Anabaptist Origins

From The European History of the Swiss Mennonites from Volhynia
Schrag, Martin H 1956

The Anabaptists and other groups originated in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, initiated a series of events beginning on October 31, 1517, which shook, divided, and in some instances revitalized Christianity in Western Europe and which are collectively known as the Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss priest, instituted a similar series of reforms in the city of Zurich in 1520-1523 which attracted several young men including Grebel, Manz, Blaurock, and Reublin. These men and others at first ardent followers of Zwingli, parted company with him as early as 1523 on the issue of the authority of the state to determine the nature of the Reformation.1 Other issues such as the nature of the church as a society of the redeemed, and baptism, as a symbolic yet rational experience contributed to the growing rift so that by 1525 Anabaptism2 under the leadership of Grebel was a reality.3

Zwingli and the Zurich City Council reacted against the so-called Anabaptists with a program of intense persecution. The persecution in Zurich and other parts of Switzerland drove many Anabaptists to the neighboring northern and eastern areas–Alsace, the Palatinate, Tyrol, Moravia and the Netherlands. A number of Anabaptists gathered in Moravia in 1528, organized along communal lines and took their name from Jacob Hutter who joined the group in 1529.4 Thus began the Hutterian Brethren. In the Netherlands (Holland) a Catholic priest, Menno Simons, after some deep inner turmoil, joined the Anabaptist movement in 1536. In time he became the leader of the Dutch Anabaptists (Doopesgezinde). His followers were soon referred to as “Menists” and finally as “Mennonites”.5

The Anabaptists gave considerable emphasis to the ideas presented in the following paragraphs:

Idealism and Total Commitment. The Anabaptists pursued religious idealism in a vigorous, radical, uncompromising manner. Whereas Luther and Zwingli tended to temper their initial goals,6 the Anabaptists rejected these “half-way men”7 and boldly began to actualize their ideal–the restoration of New Testament Christianity. The word most descriptive of the Anabaptists efforts was not reformation, but “restoration” or “restitution”.8 The Anabaptists attempted more than any other group in the Reformation to renew unadulterated original Christianity.9 They seemed radical because of their total commitment to the Christian ideals presented in the Gospels.

Biblical Orientation. The Anabaptists believed the new covenant of Christ was the climax of the Biblical revelation and therefore the New Testament was primary in Biblical interpretation and theological formulation. The Old Testament was preparatory to the New, and normative only when interpreted by the fuller revelation in the New Testament. The relation of the Old Testament to the New was that of promise to fulfillment.10 The New Testament emphasis had implications for the nature of discipleship, for the concept of the church (voluntary union of regenerated individuals) and for ethics (love and non-resistance).11

Discipleship. The Anabaptists emphasized discipleship, the holy walk of obedience to the Master, Jesus Christ and made this concept the focal center of much of their religious thought. The proper perspective of discipleship is gained through a realization of the Anabaptist stress on a conscious, voluntary decision as the means of entering the Christian faith. They stressed the new birth.12 But their concern went beyond the new birth to the life that must follow the initial decision. The new birth must be followed by a new life. More particularly, the way of life of the believer must be transformed according to, and fashioned after the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. The whole life was to be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Christ must be followed, regardless of the consequences.13

Discipleship had important ramifications. It meant a life free from sin. Anabaptist ministers counseled their people to “forsake sin” and to “desist from sin”.14 Secondly, Anabaptists were to live according to the ethic of love and non-resistance. This meant mutual concern and mutual aid within the brotherhood and the practice of love in relation to those outside the brotherhood. A life motivated by love was a life of good words carried on in the interests of others. It was also a life that completely abandoned warfare, strife, and taking of life.15 “The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ,” is an early Anabaptist statement.16 Thirdly, the disciple of Christ was to be a missionary. The great commission of Christ was taken seriously. The Anabaptists were among the first to make the commission binding on all members.17 Lastly, the disciple must be willing to suffer even unto death for the cause of Christ. Martyrdom was not viewed as a weak acquiescence to superior force, but was seen as a spiritual means of bringing the victory of Christ through the second coming.18

Concept of the Church. To understand the Anabaptist concept of the church one must remember that they rejected the monolithic totalitarian view of society where the state and Christian church were united as one coterminous unit, and replaced it with two spheres: the church and the world.19 This concept of a voluntary church within a larger society set the Anabaptists apart from the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant reformers, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. A head-on clash between these concepts was inevitable between those who focused upon the realization of a pure church, and those who concentrated upon a monolithic society.

The Anabaptists aimed at the establishment of a church based on the pattern of the church in the New Testament; i.e., the visible body of Christ composed of regenerated individuals. This they viewed in two dimensions. In its vertical relationship, the church was the body of Christ of which He was the living head. Viewed horizontally, the church was a voluntary fellowship of believers.20

The ideal spiritual objective of the early Anabaptists was to actualize the true body of Christ on earth, the church as presented in the New Testament.

Entrance into the Christian faith was by a voluntary, conscious decision, and was followed by believer’s baptism.21 Accordingly, they rejected infant baptism. Menno Simons referred to infant baptism as “an accursed abomination and idolatry.22 Secondly, the true church was not only to be realized, but it was also to be kept pure. Those guilty of sin must be dealt with according to Matthew 18:15-18 and if repentance did not result, the erring must be expelled from the brotherhood “after the manner and method of the Apostles.”23

An important corollary of the concept of the church as a body of believers is an insistence on separation from and non-conformity to the world.24 Since the church was the domain of God and the world the domain of the devil, “separation shall be made from the evil…which the devil has planted in this world.”25 Because of the separation concern, Anabaptists tended to accepted patterns of behavior different from those practiced by the populace.

The concept of separation from secular society led the Anabaptists to insist on separation of church and state. They looked upon the state as ordained of God and as the instrument of God in the non-Christian world; but since Christians lived in the Church, they were to have no positive relationship with an institution created for sinners.26 Separation of church and state meant rejection of the civil arm in matters of religion, and was a factor in the strong stress on religious liberty.27 Rejection of the state in matters of religion and the stress on religious liberty, coupled with the concept of non-resistance, resulted in the concept of the suffering church.

There were, however, two notable exceptions to separation from the world. The first was a strong missionary program, and the second was a vigorous critique of the social order.28

The Christian ideals and total commitment and the emphasis on the New Testament led the Anabaptists to a religious orientation which stressed discipleship, including the ethic of love, and the fellowship of believers.

Anabaptism shaped the views of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites. Mennonitism is institutionalized Anabaptism, to a large extent. Today, the Anabaptist remnants are called Mennonites because Menno Simons, 1496-1561, a converted Roman Catholic pries effectively organized the many scattered and confused Anabaptist elements into a common movement or church. And while the movement takes its name from him, he was not the founder, but rather the most effective organizer of a sectarian group–already in existence.


1 Harold S. Bender, Conrad Grebel, 1498-1526, The Founder of the Swiss Brethren Sometimes Called the Anabaptists (Goshen, Ind.: The Mennonite Historical Society, 1958), pp. 108-120.

2 Could also be stated as the birth of the Swiss Brethren.

3 The event which is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the Anabaptists is a prayer meeting in which believer’s baptism was instituted, with Conrad Grebel baptizing George Blaurock who in turn baptized the rest of the group. This took place on January 22, 1525, and is referred to by Bax as the “beginning of the Anabaptist movement.” E.B. Bax, Rise and Fall of Anabaptists (London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1908), p. 34.

4 John Horsch, The Hutterian Brethren, 1628-1931, A Story of Martyrdom and Loyalty (Goshen, Ind.: The Mennonite Historical Society 1931), pp. 6-9.

5 C. Henry Smith, revised and enlarged, Cornelius Krahn, The Story of the Mennonites, 3rd ed. rev. (Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Publication Office, 1950), pp. 67-87.

6 Roland H. Bainton, “Church of the Restoration,” Mennonite Life. VIII:2 (July, 1953), p. 136.

7 Littell, pp. 19 and 29.

8 Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 95.

9 Johann Loserth quoted in John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942), p. 298.

10 Donovan E. Smucker, “The Theological Triumph of the Early Anabaptist Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XIX:1 (January 1945), p. 10.

11 Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXIV: 1 (January, 1950), p. 25.

12 Erland Waltner, “The Anabaptist Conception of the Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXV:1 (January, 1951), p. 10.

13 Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XVIII:2 (April, 1944), p. 78.

14 Quotes from an Anabaptist sermon written in 1527 and taken from John C. Wenger trans., “Two Early Anabaptist Tracts,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXII:1 (January, 1948), p. 37.

15 Harold S. Bender, “The Pacifism of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists,” Church History, XXIV:2 (June, 1955), pp. 119-130.

16 Quotation from the Schleitheim Confession of Faith. This Confession is of great importance to Anabaptist thought, as it represents the leadership of the Swiss Brethren in 1527. It probably was written by Michael Sattler and was aimed at false teachings. (John C. Wenger trans., “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XIX:4, Oct. 1945, p. 250.)

17 Littell, p. 94.

18 Ethelbert Stauffer’ “The Anabaptist Theology of Martyrdom,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XIX:3 (July, 1945), p. 197.

19 Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Lovie Tyon, Vol. 2 (London: George Allen ∓mp; Unwin Ltd., 1931), pp. 691-703.

20 Waltner, “The Anabaptist Conception of the Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, pp. 8-9.

21 Cornelius Krahn, “The Anabaptist Mennonites and the Biblical Church,” Proceedings of the Study Conference on the Believers’ Church (Newton, Kans.: General Conference Mennonite Church, 1955), p. 86.

22 Menno Simon, A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ, trans. I. Daniel Rupp (Lancaster, Pa: J.E. Barr and Co., 1869), p. 45.

23 Statement made in disputation of 1538. Quoted in Horsch, Mennonite in Europe, p. 349.

24 Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, p. 83.

25 Quotation from Schleitheim Confession of Faith, in Wenger, “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, p. 250.

26 Erland Waltner, “An Analysis of the Mennonite Views on the Christian’s Relation to the State in the Light of the New Testament” (unpublished Th.D. dissertation, Eastern Baptist Seminary Library, 1948), p. 92.

27 Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 99.

28 Littell, p. 94.