I’ve had a couple of requests (like I’m an expert?) to post some information about the Anabaptists. It’s been a long time coming, but here it is. First, I’ll feature some information from the late Dr. Jack Arnold, President of Equipping Pastors International, and Pastor Emeritus of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, FL from his series Reformation Men and Theology, lessons 10 and 11. Then, I’ll supplement Dr. Arnold’s info with that of Dr. Thomas Lindsay, Principal, The United Free Church College, Glasgow, Scotland from a chapter in his book A History of the Reformation, volume II: The Reformation in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and England, The Anabaptist and Socinian Movements and the Counter-Reformation. (1928)
Dr. Arnold writes . . .
The Anabaptists were separatists who rejected infant baptism and believed that the outward, external church should consist only of saved and baptized believers. They would rebaptize those who professed Christ who had previously been baptized as infants. The preposition ana means “again,” thus Anabaptists were those who “baptized again.”
The Anabaptist movement officially began around 1522 in Zurich, Switzerland, when certain men wanted the Reformation to proceed more quickly and to be patterned more along New Testament lines than along those pursued by Ulrich Zwingli. Thus, there was a break between Zwingli and these more radical reformers.
It is very difficult to classify the Anabaptists as a single group, for there was wide diversity among them. Some were fanatics and heretics who brought great shame to the work of the Reformation, but others were not nearly so extreme and fanatical. Some were pantheistic, some extremely mystical, some anti-Trinitarian, some extreme millennialists, while others were quite biblical in most areas of their theology. A good majority of the Anabaptists were spiritual people, dedicated to Christ. They were devoted students of the Bible who felt the Reformers were not purifying the church quickly enough or properly applying the principles taught in the New Testament. The original Anabaptists were called “Brethren” or “The Company of the Committed.”
The Anabaptists were probably the least understood and most persecuted of all the groups of the early Reformation era. The Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists opposed them violently.
Dr. Lindsay elaborates . . .
MULTI-FACETED NATURE OF THE MOVEMENT
It is neither safer nor easy to make abrupt general statements about the causes or character of great popular movements. The elements which combine to bring them into being and keep them in existence are commonly as innumerable as the hues which blend in the colour of a mountain side. Anabaptism was such a complicated movement that it presents peculiar difficulties. As has been said, it had a distinct relation to two different streams of medieval life, the one social and the other religious–the revolts of peasants and artisans, and the successions of the Brethren.
SOCIAL ASPECT–ONGOING CLASS WARFARE
From the third quarter of the fifteenth century social uprisings had taken place almost every decade, all of them more or less impregnated with crude religious beliefs. They were part of the intellectual and moral atmosphere that the “common man,” whether in town or country district, continuously breathed, and their power over him must not be lost sight of. The Reformation movement quickened and strengthened these influences simply because it set all things in motion. It is not possible, therefore, to draw a rigid line of separation between some sides of the Anabaptist movement and the social revolt; and hence it is that there is at least a grain of truth in the conception that the Anabaptists were the revolutionaries of the times of the Reformation.
RELIGIOUS ASPECT–ANTI-CLERICAL, CHARITABLE, “PLAIN” AND SIMPLE
On the other hand, there are good reasons for asserting that the distinctively religious side of Anabaptism had little to do with the anarchic outbreaks. It comes in direct succession from those communities of pious Christians, who, on the testimony of their enemies, lived quiet God-fearing lives, and believed all the articles in the Apostles’ Creed; but who were strongly anti-clerical. They lived unobtrusively, and rarely appear in history save when the chronicle of some town makes casual mention of their existence, or when an Inquisitor ferreted them out and records their so-called heresies. Their objections to the constitution and ceremonies of the medieval Church were exactly those of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century; and if we do not find a universal repudiation of infant baptism, there are traces that some did not approve of it. They insisted that the service ought to be in the vulgar tongue; they objected to all the Church festivals; to all blessing of buildings, crosses, and candles; they alleged that Christ did not give His Apostles stoles or chasubles; they scoffed at excommunications, Indulgences, and dispensations; they declared that there was no regenerative efficacy in infant baptism; and they were keenly alive to all the injunctions of Christian charity–it was better, they said, to clothe the poor than to expend money on costly vestments or to adorn the walls of Churches, and they kept up schools and hospitals for lepers. They met in each other’s houses for public worship, which took the form of reading and commenting upon the Holy Scriptures.
MEDIEVAL ORIGINS, DIDACTIC & APOLOGETIC PRACTICES
As we are dependent on very casual sources of information, it is not surprising that we cannot trace their continuous descent down to the period of the Reformation; but we do find in the earlier decades of the sixteenth century notices of the existence of small praying communities, which have all the characteristics of those recorded in the Inquisitors’ reports belonging to the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth centuries. They appeared in Basel in 1514, in Switzerland in 1515, in Mainz in 1518, and in Augsburg somewhat earlier. By the year 1524, similar “praying circles” were recorded as existing in France, in the Netherlands, in Italy, in Saxony, in Franconia, at Strassburg, and in Bohemia. They used a common catechism for the instruction of their young people which was printed in French, German, Bohemian, and perhaps Italian. In Germany, the Bible was the German Vulgate (a German translation of the Latin Vulgate, jdc)–a version retained among the Anabaptists long after the publication of Luther’s. They exhibited great zeal in printing and distributing the pious literature of the Friends of God of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Many of them taught Baptist views, though the tenets were not universally accepted, and they were already called Anabaptists or Katabaptists–a term of reproach. Some of their more distinguished leaders were pious Humanists, and thier influence may perhaps be seen in the efforts made by the Brethren to print and distribute the Defensor Pacis of Marsiglio of Padua
(Lindsay, pp. 432-434).