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  • Matthew Castro

Pioneers of Modern Christianity

By Matthew Castro

As a Baptist church, we tend ignore the impact that the Anabaptist have made on our beliefs and practices. When the anniversary of the Reformation approaches every year, we emphasis the accomplishments of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, the Anabaptist died defending beliefs that are at the core of Baptist beliefs. In the fifth article of our series on the history of the Reformation, we look at the history of the Anabaptists, who fought to reform the reformation.


The story begins with Ullrich Zwingli in Switzerland. In 1519, Zwingli was serving as a priest at the Great Minster Church in Zurich. He agreed with Luther’s reforms of the church, and began preaching biblical sermons from the pulpit. However, Zwingli’s study of scripture led him to go further than Luther. He rejected whatever the church was doing that the Bible did not prescribe. This decision led to removing candles, statues, music, and pictures from the worship. He also disagreed with Luther’s view on the presence of Christ Jesus in the Lord’s Supper.

Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, who were both well-educated men of standing in Zurich, supported Zwingl’s reforms. They also began studying the scriptures, and saw the obvious differences between the apostolic church and the church of their own day. Under Zwingli’s leadership, the church in Zurich would baptized newborn children in the city and consider them members of the church like the rest of the Christian world (Lutheran and Catholic). The church was made up of everyone from the city regardless of their actually faith in Christ. However, Grebel and Manz observed that the New Testament church was a fellowship of the few, a company of true believers committed to live and die for Christ and baptized upon their confession of faith in Christ.

This revelation led Grebel and Manz to work towards building a church free from the state and composed of true disciples. The central feature of their free church was to be baptism of believers only. They were going to refuse baptism to infants.

In 1524, Grebel’s wife gave birth to a son. The Grebels refused to baptize their son, and other parents followed their example. The City Council of Zurich arranged a public debate on the matter on January 17th 1525. The representatives of the people agreed with the position of Zwingli against Grebel. The council then warned all parents who neglected to have their children baptized would be banished from Zurich.

The decision and threat by the council led Grebel and his followers to meet on January 21, 1525 at Feliz Manz’s house. After praying for Faithfulness to God’s will, George Blaurock, a former priest, asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him upon confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ. Grebel baptized him in Manz’s house, and others proceed to be baptized in the same style as Blaurock.

They then left Zurich to settle in the nearby village of Zollikon. The company created the first Anabaptist congregation and also the first free church. However, the Zurich police quickly arrested the newly baptized men and imprisoned them. They become known as Anabaptist or re-baptizers, because they baptized adults, who had been baptized as infants. This angered the Zurich council because Grebel’s congregation made a mockery of infant baptism, which the Anabaptist believed to be invalid.

The Zurich Council responded to the rebellion by sentencing these men to death by drowning on March 7th 1526. Within four years the radical movement started by Grebel and Manz was nearly eradicated. Many fled to Germany and Austria. However, their troubles continued there as well.

In 1529, the imperial Diet of Speyer proclaimed Anabaptism a heresy, and encouraged all kingdoms in Christendom to put all Anabaptists to death. During the 16th century, four to five thousand Anabaptists were executed. Lutherans and Catholics both persecuted Anabaptists intensely.

Anabaptists were forced to travel north to find refuge in Moravia. They founded a Christian community called the Bruderhof, and followed the patterns of the early apostolic community. The leader of this community was Jakob Hutter. They became known as the Hutterities.


A strange episode in the Anabaptist history was the Munster rebellion in the mid-1530s. In the city of Westphalia near the Netherlands, a group of Anabaptist immigrants under the leadership of Jen Matthijs sought to create an earthly kingdom of Christ, which was called a chiliasm. A chiliasm is a belief in a thousand-year earthly kingdom of Christ. The bishop in the region sent troops to capture the city from Jen Matthijs. However, these Anabaptists took arms to defend themselves.

In 1534, Jan of Leiden, a former innkeeper and Anabaptist, seized the powers of government and ruled as an absolute tyrant. He took the title of “King David,” and introduce the practice of polygamy. In 1535, the bishop’s army took the city from Jan’s reign. This episode became the defining moment in Anabaptist history, and marred the reputation of the group as wild-eyed religious fanaticism.


The Anabaptist were revised from the Munster affair under the ministry of Menno Simons. He traveled throughout Northern Europe and ministered to the scattered Anabaptist groups . He preached pacifism. Most of the descendants of the Anabaptists are named after Menno Simon, and are called Mennonites.


In 1527, under the leadership of John H. Yoder and Alan Kreider, the Anabaptist took steps to organize their beliefs. In Schleithem, which is on the Swiss-German border, they held their first synod. They adopted the “Brotherly Union,” which is also called the Schleitheim Confession. The confession had four major convictions.

The first conviction was called discipleship. They believed the Christian must go beyond inner experience and acceptance of doctrines. The Christian life must involve a daily walk with God, in which Christ’s teachings and life shaped a transformed life. Anabaptist preached that Christians should be committed to obeying the “bright and clear words of the Son of God, whose word is truth and whose commandment is eternal life.” The popular emphasis on discipleship today finds its roots in the Anabaptist confession.

The second conviction was the principle of love. They stood for pacifism. They would not go to war, defend themselves against their persecutors, or take part in coercion by the state. This conviction was also applied within the communities as well in the form of mutual aid and redistribution of wealth programs. Among Moravian Anabaptist, this principle led to Christian communal living. Modern-day anti-war movements and welfare programs are inspired by Anabaptist beliefs.

The third conviction is known as the congregational view of church authority. In the Anabaptist assemblies all members were to be believers, who are baptized voluntarily upon confession of personal faith in Christ. This conviction also meant that decision making within the church rested with the entire membership. The church community as a whole would assist each other in living out faithfully the meaning of their baptismal commitments.

The fourth conviction was the belief in the separation of church and state. The church should be free from governmental interference. Christians are a free, unforced, uncompelled people. People have a right to their own beliefs. The government exceeds their competence when they “champion the Word of God with a fist.”

The influence of the Anabaptist movement can be seen in the beliefs of Baptists, Quakers, and Congregationalists. These groups provided great influence in the founding of the American nation. Also the four major convictions of the Anabaptist confession had significant influence on modern Christianity. The Anabaptist helped to define what is the Baptist denomination, who stand strongly for believer’s baptism, congregational church government, and the separation of the church from the state. Without the Anabaptists, the well-known phrase in American politics, “the separation of church and state,” may never been written by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut in 1801 to concur with their concerns about religious liberty in the state constitution of Connecticut. Their sacrifice for religious liberty continues to be an inspiration today.


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