Anabaptists: the Real Heroes of the Reformation

Five hundred years after Martin Luther posted his 95 proposed topics for public debate regarding Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, this audacious act is generally regarded as the opening salvo in the Protestant Reformation. In spite of Luther’s fame, in fact, there had been other challenges to Catholic Church dogma and actions for several years around Europe.

One watchword of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s was “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “Scripture alone.” It promoted the Bible as the sole authoritative source of theological truth. This avowal was in stark contrast to what had been long-claimed by the Roman Catholic Church as the bases for its doctrines: Church tradition, decrees of councils and papal declarations, oh, and the Bible (with the apocrypha inserted) as well, last and least important of all.

Martin Luther strongly advocated a “Bible alone” position in his finest hour — his appearance, really his trial, for heresy, before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. In response to a demand that he renounce his own writings, he boldly declared,

I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other.  Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning,–unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted–and unless they render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.

Had Luther been more consistent in practice with what he professed in theory at Worms, he would have left a greater legacy with far fewer warts.

How did the Sola Scriptura view arise, or rather, how was it reclaimed as the heritage of Christians? When Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first document he published was the Bible — in Latin. The Bible of Roman Catholic Church was very much a closed book to the great majority of contemporary Europeans, who were either illiterate, knew no Latin, or owned no Bible. The printing of the Bible in the original languages was slow in coming — the Hebrew Old Testament was first printed in 1488, while the Greek New Testament was first published in 1516, more as a commercial venture by the printer Froben of Basle, than out of zeal for Divine truth.

The availability of the original language texts sparked intense widespread interest in studying the Scriptures firsthand, which often meant learning the Greek and Hebrew languages, necessary tools for that study. And studying the Bible directly for oneself immediately exposed the gross and frequent departures of Catholicism from the plain teaching of the Bible. It soon became apparent that one must follow either the Church or the Bible, because one could not follow both. A flurry of modern language Bible translations appeared in short order, enabling the common people to hear and read for themselves God’s written revelation in their own native languages, and freed them from slavish dependence on the priests for what little knowledge of Scripture they might be allowed.

The Reformers collectively adhered, to a large degree, to Sola Scriptura on the matter of salvation by grace through faith alone, apart from human works or merits. But on a great many other doctrines and practices, they failed to abandon the unbiblical ages-long errors of medieval Romanism and practices which had no basis in Scripture. Of the major Reformers, Luther departed the least from the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and Zwingli probably the most, with the Anglicans and Calvin somewhere in between. All of them kept a great deal of the theological and practical baggage of the medieval Catholic Church, including infant baptism, union of church and state, persecution of dissent (Luther approved of the execution of heretics, and Calvin personally sanctioned the burning of Michael Servetus, while also acquiescing in the drowning of dozens of Anabaptist parents for refusing to baptize their infants; Zwingli actively persecuted Anabaptists), an ecclesiastical hierarchy, an Augustinian view of predestination, and amillennialism.

The name “Anabaptist” — literally re-baptizer — was an accusatory term pinned on those scattered and diverse people who concluded, based on a close examination of the Bible, that true Christian — Biblical — baptism can only occur after an individual personally exercises faith in Christ, and that therefore no infant baptism was valid.

Anabaptists arose more or less spontaneously in various locations in Europe throughout the 16th century — Switzerland and south Germany (among the followers of Zwingli), Moravia, north Germany and the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and even Romania. A common consistent commitment to the Bible as the sole source of Divine truth led them, though widely scattered geographically, toward converging and common theological views. While there were some lunatic-fringers among professing Anabaptists (chiefly the Munsterites of 1535) as there are among self-identified Baptists today, the great majority were of a serious type who sought only to follow the teachings of Christ and the Apostles as closely as possible, without any addition of human tradition.

Not a few of the leaders of the various Anabaptists groups were highly educated men, including university graduates and former Catholic priests. The knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin was not rare among them. By way of example, it is notable that Anabaptist scholars Ludwig Haetzer and Johann Denck first translated the OT prophets from Hebrew into German in 1527. Luther’s translation of the same, first appearing seven years later in 1534, made large use of their work.

The Anabaptists individually and collectively left relatively little in writing with regard to their beliefs and practices or recording their history. Balthasar Hubmaier was the single most voluminous Anabaptist writer, and is acknowledged as being as learned a scholar as existed in Europe at the time. The reasons for this are not far to seek, since the Anabaptists were regularly harried and harassed by both Reformers and Catholics, lived commonly as exiles, were often in prisons, and frequently sealed their faith with their blood. An estimated 80% of the martyrs in England under the brief reign of bloody Mary I (1553-1558) were Anabaptists. As many as 300 Anabaptists were judicially murdered in one location on a single day. Rare was the Anabaptist leader who enjoyed an extended ministry of as much as a decade, and ministries lasting a year or two, or even just months, were commonplace. Short and immensely busy ministries left little time for writing. Then again, there was no centralized body or denomination to preserve and propagate Anabaptist views and writings, in contrast to, say, Luther or Calvin. And their adversaries among both Protestants and Catholics were quick to commit any and all Anabaptist writings to the flames, as well being prone to grossly misrepresenting Anabaptist views and actions in their own writings, presenting them in the worst possible light.

Few Anabaptists are widely known today — perhaps only Menno Simons, and maybe Balthasar Hubmaier. But the list of devout, faithful, fervent men who labored diligently, blazed brightly, and suffered mightily for their sincere adherence to the Bible alone is lengthy. Time prevents us from speaking in detail of Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, Felix Manz, Michael Sattler, Hans Hut, Jacob Hutter, Pilgram Marpeck, Wilhelm Reublin, Peter Riedemann, Hans Denck and others, many now known only to God, who lived, labored, and all too often died for their fervent commitment to the Bible as their solitary guide.

The Anabaptists established precedent for most distinctive present-day Baptist principles, including the Bible alone as the source of theological truth, believer’s baptism (though pouring, along with immersion, was commonly practiced by them), separation of church and state, soul liberty, freedom from persecution, regenerate church membership, local church autonomy, and congregational church government. It must not be forgotten that the Reformers and their theological heirs, including the Puritans of New England, formed government-supported state churches, and frequently invoked the civil authorities to persecute, even to death, those who believed in liberty of conscience. And during the 16th century, it was the Anabaptists, not the Reformers, who displayed a fervent missionary spirit as they sought to literally fulfill the command of Christ in Matthew 28:18-20. (It must also be noted, in contrast, that in some matters the general, but not uniformly held, beliefs of Anabaptists diverged from common Baptist views today, notably in pacifism, refusal to take oaths, and non-participation in government.)

The issue of direct lineal descent of 17th century English Baptists (and subsequently modern Baptists) from 16th century Anabaptists is a disputed matter, much debated by historians, but there is no doubt of a spiritual kinship. Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson matter-of-factly declared, “Give a man an open Bible, an open mind, and a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time not being a Baptist.” We, too, like the Anabaptists, profess “Sola Scriptura” and we genuinely strive to adhere to that principle.