Who are the Anabaptists?

by Luke Wayne
4/25/16

The Anabaptists are a somewhat diverse group of religious movements tracing their origin, directly or indirectly, back to the radical reformers of the Swiss reformation that began in Zurich in the early 16th century, though they claim their beliefs and practices closely reflect those practiced by the earliest Christians and are taught in the New Testament. Today they most notably include the Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite, and Brethren communities, though there are numerous offshoots, sub-groups, and smaller independent factions that also fall under the Anabaptist banner. Among the primary distinctive doctrines of all Anabaptist groups are adult baptism, abstaining from all physical violence or use of force, abstaining from all oaths or vows, and separation from the world in distinct and interdependent religious community. These distinctives are expressed differently among the various Anabaptist groups, but are nearly universally held in one form or another. There is a tendency among many Anabaptist sects toward works-righteousness, and many growing up in more conservative and Old Order communities often have only a cultural commitment to their way of life with a very shallow understanding of their supposed faith. Conversely, many liberal churches who have entirely abandoned the gospel and biblical morality profess themselves to be Anabaptists. There are also, however, many solid, gospel-centered and bible believing churches among the Anabaptists who are quite rich in true Christian faith.

A Brief History and Assessment

Around the same time that the reformation led by Martin Luther in Germany was coming into swing, another similar but distinct reformation began in Zurich, Switzerland primarily under the leadership of a scholar named Ulrich Zwingli.1 Zwingli was the priest and preacher of Zurich, and prepared the hearts of the people by preaching verse by verse through the Gospel of Matthew,2 announcing a plan to preach through the whole New Testament over the course of four years.3 He also gathered to himself a group of educated students to study classic literature in the original languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and then turned these studies toward the scriptures and raised up from them many zealous and knowledgeable reformers who together began to lead the city of Zurich and its church and leaders toward a biblically driven reformation.4 He began over the next several years to engage in methodical reforms of doctrine and practice through his systematic teaching of the scriptures.5 In 1523, he and his associates began meeting the inevitable opposition head on by hosting public debates, or "disputations", before the city council, all the clergy of the city, and numerous others. They insisted the debates be in the German language so that all could understand what was said.6 By publically defeating various Roman Catholic scholars and clergy in debate before all, Zwingli was able to bring the leadership of Zurich further in line with his views and move the reformation forward.7

Several of Zwingli's students felt not only that his methods were too slow but also that his views were too compromising.8 To them, the errors of the day called for swift repentance rather than gradual reform. As the division between they and Zwingli grew, they began to study the scriptures as a separate group, meeting in homes.9 These studies of the New Testament led them to the conviction that infant baptism was unbiblical, and in 1525 this small band of men were rebaptized as a conscious act of faith and repentance. This represented the final break between Zwingli's reformed church and the radicals who would first come to be known as the Anabaptists.10 Both evangelistic fervor and violent persecution would cause them to spread across Europe, which would lead to the birth of other related but distinct movements.

It must be remembered that, while the Anabaptist movement would often have its greatest appeal among the working class and peasantry, these first Anabaptists were educated biblical scholars. In fact, it was the Anabaptists that produced the first protestant translation of the Old Testament prophets from the original Hebrew in 1527, only two years after the movement began and five years before Luther would produce his translation of the same books.11 It is also only fair to note that, contrary to popular accusation, they did not teach that baptism was necessary for salvation12 or a gospel of works righteousness.13 The earliest Anabaptists took the word seriously and were faithful to the true, biblical gospel of grace alone through faith alone. This is true of many Anabaptists down to today. Their devotion to discipleship, holiness, and strict church discipline and their strong repudiation of infant baptism led to many misunderstandings by their opponents, but by-and-large they appear to have been true and faithful believers who were often martyred for their faith.

This does not mean, however, that every group that rose out of the Anabaptist movement or that bears that name today has been similarly studious in their approach to the word or equally faithful to the gospel. Sadly, many have not. Many Amish sects, for example, believe that in addition to faith in Christ one must also be baptized and consistently obedient to a variety of authorities, ordinances, and regulations to be saved.14 The Hutterites, a particularly radical early offshoot of the Anabaptists that repudiate private property and live on communal farms, claim that their colony is like Noah's ark: those inside will be saved, those outside will perish.15 As one Hutterite put it, "Community life is the only way to heaven."16 So while the Anabaptist movement began as a Christian movement within the protestant reformation, many Anabaptist groups today are sub-Christian cults whose members are in desperate need of the gospel. The Anabaptist emphasis on community and non-violence has also been appealing to the liberal "social justice" movement, and so many liberal "churches" who have abandoned biblical morality and replaced the biblical gospel with liberal social activism have erroneously co-opted the "Anabaptist" name. Because of these things, a large number of professing Anabaptist groups are dangerous deviations from true Christianity and stand in desperate need of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • 1. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 11-12
  • 2. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church - Volume 8 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 38
  • 3. ibid, 38
  • 4. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 12
  • 5. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church - Volume 8 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 46-51
  • 6. ibid, 53
  • 7. ibid, 53-57
  • 8. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 15-18
  • 9. ibid, 19
  • 10. ibid, 19-20
  • 11. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church - Volume 8 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 73-74
  • 12. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 201-202
  • 13. ibid, 196-199
  • 14. Joe Keim, The Amish: Our Friends, but are they Believers? (Mission to Amish People, 2000) 56-70
  • 15. Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) 130
  • 16. ibid, 52