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

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a mighty work of God by which the church of Christ was preserved through church reformation. To the student of history, it never ceases to be a wonder how God brought about this reformation and kept it on a steady biblical course. Not only were the Reformers giants of theology who successfully combatted the errors of Rome in doctrine, worship, church government, and the Christian life, but they also successfully steered the church away from radical movements on the left which threatened the Reformation almost from the beginning.

These radical movements joined themselves to the Reformation and seemed at first to have an important role in the battle against Romish error. But they were intent on leading Protestantism in a direction wholly contrary to Scripture. It would have been easy and was often tempting to the Reformers to incorporate such radical movements within biblical Protestantism. To reject them splintered the churches of the Reformation badly and opened the Reformers to the charge that by abandoning the authority of the pope they tore to pieces the unity of the church of Christ. And so often these radical movements seemed to be standing for all the right things.

Nevertheless, it is part of the wonder of God’s work that the Reformers succeeded in opposing Rome on the right and the radical Anabaptist movement on the left.

The Anabaptist movement at the time of the Reformation was an extremely diverse movement.1 Although all Anabaptists agreed on certain ideas, they disagreed violently on other issues. And within the separate branches of the movement, controversies led to many schisms and splinter groups. For the purposes of this article, we will divide the movement into three branches.

Carlstadt and the Zwickau Prophets

The Lutheran Reformation reached a climax at the Diet of Worms when Martin Luther, the fearless Reformer of Germany, stood alone and defenseless before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the princes of Germany, and the higher prelates and theologians of the Roman Catholic Church to take his stirring stand on the basis of the Word of God. After the Diet, Luther found refuge for a while in a castle at Wartburg.

During Luther’s stay in Wartburg, certain men within the Lutheran camp began to push their radical ideas in Wittenburg. They were dissatisfied with the slow progress of the reformation, especially in purging the church of the remaining elements of Romanism: vestiges of the mass, pictures, icons, altars, monkery, colored-glass windows, and such like things. Without Luther’s calm guiding hand on the tiller they saw their opportunity to destroy all the hated elements of Romish practices. They unleashed in the city a wave of iconoclasm. Their followers went through the city and into the churches smashing everything which displeased them and introducing practices which, while in keeping with Reformation ideals, were being introduced slowly by Luther as he sought to bring the people to an understanding of the Word of God. The leaders were Andreas Carlstadt and Justus Jonas.

They were soon joined by men from Zwickau led by Nicholas Storck, Marcus Stubner, and Thomas Munzer. These “Zwickau prophets,” as they came to be called, were radicals who combined an inward mysticism with a destructive radicalism. They relied heavily on dreams, visions, and direct revelations; they rejected infant baptism; they were chiliastic, i.e., they were of the opinion that the millennium had dawned and that it was their calling to establish the millennium of the kingdom of Christ here on earth. Wittenburg was in an uproar, and hasty and urgent letters were sent to Luther to stop the stampede.

While the Elector forbad Luther to return, fearing for Luther’s life, Luther felt compelled to return to Wittenburg and, in a series of eight powerful sermons preached on eight successive days, put all the radicals to flight and restored the peace of the city. It was a remarkable demonstration of Luther’s powerful pulpit preaching and a proof of his contention that the Reformation could not be accomplished by rioting and insurrection, but only by the power of the Word of God. Munzer was later instrumental in the Peasant Uprising and died at the hands of the armies sent out to quell the insurrection.

The Munster Debacle

The Reformation had come early to what is now The Netherlands, and Anabaptism had been introduced into the Lowlands by Melchior Hofman as early as 1530. Hofman was a strange man and an erratic thinker. He also was strongly chiliastic, expected momentarily the return of Christ, and relied heavily on special revelations. He made use of fanciful and allegorical interpretations of Scripture to promote his views.

But two men, followers of Hofman, introduced what was the most radical form of Anabaptism on the continent into The Netherlands. They were Jan Matthys, who claimed to be Enoch, and Jan of Leyden, who claimed to be King David. Accepting all the strange views of Hofman, they determined to establish the kingdom of heaven, with its center in Munster, which they called the New Jerusalem. They reached the pinnacle of their power in 1535 and 1536 when, within the walls of Munster, a community was established which practiced adult baptism, community of goods and wives, and a church which relied more upon revelation through special visions given the leaders than through the words of Christ in Holy Scripture.

The city was attacked by the forces of the emperor, overcome, and destroyed, with the citizens put to flight or death. The horrible experiment of this radical wing of Anabaptism lasted but a short time.

This fanatic branch of Anabaptism was condemned by other Anabaptists, even in the Lowlands. The successors of the Anabaptists, without the fanaticism of Munster, were followers of Menno Simons. These were the beginnings of what today is known as the Mennonite Church.

Our Belgic Confession, which often mentions Anabaptist errors, was written with the Anabaptists of the Lowlands in mind, including the followers of Menno Simons. The views of Menno Simons receive special attention in Article XVIII, for it was Menno Simons who taught that the human nature of Christ did not come from Mary.

The Swiss Brethren

The wing of Anabaptism which went under the name of “The Swiss Brethren” was the least radical of all. It repudiated especially the violent excesses of the Zwickau Prophets and the followers of Jan of Leyden.

The movement had its beginning in Zurich.2 In this city Ulrich Zwingli was pressing his reformatory work. Here too certain men were not satisfied with a slow reformation and were impatient with those who counseled carefulness. The chief leaders were Conrad Grebel (often considered the founder of Anabaptism), Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Simon Stumf, and Balthasar Hubmaier. Zwingli, in keeping with current views on the relation between church and state, wanted the City Council of Zurich to be in control of reform.

When at a public disputation in October of 1523, the Council decided in favor of Zwingli and his followers, the men who opposed him separated themselves from the Swiss Reformer to establish their own party.

While the immediate issue was the question of the speed of reform and the support of the magistracy, other issues soon arose. In rejecting the control of the Council in reformation, these men went further and established the principle of separation between church and state. But the defense of this position led to more radical positions. Grebel himself denied the legitimacy of the oath for Christians,3 the propriety of Christians going to war, and the use of the civil courts in matters of dispute among Christians.

The goal of this movement was the establishment of a Christian community, separate from the world, in which the principles of the kingdom of heaven, especially as outlined in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, were practiced.

The question of believers’ baptism, in distinction from the doctrine of infant baptism, came almost immediately to the fore. It was first introduced by Wilhelm Reublin, a pastor of a church in a village near to Zurich. This denial of infant baptism became the one great issue between Anabaptists and the other branches of Protestantism. The denial of infant baptism was based partly upon the fact that the Anabaptists could find no New Testament proof for it and partly on the fact that they considered it to be an innovation brought into the church by the “Antichristian Romish Church.”

When the Anabaptists were expelled from Zurich, they gathered as a hunted handful of people. At this meeting Blaurock begged Grebel to baptize him with “true Christian baptism.” This was done, and Blaurock then proceeded to baptize the others in the group. From that time on, no children were baptized and all baptized adults were re-baptized.4

In the decades following, the Anabaptists became evangelists who traveled throughout Europe spreading their views. They found ready ears in many places and Anabaptism became a constant thornin the side of the true reformation.

The price the Anabaptists had to pay was great. They were hunted, imprisoned, tortured, killed. They met in private homes, woods, and caves. They suffered untold hardship. They were put on the rack, roasted in the fire, drowned in the rivers and lakes, beheaded, tortured almost beyond endurance. Yet their views continued to spread.

Closely connected with their views on believers’ baptism was their position of a pure church, their emphasis on holiness and godliness in life, and their opposition to any support of the secular magistrates in ecclesiastical affairs.

Other doctrinal aberrations soon appeared in their thinking. They considered the sacraments to be of mere symbolic value. In keeping with all baptistic thought, they considered the Old Testament to be so distinct from the New that it was of lesser authority than the New for Christians. Some practiced community of goods in an effort to restore the church to the purity of apostolic times. This was especially true of the Anabaptists in Moravia, who, under the leadership of Jacob Hutter, founded the Hutterites. Hans Denck, an Anabaptist in southern Germany, anticipated later Arminian thought with his teachings that the atonement of Christ was universal in its scope, though efficacious only for the elect.

Because the denial of infant baptism was the one great doctrinal point which united all Anabaptists, it was this doctrine which received the most attention from the Reformers. In Switzerland especially, under the leadership of such men as Zwingli, Bullinger, and Myconius, and over against Anabaptism, the doctrine of the covenant of grace (with its corollary in the unity of the Old and New Testaments) was first developed. Here too we have a remarkable demonstration of God’s wise providence in using error to promote the cause of the truth.

Between the extreme of Anabaptism and the corruption of Rome, the Reformers had to steer their way. That they did so successfully is due to the sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit of Christ, who leads the church into all truth.

1. Balke speaks of seven different branches of Anabaptism. Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, Willem Balke (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), pp. 2-4. 

2. Some claim that the entire Anabaptist movement began with these men. ‘Others claim that the Wittenburg iconoclasts were the beginning. 

3. Cf. The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XXXVII, which was written in answer to the Anabaptists. 

4. Hence the name, Anabaptism, which means: Re-baptism.