The name anabaptist derives from Greek terms for re-baptism. It was a applied to a variety of extreme and revolutionary groups during the Reformation of the 16th century who questioned the validity of infant baptism. Groups today which trace their roots back to the Anabaptists include the Amish and the Mennonites.
Although the term Anabaptist was used negatively and the groups had a variety of goals, all were generally dedicated to returning to a "simple faith" which they believed to be more like what Jesus actually prescribed. The first such congregation was organized by Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel in Zollikon, Switzerland in 1525 and became known as the "Swiss Brethren." Many Anabaptist groups adopted the name "brethren" in an effort to distinguish them from people who became Christian simply because they were born in a Christian society.
These early Anabaptists were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Protestant reformer Ulrigh Zwingli, but they objected to his perceived subservience to secular authorities and they grew impatient in their desire to institute more radical measures to change Christian practices. Zwingli debated a number of the early leaders, but without managing to persuade them to change - so, they were ordered by the Zurich town council to change or leave.
Other Anbaptist groups were later established around Germany, for example in Moravia by Jacob Hutter. Anabaptists often regarded their leaders as divinely inspired prophets, sent by God to bring back to them the truth faith and true Christian beliefs. Because this could lead to near-absolute submission to the authority of some leaders, problems resulted later on.
A principle characteristic of anabaptist groups was the rejection of infant baptism, which was normal in the Catholic Church, and the insistence that only willing adults should or could be justifiably baptized. This was because infants could not make a conscious profession of Christian faith, whereas adults could. Early on adults were simply baptized by a sprinkling of water, but later this was changed to full immersion in water, just like it is described in the New Testament.
At the time, such rebaptism as an adult was a crime punishable by death. One popular method of execution was drowning, seen as ironically appropriate because of the reformers' interest in baptizing with water. Manz himself was became of the first martyrs by being drowned on the orders of the Zurich town council. He was not, however, the last. Some estimates place the number of martyrs at around 50,000 by 1535, and it may be that other Christians killed more Anabaptists than Romans killed Christians during their 300 years of persecutions.
Because the Anabaptists were viciously persecuted wherever they were and often had to flee their homes, many came to regard the baptism rite not simply as an initiation into the Christian faith, but also as an initiation into Christian suffering. The persecution only backfired, however, because it served to increase the spread of their ideas through more towns and cities. Thus, the harder the authorities pushed, the more this faith was able to spread and attract new converts.
Partially as a result of their persecution and deaths at the hands of the authorities, these groups were generally pacifistic, refusing to harm others. What is also interesting is that they rejected the close cooperation which existed between church and state during this era - Anabaptists were very consciously cutting themselves off from the rest of society.
Unlike other Protestant groups, the Anabaptists were not interested in "reforming" the current church organization. Instead, they sought to recreate the church along the lines of what they thought it originally looked like. This church, for them, was simply the community of the redeemed which should separate itself from the state. Because of this, and because of their insistence that membership in the church was something which can only be achieved through an informed and personal profession of faith, Anabaptists opposed the use of the state to enforce any Christian principles, even their own.
But if Anabaptists were pacifists and eschewed all violence, why were they treated so violently by others? Anabaptists regarded themselves as citizens of the "Kingdom of God" first and citizens of civil society second. They refused to take oaths and refused to recognize the authority of the state. Anabaptists were radical egalitarians - everyone in the group was completely equal, poor and rich, men and women. This posed a fundamental challenge to the nature and harmony of medieval society - something completely unacceptable to the secular and religious authorities of Europe.
Some Anabaptists went even further than preaching egalitarianism in principle or forming a small commune. A number believed that the Day of Judgment was close at hand - a belief which was continually reinforced by the persecution they suffered. Melchior Hoffman (1495-1543) was a Luther pastor who not only believed that the Day of Judgment was coming, but that it would happen in 1534 when he went to Strassburg and imprisoned. Despite the fact that he went to Stassburg in order to fulfill the prophecy and he did land in prison, nothing happened.
Even more radical Anabaptists gathered in the city of Münster between 1533 and 1555. Here, influenced by the teachings of Jan Matthys (a follower of Hoffman) and Jan Bockelson, they instituted what they labeled "New Jerusalem." They created a dictatorship and a communistic theocracy which Matthys lead through regular revelations from God.
Aside from the predictable executions of critics, these revelations also told Matthys to impose a new form of polygyny on the population because there was an excess of women and a dearth of men (many were killed by the authorities). Matthys himself took fifteen wives. The city was besieged and in June 1535, the opposing armies entered. Women and children were permitted to flee, but the men were all slaughtered - thousands of them. Leaders like Bockelson were captured and tortured to death.
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