Anabaptists

These groups, variously called the radicals or left wing of the Reformation, agreed in denouncing the baptism of infants. They held that only those who were old enough to understand the meaning of faith and repentance should be baptized. The majority of Christians regarded the baptism of infants as a most important Christian ordinance and as initiation into a state church. Generally the Anabaptists showed a deep moral earnestness, insisting on the primacy of Scripture and the separation of church and state. Some were millennialists, and others were pacifists and distrusted the state. They believed in a pure believers' church and strict church discipline.

The most biblical Anabaptism appeared and flourished in Switzerland, where it developed in Zurich in the time of Zwingli under the leadership of Conrad Grebel* and Felix Manz*; south Germany, where Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Denck* were the leaders; Moravia, where the Hutterites* were located; and the Netherlands and N Germany, where the Mennonite* movement grew. The movement began in 1523 in Zurich, where the Reformation caused the questioning of traditional values including the rite of baptism. Grebel and Manz preached and baptized adults in the Zurich area. Their success brought both converts and official persecution in 1526. Manz was drowned, and many of his followers and fellow preachers were exiled. Those who remained in Switzerland went underground, where the movement continued until the seventeenth century. Anabaptists who left this area spread the movement into S Germany and Moravia.

Strasbourg became the center for Anabaptism in Germany from 1527 until the establishment of the Magisterial Church. In 1533 both Capito and Bucer, leading reformers of that city, upset by the separatist tendencies of the Anabaptists, agreed in opposing them. Melchior Hoffman was another Anabaptist preacher who lived for a time in S Germany. His preaching bore little fruit in Strasbourg, but it led in Münster to the Anabaptists' gaining control. A man named John Matthys became leader, claiming that he was Enoch who should prepare the way for Christ by establishing the community of goods and doing away with all law codes. Many hundreds in the city were baptized, and “the ungodly” who would not submit to rebaptism had to flee or be slaughtered. Despite a siege and the death of Matthys, the Münsterites held out for more than a year before the defense collapsed; there followed the slaughter and torture of the defenders. This episode discredited the Anabaptist movement, and a wave of persecution swept the Low Countries. Tens of thousands of Dutch Anabaptists died during the sixteenth century, but from this persecution emerged the Mennonites.

The Anabaptists developed along with the Magisterial Reformation, but rejecting some of the important features of this reform, such as infant baptism and the state church, they became prophetic of free church life in our own time, and ancestors of the Baptists, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelders.* The Left Wing Reformation upheld the need for toleration and sealed this testimony with blood.

F.H. Littell, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (1964); G.R. Elton (ed.), The New Cambridge Modern History, II, pp. 119ff.; G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (1964).