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).
Member of a movement of the Protestant Reformation characterized by adult baptism. Anabaptists held that infants were not punishable for sin because they had no awareness of good and evil and thus could not yet exercise free will, repent, and accept baptism. Denying the validity of infant baptism, they accepted adult baptism, which was regarded as a second baptism by those outside the group who identified them as Anabaptists (from the Greek for rebaptizers). Confident of living at the end of time, early Anabaptists sought to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church. The first adult baptisms took place outside Zürich in early 1525. Most Anabaptists were pacifists and refused to swear civil oaths. Thomas Müntzer advocated a more violent eschatology that called for the overthrow of the rich by the poor and was executed after leading the Thuringian peasant revolt (1525). Another group of Anabaptists, led by John of Leiden, took control of the city of Münster and sought to establish the millennial kingdom. Their excesses led to their violent suppression in 1535 and further persecution and martyrdom of the Anabaptists. Many Anabaptists settled in Moravia, where they stressed the community of goods modeled on the primitive church at Jerusalem. This branch continues as the Hutterite movement, primarily in the western U.S. and Canada. Increasingly persecuted throughout Europe, Anabaptists in the Netherlands and northern Germany rallied under the leadership of Menno Simonsz. and survive as the Mennonites.
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