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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.


1. This definition of "Anabaptist" will be defended as it is analyzed. It roughly parallels the definition submitted by Robert Friedmann in "The Hutterian Brethren and Community of Goods," The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, Guy F. Hershberger, ed., Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957, p. 83. [return to text]

2. The Introduction to his book, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1975) provides a fine overview of the discoveries that have been made. We reprint an excerpt for those interested in the various publications (the notes for Estep's remarks follow immediately):

THE HISTORY of Anabaptism belongs to the category of "now it can be told" stories. Perhaps there is no group within Christian history that has been judged as unfairly as the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Theirs has been the lot of the widely misunderstood, deliberately misrepresented, or completely ignored. With the exception of the present generation all but a handful of competent historians have joined in a "thumbs-down treatment" of four centuries' duration.1
      There are several factors which explain this otherwise baffling and inexcusable situation. The first of these is hostile polemics. Scholars of preceding generations have leaned heavily upon the highly partisan and quite unreliable accounts of sixteenth century Anabaptism in the writings of Ulrich Zwingli, Justus Menius, Heinrich Bullinger, and Christoph Fischer, to say nothing of the milder but just as erroneous accounts of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchton.Other problems have been unavailability of source materials, lack of interest by European scholars, and unwillingness by American historians (with notable exceptions) to deal with materials which were available.3
      In 1534 a group of fanatics at Münster attempted to set up the kingdom of God by force. Before they were overthrown, many atrocities were committed in the name of religion. This fiasco, the most serious aberration of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, has long been exaggerated out of all proportion to its true importance.4   It has strengthened the position of those who persecuted the Anabaptists and left the name Anabaptist in odious repute. To an extent not true before, the term Anabaptists became equated with  such epithets as Schwärmer (fanatic), Bolsheviki, and "stepchildren of the Reformation."5   At times, the nature of the Anabaptist Reformation has been misunderstood because of confusion in the use of the terms Anabaptists, inspirationists (Spiritualisten), rationalists, and libertines. The Lutherans consistently associated the radical inspirationists, such as the Zwickau Prophets and Thomas Müntzer, with the Swiss Brethren. The Calvinists often linked them with the rationalists and libertines. Deliberate or not, such careless treatment did not help the Anabaptists cause or encourage history to judge them properly. Modern research, however, coupled with a less-heated and more objective approach to the subject, has moderated this situation.6

Anabaptist Historiography

C.A. Cornelius, a Roman Catholic scholar, was one of the first historians to take a new look at the Anabaptist movement. He turned to sources rather than the perverted accounts of antagonistic writers. From his work, Die Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs (1855), modern Anabaptist historiography may be dated. This pioneering effort encouraged Ludwig Keller to continue studies in a similar vein. He published three books on the subject. Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber in their "religio-sociological works" made an invaluable contribution to Anabaptist historiography.7 Excellent treatments of the historiography of sixteenth-century Anabaptists are now readily available in English.8
      To those able scholars of many different communions, all students of the Anabaptist movement are indebted. Indeed, such a work as this would have been greatly altered, if possible at all, without the fruits of their dedicated scholarship.


      1. Beginning with the works of C.A. Cornelius and Ludwig Keller in Europe, and John Horsch in America there has been a noticeable improvement in both materials available for study to students of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement and in treatment of Anabaptist history by non-Mennonite historians. Symbolic of this change is the publication of The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, Guy F. Hershberger, ed. (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957), in which appear chapters by interested scholars of many different communions.
      2. The most offensive of these were Der Widertäufferen Ursprung, fürgang, Secten, wäsen, füneme and gemeine jrer leer Artckel by Heinrich Bullinger published in 1651 and Christoph Andreas Fischer's Von der Wiedertauffer verfluchtem Ursprung, gottlosen Lehre und derselben gründliche Widerlegung of 1603

[We might also add the conclusion of W.J. M'Glothlin: "The earlier writers on the Anabaptists, such as Fischer, Gast, Meschovius, Ottius, Sender, and others, are more or less partisan and unreliable" ("Anabaptism," The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (James Hastings, ed.), I:412). ]

3. The more important sources of Anabaptistica, either recently discovered or made available for the first time in centuries, are as follows:
      (1) In 1923, Rudolf Wolkan edited and published the Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder (Wien: S. Fromme). For years it had been presumed lost. Beck was not able to locate a copy of it. It was found in one of the Hutterite colonies in Paraguay and made available by Wolkan once again to the world. In 1943, an American edition was published.
      (2) In 1947, A.J.F. Zieglschmid published Das Klein-Geschichtsbüch der Hutterischen Brüder (Philadelphia: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation). It is almost as large as the Large Chronical (Die ältest Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder). In addition to a nearly exhaustive bibliography of the Anabaptists, it contains a heretofore unknown Gemeinde Ordnungen and a history of the Hutterites from 1802 to 1947.
      (3) In 1939, Claus Felbinger's Confession of 1560 was published in both German and English by the Society of Brothers, Primavera, Alto, Paraguay in their magazine, Plough and Pflug. The manuscript, formerly unknown, was found in the Zentralbibioteck of Zürich, Switzerland. It has since been made available to the English reader by Robert Friedmann, "Claus Felbinger's Confession of 1560," The Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXIX (April, 1955), 141-51. Hereafter The Mennonite Quarterly Review is cited as MQR.
      (4) In 1946, an undated codex owned in 1737 by "Claus Wüterich in der varderen Noremat Un Trub" in the Emmenthal, Bern Canton, Switzerland, was found in the attic of a Mennonite farmhouse near Langnau, Switzerland by Samuel Geiser. It was transcribed in1955, making a manuscript of 156 typewritten pages. It contains thirteen hymns, some of which are as early as 1530, and five doctrinal writings dating from 1529 to 1583.
      (5) In 1949, Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft was translated and published for the first time in English.
      (6) In 1954, Robert Friedmann discovered a manuscript Offenbarung Johannis, an exposition of the book of Revelation, in twenty-two chapters -- 162 leaves coped by Elias Walter in 1883. It turned out to be a commentary on Revelation written by a Spiritual Franciscan by the name of Petrus Johannis Olivi (1248-98), first published a year after his death in 1299 and evidently in the possession of the Hutterites since 1573.
      (7) In 1955, Heinold Fast discovered in the Bürgerbibliothek at Bern, Switzerland, a manuscript codex of 740 pages dated September 21, 1561, by Jörg Maler of Augsburg, editor and copyist. It contained the Kunstbuch, some minor items, and forty-two letter and documents of 1527-55, largely from the Pilgram Marpeck circle of South German Anabaptists. A short time later Fast wrote a detailed description of the Kunstbuch and a commentary on sections of this significant document. See William Klassen, "Pilgram Marpeck in Recent Research," MQR, XXXII (July, 1958), 211-14 for more information regarding this discovery.
      (8) In the same year, 1955, Fast and Gerhard Goeters discovered two additional codices of less significance.
      (9) Also in 1955, twenty-two Hutterite codices formerly at Schloss Mittersill, Austria (three are missing), were located in the City Library at Bratislova (Pressburg), Czechoslovakia.
      (10) In 1957 a new volume of selected English translations of Anabaptist and Spiritual writers came of the press. The volume, which is entitled Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), is edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel Megal and contains selections from Hübmaier, Melchior Hofmann, Obbe Philips, Dietrich Philips, Menno Simons, Ulrich Stadler, Sebastian Frank, and Caspar Schwenckfeld. Approximately one hundred pages are given to a translation of selections from the words of Juan de Valdés. In addition this work contains an excellent bibliography of material in English translations representative of the Radical Reformation (1524-1575).
      (11) Harold Bender writes: "The only comprehensive treatment of Anabaptist historiography to date is that by Christian Hege in his article 'Geschichtsschreibung' in Mennonitisches Lexikon, Vol. II, 96-101." MQR, XXXI (April 1957), 100. Subsequently, Hans Joachim Hillerbrand compiled the most extensive bibliography on Anabaptism yet published under the title A Bibliography of Anabaptism, 1520-1630 (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1962). The original work as been enlarged and brought up to date. It is hoped that this will be published in the near future.
      (12) In 1958, Robert Friedmann was allowed access by the Hutterites of Canada to a hitherto unknown collection of letters of sixteenth-century Anabaptist origin. the value of this new material is unknown at present.

If we seem to violate our own caveat against reliance on secondary sources (as we charge modern Reformed historians), it is because our purpose is to review the treatment accorded the Anabaptists by Reformed and Reconstructionist writers, not to formulate a new understanding of the Anabaptists. The definition of "Anabaptists" employed in this study will likely be seen as one encompassing only those who most closely agree with the views of our subsequent dissertation on the State. [return to text]

3. Errol Hulse, An Introduction to the Baptists, Sussex: Carey Publications, rev. 2d ed., 1976, pp. 12-13. [return to text]

4. Lewis Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, Chicago: Rand McNally College Publ. Co., 1971, II:395:

For centuries the role of the radicals in the Reformation was largely neglected, and they were treated as Christendom's stepchildren. But in recent years they have come into their own. [S]ince the Marxist historians have fastened upon Thomas Muntzer and radical religious types as the theological epiphenomena of social revolution, countless volumes have appeared interpreting the radical Reformation in the light of those remarkable scholars Engles, Marx, and Lenin. New knowledge is streaming in from all sides.

[return to text]

5. T. M. Lindsay is an interesting case in point. As we shall see, he recognizes that there is a difference between the Anabaptists and non-Christian revolutionary groups. Yet he persists in blurring the distinction. Perhaps he justifies it as a matter of convenience, yet greater effort should be made when dealing with the name and reputation of others. In The History of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, [1904] 1964, vol. 2) there is a nice three-color "Map showing the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (1520-1580)." Using the different colors, it shows where the "Lutheran Church," "Reformed," "Anglican," "Roman Catholic Church," and "Mixed Christians and Moslems" were found in Europe. Oh, yes, not to forget the final category, "Anabaptists and Anti-Trinitarians" (cf. Estep, p. 2). In his smaller book, The Reformation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, [1882] 1977) he provides a chronological chart of major events of the Reformation, listed under the appropriate categories: "Reformed Church," "Lutheran Church," "Roman Catholic Church," and, disturbingly, "Revolutionary Movements," under which category the history of the Anabaptists may be found. And as we shall see, he is nevertheless aware of the emerging understanding of the difference between the evangelical Anabaptists and other groups who were convicted under the anti-rebaptism laws.  [return to text]

6. It is also clearly untrue. A revival of Anabaptist thinking has been very good in this country, giving birth to our cherished First Amendment Freedoms (see generally, Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptists and Religious Liberty in the 16th Century, Phila: Fortress Press, 1970, and Franklin H. Littel, From State Church to Pluralism, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1962).). [return to text]

7. The situation in Philip Schaff's day (1892) is reflected in his bibliography, where he notes tersely, "The official reports are from their opponents. The books of the Anabaptists are scarce" (The History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1976, VIII:69). Verduin reminds us that it is no longer necessary (and therefore unjustified) to repeat the slander of the past:

      Until comparatively recent times men were obliged to speak of the Stepchildren in the idioms of their foes. Men could do little but repeat the ancient vilifications that had been part of the psychological warfare raging at the Second Front. By and large the primary sources in the matter, consisting of court records, correspondence, confessions, testimonials, etc., were tucked away in ancient archives. There was not much historians could do but repeat the old legends.
      All this has changed. During the past thirty years a vast array of the primary sources has been made available in print, accessible to all who have in interest in the matter. Enough is on hand now, in fact, to warrant the assumption that further bringing to light will not alter appreciably the outlines now already wholly clear.

(Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1964, p. 16)  [return to text]

8. As in The Anatomy of a Hybrid, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1976, pt. III, "The Birth of the Hybrid." As we shall come to observe, state-church union tends to institutionalize or standardize a comparatively low ("lowest common denominator") level of morality. [return to text]

9. John H. Yoder and Alan Kreider, "The Anabaptists," in Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1977, p. 402. [return to text]

10. R. B. Kuiper, The Church in History, Grand Rapids: The National Union of Christian Schools, Wm. B. Eerdman's Pub. Co., 1978, pp. 205-206. Cf. also Estep, p. 194. Some scholars will dispute Kuiper by referring to what is called "The Doctrine of the Two Crowns." There really was a separation of church and State, we are told, because although the Pope held the civil crown as well as the ecclesiastical crown, he held them separately. We are not impressed. [return to text]

11. Kevin Craig, "Social Apologetics," Christianity and Civilization -- Symposium: The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, James B. Jordan, ed., No. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 47-50.  [return to text]

12. Roland Bainton, The 16th Century Reformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952, p. 99. [return to text]

13. Schaff, VIII:70. [return to text]

14. It is the burden of our next volume to defend this position (subsequent dissertation on the State.).  [return to text]

15. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization Part VI, The Reformation, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, p. 6. [return to text]

16. William H. Maehl, "The Reformation," The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corp., 1968, p. 188. Verduin's remarks are cogent:

      The dissent against the medieval order was in 1517 already a millennium old and extremely widespread. Because it had been obliged to carry on under cover, so that conference between the dissidents was quite out of the question, it had gone in all directions. The "medieval underground," as it has been called, was unable to have its "town meetings" to discuss and then come to consensus; hence the endless variety. The Church called all its foes by one and the same name, "heretics," who "like the foxes of Samson, have diverse faces but are all tied together at the tail." The Church had no desire to differentiate between group and group; they were all guilty of one and the same sin, that of challenging her monopoly; and she vented her spleen on them indiscriminantly.
      This will go far to explain why the "Left-wing of the Reformation" or the "Radical Reformation," or whatever one wishes to call the camp that developed the Second Front, shows such bewildering diversity.b The Church had long had a sort of catch-all, a kind of wastebasket into which she thrust everything she didn't want; when the Reformation failed to satisfy there was again and at once the same multifariousness; Menno and Müntzer, Schwenkfeld and Servetus, and many more, all clubbed together under a single label.
      Fortunately for us, the record shows that there were treat polarities right within the camp of the "heretics," in the medieval times and also in the days of the Reformation. We find Menno Simons, for example, aiming his criticism quite as much at fellow "heretics" as at the Catholics and the Reformers. If we allow ourselves to be taught by these built-in polarities we can narrow down the are of our investigation; we can then perhaps arrive at some such thing as the typical Anabaptist" or the typical "Stepchild of the Reformers." If we allow ourselves to be guided by the recorded antagonisms we will be able, it is hoped, to arrive at a kind of standard, the typical man of the Second Front.

b. Even a cursory examination of "The Radical Reformation," as discussed by George H. Williams in his recent and monumental book by that title, will show what a motley crowd is covered by that name. Elements are included that have literally nothing in common except the fact that they were neither Catholics nor followers of the Reformation.

Verduin, Stepchildren, p. 15  [return to text]

17. Contra Kenneth Ronald Davis, Anabaptism and Asceticism, Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974. M'Glothlin counters the views of Ritschl (upon whom Davis relies) by noting that

several considerations militate against such a conclusion. (1) The Anabaptists themselves were not conscious of such connexion, regarding themselves as the spiritual children of a renewed study of the Bible. (2) All their leaders, so far as their lives are known, came out of the Catholic Church. (3) They had little or no communion with older sects after their rise. These considerations render it probable that they, like the sects of the Middle Ages, are the offspring of a renewed Bible study, and that the similarity is the result of independent Bible Study, under similar circumstances and controlling ideas. (Hasting's Encyclopedia, I:406.)

The similarities in the groups who opposed institutional corruption and politicization cannot be denied. But as we shall see, the Anabaptists were historically and theologically students of the Reformers. The differences between them are political, not theological. John H. Yoder, reviewing James M. Stayer's Anabaptism and the Sword (Lawrence, KA: Coronado Press, 1976) notes that he

indirectly but impressively sustains . . . a basic thesis of the in-group Mennonite historians (Harold Bender et al.), that the Anabaptists were indeed radical or consequent Protestants rather than medieval sectaries surviving in the Reformation era with only superficial relations to the essential doctrines of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. (Book Review, Journal of Church and State, XVI (1974), 320.)

In addition, the Reformers held many "Anabaptistic-Ascetic" views early in their careers, notably Luther and Zwingli. Similarities do not a blood-line make. But to attempt to slur the Anabaptists (as Reconstructionist Ray Sutton seems to attempt ["The Baptist Failure," Christianity & Civilization, James B. Jordan, ed., No. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 153-155]) by linking them to ascetic sects is more than futile; it is silly.  [return to text]

18. Gary Allen, None Dare Call it Conspiracy, Rossmoor, CA: Concord Press, 1972, pp. 28-30. Allen points out the the "middle-of-the-road" is actually a TIME Magazine-variety of Fabian (progressive) socialism, moving ever-leftward (toward increasing State power.) The traditional spectrum thus has an inherent collectivist bias. He suggests that a limited government constitutional republic, which he alleges the United States was at its inception, would be at the near-extreme right, next to Anarchism. Even the quasi-socialist George McGovern admits that the U.S. was "a free, libertarian society" (in Thomas Reeves and Karl Hess, The End of the Draft, NY: Random House, 1070, p. xiii). Yet on the traditional left-right/socialist-fascist spectrum there is no place at all for "Libertarians" such as Hess and Murray Rothbard. Historic libertarians, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, are also non-entities in this conception.

Of tremendous significance for the present study, if limited government theorists, or agitators for religious liberty (or even tolerance) would be (more correctly) classified on the "right" side of the political spectrum, then the Anabaptists, whose most important contribution is the separation of church and State, and who were persecuted for their critique of abuse of State power, should be placed on the right, although they are universally known as the "left-wing" of the Reformation! It is unfortunate that this point must be relegated to an end-note, as it deserves more lengthy exposition. [return to text]

19. in David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, rev. 3d ed., 1985, p. 453.  [return to text]

20. see generally, Journal of Christian Reconstruction "Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution," Vol. III, No. 1 (Summer 1976); a more idealistic interpretation is given in This Independent Republic, (1964) and The Nature of the American System (1965; both Nutley, NJ: Craig Press) (argues that the "American Revolution" was a defensive war to restore a feudal, non-political localism).  [return to text]

21. [Reagan on contras]  [return to text]

22. See generally, Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution New York: Schocken Books, 1958; Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, New York: Atheneum, 1968.  [return to text]

23. Many have suggested that theology (in the narrow sense) controls the movements of society, reducing all issues to considerations of, e.g., Justification. Certainly these theological issues are important (see generally Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity, Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1970); but as Rushdoony points out, while man's guilt may be the impetus to action, the action is best described in political terms (see also The Foundations of Social Order, Phila.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1968). Stayer admits that the Anabaptists "were only tangentially concerned with revolution and pacifism as theoretical issues. They were wrestling rather with the ethics of coercion. . ." (i.e., our relationship to the State). He notes that in this context, it is a mistake to see revolution and pacifism as opposites; pacifists (who refuse to cooperate with State violence) are, in the eyes of the State, revolutionary, potentially overthrowing the power of the State (Anabaptists and the Sword, p. 1). But he makes this very mistake when he calls the more radical Anabaptists "apolitical." Yoder rightly notes that abstention can be "a very threatening form of political involvement" and that Stayer's remarks presuppose the incorrectness of the Anabaptists' view of the State ("Revisited," p. 134). See also Walter Klaassen's criticism of failure to give the doctrine of the State (sword) and its socio-political implications their proper role ("The Nature of the Anabaptist Protest" Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLV (1971), p. 292 n.4). [return to text]

24. In this category we can find Proudhon, Hess, Rothbard, and others, who by no means advocate terrorism, violence, physical overthrow of the existing State; they in fact oppose such on philosophical grounds. We should also put Rushdoony in this category, as he advocates a great deal of decentralization, a non-political police, and transfer of nearly all State functions to private sectors. His view of church government is also quite limited in power and scope. This in spite of critics who pejoratively call him an advocate of "Theocracy." This in contrast to other Reconstructionists who advocate strong church governments (see chapter Xx, n. xx). [return to text]

25. There is no such thing as absolute anarchism, as every man has an arch, or first principle of law, even if it is himself. For the Christian, Christ is our arch (Colossians 1:18).  [return to text]

26. Robert Nisbet, "Cloaking the State's Dagger," Reason, XVI:5 (October, 1984) pp. 42-43.  [return to text]

27. John M. Frame, Book Review (Institutes of Biblical Law), Westminster Theological Journal 35:19x (1976).  [return to text]

28. The Politics of Guilt and Pity, Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1970, p. 229. Gary North dedicated his book Successful Investing in an Age of Envy to Rothbard (Sheridan IN: Steadman Press, 1981). [return to text]

29. Law and Society - Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. II, Vallecito, CA: 1982, p. 369. Institutes of Biblical Law, Nutley NJ: The Craig Press, 1973, p. 289 is not contra. [return to text]

30. Unless a parishioner becomes favorably interested in them!  [return to text]

31. Estep, p. 15: [return to text]

Anabaptists, Inspirationists, and Rationalists

Failure to distinguish between the Anabaptists, inspirationists, and rationalists has led to gross misunderstanding of the entire Radical Reformation.       Anabaptism had much in common with both of the other groups, but that does not mean that there were no deep and irreconcilable differences. All three of the groups composed elements in what has been termed the "Radical Reformation." They were all antipedobaptists, but at this point the comparison ceases.
      One major line of demarcation which differentiates the radicals from one another is the attitude toward authority in the Christian life. For the Anabaptists the authority was the New Testament. The Anabaptists were biblicists, as Bender has well demonstrated. Every Anabaptists confession from Hübmaier to Ries abounds with Scripture references. The appeal to authority is clearly that of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin alike -- the Bible.
      For the inspirationists, the Spirit too precedence over the Bible. Thus the immediate illumination of the Spirit became the norm for the inspirationist's program of reform. The Zwickau prophets, Nicolaus Storch and Thomas Müntzer, claimed special revelation, as did later inspirationists.        The inspirationists were not primarily concerned with the visible church. With the Anabaptists, they shared antipathy to reformation by civil authority or by the pope. They did not, however, share the Anabaptists' emphasis on restoration of the New Testament church or believer's baptism.
      The rationalists, as the term implies, put primary emphasis on the place of reason in interpreting the Scriptures. For the most part the evangelical rationalists were anti-Trinitarian, but they were anti-Trinitarian because they were rationalists and not the reverse. Reason, therefore, and not Scripture or special revelation became for them the source of ultimate authority.     Such disparate leaders as Michael Servetus, Juan de Valdés, Sebastian Castellio, George Biandrata, and Faustus Socinus are to be listed in this category.

Genuine similarities between Anabaptists and, e.g., Inspirationists, lead to enough theories of identity or derivation; some similarities are concocted from ordinary Scriptural beliefs held by the Anabaptist

The chief qualification for correct interpretation of the Scripture was the illumination of the Holy Spirit -- a doctrine which was strongly emphasized. It was charged that they claimed to have revelations and visions which they regarded as more important than Scripture; but this charge was probably an exaggeration of their real belief in the fact and importance of Spiritual illumination. (M'Glothlin, p. 410.)

The term "Anabaptist," as it is used by Reformed and Reconstructionist writers, should be divided up, with evangelicals taking the term "Anabaptists" and others being more specifically identified. The diagram below represents a crude attempt to do so. It is not intended to be taken very technically.









Only a three-dimensional diagram could be accurate; any one of these groups could be located in the center circle; they all interacted. But interaction does not equal identity.

By way of synopsis, this study reserves the term "Anabaptist" for three general groups of evangelical Christians[1]:

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] Among nineteenth-century historians this might be excused, as primary source materials were not generally available.[7] 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."[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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."[12] "It involved an entire reconstruction of the Church and of the social order."[13] "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.[14]

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."[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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?[18] 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."[19]. Rushdoony speaks of the American Revolution as a "conservative counter-revolution."[20] President Reagan has equated the Contra revolutionaries in Nicaragua as modern-day counterparts to the American Revolutionaries.[21] The Puritans have had an exciting partnership with revolution.[22].

The best way to discuss ideological groups is in terms of their view of the State.[23] At one end of the scale can be found those who advocate a State-less society: decentralized power, localism, familism, or anarchism.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]. An extremist unfamiliar with Rushdoony's overall philosophy might notice him favorably referring to the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard[28] and to the anarcho-socialist Karl Hess[29] 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.[30]. 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.[31] 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."