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Anabaptists (Greek ανα (again, twice) +βαπτιζω (baptize), thus "re-baptizers") are Christians of the Radical Reformation. This article describes the Anabaptists of 16th-century Europe and their direct descendants, particularly the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

Anabaptists rejected conventional Christian practices such as wearing wedding rings, taking oaths, and participating in civil government. They adhered to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and Believer's baptism. The name Anabaptist is derived from this, because credobaptism was considered heresy by all other major Christian denominations at the time of the reformation period. As a result, Anabaptists were heavily persecuted during the 16th century and into the 17th by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.



Though opinion is that Anabaptists, by name, began with the Radical Reformers in the 16th century, certain people and groups may still legitimately be considered their forerunners. Petr Chelčický, 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, Dutch Sacramentists 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. They condemned oaths, and also the reference of disputes between believers to law-courts in accordance with 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.
  2. The believer must not bear arms or offer forcible resistance to wrongdoers, nor wield the sword. No Christian has the jus gladii (the right of the sword).
  3. Civil government (i.e., "Caesar") belongs to the world. 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.
  4. Sinners or unfaithful ones are to be excommunicated, and excluded from the sacraments and from intercourse with believers unless they repent, according to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 and Matt.18:15 seq. But no force is to be used towards them.
  5. Only some Anabaptists 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. We often find this idea, originated by Marcion in the 2nd century, represented in pictures and sculptures of the 15th century and earlier. The Anabaptists were accused of denying the Incarnation of Christ: a charge that Menno Simons repeatedly rejected.

Bishop Longland in Englandmarker 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.


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 supporters 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 Müntzer. 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 (The history of the Münster riot). Baptist historian Albert Henry Newman (1852–1933), who 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 Zürichmarker 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 Zürichmarker, and that the Anabaptism of the Swiss Brethren was transmitted to southern Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and northern 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. That day the anabaptists made a declaration of belief called the Schleitheim Confession. 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. The authors noted the agreement among previous Anabaptist historians on polygenesis even when disputing the date for a single starting point: “Hillerbrand and Bender (like Holl and Troeltsch) were in agreement that there was a single dispersion of Anabaptism-…, which certainly ran through Zurich. The only question was whether or not it went back further to Saxony.” After criticizing the standard polygenetic history, the authors found six groups in early Anabaptism which could be collapsed into three originating "points of departure": "South German Anabaptism, the Swiss Brethren and the Melchiorites." 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 Müntzer and Hans Hut, and the work of Gottfried Seebaß and Werner Packull clearly showed the influence of Thomas Müntzer on the formation of South German Anabaptism. Steven Ozment's work linked Hans Denck and Hans Hut with Thomas Müntzer, 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

It is believed by some that the 16th century Anabaptists were part of an apostolic succession of churches ("church perpetuity" or "Baptist successionism") from the time of Christ.

The opponents of this theory emphasize that these non-Catholic groups clearly differed from each other, that they held some heretical views, are not successors of the Apostles, or that they had no connection with one another with origins that are separate both in time and place. This view is held by some Baptists, some Mennonites, and a number of "true church" movements. Somewhat related to this is the theory 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 J. van Braght all held, in varying degrees, the position that the Anabaptists were of Waldensian origin.


Different types exist among the Anabaptists, although the 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, Balthasar Hubmaier, Manz, Marpeck, and Simons as Anabaptists. He groups Müntzer, 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."Most of the Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists were modalistic monarchians and baptized in the shorter formula of the name of Jesus Christ. They also spoke in ecstatic languages and prophecies known as "speaking in tongues." Holiness was a very important doctrine to them.

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 and Frisian Anabaptism (Menno Simons, Dirk Philips), and South German Anabaptism (Hübmaier, Marpeck).

Historians and sociologists have made further distinctions between radical Anabaptists, who were prepared to use violence in their attempts to build a New Jerusalem, and their pacifist brethren, later broadly known as Mennonites. Radical Anabaptist groups included the Münsterites, who occupied and held the German city of Münstermarker in 1534–5, and the Batenburgers, who persisted in various guises as late as the 1570s.


Charismatic manifestations

Within the inspirationist wing of the Anabaptist movement, it was not unusual for charismatic manifestations to appear, such as dancing, falling under the power of the Holy Spirit, "prophetic processions" (at Zurich in 1525, at Munster in 1534 and at Amsterdam in 1535), and speaking in tongues. In Germany some Anabaptists, "excited by mass hysteria, experienced healings, glossolalia, contortions and other manifestations of a camp-meeting revival". The Anabaptist congregations that later developed into the Mennonite and Hutterite churches tended not to promote these manifestations, but did not totally reject the miraculous. Pilgram Marpeck, for example, wrote against the exclusion of miracles: "Nor does Scripture assert this exclusion...God has a free hand even in these last days." Referring to some who had been raised from the dead, he wrote: "Many of them have remained constant, enduring tortures inflicted by sword, rope, fire and water and suffering terrible, tyrannical, unheard-of deaths and martyrdoms, all of which they could easily have avoided by recantation. Moreover one also marvels when he sees how the faithful God (who, after all, overflows with goodness) raises from the dead several such brothers and sisters of Christ after they were hanged, drowned, or killed in other ways. Even today, they are found alive and we can hear their own testimony...Cannot everyone who sees, even the blind, say with a good conscience that such things are a powerful, unusual, and miraculous act of God? Those who would deny it must be hardened men". The Hutterite Chronicle and The Martyr's Mirror record several accounts of miraculous events, such as when a man named Martin prophesied while being led across a bridge to his execution in 1531: "...this once yet the pious are led over this bridge, but no more hereafter." Just "a short time afterwards such a violent storm and flood came that the bridge was demolished".

Holy Spirit leadership

The Anabaptists insisted upon the "free course" of the Holy Spirit in worship, yet still maintained it all must be judged according to the Scriptures. The Swiss Anabaptist document titled "Answer of Some Who Are Called (Ana-)Baptists - Why They Do Not Attend the Churches". One reason given for not attending the state churches was that these institutions forbade the congregation to exercise spiritual gifts according to "the Christian order as taught in the gospel or the Word of God in 1 Corinthians 14." "When such believers come together, "Everyone of you (note every one) hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation," etc...When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation, or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling and operating in them through His Holy Spirit with His gifts, impelling them one after another in the above-mentioned order of speaking and prophesying".


1520s and 1530s

In the 1520s and 1530s Anabaptist preachers spread the movement throughout central Europe, and authorities, either from a lack of knowledge about the new sect, desire to maintain orthodox doctrine, or a variety of other nuanced reasons, usually responded with executions and banishment although a few leaders did exercise moderation in dealing with the Anabaptists.

Zwickau prophets and the Peasants' War

On December 27, 1521, three "prophets", influenced by and in turn influencing Thomas Müntzer, appeared in Wittenbergmarker from Zwickaumarker: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stübner. The crisis came in the Peasants' War in southern Germanymarker in 1525. In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, it became, under the leadership of Müntzer, 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.

Münster Rebellion

A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster in Westphalia (1532–5), led by Bernhard Rothman, Bernhard Knipperdolling, Jan Matthys and John of Leiden.

Persecutions and migrations

Dirk Willems saves his pursuer.
Much of the historic Roman 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 Roman 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. The Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute the Anabaptists. Felix Manz became the first martyr in 1527.

On May 20, 1527, Roman Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler. King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) "the best antidote to Anabaptism". The Tudor regime, even those that were Protestant (Edward VI of England and Elizabeth I of England) persecuted Anabaptists as they were deemed too radical and therefore a danger to religious stability. The persecution of Anabaptists was condoned by ancient laws of Theodosius I and Justinian I that were passed against the Donatists which decreed the death penalty for any who practiced rebaptism.

Thieleman J. van Braght's Martyrs Mirror describes the persecution and execution of thousands of Anabaptists, such as Dirk Willems, 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.


Several existing denominational bodies may be legitimately regarded as the successors of the Continental AnabaptistsAmish, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Bruderhof Communities. Some historical connections have been demonstrated for all of these spiritual descendants, though perhaps not as clearly as the noted institutionally lineal descendants. Although many see the more well-known Anabaptist groups (Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites) as ethnic groups, the Anabaptist bodies of today are no longer composed mostly of descendants of the Continental Anabaptists. Total worldwide membership of the Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and related churches totals 1,297,716 (as of 2003) with about 60 percent in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Groups deriving from the Schwarzenau Brethren, often called German Baptists, while not directly descended from the 16th-century Anabaptists, are usually considered Anabaptist because of an almost identical doctrine and practice.

Puritans of England and their Baptist branch arose independently, but were influenced by the Anabaptist movement.


The Anabaptists were early promoters of a free church and freedom of religion (sometimes associated with separation of church and state). When it was introduced by the Anabaptists in the 15th and 16th centuries, religious freedom independent of the state was unthinkable to both clerical and governmental leaders. Religious liberty was equated with anarchy; Kropotkin traces the birth of anarchist thought in Europe to these early Anabaptist communities.

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.

In addition, it may be argued that one of the historical Anabaptist doctrines, specifically that one must volitionally, consciously, and personally relate to God, is likewise found among much of Evangelical Protestantism, even though these churches may not be historically linked to the Anabaptists.

Popular culture

  • Voltaire's novel, Candide, features a character named James, who identifies himself as an Anabaptist and helps the eponymous protagonist and his teacher Pangloss but later drowns in Lisbonmarker harbor.

  • The novel Q, by the collective known as 'Luther Blissett' features an Anabaptist as the central character and is set in the 16th century, touching on key elements of Anabaptist history such as the siege of Munster.

See also

Footnotes and references

Further reading

  • A History of Anti-Pedobaptism, From the Rise of Pedobaptism to A. D. 1609, by Albert H. Newman, ( Google Books, ISBN 1579785360)
  • Anabaptist Bibliography 1520–1630, by Hans Hillerbrand, ( Google Books, ISBN 0910345031)
  • Anabaptists and the Sword, by James M. Stayer, ( Google Books, ISBN 0872910814)
  • An Introduction to Mennonite History, by Cornelius J. Dyck, ( Google Books, ISBN 0836136209)
  • Covenant and Community: The Life, Writings, and Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck, by William Klassen, ( Google Books)
  • Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments During the Reformation, by Werner O. Packull, ( Google Books, ISBN 0801850487)
  • In Editha's Days. A Tale of Religious Liberty, by Mary E. Bamford LCCN 06006296 (republished as The Bible Makes Us Baptists, Larry Harrison, ed.), ( Google Books)
  • Mennonite Encyclopedia, Harold S. Bender, Cornelius J. Dyck, Dennis D. Martin, Henry C. Smith, et al., editors, ( Google Books, ISBN 0836110188)
  • Revelation & Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Muntzer, by Michael G. Baylor, ( Google Books, ISBN 0934223165)
  • The Anabaptist Story, by William R. Estep, ( Google Books, ISBN 0802815944)
  • The Anabaptist Vision, by Harold S. Bender, ( Google Books, ISBN 0836113055)
  • The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror, by Thieleman J. van Braght, ( Google Books, ISBN 083611390X)
  • The Encyclopedia of American Religions, by J. Gordon Melton, ( Google Books, ISBN 0810369044)
  • The German Peasants' War & Anabaptist Community of Goods, by James M. Stayer, ( Google Books, ISBN 0773508422)
  • The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn, ( Google Books, ISBN 0195004566)
  • The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, ( Google Books, ISBN 0801092841)
  • The Anatomy of a Hybrid : a Study in Church-State Relationships by Leonard Verduin, ( Google Books, ISBN 0802816150)
  • The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, by Anthony Arthur, ( Google Books, ISBN 0312205155)
  • The Radical Reformation, by George Hunston Williams, Third Edition. Sixteen Century Journal Publishers, 1992.

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