Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. Various groups at various times have been called Anabaptist, but this article focuses primarily on the Anabaptists of 16th century Europe.

The term "anabaptist" comes from the practice of baptizing individuals who had been baptized previously, often as infants. Anabaptists believe infant baptism is not valid, because a child cannot commit to a religious faith, and they instead support what is called believer's baptism.

The word anabaptism is used in this article to describe any of the 16th century "radical" dissenters, and the denominations descending from the followers of Menno Simons. Today the descendants of the 16th century European movement (particularly the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ) are the most common bodies referred to as Anabaptist.

Anabaptist originsEdit


Though the majority opinion is that Anabaptists began with the Radical Reformers in the 16th century, certain people and groups may still legitimately be considered their forerunners. Peter Chelcicky, 15th century Bohemian Reformer, taught most of the beliefs considered integral to Anabaptist theology. Medieval antecedents may include the Brethren of the Common Life, the Hussites, Dutch Sacramentists and some forms of monasticism. The Waldensians also represent a faith similar to the Anabaptists.

In the following points Anabaptists resembled the medieval dissenters:

1. Some followed Menno Simons in teaching that Jesus did not take the flesh from his mother, but either brought his body from heaven or had one made for him by the Word. Some even said that he passed through his mother, as water through a pipe, into the world. In pictures and sculptures of the 15th century and earlier, we often find represented this idea, originated by Marcion in the 2nd century. The Anabaptists were accused of denying the Incarnation of Christ: a charge that Menno Simons repeatedly rejected. 2. They condemned oaths, and also the reference of disputes between believers to law-courts. 3. The believer must not bear arms or offer forcible resistance to wrongdoers, nor wield the sword. No Christian has the jus gladii. 4. Civil government (i.e. "Caesar") belongs to the world. The believer, who belongs to God's kingdom, must not fill any office, nor hold any rank under government, which is to be passively obeyed. 5. Sinners or unfaithful ones are to be excommunicated, and excluded from the sacraments and from intercourse with believers unless they repent, according to 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 and Matt.18:15 seq. But no force is to be used towards them.

They may have preserved among themselves the primitive manual of conduct called the Didache, for Bishop Longland in England condemned an Anabaptist for repeating one of its maxims "that alms should not be given before they did sweat in a man's hand." This was between 1518 and 1521.

Views of originsEdit

Research on the origins of the Anabaptists has been tainted both by the attempts of their enemies to slander them and the attempts of their friends to vindicate them. It was long popular to simply lump all Anabaptists as Munsterites and radicals associated with the Zwickau Prophets, Jan Matthys, John of Leiden (also Jan Bockelson van Leiden, Jan of Leyden), and Thomas Muentzer. Those desiring to correct this error tended to over-correct and deny all connections between the larger Anabaptist movement and this most radical element.

The modern era of Anabaptist historiography arose with the work of Roman Catholic scholar Carl Adolf Cornelius' publication of Die Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs in 1855. Baptist historian Albert Henry Newman (1852–1933), whom Bender said occupied "first position in the field of American Anabaptist Historiography", made a major contribution with his A History of Anti-Pedobaptism. Though a number of theories exist concerning origins, the three main ideas are that,

1. Anabaptists began in a single expression in Zürich and spread from there (Monogenesis), 2. Anabaptists began through several independent movements (polygenesis), and 3. Anabaptists are a continuation of New Testament Christianity (apostolic succession or church perpetuity).


A number of scholars (e.g. Bender, Estep, Friedmann) have seen all the Anabaptists as rising out of the Swiss Brethren movement of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, et al. The older view among Mennonite historians generally held that Anabaptism had its origins in Zürich, and that the Anabaptism of the Swiss Brethren was transmitted to South Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and North Germany, where it developed into its various branches. The monogenesis theory usually rejects the Münsterites and other radicals from the category of true Anabaptists. In this view the time of origin is January 21, 1525, when Grebel baptized Georg Blaurock, and Blaurock baptized other followers. This remains the most popular single time posited for the establishment of Anabaptism. But in the last quarter of the 20th century, Deppermann, Packull, and others suggested that February 24, 1527 at Schleitheim is the proper date of the origin of Anabaptism. This correlates with the following polygenesis theory.


James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann disputed the idea of a single origin of Anabaptists in a 1975 essay entitled "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis". That article, emphasizing distinctive characteristics and distinct sources, has become a widely accepted treatment of the plural origins of Anabaptism. According to these authors, South German-Austrian Anabaptism "was a diluted form of Rhineland mysticism," Swiss Anabaptism "arose out of Reformed congregationalism", and Dutch Anabaptism was formed by "Social unrest and the apocalyptic visions of Melchior Hoffman". Pilgram Marpeck's Vermanung of 1542 was deeply influenced by the Bekenntnisse of 1533 by Münster theologian Bernhard Rothmann. The Hutterites used Melchior Hoffman's commentary on the Apocalypse shortly after he wrote it. David Joris, a disciple of Hoffman, was the most important Anabaptist leader in the Netherlands before 1540. Grete Mecenseffy and Walter Klaassen established links between Thomas Müntzer and Hans Hut, and the work of Gottfried Seebaß and Werner Packull clearly showed the influence of Thomas Müntzer on the formation of South German Anabaptism. Steven Ozment's work linked Hans Denck and Hans Hut with Thomas Müntzer, Sebastian Franck, and others. Calvin Pater has shown that Andreas Karlstadt influenced Swiss Anabaptism in areas including his view of Scripture, doctrine of the church, and views on baptism.

Apostolic successionEdit

Another theory is that the 16th century Anabaptists were part of an apostolic succession of churches (or church perpetuity) from the time of Christ. According to this idea there had been a continuity of small groups outside the Roman Catholic Church from A.D. 30 to 1525 (which continues also to the present). This form of the doctrine ignores (or is ignorant of) any possibility of Apostolic Succession held independently of Rome by the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches. The doctrine holds that all the powers (etc.) of the apostles will continue on throughout whatever group holds Succession.

Proponents of this view point out many common expressions of belief in these Roman Catholic dissenters.[citation needed] The opponents of this theory emphasize that these non-Roman Catholic groups differed from each other, that they held some heretical views, and/or that they had no connection with one another. This view is held by some Baptists, some Mennonites, and a number of "true church" movements. The writings of John T. Christian, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor, contain perhaps the best scholarly presentation of this successionist view. Somewhat related to this is that the Anabaptists are of Waldensian origin. Some hold the idea that the Waldenses are part of the apostolic succession, while others simply believe they were an independent group out of whom the Anabaptists arose. Estep asserts "the Waldenses disappeared in Switzerland a century before the rise of the Anabaptist movement." Ludwig Keller, Thomas M. Lindsay, H. C. Vedder, Delbert Grätz, and Thieleman van Braght all held, in varying degrees, the position that the Anabaptists were of Waldensian origin.

Types of AnabaptistsEdit

It is beneficial to recognize different types among the Anabaptists, although these categorizations tend to vary with the scholar's viewpoint on origins. Estep claims that in order to understand Anabaptism, one must "distinguish between the Anabaptists, inspirationists, and rationalists." He classes the likes of Blaurock, Grebel, Hübmaier, Manz, Marpeck, and Simons as Anabaptists. He groups Müntzer, Storch, et al. as inspirationists, and anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus, Juan de Valdés, Sebastian Castellio, and Faustus Socinus as rationalists. Mark S. Ritchie follows this line of thought, saying, "The Anabaptists were one of several branches of 'Radical' reformers (i.e. reformers that went further than the mainstream Reformers) to arise out of the Renaissance and Reformation. Two other branches were Spirituals or Inspirationists, who believed that they had received direct revelation from the Spirit, and rationalists or anti-Trinitarians, who rebelled against traditional Christian doctrine, like Michael Servetus." Most of the Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists were modalistic monarchians and baptized in the shorter formula of the name of Jesus Christ. They also spoke in ecstatic languages and prophecies known as "speaking in tongues." Holiness was a very important doctrine to them.

Those of the polygenesis viewpoint use Anabaptist to define the larger movement, and include the inspirationists and rationalists as true Anabaptists. James M. Stayer used the term Anabaptist for those who rebaptized persons already baptized in infancy. Walter Klaassen was perhaps the first Mennonite scholar to define Anabaptists that way in his 1960 Oxford dissertation. This represents a rejection of the previous standard held by Mennonite scholars such as Bender and Friedmann.

Another method of categorization acknowledges regional variations, such as Swiss Brethren (Grebel, Manz), Dutch Anabaptism (Menno, Philips), and South German Anabaptism (Hübmaier, Marpeck).

Historians and sociologists have made further distinctions between radical Anabaptists, who were prepared to use violence in their attempts to build a New Jerusalem, and their pacifist brethren, later broadly known as Mennonites. Radical Anabaptist groups included the Münsterites, who occupied and held the German city of Münster in 1534-1535, and the Batenburgers, who persisted in various guises as late as the 1570s.

Zwickau prophets and the Peasants' WarEdit

On December 27, 1521, three "prophets", influenced by and in turn influencing Thomas Müntzer, appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Dreschel, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stübner. The crisis came in the so-called Peasants' War in South Germany in 1525. In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, it became, under the leadership of Müntzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by revolution an ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods.

The Münster RebellionEdit

A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster in Westphalia (1532-1535), led by Bernhard Rothmann, Bernhard Knipperdolling, Jan Matthys and John of Leiden.


The first leaders of the movement in Zürich Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hübmaier were men learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

In English history frequent reference is made to the Anabaptists during the 16th and 17th centuries, but there is no evidence that any considerable number of native Englishmen ever adopted the principles of the Münster sect. Many of the followers of Müntzer and Bockelson seem to have fled from persecution in Germany and the Netherlands to be subjected to a persecution scarcely less severe in England. The mildest measure adopted towards these refugees was banishment from the kingdom, and a large number suffered at the stake. Their Christology and negative attitude towards the state rather indicate, as in the case of John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and the Fraticelli (Brethren), an affinity to the Cathars and other medieval sects. But this affiliation is hard to establish.

The earliest Anabaptists of Zürich allowed that the Picardi or Waldensians had, in contrast with Rome and the Reformers, truth on their side, yet did not claim to be in their succession; nor can it be shown that their adult baptism derived from any of the older Baptist sects, which undoubtedly lingered in parts of Europe. Later on, Hermann Schyn claimed descent for the peaceful Baptists from the Waldensians, who certainly, as the records of the Flemish inquisition, collected by P. Fredericq, prove, were widespread during the 15th century over north France and Flanders. It would appear from the way in which Anabaptism sprang up everywhere independently that more than one ancient sect took in and through it a new lease of life. Ritschl discerned in it the leaven of the Fraticelli or Franciscan Tertiaries.

In Moravia if what Alexander Rost related be true, namely that they called themselves Apostolici and went barefoot healing the sick they must have at least absorbed into themselves a sect of whom we hear in the 12th century in the north of Europe as deferring baptism to the age of 30, and rejecting oaths, prayers for the dead, relics and invocation of saints.

The Moravian Anabaptists, says Rost, went barefoot, washed each other's feet (like the Fraticelli), held all goods in common, had everyone working at a handicraft, had a spiritual father who prayed with them every morning and taught them, dressed in black and recited long graces before and after meals. Zeiler also in his German Itinerary (1618) describes their way of life. The Lord's Supper, or bread-breaking, was a commemoration of the Passion, held once a year. They sat at long tables, at which the elders read the words of institution and prayed. The members passed round a loaf from which each broke off a bit and ate, and they handed round the wine in flagons. Children in their colonies were separated from the parents and lived in the school, each with his own bed and blanket. They were taught reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as cleanliness, truthfulness and industry. The females married the men chosen for them.

On April 12, 1549, certain London Anabaptists brought before a commission of bishops asserted:

"That a man regenerate could not sin; that though the outward man sinned, the inward man sinned not; that there was no Trinity of Persons; that Christ was only a holy prophet and not at all God; that all we had by Christ was that he taught us the way to heaven; that he took no flesh of the Virgin, and that the baptism of infants was not profitable."

One of the most notable features of the early Anabaptists is that they regarded any true religious reform as involving social amelioration. The socialism of the 16th century was necessarily Christian and Anabaptist. Lutheranism was more attractive to grand-ducal patriots and well-to-do burghers than to the poor and oppressed and disinherited. The Lutherans and Zwinglians never converted the Anabaptists. In Austrian-controlled territories, the Jesuits had somewhat better success in persuading or coercing many Hutterites to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

Persecutions and migrationsEdit

Much of the historic Roman Catholic and Protestant literature has represented the Anabaptists as groups who preached false doctrine and led people into apostasy. That negative historiography remained popular for about four centuries. The Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, resorted to torture and other types of physical abuse, in attempts both to curb the growth of the movement and bring about the salvation of the heretics (through recantation). The Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute the Anabaptists. Felix Manz became the first martyr in 1527. On May 20 1527, Roman Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler. King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) "the best antidote to Anabaptism". It has been said that a "16th century man who did not drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family could be suspected of being an Anabaptist and thus persecuted." Estep estimates that thousands died in Europe in the sixteenth century. The Tudor regime, even those that were Protestant (Edward VI and Elizabeth I) persecuted Anabaptists as they were deemed too radical and therefore a danger to religious stability. This occurred particularly under Elizabeth, who desired moderate religion and disliked Catholics, Puritans and Anabaptists.

Thieleman J. van Braght's Martyrs Mirror describes the persecution and execution of thousands of Anabaptists, such as Dirk Willems, in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe between 1525 and 1660. Continuing persecution in Europe was largely responsible for the mass immigrations to North America by Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

Anabaptist women have faced horrifying human barriers to serving in ministry, including martyrdom. An estimated 525 Anabaptist women were martyred; the first was Madelyn Wens, who was burned at the stake for preaching.

Anabaptists todayEdit

Several existing denominational bodies may be legitimately regarded as the successors of the Continental Anabaptists Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Bruderhof Communities and Quakers. Some writers prefer to distinguish institutionally lineal descendants (Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites) from the spiritual descendants Brethren, Church of the Brethren, the Bruderhof Communities, and Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists and the many parts of the Emerging Church in the UK, Australia and parts of the US. The Quakers are listed here only because they share the distinction of also being a peace church. Nevertheless, some historical connections have been demonstrated for all of these spiritual descendants, though perhaps not as clearly as the noted institutionally lineal descendants. Although many see the more well-known Anabaptist groups (Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites) as ethnic groups, the Anabaptist bodies of today are no longer comprised mostly of descendents of the Continental Anabaptists. Total worldwide membership of the Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and related churches totals 1,297,716 (as of 2003) with about 60 percent in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Today in response to post-modernism, what some theologians are calling 'the end of Christendom' and the global ecological crisis, some churches and theologians are drawing upon Anabaptist traditions as a paradigm for Christian spirituality in the 21st century. This movement, sometimes referred to as 'neo-anabaptism', includes theologians and communities who are from Christian denominations not part of the historic Peace Churches but who see in the 16th century radical reformers an authentic witness of early Christianity and of the life and teachings of Christ. Some such thinkers include Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, Glen Stassen, Lee Camp, Marva J. Dawn, Richard Hays, Craig A. Carter, James McClendon, and Michael Cartwright.

Sojourners Magazine editor Jim Wallis has said that Mennonite Theologian John H. Yoder "inspired a whole generation of Christians to follow the way of Jesus into social action and peacemaking." The neo-Anabaptist communities and theologians are also a direct result of this legacy. Neo-Anabaptist communities are often identifiable by their desire to live as a prophetic alternative to larger society through their commitment to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as normative for the Christian life when empowered by the Holy Spirit. Outworkings of this spirituality include simple yet joyful lifestyle, peace and justice making, the practice of nonviolence, communal living and the voluntary sharing of goods, particularly with those in need all as an outworking of seeking the kingdom of God.

In addition, it may be argued that one of the historical Anabaptist doctrines, specifically that one must volitionally, consciously, and personally relate to God, is a likewise found among much of Evangelical Protestantism, even though these churches may not be historically linked to the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptist heritageEdit

  • Freedom of religion
  • Priesthood of all believers
  • Bible as the sole rule of faith and practice
  • Pacifism

The Anabaptists were early promoters of a free church and freedom of religion (sometimes called separation of church and state). When it was introduced by the Anabaptists in the 15th and 16th centuries, religious freedom independent of the state was a radical idea, and unthinkable to both clerical and governmental leaders. Religious liberty was equated with anarchy; Kropotkin traces the birth of anarchist thought in Europe to these early Anabaptist communities.

According to Estep,

"Where men believe in the freedom of religion, supported by a guarantee of separation of church and state, they have entered into that heritage. Where men have caught the Anabaptist vision of discipleship, they have become worthy of that heritage. Where corporate discipleship submits itself to the New Testament pattern of the church, the heir has then entered full possession of his legacy."

References in popular cultureEdit

In Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, the character of Chaplain Tappman identifies himself as an Anabaptist. He states that for this reason, it is not necessary to call him "Father."

The novel Q of the Luther Blissett Project focuses on the anabaptist movement and its relations with the then-emerging Protestant movement.