Anabaptists were prominent in Europe during the 16th cent., forming part of the "radical" wing of the Reformation; they were harshly condemned and persecuted under Protestants and Catholics alike. Their principal centers were in Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. They baptized converts for the first time near Zürich in 1525 in protest over the city council's decree ordering the baptism of all unbaptized children. These Swiss Brethren, as they were called, separated themselves from the control of the state church established by Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich (and developed in other centers of the Reformation). Thus they became the first to practice the complete separation of church and state.
They modeled their new church after the Christian community of apostolic times, depicted as a free gathering of convinced believers dedicated to leading the saintly life in strict accord with Scripture. Other factors contributing to the development and spread of Anabaptism include the peasant movement (see Peasants' War) and the revolutionary rhetoric of Thomas Münzer, late medieval mysticism and asceticism, and the writings of Andreas Carlstadt and Martin Luther (whose reforms the Anabaptists felt went only halfway).
Although they were never united either politically or doctrinally, three distinct subgroups of Anabaptists can be discerned. The revolutionary Anabaptists, represented by the short-lived theocracy established at Münster (c.1534-35), sought to bring about the New Jerusalem predicted in Scripture using force. Anabaptism is more often associated with the evangelical Anabaptists who were avowed pacifists (the "ban" replaced the sword). The Schleitheim Confession (1527) is a principle statement of their beliefs. They are exemplified by the communitarian followers of Jacob Hutter (see Hutterian Brethren) and Menno Simons (see Mennonites). Finally there are contemplative Anabaptists like Hans Denck (c.1500-1527). Denck submitted to adult baptism but believed the presence of the inner Word in believers precluded any visible organization of the Christian life.
See studies by G. H. Williams (1962), C. P. Clasen (1972), K. P. Davis (1974), and J. D. Weaver (1987).