from the world into communities which were to serve as a witness to their religion. Amongst the Hutterites, whose Moravian communities represented the height of the utopian ideal among the Anabaptists, the writing on the teaching on the Sword became almost a cottage industry.

They felt that literature could help them in regulating and understanding all of the implications of non-resistance and non-participation in the government.(21)

This basic trend was closely followed by Menno Simons and his followers, although they underwent a slower development into such a strong stance on the subject.(22)

The Ban

Closely allied to the use of coercion and the involvement of the church in secular affairs lies the problem of internal discipline. Even in the Schleithem Articles, this alliance is made clear. They write:

The sword is ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills evil people and protects and defends the good. In the law the sword is established to punish and kill the wicked, and secular authorities are established to use it.

But in the perfection of Christ, the ban alone will be used to admonish and expel him who had sinned, without putting the flesh to death, and only by using admonition and the command to sin no more.(23)

Like the belief in radical apoliticism, the belief and teaching on the Ban was closely allied with the differences between Old Testament law and New Testament law.

Some of the apocalyptic sects utilized Old Testament law and formed into terrorist-like rulers, especially in places like Munster. This was not the norm, especially for the Stabler sects.(24)

The Stabler sects refined the idea of the use of the Ban; which according to one early scholar, illuminated the difference between Christians and Jews because the use of the Ban signified forgiveness, the mark of the Christians.(25)

The use of the Ban generally included a excommunication of sorts of the offending party, after the community approached him or her about the sin. Although there are many different visions of what it entailed, its purpose and use in the society is clearly found in the writings on the ban by Menno Simons:

In short, all those who openly lead a shameful, carnal life, and those who are corrupted by heretical, unclean doctrine (Titus 3:10), and who will not be overcome by the wine and oil of the Holy Spirit, but remain, after they have been admonished and sought to be regained in all over and reasonableness, obdurate in their corrupted walk and opinion.

They should, at last, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, but the power of the holy spirit, that is by the binding word of God, be reluctantly but unanimously separated from the church of Christ and thereupon, according to the Scriptures, be shunned in all divine obedience, until they repent.(26)

As this statement makes clear, the purpose of the Ban was to punish those who were making the church unclean. A church of true believers was what the Anabaptists were all about.

The Ban was the only way to maintain discipline in community or within a society that had already dismissed the use of coercive force as unchristian, and which had to keep itself as strong as it possibly could, especially in the face of serious persecution.

For the Anabaptists to allow one sinful person to live life in the way they wished would have been detrimental to the society as a whole. They were already different in so many ways, they did not need to be forced into a bad light on the workings of one sinner.

Anabaptists and Society

Some of the differences between the Anabaptists and society as a whole are very easy to recognize. They include the manner of speech and dress adopted by the Anabaptists, the community of goods practiced by the Anabaptists and differences in worship.

In addition, the Anabaptists refused to take oaths or pay taxes, things central to the life of the cities and towns of the sixteenth century, and a definitive form of treason against the government.(27)

The Anabaptist belief in these issues, was, like most of the Anabaptist rules, a result of a strict adherence to the example of Jesus. Yet this simple adherence to biblical example did nothing to lessen their threat to the powers of the world. Often times those very simple acts were the acts that led to persecution.

No matter what they were doing, they were always in violation of the law. By not being baptized, they were in violation of the law. Often times they were forced to go to church despite their differences with the church. They were persecuted on a variety of matters, both religious and civil.(28)

Claus-Peter Clasen's study of the Anabaptists looks at how the world must have viewed this "revolutionary" new sect. His interest was not how they developed or in how they were different theologically, but in how these differences led to the unsettling of Anabaptism.

Clasen, even though he considers the Anabaptists to be a minor incident on the face of the Reformation, shows the impact of the Anabaptists' differing life style on Reformation society, especially in the persecutions they received.(29)

Although all studies of Anabaptism look at the persecutions of them, Clasen's study very clearly ties together their unique lifestyle and these persecutions.

It becomes clear that the unique attributes of the Anabaptists added to their marginalization by society. They not only said that society was devilish and condemned to hell, but refused to take part even in the day to day life of both family and their communities. As all evidence makes clear, the basic idea of the society of the sixteenth century was that government and religion were closely connected.

The Anabaptists undermined this by all of their existence, especially by the basic premise that each individual Anabaptist had the right to make any and all decisions about any issue.(30)

The culmination of Anabaptist free thinking and free will was in the establishment of the Hutterite communities in Moravia. According to Clasen, in order to live in these utopian communities on the outskirts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Anabaptists gave up all of their family (except for those who were also Anabaptists) and all of their privately held property in return for religious communalism.(31)

Once in these communities, which were often times full to capacity as a result of new emigres, the Anabaptists followed a strict model of community life. Any children born were raised communally. All work done was for the benefit of the community.

The community itself was ruled by a hierarchy which attempted to maintain civil order while retaining religious free will. This order was maintained through the use of the Ban, which was strictly enforced. The purpose of the community was to make a community of believers take precedent over any individual notions and any previously held notions of Papal or civil authority.(32)

As such, it is within these communitarian groups that the notion of community of true believers reaches its height.

The Hutterite communities in Moravia were certainly not neglected by the general persecutions which took place in all of Reformation society. As Clasen notes, sometimes they were persecuted even more heavily than some Anabaptists who lived within the greater society.

But, like all persecutions, the persecutions of the Hutterite communities serve as an example of the effect that Anabaptists had on Reformation society.


In order to understand the Anabaptists, and their marginal place in society, it is necessary to understand both their teachings and how they have been treated by historians. By and large, the scholarship dealing with the Anabaptists has not been favorable. Many problems faced the scholars of the Anabaptists throughout the long years of scholarship.

These problems include the lack of a cohesive group of Anabaptists, and the lack of an easily identifiable leader. Even the most modern of scholarship must divide the Anabaptists into a minimum of six major geographical groups in order to describe their teachings and development.(33)

Inherent in this lack of coherence is the absence of any sort of statement of beliefs, which has led to some of the major (mostly hostile) generalizations that have come to be identified with the Anabaptists.

As important to the nature of the scholarship is the background of the scholars doing it. Those scholars who were not apologetic were mainly hostile to the Anabaptists. As has been established, Anabaptism never had an easy place in society. Those who studied it were usually attempting to discredit it from one angle or another.

For a marginal group divorced from both the Roman church and the newly developing Magisterial Reformers, it is not difficult to see why discrediting the seemingly subversive group would become normal practice, if not requisite.

Sometimes, discrediting was not difficult to establish, for events such as the bloodshed in Munster in 1534-1535 were described as the norm, much like the few links with the revolutionaries.

Needless to say, the Magisterial Reformers and the subsequent historians cultivated these theories to the utmost, in part assuring that the Anabaptists would remain an anomaly in history.

Even those scholars of the twentieth century who are favorable to the Anabaptists are not without their own set of problems in research. As Hans Jurgen Goertz writes: Historical investigation is, therefore, not concerned with ideas in themselves, but with ideas in their relation to historical conditions."(34)

As this statement makes clear, the problems in research are at the whim of history and the historian's view of it, which makes coherence and an unbiased vision difficult.

In Anabaptist history, what is interesting is the extent to which the earliest biases remained normative, and how this fact assisted in limiting the impact of the Anabaptists.

Another of the main problems in Anabaptist research, which has lasted from the very beginning of research, is the discussion of where Anabaptism came from and when the movement started.

This includes the problems of links with medieval Christianity, peasant leader links, and what effect this had on Anabaptist growth and impact.(35)

For a long time, the origins of the Anabaptists were so obscured by their activities that different theories arose to where they come from.

From some camps, the belief that Anabaptism rose to prominence in Zurich along with the peasant revolutionary Thomas Muntzer took precedence. This theory, first put forth by Heinrich Bullinger in the late sixteenth century, was an idea which lasted in hostile scholarship up through the early twentieth century.

This is a camp which also linked all Anabaptism with the revolutionaries in Munster. These links served as serious detriments to a cohesive view of Anabaptism right up into the twentieth century.

By the nineteenth century, however, other scholars were focusing on different aspects of the origins, which somewhat lessened the hostility. Urban Haeberle and Ludwig Keller noted the influence of such medieval heresies as the Waldensians on the earliest Anabaptists.

These theories were followed by the work of Albrecht Ritschl, who postulated that the Anabaptists were reviving medieval monasticism in their reforms.(36)

Werner Packull and Kenneth Davis, two influential modern scholars, have also studied the links between medieval Christianity and the Anabaptists.

Their work postdates some of the major turning points in Anabaptist scholarship, thus lessening still controversial aspects of the subject matter even further. As Jurgen Goertz points out, the character and development of Anabaptism, as well as its origins, are all controversial.(37)

Much of the research necessary for formulating a picture of the world and the nature of the Anabaptists was obscured by their place in history itself. As Hershberger writes:

"Once the voluntary church, the separation of church and state, and religious liberty-ideas for which the Anabaptists had striven so valiantly in the sixteenth century--came to be widely accepted, the despised movement began to draw the attention of scholars."(38)

As this statement becomes more and more true, ideas dealing with the more controversial aspects of Anabaptism have emerged. Most of the modern scholars have emerged following this breakthrough, including those who came from the free church tradition, those who emerged from the Marxist camp, those whose interest lay in Church history, and those who were more concerned with the sociopolitical nature of the Anabaptists.

Among the modern scholars most noted for their work in Anabaptism, the work of Franklin Littell stands as the guide for Anabaptist research in church history. Littell has looked at the origins and nature of early Anabaptism in order to discern the true nature of its focus on the early church model.

The works of Packull and Davis, mentioned above, also expand upon this idea to some extent, particularly in their comparison with early Reformation ideas of the Church. Some of the more modern social historians, including James B. Stayer and Claus-Peter Clasen, have been able to focus upon different aspects of Anabaptism in order to ascertain its character, mainly as a result of the expanding access to primary material and the breakthroughs of which Hershberger wrote.

All of these works, and some others, succeed in painting a picture of the Reformation era Anabaptists which stands as an example for the possibilities of a voluntary free church.

The pattern that emerges, especially in light of the major Reformers discussion with the Anabaptists, helps in showing how the Anabaptists survived because of their unique beliefs, even though they were constantly being persecuted and their impact limited as a result of them.


As almost all works dealing with the Anabaptists makes clear, the unique beliefs of the Anabaptists, in particular those dealing with the teaching on the Sword, led to the severe persecutions of them.

But those same teachings that caused them so much persecution were also central to their understanding of who they were as a people and as Christians. Not even in the face of severe persecutions could the Anabaptists admit that they were erring in their beliefs.

It seems that they were almost helped by their persecutions in maintaining their stances, for the persecutions helped to cement the necessity of such strict teachings on such touchy subjects.

The unique teachings of the Anabaptists caused numerous persecutions and defilement at the hand of Reformation society. Instead of being seen as a revitalizing Church dedicated to the example of Jesus and of the New Testament, they were seen as subversive and detrimental to the health of the society.

The Roman Church declared them heretics, and the Magisterial Reformers did their best to discredit them. The threat of this tension, however, did not have the desired effect.

The most ardent Anabaptists did not return to the changing society. They did not change their teachings to incorporate a more inclusive church view. Instead, they became even more convinced that both church and civil society were evil. This led to more teachings condemning both the world and the church, which in turn led to more persecution at the hands of those they condemned.

Finally, the majority of Anabaptists, or those who remained after the severe persecutions, retreated from society entirely, moving into communities designed around their teachings.

Even after more severe persecutions, the Anabaptists and their descendants refused to rejoin society. Instead, they moved to the freer North American continent, where toleration has allowed them to maintain their unique teachings and communal life with little problem.

It should come as no surprise that the Anabaptists held such an uneasy position in their society. Their teachings were hostile to any sort of society, either civil or ecclesiastical, which might harbor them.

Their treatment by most scholars was also a mere extension of this basic fear, for they never advocated a society which was receptive to anything but a rule by love alone. Yet the example of the Anabaptists, borne out of the turmoil of the sixteenth century, is one from which the modern world could learn.

Their unique model of what Church and society could become, if politics and fear were placed as subservient to love and community, stand as witness to the possibilities of a voluntary church, and the possibilities of a free society.


(1) Franklin Littell, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism: A Study of the Anabaptist View of the church, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964), p. xvi. Hereafter referred to as Littell.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid. p. 5.

(4) William Estep, The Anabaptist Story,(Nashville: Wiliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 11.

(5) Michael Sattler, "The Schleithem Articles," in The Radical Reformation, ed. Michael G. Baylor,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 174. Herafter referred to as Schleithem.

(6) Ibid. p. 175.

(7) Ibid.

(8) James Stayer et. al., "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis," in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIX January 1975, No. 1, p. 88. Hereafter referred to as "From Monogenesis..."

(9) John S. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists,(The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), pp. 203-204. Hereafter referred to as Oyer.

(10) Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism A Social History, 1525-1618,(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), pp. 99-101. Hereafter referred to as Clasen.

(11) Oyer, p. 36.

(12) Conrad Grebel, et. al., "Letters To Thomas Muntzer from the Swiss Brethren, Conrad Grebel and Others, Zurich, September 5, 1524," in Anabaptist Beginnings (1523-1533) A Source Book,(Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1976), pp. 33-34.

(13) Oyer, p. 38.

(14) Ibid., p. 205.

(15) Ibid. 205-206.

(16) Schleithem, p. 175-176.

(17) James B. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword,(Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1972), p. 28. Hereafter referred to as Anabaptists and the Sword.

(18) Ibid, pp. 2-3.

(19) Ibid, pp. 150-151, 215, et al.

(20) Ibid, p. 149.

(21) Ibid, pp. 167-168.

(22) Ibid, p 316.

(23) Schleithem, p. 177.

(24) Anabaptists and the Sword, pp. 255-261.

(25) Ibid., p. 168.

(26) Menno Simons, "On the Ban", in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957). pp. 270-71.

(27) Clasen, pp. 172-175.

28Ibid., pp. 359-375.

(29) Ibid., p. 428.

(30) Ibid. p. 182.

(31) Ibid. p. 295.

(32) Ibid. pp. 235-280.

(33) "From Monogenesis...", p. 86.

(34) Hans Jurgen Goertz, "History and Theology: A Major Problem of Anabaptist Research Today," in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. LIII, July 1979, no 3. p. 186. Hereafter referred to as Goertz.

(35) "From Monogenesis...", p. 86.

(36) Clasen, p. 6-8.

(37) Goertz, p. 177.

(38) Guy F. Hershberger, "Introduction," in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957), p. 1.


General Works

Anabaptist Beginnings (1523-1533) A Source Book. ed. William R. Estep. Nieuwkoop, B. De Graaf. 1976.

Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: a Social History, 1525-1618 Switzerland, Austria, Moravia, South and Central Germany. Ithaca. Cornell University Press. 1972.

Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story. Grand Rapids. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1975

Littell, Franklin Hamlin. The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism A Study of the Anabaptist View Of the Church. New York. The MacMillan Company. 1964.

Oyer, John S. Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melancthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany. The Hague. Martinus Nijhoff. 1964.

The Radical Reformation. ed/trans. Michael G. Baylor. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1991.

The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision A Sixtieth Anniversary Tribute to Harold S. Bender. ed. Guy F. Hershberger. Scottdale. Herald Press. 1957.

Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers. eds. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal. Philadelphia. The Westminster Press. 1957.

Stayer, James M. Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence. Coronado Press. 1972.

Williams, George Hunston. The Radical Reformation. third Edition. Kirksville. Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc. 1992.


The Mennonite Quarterly Review. vol. XLIX and LIII. Goshen. Mennonite Historical Society. 1975 and 1979.

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