Who were the Anabaptists? What did they believe and why were they so hated? Two fundamental issues of the Reformation were the basis of authority for life and faith and the means of salvation. The medieval Roman Catholic Church taught that authority lay with the pope as the successor of Peter and that the Church alone could interpret Scripture. There was, it proclaimed, no salvation outside the Church, because God’s saving grace was only available through the sacraments as dispensed by ordained priests of the Church. In medieval Christendom, the church and state were effectively one, and a baptized “Christian” was a citizen of both.
The Protestant reformers rejected these premises, holding to Scripture alone as the authority for life and faith and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Nevertheless, the early Protestant churches which arose with the blossoming nationalist movement were state-based and hence known as the magisterial reformation. If one was born in Calvin’s Geneva, or Zwingli’s Zurich, one was a member of that state church and was baptized as an infant into that church covenant community. The individual’s relationship to the saving work of Christ was ultimately dependent on that person’s faith and the grace of God as they grew to responsibility. The various magisterial reformers understood baptism somewhat differently, with Calvin most clearly articulating the idea of the covenant relationship, equivalent to circumcision in the Israelite community. Theological considerations aside, state support for Protestant churches was pragmatic. Supported by the state, a Protestant movement could withstand the political and military pressures of the surrounding Catholic states and Holy Roman Empire.
It might be argued that Protestantism, in retaining the church-state relationship, did not move far enough from the concept of “Christendom.” In fact, that’s exactly what the so-called Radical Reformers asserted. They regarded Christ’s church as a gathering of believers independent of national affiliations. They were citizens of Christ’s kingdom first and foremost, and whilst good strangers and pilgrims in the State, they would obey God rather than men. In this respect, many modern Christians would regard them as forebears. But the Radical Reformers were a diverse group, comprising three broad movements, distinguished by their approach to the question of ultimate authority. The Spiritualists held that the influence of the Holy Spirit was the ultimate source of divine authority, the Evangelical Rationalists held it to be human reason, and gave rise to the Unitarian movement, while the Anabaptists stood by the authority of Scripture. All three groups believed that being a Christian was not a matter of community membership by birth, but of making an individual decision for Christ. These differences are the fundamental reason why they were persecuted by the magisterial reformers. The dispute was not entirely about whether adults or infants should be baptized, and certainly not much about the mode of baptism, but about what constituted the church.
The term “Anabaptist” was coined by their opponents as a term of derision. It means re-baptiser, but the Anabaptists did not consider adult baptism to be a second baptism, rather the only legitimate baptism. Anabaptists were persecuted because they were considered to pose a threat to the stability and survival of Christian covenantal society — not because they rejected the Trinity or most other orthodox beliefs. Certainly, some individuals such as Louis Haetzer and Adam Pastor were anti-trinitarian, but most of the early ones were not. The persecution of Anabaptists was shameful, as was the treatment of other non-conformists, including Unitarians and Spiritualists. Catholics persecuted Protestants, Protestants persecuted Catholics and each other, and everyone persecuted the Radicals. It was an age when non-conformity of belief and practice was heresy or treason or both, and punishable by torture and death. I make no attempt to defend this un-Christ-like behaviour by any party, but neither will the position of persecutor versus persecuted be the arbiter of whether a particular doctrinal position is “correct.” Despite the temptation to use the “remnant” theology of Scripture to claim a legitimacy for the theological position of the underdog, this must be resisted equally with a tendency to take the majority opinion as always correct.
Many Christadelphians consider the Anabaptists as their forebears. The seminal work which launched this idea was Alan Eyre’s The Protesters, published in 1975. It must be acknowledged that this is one of the most scholarly works produced by a Christadelphian author, and presents the fruits of much careful historical research. Nevertheless, it has contributed to a view within Christadelphia that there has been a consistent doctrinal consensus leapfrogging from group to group since the sixteenth century that now finds its culmination in the Christadelphian faith. This thesis is sometimes merely implied, at other times stated more directly. Along with this thesis comes a supposition that these early persecuted brethren uniformly held to all or most of the central tenets of the Christadelphian faith, their common objective and achievement being to “preserve or revive the original Christianity of apostolic times.” Eyre himself implies rather than asserts this, when he lists “the religious tenets and ethical principles of early Christianity — before Greek philosophical concepts gradually overlaid and superseded Jewish, especially Old Testament, modes of thought…” as including the authority of the Scriptures, believers’ baptism, the future reign of Christ on earth, the mortality of the soul, refutation of hell, repudiation of the Trinity, the ethic of love, the nature of the church and the Lord’s supper. He qualifies the list, saying that each became a key issue “at some time in the centuries and in the countries covered by this work.” Nevertheless, the preface encourages a more general assumption that the Anabaptists were proto-Christadelphians.
In a number of cases where major doctrines are concerned, these early believers had come to the same conclusions as ourselves. And how should it be otherwise, for we have sought to do what they did — go back to the Scriptures alone in our search for truth.”
There is no doubt that the Anabaptist convictions regarding baptism, the breaking of bread and the nature of the church were essentially the same as those of modern day Christadelphians. Likewise, there are mainstream Christian groups who practice believers’ baptism and view the church as a gathered community of such believers. But it is evident that until the later rise of the Unitarian movement, the Anabaptists’ search for truth in the Scriptures alone led them to support the orthodox doctrines of the Godhead.
With any doctrinal parting of the ways, the emphasis in theological writings is on the points of difference, not on the commonalities. Creeds and statements of faith drawn up in response to such disagreements tend to emphasize the contested points in detail, while the points of agreement are passed over or treated lightly. The Anabaptists, like the second century persecuted church, did not write comprehensive theological treatises; they were too busy trying to survive, and their writings were largely apologetic, i.e., defending their doctrinal position. As a disparate group, Anabaptists did not produce any one theologian who commanded unanimous support. They tended to die young, and they generally steered away from creeds, and confessions of faith, preferring to rest on the authority of Scripture alone. Those confessions which are extant are of individuals or small groups and not necessarily representative of the broader movement. Nevertheless, collectively there is a reasonable amount of material which can be studied to form an appreciation of the breadth of Anabaptist theology. The common ground of the diversity of Anabaptist groups, as against the state Protestant churches, was that the church is a voluntary fellowship of believers, not a state institution into which one is born. Baptism is therefore not a sign of an infant’s belonging to the covenant community, but is made upon confession of faith and marks one’s separation from the world and commitment to Christian discipleship. The Christian is to be separate from, and non-resistant to, the world as the church is to the state. Their soteriological emphasis was on regeneration and newness of life rather than justification, underpinned by an acceptance of the freedom of the will and reliance on the Holy Spirit’s empowerment.
The sixteenth century Anabaptists accepted the Apostle’s creed, the Trinity, the incarnation and atoning work of Christ and authority of the Scriptures,  just as the magisterial reformers did and contemporary mainstream Christians do. Eyre’s book charts the disputations between the Swiss brethren and the magisterial reformer Zwingli, whose reforms remained embedded in a state church and infant baptism. The defenders of adult baptism included Balthasar Hubmaier (1480–1528), Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock and Andreas Castelberger. Eyre’s book gives a thorough account of their courageous stance and their convictions regarding faith and baptism. He cites their works at length on these issues. He notes that Zwingli’s Zurich held rebaptism and denial of the Trinity to be a capital offence, but does not cite their beliefs on the Godhead. These brethren were not persecuted and executed for denial of the Trinity, because they upheld the Trinity. Eyre quotes Hubmaier’s Prison Confession of 1526, based on the Apostles Creed. Like the Creed, it does not detail Trinitarian beliefs, because that was not the purpose of the Creed nor was it the issue for Hubmaier. Nevertheless, Hubmaier also wrote Twelve Articles of Christian Belief (which Eyre does not quote):
I believe also in Jesus Christ, thine only begotten Son, our Lord, that he for my sake has expiated before thee for this fall . . . I hope and trust him wholly that he will not let his saving and comforting name Jesus (for I believe he is Christ, true God and man) be lost on me, a miserable sinner, but that he will redeem me from all my sins.
I believe also in the Holy Spirit, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and yet with them is the only and true God, who sanctifieth all things, and without him is nothing holy, in whom I set all my trust that he will teach me all truth, increase my faith and kindle the fire of love in my heart by his holy inspiration . . . For that I pray thee from the heart, my God, my Lord, my Comforter.”
Hubmaier also stated, in his treatise, On Free Will, “Here, Christian reader, you see clearly these three separate and distinct substances: soul, spirit and body, in every man, made and united after the image of the Holy Trinity.”
Conrad Grebel (1498–1526) did not live very long as an Anabaptist, and his extant works comprise letters, poems, a petition to the Zürich council, and portions of a pamphlet written by him against infant baptism, as quoted by Zwingli in his counterarguments. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia (GAMEO) states, concerning his doctrines:
It can be said without contradiction that on the cardinal points of Christian theology Zwingli and Grebel agreed, for the former declared that the Grebelites differed from him only on unimportant minor points. In his Commentario de vera et falsa religione (Commentary on True and False Religion) written in March 1525 he says, “But that no one may suppose that the dissension is in regard to doctrines which concern the inner man, let it be said that the Anabaptists make us difficulty only because of unimportant outward things, such as these: whether infants or adults should be baptized and whether a Christian may be a magistrate” (Zwingli Werke III, 872). Zwingli was, of course, mistaken in his judgment that the issues involved concerned only unimportant things, but he was right in denying that the issues concerned the inner aspect of Christian faith or experience. Grebel and his brethren were consistent evangelicals. If we take at face value Zwingli’s statement that baptism and magistracy were the chief points at issue, we see that the deeper issues involved were those of the nature of the church and the relation of the Christian to the world. These are of course major theological points.”
Pilgram Marpeck (1530–1556), a leading Anabaptist, wrote,
We believe that there is one God and one divine Essence, but in the same divine Essence three independent (separate) Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; that all three are one God and that each Person possesses in Himself, undivided, the fullness of the divine essence, which is also common to all three. It is our Christian faith that there are not three Gods, but only one God in three Persons and that each Holy Person in the Godhead, the Son as well as the Father, and the Holy Spirit as well as the Son, is God in essence, of like power, might, honour, glory and splendour.”
And Menno Symmons (1496–1561) wrote,
God, we believe and confess with the Scriptures to be the eternal, incomprehensible Father with His eternal, incomprehensible Son, and with His eternal, incomprehensible Holy Spirit . . . we also believe and confess the eternal, begetting heavenly Father and the eternally begotten Son, Christ Jesus.”
Alan Eyre was careful not to attribute anti-trinitarian doctrine to these early brethren, but he doesn’t explicitly state their actual position with respect to the Godhead either. He does briefly mention the early German anti-trinitarians Ludwig Haetzer, Martin Cellarius and Johannes Denck. Haetzer’s relationship with Anabaptism is unclear and he was not part of the Swiss brethren movement, but rather the Spiritualist wing of the Radical Reformation. According to the GAMEO Encyclopedia, he was never active as an Anabaptist, nor promoted Anabaptist teaching and is to be considered as “only a marginal personality in the early Anabaptist movement. During the latter years of his life he was a spiritualist who sought refuge in Anabaptism because he was in disagreement with ecclesiastical parties.” Cellarius (also called Borrhaus) appears to have espoused Arian views and was an associate of Michael Servetus. As for Denck, he was a paedobaptist and mystic so cannot be regarded as part of the Swiss Anabaptist movement. He is claimed as a forerunner by the Unitarian movement but there is apparently little evidence in his writings and the point is controversial.
It seems then, that the Anabaptists whose convictions on the church and baptism were closest to Christadelphians were actually Trinitarians, and those with Unitarian leanings were not typical Anabaptists. This is not made clear in Eyre’s work, but the implied doctrinal coherence hangs in the air as he proceeds seamlessly from the Anabaptists to a discussion of the Polish brethren, Socinians and other early Unitarians. This selective doctrinal treatment does the book, an otherwise commendable work, a disservice. Eyre’s task is to emphasise similarities between early groups and Christadelphians, and to leave the differences largely unexamined. This is his prerogative as an author, but should have been made clearer throughout the work. These omissions have left the door open for others, less familiar with the history of theology, to simply assume that in the breadth of doctrine these early Anabaptists were proto-Christadelphians. It is true that their beliefs regarding baptism, salvation, the nature of the church and conscientious objection to various aspects of state service are essentially the same as Christadelphians’. But to assume they were doctrinally equivalent on other major topics, particularly the Trinity, or would have found “fellowship” with modern Christadelphians is a false conjecture. When the Anabaptists searched the scriptures, they did not find Christadelphian doctrine. The appeal to these brave, godly believers to support a more or less continuous stream of adherents to “original apostolic doctrine and practice,” linking the first century with Christadelphians, is unfounded.
- Calvin’s position on infant baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant, and his opposition to the Anabaptist position, can be found in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter XVI. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes
- Williams, George H., ed. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers. Library of Christian Classics 25. London: SCM, 1957. 20–22.
- Alan Eyre. The Protesters. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1975.
- Eyre, Protesters, Eyre, Protesters, 11, 177.
- FTP, presumably Fred Pearce, in Eyre, Protesters, Preface.
- Loewen, H.J. “Anabaptist Theology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, eds. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, Leicester: InterVarsity, 1988. 18–19.
- Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963. 131–2
- Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia online (Gameo) http://gameo.org/
- Pilgram Marpeck, cited in Estep, Anabaptist Story, 136.
- Menno Simons, “A Solemn Confession of the Triune, Eternal, and True God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost;” cited in Estep, Anabaptist Story, 137–8