The term anabaptist literally means to rebaptise. However, these groups would not have seen themselves as ‘re’ baptising as they would not have recognised a person’s baptism as an infant as being a valid baptism. One of their core beliefs was that rather than baptise people when they are babies we should baptise people at an age when they can give their consent to what they promise at baptism.
It might be thought that today’s Baptist churches are an offspring of the anabaptist movement, but actually they have a different family root. The decedents of the anabaptist movement on sixteenth-century Europe are groups such as the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites.
The early anabaptists were harshly persecuted by both ‘magisterial Protestants’ (those who had a coalition with a governing power) and the Roman catholic church.
Although there were forerunners to these anabaptist groups they emerged most visibly in what was called the Radical Reformation. The magisterial Protestants were ‘established churches’ and their clergy received their salary from the state. Among the views held by those in the Radical Reformation was the complete separation of church and state. Their opinions received condemnation from Luther.
On December 27th 1521 three ‘prophets’ appeared in Luther’s Wittenberg from Zwickau (also in Germany). These three preached a radical alternative to Luther’s teaching based on their understanding of the end times. These three prophets were not anabaptist (they did not believe in believers’ baptism). However, they were an example of the form of radicalism that could arise out of reformation thinking.
These three prophets were influenced by, and were influences of, a man called Thomas Muntzer. Their preaching contributed to the sentiments that erupted in the Peasants’ War of 1525. Under the leadership of Muntzer the war was an attempt to create an idealised Christian commonwealth with complete equality among all citizens.
Zwingli was the leader of the reformation in Switzerland. He became the people’s priest at the Great Minster Church in Zurich in 1519. He influenced the thinking of the city through his biblical expositions. One area where Zwingli disagreed with Luther was on his embrace of the regulative principle of worship. The regulative principle of worship says that churches can only do what is commanded to do in Scripture. The alternative to the regulative principle of worship is the normative principle of worship, which means that churches are free to worship in other ways, as long as they are not forbidden in scripture. Zwingli’s views of worship meant that in Zurich churches tended to remove music and pictures.
Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were two supporters of Zwingli. But their study of the Bible led them to different conclusions than Zwingli regarding baptism and the relation of the church to the state.
Like the rest of Europe, in the city-state of Zurich infants were baptised and every baptised person was considered to be a member of the church. However, Grebel and Manz wanted a church that only consisted of those who truly believed. Zwingli opposed these new radicals.
Point of no return
In the autumn of 1524, Grebel’s wife had a son. The city rules said that this child must be baptised, but the Grebel’s refused. Other people began to follow their example and reuse to have their infants baptised too.
So, the city council organised a public debate. Of course, the influential Zwingli and his supporters were declared the winners and the council warned the dissenters that if they did not have their babies baptised within a week they would be banished from the city.
Rather than back down the anabaptists held their nerve. On 21st January 1525 about a dozen men gathered in the home of Felix Manz. Manz and Grebel had been ordered by the City Council to stop holding Bible studies. Those gathered prayed. Then one of the men, a former priest named George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him ‘in the apostolic fashion’. A number of men were baptised that night.
The group soon moved to the nearby town of Zollikon and set up a ‘free church’ (a church free from ties to the state).
However, the authorities in Zurich had no intention of letting this group do its own thing. They sent police to Zollikon to arrest the newly baptised men. When these anabaptists were released they went to surrounding towns sharing their gospel. On 7th March, 1526 the Zurich council declared that anyone found ‘re-baptising’ would be put to death by drowning. On 5th January 1527, Felix Manz was drowned. Blaurock was burned at the stake. During the years around the reformation anabaptists were put to death by burning, sword and, of course, drowning.
The Munster Rebellion
Anabaptist history has been stained by what is called the Munster rebellion.
Munster was a city near what is now the Netherlands. A group migrated to the city who were ‘apostles’ of a man called Jan Matthijs. Many of these people looked for the creation of the Lord’s ‘earthly kingdom’ in Munster. Matthijs expelled the bishop, Franz von Waldeck. So, the bishop of the region gathered the troops to besiege the city. Normally, anabaptists opposed the use of arms, however on this occasion they resorted to violence. The extremists gained control of the city Matthijs had prophesied that God’s judgement would come on the wicked and that he was a new Gideon. He took just twelve followers and took on the opposition. He was cut off from his band of soldiers, was killed, and his dead was placed on a pole for all the city to see (his genitals were nailed to the city gate).
A twenty-five-year-old former inn-keeper by the name of Jan von Leiden manged to seize power after Matthjs. He ruled with absolutely authority, believed that he was receiving new revelations from heaven, reinstated the Old Testament of polygamy and eventually took the title ‘King David’. He lived in luxury with his sixteen wives as the city starved. When the city fell to the troops von Leiden and other leaders were imprisoned. The most prominent of the leaders were tortured and executed in the marketplace of Munster. Their bodies were exhibited in cages which hung from one of the city churches.
Smalley comments, that ‘for centuries thereafter Europeans upon hearing “anabaptist” thought of the Munster rebellion. It stood for wide-eyed, religious fanaticism.’