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1955 Article

Sixteenth Century Usage

"Anabaptist" is actually a Greek word meaning "rebaptizer," used in church Latin from the 4th century onward, and appearing at least as early as 1532 in the English, seldom used in 16th-century German or Dutch, where the translation Wiedertäufer and Wederdooper is used from the beginning of Anabaptist history in 1525. It was never used by the Anabaptists themselves but often vigorously objected to by them because of the opprobrium and criminal character attached to the name. Its introduction and constant use by the enemies of the Anabaptists can best be explained by the fact that the imperial law code from Justinian's time (A.D. 529) on, made rebaptism one of the two heresies penalized by death, the other being Antitrinitarianism. Thus to classify the Reformation radicals as "Anabaptists" made them at once legally subject to condemnation and execution, although it still remained necessary for each local jurisdiction to implement the basic code. (Thus Zürich did not decree the death penalty for Anabaptists until 1526.) The first imperial mandate (4 January 1528, Speyer) against the Anabaptists specifically grounds the required suppression on the ancient imperial law as follows: "Since in both ecclesiastical and civil law Anabaptism (der Widertauf) is forbidden under severe penalties, and since the imperial code decrees and orders, on pain of the highest penalty of death, that no one shall have himself baptized a second time or baptize another . . . . "

The very first literary attacks on Anabaptism (Zwingli's Von der Taufe, von der Wiedertaufe, und von der Kindertaufe of May 1525, and Oecolampadius' Ein Gespräch etlicher Predicanten zu Basel gehalten mit etlichen Bekennern de, Wiedertaufe, also of 1525) use the term Wiedertäufer. The Latin writings likewise use Anabaptists (e.g., Faber's Adversus Doctorem Balthasarum Pacimontanium, Anabaptistarum Nostri Saeculi, Primum Authorem, Orthodoxae Fidei Catholica Defensio of 1528). However, in Zwingli's testimony against the local Anabaptists before the Zürich court in March 1525 he uses the term Täufer exclusively. Strangely enough, Zwingli uses the term "Catabaptist" in his major attack against the group in 1527, In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, instead of "Anabaptist."

It has sometimes been assumed that the evil connotation of the epithet Anabaptist is associated primarily with the dreadful Münster episode of 1534-1535. However, the fairly extensive polemic literature of the period before that time, written by Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bader, Rhegius, Faber, Bugenhagen, Menius, Bullinger, and others, gives abundant evidence that it was a designation of severest reproach and condemnation long before Münster. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 condemns the "Anabaptists" specifically in three articles, though in part based on misinformation. Abundant citations could be given showing that the term "Anabaptist" in all its forms and translations was always essentially one of condemnation as of grievous heresy and crime. More, in his Confutation of Tindale's Works (1532), speaks of "pernitious and Anabaptistical opinions." This completely evil connotation of the name, which makes it truly an opprobrious epithet, carried through the 16th century and on down through the following centuries until modern times. It is this sense of condemnation and execration which has made some modern historians, particularly Mennonites, hesitate. to use it, but usage is gradually overcoming the objectionable sense.

An illustration of the strong objection by those, dubbed Anabaptists to its application to them is the title of Dirk Philips' Dutch tract written in 1545 but first published as the fourth part of his Enchiridion in 1564, which reads as follows: Een Apologia, ofte verantwoordinghe, dat wy (die van de werelt met grooten onrecht Anabaptisten gescholden worden) gheen wederdoopers noch sectemakers en zijn; maer dat wy een zijn met de rechte Ghemeynte Gods die van aenbeginne gheweest is. (An Apology or Reply, that we who are by the world with great injustice accusingly called Anabaptists are no re-baptizers nor sect-makers, but that we are one with the true church of God which has been from the beginning.)

The original use of "Anabaptist" in the 4th and following centuries was to refer to the rebaptism of those who had been baptized by heretics, or of those who had been baptized by bishops who had temporarily and partially recanted under persecution. There was considerable controversy over both points in North Africa; over the former from Tertullian's time on (A.D. 200) and over the latter in Augustine's time (Donatist controversy). In both cases the Roman bishop's position won out, namely, that rebaptism should not be required nor permitted. Those who insisted on rebaptism were in effect repudiating therefore the authority of the church.

The Anabaptists of the Reformation period, however, did not repudiate infant baptism because they denied the validity of office of the bishop or the authority of the church (although they did in fact deny both) but rather because they denied the readiness of an infant to receive baptism on New Testament terms. They called for baptism only on confession of faith and commitment to discipleship by the candidate. They denied that infant baptism was baptism at all and hence denied that they were "rebaptizers." However, their real objection to the name "'Anabaptist" was not this minor technical one; it was rather their refusal to be classed as heretics and to be reckoned as not being the true church. Their intensity of feeling on this must be understood in the light of their deep conviction that they were the true church and that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches were the false churches. Naturally also they did not wish to be classed as heretics subject to the death penalty merely on the basis of an epithetical identification with the Anabaptists of earlier centuries whom the imperial law condemned to death. They wished to stand on their own faith and to have their testimony and doctrine received on its own merits.

Although the meaning put into "Anabaptist" before 1535 was bad enough, additional overtones were added after Münster. Already frightened by the rapid spread as well as obstinate steadfastness and evident spiritual power of the movement, and already firmly believing the Anabaptists to be a threat to the existing order and social stability, the leaders of church and state were now sure of it for the Münsterites were actually militant revolutionaries and perverters of Christian ethics.

Hitherto the Anabaptists had lived irreproachable lives, but now the scandalous behavior of the King of Münster and his henchmen was known to all. So the invective against the Anabaptists now rises to a shrill crescendo. The Protestants in particular were concerned to vindicate themselves of the Catholic charge of complicity in and responsibility for the Anabaptists by going to extreme lengths of condemnation. The epithet "Anabaptist" was thus filled with even more venom than before, if that could be possible. It became the synonym for everything dangerous to church and state, much like "Bolshevik" or "Communist" in 1950s America.

Furthermore, the epithet was used indiscriminately of all types of left-wing groups, whereby the sins of the worst were applied to all. In retrospect Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt in 1525, was now dubbed an Anabaptist and his sins were added to the others. In fact, he came to be thought of as the originator and most typical leader of the movement, even though he never practiced nor taught rebaptism, and had no connection with the true Anabaptist movement.

The Anabaptists themselves used no common name, indeed they were not a unified organized movement throughout, although the Swiss-South German, Dutch-North German, and Hutterite wings were soon separately organized and disciplined. Their most common self-designation was "Brethren." Because of the strong leadership of Jakob Hutter (d. 1535) among the Moravian Anabaptists, who adopted community of goods, this group was soon called "Hutterisch" or the "Hutterian Brethren," while the non-communist group being originally of Swiss origin was called "Swiss Brethren," even though they lived in many places outside of Switzerland such as the lower Rhine region. In Holland after 1545 the group came to be called "Mennists" after their chief leader Menno Simons, a name which gradually developed into "Mennonist" and then "Mennonit," although early in the 17th century "Doopsgezind" (German, "Taufgesinnt") came into use in Holland and ultimately superseded "Mennonit." Thus at least one syllable of the original "Wederdooper" is retained in the modern designation of the descendants of the original Dutch Anabaptists.

The 17th-century English Baptists took the major part of "Anabaptists" for their name and passed it on down to their 10,000,000 modern spiritual descendants. The 19th-century Baptists of Germany however did not take "Täufer," the proper translation, for their name, but instead, "Baptisten." It remained for modern German scholars to adopt the term "Täufer" as the designation for the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, thus taking up Zwingli's early 1525 word instead of 'Wiedertäufer." -- Harold S. Bender

Modern Interpretations of "Anabaptist"

The German word Täufer has a definite meaning and is applied exclusively today to those evangelical Anabaptists who represent the ancestors of today's Mennonites all over the world. German church historiography has generally abandoned the terms Anabaptisten and Wiedertäufer; Dutch historians use the terms Doopers or Doopsgezinden for the German Täufer. In English, American, and French church historiography, however, the term Anabaptist (Dutch Wederdooper, German Wiedertäufer, French Anabaptiste) is used in a much broader and more inclusive sense to cover all types of radicals of the Reformation period. Basically the word "Anabaptist" indicates nothing more than the rejection of infant baptism (on whatever ground) and the consequent practice of adult baptism or baptism on confession of faith. This general principle was, in the 16th century, held by many different groups which can scarcely be thrown together indiscriminately under the heading "Anabaptist" in the sense that it is used in this encyclopedia (although from the 16th to the 18th centuries it was almost universally so used in Europe). For instance, the Socinian Polish church accepted this principle without belonging to what generally is called Anabaptism. The same is true of scattered groups in England in the 16th century, which sometimes are called Anabaptists, or with scattered individuals of the "enthusiastic" fringe who have only a very loose connection with the main body of evangelical Anabaptists, or the fanatical revolutionary Münsterites of 1534-1535. Professor Bainton of Yale, for instance, almost identifies the term "Anabaptist" with what he calls Left-Wing Protestantism in general, that radical wing of widely varied types which pressed for complete separation of state and church, and at the same time for a believers' or gathered church. (In German church history, mainly through the work of E. Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, 1931, first German edition, 1912, the term "sect" is used for these groups in general. Unfortunately it is not applicable in English and American church history.) It is quite obvious that this interpretation of the concept of Anabaptism is much too broad to be usefully applied to any one distinct body. Not all Protestant groups which practice adult baptism can be classified as Anabaptists, as can be clearly seen, for instance, in the distinction between Anabaptists and Baptists. But even so, the term still needs a more precise definition whereby a distinction must also be drawn between the stillen Täufer or evangelical Anabaptists (see Church History, 1940, 362) who accept the principle of nonresistance, and all other related groups which decline nonresistance, and accept the "sword" as a positive instrument. To this latter group may be counted the millennialist Münsterites and their partisans in Holland and elsewhere. (Troeltsch suggested the term "Taborites" for this type. In English church history the "Fifth Monarchy Men" would fall under this category.)

As a matter of fact, the phenomenon of Anabaptism has been subjected to manifold and widely varying interpretations, and even in the 1950s, with greatly improved factual knowledge, there was no complete agreement among church historians regarding its understanding and definition.

Anabaptism certainly does not simply mean (a) the refusal of infant baptism for whatever reason. Even the reformers themselves, Luther and Zwingli, admitted in the earlier years of their work that infant baptism is without Scriptural basis. (b) Nor is Anabaptism the same as fanaticism (Schwärmertum, Schwarmgeisterei). This is the traditional confusion mainly among Lutherans (e.g., Karl Holl) because Luther himself called all his opponents Schwärmer, i.e., people who have replaced Biblical theology with personal inspiration, special illumination, or private revelations. It is quite obvious that most Anabaptists were far from any such fanaticism (which they hated just as much as did Luther). Their strict Biblicism is beyond doubt; it was at once their strength and their limitation. (c) Anabaptism has hardly anything in common with traditional millennialism, even though certain millennialists favored and still favor adult baptism (e.g., the Münsterites, the Fifth Monarchy Men, later some Pietists). Millennialism was for Anabaptists always but a marginal idea. Finally (d) Anabaptism should not be confused with Antitrinitarianism as has so often been done and still occasionally is done (Dunn-Borkowski and Wilbur: see Antitrinitarianism). The Polish Socinians, though practicing adult baptism, declined any connection with western Anabaptism; and yet, Wilbur still considers many early Anabaptists as forerunners of Unitarianism. Thus all these interpretations expanded the term "Anabaptist" into a general concept of Free Church Protestantism, by which the concept of genuine Anabaptism loses its character and its meaningfulness.

We now turn to modern attempts at positive definition or delineation of the concept of Anabaptism.

  1. By way of introduction credit should be given to the work of the German historian Ernst Troeltsch (d. 1923), whose distinction between "church" and "sect," mentioned above, was a great step forward in church historical analysis. The Troeltsch term "sect" corresponds approximately to the English "gathered" or believers' church. Unfortunately, for Troeltsch Anabaptism coincides almost completely with this concept of sectarianism, even though a healthy distinction is presented between the "evangelical" or nonresistant groups and Taborites who accept the "sword." That the concept of "sect" with Troeltsch is too broad can be seen from the fact that he includes also the German Pietists and the English Methodists in this class. The more advanced distinction between an ecclesiastical church type, a denominational church type, and the sect type (J. Wach) was not yet known to Troeltsch. Hence he cannot visualize either the temptation of later Anabaptism (and Mennonitism) to slip away from the original path of brotherhood and to transform itself more and more into a denomination.
  2. Roland H. Bainton (Journal of Religion 21, 1941, 124-134) discusses the main features of the left-wing groups, pointing out a tradition in Protestantism which extols the heretics (Ketzer) for being radical, that is, Nonconformists. Sebastian Franck (1531) uses for the first time this term "heretic" in a positive sense (somewhat concordant to Troeltsch's concept of "sect"); the same is done by Gottfried Arnold in his Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (1699), which is followed by other similar treatments. This approach, though enlightening, is still too comprehensive.
  3. A. Ritschl (d. 1889) construed his church history (Geschichte des Pietismus, 1883) rather artificially, without any deeper understanding of Anabaptism. He drew a line of tradition from the Third Order of the Franciscans (Tertiarii) to the Anabaptists and from them to the Pietists, even though no immediate contact between these groups could be demonstrated. To be sure, there are certain similarities and points of contact but the genius of these three movements is radically different so that this construction is of little value. Ritschl erroneously calls the Anabaptists "medieval," due to their emphasis upon what he calls "works" (i.e., practiced discipleship). For similar reasons also K. Holl misinterprets the Anabaptists, taking their practical Christianity as a form of Catholic works-righteousness (gaining merit through works), which Lutherans strictly abhor. This kind of church historiography with borrowed terms does not lead very far and is more confusing than helpful—though still widely accepted.
  4. Ludwig Keller goes further along this line of construed church history but with much richer material at hand and a more sympathetic understanding of the "heretics." He visualized the existence of sect-like "Old-Evangelical Brotherhoods" throughout the centuries which kept a sort of underground contact among themselves, seeing a long line of tradition in church history of such brotherhoods (with similar patterns of life). In particular he ties the Waldenses very closely to the early Anabaptists. This still unproved Waldensian origin theory, started in the 17th century by H. Montanus, was popular for a long time but must be abandoned today in view of the results of modern research. No contact with Waldenses could be found, and, what weighs more, the genius of the two groups is very different. Keller was deceived by certain similarities (such as nonconformity) just as Ritschl and Troeltsch were deceived. Yet it must be admitted that Keller has greatly advanced our understanding of the earlier history of Anabaptism.
  5. Anabaptists were no mystics either, as for instance Rufus M. Jones (Studies in Mystical Religion, 2nd ed. 1923) has interpreted them. It is true that in the earliest period of Anabaptism some outstanding leaders manifested mystical traits, but in general the simple Biblicistic life of the Brethren is very different from that of mystically oriented men and women. Even though Anabaptists and Quakers have a number of traits in common (above all their nonresistance), and contacts between the two groups have always been cordial and sometimes close, they are rather different types.
  6. Johannes Kühn (Toleranz und Offenbarung, 1923) was perhaps the first to clearly recognize and analyze the independent character of the Anabaptists, and put them on an equal level with related phenomena in church history. He distinguished within "Biblical" Protestantism five major types which he called prophetic (Luther), spiritualistic (Schwenckfeld, Roger Williams), Täuferische Nachfolge (combining both Anabaptists and Quakers, the latter the corresponding group in England), mystical (D. Joris, J. Boehme), and ethical-rationalistic (Arminians, Spener). The discipleship idea (imitatio Christi) is to Kühn the distinguishing feature of the Anabaptists; it implies both brotherly love and Gelassenheit (inner surrender, conquest of selfishness, yieldedness). This certainly holds true for Anabaptists as well as for Quakers. What actually distinguishes them most is the theology of martyrdom of the Anabaptists which, however, Kühn does not follow up.
  7. Those who have followed the socio-economic interpretation of history have classified the Anabaptists primarily as social revolutionaries of the lower classes, or even as forerunners of modern Socialism or Communism, rather than as a religious movement. See, e.g., Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation (1897).
  8. Max Göbel first (Geschichte des Christlichen Lebens in der Rheinisch-Westfälisch evangelischen Kirche, 1848-4189), followed by many others, particularly John Horsch, d. 1941, holds that Anabaptism is merely a consistent evangelical Protestantism, seeking to recreate without compromise the original New Testament church, the culmination of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli.
  9. Alfred Hegler and Ernst Troeltsch distinguished the individualistic "Spiritualists" like Hans Denck, Johannes Bünderlin, and others, from the true Anabaptists who were anything but individualists, holding strongly to group discipline and order.
  10. Robert Friedmann attempted a further interpretation of Anabaptism by distinguishing the Protestant types according to their particular interest in different parts of the New Testament which then become decisive for life and thought. The Anabaptists derive a great deal of strength from the study of the synoptic Gospels while mystics incline to lean more heavily upon the Johannine writings. The major Protestant denominations for their part have found their foundation primarily in the Pauline epistles and Pauline theology, and millennialists stress above all the book of Revelation. Some Schwärmer finally do not stress the Scriptures too much but rely in the main upon their own inspiration (Müntzer, David Joris, etc.). The simple life of the Anabaptists, their stress upon obedience to the Word of God and His commandments, their idea of discipleship (including possible martyrdom), their lessened interest in formal theology, this all brings them nearer to the spirit of Christ's exemplary life and teachings as recorded above all in the first three Gospels and in the book of Acts.

It is quite clear that this rapid survey by no means exhausts the problem involved in a delineation of the idea of evangelical Anabaptism. The present analysis has been more negative than positive. It needs, therefore, ample supplementation. H. S. Bender's Anabaptist Vision and his analysis of the church concept of the Brethren (Mennonite Quarterly Review 18, 1944, 67-88, and 19, 1945, 90-100) might well supply it. (R. Friedmann, "Conception of an Anabaptist," Church History 9, 1940, 341-365.) -- Robert Friedmann

1990 Update


After summarizing the perception of what Anabaptism was after the revision carried out by Harold S. Bender and others, Robert Friedmann asserts in volume 1 of the Mennonite Encyclopedia that Anabaptists were "nearer to the spirit of Christ's exemplary life and teaching. . ." than were Protestants, Schwärmer ("enthusiasts"), and millennialists, and that Bender's "Anabaptist vision" might supply "delineation of the idea of evangelical Anabaptism." This had, in fact, already happened by the time Friedmann wrote. "Evangelical Anabaptism" was identified by insistence on discipleship as the essence of Christianity, on the church as a brotherhood, and on an ethic of love and nonresistance. This became the normative description of Anabaptism. In this view, evangelical Anabaptism arose with the Swiss Brethren, and by transmission became part of Netherlands Anabaptism and of the Hutterites. Thus was Anabaptism given unity and clearly distinguished from Catholicism, from Protestantism, and from other 16th-century dissenting groups.

A revision of this portrayal began around 1960. Heinold Fast warned in a 1967 article that the Mennonite revision of four centuries of negative historiography was too tidy, too ideal, and that reaction would come. Indeed, reaction was already under way as part of a major shift in Reformation studies from systematic theology to history of ideas and from confessional history to social history. This shift strongly modified the traditional confessional (Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, Mennonite, etc.) orientation and opened the door to consideration of the dialectic between social and political developments, on the one hand, and the development of theological positions in the various reinterpretations of Christian faith, on the other. For Anabaptist studies it meant the entry into the field of a number of non-Mennonite historians who studied Anabaptism not as the ancestral movement of the 20th-century church communion, but as part of the general history of western Europe in the 16th century. It produced a new picture of Anabaptism not only socially but also in theology.

Definition of Anabaptism

The word Anabaptism is normally used in the late 20th century to denote the mosaic of groupings of dissenters without at the same time making claims to uniformity. In his 1972 work Anabaptists and the Sword, James M. Stayer used the term with great care in order to avoid giving the impression that he was writing about a single unified movement across Europe. He wrote about Anabaptists and defined them as those who rebaptized persons already baptized in infancy. Walter Klaassen had already used this definition in his Oxford dissertation in 1960. Calvin Pater (1984) broadened the definition by including those who, before 1525, rejected the baptism of infants, but this is perhaps too broad to be useful. These definitions were meant to avoid such confessional definitions as "evangelical Anabaptism." Thus, all those rebaptizers who have in the past been classified as Schwärmer (Melchior Hoffman), spiritualists (Hans Denck), and revolutionaries (the Münsterites) are now considered to be genuine Anabaptists.

Despite the variety of viewpoints among 16th-century Anabaptists, despite important differences of nuance even where Anabaptists appear to be similar, one may hazard to identify some themes held in common following the crystallization of the movement between 1527 and 1540. (1) All shared a basically synergistic view of salvation (human and divine "cooperation"). Justification was seen as progression in holiness; the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount was the guide to it. (2) Baptism was considered to be the sign of lay emancipation from clerical control and the spiritual enfranchisement of lay people (priesthood of all believers). (3) Anabaptists developed a Gemeindechristentum centered on the congregation, in contrast to the clericalized territorial churches, both Catholic and Protestant.

Anabaptism and Anabaptists

However, the open definition of Anabaptist now in use emphatically does not imply uniformity. Anabaptism was pluralistic. Claus-Peter Clasen identified six major groupings often hostile to each other, and then cited contemporary literature to show that there were actually many more (1972). The 1975 article "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis," by James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, has become the accepted statement on Anabaptist plurality. The essay disputed the older view that Anabaptism had its origins solely in Zürich, and that Swiss Brethren Anabaptism was transmitted to South Germany and Austria and to the Netherlands and North Germany, where it developed into the Hutterian and Mennonite branches respectively. The authors showed that each of the three in fact had a distinctive character and therefore a distinct source. For South German-Austrian Anabaptism it was a diluted form of Rhineland mysticism (Packull, 1977). Social unrest and the apocalyptic visions of Melchior Hoffman put their stamp on Netherlands Anabaptism (Deppermann, 1979; 1987). Swiss Anabaptism arose out of Reformed congregationalism (Stayer, 1975).

Numerous individual studies demonstrating links and relationships between Anabaptists have gradually led to the abandonment of the Schleitheim Confession as a norm for all "true" Anabaptists. As long ago as 1956 Frank J. Wray showed that Pilgram Marpeck had borrowed the bulk of his Vermanung (1542) from the despised Münster theologian Bernhard Rothmann's Bekenntnisse of 1533. Quite as surprising was the demonstration that Melchior Hoffman's commentary on the Apocalypse (1530) was used by the Hutterites soon after Hoffman wrote it, but without acknowledgement of authorship (Packull, 1982).

David Joris had for long been a pariah, especially for North American Mennonite historians, and was condemned by relative inattention. Two major dissertations have shown Joris to have been the most important Anabaptist leader in the Netherlands before 1540, even more so than Menno Simons (Zijlstra, 1983; Waite, 1986). He was an influential figure in Anabaptism's consolidation period following the fall of Münster.

Most significant is the integrative rewriting of the history of Anabaptism in the Netherlands. Melchior Hoffman is acknowledged as its progenitor, as the person who gave the movement its basic apocalyptic stamp. The differences that appear along the "peaceful" to "revolutionary" spectrum can be accounted for by differing nuances in the era's widespread apocalyptic expectation (Klaassen, 1986). A clear line stretches from Hoffman to Rothmann, Menno Simons, and David Joris on apocalyptic anticipation. Very similar formulations of apocalyptic views on secular government and on the incarnation are found in Hoffman, Rothmann, and Menno Simons (Voolstra, 1982; Stayer, 1972, 1978, 1986). The work of these scholars has therefore shown that in some important respects there was a single movement from Hoffman to Menno.

Anabaptism and Radical Dissent

George H. Williams' massive volume, The Radical Reformation (1962), presented for the first time a comprehensive portrayal of radical dissent in the 16th century. Moving across his stage are the whole cast of characters, from Andreas Karlstadt (Carlstadt) and the Zwickau Prophets through Conrad Grebel and the St. Gall fanatics, Hans Hut and Jakob Hutter, Menno Simons and the Batenburgers, to Michael Servetus and Faustus Socinus, with all the intricate linkages between them.

Clear links between Thomas Müntzer and Hans Hut had been established by Grete Mecenseffy (1956) and Walter Klaassen (1960, 1962), but the most important study on this relationship was done by Gottfried Seebaß (1972). His work and the work of Werner Packull (1977) established beyond question the formative influence of Thomas Müntzer on South German Anabaptism, both in its mysticism and its apocalyptic cast. By means of the thesis that mystical theology was a theology of dissent in the 16th century, Steven Ozment linked the Anabaptists Hans Denck and Hans Hut with Müntzer, Sebastian Franck, and others. The central thrust of this mysticism was that ultimately God could communicate his will to men and women directly in disregard of ecclesiastical channels, a kind of democratization of revelation. Later Calvin Pater (1984) convincingly showed that Andreas Karlstadt significantly influenced Swiss Anabaptism. Versions of Karlstadt's view and use of Scripture, his doctrine of the church, and his views on baptism, all found their way into Anabaptism.

Building on earlier work, Hans-Jürgen Goertz (1980) offered the first extended discussion of the thesis that anticlericalism was a prime motive for dissent, and that this factor provided close links between Anabaptism and other movements of the "common man," such as the peasant uprisings of 1524-26, also extensively motivated by anticlericalism. Among Anabaptists this expressed itself in contrasts between the Good Shepherd and the self-indulgent clergy, the simple reading of Scripture and its use as a means of oppression, and the improvement of life and the fruitless life of the new Protestant teachers of justification by faith alone. Other expressions of anticlericalism were the involvement of the Zürich radicals in opposition to tithes and the demand for congregational autonomy. Both central issues for peasants have been clearly documented by Haas (1975) and Stayer (1975A). Werner Packull (1985) and Arnold Snyder (1984, 1985) have provided further evidence for these links.

Finally, the relationship of Anabaptists to Caspar Schwenckfeld has also been extensively studied in recent years. Neal Blough's work on Pilgram Marpeck (1984) demonstrates dependence of Marpeck on Schwenckfeld especially relating to their understanding of the Incarnation. A complex set of relationships of Schwenckfeld with Melchior Hoffman and Pilgram Marpeck was described by R. Emmet McLaughlin (1985). The lure of Schwenckfeld's spiritualism for South German Anabaptists was clearly shown by George H. Williams in his Radical Reformation. Anabaptists and Schwenckfeld agreed on many important issues (Klaassen, 1986).

Anabaptists must now therefore be seen as an integral part of the larger phenomenon of religious and social dissent in 16th-century Europe from the Zwickau Prophets to Sébastian Castellion.

Anabaptism and the Reformation

Anabaptism arose out of the religious and social ferment of the Reformation period. That Anabaptists everywhere should have been influenced in numerous ways by the Reformers, is established. That they were the most consistent Protestants carrying the reforms of Luther and Zwingli to their logical conclusion as earlier Mennonite interpreters such as Cornelius H. Wedel and John Horsch held, is a view that can no longer be sustained. For Anabaptists differed with the major Reformers both on the principles of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), and even more radically on sola fidei (by faith alone). Because of their profound concern for ethics, they adopted variants of a synergistic soteriology which bore resemblance to some late medieval views. But there was also ambivalence among Anabaptists as to whether they were reformist or restitutionist (Wray, 1954; Meihuizen, 1970). As Hans J. Hillerbrand (1971) pointed out, restitutionists have great difficulty dealing with recent history. This point has also been made by Dennis Martin (1987), who argued that restitutionists, in contrast to reformers, can really build no lasting traditions since their revolt against a corrupt immediate past makes them suspicious even of any new institutions or traditions they may establish.

Finally, the question as to whether Anabaptism was medieval or modern has been vigorously debated. The link of Anabaptism to mysticism, its synergistic soteriology, and its version of imitatio Christi, all point to pre-Reformation forms of piety (Ozment, 1972; Davis, 1974; Packull, 1977). Alternatively, it has been argued that Anabaptism was the true harbinger of modernity in its emphasis on voluntarism, toleration, and pluralism in religion (Bender, 1955, Zeman, 1976). The early Swiss Brethren, claimed Fritz Blanke, were a vanguard striving toward a new dawn (Blanke, 1961). A carefully nuanced statement on this subject describes social tendencies in Anabaptism that moved in the direction of modernity (Goertz, 1985). -- Walter Klaassen


Bender, Harold S. "The Anabaptists and Religious Liberty in the 16th Century." Mennonite Quarterly Review 29 (1955): 83-100.

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Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Robert Friedmann
Walter Klaassen
Date Published 1990

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Bender, Harold S., Robert Friedmann and Walter Klaassen. "Anabaptism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 25 Jun 2024.

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Bender, Harold S., Robert Friedmann and Walter Klaassen. (1990). Anabaptism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 113-116; vol. 5, pp. 23-26. All rights reserved.

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