There is perhaps no more telling testimony on behalf of the Anabaptists than that Christian History magazine would testify that if a man didn't "drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family," he could be arrested on suspicion of being an Anabaptist!
From now on, pages like this will have a short history and a longer, more detailed one.
"Anabaptist" is a term that means "rebaptizer" and refers to what is known as the Radical Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation began in Germany in 1517. It sprang up in a different but similar form in Zurich in the early 1520's, begun by Ulrich Zwingli, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz.
They were soon split by a disagreement over infant baptism. A public debate ensued with Ulrich Zwingli defending the practice against Grebel and Manz. The city council decided to continue the practice, and Grebel and Manz were told to submit.
They did not. Instead, along with Georg Blaurock and a few others, they rebaptized each other upon a confession of faith and began a free (non-state) church in Zollikon, just outsize Zurich. Thus, Ulrich Zwingli went on to become one of the three major Reformers, while Grebel and Manz were responsible for the Radical Reformation or Anabaptists.
Persecution shut down the church in Zollikon, but Anabaptist preachers spread throughout German and Dutch-speaking countries of Europe. They were persecuted by Roman Catholic and Protestant states alike.
At first, they were a shining example of the primitive Christian spirit, zealous, filled with love and an evangelical spirit, and steadfast in persecution. Sadly, within 50 years strife over rules and leadership split them, beginning in Holland and rapidly spreading through the entire movement.
Today, their most numerous descendants are the Amish and Mennonites, though the German Baptist Brethren, Hutterites, Bruderhofs, and numerous splinter groups also survive. Their influence may actually be growing in the 21st century due to interaction with the home school movement.
Unfortunately, modern Anabaptists, who often refer to themselves as "plain people," are known more for their distinctive dress, Pennsylvania Dutch language (a dialect of German), and refusal to drive cars than for zeal for Christ.
They also continue to divide over minor issues.
Many of us who carry our Anabaptist names with pride ... have returned in thought and practice to the world. Those of us who haven't done that, clinging to the traditions and the language of our forefathers, have split into almost innumerable little groups. (Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength, p. 270)
What was easily the most holy and most apostolic of modern Christian movements has degenerated into something unrecognizable as Christian. However, their holiness and influence on the fledgling state Protestant churches, especially on the early Baptists, can be credited for much of the freedom that we enjoy in the western world today.
Jump to longer history.
The Anabaptists began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525.
They were the result of the Scriptural studies of three men: Ulrich Zwingli, Felix Manz, and Conrad Grebel. The German Reformation was in full swing by this time, the Diet of Worms having happened in 1521.
Zurich appeared poised to follow in the footsteps of the Germans. The city council supported the men, and they seemed quite willing to pull out of the Roman Catholic Church and begin the Reformation in Switzerland.
Then Manz, Grebel, and Zwingli had a falling out.
The issue was infant baptism, and Manz and Grebel, opposed to the ancient practice, accused Zwingli of compromising in order to avoid getting in trouble with the city council.
Zwingli did not give in to his cohorts. Eventually, a public debate was arranged, and the city council sided with Ulrich Zwingli and commanded Grebel and Manz to repent under threat of arrest.
The could not do it. Shortly after the debate, which occurred on January 17, 1525, a number of believers gathered in the home of Felix Manz to discuss what to do.
Don't think that because those first Anabaptists baptized believers only that they rejected baptismal regeneration. They did not. In fact, no reasonably orthodox group rejected baptismal regeneration in all of church history until after the Reformation. The Pietists made a purely symbolic baptism popular, and that was not until the 1600's.
Baptism is the mark of change in the inner man. It is the mark of a new birth, a washing away of sin, and a promise to walk according to Christ. (Conrad Grebel, Protestation and Schutzschrift, as quoted by Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength, p. 101)
Among them was a fiery young Catholic priest named Georg Blaurock, who was ready to be a part of a real church of disciples of Christ. After some discussion that night, Georg asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him with a true Christian baptism upon his profession of faith.
Conrad did so, and Georg Blaurock then baptized the remainder who were present.
So was established the first church of the Anabaptists, or "rebaptizers," as they came to be known. This was because they rejected the infant baptism of the state churches and rebaptized all those who came to them to follow Christ.
Anabaptism spread rapidly despite Ulrich Zwingli's attempts to shut them down. By order of the city council, he had Felix Manz put to death by drowning in January of 1527. He also drove Georg Blaurock out of the canton.
Eventually, his steady persecution would disperse and shut down that first Anabaptist church in Zollikon, outside Zurich.
It would not, however, stop its spread.
Blaurock continued to preach wherever he went. The fire spread, and others took up the cause. By February of 1527, Michael Sattler, a former Catholic abbot, was able to gather representatives of numerous Anabaptist churches in the town of Schleitheim to discuss their future and the direction they wished to go.
The result of that gathering was the Schleitheim Confession, to this day the most commonly cited confession among modern Anabaptist churches.
The Anabaptists were persecuted and hated by Catholics and Protestants alike. All three major branches of the Protestant Reformation persecuted them. Just today I read about an Anabaptist martyr named Heinz Kraut, who was ordered to be put to death by Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther's cohort, in 1536.
Interestingly enough, Heinz Kraut had escaped martyrdom six years earlier by denying the faith. He had repented and returned to the faith with great zeal, preaching everywhere and gaining great respect. Thus, Melancthon's suggestion to the German elector, John, was:
With this one [an unnamed weak Anabaptist prisoner] I beg you not to hasten punishment. For I hope that when his master Heinz Kraut, who lies in Jena, and a few other stubborn ones are executed, he will let himself be instructed. On the obstinate ones it is necessary to inflict serious punishment. And even though some may not be otherwise untractable, nevertheless this harmful sect must be resisted, in which there are so many terrible, dangerous errors. ("Möller, Jobst (d 1536)"; Mennonite Encyclopedia; The page appears to be removed as of Sep. 8, 2013. Searching the above quote at Google can get you to the cached page. The page itself references Corpus Reformatorum III, 16 for the quote.)
Anabaptist preaching and churches spread throughout Europe, gaining a strong foothold in Holland especially.
Icon of Menno Simons by Graber Designs
Used with permission
In less than a century, however, the zeal of the Anabaptists grew into legalism and doctrinal crystallization, and they began to splinter rapidly (re: Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength, Benchmark Press, 1998; what follows on Menno Symons is described and excellently documented from this book as well).
A major influence in this division was Menno Symons, one of the more famous of the 16th century Anabaptists. From his name comes the term Mennonite, whose churches flourish, with more division than almost any Protestant sect, to this day.
Much as J.N. Darby would do in the 19th century among the Plymouth Brethren in England, Menno Symons and others began to freely excommunicate other believers and other churches.
That sort of division never really stopped, and to this day Mennonites divide over issues as silly as the length of the strings on the bonnets that they wear to church meetings on Sunday.
The Mennonites are not the only products of the Anabaptists, however. Alexander Mack began a movement that produced the modern German Baptist Brethren and offshoots such as the Old Brethren and Dunkard Brethren. Jacob Amman began a movement that produced the Amish. At least two communal groups, the Hutterites and the Bruderhof, are descendants of the Anabaptist movement.
Modern Baptist denominations sometimes claim to be descended from the Anabaptists, but the connection is tenuous.
The founders of the Baptists, Separatists from England, were influenced by Anabaptists in Holland for a short time, but Baptists have far more in common with the Anglican Puritans and Separatists that are their true ancestors than with the Anabaptists.
The major exception to the Anabaptists being irrelevant today is in the home school movement.
Because Anabaptist churches have been schooling their children separately since the development of public schools (first required in America in 1852, just 150 years ago), they have well-developed moral and Christian curriculum. From the beginning home schoolers have had an interest in Anabaptist literature.
The result of this has been a rapid increase in a branch of Christianity I call "half-Mennonite." Conservative, committed Evangelical have adopted many Mennonite views, especially concerning modesty, the veiling of women, and divorce and remarriage. Conservative Mennonites have adopted more evangelistic ways bringing them more into the mainstream.
There is a surprisingly large network of traditional churches (rare), home churches (more common), and individual families (most common) of the "half-Mennonite" persuasion. They emphasize family and the authority of the father (though it's common for the families to be matriarchal, the father being a mere figurehead), and their many rules often prevent any indepth fellowship.
Which brings us to the true marks of the Anabaptist movement, so powerful and beautiful in its early days, and so separate, legalist, and irrelevant today.
Most modern Anabaptist groups are separated by varying levels of rules, which they refer to as "standards." "Old Order" groups avoid the use of all modern conveniences, including cars and electricity, which is why in some parts of the country it's still common to see Amish buggies being pulled by horses down state highways.
Other Anabaptist groups, the Mennonites being the largest and most varied of them, vary. Some have mandatory haircuts, uniforms, and even forbid "worldly" adornments like zippers and belts (buttons and suspenders are allowed). Others are among the most liberal churches in America, even ordaining homosexuals.
This was not always so.
I make no secret of the fact that the early-16th-century Anabaptists are possibly my favorite movement in Christian history. They were brave, faithful, impassioned, and also excellent students of the Scriptures. Reading their early writings is almost no different than reading the writings and exploits of the early members of the apostles churches.
Peter Hoover, a former Mennonite from Pennsylvania, has done an incredible amount of research on the early Anabaptists. His book,The Secret of the Strength is extensively documented, full of quotes, and may be read free on the internet.
Like my initial contact with the writings of the earliest Christians in the apostles' churches, I was stunned to see that the early Anabaptists verified many of my own beliefs.
The links in the following list are to pages on this site covering that topic. The quotes are from The Secret of the Strength, either by or about those early Anabaptists.
Today, and here I must speak from my own experience in discussions and visits with numerous "plain" groups, the descendants of the Anabaptists hold to most of these doctrines but not with the fiery spirit of their ancestors.
The one exception is on the Word of God, where every Anabaptist group I have spoken with—dozens—has embraced the typical Protestant view of the Word of God. This is sad, because a proper understanding of the Word of God is crucial to real power, and a lack of that understanding is the reason the devil destroys incipient churches so easily.
I should correct that. People with real power with God live out a proper understanding of the Word of God whether or not they are able to explain it or even know they are doing it. Thus, it's not quite accurate to say that a proper "understanding" is essential.
Perhaps it would be better to say that an ability to heard and an obedience to the Word of God, in whatever way God is speaking, is essential to power with God. Sola Scriptura can be death spiritually and often is (John 5:39-40).