Those Misunderstood Anabaptists

Anti-establishment extremists. Unruly iconoclasts. Chaotic rabble. Purveyors of the Peasants’ War. Promoters of discord and violence. Uneducated simpletons. Biblical literalists and unchecked spiritualists. Chiliastic extremists and polygamists of Münster.

These are labels which some have applied not only to the broad array of disparate radical groups found outside the post-Reformation categories of Catholicism and magisterial Protestantism (Lutheranism, the Reformed tradition, and Anglicanism), but they are also characterizations which these majority groups have imprecisely applied to the Anabaptists in particular. Luther called the Anabaptists Schwärmer/Schwärmgeister (fanatics or enthusiasts) for their mystical pneumatology, sacramentarians for eschewing the real presence of Christ in the Supper, and Wiedertäufer (rebaptizers).[1] Calvin called them “a nefarious herd,” “babblers,” modern-day “Donatists,” and “fanatics.”[2] Yet, tellingly, both Reformers wrote treatises against the Anabaptists while admittedly having never met one. These imprecise, but repeated, pejorative labels may reveal something of Luther and Calvin’s vague understanding of the heterogeneity of the radicals and their mostly deficient interest in becoming more acquainted with them, but also their further resolve to oppose Anabaptism indiscriminately. Later taking their cues from such caricatures, historians of the Reformation who mainly represented these mainstream Protestant traditions followed suit by categorizing the Anabaptists as a nonconformist sect and not a church and, until the latter half of the twentieth century, largely omitting their study within the Reformation era altogether.

It is true that most forms of Anabaptism in the sixteenth century did reject pacing the reforms of the Western church under the vigilant eye of the state and its governing town councils, regional princes, and sovereign Kings. They held to variegated forms of separatism and anticlericalism. It should be noted, however, that just as Anabaptism did not begin with a single founder or initial group, there was therefore also great variety among various communities as to what was identified as essential marks of their movement. Thus, accurately encapsulating the distinctive beliefs of these diverse groups is perhaps as challenging as describing the aggregated origins of Anabaptism. With almost every stipulated doctrine, there are exceptions and degrees of emphasis in various circles.

But one can fairly assess that nearly all[3] Anabaptists departed from the well-established practice of pedobaptism, instead baptizing believers upon their confession of faith. Yet, like much of the characterizations of their history, even their name “Anabaptist” was not of their choosing but a pejorative foisted upon them by their opponents. The appellation “Anabaptist” actually dates back to a practice by North African Christians who followed Bishop Donatus, who rebaptized Christians who had previously been baptized by priests who had subsequently recanted their faith. By the 4th century, both church and empire labeled anabaptista as heresy and a criminal offense, punishable by death. Then, during the Reformation, the 1529 Diet of Speyer linked believer’s baptism of 16th century reformers to the Donatists of old, articulating that “every Anabaptist and rebaptized man and woman of the age of reason shall be condemned and brought from natural life into death by fire, sword, and the like, according to the person, without proceeding by the inquisition of the spiritual judges.” And the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 likewise condemned Anabaptist reformers, equating them with the Donatists of old.[4] Subsequently, Catholics and magisterial Protestants, in conjunction with their respective states, persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, and executed hundreds of Anabaptist Christians.[5]

Yet, these “Anabaptists,” who instead preferred simple names such as Brüder (Brethren) or Christians, rejected the entire premise that they practiced rebaptism but had instead recovered what they believed to be the biblical practice of credobaptism, baptizing believers based upon their confession of faith and voluntary consent to mutual accountability and communal discipline within the church.[6] Thus, in many Anabaptist congregations, a baptismal candidate would customarily make a pledge of faith and acquiesce to mutual submission immediately before receiving the external sign of water. Faith, they believed, must be appropriated voluntarily, maturely, and soberly. And while baptism appeared to be their most distinctive practice, what was arguably more significant to the Anabaptists was the project that the rite served: the restoration (and not merely reformation) of the visible church to its biblical simplicity and pure practice, removed from all the perceived layers of tradition, distortion, and corruption. As opposed to the Western church’s long-held approbation of the Volkskirche, which had incorporated all its baptized citizens into the church, Anabaptists believed in a visible church, made up exclusively of heartfelt and committed believers. Believer’s baptism was simply (but significantly) the entrance into (re)establishing this visible and disciplined church ecclesiology.[7]

Another aspect of this effort of restoring the simplicity of what they perceived as the New Testament church model was the practice, by a number of Anabaptists, of the Christian community of goods. Here the wealthy of the church provided for the needs of the poorer members among Swiss Anabaptists and a stricter renunciation of private property and Christian communism, what was referred to as “yieldedness,” among other Anabaptist groups in Europe, most notably among Moravian Hutterite communities.

These clarifications are not to say there was no reason for pejorative labels regarding “Anabaptists.” Some who would be categorized as within this movement indeed fell into each of the opening descriptors, most notably the extreme fringe chiliastic movement which overtook the city of Münster in 1534-5. However, both Catholic and magisterial Protestant theologians, whether intentionally or not, conflated the Münsterites–along with other dissenters such as spiritualists, rationalists, libertines–in the propaganda of their territorial churches, with the entire Anabaptist movement, distorting Anabaptism’s core convictions and martyring its adherents by fire, beheading, stabbing, and drowning in the name of the Gospel, nearly squelching one of the most grossly misunderstood traditions in Christian history.[8]

Contrary to one stereotype, a significant number of first generation Anabaptist leaders were well-educated, many of them trilingual in the classical languages. Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, for instance, were well-trained in biblical languages under the tutelage of Huldrych Zwingli himself. Another Anabaptist theologian, Balthasar Hubmaier, had received his doctorate in theology at the University of Ingolstadt under the direction of the Catholic scholar Johann Eck and demonstrated an articulation of the faith which arguably rivaled such theologians as Martin Luther–his contemporary in age and education–in his prolific writing, until Hubmaier was burned at the stake in 1528. Moreover, the Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler defended himself during his 1527 trial by sporadically breaking into Latin to communicate with the judge. At his execution, Sattler’s tongue was cut out so he could no longer convince bystanders of his understanding of the faith. These Anabaptists were no simpletons.[9]

Against the accusation that they were rebel rousers, most Anabaptists were actually pacificists. Their understanding of the faith was a conviction freely taken without governmental requirements and violence, for they believed that a church held up by the state’s scaffolding could never be free-standing. Many Anabaptists refused to participate in military service, police work, and even jury duty so as to avoid using the instruments of violence against others. While the vast majority of Anabaptists willingly paid their taxes and otherwise obeyed their ruling authorities, it was a 16th-century Anabaptist who wrote what is likely the first treatise calling for the freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion in the modern era. Real Christians, he argued, did not execute other people based on their deeply held beliefs, “for Christ did not come to slaughter, kill, burn, but so that those who live should live yet more abundantly. . . . [And] if to burn heretics is such a great evil, how much greater will be the evil, to burn to ashes the genuine proclaimers of the Word of God, without having convinced them, without having debated the truth with them.”[10]

Anabaptists may have been viewed as something completely different from other Christian movements, but the labels historians use in retrospect to identify them were much more fluid “in real time” of the Reformation. In fact, a number of famous magisterial Protestants may have initially concurred with at least some of their convictions. For instance, Huldrych Zwingli all but admitted to initially rejecting pedobaptism and allowing for parents to delay of the baptism of children (later confessing, “for some time I myself was deceived by the error and I thought it better not to baptize children until they came to years of discretion”[11]). Likewise, through their correspondence with other leading reformers, Anabaptist theologians strongly believed for a time that Johannes Oecolampadius, Sebastian Hofmeister, and several other well-known mainstream Protestant Reformers to have at least concurred that church discipline be independent of the government and that they also privately but briefly shared their concerns even regarding pedobaptism.[12]

What may be of further surprise: Anabaptism even helped to shape aspects of what would become hallmarks of magisterial Protestant theology. For instance, the Reformer Martin Bucer struck a compromise between the Reformed and Anabaptist populace in Hesse. Bucer appreciated that both faith traditions endorsed a form of covenant theology: the Anabaptists in the form of a voluntary assent to congregational rule of the local church (over against the state’s regulation of ecclesial matters) and the Reformed in their stress on the eternal security of the children of Christians. To unite the two, Bucer introduced a form of Protestant confirmation wherein believers may voluntarily affirm their faith in Christ and submission to the church when they come of age. Thus, Bucer essentially merged both notions of covenant theology.[13] As one historian observed, “the reformers of Hesse agreed to reinstitute church discipline, and the Anabaptists agreed to return to the public worship of God.”[14] Meanwhile, the Reformed tradition incorporated aspects of Anabaptist theology into an important rite in their church’s liturgy. Moreover, upon Calvin’s arrival in Strasbourg in 1537, when he was finally introduced to Anabaptists and their theology by Bucer and even married the widow of an Anabaptist leader there, the once and future Geneva Reformer would return to his former city of ministry to significantly expand the place of church discipline within the Genevan church and correspondingly reduce the power of the state’s influence in spiritual matters.[15] Calvin biographer William J. Bouwsma would remark of this: “he yearned for a pure church, a visible and exclusive community of the saint, however small. . . . This suggested a separatist model of the church; a part of Calvin was closer to Anabaptism than he would have cared to admit.”[16] Finally, it should be noted that entire sections of Calvin’s 1536 Institutes were organized to sporadically answer various points of the 1527 Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, likely authored by Michael Sattler, in the order laid out in the Anabaptist confession. Thus, even in antithesis, an Anabaptist document affected the arrangement and inclusion of various doctrines for what would become the most famous systematic theology of the Reformed tradition.[17]

The twentieth century became a turning point for the appreciation of the Anabaptist tradition. Scholars began to interpret the values that guided Anabaptism as the stimulus, albeit premature, of the anti-dogmatic and anti-authoritarian characteristics that betokened the post-Eurocentric, pluralistic, and ethically oriented exercise of religion of the free-church tradition of the twentieth century. Anabaptism became recognized as a movement that ultimately shaped the American religious experiment of the voluntary expression of faith, freedom of conscience, and the disentanglement of the church from the state.[18]

Beyond the Anabaptists of post-Medieval Europe and even their denominational progeny today, the contemporary ‘Neo-Anabaptism’ movement has extended Anabaptist ideas into mainline Protestantism. Theologians from diverse Christian traditions such as Will Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, David Fitch, Paul Wadell, Greg Boyd, Don Dayton, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Scot McKnight, Stuart Murray, and Shane Clairborne are among a host of pastors and scholars who have appropriated Anabaptism in their own traditions and contexts. Such thinkers have promoted the suitability of Anabaptist theology for post-Christendom culture, the restoration of the church to be both community and corporate witness, the priority of non-violence in Christian ethics, and the recentering of Kingdom theology in Christian discipleship.[19]

For their part, the Anabaptists of the 16th century perceived their project as a fuller completion of the Reformation than their Lutheran, Reformed or Anglican counterparts. They drew deeply from and arguably applied more strictly, the general Protestant principles of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture for congregational guidance, the priesthood of all believers for the church’s polity, and Luther’s emphasis of the necessity of faith before administering the sacraments.[20] Such an unwavering application of these principles to their ecclesiology would lead Jürgen Moltmann to posit that the Anabaptists “were the only Reformation movement by faith alone.”[21]

Those descendants of the Anabaptists who avoided martyrdom and ultimately experienced exile to the corners of Europe and to the New World created relatively small albeit significant churches and denominational traditions and – over the last several centuries – quietly reconstructed a history of an important Christian tradition, which – until relatively recently – was otherwise left out of the church history books written by the dominant Western church traditions. Without understanding this history properly, one would be hard pressed to distinguish between the violent radicals of Münster and the pacifist Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites, the direct descendants of Anabaptism today, and even the more indirect (or typological) free-church descendants in the Baptist, Campbellite/American Restoration Movement, and Quaker traditions. Their story is much more fascinating as a compelling witness to Christian faithfulness – the story which directly shaped the broader Free Church tradition and at least indirectly influenced most of Western Christianity.

Brian C. Brewer is Professor of Christian Theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author of Martin Luther and the Seven Sacraments (Baker Academic) and editor of the recently released T&T Clark Handbook of Anabaptism, which is available to purhcase here. If you purhcase via this link to, the Davenant Institute receives a small commission on the purchase.

  1. See Brian C. Brewer, “The Anabaptists,” in Martin Luther in Context, ed. David M. Whitford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), esp. 381-2; and Brian C. Brewer, “Anabaptism,” in Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation, vol. 1, ed. Mark A. Lamport (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 15-17.
  2. See Brian C. Brewer, “‘Those Satanic Anabaptists’: Calvin, Soul Sleep, and the Search for an Anabaptist Nemesis,’” in Calvin and the Early Reformation, eds., Brian C. Brewer and David M. Whitford (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 125-54.
  3. The followers of Melchior Hoffman and a few other disparate sects did not enforce credobaptism on their adherents.

  4. See George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed., Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, vol. XV (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 359-60.

  5. Brad Gregory suggests the number of Anabaptists executed during the Reformation to be between 2,000 and 3,000 people, with a concentration in the Low Countries and Central Europe. See Brad S. Gregory, “Anabaptist Martyrdom: Imperatives, Experience and Memorialization,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, eds. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 478.

  6. See Stuart Murray, “Ecclesiology,” in T&T Clark Handbook of Anabaptism, ed. Brian C. Brewer (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2021), 206f.

  7. See Brewer, “The Anabaptists,” in Martin Luther in Context, 378-9.

  8. Brad Gregory observes that the high number of Anabaptist executions was the result of a combination of the willingness of Anabaptist believers to die (via their pacifism) and that of Catholic and magisterial Protestant authorities’ willingness to kill. See Gregory, 469, and also Julia Qiuye Zhao, “Suffering and Martyrdom,” in T&T Clark Handbook of Anabaptism, esp. 340-43.

  9. After the wave of persecution of the first generation of Anabaptist theologians, congregations were forced to select clergy from within their ranks, thus leading to the stereotype of uneducated clergy. See Brewer, “The Anabaptists,” in Martin Luther in Context, 377.

  10. See Balthasar Hubmaier, “On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them,” Articles 14 and 20, here via Hubmaier, Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and eds., H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 62, 64.

  11. Zwingli, “Of Baptism,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. G.W. Bromiley (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1952), 139.

  12. E.g., see Hubmaier, “Letter to Oecolampad,” where he states, “On this day, the Doctors of Zurich will assemble to compare texts of Scripture concerning baptism of the young. This is where Zwingli with his associate Leo singing in harmony disagrees with us,” here via Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, 69-70.

  13. See Brewer, “’Those Satanic Anabaptists,’” 140-43.

  14. Franklin H. Littell, “What Calvin Learned at Strassburg,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 82 (74-86).

  15. This move led Littell to posit that church discipline served unofficially as Calvin’s “third mark” of the church, alongside proper preaching and the distribution of the sacraments. See Littell, 83.

  16. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 217-18. Calvin himself would write in later editions of the Institutes that church discipline serves as the “sinews, through which members of the body hold together.” See Institutes (1559), IV.12.1.

  17. Calvin chapter, 134. For example, Calvin addressed oath-taking, the Incarnation of Christ, excommunication, baptism, the office of pastor, the doctrine of perfection, and civil government, with a number of indirect references to Anabaptism, all in the order of Sattler’s confession. See Brewer, “Calvin, Soul Sleep, and the Search for an Anabaptist Nemesis,” 134-5.

  18. E.g., see Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, vol. 2 (New York: MacMillan, 1931/Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 691-9; Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13 (March 1944): 4; and John D. Roth, “Recent Currents in the Historiography of the Radical Reformation,” Church History 71, no. 3 (September 2002), 525.

  19. See David E. Fitch, “Neo-Anabaptism among Contemporary Christians,” in T&T Clark Handbook of Anabaptism, 579-94.

  20. Regarding the Anabaptist interpretation of faith before the sacraments, see Brian C. Brewer, “Radicalizing Luther: How Balthasar Hubmaier (Mis)Read the ‘Father of the Reformation,’” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 1 (January 2010): 95-115; and Brewer, “Martin Luther,” in T&T Handbook of Anabaptism, esp. 531-2.

  21. Taken from Moltmann’s keynote lecture at the 2016 Emory University conference, “Unfinished Worlds: Moltmann at 90.”


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