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WHO WERE THE "ANABAPTISTS?"
The name "Anabaptist" means one who re-baptizes. But the term has a connotation of "fanatic," "revolutionary," and "heretic" in the minds of many in the Reformed tradition. It is the purpose of this chapter to show that modern research calls the Christian to reassess these subjective impressions.
By way of synopsis, this study reserves the term "Anabaptist" for three general groups of evangelical Christians:
1) The "Swiss Brethren." These were students of Zwingli, probably the first to be called "Anabaptists" during the Reformation. By their commitment to "obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29) they may be called the first true Protestants.
2) South German and Moravian followers of men like Pilgram Marpeck, who stood in the so-called "Stäbler" tradition ( = "men of the staff"). Their productive, peaceful lives were admired by all, yet their commitment to avoid worldly patriotism and the use of the sword (the State) was construed as a threat to civil stability.
3) Second-Generation Anabaptists like Menno Simons, generally sympathetic to the Schleitheim Confession. They produced many edifying, Biblical writings.
We have obviously excluded from our definition every group heretofore included (in the minds of most people) in the group called "Anabaptists." Most notably, we do not include the agitators of the "Münster" debacle. These exclusions will be defended in later chapters.
What distinguishes this definition of "Anabaptist" from the prevailing Reformed/Reconstructionist definition is the admission of a group of dedicated Bible students who existed outside the "magisterial" reformation (i.e., the reformatory work led by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al, which tried to work conjointly with the civil states of the day). In Reformed literature the term "Anabaptist" does not generally admit of orthodox Bible-believers. We will therefore begin by establishing their existence. An explanation of the grievous error committed by Reformed historians will conclude this chapter.
New Sources of Anabaptist History
The first thing that any honest (or competent) student of the Anabaptists realizes is that all accounts of the Anabaptists written prior to the nineteenth century are for the most part obsolete. Most of these accounts were written by the Reformers or their spiritual progeny. In the late 1800's new (old) documents came to light. These documents were written by non-Reformed historians and include many "primary source" documents (written by the Anabaptists themselves, not just their persecutors). These materials completely alter the picture of the Anabaptists painted by the Reformed historians.
It now appears clear that there was an evangelical, Bible-believing, and socially moral and stable element within the group persecuted by both Reformers and Catholics, traditionally called "Anabaptists." As one writer favorable to the newly-discovered Evangelical tradition has put it, "The history of Anabaptism belongs to the category of 'now it can be told' stories. Errol Hulse sums up the matter:
Moreover, an increasing volume of research material is being made available and this has cast a great deal of new light on the true nature of the Anabaptist movement. Traditional interpretations have had to be changed considerably. The entire Anabaptist movement was blackened by the excesses of the minority. The catastrophe at Munster in 1535, particularly, has served to dub the Anabaptist cause as fanatical and unworthy of serious attention. Henry Bullinger, successor to Zwingli, at Zurich, wrote extensively on the Anabaptist movement, which he described as "Satanic." Bullinger became recognized as the authority on the subject. Fearfully biased, his work served to prejudice generations against serious consideration of the Anabaptist cause. Modern research has shown the inadequacy of Bullinger's work, and successive layers of misrepresentation are being removed.
Yet as the influence of Reformed thought dwindled in the late 19th century, the influence of Revolutionary movements increased. In the 20th century, the influence of the Marxists upon "modern scholarship" has been notable. One reason why, in this century, the notion that the Anabaptists were revolutionary anarchists or communists is so popular is that the Marxists have seized upon certain fringe elements of what the Reformers called "Anabaptists" and have given them more historical significance than they deserve.
Most accounts of Reformation history, therefore, fall into one of two errors. Either they follow the Reformers, who -- as we shall see in some detail -- were less than fair with the Anabaptists (no matter how you understand that term) or these accounts follow modern historians, increasingly influenced by Marxist theories of historiography. Tragically, Reformed Christians have not set a good example in the field. Instead of seeking the truth, to honor the good name of fellow Christians (I Corinthians 13:5-7, Ninth Commandment) by searching original Anabaptist materials to find out what the Anabaptists believed, Reformed historians look to "establishment" historians, whether of "Christendom" or of the "post-Christian" era. Reconstructionist "scholars" are simply parroting the "party platform." The result is an unfair characterization of Anabaptists as "Revolutionaries," "Socialists," "Fanatics," etc. Chances are your old church history book or encyclopedia entry on "Anabaptists" will contain a great deal of information on the Munster calamity, but little else. You will be left with the impression that the world is better off without "Anabaptists," and that a revival of their thinking can hardly be good. I don't think this is fair. Among nineteenth-century historians this might be excused, as primary source materials were not generally available. But the current Reformed/Reconstructionist attack on the Anabaptists cannot be so easily excused.
The Medieval Church: Reformation or Restitution?
Our understanding of the Anabaptists is aided when we understand the history and meaning of the term "Reformation." When did "The Reformation" begin? What conditions were the Reformers trying to reform? When did these conditions come about? How did the Anabaptists fit into the plans of the Reformers?
The Anabaptists pointed to what they called "The Fall" of the Christian Church. It came about when Christian leaders abandoned the call to apply Biblical Law in society by the power of evangelism and the Holy Spirit and instead sought to rely on military power and state funds. These conditions became most noticeable when Constantine politicized the church. He felt that making the church an arm of the state would increase his power, and churchmen felt that having the power of the sword on their side would increase their power. It was this decision above all others that served as the impetus for the criticisms of many different reforming groups. Some critics of the Church were strict Humanists. Others claimed Biblical authority. Some just liked to complain and change things. (Whatever good can be said of the move, all at least agree on the potential for abuse, and the abuses are described in some detail by Verduin.f)
At the time of the Reformation, the Anabaptists saw this as a sad decision, one motivated by statism and a thirst for political power. Reconstructionists tend to applaud the move. I don't think they have thought through the implications of "Constantinianism." We must, therefore, look briefly at the Medieval church, and then we will be better prepared to understand the Medieval Pre-Reformers
Constantinianism: The Medieval Church/State Relationship
Most everybody in the modern world believes in "the separation of church and state," although if you asked seven judges what that phrase means you would get eight different opinions. What distinguished the Anabaptists from other critics of the church (who merely pointed out monetary and sexual lusts and abuses) was their systemic critique of the State itself, insisting that the Church cannot trust in the State for the propagation of the Faith. This urgent demand for a Church separate from the State could only be seen at the time as an attack on the very foundation of society itself. To the Medieval Catholics (later joined by the "magisterial" Protestants) "the Anabaptists seemed not only to be dangerous heretics, they also seemed to threaten the religious and social stability of Christian Europe." R.B. Kuiper, in a recent edition of a Reformed textbook on church history gives a very balanced presentation of the medieval church/state relationship:
2. Origin of the State-Church Bond • The Anabaptist movement was in part a reaction against the close ties of Church and State. This bond came about by the mass conversions during the days of Constantine and Clovis and the Christianizing of the pagan barbarians during the Middle Ages. Most citizens of the State felt that they were members of the Church. This type of membership brought much of the world into the Church.
Membership in the Protestant churches was also due in large part to mass "conversions." The decisions of the city councils or princes to join the reformation movement brought cities and states as a whole into the Protestant churches. Because most of the citizens of the State were also members of the Church, the bond between Church and State was very strong.
These mass changes in affiliation gave the Protestant churches much grief. The external aspects of Catholic ritual were easily changed, but the personal lives of many had not been touched. Many members used the doctrine of salvation by faith only, without good works, as an excuse for loose living. In his last years Martin Luther lamented over the great mass of those who had gone over to the Protestant Church.
Much in the same way in which the Catholic Church had failed in its efforts to Christianize the heathen, so Luther and Zwingli had partially failed in their work of reforming the Church.
One of the distinctive teachings of the Anabaptists came from their reaction to this State-Church bond. They insisted that membership in the Church be limited to those who consciously committed themselves to Christ. They objected to easy membership in the Church by way of the State.
3. Separation of Church and State • When Church and State are closely connected, false doctrine is an offense not only against the Church but also against the State. Heresy is then a crime and should be punished by the government with the utmost severity. This is the view that was held not only by Catholics, but by Protestants as well. The Anabaptists, because of their doctrine of separation of Church and State, stood for liberty of religion and for a "free church." They opposed the establishment of any faith by law.
The early Anabaptists taught that Christians, as much as possible, should keep themselves separate from the world. They admitted that in this present life some kind of government is necessary, but they taught that believers should have no part in it. Consequently, according to them, a Christian should not hold government office because this involved "the use of the sword," should not be soldier, should not take an oath, and should not sue in the courts. You can see that the Anabaptists were considered radicals in their day.
Verduin has called a society in which men are declared to be Christians by virtue of their citizenship a "sacral" society. It stands in opposition to a "pluralistic" society. As we have argued elsewhere, the concept of a "pluralistic society" is virtually a contradiction in terms. But the Reconstructionist opposition to an allegedly "neutral" society is not affirmation of a church/state union. We are today agreed that "church and state should be separate, inasmuch as the state is concerned with everyone in the community whereas the church consists only of the saints." But when the Anabaptists first asserted such, "these propositions entailed the dissolution of the whole structure of medieval society." "It involved an entire reconstruction of the Church and of the social order." "Reconstructionists" should not be prejudiced against such a "reconstruction."
The Anabaptists thus did not propose mere "reform" of the church, but advocated "restoration" or "restitution" of the Apostolic patterns of a believing people separated from the State. This "restitutionist" program was based on a view of the State as an inherently non-Christian institution. We believe this position deserves careful consideration.
Although the Anabaptists did not set forth a detailed and, in our view, completely Biblical, theory of the State, they made the necessary first step by challenging the Statist assumptions of the day. Yet they were not the first; the Reformation was preceded by many medieval reformers who called for the church to separate from the worldly State.
The Medieval (Pre-)Reformers
In order to maintain positions of power, the church and the State combined to restrict access to the "blueprints" of a Christian society; a decentralized priesthood -- resting in every believer -- would spell the end of the Constantinian state-church. Since the Bible revealed this (I Peter 2:9), the Bible had to be suppressed. The church's failure to separate from the world resulted in much corruption. As early as the fourth century, groups began noticing a departure from the standards of the Apostolic church, and criticized the institutionalizing church. Criticism of this corruption was voiced from many different reformist groups. Some critics of the Church were strict Humanists, forerunners of Erasmus. Others claimed Biblical authority. Some just liked to complain and change things (Proverbs 24:21). But the union of church and State under Constantine was a significant factor in prompting many reform movements in the Medieval era.
Thus, long before Luther and Calvin, men were reading the Scriptures and coming to see how far the institutional church, in her quest for power and political security, had departed from the Standards of Biblical law. They concluded, with Will Durant, that the church "was degenerating into a vested interest absorbed in self-perpetuation and finance." We tend to think of "The Reformation" as beginning with Luther and the ninety-five theses (1517). But Biblical reformation of a statist church had begun long before. Maehl notes that
Since the 1200's, the number of Christians who rejected official church doctrines had grown alarmingly. Reformist sects included the Albigenses and Waldensians in the 1100's and 1200's and the Lollards and Hussites in the 1300's and 1400's. All preached a simpler religion and challenged the authority of the church at Rome.
Some of these groups (e.g., the Albigenses) had strong heretical tendencies. But the challenge to the religion of the Empire was often based squarely on the Scriptures. As is often the case with cults, even the most heretical groups had legitimate (Biblical) complaints against the institutional church. Often a bold prophet would stand up and make a daring call for repentance on the part of the State-Church. Occasionally he was an ordained official, and his defection from the ranks earned him a place in history. We think of John Wyclif (1320-1384) and John Huss (1369?-1415) whose views were similar to Luther's, and yet lived a century before him. But Reconstructionists are somewhat uncomfortable with these pre-reformers. Anabaptists are willing to claim them.
Anabaptists are not willing, however, to claim a heritage with all groups who criticized the authority of the state-church. No one denies that there were many heretical groups who opposed the church. The reason why some have mistakenly attributed the origin of the Anabaptists to these blatantly heretical groups is not hard to find: both groups were opposed by the powers that be; both were arrested and punished for denying the Christian character of the Holy Roman Empire. The State had no legal reason to examine their differences; their similarities were sufficient to condemn them both as "revolutionaries." The Reformers fell into precisely this error, as we shall see.
Christian reformers in the medieval era could likely have learned many things from non-Christian reformers. The same could be said for the Humanistic groups. There is nothing wrong with listening to and learning from the Humanists. They are created in the Image of God, have the work of the Law written on their hearts, and often beat the Christians to the Godly cause. But we must not be blind to the differences between the evangelical Anabaptists and the non-Christians who at times could be found in the same places saying the same things. An example may serve to clarify the problem we encounter in defining the word "Anabaptist."
The Fluidity of Ideological Movements
Any fair-minded (and rigorously Biblical) analysis of the Anabaptists must begin by disposing of the traditional political categories of "right" and "left." The apparent conflict between "pacifist" and "revolutionary" must also be cast to the wind. These theoretical distinctions always break down when applied to concrete groups, even if they had some abstract usefulness. We would contend that even in the abstract such divisions are useless at best.
Gary Allen has called attention to the inherently collectivist (statist) proclivities of the traditional "left-right" political spectrum. At the left end of the scale is socialism/communism; command economies initiated by "revolution." At the right is "fascism." Again, a command economy where the State has, through propaganda or even through military coup, obtained total control over the means of production. Where on this scale is the absence of State control to be found? Is "anarchism" the "middle-of-the-road"?
Nor can it be said that the "left" has a monopoly on "revolution." The right also uses the rhetoric of revolution. Gary North, certainly on the "right" side of the spectrum speaks of an "anti-Humanist revolution.". Rushdoony speaks of the American Revolution as a "conservative counter-revolution." President Reagan has equated the Contra revolutionaries in Nicaragua as modern-day counterparts to the American Revolutionaries. The Puritans have had an exciting partnership with revolution..
The best way to discuss ideological groups is in terms of their view of the State. At one end of the scale can be found those who advocate a State-less society: decentralized power, localism, familism, or anarchism. These groups are anti-statist but generally non-violent; the violence often associated with "anarchism" is the violence of lots of would-be States when atomistic men attempt to set themselves up as a State or State-substitute structure. At the other end of the scale are those who advocate strong centralized structures of authority, usually resting in the State, sometimes in a "church." Reliance on the coercive power of the State should alert us to the probable use of violence as a means of obtaining power.
An example of the fluidity of ideologies can be found in R.J. Rushdoony. A voluminous reader (averaging a book a day), Rushdoony reads from every side of every theoretical spectrum. Probably no other Christian writer is so well acquainted with such diverse schools of thought.. An extremist unfamiliar with Rushdoony's overall philosophy might notice him favorably referring to the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard and to the anarcho-socialist Karl Hess and become quite interested in the man -- until they come face-to-face with Rushdoony's systematic application of Biblical Law. Or they might just become very perplexed: "Capitalist? Socialist? Anarchist? What is this Rushdoony, anyway?" The better Christian scholars will always be learning God's truth from all corners, never limiting themselves to any party platform.
During the few times I spoke for Mr. Rushdoony at his regular meetings in Westwood, California, I met a completely unpredictable variety of people in attendance. They ran the gamut from people who were rejected by the John Birch Society for their right-wing extremism, to people who could only be classified as "leftists." I couldn't begin to recount the bizarre beliefs of one man who claimed to be a staunch, if not the only true, follower of Rushdoony. The views of this budding theocrat on the authority of the husband, the uncleanness of dogs, and the inspiration of Scripture would send chills down your spine. I know they sent chills down his wife's spine! She found sanctuary with the David Chilton family for a few days until our church could get her back to her parents on the East Coast. I don't know where her husband is now; I'm watching for bulletins out of small, South American countries reporting large imports of Kool-Aid.
Is this the typical "Reconstructionist?" Not at all. His views did not really receive support from Rushdoony's teaching, and as this reality dawned on him he began to criticize Rushdoony more vocally than before. Careful analysis might provide insights into what exactly it was in Rushdoony's sermons that interested this man. Perhaps the main characteristic of Rushdoony's teaching was its straight-forward application of God's Law to all of society. Rushdoony is bold and forthright -- we might say "prophetic" -- and many opponents of Biblical Law are roundly condemned. Social outcasts may well find comfort in his indictment of that same society. But eventually -- hopefully (!) -- the Word of God is applied to them personally, and they either drift back out of the Reconstructionist meetings, or their lives are transformed by the Holy Spirit's application of that preaching.
As a result of the reading I have done -- in Anabaptist writings apparently on the Reconstructionist List of Forbidden Books -- I am convinced that the Anabaptists had the same audiences. They were very bold in their denunciation of statism and oppression in their day. They took the Bible seriously and tried to apply it. They upheld many of the goals I thought Christian Reconstructionism represented. As a result, they attracted diverse elements. Some were merely seekers of some new thing (Acts 17:21). Others, of an "anarchistic" stripe, hearing the criticism the Anabaptists made of the totalitarian princes and greedy, power-hungry churchmen of the day, associated themselves for a short time -- until the full demands of Christian obedience became too much for them. Still others, potential dictators, were impressed with the absolutistic commitment to (Biblical) authority advocated by the Anabaptists.
It may be that history will look back on Reconstructionists the same way Reconstructionists now look back on the Anabaptists. Historians will uncover evidence of those nomads, sometimes strange and anarchistic, at other times bizarre and dictatorial, that wandered in and out of Rushdoony's meetings, and will paste together a "psychological profile" of "the typical Reconstructionist." Reconstructionists and Anabaptists will look down from heaven and have a good laugh together.
Until that day, however, we must clear the name of the Anabaptists from the unfair characterizations with which it has been darkened. Calvinists and Reconstructionists today tend to think of the Anabaptists as wild, fanatical, revolutionary, pentecostal, Bible-ignorant crazies, not really worthy of serious attention.. At the time of the "Protestant Reformation," there were, unquestionably, revolutionaries, spiritualists, anti-Trinitarians, Bolsheviks, fanatics of various sorts, and religious Humanists. There were also Anabaptists. I say "also" because the general impression is that "Anabaptist" is the name for all of these diverse groups. It is just as unfair to group all these crazies together under the term "Anabaptist" as it would be to group all contemporary crazies under the term "Reconstructionist."