Previous | Next

October 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 4 · pp. 366–71 

Anabaptism: The Enduring Legacy of a “Fanatic Aberration”

Peter Klassen

Occasionally, when surveying the panoramas of history, one sees certain movements and certain events which may rightly be regarded as having been “turning points” in the drama of human events. One such time of crucial change was the Reformation, when courageous critics of the human condition dared to ask questions that struck at basic presuppositions of society and dared to suggest answers that threatened established practice and hallowed tradition. It was a time of change, of rediscovery, of innovation—a time of upheaval and of the shaking of the foundations. For some, the rupturing of the old order represented a tragedy of the first magnitude; for others, it presaged a new era of hope and promise. Some, seeing the bold, defiant, figure of Luther could not be sure whether they saw a divine gift to a troubled world or a demonic incarnation of all that was evil. Even some advocates of reform finally decided, “Luther, there is nothing of God in you.”

Yet, for good or ill, those people and events, those movements and forces which we know as the Reformation, left a legacy of change, change so profound that its impact is still strong after four and one-half centuries. In that tumultuous age, when change tumbled upon change with dizzying rapidity, many looked for stability and certainty, for values and beliefs which might provide necessary guidance in the quest for spiritual and ethical wholeness.

Among those who dared to enunciate and practice a point of view at once arresting, different, and demanding, were the Anabaptists, part of the so-called “left wing” of the Reformation. They—at least many of them—raised questions and proposed answers which directly challenged both the political and religious establishments as well as the economic structures and intellectual systems of the time. These answers did not spring full-blown from the head of Jove. The ideals, beliefs, and expectations of the early Anabaptist movement were moulded and shaped in prayer and Bible study, in contemplation and dialogue, amid persecution and adversity. Some beliefs were refined, some discarded.

We need to remember that the Anabaptists never ascribed infallibility to their point of view and neither should we. Too often we shield a particular view from rigorous scrutiny by labeling it “Anabaptist.” But we do well to remember the Pauline injunction: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Sometimes, too, the methods were less than exemplary. One is reminded of how some {367} zealous Anabaptists, having concluded that a parish priest was not preaching the Gospel, physically barred him from his pulpit. Such methods bespeak a vigorous, robust, determination; they also warn us not to assume that everything is allowed simply by being associated with the Anabaptists. Even divine wisdom, when defended with diabolical means can become an instrument of evil.


Few beliefs of the Anabaptists cost them so dearly as their doctrine of the church, or, more precisely, their teachings on who constituted the church. For them, the church was the company of the forgiven and the committed—those who consciously sought a vital relationship with Christ. Such a bond was not automatic; it was the result of deliberate, thoughtful action, symbolized by baptism. Therefore, baptism could be administered only to the believer. Accordingly, the modern practice of believer’s baptism was born on that significant day, January 21, 1525, in the home of Felix Manz, the Benedictine monk.

But such actions constituted a threat to traditional views and practices. And so the Zurich government, with the blessing of Zwingli, prescribed the death penalty for those who engaged in what was called “Anabaptism,” or rebaptism. By January 5, 1527, Manz had become the first of the Anabaptists in Zurich to be put to death for daring to be true to his convictions. The city council, when it tried Manz, demonstrated its determination to prevent any rupture in the traditional ties between church and state. The two were not to be separated. Manz was to be put to death because he

taught doctrine (which) is harmful to the unified usage of all Christendom, and leads to offense, insurrection, and sedition against the government, to the shattering of the common peace, brotherly love, and civil cooperation and to all evil. Manz shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall tie his hands, put him into a boat, take him to the lower hut, there strip his bound hands down over his knees, place a stick between his knees and arms, and thus push him into the water, and let him perish.

Such pressures of persecution and martyrdom sometimes drove Anabaptists to acts of desperation, as in the attempt to establish a haven in Muenster. More often, the oppression caused the Anabaptists to spread their teachings to far-flung areas. Usually, the specter of death followed them. In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, Emperor Charles and his princes agreed that Anabaptism should be regarded as a capital offence throughout the Empire. The fate of many Anabaptists was similar to that of Michael Sattler, who was barbarously tortured, then burned at the stake. In the following decades, the number of martyrs multiplied. The massive tome, The Martyrs Mirror, recounts the death of some two thousand of them. {368} These accounts came predominantly from the Netherlands where another Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, became the symbol of the persecuted.


Thus born and shaped in the cauldron of suffering, Anabaptists developed a world-view which reflected the hostility of society. Their attitude toward political, social, and religious institutions was generally pessimistic. How could it be otherwise when these institutions were so often the agents of death and destruction? Twentieth-century man, nurtured in an environment of humanistic education, tends to forget the brutality and savagery which lie beneath a thin veneer of civilization. Yet even today, only a few pages of Gulag Archipelago is enough to suggest that man’s inhumanity to man is not simply a sixteenth century phenomenon.

In their inhospitable world, Anabaptists placed great stress upon the unity of believers and on the shared responsibilities within the community of the church. This mutuality embraced both the physical and the spiritual realms; indeed, Anabaptists realized that no dichotomy was possible. To divide them was to destroy both. And so it is not surprising to find that, for Anabaptists, the caring dimension of the church must include the total needs of fellow-believers.

Since the Anabaptists insisted on voluntary identification with the church, they also repudiated the view that the state should enforce the teachings of the church. Persuasion and example, rather than coercion, should be used to convey the message of truth. In an era when it was taken for granted that the power of the state should be used to prevent religious non-conformity, the Anabaptists championed religious toleration. It must be remembered that most Catholics and Protestants viewed such toleration as dangerous and irresponsible, for it simply permitted everyone to go to hell in his own way. Only centuries later would men come to recognize a right which we today take for granted: people must be free to believe or not to believe, to accept or reject theological teachings. Man’s conscience may not be coerced by the sword. Once again, the Anabaptists set forth an idea which was accepted only in the distant future.

At the same time, we should beware of idealizing the Anabaptist view of the state. Those who were bitterly persecuted tended to form a very negative concept of the state, and perhaps underestimated the positive, or even redemptive, role that government might play in God’s order of creation. In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, the earliest Anabaptist statement of faith, participation in government was condemned, for governments are “armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with true, righteousness, peace, faith. . . .” {369}

Unfortunately, later generations have too often tended to perpetuate this separation from political institutions even when the institutions have changed. Thus, descendants of Anabaptists have been slow to recognize that the unity of God’s redemption, which potentially embraces men as well as his institutions, does not allow us to dichotomize God’s world. Perhaps recent events in our own country suggest that those who differentiate too sharply between the religious and the political order do so to their own peril.


For most Anabaptists, the life of Christ supplied the guidelines for human relationships. The dignity and worth of one’s fellow-man must always be recognized. As Christ had loved all men, even his enemies, so also must the faithful follower answer hate and violence with love. Not surprisingly, Anabaptists repudiated war, suggesting that it was better to lose one’s right, even one’s life, than to kill others for one’s own sake. When opponents pronounced such beliefs unrealistic and impractical, the Anabaptists pointed to the suffering Christ. If he had declined to use physical force to defend himself, could the faithful follower do less?

Anabaptists also tended to reject the typical stratification of the various callings. The medieval church had built an elaborate hierarchy in which the few were called to special, holy and exalted office, far removed from the unholy masses. In churches, special screens symbolized this partition between the masses and the few called to holy service. In law, special courts recognized the privileges of the clergy. Now, in the sixteenth century challenge to traditional patterns, the Anabaptists insisted on the sacredness of the profane. All callings, when pursued to the glory of God, were holy. God was as much in the commonplace as in the exalted. The service of God was not restricted to holy orders, to the “religious” dimensions of life. Anabaptists also objected to the superior spiritual “rating” given certain professions, believing instead that there should be that equality which stems from our recognition that we are laborers together. None is master; all are servants.

It should not be assumed that this egalitarianism meant that all callings should be reduced to a secular commonality; rather, each one’s work was to be elevated to the level of service of God. Thus, peasant, merchant, artisan, and laborer all stood on the same high plane. Modern society has too often missed this emphasis and has simply secularized the sacred. The Anabaptists, instead of making the sacred profane, made the profane sacred. Thus, the dignity of work did not derive from a man’s station in life, nor the quality of his professions, nor the nobility of his birth, but rather from the spirit with which he carried out his task and from the faithfulness he demonstrated as he responded to his calling. Birth, rank, wealth, and {370} position were unacceptable criteria for categorizing the members of society.

Such an emphasis upon equality had necessary implications in the economic realm, and Anabaptists were keenly aware of the fact that when our Lord spoke of different economic levels, he invariably stood with the poor. Anabaptists taught that man should not regard his material possessions as his own; they were simply to be held in trust. Man could be no more than God’s steward. Economic resources were to be placed at God’s disposal. In concrete terms, this meant that they were to be placed at the disposal of the community of believers. Indeed, when new members were added to Anabaptist congregations, they were expected to subordinate their will to the collective wisdom of the community of the committed. This implied group, rather than individual, control over material possession. Similarly, the physical needs of one member became the shared need of the community just as physical blessings, economic success, became the opportunity of the group. No one was to enjoy success, or endure misfortune, in isolation. (Such a practice might not be without merit in our economic situation. Does it mean anything to us to see our neighbor unemployed?)

For some Anabaptists, this profound sense of community concern expressed itself in communal living; for others, it meant the continuation of traditional life styles, but with the subjection of one’s economic resources to the discernment of the body of believers, the local congregation. It should be noted that some Anabaptists found this price too high and left the movement, or were excluded from it. But to most Anabaptists it seemed inconceivable that anyone could claim a spiritual unity with others, and at the same time insist on independence and self-assertion in the material realm. Sometimes Anabaptists deplored the lack of a social conscience in those who prided themselves on their doctrinal purity. Menno Simons challenged the ministers of the state churches: “Where are the naked whom you have clothed, the hungry you have fed, the needy whom you have put up?” No one could bring such a charge against Menno. When a group of harassed Calvinists, who had shown no kindness towards the Anabaptists, found that their ship was stranded near Wismar, their rescuers were a number of Anabaptists, among them Menno Simons. It is not surprising that this life of shared concerns and of genuine mutual aid elicited the admiration of the enemies of Anabaptism, who generally viewed these practices as too utopian.

Anabaptists also challenged traditional ecclesiastical patterns as well as theological formulations of the reformers. Men such as Hans Denck could not be satisfied with convenient creedal statements and systematic dogmatic definitions. Such verbiage, Denck declared, was more likely to obscure the vision of God than to enhance and sharpen it. True faith was something to be experienced, not mentally {371} acknowledged or sacramentally infused. Salvation came through contact with God, not through intellectual appropriation of statements about God. For the Anabaptists, God was a God of history, who had involved himself in human activity and who continued to be part of the human experience. He was not to be defined in metaphysical terms; he was to be met on the stage of human history. God had never removed himself from his creation. Those who humbly and faithfully sought him would find him—through the written word, through nature, through quiet contemplation, through sharing with others. And only when God and man had entered into union could man become whole.

Here, for the Anabaptist, was the goal of the human quest; to become whole through union with God. Only in this way could man find redemption for himself, and help others to find it. God in history, here and now restoring broken humanity—this was the heart of the Anabaptist message. This was not simply the hope of the future; rather, it was the transforming reality of the present, the “tabernacle of God with man.”

Peter J. Klassen is Professor of History at California State University, Fresno.

Previous | Next