Who Were the Anabaptists? Part 1
When we talk about the Anabaptists, it is important to realize we are not talking about an organized entity or denomination. Rather the word is used to describe some of those groups who broke away from the original Protestants. It is also important to note that they did not exist prior to the Reformation. Also, unlike many of the other groups that came out of the Reformation, the Anabaptist did not immediately have set, articulated views of doctrines. While they did reject the Roman Catholic Church, they were also reacting to the church and state established by the Protestant Reformers.
Anabaptist roots are found in Zurich, Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli was the city chaplain and reforms were progressing under him. However, there were some who were not satisfied with the rate or the degree of reforms. Zwingli was sympathetic to their desires but also saw the need to move cautiously. Those who wanted more reforms and faster reformation were pressing hard on the city council. They demanded not only a church free from government interference, but an end to tithes, taxes and compulsory military service. Refusing to back down, they were told they could no longer advocate for their views because they were causing division.
These groups are called the “radical reformers” and have often been referred to as the “left-wing” of the Reformation because they have the most radical departure of any others in reaction to Catholicism. The Radicals were composed of some 40-50 groups that were very diverse. They made up only about 2% of the Protestants in the 1500s. Although they held a wide diversity of views, they had at least three things in common.
1) The separation between church and state.
2) Calls for religious liberty and religious tolerance
3) Extreme separation from the world.
Anabaptists of Zurich
There were three main leaders in Zurich, Switzerland: Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock. It was in the home of Felix Manz, that George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him. Upon studying their Bibles, they realized that infant baptism was not found in the New Testament and that the sacrament was only administered to adults. The baptism was not performed in a church, nor by a minister but rather Grebel poured water over Blaurock. (1) As early as 1524 they preached against infant baptism.
They believed that the Reformation had not gone far enough and that the pace at which reform was moving far too slow. Zwingli was at first sympathetic to their cause but urged them to be patient. He realized that he needed the backing of the government to continue the reforms and that the Reformation had caused instability, not only ecclesiastically but also politically. Eventually, the Anabaptist grew tired of waiting and broke with the state church and began meeting in their homes. It was these home meetings and their refusal to acknowledge the state church as legitimate that got them branded not only as heretics but also as traitors to the state.
Why were some of them imprisoned and killed? Historical context is extremely important. It is vital to understand that at this time, there was no separation of church and state. The concept of separation of church and state was at least a century away. As I said in the article about Calvin and Servetus, as was the king so were the people. If you were not a Catholic it was assumed you were a Protestant, and vice versa. The Pope and the Church would often use their power to influence the king of a country and demand his loyalty, even to the point of waging war against their enemies. Anyone opposed to the religion of the kingdom was also guilty of treason. We may ridicule this but that does not change the reality.
If the king was Protestant then the country would be Protestant. This, however, does not mean that there was automatic religious tolerance. The Protestant countries had a state church, just as the Roman Catholic countries were loyal to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. It is for this reason that the Anabaptist were persecuted.
To reject the state church was to also reject the state and the king. Those who did not conform to the laws of the state, including religious laws, were viewed as radicals and something like anarchists. They were seen as a threat because of their refusal to obey the laws. It is for this reason that both the Roman Catholic countries as well as the Protestant ones persecuted the radicals. It was not so much for theological reasons but because of their refusal to conform. Their nonconformity was viewed as an act of treason. I do not say this to defend the persecutions of the Anabaptists. I simply want to accurately portray the state of the world at that time.
1- This is not an insignificant point. It should be noted that they baptized themselves and they did so by pouring and not by immersion.