After Martin Luther's rejected reformation of Roman Catholicism, these groups denied the validity of infant baptism. In addition, Anabaptists rejected all Roman Catholic baptism as invalid. They therefore re-baptized those whom they regarded as not having received any Christian initiation at all, and claimed that their baptism after profession of faith was the recipient's first legitimate baptism. Reportedly, one of the first adult baptisms was publicly performed in Zürich, Switzerland, in January 1525.
On December 27, 1521, three "prophets" appeared in Wittenberg from Zwickau: Thomas Muentzer, Nicolas Storch and Mark Thomas Stubner. Luther's reform was not thorough enough for them. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Luther practiced infant baptism, which the Anabaptists considered to be "neither scriptural nor primitive, nor fulfilling the chief conditions of admission into a visible brotherhood of saints, to wit, repentance, faith, spiritual illumination and free surrender of self to Christ."
Melanchthon, powerless against the enthusiasts with whom his co-reformer Andreas Carlstadt sympathized, appealed to Luther, still concealed in the Wartburg. Luther was cautious not to condemn the new doctrine off-hand, but advised Melanchthon to treat them gently and to prove their spirits, lest they be of God. There was confusion in Wittenberg, where schools and university sided with the "prophets" and were closed. Hence the charge that Anabaptists were enemies of learning, which is sufficiently rebutted by the fact that the first German translation of the Hebrew prophets was made and printed by two of them, Hetzer and Denk, in 1527.
The first leaders of the movement in Zürich -- Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier -- were men learned in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. On the 6th of March Luther returned, interviewed the prophets, scorned their "spirits", forbade them the city, and had their adherents ejected from Zwickau and Erfurt. Denied access to the churches, the latter preached and celebrated the sacrament in private houses. Driven from the cities they swarmed over the countryside. Compelled to leave Zwickau, Muentzer visited Bohemia, resided two years at Alltstedt in Thuringia, and in 1524 spent some time in Switzerland. During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary doctrines in religion and politics with growing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success.
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 Muentzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods. The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed as it was by the execution of Muentzer and several other leaders, proved only a temporary check to the Anabaptist movement. Here and there throughout Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands there were zealous propagandists, through whose teaching many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader should arise.
A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster, in Westphalia (1532-1535). Here the group had gained considerable influence, through the adhesion of Rothmann, the Lutheran pastor, and several prominent citizens; and the leaders, Johann Matthys (or Matthijs, Matthijs, Mathijz, Matthyssen, Mathyszoon), a baker of Haarlem, and Johann Bockelson or Beukelszoon, a tailor of Leiden, had little difficulty in obtaining possession of the town and deposing the magistrates. Vigorous preparations were at once made, not only to hold what had been gained, but to proceed from Münster as a centre to the conquest of the world. The town being besieged by Francis of Waldeck, its expelled bishop (April 1534), Matthiesen, who was first in command, made a sally with only thirty followers, under the fanatical idea that he was a second Gideon, and was cut off with his entire band. Bockholdt, better known in history as John of Leiden, was now supreme.
Giving himself out as the successor of David, he claimed royal honours and absolute power in the new "Zion". He justified the most arbitrary and extravagant measures by the authority of visions from heaven, as others have done in similar circumstances. With this pretended sanction he legalized polygamy, and himself took sixteen wives, one of whom he beheaded with his own hand in the market-place in a fit of frenzy. As a natural consequence of such licence, Münster was for twelve months a scene of unbridled profligacy. After an obstinate resistance the town was taken by the besiegers on June 24, 1535, and in January 1536 Bockelson and some of his more prominent followers, after being cruelly tortured, were executed in the market-place. Their dead bodies were exhibited in cages, which hung from the steeple of St. Lamberti church. (These cages are still hanging there.)
The outbreak at Münster was the crisis of the Anabaptist movement. It never again had the opportunity of assuming political importance, the civil powers naturally adopting the most stringent measures to suppress an agitation whose avowed object was to suppress them. It is difficult to trace the subsequent history of the group as a religious body. The fact that, after the Münster insurrection the very name Anabaptist was proscribed in Europe, is a source of twofold confusion. The enforced adoption of new names makes it easy to lose the historical identity of many who really belonged to the Münster Anabaptists, and, on the other hand, has led to the classification of many with the Münster sect who had no real connection with it. The latter mistake, it is to be noted, has been much more common than the former. The Mennonites, for example, have been identified with the earlier Anabaptists, on the ground that they included among their number many of the fanatics of Münster. But the continuity of a sect is to be traced in its principles, and not in its adherents, and it must be remembered that Menno Simons and his followers expressly repudiated the distinctive doctrines of the Münster Anabaptists. They have never aimed at any social or political revolution, and have been as remarkable for sobriety of conduct as the Münster sect was for its fanaticism.
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 Munzer 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. It was easier to burn Anabaptists than to refute their arguments, and contemporary writers were struck with the intrepidity and number of their martyrs. Thus Stanislaus Hosius (1504-1579), a Polish cardinal and bishop of Warmie, wrote (Opera, Venice, 1573, p. 202):
"They are far readier than followers of Luther and Zwingli to meet death, and bear the harshest tortures for their faith. For they run to suffer punishments, no matter how horrible, as if to a banquet; so that if you take that as a test either of the truth of doctrine or of their certitude of grace, you would easily conclude that in no other sect is to be found a faith so true or grace so certain. But as Paul wrote: "Even if I give my body to be burned and have not charity, it avails me naught. But he has not charity who divides the unity...He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church".
The excesses of John of Leiden, the Brigham Young of that age, cast an unjust stigma on the Baptists, of whom the vast majority were good, quiet people who merely carried out in, practice the early Christian ideals of which their persecutors prated. They have been reckoned an extreme left wing of the Reformation, because for a time they followed Luther and Zwingli. Yet their Christology and negative attitude towards the state rather indicate, as in the case of John Wyclif, 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, as if 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 barefooted 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 bare-footed, washed each other's feet (like the Fraticelli), had all goods in common, worked everyone at a handicraft, had a spiritual father who prayed with them every morning and taught them, dressed in black and had 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, the elders read the words of institution and prayed, and passed a loaf round from which each broke off a bit and ate, the wine being handed round in flagons. Children in their colonies were separated from the parents, and lived in the school, each having his bed and blanket. They were taught reading, writing and summing, cleanliness, truthfulness and industry, and the girls married the men chosen for them.
In the following points Anabaptists resembled the medieval dissenters:
They seem to have preserved among them the primitive manual called the Teaching of the Apostles, 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.
"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."
The Anabaptists were great readers of the book of Revelation and of the Epistle of James, the latter perhaps by way of counteracting what they considered Luther's one-sided teaching of justification by faith alone. Luther rejected this scripture as "a right strawy epistle". English Anabaptists often knew it by heart. Excessive reading of Revelation seems to have been the chief cause of the aberrations of the Münster fanatics.
In Poland and the Netherlands, certain of the Baptists denied the Trinity, hence the saying that a Socinian was a learned Baptist (see Socinus.) With these Menno and his followers refused to hold communion.
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 Catholic Church.
Original text based on an article from a 1911 encyclopedia