A Brief Introduction to Anabaptist History

September 15, 2015

This piece was developed for a small group that traces its roots to the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation in 1525.  Like so many groups with a unique and troubled history of attempted faithfulness, the modern progeny of those devout New Testament students sometimes lose sight of the vision of New Testament living that drove their antecedents to risk, and often to sacrifice, their very lives in their search for New Testament Christianity.

Perhaps many of you are also unaware of the serious devotion to Scriptural principles of the folks whom the formal “Reformers” tagged with the label, “Anabaptist heretics.”  It is for this reason that I am including it among my postings of New Testament studies, in the  hope that it may contribute to the “Recovery of the Anabaptist vision” among people who, although they may or many not share that heritage, find the New Testament descriptions of the early church to be attractive, and worth the effort to emulate.

May we all become better acquainted with the Lord Jesus, as we seek together to “follow him in life”!

A Brief Look at Early Anabaptist History

I usually prefer to use the opportunities I am given to share, to examine some specific aspect of the New Testament. But Tim Wyse’s testimony a couple weeks ago was such an excellent summary of what a gathering of folks of Anabaptist persuasion should be, that I feel compelled, for the benefit of those who, like me, did not grow up acquainted with the reasoning behind much of our history, to highlight some significant parts of Anabaptist beginnings, in the hope that perhaps at some point we may all engage together in a more in-depth look at “where we came from” as a guide to “where we are going.” This is an attempt, neither to idealize, nor much less to idolize, the past, but to learn from it.

Tim, as you may recall, attributed much of the attractiveness of our little group to “a focus on discipleship rather than doctrine.” This matches the statement on our bulletin very well.
There could be no distinction more appropriate for a group of Anabaptist origin.
That is not at all to discredit the importance of “what one believes”, but rather to push beyond the theoretical, to ask “OK, now, what are we going to DO about it?”, a question which most other groups answer, if at all, in very different ways.

Of primary importance to this question is a proper linguistic understanding of the word usually translated “faith”, which actually would be better understood if rendered “faithfulness” or “loyalty”. It was classically a very practical word, not at all theoretical. If you are curious, please check out the very first word study in my online collection. Or try substituting “loyalty to Jesus” in places where you are accustomed to reading “faith”, and you will begin to see the difference it makes.
It is precisely that difference for which our forefathers (spiritual, if not genealogical) gave their lives.

There is an old saying, most frequently applied to social or political issues, “Those who choose not to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is readily observed on the world scene, where formerly oppressed individuals or groups who become “liberated” waste no time in becoming the oppressors of their former masters, or even of former fellow-victims, and the cycle repeats endlessly, just with a different “alpha dog” on top of the pile. Examples abound around the world, whether of national, ethnic, religious, racial, gender, or any other origin.
Sadly, the self-proclaimed followers of the Prince of Peace have evidenced little deviation from this pattern.

When the emperor Constantine, in the early 4th century, declared that “Christianity”, the formerly persecuted minority, was to be the officially recognized “religion” of his empire, “conversion” and baptism became a legal requirement rather than a daring departure from convention. Only political loyalty and submission to ceremonial duties, were required, after the pattern of the earlier “worship” of the Caesars. It had little, if anything, to do with anyone’s way of life. Officials of the already-growing church hierarchy hailed as a victory,what was in actuality an ignominious defeat for a true NT church.

The problem with that is, commitment to Jesus was never intended to be a “religion” – simply one of many ways for people to attempt to understand and manipulate powers that are beyond common human control. JESUS DID NOT COME TO ‘START A RELIGION’, NOR TO REFORM AN EXISTING ONE! By his own testimony, he came that his people might have LIFE (Jn.10:10), and have it abundantly!

I have often previously quoted Solomon’s excellent summary: “He did not come to tell us what to think but to SHOW us how to live.” The “inaugural address” of Jesus’ Kingdom (Lk.4) detailed “good news to the poor, healing broken hearts, release for captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed!” I have never seen any of those items in the “doctrinal statement” of any group, have you? If that was Jesus’ agenda, why is it not the agenda of those who claim to follow him?

It certainly did not describe Constantine’s agenda, or that of the burgeoning church hierarchy! As the clerical and political hierarchies merged and their wealth and power increased, the true King’s “Inaugural” lay pretty much forgotten. When an occasional brave soul advocated any of its principles, such an advocate was either peremptorily disposed-of, or elevated to “sainthood”– either one of which conveniently marginalized their influence on the average person.

The powerful church-state alliance established, and canonized, very carefully crafted statements of “doctrine”/ “belief” to which all were required to subscribe, on pain of exile, or even death. What the religious rulers had been unable to achieve by persuasion, they demanded by legislation – a very 21st century “solution” which really belongs to the middle ages!   (NOT the editorial pages!)
Compulsory assent to official pronouncements or accepted “doctrines” forcibly replaced the loving, mutually sharing brotherhood which had been the lifeblood of the early, persecuted church.

It was into this atmosphere that a tiny spark of light exploded, and became a conflagration that had to be reckoned with, in the early 16th century. “Reformers” had already tried to tackle some of the most egregious abuses by the powerful, but they all allowed their “reforms” to be vetted, approved (or not), and regulated by the political rulers, and tried to fix things by simply creating new hierarchical structures to replace the old: the power of the state was still invoked to enforce the submission of everyone in a given territory.

But in a small home near Zurich, in January of 1525, a small group of students who had been introduced by the reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, to Erasmus’ compilation of the Greek text of the New Testament, had finally had enough of waiting. Having compared the findings of their New Testament study to what claimed to be “the church”, they realized that the results just didn’t match! That’s exactly what happened to me as a college student.
With no official or clerical authority or approval, they declared their intention to follow Jesus Christ in their whole life, baptized each other in testimony to that commitment, and at the same time, ordained each other to spread the word – the New Testament – that had encouraged them to do so. And all the drownings, burnings, tortures, and assorted other abuses heaped upon them by both political and religious officials could not quench that flame. It spread like wildfire.

Do you see any parallel here? The early church had thrived and spread throughout the empire, despite brutal persecution by Rome. The Swiss Brethren, likewise brutalized, spread rapidly through Switzerland, Germany, and surrounding territories: so rapidly that the more institutionally-inclined reformers were alarmed, and turned up the heat on the “heretics”.
What was their “heresy”? It was perhaps best defined by Hans Denk, who simply stated: “No man may truly know Christ, except he follows him in life.”

As summarized by historian Harold Bender, “The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity that made regeneration, holiness, and love a matter of intellect, doctrinal belief, or subjective experience, rather than the transformation of life.” For them , the operative word was not “faith”, a theoretical concept independent of observable evidence, but “following”, for which any “theology” might perhaps be a means, but certainly not an end.
Even their enemies recognized this, and a “godly life” was frequently cited in trials as proof that someone was an Anabaptist, and the person was thereby condemned, either to drowning or the stake!

Two years after the initial meeting, a group of brethren under the leadership of Michael Sattler (who was martyred soon thereafter), met to define their points of departure from the state-church system.
The resulting “Schleitheim Confession” did not focus on any “doctrinal” deviation from the basic theology professed by the official churches. It’s seven brief articles dealt specifically with the resultant behavior to which the brethren had committed themselves. Primary was the voluntary nature of the church. The baptism of mature adults at their own request, careful discipline within the group, and the informal celebration of the breaking of bread among the committed, were all outgrowths of this principle, and “separation from the world” (a phrase later badly abused, as if it had been instituted as a new “Law”) was simply the observable result of their commitment. As part of their rejection of any and all coercion, they rejected both “the sword” (political coercion) and the oath (a follower of Jesus was committed to absolute truthfulness on every occasion.) Out of necessity, they also detailed the rapid replacement of their leaders, since martyrdom was so frequent. Notice that nothing whatever was said about “doctrinal” issues. Accused of “trying to abolish the clergy”, someone is said to have retorted, “Not at all: in obedience to Jesus Christ, we intend to abolish the laity”!

In those turbulent early years, councils, debates, and “disputations” were convened by various authorities to halt the spread of “heresy”, but to no avail. Every faithful person had become a preacher/evangelist!

In 1531, a “disputation” was arranged, in which the principals were Martin Bucer, an ally of Martin Luther, and advocate of a “Christendom” promoted and coerced by civil authority, and Pilgram Marpeck, who considered the gathered church to be an extension of the Incarnation of Christ, (detailed in word study #150), an “advance party” of his Kingdom. Marpeck maintained that in order to create a true community, one’s commitment must of necessity be voluntary. True faithfulness can never be coerced.

Bucer, on the other hand, argued that the church was a continuation of the Old Testament “people of God”, and equated baptism with circumcision, to which all children must be subjected, and by which they were obligated to eventual membership. He therefore held the OT to be of equal authority with the New – the “flat book” approach advocated even today by many denominations, self-designated “evangelicals”, and even some who claim Anabaptist roots, and therefore ought to know better!

Bucer also insisted that the civil government was “ordained” to enforce this system. Consequently, of course, since he maintained that it was the duty of the state to enforce conformity, Bucer was declared to have “won” the debate.

Marpeck did not reject the OT, but considered it merely preparatory, and saw the relation between the testaments as “preparation vs. fulfillment”. He held that where there was conflict, the New must always take precedence. Jesus made the deciding call, and served as the prime example.

Notice, that here, too, the Anabaptist objections were practical, not theological. The basics of “belief” were challenged only as they impinged upon the expected behavior of the “church” and its members. It was the practical outworking of commitment to Christ that was in question.
None of these debates or arguments even touched on the “theological” issues so carefully defined, proof-texted and footnoted by modern “defenders of the faith.” That preoccupation has been copied from 19th and early 20th century Fundamentalism. It was nowhere present in historical Anabaptism.

In his essay, “The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision”, Harold Bender highlights three areas where the Anabaptist brethren departed from the prevailing norm:

  1. The essence of Christianity is discipleship: the transformation of one’s life according to teaching of Jesus. Life is expected to be observably different.
  2. An entirely new concept of church as voluntary, not automatic, and definitely NOT an adjunct to state citizenship. Church is expected to be observably different.
  3. The ethic of love and nonresistance in all human relationships, which allows no room for coercion of any kind: theological, civil, or military. Members are no longer under the Old Covenant, expected to do battle on behalf of their god, but now serve the Prince of Peace, in a lifestyle patterned after his.

Please note that they were not trying to change the prevailing social order, but to create a new one!
They neither made nor imposed any rules upon people outside of their own committed group.
They never expected to be a majority – persecution was assumed, and for over 200 years, even after the initial executions subsided, advocates of the “free” or voluntary church were hounded from their homes and property. Sheltered by the occasional compassionate local potentate, they took refuge wherever it could be found: in the Netherlands, Moravia, some German duchy areas, and even czarist Russia!

In the early 18th century, battered from centuries of abuse, with most of their original leadership executed, those who eventually found refuge in “Penn’s Colony” just wanted to be left alone. For a time, they maintained their defensive isolation– and who could blame them? It was pleasant not to be constantly running and hiding in order to survive. I could still take you to Pennsylvania churches where an opening prayer would predictably include “We thank thee that we may gather here today unmolested and undisturbed”!

But peace has its own perils. Both the descendants of the folks who had received Constantine’s decree with a sigh of relief, and the progeny of those who found refuge in Penn’s colony, eventually learned: The absence of overt opposition can quickly dull the edge of commitment.

Although it is noted by some Church of the Brethren historians, that when in 1719, Benjamin Franklin asked their elders to provide a “creed”, and a list of “officials”, in order that they might be enrolled as a legitimate “church”, they refused, saying “We have no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but the Lord Jesus Christ”, one would be hard-pressed to find such a response today. (We have tried!)

And what a contrast is the brief but bold statement that emerged at Schleitheim, to the so-called “Mennonite Confession of Faith”, with its 20 lengthy articles, fully half of which appear to be designed to identify with evangelical protestantism rather than to describe a difference, and only one of which refers to the group’s official attitude toward the state.

Have we so completely lost sight of the central principles by which our forebears governed their lives – and for which they even gave their lives?
How did nearly five centuries of persecuted minority status become a burden instead of a badge of honor?
Is a retreat to “doctrine” always safer than an exemplary life, and therefore to be preferred?

In the last half-century, a few voices have again been raised in advocacy of a deliberate, even if costly, choice of discipleship over the comfort of a passive reliance upon “accepted doctrine”. This is a hopeful sign.

But have you noticed how many of the agenda items for “official” meetings (which are announced as being open only to “credentialed” individuals) in recent years have been issues already noisily aired in the popular press?

Or how frequently the announced “conclusions” are also those already “approved” by the general populace, or proclaimed in national legislation?

I am not saying that we were better-off being burned and drowned – not idealizing the days when faithfulness meant a peremptory death sentence. But have we really deliberately decided, with the rest of society, that it is more appropriate to “fit in” than to wrestle with the challenge of discipleship? Or have we just carelessly slouched into that stance?

What will we do, if we again find ourselves placed into a position where we must make a choice?

We need to make every effort to become fully aware of the alternatives and their implications, in order that we may choose faithfully.


Suggested resources for Anabaptist History:

The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision – ed.Guy Hershberger, 1957

Becoming Anabaptist –J.Denny Weaver – 1987

The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism – Franklin Littell, 1964

Introduction to Mennonite History – C.J.Dyck, 1974

The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder, 1972

The Priestly Kingdom – John Howard Yoder, 1984

The Believers Church– Donald Durnbaugh, 1970