Doctrinal Writings of the Anabaptists

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During the 16th century Anabaptism did not make a real distinction between doctrinal and devotional writings. The doctrinal writings are not of a formal theological type but rather of a confessional character, stressing in the main the difference of Anabaptist viewpoints from those of the large churches the Reformation. No Anabaptist ever felt the need for an elaborate system of theology, not even those who had the necessary education. Whether by Menno Simons or Pilgram Marpeck, Dirk Philips, or Peter Riedemann, all these books and tracts were at once confessional (doctrinal), devotional, and also polemical, but they were never scholarly and academic like many of the books by Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli, One source collection of such tracts is rightly called Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter (by Lydia Müller, 1938). All Anabaptist writings were such testimonies of faith.

The amount of these writings must once have been rather large, though a complete list of them does not exist as yet, and a systematic study has never been undertaken. Lydia Müller's publication is perhaps the best collection yet published, though incomplete and too much abridged. The book presents South German and Hutterite material, taken from Hutterite manuscript books, our richest source. The contents of this book are as follows: Jörg Hauck (Anfang eines christlichen Lebens), Hans Hut (Vom Geheimnis der Taufe, Ein christlicher Unterricht . . .), Michael Sattler (Artikel und Handlung; for the famous Schleitheim Confession see below), Leonhard Schiemer (five tracts, particularly profound writings of 1526-1527, deserving special attention), Hans Schlaffer (Ein kurzer Unterricht zum Anfang eines rechten christlichen Lebens, like Schiemer very early and extremely penetrating), Eitelhans Langenmantel (Vom Nachtmahl Christi), Jörg Zaunring (Eine kurze Anzeigung vom Abendmahl Christi), Jakob Hutter (various epistles), Ulrich Stadler (next to Riedemann or Walpot the ablest doctrinal writers of the Hutterites; four tracts are published in excerpts), Peter Walpot (Die fünf Artikel des grössten Streites, 1547?) (see Article Book, a major work of the Hutterites), Antoni Erdfordter (Urlaubsbrief), Brüderliche Vereinigung mit dem Brüdern am Rheinstrom (1558), and Anschlag und Fürwenden (Hutterite, about 1560, by Walpot), etc. For volume II were scheduled: Peter Riedemann (Rechenschaft unseres Glaubens, 1545, the greatest doctrinal and confessional book of the Hutterites), Andreas Ehrenpreis (Ein Sendbrief brüderliche Gemeinschaft betreffend, 1652, a book of two hundred pages), but the volume was not published until 1955. In brief, Riedemann and Walpot are shown as the two main authors of doctrinal books among the Hutterites. The compilation list is, of course, in no way complete. Many of the outstanding Verantwortungen (testimonies) are not mentioned though we have prints of most of them, e.g., by Claus Felbinger, Veit Grünberger, Hans Mändl, etc. Worth mentioning is also one tract by the Philipite brethren, Concerning a True Soldier of Christ by Hans Haffner, 1535.

The Schleitheim Articles of 1527, called Brüderliche Vereinigung etlicher Kinder Gottes, sieben Artikel betreffend, drawn up, most likely, by Michael Sattler, must be considered the earliest doctrinal writing of the Swiss or South German Brethren. It was, according to Fritz Blanke, "a genuine confession of faith, intended to erect a dam against the intrusion of heretical views into the brotherhood" (MQR XVI, 1942, 85 f.). A number of similar doctrinal writings of the South German "Swiss" Brethren were discovered in a Sammelband in the Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana), and translated by J. C. Wenger (MQR, 1945-47); authors and dates are undisclosed, but the style points to an early origin (Von der Genugtuung Christi, Von der Ehescheidung, Zweierlei Gehorsam, Von der Hörung falscher Propheten, von bösen Vorstehern, discussed in MQR XVI, 1942, 82 ff.). In Switzerland itself no Anabaptist literature of any kind could develop, though the brotherhood lived there, in spite of severe oppression, up to the great expulsion early in the 18th century and even later. Only disputations (Religionsgespräche) afford an insight into the doctrinal thinking of the Swiss Brethren, such as the meetings at Bern, Basel, and Zofingen (see Disputations; also MQR XXII, 1948, 19 ff.).

South German Brethren have produced at least one outstanding writer, Pilgram Marpeck whose great Verantwortung (1542) is a prime source, although it, too, is more polemical than systematic in its outline. There are also Marpeck's Testamentserläuterung, his Vermahnung, his Strasbourg Confession, and a concordance, Gestern und Heute. These writings were also used by Brethren in Grisons, Switzerland. The "Swiss" Brethren in the Rhine Valley (around and below Cologne) had as their outstanding teacher Thomas von Imbroich, martyred 1558, whose Confessio oder Glaubensbekenntnis became extremely popular among other groups, spread by way of printed pamphlets (see Epistles, Anabaptist, non-Hutterite). As late as 1692, the Swiss authorities complained about this book found among the Anabaptists around Bern (Müller, Berner Täufer, 104). Likewise, all American editions of the Ausbund (since 1742) contain in an appendix this particular Confession. (For other writings of that region see Epistles, Anabaptist, non-Hutterite, also Güldene Aepffel.)

The Dutch brethren were much more fortunate than the Swiss Anabaptists in having in Menno Simons and Dirk Philips leaders who were also capable of formulating their new faith in a number of doctrinal writings of lasting effect. Menno Simons' Fundament des christelijcken Leers (in a translation of 1575) was widely read also among the Brethren in South Germany, particularly Württemberg (Bossert, Quellen). Dirk Philips' Enchiridion should not be forgotten. North German and East Prussian Mennonites were served mainly by their brethren in the Netherlands. The Altona (Hamburg) congregations were partly served by Jan de Buyser's Christelifck Huys-Boeck (1643), later by Gerrit Roosen's writings (Christliches Gemüthsgespräch, and Unschuld und Gegenbericht, 1702).

The Prussian church had its first Glaubensbekenntnis in 1660, which became a standard work through the centuries. Far more elaborate and theologically refined were the writings by Georg Hansen, namely, his Glaubensbericht an die Jugend (1671, much used also among the Mennonites in Russia), Confession of Faith (1678), and Fundamentbuch (1696). Mennonites continued to produce confessions and catechisms, and also some doctrinal writings.

The printed records of the various disputations, such as Zofingen (1532), Frankenthal (1571), and Emden (1587), contain much doctrinal material.

A few general remarks might well conclude this survey. Because of the exposed nature of the Anabaptists in a hostile world, all these early tracts have a polemical strain: Stadler's tracts are written like a discussion, "Rede und Antwort"; Marpeck's great book alternates "Rede und Gegenrede," and Walpot's Article Book is presented "punkt und argumentweis." There is always an undertone of defense in them, either against the world or against wavering or "heretical" brethren (as, e.g., the Schleitheim Articles have in mind). All these tracts do not present any formal theology but only statements of faith beginning somewhat like "Wir bekennen . . . ." Argumentation is achieved in the main by ample quotations from the Bible; a strict, sometimes even dry, Biblicism is the rule; yet there is no lack of genuine spiritual interpretation, as in the earlier writings of men like Schlaffer, Schiemer, Hans Hut, and Riedemann. Academic scholarship is rejected everywhere; simplicity (Einfalt) in thought and speech is the accepted standard, even though the popular allegorical (figürliche) interpretation of Bible texts is often refined and occasionally very rationalistic. The Christianity of these tracts is concrete and genuine. Baptism and the Lord's Supper stand in the foreground of all doctrinal interests while the question of salvation seems to be secondary to the life dedication of a man. The Trinity is accepted and defended, though not stressed. The eschatological element, though not altogether absent, remains in the background. The practical implications matter most, even in the most "theological" tracts of the sixteenth century. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show distinct changes toward formalism and a slackening of concreteness; but even then there is little likeness to the systematic theology of the state churches. Mennonitism is, after all, not a theological church but one which seeks to express faith in life.

Although the 17th and later centuries produced practically no doctrinal writings among the Mennonites in other European countries, the Netherlands produced a large number of such writings in the post-Anabaptist period and on down into the nineteenth century, when outstanding theologians, such as Sytse Hoekstra, were productive.

See articles on respective authors; also Devotional Literature; Catechisms; Confessions of Faith.


No specialized study is known dealing with the entire field.

On the Hutterites, see Robert Friedmann, "Eine dogmatische Hauptschrift, . . ." in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 28-29 (1931-1932), with extensive discussions in general; other material in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1942-1948, particularly J. C. Wenger's translations of Anabaptist doctrinal tracts (Jan. and Oct. 1947; Jan. and July 1948).

On Marpeck, see the special Marpeck issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (July 1938), specifically J. C. Wenger, "Life and Work of Pilgram Marpeck," Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (July 1938) 137-166; idem, "Pilgram Marpeck's Confession of Faith Composed at Strasbourg . . . ," op. cit., 167-202; idem, "Theology of Pilgram Marpeck," op. cit. (Oct. 1938) 205-256; Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church (Philadelphia: American Society of Church History, 1952).

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1956

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Friedmann, Robert. "Doctrinal Writings of the Anabaptists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 27 May 2022.

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Friedmann, Robert. (1956). Doctrinal Writings of the Anabaptists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 77-79. All rights reserved.

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