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Who were the Anabaptists?

Account of Felix Manz execution

The word Anabaptist can cause many thoughts in someone’s mind, for some it’s a case of who are they? For others, the question is raised are they a group of fanatics. But as a Baptist church is it not worth us to take time to consider who they are, what they believe and what effect if any they have upon us.

Anabaptist’s in many ways has been misunderstood, misinterpreted. Mainly because scholars historically were not Baptist, and therefore have viewed any 16-century Anabaptist with scepticism. Even reformers of the 16th century were integrated into the Established Church…Anabaptists seemed too radical.

Misunderstanding’s of Anabaptists

  1. Let me first deal with the impression of Anabaptists held by many: there was an extreme group of fanatics 1534 who sought to set up the kingdom of God by force and failed. Many wrong things were committed but some things are exaggerated. As a result, this gave Anabaptists a bad name.
  2. Many Anabaptists were also identified with anti-Trinitarian doctrine, which rendered them heretics amongst most orthodox Christians of that period. Probably the most well know today of these Anabaptists was the founder of the Mennonites, Menno Simons.

There are therefore some vital questions when looking back in history and we can, of course, learn from history. We need to ask, Who were the Anabaptists of the 16 century? Were they heretics? What did they believe?

In 1517, the year Lutheran possibly nailed the 95 theses to a church in Wittenberg, a priest in Switzerland was also wrestling with ecclesiastical beliefs. His name was Zwingli. Born in the Swiss alps he was influenced by Erasmus. Zwingli at Einsiedeln study the new testament and by the time he became a priest in Zurich, he was resolved to preach the Gospel. By 1522 the reformation had taken hold of Zurich under Zwingli.

Zwingli’s reputation increasingly grew as a scholar; he began to enlist gifted young scholars to learn under him mainly just interested in the Greek classics. Zwingli moved them swiftly on to the Greek new testament. By 1522 these too had come to know the reformed faith especially zealous was a man by the name of Conrad Grebel.

I suggest that the first reformed group of Baptists (often called ‘Ana Baptists’) were found in Switzerland and formed on 21 January 1525. In the home a Felix Manz at Zollikon, just outside Zurich on the nearshore of the lake, Conrad Grebel baptised George Balurock and was then himself baptised along with 6 others according to believers baptism. They participated in the Lord’s table and became the first Swiss Baptist.

By their actions they denounced infant baptism as not sufficient to save. Only those who professed repentance and faith in Christ should be baptised, they believed. This stand was taken after two Tuesdays of debate with Zwingli and Bullinger.

A lot is made of the fact that those who made great strides in Europe for the reformation were not Baptist in their theology. In some cases, the doctrine of Baptism they held was accompanied by a far more serious errors of the doctrine of salvation. However, there were some who held to the baptism of believers along with sound doctrine. Many of these were killed as it was seen as such a radical doctrine. In this respect, we need to remember Europe was coming out of Catholicism and any church structure different to the current situation was viewed with great scepticism. In that vein, many early Baptist were persecuted for their position and we have great examples of faithfulness in their life.

While Anabaptists have often been attributed with a rather unsavoury reputation – so much so that Baptists have frequently insisted they have no association with these historical people – we must not view this too simplistically. There were, undoubtedly, groups of Anabaptists who were political, fanatical,  heretical, and thus contributory to this difficult reputation. However, there were likewise those in this group who might have been called by the same name but were so distinct they might as well have been a different denomination. The reality of this nuance is important – if not pivotal for our understanding of denominational – even Baptist – history.


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