Anabaptist Dirk Willems saves the life of his captor prior to his executionANABAPTISTS (“re-baptizers,” from Gr. ana and baptizo), a name given by their enemies to various sects which on the occasion of Luther’s revolt from Romanism denied the validity of infant baptism, and therefore baptized those whom they quite logically regarded as not having received any Christian initiation at all.

On the 27th of December 1521 three “prophets” appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau, Thomas Munzer, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stubner.  Luther’s reform was not thorough enough for them.  He professed to rest all upon Scripture, yet accepted from the Babylon of Rome a baptism neither scriptural nor primitive, nor fulfilling the chief conditions of admission into a visible brotherhood of saints, to wit, repentance, faith, spiritual illumination and free surrender of self to Christ.  Melanchthon, powerless against the enthusiasts with whom his co-reformer Carlstadt sympathized, appealed to Luther, still concealed in the Wartburg.  He had written to the Waldenses that it is better not to baptize at all than to baptize little children; now he was cautious, would not condemn the new prophecy off-hand; but advised Melanchthon to treat them gently and to prove their spirits, less they be of God. There was confusion in Wittenberg, where schools and university sided with the “prophets” and were closed.  Hence the charge that Anabaptists were enemies of learning, which is sufficiently rebutted by the fact that the first German translation of the Hebrew prophets was made and printed by two of them, Hetzer and Denk, in 1527.  The first leaders of the movement in Zurich—Grebel, Manz, Blaurock, Hubmaier—were men learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  On the 6th of March Luther returned, interviewed the prophets, scorned their “spirits,” forbade them the city, and had their adherents ejected from Zwickau and Erfurt. 

Denied access to the churches, the latter preached and celebrated the sacrament in private houses.  Driven from the cities they swarmed over the countryside.  Compelled to leave Zwickau, Munzer visited Bohemia, resided two years at Alltstedt in Thuringia, and in 1524 spent some time in Switzerland.  During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary doctrines in religion and politics with growing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success.  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 Munzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods.  The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed as it was by the execution of Munzer and several other leaders, proved only a temporary check to the Anabaptist movement.  Here and there throughout Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands there were zealous propagandists, through whose teaching many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader should arise.  A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Munster, in Westphalia (1532-1535).  Here the sect had gained considerable influence, through the adhesion of Rothmann, the Lutheran pastor, and several prominent citizens; and the leaders, Johann Matthyszoon or Matthiesen, a baker of Haarlem, and Johann Bockholdt, a tailor of Leiden, had little difficulty in obtaining possession of the town and deposing the magistrates.  Vigorous preparations were at once made, not only to hold what had been gained, but to proceed from Munster as a centre to the conquest of the world.  The town being besieged by Francis of Waldeck, its expelled bishop (April 1534), Matthiesen, who was first in command, made a sally with only thirty followers, under the fanatical idea that he was a second Gideon, and was cut off with his entire band. 

Bockholdt, better known in history as John of Leiden, was now supreme.  Giving himself out as the successor of David, he claimed royal honors and absolute power in the new “Zion.” He justified the most arbitrary and extravagant measures by the authority of visions from heaven, as others have done in similar circumstances.  With this pretended sanction he legalized polygamy, and himself took four wives, one of whom he beheaded with his own hand in the market-place in a fit of frenzy.  As a natural consequence of such license, Munster was for twelve months a scene of unbridled profligacy.  After an obstinate resistance the town was taken by the besiegers on the 24th of June 1535, and in January 1536 Bockholdt and some of his more prominent followers, after being cruelly tortured, were executed in the market-place.  The outbreak at Munster was the crisis of the Anabaptist movement.  It never again had the opportunity of assuming political importance, the civil powers naturally adopting the most stringent measures to suppress an agitation whose avowed object was to suppress them. 

It is difficult to trace the subsequent history of the sect as a religious body.  The fact that, after the Munster insurrection the very name Anabaptist was proscribed in Europe, is a source of twofold confusion.  The enforced adoption of new names makes it easy to lose the historical identity of many who really belonged to the Munster Anabaptists, and, on the other hand, has led to the classification of many with the Munster sect who had no real connection with it.  The latter mistake, it is to be noted, has been much more common than the former.  The Mennonites, for example, have been identified with the earlier Anabaptists, on the ground that they included among their number many of the fanatics of Munster.  But the continuity of a sect is to be traced in its principles, and not in its adherents, and it must be remembered that Menno and his followers expressly repudiated the distinctive doctrines of the Munster Anabaptists.  They have never aimed at any social or political revolution, and have been as remarkable for sobriety of conduct as the Munster sect was for its fanaticism.  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 Munster sect.  Many of the followers of Munzer and Bockholdt 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 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.”  

The excesses of John of Leiden, the Brigham Young of that age, cast an unjust stigma on the Baptists, of whom the vast majority were good, quiet people who merely carried out in, practice the early Christian ideals of which their persecutors prated.  They have been reckoned an extreme left wing of the Reformation, because for a time they followed Luther and Zwingli.  Yet their Christology and negative attitude towards the state rather indicate, as in the case of Wicklif, Hus and the Fraticelli, an affinity to the Cathari and other medieval sects.  But this affiliation is hard to establish.  The earliest Anabaptists of Zurich 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 wide-spread 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 Alex.  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.  In the following points Anabaptists resembled the medieval dissenters:–(1) They taught 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: they did, but not in the sense that he was not divine; they rather denied him to be human. (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. xviii. 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.

On the 12th of April 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.”  

The Anabaptists were great readers of Revelation and of the Epistle of James, the latter perhaps by way of counteracting Luther’s one-sided teaching of justification by faith alone.  Luther feebly rejected this scripture as “a right strawy epistle.” English Anabaptists often knew it by heart.  Excessive reading of Revelation seems to have been the chief cause of the aberrations of the Munster fanatics.

In Poland and Holland certain of the Baptists denied the Trinity, hence the saying that a Socinian was a learned Baptist (see SOCINUS.) With these Menno and his followers refused to hold communion.

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.  Those who yielded to stress of persecution fell back into Papalism and went to swell the tide of the Catholic reaction.


AUTHORITIES.—Fussli, Kirchen- und Ketzerhistorie der mittlern Zeit (contains Bullinger); Zwinglius, In catabaptistarum strophas elenchus (1527) (Opera iii. 351); Bullinger, Der Wiedertaafsr Ursprung (1560); Gieseler, Ecclesiastical History, Engl. tr. v. 344; Spanheim, De origine Anabapt.  (Lugd. 1643); Ranke’s History of the, Reformation; Melanchthon, Die Historic von Th. Muntzer (1525) (in Luthers Werke, ed.  Walch, xvi. 199); Strobel, Leben Th.  Muntzers (1795); C. A. Cornelius, Die niederlandischen Wiedertaufer, in publications of Bavarian Academy (1869); J. G. Walch, Hist. u. theolog.  Einleitung (Jena, 1733); Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History; Gerbert, Gesch. d.  Strassb.  Sektenbewegung (Strassburg, 1889); W. Moeller, History of the Christian Church, tr. by Freese, 1900; Jos.  v.  Beck, Die Geschichtsbucher der Wiedertaufer in Osterr.-Ung. (Wien, 1883), (Fontes rerum Austr. II. xliii., a valuable history of the sect from their own early documents); Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus, vol. i. (Bonn, 1880); Loserth, B. Hubmaier und die Anfange der Wiedertaufer in Mahren (Brunn, 1893); Kolde, in Kirchengesch.  Studien (Leipzig, 1888); Kessler, Sabbata; Leendertz and Zur Linden, M.. Hofmann (Haarlem, 1883-1885); Erbkam, Gesch. der prot.  Sekten der Reform. (1848); Justus Menius, Der Weidertaufer Lehre (Wittenberg, 1534); Johann Cloppenburg and Fred.  Spanheim, Gangraena theologiae Anabaptisticae (Franekerd, 1656); Balthasar Lydius, Waldensia, id est conservatio verae Ecclesiae (Rotterdam, 1616); Herman Schyn, Historiae Mennonitarum (Amsterdam, 1729); John.  Henr.  Ottius, Annales Anabaptistici (Basileae. 1772); Karl Rembert, Die Wiedertaufer in Herzogtum Julich (Munster, 1873); Universal Lexicon, art. “Wiedertaufer” (Leipzig. 1748); Tielmann Janssen van Bracht, Martyrologia Mennonitarum (Haarlem. 1615-1631); John.  Gastii, Tractat. de Anabapt.  Exordio (Basel, 1545); Jehring, History of the Baptists; Auss Bundt, or hymns written by and of the Baptist martyrs from 1526-1620, first printed without date or place, reprinted Basel, 1838.