Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


Strictly speaking, the title of this article is not correct. That part of the Anabaptist movement, often called the Right Wing of the Reformation, of which we speak in this article was not found much in Germany and was not, therefore, the object of Luther’s immediate concern. Luther had to deal with the more radical branches of the Anabaptists. The movement of which I now speak was born in Switzerland and was the primary concern of the Swiss reformers, particularly Zwingli, Bullinger (the reformer of Basel), and Calvin. I include anarticle on these Anabaptists under this general subject in order to treat all the Anabaptists together. And, indeed, all branches were Ana—baptistic, for all repudiated infant baptism. That all repudiated this doctrine of infant baptism indicates that all held certain views and all shared some important identifying characteristics. But these are subjects for later in the article.

The branch of Anabaptism of which I now speak was not the radical Anabaptism of the Zwickau prophets, Thomas Münzer, and John of Leyden. These Anabaptists did not go about stirring up rebellion against government, preaching a divine revelation independent of the Scriptures and coming through dreams, visions, and other forms of divine illumination. They held more or less to what one author calls a work of the Spirit which enlightened reason and informed reason with Scripture. Nevertheless, special revelations by means of the inner speaking of the Spirit were never far from their thinking.

Menno Simons was the leader of this movement, and that sect called Mennonites is directly traceable to Simons’ teaching.

Early Swiss Anabaptism

The early Anabaptist movement in Switzerland had its own share of radicals, and Thomas Münzer visited Switzerland to spread his views. In fact, the more peaceful movement, of which Menno Simons later became a leader, arose out of the more radical Swiss brand of Anabaptism. Nevertheless, the movement of which we now speak was not characterized by the excesses found in Germany and the Lowlands. The Peasants’ War never spilled over into Switzerland. The millennial ravings of Melchior Hoffmann and John of Leyden were but distant rumblings. These Anabaptists were characterized more by a simple piety and a rigid morality.

The chief issue within the Zwinglian movement which gave rise to Anabaptism was the issue of the baptism of infants. There were men in the Swiss Reformation who repudiated this doctrine. Zwingli tried to convince them of their error in private conferences but did not succeed. A public disputation was held by order of the magistrates on January 17, 1525. Zwingli answered the arguments of the Anabaptists but failed to persuade them. In February the first instance of rebaptism took place. At a private worship service an Anabaptist named Blaurock asked another of the group, Grebel by name, to baptize him on confession of faith. This was done, and Blaurock in turn baptized all the others at the meeting.

The Swiss authorities banned Anabaptist teachings, and, when the Anabaptists refused to obey, they were imprisoned and sentenced to death by drowning. Six were actually drowned between 1527 and 1532. Drowning was chosen as the means of execution because of the cruel irony of baptism by dipping: “Those who dip shall be dipped.” Such persecution followed the movement as it spread throughout Europe.

Anabaptism in the Netherlands and Menno Simons

Anabaptism in the Netherlands, and really throughout Europe, owed its more definite form to Menno Simons and his work. He was born in 1496, the son of a dairy farmer in Witmarsum, Netherlands. He had a fairly good education and became quite versed in the church fathers. He was ordained a Catholic priest, but, as was true of so many priests, he ignored his parish duties and spent his time in drinking and playing games of chance.

In the course of his life, he began to have doubts about the truth of transubstantiation, the Romish doctrine that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper actually became the body and blood of the Lord. In his studies of the matter, he began to move in the direction of the Zwinglian position, that the Lord’s Supper was more a memorial ceremony than an actual sacrament. Pondering these subjects also brought about his conversion, and he now forsook the priesthood, abandoned his wicked ways, and turned to the cultivation of a life of holiness.

But his deviations from the doctrines of the Reformation did not end with his acceptance of Zwinglian views on the Lord’s Supper. He soon came to agree with the Swiss Anabaptists on the repudiation of infant baptism. The tragedy of Münster (the destruction of the city and of John of Leyden and his followers, who tried to set up an earthly kingdom of Christ) made a deep impression on him, partly because he lost a brother in the massacre.

Because he had adopted a position which was contrary to the magistracy’s decisions to support the Reformation, he became an itinerant preacher who was forced to wander about from place to place, preaching and baptizing in secret. He was a hunted heretic. During the years of his wandering, he married a woman named Gertrude and had three children with her. They endured the sufferings which were his lot. He wrote many books during these years of wandering and in them defined the position of this branch of Anabaptism. He died peacefully at the age of 66.

The chief emphasis of these Anabaptists was very much similar to the mystics who were so influential in the Lowlands and of whom we have spoken in an earlier article. Their concern was that formal worship of God and formal piety which was so often contradicted in people by their outward life of worldliness and carnality. These Anabaptists, therefore, as the mystics before them, emphasized the new birth, the inner life of fellowship with God, and the sanctified walk of the believer in the world.

Anabaptist Errors

There can be, of course, no error in such emphasis on piety if it is placed within a biblical, doctrinal framework. This the Anabap-tists failed to do. They erred, first of all, in not avoiding the pitfalls of mysticism. It is not only the extreme radicals who relied on inner illuminations. This same subjectivism characterized all branches of Anabaptism to a greater or lesser degree. Such emphasis on subjective experience resulted in a certain mistrust of and even scorn for outward observances required by Scripture, such as formal worship services, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments administered according to their true intent as means of grace, and well-defined church government. Their wrong legacy is carried on today among the Mennonites, a sect named after Menno Simons.

But, secondly, they erred in other crucial doctrines of the faith. While there is undoubtedly some disparity among individual Anabaptists, generally speaking, this sect repudiated forensic justification, which Luther taught, as being a barrier to godliness. They had a strong aversion to predestination and the bondage of the human will apart from grace.

One major area was their denial of the true nature of the incarnation of our Lord. They taught that Christ formed His own human nature, independent of Mary’s human nature, though He formed His human nature in Mary’s womb. Our Confession of Faith (Article 18) refers to this serious error in these words:

Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of His mother) that Christ is become a partaker of the flesh and blood of the children; that He is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; made of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of the Virgin Mary; made of a woman; a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since He took on Him the seed of Abraham, and became like unto His brethren in all things, sin excepted; so that in truth He is our Immanuel, that is to say, God with us.

The detailed description of Christ’s work of taking on Himself the flesh of His mother emphasizes how seriously our fathers took this heresy of the Anabaptists.

The error for which they are best known is their denial of infant baptism. One can find reasons why these Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism. They claimed that the New Testament Scripture contained no proof that infants are to be baptized. The New Testament proved only, in their judgment, that baptism had to be on the grounds of confession of faith in Christ, something possible only for an adult. This argument is still the chief argument of Baptists today.

But there were various historical reasons also for their repudiation of infant baptism. The Anabaptists saw that the establishment of a State Church (something common to Lutheranism and Calvinism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) led to the establishment of churches which were filled with unbelievers, unregen—erated people, worldly and carnal people, people who practiced religion only in an outward way. They feared that a State Church did not discipline as it ought.

This had two or three consequences. Anabaptism claimed that infant baptism was hopelessly tied to the idea of a State Church, that, in fact, infant baptism was an innovation of the Romish Church, as Rome stretched its influence over the whole of Europe and set itself up as ruler in civil affairs as well as ecclesiastical matters. Infant baptism had to be repudiated along with all the other Romish trappings that had choked true spiritual life in the religiously dreary Middle Ages.

A State Church, in its very nature, according to Anabaptists, encouraged formal religion and discouraged true piety. Thus a church ought to be composed of believers only. This ruled out children, who could be incorporated in the church only upon confession of faith.

Thus Anabaptists struggled for a “pure church,” that is, a church in which were to be found believers only. This idea is still inseparably connected to Baptist thinking in our day, and Baptists will usually argue for their position on the grounds of a pure church idea.

The Anabaptists may have been and almost certainly were right in their view that a State Church necessarily led to churches full of unbelievers in which no discipline could be practiced effectively. But their appeal to church history was dead wrong. Characteristic of all Anabaptism was their great sin of leaping over fifteen centuries of church history to return to the church of the apostles. Rome had many evils, but one of them was not their practice of infant baptism — even though Rome may have baptized infants for the wrong reasons. Anabaptists are wrong when they claim that infant baptism is an innovation of Rome. The fact is that infant baptism was practiced by the post-apostolic church throughout its entire history. There were those who tried to cling to the “pure church” idea later espoused by Anabaptists and who therefore baptized believers only; but they were the sects condemned by Scripture and history alike.

The Anabaptists really knew that the church always practiced infant baptism. And so they ignored all these centuries of the church’s history to return to the apostolic era, during which, they thought, their views prevailed. This is a serious error, which characterizes the Baptist movement to the present. By ignoring these centuries of church history, Baptists ignore the work of the Spirit of truth in the church and His mighty work of guiding the church into the truth, revealing the riches of the truth to every generation, forcing the church to develop that truth by living out of the past and depending on the church in the past, and moving on into the future with the heritage of the truth as its legacy. Preaching on a creed, even the Heidelberg Catechism, is unthinkable to a Baptist.

Anabaptists and Baptists cut themselves off from the unity of the church throughout history. This is serious and has serious consequences. It means that Anabaptism is really individualistic in its thinking and has no conception of the organic relationships between the saints of all ages. No wonder that Menno Simons denied predestination and total depravity. No wonder that he became basically Semi-Pelagian in his thinking. No wonder that a great deal of the Baptist movement has continued along these same lines.

The Anabaptists sinned grievously in splintering the Reformation and separating themselves from the reformers. They sinned yet more grievously in separating themselves from the entire New Testament church in their futile effort to return to the Apostolic Age. But this also meant that Anabaptism really had no use for the church in the Old Testament. To this day the church in the Old Testament is a conundrum to Baptists. So they made separation between the Old and New Testaments, and, as a result, had no conception of the biblical proof for infant baptism as baptism took the place of circumcision. The unity of Scripture was denied. Some form of dispensationalism is inevitably the result.

This very evil was the starting point of the Swiss reformers in their apologetics against Anabap-tism. These reformers soon recognized that the error of Anabaptism was the repudiation of the unity of Scripture. From their battle with Anabaptistic error emerged the budding doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant of grace, a doctrine which forms the soul of genuine Reformed theology.

The Heidelberg Catechism says it all when it defines the church: “The Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am, and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof” (Question and Answer 54).