Radical Reformation

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Radical Reformation, a collective term for all those groups of religious innovators of the 16th century on the European continent who were neither Lutherans, nor Zwinglians, nor Calvinists. Occasionally all these groups are broadly conceived as the "Fourth Reformation." No doubt the Protestant revolt against Rome opened the floodgates for all forms of separatism which continued what is often called "medieval sectarianism." In German official church history it has become customary to call all those who opposed the Lutheran Reformation Schwärmer (Enthusiasts) or Ketzer (hence Ketzerhistorie), a derogatory term which did grave injustice to all dissidents. In the 20th century the conceptions have changed somewhat under the impact of the new science of sociology of religion. Now these groups are often simply distinguished as "sects" in contrast to "church" (Kirche), i.e., state church. Ernst Troeltsch was a leader in this reclassification. In America the church historians, having no use for these typically continental concepts (since in America all churches are "denominations"), had to find another type of classification. In 1941, Roland H. Bainton of Yale proposed the generic term "Left Wing of the Reformation," using the political connotation of "left" and "right" for a characterization of the different groups. "Left" then meant opposition to the state-church idea (the established church), and championship of the free or nonconformist church idea (but Bainton also thought in part of a "left" wing in theology, namely, anti-Trinitarianism). Bainton also at times used the term "Anabaptists" for all these groups, since most (though by no means all) advocated adult baptism. By this broadening of the term Anabaptism a Menno Simons and a Michael Servetus, for instance, were lumped together in a strange fellowship. In spite of its vagueness, the term "Left Wing of the Reformation" was rather widely accepted, chiefly for lack of a better term, and to a certain extent proved its usefulness in American church historical studies. Franklin Littell and recently Leonard Verduin showed also an inclination to use the term "Restitutionism" for the greater part of these groups. Littell pointed out (50) that the idea of restitution binds together Anabaptists and Spiritualists, Schwenckfelders and Polish Brethren, even though it must be admitted that not all Spiritualists had the vision of the restoration of the primitive church.

That a common term for all these "dissident" groups is hard to find must be granted, even though the need for it is obvious. Certain men who were for a time Anabaptists adopted anti-Trinitarian views (Adam Pastor, apparently also Ludwig Haetzer), while certain anti-Trinitarians accepted adult baptism though otherwise far from any of the well-known evangelical Anabaptists. Müntzer was just as uninterested in the question of baptism as was Sebastian Franck or Bünderlin. Particularly difficult is the delineation of "Spiritualism" (Rufus Jones's "Spiritual Reformers") because of the extreme individualism of its defenders. In the Netherlands a section of evangelical Anabaptism was always "spiritualistically minded," while the Swiss Brethren opposed this trend radically. "Unitarians": H. Richard Niebuhr has suggested a strange and unusual sub-classification of "Unitarianism of the Father"—Socinians; "Unitarianism of the Son"— Schwenckfeld, Swedenborg; "Unitarianism of the Holy Spirit"—Spiritualists.

In view of the motley nature of the "Fourth Reformation," the proposal by George H. Williams of Harvard Divinity School (1957) of a new and rather adequate descriptive term together with a more refined sub-classification of the historical phenomena is welcome as a real aid in the understanding of the spiritual life of the 16th century. Williams distinguishes between "magisterial Reformation" (also called territorial Protestantism), where the princes were the real heads of the church with magisterial prerogatives and an excessive ecclesiasticism (establishment), and its opponents, called "Radical Reformation." Common to all the radical reformers is their opposition to "the suffocating growth of ecclesiastical tradition," to the above-named prerogatives, and above all to the compromises and adjustments of the new territorial churches to the "world" in its broadest sense. No one of these radical reformers had any place for state powers within the church. All of them wanted to cut back to the Biblical roots of faith and order.

Among these radical reformers Williams then distinguishes three clearly separated groups: (a) the Anabaptists, (b) the Spiritualists, and (c) the Evangelical Rationalists. (See the similar classification by Johannes Kühn.) The first two groups were mainly Germanic (German, Dutch, Swiss), while the Evangelical Rationalists belonged pre-eminently to the Romance cultural area—Italy, Spain, and to a lesser degree France (Juan de Valdes, Servetus, Ochino, Castellio, Biandrata, Socinus, etc.).

While the Protestant reformers advocated the medieval idea of a corpus Christianum, a Christian society composed of saints and sinners, this concept was absolutely unacceptable to the radical reformers. They visualized a selected society of true believers, that is a Corpus Christi, as their final ideal. As to how such a Corpus Christi should look, ideas naturally differed. Some would look back to the apostolic model, the primitive church and the church under the Cross (1st—3rd centuries); they would then represent the "restitutionists" proper (by and large the Anabaptist group). Others of the radical reformation took their lead from the Book of Revelation and looked into the future for the kingdom or new world to come. Some would simply wait for this event, others would fight (like Müntzer). Williams claims that this look into the future is nearer to the spiritualistic type than to the Anabaptist one, although this is not always true.

Williams sees three distinct groups in each of his three main sections, namely:

Anabaptism: (1) evangelical (Swiss Brethren, Mennonites, Hutterites, etc.); (2) revolutionary (the Münsterites above all; Troeltsch called them "Taborites," Littell suggests the term "Maccabeans"); (3) contemplative (mainly Hans Denck, to whom the inner word or inner Christ is more important than any external form).

Spiritualism: (1) evangelical (Schwenckfeld and Gabriel Ascherham); (2) revolutionary (Thomas Müntzer, also the Zwickau "prophets" and perhaps Karlstadt); (3) rational (Sebastian Franck, Paracelsus, and many more).

Evangelical Rationalism: here Williams does not offer any subdivision except that he finds some staying in their old church, "evangelical Catholics" (Erasmus, LeFevre, Valdes), while others broke away (Servetus and Ochino), being either lonely wanderers over the earth, or founders of conventicles or churches like Faustus Socinus (Polish Brethren, Transylvanian Unitarians).

The Anabaptists are the representatives of the idea of restitution in its broadest sense; the question is only what they aim to restore. The evangelical Anabaptists look back to the apostolic church; that is, to them the New Testament is the only norm, while the Old Testament has but figurative or allegorical value. They look to a church (Gemeinde) of discipline and order, with ban, shunning, and inner-worldly asceticism. The revolutionary Anabaptists (Münsterites) in contradistinction accept the Old Testament as their norm, desiring to erect the New Jerusalem in the here and now; hence the sword, which was abhorred by the evangelical brethren, is here glorified (as it is also by Müntzer). The contemplative Anabaptists finally (if there are such) are more indifferent to the externals of discipline, and thus draw nearer to the Spiritualists. Only the evangelical Anabaptists, emphasizing discipleship, know also the idea of a suffering church, called "theology of martyrdom" by Ethelbert Stauffer.

Spiritualists hold the inspiration by the Holy Spirit above the word of the Scriptures (inspirationism). The revolutionary groups among them are strongly influenced by the books of Daniel and Revelation; they are visionary and apocalyptically minded. The evangelical Spiritualists, among whom Williams also counts Schwenckfeld (this classification is open to debate), base their teachings primarily upon the Johannine writings, in which the "spirit" or light is emphasized. The rational Spiritualists, finally—individualists through and through -- are the nearest to what Rufus Jones called "spiritual reformers," a sort of bridge between rationalism proper and Christian mysticism.

Here might then be found also the bridge to the Evangelical Rationalists, who in spite of their strong reliance upon reason (see Reason and Obedience) nevertheless resist a complete surrender to a humanistic rationalism (which eventually leads to rational philosophy). They do accept the Holy Scriptures, but are inclined to interpret them by the light of natural reason. Hence their inclination either to anti-Trinitarianism or to a moral Pietism, as it is so well known from the later 17th and 18th centuries (Dutch Collegiants, Galenus Abrahamsz).

It is clear that no classification can do absolute justice to the many-sidedness of the actual historical phenomena, but the suggestions by Williams are useful and may help to clarify terms and stereotypes. (See Anabaptists and Kühn, Johannes.)


Bainton, R. H.  "The Left Wing of the Reformation." Journal of Religion XXI (1941): 127 ff.

Friedmann, Robert. "Concept of the Anabaptist." Church History IX (1940): 341-65.

Friedmann, Robert. "Recent Interpretation of Anabaptism." Church History XXIV (1955): 132-51.

Kühn, Johannes. Toleranz und Offenbarung. Leipzig, 1923.

Littell, Franklin H. The Anabaptist View of the Church. American Society of Church History, 1952; second ed. Boston, 1958.

McNeill, John T.  "Left Wing Religious Movements," in A Short History of Christianity, ed. by Archibald G. Baker. Chicago, 1940.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. "The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Unity of the Church." Theology Today III (1946): 371 ff.

Williams, George H. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, Documents Illustrative of the Radical Reformation. Library of Christian Classics. Vol. XXV. Philadelphia, 1957.

Williams, George H. "Studies in the Radical Reformation: A Bibliographical Survey." Church History (March and June 1958).

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Friedmann, Robert. "Radical Reformation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 19 Aug 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Radical_Reformation&oldid=134819.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1959). Radical Reformation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 August 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Radical_Reformation&oldid=134819.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 242-244. All rights reserved.

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