15.2 The Anabaptist Movement – The Beginning of Believer’s Baptism

Anyone who promotes Believer’s baptism, baptism by immersion involving someone who is mature enough to make a decision for Christ, is following, at least in part, the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists chose adult baptism as a central issue in their stand in the Christian faith.

Historically speaking, as strong as some of the reforms in the Reformation were, there were others who thought the reforms were not enough. In fact, some came to think of Luther as a “half-way reformer.”[1] I make this point to illustrate that although some may perceive the Reformation as a complete restoration of Christianity that history shows that many believed just the opposite. To many the Reformation was just the start of a succession of movements to restore Christianity. The Anabaptist movement was birthed just about 6 years after Luther posted his 95 Theses which sparked the Reformation movement.

The beginning of the Anabaptist movement started in this way. Zwingli was the leader of the Reformation in Zurich. Conrad Grable and Felix Manz favored the reforms instigated by Zwingli, but they did not think that Zwingli went far enough. In particular one of the participants in the debates held by Zwingli was Balthazar Hubmaier, who had come to doubt infant baptism. He simply did not think that there was scriptural basis for the practice. These men gathered and “rebaptized” themselves and a group of others. This new group held revival meetings, and people who experienced regeneration were baptized again. This was the beginning of “believers’ baptism.” Followers held prayer meetings in private homes, they fellowshipped together and practiced the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Initially the baptisms were by sprinkling but soon they began baptizing by immersion.

Anabaptist means “twice baptized” or rebaptized. Anabaptists did not like the name as they protested that adult baptism is the first baptism done by the choice of the participant.

While baptism was the critical focus that caused Anabaptists to split from the Reformers, there were a host of beliefs that they promoted that were different than the original Reformers including:

  • The restoration of Apostolic Christianity was more important than the stabilization of the state church[2]
  • Pacifism, not participating in the armed forces
  • Separation of the church from society
  • Condemning oaths

At least some of these views were probably carried forward from other early non-Catholic dissenters to the Reformation.[3]

Anabaptists recognized that “the compromise between church and state that took place as a result of Constantine’s conversion was in itself a betrayal of primitive Christianity. In order to be truly obedient to Scripture, the Reformation begun by Luther must go much further than was allowed by the reformer.” [4]

This was the first major division among the Protestants. And amazingly, the Anabaptists were persecuted while the new Protestant group, under Zwingli, enjoyed government sanction. In that day of nationalized religion, only the religion in power was safe.   Zwingli’s Protestants had successfully become the religion in power, and when Anabaptists challenged the uniformity of doctrine, the Zürich government ordered the Anabaptists drowned.

Amazingly now, despite the fact that Anabaptists were birthed as a result of the Reformation, later works of Reformers like Luther and Calvin, wrote against both the Roman Catholics and the Anabaptists. Examples are Luther’s “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians” and Calvin’s “Institutes.”[5]

Persecuting the Anabaptists led to their spreading quickly throughout different countries as they moved to avoid persecution. Successive groups that adopted the beliefs of the Anabaptist movement (or at least some of them) included the Mennonites, Amish, Brethren and Unitarians.

The Anabaptist movement illustrates a number of points. It illustrates that that a lot of common evangelical theology was developed in a series of movements, i.e., setting the standard for faith to bible doctrine in one movement (Reformation), and the emergence of believer’s baptism in another. It also illustrates that from the beginning of the Reformation there was wide dispute of biblical doctrine in these matters.

[1] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959, p. 326
[2] THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY, Justo L Gonzalez, Harper Collins, New York, 1985, p. 53-59
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabaptist

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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