Introducing the Anabaptists

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 . . .


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.


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.


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.


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).


12 responses

  1. bout time…

  2. And after all that patient waiting, that’s all you have to say about the Anabaptists?

    There’ll be more to come.

    So, what sparks your interest in this topic?

  3. At my baptist school… I took a class on Reformational History… It started out as a Calvin Luther bash-fest… the old and tired spewing of the “Calvin killed Servetus” argument… as if Servetus was a champion of baptist orthodoxy or something… but the re-casting of the Anabaptists as something like just good ole’ SBC Preachers who were tossed into a river by Zwingli… I was curious as to the extent of Anabaptist love especially among “so called” calvinistic or reformed baptists…

    uh… I’m waiting…

  4. Well, it’s no surprise to hear what good landmark Baptists they were at TCA in their treatment of the Reformers’ treatment of “pre-Reformation Reformers” on whom all good independent, fundamental Baptists may project their current beliefs and feel just as superior as the Roman Catholics in the fact that they are holding the fort in the “true church.”

    Of course, the landmark view of Baptist history is one of the issues on which independents disagree with Southern Baptists. The vast majority of Southern Baptists understand their history a little better than that. I believe that it can be said that whatever is right in the Baptist tradition, they learned from the Reformed tradition, and that which distinguishes the Baptist tradition from the rest of those in the Reformed tradition is what they borrowed from the Anabaptist tradition: namely things like relying exclusively on the New Testament for the practice of the church, which is why they deny the correlation between circumcision and baptism and insist on credobaptism-onlyism; the absolute separation of church and state, the anabaptist emphasis on an individualism which devolved into the whole “no creed but the Bible” emphasis, etc.

    To be sure, the Calvinistic Baptists who understand their true origin in the English separatist movement, distinct from Anabaptism, still respect those emphases, some of which I just spelled out, along with others which will be featured in future posts on the subject. Suffice it to say, the Baptists definitely borrowed the least unorthodox of the Anabaptists’ tendencies–the things that do the least damage to the essentials of the Christian faith, although certainly, damage is done to Christian orthodoxy by their having adopted the best of the Anabaptist distinctives.

  5. Bro… I think you may be wrong in your estimation. The school I was talking about was Dallas Baptist (SBC) and our text was by Dr. Estep. He is not very kind at all to any Reformer, save the Ana kind.

  6. Jeesh!

    Ya’ think ya’ know a guy . . . !

    (PS–Precision begets clarity)

  7. Notice, I said “vast majority.”

    (Desparate attempt to save face)


  8. Fundamentally Reformed | Reply

    I look forward to this series and I really do intend on following it (still haven’t read all the Luther stuff :^( )

    It is interesting to note that the anabaptists were not universally credo-only baptists. And one more interesting side note. The second half of your post points out that the Anabaptist version used in Germany was a translation of the Vulgate. This is not a TR or MT text! So I guess they weren’t KJV only either!

  9. Indeed, credobaptism would take a while to become part of the movement. I’m of the persuasion credobaptism developed as they began to explore the logical conclusions of attempting to emulate only what was explicitly practiced in the New Testament, as opposed to also retain all that was not abrogated from use in the Old Testment. I call this distinctive, which Baptists share, “sacramental (or ecclesiological) antinomianism.” I believe it is in distinctives such as this that they take a step away from Reformation, oversimplifying things. But I’m no expert on history, just a fan of it! We’ll see how I feel either after you’re through with me or years of reading finally guide me to a more precise understanding.

    On the German Vulgate, my search for information about such a translation among the anabaptists drew a blank. One of the posts did however, not refer to the “German Vulgate,” but referred to their German translation of the Vulgate. That’s as much evidence as I found on the nature of the German Vulgate. But you’re certainly correct, they did what they could with what they had. Scholarships gotta be tough when you’re being persecuted! But God provides what the church needs in its season!

  10. Fundamentally Reformed | Reply


    I didn’t say “German Vulgate”. I said “German translation of the Vulgate”. What this guy is saying is that they translated not from a different “better” Italian or Latin version or from the Greek but from the accepted Latin Vulgate.

    Many KJVO people claim that the Waldensians used a Bible translated from Old Latin and not from the Vulgate. They actually base this belief on the speculations of a Seventh Day Adventist author in the 1930’s which was regurgitated in David O. Fuller’s book Which Bible. There is little evidence as to which text they used, but the evidence we do have points toward the conclusion that they translated their Bible (in the language of the people) from the Latin Vulgate.

    The piece you quoted, says the anaBaptists of Germany which may have descended from some Waldensianite-ish groups, did have German translations of the Bible, but their translations were definitely made from the Latin Vulgate.

    This is significant because KJVO people think the Latin Vulgate is corrupt (and it is definitely wrong in many respects). The KJVO people try to invent extra support for the Byzantine text by saying anaBaptistic groups utilized that text. But again the evidence seems to say otherwise.

    That is what I was getting at.

    As for credo-only baptism being a step away from the Reformation, I am not prepared to delve into the issue historically. I currently favor credo-only baptism, but I haven’t studied it all out totally, and I do admit I have some misgivings. I do think the case for infant baptism is much much stronger than I had assumed for much of my life.

  11. Hey! I’m glad you picked up on that detail! It hadn’t occurred to me. I did read the adventist Wilkerson (Wilkinson?–too lazy to run to my bookshelf) on the Waldenses supposedly using an older, “purer” Latin text than Jerome’s, I think he also claimed Wicliffe revised the Latin Vulgate with the Old Latin MS when he translated as well. That way, KJVOnlyists get to fein utter separation from all things Roman from the very beginning, and even remained faithful throughout the middle ages, while so much of “professing” Christianity was taken into the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” Uh, oh, I’m beginning to mix my rhetoric!

    There’s nothing like a little unfounded propaganda to keep the uncritical masses from being led away from the KJVOnly fold!

  12. As for the mode of baptism, I have read Warfield on the archeology of baptism in which he points out that the earliest archeological evidence of baptismal modes is that of, I think, the Greek Orthodox who practiced what he called “trine immersion.” However, being a champion of the pedobaptist bulk of the Reformed tradition in general, and the Westminster Confession of Faith in particular, concluded that the findings of archeology shouldn’t change one’s pedobaptist doctrine and practice since pedobaptism is taught by scripture, even if immersion is pointed to by archeology.

    I recognize that the statements about moving away from Reformation are wide brush strokes, however, I believe they are borne out by the details in the long run. That’s why I was moved to summarize the details I’ve learned in the past about baptism and the like with such broad brush strokes.

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