Radical Reformation

The term covers congeries of movements flourishing from the 1520s which were often initially indebted to the “magisterial reformation” of, e.g., Zwingli* and Luther,* but wished to push changes farther and on different bases. Especially in its earliest stages, the radical reformation was a continuation of medieval movements of lay piety, heresy, and social protest. It drew many recruits from peasants and lower orders of townspeople and craftsmen, who were then in economic difficulties.

A radical movement appeared early in Wittenberg, where Luther's colleague A.B. von Carlstadt* introduced a vernacular Mass, abandoned vestments and the use of images, adopted a thoroughly lay interpretation of the priesthood of all believers, and was drawn to a mystical Quietism. Prophets claiming direct inspiration from God influenced T. Münzer* who, combining genuine compassion for the poor with apocalyptic fanaticism, was killed in the Peasants' War.

In Zwingli's Zurich, radicals such as C. Grebel* appeared in 1525-26, questioning infant baptism, and those who survived magisterial persecution were dispersed widely. A lively movement in the Tyrol was begun by G. Blaurock* and J. Hutter (see Hutterites). In Moravia a moderate movement under the pacific conservative spiritualist B. Hubmaier and M. Sattler (d.1527) lost the support of rulers after the more socially radical J. Hut (c.1490-1527) arrived. The movement, reorganized more conservatively by Hutter, issued in the Hutterite communities.

Other radicals traveled down the Rhine; Strasbourg was the scene of lively debates, 1528-34, involving C. Schwenkfeld (see Schwenkfelders), S. Franck,* M. Servetus,* and M. Hofmann. The last inspired a strong movement (Melchiorites) in the Netherlands, long a hotbed of religious deviance, which became more militantly apocalyptic under the leadership of J. Matthijs and John of Leyden* and took over the Lutheran town of Münster (1535-36), set up a millennial community, restoring Paradise and Old Israel in anticipation of the universal rule of Christ; the practice of polygamy and the violent charismatic rule of the saints produced terror, and Catholic and Protestant forces combined to restore order after a long siege. Münster ensured that the term “Anabaptist”* symbolized, for over a century, social disorder and immorality; yet it was the last purgative outburst of visionary fanaticism in the radical movement. The future lay with more pacific Anabaptist church movements, like the Hutterites, the Mennonites,* and with a less orthodox, more rationalist wing in the Socinians.* Through such movements the radical reformation has continued to play an influential part in the history of Christianity.

The radical reformation was spasmodic, turbulent, and fragmented through persecution, travel, partisan strife, and theological debate. Its principles cannot therefore be characterized without allowing for large exceptions and paradoxes, but a sketch must be attempted here. Radical reformation rested on the thorough separation of the church and the world, of believer and unbeliever. It was not denied that sinners might be in the church; but no theoretical or practical concession was made to the presence of the unregenerate. The church was to be consistently defined as the company of true believers and disciples, one with the suffering and/or exalted Christ, and so not essentially conditioned by the world or the flesh. They had little patience with Luther's Augustinian theology of election and bondage of the will and the consequent acceptance of the hiddenness of the true church. Believers' baptism and the ban (excommunication), the distinctive life of the church, gathered in brotherly love and separate from the world (abstention from secular office, bearing the sword, oaths), and the experience of martyrdom as the climax of the practical imitation of Christ were all fruits of a quest for the visibility of the true church.

This stress on visibility went with a cultivation of inward spirituality, which occasionally made outward forms unnecessary (Schwenkfeld, Socinus), but more commonly was treated as their basis. This deeply felt spiritual unity with Christ sometimes produced unorthodox christologies, and was the basis for the spiritualist exegesis of Scripture, since it was held that spiritual experience not academic learning was the key to Scripture-in part this was a lay attack on professionals. Generally the movement did not bypass Scripture, but claimed to read it spiritually, and often this meant literally, to the point of challenging the reason or order of the world.

The movement was constantly inspired by the biblical concept of the people of God; sometimes this was understood more in terms of the warlike saints of some parts of the OT, or of Christ's suffering pacific people.

Not all the radical groups were initially Anabaptist, but the practice became increasingly important and widespread. Rebaptism was significant because it not only effected a visible church of confessing believers and was a restoration of primitive Christian practice; but implied also a break with the partnership of church and civil order, essential to Christendom, in which paedobaptism ensured that all citizens could be treated as Christians. Reformers like Zwingli who were occasionally attracted by the biblical arguments for believers' baptism resisted the radicals so harshly because they wished to reform, not to destroy, the traditional order of Christendom.

See G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962).