Social Background of the Anabaptists

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The Anabaptists of the 16th century represented a radical challenge to the current social order and to the corresponding Catholic and Protestant social philosophies. Where the status quo represented a cultural monism with the whole society and culture grouped around a central religious motif, Anabaptism postulated a cultural pluralism which allowed for spontaneous and restrictive association, on the premise that by the very nature of the case complete homogeneity is not possible.

To the guardians of the social order the voluntary and exclusive assemblies appeared as a stab at social order and unity. Both Catholic and Protestant religious and civic leaders therefore felt that the movement had to be suppressed at all costs, even at the cost of contradicting their own religious professions. Their polemical declarations against the Anabaptists are filled with invectives against men who appear as society's worst enemies. These declarations became the basis for the interpretation of these stirring events until modern scholarship succeeded in placing the struggle into a more valid perspective.

A second ideological attempt to interpret 16th-century Anabaptism in its social development came in modern Marxist and Socialist thought. Marxist writers saw Anabaptism as an early stage of modern class warfare and as part of the Peasant Revolt (Engels). More moderate Socialists likewise saw it as the religious garb of class struggle (Kautsky) or as "the culminating effort of medieval Christian Communism" (Belfort Bax). From a completely different viewpoint Anabaptism became linked to the spirit of the French Revolution (Alexandre Weill), and Christian Socialists became interested in the social passion of this movement (Leonard Ragaz).

In both the 16th-century polemic and the modern social philosophies, interest was directed first of all to the dynamic or motivation of Anabaptism. While the Reformers did not deny the religious concern of the Anabaptists, they saw in their efforts nevertheless a revolt against duly constituted political and religious authority. In Switzerland Anabaptists were thought to have "sucked their poison" from Thomas Müntzer. After the Münster uprising (1534-35), it became customary to accuse all the 16th-century dissenting religious parties of clandestine revolutionary intention. In this way the religious aspirations of even the non-revolutionary dissenters were buried beneath the odium of supposed sedition.

In the hands of the Marxists the alleged revolutionary character of Anabaptism was likewise asserted. But now this became the glory of the movement. Whatever religious coloring it may have had, it was seen as nothing other than the class struggle in the economically determined course of history. The common denominator of the 16th-century Anabaptist bands was simply the proletarian status of their members.

Modern serious scholarship, however, has placed 16th-century Anabaptism into a completely new perspective. On the one hand there were liberal thinkers like Ludwig Keller and Ernst Troeltsch who recognized the genuine religious impulse underlying this movement. On the other hand there were the objective historical inquiries which have made available important historical data which had lain unused in the archives of European cities since the 16th century.

The first result of these inquiries of importance to us here is clear proof of the religious character of 16th-century Anabaptism. While admittedly the movement is quite complex in character, and non-religious factors are also discernible, an examination of the testimonies of the Anabaptists themselves and of their contemporaries shows that the movement can be understood only by understanding their religious experience.

In the second place, it follows from this that their radical social views must be interpreted in the light of their religious outlook and not vice versa. One of the major issues at the time of the Reformation was the payment of tithes to the church. This the Anabaptists rejected, because they repudiated an institutional church such as medieval Catholicism. But the civil tithe or tax they paid because the Scriptures commanded it, even though they rejected the magistracy in the sense of holding government office. They stoutly maintained that governments were divinely ordained and therefore must be obeyed. There are records of Anabaptists under torture addressing the officials under whom they suffered as ministers of God.

Finally, the social composition of 16th-century Anabaptism was far too diverse to allow interpretation in terms of class conflict. The initial communities in Switzerland contained members from all classes, as did those in South Germany and Moravia. The center of the movement lay in the cities in the enlightened intellectual and "middle class" circles, including both clergy and laity. From the outset there were also peasants and occasional members of the aristocracy, though admittedly the latter were few, probably for the reason that these were hostile to all reform efforts.

As to the earliest Dutch Anabaptism, Karel Vos, and in his footsteps A. F. Mellink, tried to prove that in the period 1530-44 with only a very few exceptions the Anabaptists came from the "lower class" and even from the dregs of the population, expecting from Anabaptism the improvement of their material conditions. W. J. Kühler and N. van der Zijpp have shown, however, that the vast majority of the Anabaptists in Holland and Flanders came from the "middle class," for a large part being craftsmen and artisans, and that the movement was purely or at least fairly predominantly of religious character.

In the wake of severe persecution, however, the descendants of the original Swiss Brethren, who today are to be found in Switzerland, France, Germany, and North America, rapidly lost out in the cities and developed a strong agrarian ethos. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, while strong rural communities developed, the city churches were able to perpetuate themselves and today strong city churches are to be found in centers like Amsterdam, Haarlem, The Hague, Groningen, Leeuwarden, Rotterdam, Leiden, and Utrecht.

Having recognized the religious motivation of 16th-century Anabaptism, however, we must note also the important conditioning role of the complex social forces operative at the time. There was the urban ferment of the city state of medieval Europe now caught up in the emergent mercantilistic nation state of the 16th and 17th centuries. There was the impact of modern political, economic, and religious theory on the peasantry. And there was the new learning carried forward by the men of letters and their busy printing presses. All of these helped to pave the way for the tremendous burst of spiritual energy released in the Protestant Reformation, which was then to be divided so tragically as the new wine was forced back into the old skins of the corpus christianum, and the Anabaptists arose to protest.

The motivation of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement was religious, but it did not occur in a social vacuum. Born in a time of intense groping, it brought perspectives to bear on the social struggle which were born of profound religious insights, and which were to play an influential role in modern history. - Paul Peachey

Anabaptists in the Hapsburg Territory, mainly Austria and Moravia

It used to be a common assumption that Anabaptism was basically a "proletarian" movement, made up in the main of "common people," that is, laborers and peasants, plus a few artisans, while the upper strata of society everywhere joined the new state churches (Swiss Reformed or German Lutheran) or remained Catholic. This picture is certainly incorrect as far as the earlier period of the movement is concerned, that is, the first and second generations, 1525-70. About 1600 the situation greatly changed, at least for the South German and Swiss area and for Moravia and Slovakia. As the fervor of the beginning waned, the movement became more and more rural, and the economically and intellectually stronger sections of population dropped out. But for the earlier period the picture is by no means uniform: there were priests among the Anabaptists as well as nobility, also a goodly number of citizens of some means; the number of learned men, however, was never large, as the simplicity of the Anabaptist faith did not have much appeal to the "humanists."

As for Austria and the Hapsburg realm (which includes Moravia and Slovakia) our knowledge is based on two brief studies, one by Paul Dedic, which are, however, sufficient to allow certain conclusions.

(1) Clergy—Dedic lists the following names: Hubmaier, Schiemer, Schlaffer, Thomas Waldhauser, Canon Martin Göschl, Oswald Glaidt, Jörg Blaurock (though Swiss he was also active in Tyrol), and perhaps Wolfgang Brandhuber. All these men belonged to the first few years of the movement up to 1530. To later decades belong the names of Leonhard Lochmaier, Leonhard Dax, and Virgil Plattner.

(2) Nobility—The best known is Leonhard Liechtenstein, Lord of Nikolsburg, the patron of Hubmaier and of the "Schwertler." He died in 1534 (his nephew Hans Liechtenstein, though sympathetic to the Anabaptists, was never baptized by them). Of the strong Tyrolean nobility there were Helene von Freyberg, mistress of the castle of Münichau near Kitzbühel, who joined the Marpeck group; the Barons Anton and Siegmund von Wolkenstein, of South Tyrol, who for a while joined the Anabaptists; a Bavarian nobleman, Michael Veldtaler, who joined the Hutterites in Moravia in 1555 and became one of the most active members, being imprisoned several times and working as a missioner for many years. Dedic names also the wife of the Imperial Captain Katzian and a Tyrolean noblewoman Agnes von Waltenhofen. Perhaps also the von Pappenheim family should be mentioned, supporters of Marpeck, although only distantly related to the Austrian territory.

(3) Burghers, the urban middle class of the 16th century, patricians, scholars, etc. The most outstanding representative of this class was, no doubt, Pilgram Marpeck of Rattenberg, Tyrol, a successful mining and water engineer. Ulrich Stadler of Sterzing, Tyrol, a mining official, and Onophrius Griesinger, likewise a mining official in Salzburg, belong to the same class; also Marpeck had originally been a mining official. The two brothers Freisleben or Eleutherobios of Upper Austria were outstanding examples of humanists among the Anabaptists (they, however, returned later to Catholicism). (Bünderlin, named by Dedic, was not an Anabaptist in the narrower sense.) Antoni Erfordter was a substantial burgher of the city of Klagenfurt, Carinthia, and a highly educated man. Jeronymus Käls, a schoolmaster of Tyrol, was martyred in 1536. Later in the 16th century the apothecary Melchior Platzer suffered martyrdom in Vorarlberg in 1583. The number of physicians and barber-surgeons among the brethren was by no means small (see Medicine among the Hutterites): Georg Zobel, a physician; Josef Hause, a barber (circa 1600); Balthasar Goller, a physician (died 1619); and Sebastian Dietrich, a barber. There is no doubt that a number of well-to-do burghers had joined the brotherhoods here and there, mainly in Tyrol (Dedic), but the sources rarely give their names. In Upper Austria Anabaptism centered around urban places like Linz, Steyr, and Wels, also Freistadt (before 1530), which implies that here the movement was predominantly urban.

(4) Artisans, both master craftsmen and journeymen. To this class, no doubt, the majority of Austrian (Moravian) Anabaptists belonged; nearly all the leading men came from this background. Since they belonged to the lower middle class, the Anabaptist movement may sociologically be considered an offspring mainly of this stratum, in spite of certain exceptions. Certainly Anabaptism was not "proletarian" in the narrow sense of the word.

A scanning of the list of the better-known men among the Hutterites and related groups shows names like Jacob Hutter, allegedly a hatter, Hans Amon, a weaver of wool, Peter Riedemann, a shoemaker, Peter Walpot, a warper, Leonhard Lanzenstiel, a ropemaker, Veith Grünberger, a clockmaker, Andreas Ehrenpreis, a miller, Gabriel Ascherham, a furrier, and Philipp Plener, a weaver. One of the noblest crafts among the Hutterites was pottery (see Ceramics), and much fame came to the brethren for their beautiful "fayence." But strangely, not one potter's name ever appears in the sources, just as no cutler is mentioned, another Hutterite trade of high repute.—Every new member of the brotherhood had to learn a trade; even the former nobleman Veldtaler had to comply and learned joinery. In fact the elaborate Gemeindeordnungen are a good indication of their major occupations.

It is characteristic of this class of artisans not to hold too high an appreciation for scholarship. A tract of circa 1590 inquires "Why no scholars (Hochgelehrte) are found in our midst." Answer: because too much studying is a hindrance to a simple and straightforward faith. But, says Dedic, even though there were no scholars among the brethren, there were no illiterates either. With a few exceptions all the men were literate, and many were truly masters of the art of letter writing. Thus the educational standards of this group were definitely high.

(5) Peasants – In Tyrol a great number of free peasants joined the Anabaptist but again names are rarely given. Dedic thinks that only in Tyrol did Anabaptists find response among this less educated class. In Upper Austria the movement took roots primarily in urban centers.

(6) Laborers – The only group to be considered here would be miners (Bergknappen). It is known that the miners were a most alert and open-minded element of the 16th century population. In the Inn Valley (Tyrol) copper was mined near Rattenburg, Schwartz, and Brixlegg, and salt near Hall. All these places quickly became centers of Anabaptism–to be sure, only during the earliest period (up to perhaps 1535-49). Of later decades no information is available. - Robert Friedmann


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Author(s) Paul Peachey
Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Peachey, Paul and Robert Friedmann. "Social Background of the Anabaptists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 23 Mar 2019.

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Peachey, Paul and Robert Friedmann. (1959). Social Background of the Anabaptists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 March 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 558-561. All rights reserved.

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