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April 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 2 · pp. 303–18 

Anabaptists and the Great Commission in the Reformation

Hans Kasdorf


One of the most misrepresented facets in the history of the expansion of the Christian faith is that of the Anabaptist movement during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Their extension of the Gospel through planned evangelism and church planting across linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries is still a missing chapter in mission history.

During the last few decades, writers like Franklin H. Littell, Roland H. Bainton, Donald F. Durnbaugh, and (in Europe) Wilhelm Wiswedel, Walther Koehler, and Wolfgang Schaeufele have made noble efforts to bring to light the expansion of the Anabaptists (see Bibliography). But histories of Christianity and of missions either wholly ignore or barely mention the subject. The reader of Glover’s Progress of World-Wide Missions (1939) and J. Herbert Kane’s later revision of it (1961), Neill’s History of Christian Missions (1971), Kane’s Global View of Christian Missions from Pentecost to the Present (1971) finds no mention of the Anabaptists whatever. Kenneth Scott Latourette, however, devotes two chapters to the Radical Reformation and points out that the “missionaries of the movement were numerous.” 1

The question naturally arises why the records of mission history bypass the missionary activities of the Anabaptists. This silence becomes even more puzzling when one compares the tremendous mission emphasis of the Roman Catholic Church with the almost total absence of mission thinking among the Protestant Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin). 2 One would think that Protestant mission historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have searched out those within the Protestant movement who were concerned about bringing Christ to all the world.

It is important to register the point that before World War I very few reliable documents were available on the Evangelical Anabaptists, and prior to World War II relatively little was accomplished by way of recovering the primary sources. But the polemics of their opponents were widely circulated and historians have relied heavily on the testimony of these opponents. {304}

In these polemics, and in the later histories, the “Evangelical Anabaptists” were not distinguished from the Schwaermer (like the Muensterites), Spiritualizers, and Antitrinitarians. The resulting erroneous estimate of Anabaptism was seldom challenged.


A. Two Powers and a Third

The obedience to the Great Commission on the part of the Anabaptists is best understood when seen against the background of the time.

According to both the Reformers and the Catholics, Christianity was, indeed, to be the universal religion. However, they all claimed universality for themselves, emphatically excluding each other. The subsequent costly and bloody battles of the religious wars were finally halted on compromising terms. The solution reached was cuius region, eius religio (as the prince, so the religion). This made the ruler of a given territory also the ruler of religion within the bounds of his domain, and all of his subjects were to adhere to his religion. Even Calvin, who did not deny the validity of the Great Commission, maintained that the propagation of the Christian faith was not under the jurisdiction of the Church, but was the duty of the “Christian” government.

Except for a few references to the mission of the Church (see Calvin’s Institutes, IV, iii,4) and a few isolated voices (e.g., Hadrian Saravia, 1531-1613, and Justinian von Weltz, 1621-1668), mainstream Protestantism was content to let the prince or king take the lead in conquering territory for the new faith. The Catholics, on the other hand,—especially the Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit orders—traversed the globe and brought the Catholic faith to peoples far and near.

This is not the place to discuss the lack of vision among the Reformers. Suffice it to say that they believed the Great Commission to pertain only to the original apostles and to have been carried out during the Apostolic era. The renowned missiologist Gustav Warneck (1834-1910) observed that we not only miss any missionary activity among the Reformers, but that we also search in vain among them “for even the presence of the missionary idea.” 3 The Danish-Halle Mission, begun by Pietists in the early eighteenth century, was the first European Protestant mission agency.

Over against the Catholics and the Protestants there emerged a “third option,” the Anabaptists, who accepted the Great Commission literally. They regarded the real Power to be neither in the magistrate nor in the territorial church, but in the Holy Spirit indwelling the disciple of the Master. Thus at a time “when dominant Protestantism was willing to commit 300 little states to a territorial determination of {305} religion,” observes one historian, “the Anabaptists were sending their missionaries wherever they could get a hearing, for ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof . . . (Psalm 24:1)’ and no land should be forbidden to the proclamation of the Gospel.” 4

B. The Commission is Central to Life and Mission

Since the commanding theme of the Anabaptists was the restitution of primitive Christianity, they believed that they had found in The Book of Acts “The Golden Age of Christian history.” There are several reasons for this belief. They were fascinated by the power and victory of the Holy Spirit in the Apostolic Church. They interpreted the phenomenal growth and triumph of the Church in the face of incredible odds as the miraculous work of God. And they believed that with the Constantinian edict of toleration (313 A.D.) the Church had experienced a spiritual breakdown and needed to be restored. Such restoration, however, could be achieved only by unreserved obedience to the Great Commission as it had been manifested in the Early Church, “No words of the Master,” says Littell, “were given more serious attention by the Anabaptist followers than His final command.” The words of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16)

. . . seemed to point up His whole teaching in a glorious program comprehending the world. The pilgrim, familiar figure of the Middle Ages, was transformed in the fiery experience of the Anabaptists into an effective evangelist and martyr. His wandering foot-steps and shedding of blood came to be a determined if not always systematic testimony to the influences of lay missioners who counted no cost too dear to them who would walk in the steps of the Crucified.

In right faith the Great Commission is fundamental to individual confession and to a true ordering of the community of believers. The Master meant it to apply to all believers at all times. 5

The Anabaptists accepted the Great Commission as binding upon all believers. Wolfgang Schaeufele, who has done the most comprehensive research on the Anabaptist missionary enterprise, concludes:

In the Anabaptist Brotherhood, as is well known, there was no distinction between an academically educated ministerial class on the one hand and the laity on the other. Each member was potentially a preacher and a missionary, and each single member had equal opportunity for advancement according to his own competence, just as was the case in primitive Christianity. Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” became a practical reality in Anabaptism . . . 6

Whenever a person committed himself to Christ as Lord, he actually made a commitment to carry out the Great Commission to the best of his ability. Thus not only the special Sendbote (commissioned messenger), but also the ordinary church member was at the time of his baptism charged with the responsibility of the expansion of the Christian faith.

The Anabaptists maintained that all must hear and have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel and voluntarily become members of the Believer’s Church and thus be saved from eternal {306} death. They based their conviction on Romans 10, following the argument of Paul: Man can believe only when he hears; he can hear only when someone preaches; preaching is always based on the Word of God and determined by the Church’s obedience to the Command of Christ. Therefore, they felt compelled to go and to preach. 7


Missionary strategy can be defined as the way and manner the Church of Jesus Christ goes about obeying the Great Commission. The nature of such strategy must be in harmony with biblical teaching, effective when applied to mission situations, and relevant to the time in which it is used. There must be right goals pursued in a right place and at a right time with the right methods. Finally, there must be the right kind of people who are used by the Holy Spirit at His will. 8

Although these terms were not used, the principles they express undergirded the entire Anabaptist mission program, and we can use them to understand the tremendous expansion of their movement.

A. Obedience With a Clearly Defined Goal

The Anabaptists firmly believed that it was significant to observe carefully the order laid down by the Lord in the Great Commission for the sole purpose of making disciples: 1) there is the going into all the world; 2) this is followed by the preaching of the Gospel to every creature; 3) upon preaching there is a sense of anticipation that man will respond to the Gospel by believing; 4) then comes the act of baptizing those who respond by faith. Only they have the promise to be saved. 5) Incorporation into fellowship is the erection of a “true Christianity.” 9

The Anabaptists dealt in depth with the concept of making disciples. No other Christian movement between the apostolic era and the modern mission period has articulated and demonstrated more clearly the meaning of discipling than the Anabaptists. The great word rediscovered by the Reformers was Glaube: faith. The great word rediscovered by the Anabaptists was Nachfolge: discipleship. No one, they maintained, can call Jesus “Lord,” unless he is prepared to follow Him in every way. This was the message they preached, the code they lived by, and the faith they died for. Only from them did the people of the Reformation hear this message. I can do no better than quote Harold S. Bender’s description of this concept. 10

First and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision was the conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship. It was a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ. The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity which made regeneration, holiness, and love primarily a matter of intellect, of doctrinal belief, or of subjective “experience,” rather than one of the transformation of life. Repentance must be “evidenced” by newness of {307} behavior. “In evidence” is the keynote which rings through the testimonies and challenges of the early Swiss Brethren when they are called to give an account of themselves. The whole life was to be brought literally under the Lordship of Christ in a covenant of discipleship, a covenant which the Anabaptist writers delighted to emphasize. The focus of the Christian life was to be not so much the inward experience of the grace of God, as it was for Luther, but the outward application of that grace to all human conduct and the consequent Christianization of all human relationships. The true test of the Christian, they held, is discipleship.

The essence of the Christian life, as the Anabaptist understood it, is being a disciple. This, in turn, means multiplication of that very life by making disciples who enjoy the privileges and share the responsibilities that such life entails.

B. Obedience Bound by Place and Time

To preach the Gospel outside the framework of either the Catholic or Protestant Church and by people not authorized by ecclesiastical and state officials was punishable by one or more of the following measures: confiscation of property, expulsion from the land, imprisonment, or death. But there were multitudes of people who were not reached through the institutional channels, and the Anabaptists felt responsible to witness to them and to suffer the consequences. This meant that the time and place of meetings had to be carefully selected.

Usually they had their gatherings in a forest. In the Forest of Strassburg, for example, they had as many as 300 people in one single meeting. They also met regularly in the Ringlinger Forest at Bretten, in the Schillingswald between Olbronn and Knittlingen, and in the Forest of Prussia near Aachen. These meetings were held between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. In the section of the forest called Bregehren at Walkerbach in Wuerttemberg one can still find a pulpit-like rock known as Gaisstein where they conducted their worship and gospel services with the aid of two lanterns to dispel the darkness. In addition, they met in isolated mills, such as the one at Kleinleutersdorf in Orlamunde, or at the sawmill in Zorge on the Harz and in similar places. Peter Valk preached in a sheep barn at Saal in Thuringia. Enders Feckelein preached to a number of people sitting there with open Bibles around two tables in a blacksmith shop. Sometimes they gathered for meetings at places that would allow them to escape quickly from the hands of persecutioners in the event they were found out. In Tirol, for example, they met on remote farms, in sand pits, and in the shelters of huge rocks. But not all places were hide-outs. There were at least two castles where the Anabaptist missionaries evangelized. One was the Schloss Munichau at Kitzbuhl and the other the Schloss Neuhof at Brunneck in Tirol. The records also show that these meetings generally drew large crowds. 11

Furthermore, the Anabaptists concentrated their efforts on peoples and places where they found ready response. This brought them to people who were of similar social and economic status. Thus, the lay missionary was sent to rural areas, winning whole family units to Christ; the artisan evangelist was sent to people of his profession; the educated were sent to cities where they were bound to meet the elite.

C. Obedience and the Right Missionary Method

It seems appropriate to consider their missionary methods in terms of an early spontaneous expansion and a later planned expansion. The {308} first period covers about three-and-a-half years. It began on January 21, 1525, when the unavoidable breach between Zwingli and his most faithful disciples occurred over the issue of the mass and ended with the famous “Missionary Conference of Augsburg” (also known as the “Martyr Synod”), held from August 20-24, 1527. From this time on every mission endeavor of the Anabaptists became increasingly marked by a deliberate mission strategy that aimed at evangelizing all of Europe and the whole world.

Methods prior to August, 1527. First, they were preaching pilgrims. During the early period the Anabaptist faith spread much like that of the Apostolic Church. “Anabaptist leaders at first wandered as pilgrims, seeking relief from persecution, and shepherding from time to time the little groups of the faithful. As persecution grew more savage, hundreds of families took to the road, moving slowly eastward toward the Moravian settlements. A whole people thus became pilgrims, exiles for Christ. 12

Wherever they went, these persecuted, wandering Anabaptists preached. It may well be that they learned this method from Zwingli whom they respected as a dynamic preacher.

Secondly, the Anabaptists held house meetings. Their objective was to reach whole households with the Gospel. Fritz Blanke records a number of house meetings held during the week of January 22-29, 1525. At times these were the spontaneous result of a casual visit; at other times they were planned by believers. Sometimes these meetings resulted in the conversion and baptism of all adult members who then celebrated the Lord’s Supper together. These meetings frequently manifested the typical characteristics of a spiritual awakening. Blanke comments:

When we seek a caption for the inner processes of these eight days, the concept “revival movement” presents itself. We thereby understand the sudden occurrence of a religious awakening, in which not just a few individuals but a considerable number are gripped by a personal Christian disposition to repentance and break through to the joy of salvation.

This happened in Zollikon. We can still clearly see the process of repentance in sequence from the protocols of the hearings (Nos. 29, 31, 32). . . . Here we meet the reformational understanding of sin, and that not just as abstract theory but as personal experience.

The impact of this experience is underscored by the strong emotions accompanying it. These farmers, who otherwise certainly were accustomed to hide their feelings, broke out in wailing and weeping. 13

Professor Blanke concludes that the “soul struggles” of countless “ordinary nameless Christians” of this period were crowned by forgiveness and sealed by baptism, “the visible sign that God has pardoned the sinner.” 14

The third method of the early period was Bible reading and lay evangelism. Since the leaders of the awakening were quickly arrested and banned, the responsibility of spiritual care and continued evangelism was placed on the local farmers and craftsmen. Those who {309} could read began to read the Word of God to nonliterates as they met in homes and barns and village churches. When people confessed Christ, lay brothers performed the rite of baptism. Hans Bichter, for example, baptized thirty believers within a week and Jorg Schad baptized forty in a single day—and that in the village church of Zollikon. 15 A significant benefit these new Christians shared with other reformers was Luther’s New Testament, which had gone through at least twelve editions between 1522 and 1525.

Finally, further mention must be made of the role of persecution in the great expansion. Persecution was severe and only two or three of the sixty leaders who met in Augsburg for the missionary conference of August, 1527, “lived to see the fifth year of the movement.” 16 Some of the early Swiss leaders did not even live to see the 1527 conference. As one pages through the Ausbund, the first Anabaptist hymnary published in 1564, one reads time and again a biographical note about the author, ending with remarks like: Burned 1525; Drowned 1526; Hanged 1527. Only rarely did the martyrs recant. Their testimony made a lasting impression on many executioners and spectators, so that not a few came to accept the same faith they had tried to resist and obliterate. Yet by 1527 all founding fathers in Switzerland had either been executed or banished and all followers so successfully exterminated that the movement became more dynamic in other European countries than in Zurich and Zollikon. As the movement spread through the pilgrim witnesses, the biblical message was so winsome, so overpowering, and so appealing to the masses that, as one recent German historian has put it, “often a few hours at a new place were sufficient to found a new congregation.” 17

Methods after August, 1527. 18 We are here concerned with the missionary methods between 1527 and 1565, from the first missionary conference in Augsburg to the so-called “golden age” of the Anabaptist movement in Moravia. (We will not discuss this “golden age” which was initiated after 1565 under the dynamic leadership of Peter Walpot, who headed “the greatest missionary organization of the epoch maintaining an extensive correspondence—and guiding a large and effective corps of lay missionaries.”) 19

First, we note a continuation of the Wandermissionare, the wandering preachers. Like the famous Irish peregrini almost a thousand years before them, these Anabaptist preachers wandered from place to place, proclaimed the Gospel, baptized new converts, organized churches, and established Christians in their faith. One such preacher was the ex-priest Joerg Blaurock (1492-1529). He was the greatest evangelist of the time, traveling far and wide throughout Europe. From his conversion under Zwingli in 1525 until his death at the stake in 1529, he baptized at least a thousand (some say 4000) people and planted many new churches. 20

Secondly, there was planned a systematic sending of missionaries. {310} The designation “apostles” was deliberately chosen for those who were sent out in apostolic teams of three to specific places for the sole purpose of evangelism and church planting. Hans Hut, one of the chairmen of the 1527 missionary conference in Augsburg, had already sent apostles to many parts of Europe. But now the Augsburg Church was behind the program of evangelism and the Anabaptist apostolate took on new shape and form. Due to intensified persecution, these apostles were convicted that their missionary efforts would be of limited time. The sending Church of Augsburg shared the conviction of the missionaries and urgently called for commitment to evangelism. Within two weeks (from the termination of the conference on August 24 to the issuance of a new mandate by the Augsburg authorities against the Anabaptists on September 6), the Augsburg Church sent out more than two dozen missionaries to strategic centers in Germany and Austria. But what had happened to the centers in Switzerland two years earlier now became the fate of the sending Church in Augsburg: it was choked by fierce persecution. Three years after the conference only two or three of the sixty leaders in attendance had escaped the hangman’s scaffold. That is why history has ironically recorded the first “Protestant” missionary conference of August 1527 as the “Martyr Synod.”

Thirdly, mention must be made of the dynamic lay witness of early Anabaptism. In this connection we note three specific channels. One of them was “the web of family relationships.” One writer observes: “Family relationships played an important role in the expansion of the Anabaptists. This is particularly obvious in the expansion of the Anabaptist revival in the years 1527 and 1528 in Augsburg.” 21 Thus an old Anabaptist calendar of the time reports on the lay ministry of a certain Endris Fachlein near Stuttgart who is said to have won “almost his entire relationship to the Anabaptist faith.” Schaeufele offers interesting illustrations as to how one family member won another to Christ and how the faith contagiously moved on from the main family to cousins, uncles, and aunts.” 22

Another channel for lay witness was the “neighbors and other acquaintances.” Bible study groups met in homes and invited unbelievers with the objective of winning them to the Lord. Weddings and similar community affairs provided excellent opportunities to make new acquaintances and to invite people to a “Bible Reading.”

Occupational contacts provided another channel for lay missionary outreach. The Anabaptist employer sought to win his employees to a life of discipleship under Christ. When Katherin Lorenzen, who later became the wife of Jacob Hutter, had to testify in court about her faith, she said that her employer, a Christian baker, as well as other believing employees had witnessed to her and persuaded her to “join the Anabaptist sect.” The records also show that laborers and craftsmen took their evangelistic tasks very seriously in everyday contacts with people. Since many of them were banned from their {311} cities and states they had to search for employment elsewhere, either in the craft of their occupation or with farmers on the land—at least until 1539 when the Decree of Regensburg made it illegal to hire any Anabaptist. Until that date the Anabaptist workers witnessed to their masters and fellow-workers. 23 Thus, there was a deliberate and conscientious effort made by sent missionaries and “laity” alike to form what we might call “extension chains” for the spreading of the Gospel and the planting of believers’ congregations.

D. Obedience and the Right People

We are dealing here with the kind of people who were at the right time in the right place, and employed the right methods to achieve the goal of making disciples and multiplying churches. The Anabaptist annals record several characteristics of those who were committed to present the claims of Christ to the lost in the world.

Compelled by the Great Commission. The great Anabaptist missionary Hans Hut often preached to large crowds. Upon baptizing the thousands who confessed Christ as Lord, Hut would challenge them all to obey the Great Commission to tell others the Good News. They always went under the shadow of the cross, “where the representatives of the state churches dared not go, and for the Gospel’s sake were made pilgrims and martyrs throughout the known world.” 24 When asked what compelled them to go, they answered without hesitation: “the Great Commission.”

Convicted by a deep “Berufungsbewusstsein.” Nothing is more apparent in the Anabaptist missionaries than their deep sense of call to the task. This call, as they understood it, always has two dimensions: there is an internal and an external calling. They explained this experience as a direct call from God inwardly perceived and a call from the Church outwardly confirmed. 25

It is illuminating to note that the Anabaptists placed great emphasis on a specific spiritual gift for the missionary task. “It is God who sends us, but the Holy Spirit who gives to us the apostolic gift for the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.” Again they say, “The Spirit of God tells our spirit that we are called and must go and preach . . .for it is for that purpose that He has given us to possess the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 26

Secondly, there is the external dimension of the call. Schaeufele states that in addition to the “inward charismatic call,” the Anabaptists followed Luther’s principle of the authority of the local congregation to discern the inner call of a person and then to commission that person to the ministry to which he felt called. 27 In the (early) Anabaptist document known as “The Schleitheim Confession” (Feb. 24, 1527), we find the instruction that the local Church has the responsibility to choose the right person for the right task, “whom the Lord has thus appointed.” Once the persons had been discovered, the congregation publicly confirmed their calling.

Commissioned by the sending agency. The Graner Codex which was {312} found in the Brunner Archives 28 describes in some detail an Anabaptist commissioning service. First, the candidates told the congregation how God had called them into the mission work and to the preaching of the Gospel in “other lands.” This was followed by a session of admonition in which the missionaries asked the congregation to remain faithful in their local tasks of visiting the sick and the imprisoned, of providing for the poor and unemployed, and of remembering them (the missionaries) with prayers and material provisions. Then the people of the congregation pledged their support, wished them well, and prayed for God’s mercies upon their ministry. Since singing played a significant role from the very inception of the Anabaptist movement, and since hymns were often written for specific occasions, I have selected and translated several verses from a twenty-five-stanza song used for an early commissioning service: 29

    As God His Son was sending
    Into this world of sin,
    His Son is now commanding
    That we this world should win.
    He sends us and commissions
    To preach the Gospel clear,
    To call upon all nations
    To listen and to hear.
    To Thee, O God, we’re praying,
    We’re bent to do Thy will;
    Thy Word we are obeying,
    Thy glory we fulfill.
    All peoples we are telling
    To mend their sinful way,
    That they might cease rebelling,
    Lest judgment be their pay.
    And if Thou, Lord, desire,
    And should it be Thy will
    That we taste sword and fire
    By those who thus would kill,
    Then comfort, pray, our loved ones
    And tell them, we’ve endured.
    And we shall see them yonder
    Eternally secured.
    Thy Word, O Lord, does teach us,
    And we do understand;
    Thy promises are with us
    Until the very end.
    Thou hast prepared a haven
    Praised be Thy holy name.
    We laud Thee, God of heaven,
    Through Christ, our Lord. Amen!

The commissioning ceremony was observed by the entire congregation. In most cases the missionaries were married men, leaving wife and children behind; occasionally wives went with their husbands. In the event that the missionaries would be executed by “sword and fire,” as expressed in the song, the Church was committed to take care {313} of their widows and orphaned children. 30

Committed to a high view of discipleship. The missionaries sent out from the main centers in South Germany, Switzerland, and Moravia were all men of noble character. Since they were committed to the concept of the Believer’s Church as a visible structure within society, they insisted that their converts live exemplary lives. “No one can truly know Christ,” they said, “unless he follow Him in life.” 31 This was precisely one point of tension between the Church of the Restitution and the corpus Christianum. The emphasis in the latter was on faith; but the Anabaptists stressed faith plus holy living. That is why every missionary had to undergo rigorous tests as to his ethical behavior before he was sent out by the Church. The Moravian churches (after 1565) had a special mission committee, a kind of sodality, whose members were well informed about both the missionary’s character and the needs and opportunities for mission work. It was the task of this committee to screen each of the candidates on the basis of his call, his gift, and his moral and spiritual qualifications. Their concept of discipleship under the Lordship of Christ covered all these areas.

Called to carry out the apostolic task. We find a close correlation between the call of the missionary to the apostolic task and the felt responsibility of the sending Church to help the individual carry out that task. Whenever possible, the field of ministry was clearly defined by the Church, taking into account such important matters as the education, trade, social status, culture, and language of the candidates. 32

As already noted, the missionaries were sent in apostolic teams to carry out their task. Since persecution was almost inevitable, the missionaries were usually sent in teams of three: 1) the Diener des Wortes, the preacher or teacher; 2) the Diener der Notdurft, the servant to the needs of others; 3) the gewoehnliche Bruder, the common lay brother. They as well as their families were supported by the sending Church, though professionals (like architects or engineers) sometimes supported themselves. 33 In the event that one of the team members was apprehended, the Church was immediately notified so that reinforcement could be sent and those in prison visited and supplied with food.

E. Obedience and Measurable Results

As we look at the missionary effort of the Anabaptist movement we are naturally interested in measurable results. Unfortunately, church records of the time are unavailable, and the numbers of recorded conversions are incomplete. Then, too, there are inconsistencies in the numbers recorded. Furthermore, no statistics are available concerning some of the best-known leaders of the movement. The success of the movement can, however, be demonstrated from the fragmentary data listed below. 34 {314}

It should be added that most of these missionaries died a martyr’s death and that their short time of service was interrupted by days, weeks, and even months of persecution and imprisonment. Nevertheless, congregations of believers sprang up almost overnight in many parts of Europe, especially after the 1527 missionary conference. By 1528, Austria was “dotted with Anabaptist Churches”; from 1532-39 the Tirol area was literally permeated with missionaries and young congregations, the number of which “grew daily.” 35

The famous sociologist Ernst Troeltsch has written extensively on the impact of the Anabaptists, whom he calls “an early premature triumph of the sectarian principles of the Free Church.” Troeltsch underscores their drive for missionary expansion in these words:

The whole of Central Europe was soon covered with a network of Anabaptist communities, loosely connected with each other, who all practiced a strictly Scriptural form of worship. The chief centers were Augsburg. Moravia, and Strassburg, and, later on, in Friesland and the Netherlands. 36

The German archivist Wilhelm Wiswedel, as well as professors Littell and Schaeufele, record similar achievements of the Anabaptist mission movement. Like Troeltsch, these scholars point out the growth of the church in Europe, adding that scores of missionaries were sent from these centers in all directions. 37 By the middle of the sixteenth century Anabaptist missionaries were preaching in every state of Germany, in Austria, Switzerland, Holland, France, Poland, Galicia, Hungary, and Italy. Several even went as far as Denmark and Sweden in the north and Greece and Constantinople in the south. The record of a conversation among early Swiss Anabaptists states that on one occasion they talked about going “to the red Indians across the sea.” 38 {315}

The cost of obedience, however, was great. Over 2,000 martyrs are known by name. One authority estimates that 4,000 to 5,000 “men, women, and children fell prey to water, fire and sword.” 39

Those who thus held themselves as sheep for the slaughter were dreaded and exterminated as if they had been wolves. They challenged the whole way of life of the community. Had they become too numerous, Protestants would have been unable to take up arms against Catholics and the Germans could not have resisted the Turks. And the Anabaptists did become numerous. They despaired of society at large, but they did not despair of winning converts to their way. Every member of the group was regarded as a missionary. Men and women left their homes to go on evangelistic tours. The established churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, were aghast at these ministers of both sexes insinuating themselves into town and farm. In some of the communities of Switzerland and the Rhine valley Anabaptists began to outnumber Catholics and Protestants alike. 40


By way of summary several vignettes inherent in the concept and practice of mission among the Anabaptists merit special accentuation. First, their radical obedience to the Great Commission must be interpreted in the light of their concept of discipleship on the one hand and the Lordship of Christ on the other. Second, as the Believers’ Church is Christo-centric, so the mission of that Church is ecclesiocentric; as Christ sends the Church into the World, so the Church sends the missionary across social, cultural, and geographical boundaries. Third, the Anabaptist Church considered the “apostolic band” to be a legitimate model for the extension and expansion of the new-found faith even in their time; such a model deserves close attention by the local congregations of our day. Finally, Christian witness and care was conceived of as a natural expression of every believer in the power of the Holy Spirit but also as a deliberate effort on the part of the Church, involving planned strategy for evangelization of unbelievers and for gathering new believers into local believers’ churches. Here God would be worshipped, honored, and obeyed.


  1. Latourette, History of Christianity, p. 781.
  2. The writer is aware of numerous studies in English, German, and Swedish dealing with the Reformers’ attitude to the great commission and missionary expansion but cannot enter upon these discussions here. A separate treatment of the subject is in progress.
  3. Warneck, Abriss einer Geschichte der protestantischen Mission, p. 9. The Reformers’ position on mission is discussed by J. Herbert Kane, Global View of Christian Missions from Pentecost to the Present, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971, p. 73ff and by Hans-Werner Genischen, “Were the Reformers Indifferent to Missions?” Student World, 53 (1960), pp. 119-127.
  4. Littell, Anabaptist View, p. 1.
  5. Littell, “Theology of Missions,” MQR, 21 (1947), pp. 10-11. {316}
  6. Schaeufele, “Anabaptist Laity,” MQR, 36 (1962), p. 100.
  7. Wiswedel, “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 40 (1943), p. 197.
  8. For a full treatment of contemporary missionary strategy see Wagner, Frontiers in Missionary Strategy and Stop the World, I Want to Get on It.
  9. Littell, “Theology of Missions,” MQR, 21 (1947), p. 13.
  10. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, edited by Guy F. Hershbberger, pp. 42-43.
  11. Wiswedel, “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 41 (1948), p. 124.
  12. Littell, Anabaptist View, p. 120.
  13. Blanke, Brothers in Christ, pp. 21-42.
  14. Ibid., p. 32.
  15. Schaeufele, Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, pp. 121-123.
  16. Littell, “Theology of Mission,” MQR, 21 (1947), pp. 15-16.
  17. Penner, Weltweite Bruderschaft, p. 20.
  18. I have chosen 1527 as the beginning of a planned mission strategy among the early Anabaptists. Others have suggested different dates. Schaeufele considers the first period to be from the beginning in Zollikon to 1530 when the movement in Switzerland had been severely reduced in momentum by banning and execution while in Holland it was just then beginning. See Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, p. 131. Littell dates the genesis of this period at 1533, the year when the movement in Moravia was fully established. See Anabaptist View, p. 121.
  19. Littell, Anabaptist View, p. 38.
  20. Moore, Der Starke Joerg, p. 35; Wenger, Even Unto Death, p. 24.
  21. Schaeufele, “Missionary Vision and Activity,” MQR, 36 (1962), p. 99.
  22. Ibid., pp. 104-105.
  23. Ibid., pp. 106-109.
  24. Littell, Anabaptist View, p. 112; see also Wiswedel, “Taefergemeinden,” AfRG, 41 (1948), p. 123.
  25. See Schaeufele, Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, p. 117 and Wiswedel, “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 40 (1943), p. 188.
  26. Wiswedel. “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 40 (1943), p. 196.
  27. Schaeufele. Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, pp. 122-123.
  28. Wiswedel, “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 41 (1948), p. 119f.
  29. Ibid., pp. 121-122.
  30. Schaeufele. Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, pp. 165-172.
  31. Ibid., p. 62.
  32. Ibid., p. 167-168.
  33. Ibid., p. 185.
  34. Ibid., pp. 238-246; Ernst Crous, “Anabaptism, Pietism, Rationalism and German Mennonites,” Hershberger, Recovery, pp. 237-238.
  35. Schaeufele. Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, p. 245.
  36. Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vol. II, 1950, p. 704.
  37. See Wiswedel, “Taeufergemeinden,” AfRG, 41 (1948), p. 123; Littell, Anabaptist View, p. 113; and Schaeufele, Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, p. 175.
  38. Moore, Der Starke Joerg, p. 29.
  39. Schaeufele, Das Missionarische Bewusstsein, p. 34.
  40. Bainton, The Reformation, pp. 101-102. {317}


  • Roland H. Bainton, Studies on the Reformation, Collected Papers in Church History, Series Two, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, pp. 117-208; The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952 (cit. Reformation); “The Great Commission,” Mennonite Life, October, 1963, pp. 183-189; “The Enduring Witness,” Mennonite Life, April, 1954, pp. 83-90.
  • Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, Guy F. Hershberger, ed., Scottdale: Herald Press, 1962.
  • Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ, The History of the Oldest Anabaptist Congregation; Zollikon, near Zurich, Switzerland, translated by Joseph Nordenhaug, Scottdale: Herald Press, 1966.
  • Ernst Crous, “Anabaptism, Pietism, Rationalism and German Mennonites,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, Guy F. Herschberger, ed., Scottdale: Herald Press, 1962.
  • Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church, The History and Character of Radical Protestantism, London: The Macmillan Company, 1968.
  • Walther Koehler, “Reformation and Mission,” Schweizerische Theologische Zeitschrift, 28 (1911), pp. 49-66.
  • Kenneth Scott Latourette, History of Christianity, New York: Harper, 1953.
  • Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church, second revised edition, Boston: Starr King Press, 1958, pp. 109-137 (cit. Anabaptist View); “Anabaptist Theology of Mission,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (cit. MQR), 21 (1947), pp. 5-17.
  • John Allen Moore, Der Starke Joerg, Die Geschichte Joerg Blaurocks, des Taeuferfuehrers and Missionars, Kassel: Oncken Verlag, 1955.
  • Horst Penner, Weltweite Bruderschaft, Karlsruhe: Verlag Heinrich Schneider, 1960.
  • Wolfgang Schaeufele, “The Missionary Vision and Activity of the Anabaptist Laity,” MQR, 36 (1962), pp. 99-115; of special significance is his book, Das missionarische Bewusstsein and Wirken der Taeufer, GmbH: Neukirchener Verlag des Erziehungsvereins, (cit. Das Missionarische Bewusstsein.) This is, to date, the first and only comprehensive history of Anabaptist mission based on original documents. It is available only in German.
  • Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vol. II, translated by Olive Wyon, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950.
  • C. Peter Wagner, Frontiers in Missionary Strategy, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971; and Stop the World, I Want to Get on It, Glendale: Regal Books, 1974, pp. 75-87. {318}
  • Gustav Warneck, Abriss einer Geschichte der Protestantischen Mission, Seventh edition, Berlin: Verlag von Martin Warneck, 1909.
  • John Christian Wenger, Even Unto Death, Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961.
  • Wilhelm Wiswedel, “Die alten Taeufergemeinden and ihr missionarisches Wirken,” Archiv fuer Reformationsgeschichte, 40 (1943), pp. 183-200; 41 (1948), pp. 115-132 (cit. AfRG).
Prof. Kasdorf teaches languages and missions at Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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