God’s left wing: the Radical Reformers

ON A JANUARY EVENING in 1525, in the Zurich rooms of Felix Manz, one of the city’s most promising Hebrew scholars, a remarkable event took place. An upper-class theology student named Conrad Grebel turned to a rough-hewn priest from the Tyrol, George Cajacob, and baptized him. Then, along with the other men gathered in the room (on this occasion there seem to have been no women present), Grebel received baptism from Cajacob. ‘In the high fear of God’ and with a deep bond of ‘togetherness', the brothers then solemnly committed themselves to the Lord and to each other, and they emerged ‘to teach and keep the faith.’ With this event, the first believer’s baptism since the church’s early centuries, the Anabaptist movement began, and with it the nonconformist tradition within Protestantism.

What had compelled these men to take this extraordinary action? II was not simply their growing theological antipathy to infant baptism. More fundamentally, they were motivated by a desire for a more far-reaching reformation of the church in Zurich than the city council would allow. In the early stages of the Zurich reformation, it had not appeared that this would be an insuperable problem. Ulrich Zwingli, the city’s reformer from 1519 onwards, had successfully coped with conservative opposition by both disputation and negotiation, and the Anabaptists-to-be were among his most committed supporters. They had been drawn to his message of faith and the centrality of the word and work of Christ. They had been stirred when he announced that ‘to be a Christian is not to talk about Christ, but to walk as He walked.’ They had been intrigued by his iconoclastic speculations, such as that ‘it would be much better that children should have their. . . baptism when they reach an appropriate age.’ With him they had studied the Bible in small house-fellowship-like ‘schools'; and when he on Ash Wednesday 1522 had eaten ‘forbidden fruit’ (pork sausages) they had joined with him.

But by 1523 tensions were evident which two years later would lead to a parting of the ways. The City Councillors, sensing that changes had been taking place too fast for comfort, began to balk at new measures of reformation, such as the granting of the cup to the laity in the mass. Zwingli was inclined to hide his exasperation and to wait for the authorities to change their minds, but his radical disciples were less patient. At slake was an issue which they were gradually coming to see was fundamental. Whose decision should govern the life and policy of the church? The City Councillors or the Spirit of God speaking through the Bible? Zwingli’s reluctant preference was for the former, so that religious change might take place responsibly and uniformly. For, according to customary medieval assumptions which Zwingli accepted, the religious unity of a territory was the guarantee of its civic welfare.

Those who felt that religious decisions should be taken by groups of earnest believers interpreting the Bible on their own, on the other hand, were entering uncharted territory. A new vision of the church was emerging among the Anabaptists-lo-be, tentatively, amid debate and deep inner searching. It would be a church, not of the multitudes, but of the ‘few .. . believing and walking aright’ on a path of social nonconformity; a church uncoupled from the state’s coercion, and avoiding all participation in violence; a church of those who had chosen to be disciples and who would follow their Master into ‘anguish and affliction.’ In such a church there would be no place for what appeared to them to be the coerciveness of infant baptism.

Persecution and growth

Conrad Grebel had sensed that ‘Christ must still suffer more in his members.’ Shortly the movement of which he was a part discovered the reality of his premonition. A few hours before the first baptisms in January 1525, the Zurich City Council had forbidden the radicals to meet. From the very start therefore, their meetings were acts of civil disobedience.

As the Anabaptists began with missionary fervour to reach out into the surrounding areas - preaching, baptizing and forming congregations-they continued to encounter severe opposition from the civil authorities. When it was seen that imprisonment and banishment were ineffective in stemming the spread of Anabaptism, governments resorted to execution. In May 1525 the first Anabaptist was executed - by burning - by Catholic authorities in Schwyz. The first Anabaptist to be executed by Protestants was the Hebraist Felix Manz, in whose rooms that first baptism had happened. In early 1527 he was drowned in Zurich’s Limmat River, protesting that those who executed him were ‘destroying the very essence of Christianity.’ Despite the severity of the repression and the fact that by 1529 most of the early Anabaptist leaders had died, in the early 1530s Zwingli’s successor Bullinger was writing that ‘people are running after them as if they were the living saints.’

By this time the movement was not confined to Switzerland. This was not solely because the Swiss Brethren had fanned out with their message into South Germany and the Tyrol and were soon to reach Moravia. At the same time, in response to similar circumstances, other groups of Anabaptists were springing into existence. Some of these, such as the South German congregations associated with the ex-Benedictine prior Michael Sattler and the theologian Balthasar Hubmaier, quickly established relationships of varying degrees of closeness with the Swiss Brethren. But others, in central Germany and the Netherlands, were too far afield to have had any connection whatsoever with the Swiss, and had apparently sprung up spontaneously.

This is not surprising, for the conditions which produced Anabaptism were common in many parts of Europe. Religious expectancy and restlessness were superimposed on a sense of economic grievance; in South Germany Anabaptism spread in the wake of the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt. In many places Anabaptism reflected disenchantment with the fruits of the official Reformation. According to one believer from Bern, among the Reformers, despite their doctrinal changes, ‘true repentance and Christian love were not in evidence.’

Anabaptism also spread as a result of the tireless activity of preachers. The major Reformers still accepted Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ to preach the gospel to the whole world. But since they continued to accept without question the medieval idea that church and society were one and the same, they were reluctant to apply the Commission to their own situations. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, had no such reservations. Their deep missionary consciousness is evident in their court hearings; there is no text that they quoted more often than the Great Commission. Like the apostles, they felt themselves called to unauthorized preaching. Some of this was tumultuous, and much of it, especially in the early years, was quite uncoordinated. Indeed, the earliest Anabaptist missionaries were often ‘sent’ primarily by the civil authorities who had banished them. But soon the preachers began to co-ordinate their activities. In Augsburg in 1527, a ‘martyr synod’ (most of the preachers present were soon executed) met to divide South Germany among the missioners. And by the early 1530s the Hutterite communities in Moravia were carefully planning the sending of missionary teams into various parts of Europe.

A violent aberration

The expected second coming of Jesus was yet another spur to the spread of Anabaptism. In the early sixteenth century many people sensed that they were living in the last days. Martin Luther, for example, hurriedly translated the book of Daniel ‘so that everyone might read and comprehend it before the end of the world.’ Anabaptists often shared this vivid expectancy, and - especially since they were experiencing severe persecution - it added an immediacy to their preaching which was attractive to many. Some Anabaptists made calculations about the end of the world, and a few of these were convinced that when Jesus returned his otherwise non-violent disciples would be justified in taking up arms against the unrighteous.

In the Westphalian episcopal city of Münster, one such group of Anabaptists forcibly seized power in 1534. As the nonresident bishop massed troops and besieged the city, the inhabitants-believing that the millennium had come -defended themselves with arms. They began to behave in a way that was extraordinary for the Anabaptist movement at large. The believers received direct revelations; they linked the church with the state; they viewed the Old Testament as normative for ethics, justifying polygamy. When Münster fell in 1535 amid starvation and slaughter, speculation about the last days fell into disrepute among those parts of the Anabaptist movement that had earlier engaged in it.

To many Protestant and Catholic contemporaries, the debacle of Münster came - to the exclusion of everything else -to express the essence of Anabaptism. They therefore felt justified in intensifying (he persecution of Anabaptists wherever they could ferret them out. Anabaptism had, of course, been illegal all along. Local proscriptions had been generalized bythe 1529 Diet of Speyer, at which the Evangelicals (now for the first time called ‘Protestants') and Catholics agreed on one thing - that those who baptized believers or were ‘re-baptized’ should be subject to the death penalty. Anabaptist, or ‘re-baptizer', is thus a term coined by their enemies, to sanction persecution under an ancient imperial law condemning the Donatists; the Anabaptists preferred to be called ‘brothers and sisters.’

Throughout the sixteenth century persecution thus continued to be severe. Informers were planted in Anabaptist meetings; a special imperial police force ('Baptist-hunters') was recruited to pursue the heretics; and inquisitors were expressly trained to cow them back to orthodoxy. Inquisitors were assisted by torture-’severe examination', as it was euphemistically called. There were thousands of executions, as many as 2,500 in the Netherlands alone. Martyrdom thus became a theme of the Anabaptist movement, celebrated in hymns and recounted at length in the massive martyrology which for centuries has given the descendants of the Anabaptists their self-identity, Martyrs’ Mirror.

Münster was a disaster for the Anabaptist movement, but good came out of it. For it led to the conversion of a Frisian priest, Menno Simons, who identified himself with the harassed Anabaptists and who determined to lead them back on to the path of non-violent discipleship which had predominated in the movement. This was a costly decision. From 1536 until his death in 1561. Menno was on the run, shepherding scattered flocks from Holland into Germany, preaching by night, and writing tracts which he printed on the rudimentary press which he lugged on his travels. With a touch of bitterness he contrasted his lot with that of the preachers of the now-established Protestant churches:

‘I with my poor, weak wife and children have for years endured excessive anxiety, oppression, affliction, and persecution . . . Yes, when the preachers repose on easy beds and soft pillows, we generally have to hide ourselves in out-of-the-way corners . . . We have to be on our guard when a dog barks for fear the arresting officer has arrived ... In short, while they are gloriously rewarded for their services with large incomes and good times, our recompense and portion be but fire, sword and death.'

Thanks in significant measure to Menno’s courageous pastoring and resolute pacifist commitment, an Anabaptist movement survived in Northern Europe. For good reason it, like many of the descendants of the brethren in Switzerland and South Germany, came to be known as ‘Mennonite.’

Community of goods.

In Moravia, however, local manifestation of the Anabaptist movement came to be known as ‘Hutterite', after an early leader, Jakob Hutter (burned in 1536). The Hutterites were distinguished from the Swiss Brethren and from the North-European Mennonites by their insistence on community of goods. Since Christians held spiritual things in common, one Hutterite reasoned, so they ought also to have communion in material things ‘that as Paul says . . . there may be equality.’ Only by relinquishing private possessions and entering a community {Bruderhof} could they truly express their love for God and their fellow Christians.

Although Hutterite Anabaptists did indeed give up private properly, in the course of the sixteenth century their communities in Moravia and Hungary became wealthy and large - at one point they apparently had up to 30,000 members. Each Bruderhof was superbly organized. As one brother testified, ‘it is like a beehive where all the busy bees work together to a common end, the one doing this, the other that, not for their own need but for the good of all', the brothers developed handcrafts and light industry to a high level; their education was so excellent that local nobles sent their children to the communities for schooling; and the skill of Hutterite physicians made them in demand at the imperial court.

The Hutterites were resolute nonconformists (throughout the 16th century, for example, the Bruderhofs refused to pay war taxes). This and their manifest prosperity soon excited the envy and hostility of their neighbours. In 1595 the first of many blows fell, bringing their Golden Period to an end amid severe persecution. After waves of confiscation and repression, a few Hutterites, their ‘beehives’ broken up, survived by migrating to the Ukraine.

The Anabaptist movement was thus diverse. Indeed, a movement that was decentralized and persecuted, that extended from Holland to Hungary, and that contained a high proportion of ‘movement-type’ personalities, was bound to produce a variety of emphases. But despite these diversities, many of which worked their way out of the movement within its first decade, the number of uniformities that appear is striking. There was a bedrock of vision that set the Radicals off from the other Reformers and that made Anabaptism a distinctive Christian tradition of enduring significance.

On many points, to be sure, the Anabaptists were in agreement with the Reformers. The main contours of their theology were orthodox, and they were deeply influenced by Luther’s writings. Some of them were personal friends of Zwingli and Bucer. Yet their emphases were distinctive, so perversely so (it seemed to Reformers and Catholics alike) that the Anabaptists must be banished or executed.

To some extent, the distinctiveness of the Anabaptists’ vision resulted from their way of ‘doing theology.’ When people are being persecuted and oppressed, they tend to have a different perspective on God, the world, and the Bible from those who have positions of power in state-supported universities or churches. The Anabaptists’ circumstances of writing also determined the literary forms that their theological writing could take. Lacking safety, leisure and libraries, they naturally did not write systematic theologies or learned commentaries; they (like the early Christians, writing in a similar setting) wrote letters, narratives and controversial pieces.

Most Anabaptists, of course, could not have written academic theology if they had tried. Only one of the early Anabaptists, Bahhasar Hubmaier, had a doctorate in theology, and he was burned in 1528. Thanks to persecution, by the 1530s Anabaptist theology was being written almost entirely by laymen. Some of it, written by the civil engineer Pilgram Marpeck, was perceptive and original. But the striking thing about Anabaptist theology is not the brilliance of the individual writers; it is rather, as letters and court records testify, the deep knowledge many Anabaptists had of the Bible. In court hearings Anabaptist women (as in most renewal movements, women were especially active among the early Anabaptists) could confound their inquisitors with a superb command of the texts. As one exasperated inquisitor blurted out, ‘Why do you trouble yourself with Scripture? Attend to your sewing!’ Another priest exclaimed in dumbfounded admiration, ‘You Anabaptists are certainly fine fellows to understand the holy Scriptures; for before you are rebaptized, you can’t tell A from B, but as soon as you are baptized, you can read and write!'

Brothers and sisters

What then were the emphases which gave these lay theologians their distinctiveness, and which Reformers and Romanists alike found it impossible to tolerate? I have already mentioned the first - the Anabaptists’ insistence that since faith is God’s gift, religious compulsion is an offence against him. The early Luther (1522) had stated that he would ‘constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.’ Although Luther soon changed his mind, the Anabaptists persisted with this insight. ‘Christ’s people,’ one of them said, ‘are a free, unforced, and uncompelled people, who receive Christ with desire and a willing heart.'

This logic led them, in advance of their contemporaries, to espouse religious toleration. ‘A Turk or a heretic,’ Hubmaier pleaded, ‘cannot be persuaded by us either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.’ This logic also led them to reject infant baptism, which appeared to them to be an act of adult compulsion committed on an unconsenting infant. And the consequence of compulsion, they came to recognize, was a society which, though superficially Christian, was largely made up of slightly Christianized pagans. That the church was established, and a region’s religion was determined by its prince, simply compounded the problem. CH

By Alan Kreider

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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