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Anabaptists ("re-baptizers", from Greek ana and baptizo; in German: Wiedertäufer) are Christians of the so-called "radical wing" of the Protestant Reformation. The term was coined by critics, who objected to the practice of performing baptism for adults whose previous baptism, as infants, the Anabaptists claimed was not valid. Various groups at various times have been called Anabaptist, but this article focuses primarily on the Anabaptists of 16th century Europe.


Designation and definition

The present concept and idea of Anabaptism or rebaptism has been regarded at least since the 2nd century. Some Anabaptists would even point to the 1st century example of the Apostle Paul in Acts chapter 19. Montanus, the Montanists, and Tertullian (2nd and 3rd centuries) denied infant baptism, practiced believer's baptism, and rebaptized those baptized by heretics. The Donatists (4th century) re-baptized those who had been baptized by bishops who were traditors, or who were from churches stained by fellowship with traditors¹. Anabaptists (rebaptizers) were made criminals under the code of Justinian (A.D. 529). With anti-trinitarianism, it was one of two heresies punishable by death.

Their enemies and opposers gave Anabaptists their name; it is a term that means "rebaptizers." Nevertheless, the Anabaptists did not think of believer's baptism as "rebaptism". They did not recognize infant baptism as properly administered the first time. Though the main Anabaptist groups disagreed with few important Protestant doctrines, even the Protestants called them heretics. Zwingli called them Wiedertäufer (Dutch, Wederdooper; Latin, Anabaptistarum), Täufer (Dutch, Dooper or Doopsgezinden), and Catabaptistarum (drowners²). Luther called them Schwärmer (fanatics, enthusiasts). They have also been known as Bolsheveki and "Stepchildren of the Reformation". The most common names the Anabaptists used for themselves were brethren, believers and Christians.

The word Anabaptism may be used to describe a "Protestant" group baptizing Christians who were baptized in infancy and/or who come to them from other bodies, any of the 16th century "radical" dissenters, or the denominations descending from the followers of Menno Simons. The use of the term Anabaptism does not necessarily imply claims to uniformity between the groups thus denominated. Today the descendants of the 16th century European movement (particularly the Amish, Hutterites, & Mennonites) are the most common bodies referred to as Anabaptist. Yet other bodies (such as the early English Baptists) were also referred to by their enemies as Anabaptists, and are clearly Anabaptists in the generally accepted sense of the term. The majority of Baptists further engage in a practice others consider "rebaptizing" in that they usually rebaptize even adult believers who were baptized by some mode other than immersion.

Anabaptist origins


Though the majority opinion is that Anabaptists began with the Radical Reformers in the 16th century, certain people and groups may still legitimately be considered their forerunners. Peter Chelcicky, 15th century Bohemian Reformer, taught most of the beliefs considered integral to Anabaptist theology. Medieval antecedents may include the Brethren of the Common Life, the Hussites, and some forms of monasticism. The Waldensians also represent a faith similar to the Anabaptists.

In the following points Anabaptists resembled the medieval dissenters:

  1. Some followed Menno Simons in teaching that Jesus did not take the flesh from his mother, but either brought his body from heaven or had one made for him by the Word. Some even said that he passed through his mother, as water through a pipe, into the world. In pictures and sculptures of the 15th century and earlier, we often find represented this idea, originated by Marcion in the 2nd century. The Anabaptists were accused of denying the Incarnation of Christ: a charge that Menno Simons repeatedly rejected and something they demonstrably did not do.
  2. They condemned oaths, and also the reference of disputes between believers to law-courts.
  3. The believer must not bear arms or offer forcible resistance to wrongdoers, nor wield the sword. No Christian has the jus gladii.
  4. Civil government belongs to the world, is Caesar. The believer who belongs to God's kingdom must not fill any office, nor hold any rank under government, which is to be passively obeyed.
  5. Sinners or unfaithful ones are to be excommunicated, and excluded from the sacraments and from intercourse with believers unless they repent, according to Matt.18:15 seq. But no force is to be used towards them.

Some sects calling themselves Spirituales or Perfecti also held that the baptized cannot sin, a very ancient tenet.

They seem to have preserved among them the primitive manual called the Teaching of the Apostles, for Bishop Longland in England condemned an Anabaptist for repeating one of its maxims "that alms should not be given before they did sweat in a man's hand." This was between 1518 and 1521.

Views of origins

Research on the origins of the Anabaptists has been tainted both by the attempts of their enemies to slander them, and the attempts of their friends to vindicate them. It was long popular to simply lump all Anabaptists as Munsterites and radicals associated with the Zwickau Prophets, Jan Matthys , John of Leiden (also Jan Bockelson van Leiden, Jan of Leyden), and Thomas Muentzer. Those desiring to correct this error tended to over-correct and deny all connections between the larger Anabaptist movement and this most radical element.

The modern era of Anabaptist historiography arose with the work of Roman Catholic scholar Carl Adolf Cornelius ' publication of Die Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs in 1855. Baptist historian Albert Henry Newman (1852-1933), whom Bender said occupied "first position in the field of American Anabaptist Historiography", made a major contribution with his A History of Anti-Pedobaptism. Though a number of theories exist concerning origins, the three main ideas are that,

  1. Anabaptists began in a single expression in Zürich and spread from there (Monogenesis),
  2. Anabaptists began through several independent movements (polygenesis), and
  3. Anabaptists are a continuation of New Testament Christianity (apostolic succession or church perpetuity).


A number of scholars (e.g. Bender, Estep, Friedmann) have seen all the Anabaptists as rising out of the Swiss Brethren movement of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, et al. The older view among Mennonite historians generally held that Anabaptism had its origins in Zürich, and that the Anabaptism of the Swiss Brethren was transmitted to South Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and North Germany, where it developed into its various branches. The monogenesis theory usually rejects the Münsterites and other radicals from the category of true Anabaptists. In this view the time of origin is January 21, 1525, when Grebel baptized George Blaurock, and Blaurock baptized other followers. This remains the most popular single time posited for the establishment of Anabaptism. But in the last quarter of the 20th century, Deppermann, Packull, and others suggested that February 24, 1527 at Schleitheim is the proper date of the origin of Anabaptism. This correlates with the following polygenesis theory.


James M. Stayer , Werner O. Packull , and Klaus Deppermann disputed the idea of a single origin of Anabaptists in a 1975 essay entitled "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis". That article, emphasizing distinctive characteristics and distinct sources, has become a widely accepted treatment of the plural origins of Anabaptism. According to these authors, South German-Austrian Anabaptism "was a diluted form of Rhineland mysticism," Swiss Anabaptism "arose out of Reformed congregationalism", and Dutch Anabaptism was formed by "Social unrest and the apocalyptic visions of Melchior Hoffman". Pilgram Marpeck's Vermanung of 1542 was deeply influenced by the Bekenntnisse of 1533 by Münster theologian Bernhard Rothmann. The Hutterites used Melchior Hoffman's commentary on the Apocalypse shortly after he wrote it. David Joris , a disciple of Hoffman, was the most important Anabaptist leader in the Netherlands before 1540. Grete Mecenseffy and Walter Klaassen established links between Thomas Muentzer and Hans Hut, and the work of Gottfried Seebaß and Werner Packull clearly showed the influence of Thomas Muentzer on the formation of South German Anabaptism. Steven Ozment's work linked Hans Denck and Hans Hut with Thomas Muentzer, Sebastian Franck, and others. Calvin Pater has shown that Andreas Karlstadt influenced Swiss Anabaptism in areas including his view of Scripture, doctrine of the church, and views on baptism.

Apostolic succession

Another popular theory is that the 16th century Anabaptists were part of an apostolic succession of churches (or church perpetuity) from the time of Christ. According to this idea there had been a continuity of small groups outside the Catholic Church from A.D. 30 to 1525 (which continues also to the present). Proponents of this view point out many common expressions of belief in these Catholic dissenters. The opponents of this theory emphasize that these non-Catholic groups differed from each other, that they held some heretical views, and/or that they had no connection with one another. This view is held by some Baptists, some Mennonites, and a number of "true church" movements.³ The writings of John T. Christian , New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor, contain perhaps the best scholarly presentation of this successionist view. Somewhat related to this is that the Anabaptists are of Waldensian origin. Some hold the idea that the Waldenses are part of the apostolic succession, while others simply believe they were an independent group out of whom the Anabaptists arose. Estep asserts "the Waldenses disappeared in Switzerland a century before the rise of the Anabaptist movement." Ludwig Keller, Thomas M. Lindsay, H. C. Vedder, Delbert Grätz, and Thieleman van Braght all held, in varying degrees, the position that the Anabaptists were of Waldensian origin.


Within historical Anabaptism numerous variations occurred, but a comparison of Anabaptism with Protestantism highlights a consistent core of faith and practice among the Anabaptists. The leading elements of 16th century Anabaptist theology were that baptism was to be administered to believers only (believer's baptism); that mass was not a sacrifice, but a memorial of the death of Christ (symbolism); that the bread and wine should be broken with baptized believers only (restricted communion); and that Christians should be separated from the world (religious separation).

See Theology of Anabaptism.

Types of Anabaptists

It is beneficial to recognize different types among the Anabaptists, although these categorizations tend to vary with the scholar's viewpoint on origins. Estep claims that in order to understand Anabaptism, one must "distinguish between the Anabaptists, inspirationists, and rationalists." He classes the likes of Blaurock, Grebel, Hübmaier, Manz, Marpeck, and Simons as Anabaptists. He groups Muentzer, Storch, et al. as inspirationists, and anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus, Juan de Valdés, Sebastian Castellio , and Faustus Socinus as rationalists. Mark S. Ritchie follows this line of thought, saying, "The Anabaptists were one of several branches of 'Radical' reformers (i.e. reformers that went further than the mainstream Reformers) to arise out of the Renaissance and Reformation. Two other branches were Spirituals or Inspirationists, who believed that they had received direct revelation from the Spirit, and rationalists or anti-Trinitarians, who rebelled against traditional Christian doctrine, like Michael Servetus."

Those of the polygenesis viewpoint use Anabaptist to define the larger movement, and include the inspirationists and rationalists as true Anabaptists. James M. Stayer used the term Anabaptist for those who rebaptized persons already baptized in infancy. Walter Klaassen was perhaps the first Mennonite scholar to define Anabaptists that way in his 1960 Oxford dissertation. This represents a rejection of the previous standard held by Mennonite scholars such as Bender and Friedmann.

Another method of categorization acknowledges regional variations, such as Swiss Brethren (Grebel, Manz), Dutch Anabaptism (Menno, Philips), and South German Anabaptism (Hübmaier, Marpeck).

Zwickau prophets and the Peasants' War

On December 27, 1521, three "prophets", influenced by and in turn influencing Thomas Muentzer, appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stübner. The crisis came in the so-called Peasants' War in South Germany in 1525. In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, it became, under the leadership of Muentzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by revolution an ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods.

See Thomas Muentzer, Peasants' War.

The Münster Rebellion

A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster in Westphalia (1532-1535).

see Münster Rebellion, Münster, Bernhard Rothmann


The first leaders of the movement in Zürich -- Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hübmaier -- were men learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

In English history frequent reference is made to the Anabaptists during the 16th and 17th centuries, but there is no evidence that any considerable number of native Englishmen ever adopted the principles of the Münster sect. Many of the followers of Muentzer and Bockelson seem to have fled from persecution in Germany and the Netherlands to be subjected to a persecution scarcely less severe in England. The mildest measure adopted towards these refugees was banishment from the kingdom, and a large number suffered at the stake. It was easier to burn Anabaptists than to refute their arguments, and contemporary writers were struck with the intrepidity and number of their martyrs. Thus Stanislaus Hosius (1504-1579), a Polish cardinal and bishop of Warmie, wrote (Opera, Venice, 1573, p. 202):

"They are far readier than followers of Luther and Zwingli to meet death, and bear the harshest tortures for their faith. For they run to suffer punishments, no matter how horrible, as if to a banquet; so that if you take that as a test either of the truth of doctrine or of their certitude of grace, you would easily conclude that in no other sect is to be found a faith so true or grace so certain. But as Paul wrote: "Even if I give my body to be burned and have not charity, it avails me naught. But he has not charity who divides the unity...He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church".

Their Christology and negative attitude towards the state rather indicate, as in the case of John Wyclif, Jan Hus and the Fraticelli (Brethren), an affinity to the Cathars and other medieval sects. But this affiliation is hard to establish.

The earliest Anabaptists of Zürich allowed that the Picardi or Waldensians had, in contrast with Rome and the Reformers, truth on their side, yet did not claim to be in their succession; nor can it be shown that their adult baptism derived from any of the older Baptist sects, which undoubtedly lingered in parts of Europe. Later on Hermann Schyn claimed descent for the peaceful Baptists from the Waldensians, who certainly, as the records of the Flemish inquisition, collected by P. Fredericq, prove, were widespread during the 15th century over north France and Flanders. It would appear from the way in which Anabaptism sprang up everywhere independently, as if more than one ancient sect took in and through it a new lease of life. Ritschl discerned in it the leaven of the Fraticelli or Franciscan Tertiaries .

In Moravia, if what Alexander Rost related be true, namely that they called themselves Apostolici , and went barefooted healing the sick, they must have at least absorbed into themselves a sect of whom we hear in the 12th century in the north of Europe as deferring baptism to the age of 30, and rejecting oaths, prayers for the dead, relics and invocation of saints. The Moravian Anabaptists, says Rost, went bare-footed, washed each other's feet (like the Fraticelli), had all goods in common, worked everyone at a handicraft, had a spiritual father who prayed with them every morning and taught them, dressed in black and had long graces before and after meals. Zeiler also in his German Itinerary (1618) describes their way of life. The Lord's Supper, or bread-breaking, was a commemoration of the Passion, held once a year. They sat at long tables, the elders read the words of institution and prayed, and passed a loaf round from which each broke off a bit and ate, the wine being handed round in flagons. Children in their colonies were separated from the parents, and lived in the school, each having his bed and blanket. They were taught reading, writing and summing, cleanliness, truthfulness and industry, and the girls married the men chosen for them.

On April 12, 1549, certain London Anabaptists brought before a commission of bishops asserted:

"That a man regenerate could not sin; that though the outward man sinned, the inward man sinned not; that there was no Trinity of Persons; that Christ was only a holy prophet and not at all God; that all we had by Christ was that he taught us the way to heaven; that he took no flesh of the Virgin, and that the baptism of infants was not profitable."

One of the most notable features of the early Anabaptists is that they regarded any true religious reform as involving social amelioration. The socialism of the 16th century was necessarily Christian and Anabaptist. Lutheranism was more attractive to grand-ducal patriots and well-to-do burghers than to the poor and oppressed and disinherited. The Lutherans and Zwinglians never converted the Anabaptists. In Austrian-controlled territories, the Jesuits had somewhat better success in persuading or coercing many Hutterites to rejoin the Catholic Church.

Persecutions and migrations

Much historic Catholic and Protestant literature has represented the Anabaptists as groups who preached false doctrine and led people into apostasy. That negative historiography remained popular for about four centuries. The Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, resorted to torture and other types of physical abuse, in attempts both to curb the growth of the movement and bring about the salvation of the heretics (through recantation). The Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute the Reformation Anabaptists. Felix Manz became the first martyr in 1527. On May 20, 1527, Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler. King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) "the best antidote to Anabaptism". It has been said that a "16th century man who did not drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family could be suspected of being an Anabaptist and thus persecuted." Estep estimates that thousands died in Europe in the sixteenth century.

Thieleman J. van Braght's Martyrs Mirror describes the persecution and execution of thousands of Anabaptists in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe between 1525 and 1660. Continuing persecution in Europe was largely responsible for the mass immigrations to North America by Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

Anabaptists today

Several existing denominational bodies may be legitimately regarded as the successors of the Continental Anabaptists - Amish, Baptists, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Bruderhof Communities and Quakers. Some writers prefer to distinguish lineal descendants (Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites) and spiritual descendants (Baptists, Brethren, Bruderhof, Quakers). Nevertheless, some historical connections have been demonstrated for all three of these spiritual descendants, though perhaps not as clearly as the notable lineal or direct descendants. According to the Mennonite World Conference, "Direct descendants of Anabaptists today number 730,000 in 57 countries, with the largest numbers in North America, Zaire, Indonesia."

The Anabaptist doctrine - that men must personally, volitionally, and consciously relate to God - is the doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism, even though these churches may not be historically linked to the Anabaptists. According to Anabaptist opponent F. N. Lee, "...all of the various stepchildren of the Anabaptists" include "justified Baptists; heretical Seventh-day Adventists; apostate 'Jehovah witnesses'; polytheistic Mormons; and atheistic Communists".

The Anabaptist heritage

  • Freedom of religion
  • Priesthood of the believer
  • Bible as the sole rule of faith and practice
  • Ordinances, not sacraments

All those who hold the idea of a free church and freedom of religion (sometimes called separation of church and state) are greatly indebted to the Anabaptists. When it was introduced by the Anabaptists in the 15th and 16th centuries, religious freedom independent of the state was a radical idea, and unthinkable to both clerical and governmental leaders. Religious liberty was equated with anarchy.

According to Estep, "Where men believe in the freedom of religion, supported by a guarantee of separation of church and state, they have entered into that heritage. Where men have caught the Anabaptist vision of discipleship, they have become worthy of that heritage. Where corporate discipleship submits itself to the New Testament pattern of the church, the heir has then entered full possession of his legacy."

Genealogists are also indebted to the Anabaptists, because Anabaptism was part of the cause for Protestant churches adopting the confirmation service, and baptismal registers came into being. This has been a great benefit for genealogists.

See also

External links

  • Anabaptism - from Mennonite Historical Society of Canada Web Site
  • Anabaptists and Their Stepchildren - by Francis Nigel Lee4
  • Anabaptist - UK-based network focused on historical Anabaptism and its relevance for contemprorary Christianity. Includes a What is Anabaptism? FAQ
  • The Anabaptist Story
  • The Anabaptists and Other Radical Reformers
  • Mennonite Origins and the Mennonites of Europe
  • The Martyr's Mirror - online version
  • The Dordrecht Confession of Faith
  • The Radical Reformation: Resources
  • The Schleitheim Confession
  • - Anabaptist- mennonite Board (German)


  • A History of Anti-Pedobaptism, From the Rise of Pedobaptism to A. D. 1609, by Albert H. Newman ISBN 1579785360
  • Anabaptists and the Sword, by James M. Stayer ISBN 0872910814
  • An Introduction to Mennonite History, by Cornelius J. Dyck ISBN 0836136209
  • Covenant and Community: the Life and Writing of Pilgram Marpeck, by William Klassen
  • German Peasants' War & Anabaptist Community of Goods, by James M. Stayer ISBN 0773508422
  • Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments During the Reformation, by Werner O. Packull ISBN 0801850487
  • Mennonite Encyclopedia, Harold S. Bender, Cornelius J. Dyck, Dennis D. Martin, Henry C. Smith, et al., editors ISBN 0836110188
  • Revelation & Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Muntzer, by Michael G. Baylor ISBN 0934223165
  • The Anabaptist Story, by William R. Estep; ISBN 0802815944
  • The Anabaptist Vision, by Harold S. Bender; ISBN 0836113055
  • The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror, by Thieleman J. van Braght; ISBN 083611390X
  • The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin; ISBN 0801092841
  • The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, by Anthony Arthur ISBN 0312205155


  • 1. Traditors were those who, under persecution, handed over the Scriptures to pagan authorities or recanted their faith.
  • 2. Catabaptist is defined as "drowners" or "immersers", but also as "opponents of baptism" (infant baptism).
  • 3. A "true church" movement is one in which the participants of a movement believe their movement represents the true faith and order of New Testament Christianity. Most only assert this in relation to their church doctrines, polity, and practice (e.g., the ordinances), while a few hold they are the only true Christians. Some examples of Anabaptistic true church movements are the Landmark Baptists and the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. The Church of God (Charleston, Tennessee), the Stone-Campbell restoration movement, and others represent a variation in which the "true church" apostasized and was restored, in distinction to this idea of apostolic or church succession.
  • 4. Lee's work is a response to Verduin's The Reformers and their Stepchildren, and is representative of a Reformed view against Anabaptism. But its polemical nature leaves some question as to its objectivity. Quotes are often shortened for effect rather than concision (e.g., writing of the London Confession: "it was subtitled: Confession of Faith of those churches which are commonly...called 'Anabaptist'." instead of, "Confession of Faith of those churches which are commonly, though falsely, called 'Anabaptist'."), he renders highly suspect interpretations as connecting single immersion with unitarianism ("Such Anabaptists as were trinitarian, generally did so by pouring. Unitarian Anabaptists, however, did so largely by a novel single submersion."), and resorts to the old method of using the excesses of a minority to denigrate the entire movement (e.g., polygamy).

Last updated: 02-07-2005 07:22:28
Last updated: 02-28-2005 02:13:09