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Anabaptists is a descriptive term given to some radical groups that emerged within the context of the 16th century Reformation.1 One of the religious aspects that was common to many of these groups was the denial of infant baptism and promotion of adult baptism. Hence, the term Anabaptists (rebaptisers) became popular and through repeated historical use it has almost become the accepted term of reference.2 However, it has to be pointed out that this term was generally used in a negative sense by the Roman Catholics and Reformers who persecuted the Anabaptists. Generally, historians have classified the Anabaptists under the category of Radical Reformers (in contrast to the other Protestant Reformers). In recent times, they have also been labeled as the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. This paper attempts to study their origin, beliefs and the reasons which led to their severe persecution.


It is widely believed that the Anabaptist movement had its immediate source in the Swiss Reformation started by Zwingli in 1519. During the early 1520s, some close associates of Zwingli, namely Conrad Grebel and felix Mantz, began to be dissatisfied with the slow pace of the reformation process carried out by the Zurich city council. They wanted thorough and quick reform based on their new understanding of the Scripture. They called for an immediate end to mass and adoration of images. Their impatience was made public during the second Zurich disputation of 1523.3 Moreover, they raised serious apprehensions about the validity of infant baptism. In 1524, two Zurich priests, Wilhelm Reublin and Johannes Brotli, started openly preaching against infant baptism. Gradually, by 1525, Grebel, Manz and others had come to believe in a radical form of Christianity. They opined that only true followers of Jesus Christ should be identified as Christians, and the church should be led by the Holy Spirit and not by the council. They did not consider the city council as fundamentally Christian in its nature and approach.

However, Zwingli, though desired reform did not agree with the radical views of Grebel and Mantz. When all attempts of convince Zwingli failed, the radical reformers began to organise themselves as nonconforming congregational groups for Bible study and prayer. Soon they also began to proclaim in public their radical teachings. The city council immediately realized the need for curbing them and hence ordered them to conform to the law of baptism and forbade them to meet as separate groups.4 Knowing well the consequences, on 21 January 1525, the radical reformers met outside Zurich city in Zollikon village and baptized each other, ‘praying that God would grant them to do his divine will and that he would show them mercy.’5 Thus, the radical reformers organized themselves as a free church. The formation of the Swiss Brethren also marked the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.

In Switzerland, persecution set in immediately. In spite of that, the Anabaptist movement spread far and wide within the first decade of its emergence. There are two views concerning the early expansion of the movement in Europe. Many historians have argued that Anabaptist movement spread from Switzerland to South Germany, Austria and Netherlands, mainly through travelling preachers, missionaries and exiled Anabaptists.6 However, a few historians have opined that the Anabaptist groups of South Germany, Austria and Netherlands had independent beginnings at about the same time. They point to the differences both in belief and practice among the Anabaptists to support their view.7 Whichever be the case, the Anabaptists spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered the land. It is remarked that mysticism, late-medieval asceticism, and the disillusionment which followed the peasants’ revolts of 1524-25 helped the cause of Anabaptists.8


As mentioned in the introduction, the Anabaptist groups were not an unified body. One finds extreme positions within the Anabaptist umbrella. Hrangkhuma classifies the Anabaptists into two groups – the Quietists and Revolutionaries. He comments, “The former passive was passive, hating violence and advocating no participation in civil, official or army affairs. The latter were usually fanatics, advocating the abolition of the existing authorities and states, and the substitution of a visible kingdom of earth controlled by the saints or true believers.”9 Although it is difficult to identify a unified system, nevertheless, there were certain beliefs and practices which were common to many Anabaptists if not all. Owen Chadwick observes, “The so-called Anabaptist Confession of Schleitheism (1527), the document nearest to a confession agreed by the early Anabaptists, proclaimed adult baptism and separation from the world, including everything popish, and attendance at parish churches and taverns. It condemned the use of force, or going to law, or becoming a magistrate, or the taking of oaths.”10 In sum, it could be stated that all the Anabaptist groups were very critical of the Roman Catholic church, and similarly, they were all disappointed with state sponsored Protestant attempts to reform it.


The Anabaptists right from the beginning were severely persecuted by the religious and political leaders of their time. They came under the target of Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Zwinglians. Political rulers also sought after the Anabaptists and mercilessly killed them. John Horsch writes, “Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prizes were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was made a crime. In Roman Catholic states even those who recanted were often executed…In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake, in Lutheran and Zwinglian states generally by drowning or beheading.”11

Thousands of Anabaptists were put to death in the fierce persecution which lasted for more than twenty five years. Some have compared the magnitude of the persecution of the Anabaptists to the persecution of the early church during the first two centuries. The following is an analysis of the factors/reasons that led to this large scale persecution of the Anabaptists. Some were religious in nature and others socio-political.

4.1. Conflict of Beliefs with the Reformers

The Anabaptists agreed with the Reformers on some issues like the final authority of the Scripture, justification by faith, and priesthood of all believers. However, they criticized Luther, Zwingli and other reformers for halting the Reformation half-way through. They accused them for purposely withholding reforms in spite of knowing the Scriptural truths.12 A few conflicting issues are discussed here.

i.            The Anabaptists called for radical discipleship. According to them, only true believers are to be called as Christians. The visible church should be formed only of true believers. Moreover, they also emphasized the need for separation and sanctified life-style. Those who erred in Christian life were put to discipline. Both Lutherans and Zwinglians though believed in personal salvation, they were not willing to draw a clear distinction between believers and unbelievers. They instead saw the visible church as consisting of both believers and unbelievers. Similarly, the Reformers understood the Anabaptist emphasis on separated life as an attempt to revert back to ‘Salvation by works.’13

ii.            The Anabaptist understanding of the Bible differed from that of the Reformers. The former gave priority to the New Testament and particularly to the teachings of Jesus Christ. They were Christocentric in their reading of the entire Scripture. However, the Reformers were inclined to see every part of the Bible as equally applicable, so that Old Testament models were valid for both church and state. The Reformers justified many of their actions like war, infant baptism, tithes, church government and so on, based on Old Testament concepts whereas many Anabaptist groups disagreed.14 Moreover, the Anabaptists believed that the gathered community of believers have the right to interpret Scripture. The Reformers misunderstood this too as the old principle of Church interpreting the Scripture (Roman Catholic view).

iii.            Another major issue of conflict was in the area of relationship between church and state. The Anabaptists urged for the separation of the church from state and society. They asserted that reforms can be successfully carried out among Christians only when the church is free from state control. However, the Reformers attempted to implement reforms with the help of the state. Lutherans believed that the church should assist the rulers whereas the Reformed attempted to establish a model Christian society where church/state offices are controlled by the Christian council.

iv.            The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and maintained that baptism was to be administered to those who had given evidence of repentance and changed life. To the Reformers the denial of baptism to infants literally damned them – even the Zwinglians and Calvinists who denied the sacramental power of baptism believed that the rejection of infant baptism excluded the child from the nurture and fellowship of God’s people. Luther even considered it to be blasphemy.15

The Reformers felt that the Anabaptists were a hindrance to the progress of God’s kingdom and their reformation work. Luther and Zwingli promoted the idea that only one creed should be permitted to be taught in each state and province. For instance, Zwingli considered that the Anabaptists were a threat to the unity and peace of Zurich. Zwingli felt that a common ideology was needed to defend Zurich from the attacks of nearby Catholic cantons.16 Hence, the Anabaptists were viewed as heretics or dissenters who deserved to be punished. Moreover, the Anabaptists were gaining adherents from the territories of the Reformers rapidly. So, they were also seen as rivals. The Reformers used their influence on state rulers/councils to suppress the Anabaptists.

4.2 Vehement Opposition to the Roman Catholic Church

Almost all of what the Anabaptists taught and believed were against the Roman Catholic church. Unlike the Reformers they wanted to remove absolutely all Roman traces from their religious and social life. In the process they even did away with singing hymns considering it to be an unscriptural practice followed by the Roman church. Most Catholics in general considered the Anabaptists as a wilder perversion of Protestantism. The aspect that threatened the Catholics more than any other thing was the Anabaptist view that church and state should be quite separate and that Europe was not the Christian civilization that it had been assumed for over a thousand years.17 Similarly, while the Protestant Reformers restrained themselves from proselyting in Roman Catholic territories after the first period of Reformation, the Anabaptists launched themselves into Catholic areas to win adherents. This intensified the Catholic persecution of the Anabaptists.18

4.3 An Age of Intolerance

The 16th century Europe was marked by religious intolerance like the entire middle ages. Anyone who did not subscribe to the official religious view of the state promoted church was put to death or exiled. However, the Anabaptists called for religious liberty. Walter Klaassen writes, “The Anabaptists appealed to their Lord’s command to love all men and their conviction was that God’s truth needed no coercion to be victorious.”19 This was seen as an invitation for anarchy both by the Roman Catholics and Reformers. Hence, there was continuos persecution of the Anabaptist movement.

4.4 Perceived as a Threat to Social Stability

The radical discipleship of the Anabaptists led them to believe that in the kingdom of God there could be no ‘thine’ and ‘mine.’ They believed in common sharing of wealth within their community. Though personal property was allowed among the Anabaptists, it was treated as common, so that no one in the community would be in any need. However, some (outsiders) considered this practice as a threat to the social stability as it would eventually change economic equations drastically.20 It is only imaginable how the rich and prosperous would have reacted to this radical teaching. Hence, many wanted to curb the Anabaptist movement before it spread and disturbed social equations.

4.5 Nonconformity

The Anabaptists attempted to live a life conforming only to what they believed as the Scriptural truth. So, they questioned many of the accepted norms in society and politics. Some of the Anabaptist beliefs and practices came into direct conflict with the civil government and its functioning. The Anabaptists refused to participate in the government stating that they were under the Lordship of Christ. Similarly, they refused to participate in warfare stating that fighting and killing were contrary to the law of love propagated by Jesus Christ. Felix Mantz, one of the Swiss Anabaptist leaders, remarked, “No Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.”21 Another area in which the Anabaptists showed their nonconformity was through refusal to make oaths. They stated that Jesus prohibited swearing at all times. Oaths were important in the 16th century to ensure truth-telling in the courts and pledging loyalty from citizens. It also needs to be mentioned that such refusals occurred at a time when inter-state wars were common and Ottoman Turks were threatening to overpower Europe. Hence, the Anabaptists were often considered as disloyal and suspected of treason and sedition.22

4.6 Perceived as Revolutionaries and Extremists

The earliest Anabaptists were mostly from the lower section of the social strata. They had few wealthy and influential people among them. Hence, they were often misunderstood as subversive and revolutionary in nature. John Oyer comments, “They were thought to be the nucleus of a fresh political revolution (like peasants’ revolt) drawing egalitarianism from the Bible.”23 Some Anabaptist groups were extreme and at times even eccentric in some of their actions. Klaassen observes, “Like most religious movements of the time, …Anabaptism had its share of black sheep. There was the foolishness of biblical literalism from St. Gall. Because the gospel said that we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God, some people literally behaved like children, playing with toys and babbling like babies. There was the apocalyptic lunacy of certain Anabaptists from Thuringia, one of whom claimed to be the son of God. Most important of all there was the violent terror of the kingdom of God of Munster when Anabaptists turned to violence and oppression.”24 Such events undoubtedly spoiled the reputation of the entire Anabaptist movement.


The Anabaptists were undoubtedly the radical reformers of the Reformation era. They were dissatisfied and disappointed with the reformation steps taken by the magisterial Reformers. They wanted thorough and quick reform. They attempted to create a counter-culture based on the teachings of Jesus Christ in the gospel. During the third and fourth decades of the 16th century, they spread like quick fire all over Europe, especially in German speaking centres. The radical nature of their teachings and simple life-style attracted many. Nevertheless, they were bitterly persecuted by the Reformers, Roman Catholics and political leaders for diverse reasons – religious, socio-economic and political. Anabaptism was seen as a threat to the oneness of medieval society in which church, state and bureaucrats played an important role in maintaining wholeness, peace and order. In sum, the Anabaptists were viewed as politically as well as religiously exclusivistic, and thus a civil liability. In spite of persecution of all sorts, the Anabaptists stood firm in their convictions and beliefs, and counted martyrdom as a privilege. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the 16th century Anabaptists were the forerunners of one of the significant Christian traditions of the present era represented by the Baptists, Brethren and many other free churches.


1The name was mainly applied to six groups with slightly different emphases. They were as follows: i) Zwickau Prophets, led by Thomas Muntzer, who taught a doctrine of inner light. ii) Swiss Brethren, who believed in non-resistance and non-participation in politics. iii) Moravian Hutterites under Jacob Hutter, who practised communal ownership of property. iv) South German Anabaptists, led by Pilgram Marpeck. v) Melchiorites or Hoffmanites, influenced by Melchoir Hoffman, who taught Docetic or Apocalyptic Christianity. vi) Mennonites, led by Menno Simons. George Thomas Kurian (ed.), “Anabaptists,” in Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 25.

2A. Scott Moreau, “Anabaptist Missions,” in A. Scott Moreau (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 58.

3R. Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: IVP, 2000), 67.

4Walter Klaassen, “A Fire that Spread Anabaptist Beginnings,” Christian History 6/1 (1985) 8.

5John H. Yoder and Alan Kreider, “The Anabaptists,” in Tim Dowley (ed.), The History of Christianity: A Lion handbook (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1990), 402.

6John Horsch, “The Persecution of the Evangelical Anabaptists,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 12/1 (1938) 4.

7James M. Stayer, “Anabaptists,” in Hans J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 32.

8Yoder and Kreider, “The Anabaptists,” 402.

9F. Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 2002), 254.

10Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), 189.

11Horsch, “The Persecution of the Evangelical Anabaptists,” 10.

12“Who Were the Anabaptists?” (accessed 17 February 2009).

13Klaassen, “Anabaptism Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,” Christian History 6/1 (1985) 10-12.

14“Who Were the Anabaptists?”

15John S. Oyer, “Sticks and Stones Broke Their Bones, and Vicious Names Did Hurt Them!: 16th Century Responses to the Anabaptists,” Christian History 6/1 (1985) 19.

16Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 201.

17“Who Were the Anabaptists?”

18Horsch, “The Persecution of the Evangelical Anabaptists,” 6.

19Klaassen, “Anabaptism Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,” 34.

20Klaassen, “Anabaptism Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,” 12.

21Cited in “Who Were the Anabaptists?”

22Klaassen, “Anabaptism Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,” 34.

23Oyer, “Sticks and Stones Broke Their Bones…, 19.

24Klaassen, “A Fire that Spread Anabaptist Beginnings,” 7.

By Sam K. John

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