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 Definition of Anabaptism
 Anabaptism and Anabaptists
 Anabaptism and Radical Dissent
 Anabaptism and the Reformation


After summarizing the perception of what Anabaptism was after the revision carried out by Harold S. Bender and others, Robert Friedmann asserts in volume 1 of the Mennonite Encyclopedia that Anabaptists were "nearer to the spirit of Christ's exemplary life and teaching..." than were Protestants, Schwärmer ("enthusiasts"), and millennialists, and that Bender's "Anabaptist vision" might supply "delineation of the idea of evangelical Anabaptism." This had, in fact, already happened by the time Friedmann wrote. "Evangelical Anabaptism" was identified by insistence on discipleship as the essence of Christianity, on the church as a brotherhood, and on an ethic of love and nonresistance. This became the normative description of Anabaptism. In this view, evangelical Anabaptism arose with the Swiss Brethren, and by transmission became part of Netherlands Anabaptism and of the Hutterites. Thus was Anabaptism given unity and clearly distinguished from Catholicism, from Protestantism, and from other 16th-century dissenting groups.

A revision of this portrayal began around 1960. Heinold Fast warned in a 1967 article that the Mennonite revision of four centuries of negative historiography was too tidy, too ideal, and that reaction would come. Indeed, reaction was already under way as part of a major shift in Reformation studies from systematic theology to history of ideas and from confessional history to social history. This shift strongly modified the traditional confessional (Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, Mennonite, etc.) orientation and opened the door to consideration of the dialectic between social and political developments, on the one hand, and the development of theological positions in the various reinterpretations of Christian faith, on the other. For Anabaptist studies it meant the entry into the field of a number of non-Mennonite historians who studied Anabaptism not as the ancestral movement of the 20th-century church communion, but as part of the general history of western Europe in the 16th century. It produced a new picture of Anabaptism not only socially but also in theology.

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Definition of Anabaptism

The word Anabaptism is normally used today to denote the mosaic of groupings of dissenters without at the same time making claims to uniformity. In his 1972 work Anabaptists and the Sword, James M. Stayer used the term with great care in order to avoid giving the impression that he was writing about a single unified movement across Europe. He wrote about Anabaptists and defined them as those who rebaptized persons already baptized in infancy. Walter Klaassen had already used this definition in his Oxford dissertation in 1960. Calvin Pater (1984) broadened the definition by including those who, before 1525, rejected the baptism of infants, but this is perhaps too broad to be useful. These definitions were meant to avoid such confessional definitions as "evangelical Anabaptism." Thus, all those rebaptizers who have in the past been classified as Schwärmer (Melchior Hoffman), spiritualists (Hans Denck), and revolutionaries (the Münsterites) are now considered to be genuine Anabaptists.

Despite the variety of viewpoints among 16th-century Anabaptists, despite important differences of nuance even where Anabaptists appear to be similar, one may hazard to identify some themes held in common following the crystallization of the movement between 1527 and 1540. (1) All shared a basically synergistic view of salvation (human and divine "cooperation"). Justification was seen as progression in holiness; the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount was the guide to it. (2) Baptism was considered to be the sign of lay emancipation from clerical control and the spiritual enfranchisement of lay people (priesthood of all believers). (3) Anabaptists developed a Gemeindechristentum centered on the congregation, in contrast to the clericalized territorial churches, both Catholic and Protestant.

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Anabaptism and Anabaptists

However, the open definition of Anabaptist now in use emphatically does not imply uniformity. Anabaptism was pluralistic. Claus-Peter Clasen identified six major groupings often hostile to each other, and then cited contemporary literature to show that there were actually many more (1972). The 1975 article "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis," by James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, has become the accepted statement on Anabaptist plurality. The essay disputed the older view that Anabaptism had its origins solely in Zurich, and that Swiss Brethren Anabaptism was transmitted to South Germany and Austria and to the Netherlands and North Germany, where it developed into the Hutterian and Mennonite branches respectively. The authors showed that each of the three in fact had a distinctive character and therefore a distinct source. For South German-Austrian Anabaptism it was a diluted form of Rhineland mysticism (Packull, 1977). Social unrest and the apocalyptic visions of Melchior Hoffman put their stamp on Netherlands Anabaptism (Deppermann, 1979; 1987). Swiss Anabaptism arose out of Reformed congregationalism (Stayer, 1975).

Numerous individual studies demonstrating links and relationships between Anabaptists have gradually led to the abandonment of the Schleitheim Confession as a norm for all "true" Anabaptists. As long ago as 1956 Frank J. Wray showed that Pilgram Marpeck had borrowed the bulk of his Vermanung (1542) from the despised Münster theologian Bernhard Rothmann's Bekenntnisse of 1533. Quite as surprising was the demonstration that Melchior Hoffman's commentary on the Apocalypse (1530) was used by the Hutterites soon after Hoffman wrote it, but without acknowledgement of authorship (Packull, 1982).

David Joris had for long been a pariah, especially for North American Mennonite historians, and was condemned by relative inattention. Two major dissertations have shown Joris to have been the most important Anabaptist leader in the Netherlands before 1540, even more so than Menno Simons (Zijlstra, 1983; Waite, 1986). He was an influential figure in Anabaptism's consolidation period following the fall of Münster.

Most significant is the integrative rewriting of the history of Anabaptism in the Netherlands. Melchior Hoffman is acknowledged as its progenitor, as the person who gave the movement its basic apocalyptic stamp. The differences that appear along the "peaceful" to "revolutionary" spectrum can be accounted for by differing nuances in the era's widespread apocalyptic expectation (Klaassen, 1986). A clear line stretches from Hoffman to Rothmann, Menno Simons, and David Joris on apocalyptic anticipation. Very similar formulations of apocalyptic views on secular government and on the incarnation are found in Hoffman, Rothmann, and Menno Simons (Voolstra, 1982; Stayer, 1972, 1978, 1986). The work of these scholars has therefore shown that in some important respects there was a single movement from Hoffman to Menno.

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Anabaptism and Radical Dissent

George H. Williams' massive volume, The Radical Reformation (1962), presented for the first time a comprehensive portrayal of radical dissent in the 16th century. Moving across his stage are the whole cast of characters, from Andreas Karlstadt (Carlstadt) and the Zwickau Prophets through Conrad Grebel and the St. Gall fanatics, Hans Hut and Jacob Hutter, Menno Simons and the Batenburgers, to Michael Servetus and Faustus Socinus, with all the intricate linkages between them.

Clear links between Thomas Müntzer and Hans Hut had been established by Grete Mecenseffy (1956) and Walter Klaassen (1960, 1962), but the most important study on this relationship was done by Gottfried Seebaß (1972). His work and the work of Werner Packull (1977) established beyond question the formative influence of Thomas Müntzer on South German Anabaptism, both in its mysticism and its apocalyptic cast. By means of the thesis that mystical theology was a theology of dissent in the 16th century, Steven Ozment linked the Anabaptists Hans Denck and Hans Hut with Müntzer, Sebastian Franck, and others. The central thrust of this mysticism was that ultimately God could communicate his will to men and women directly in disregard of ecclesiastical channels, a kind of democratization of revelation. Later Calvin Pater (1984) convincingly showed that Andreas Karlstadt significantly influenced Swiss Anabaptism. Versions of Karlstadt's view and use of Scripture, his doctrine of the church, and his views on baptism, all found their way into Anabaptism.

Building on earlier work, Hans-Jürgen Goertz (1980) offered the first extended discussion of the thesis that anticlericalism was a prime motive for dissent, and that this factor provided close links between Anabaptism and other movements of the "common man," such as the peasant uprisings of 1524-26, also extensively motivated by anticlericalism. Among Anabaptists this expressed itself in contrasts between the Good Shepherd and the self-indulgent clergy, the simple reading of Scripture and its use as a means of oppression, and the improvement of life and the fruitless life of the new Protestant teachers of justification by faith alone. Other expressions of anticlericalism were the involvement of the Zürich radicals in opposition to tithes and the demand for congregational autonomy. Both central issues for peasants have been clearly documented by Haas (1975) and Stayer (1975A). Werner Packull (1985) and Arnold Snyder (1984, 1985) have provided further evidence for these links.

Finally, the relationship of Anabaptists to Caspar Schwenckfeld has also been extensively studied in recent years. Neal Blough's work on Pilgram Marpeck (1984) demonstrates dependence of Marpeck on Schwenckfeld especially relating to their understanding of the Incarnation. A complex set of relationships of Schwenckfeld with Melchior Hoffman and Pilgram Marpeck was described by R. Emmet Mc Laughlin? (1985). The lure of Schwenckfeld's spiritualism for South German Anabaptists was clearly shown by George H. Williams in his Radical Reformation. Anabaptists and Schwenckfeld agreed on many important issues (Klaassen, 1986).

Anabaptists must now therefore be seen as an integral part of the larger phenomenon of religious and social dissent in 16th-century Europe from the Zwickau Prophets to Sebastian Castellio.

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Anabaptism and the Reformation

Anabaptism arose out of the religious and social ferment of the Reformation period. That Anabaptists everywhere should have been influenced in numerous ways by the Reformers, is established. That they were the most consistent Protestants carrying the reforms of Luther and Zwingli to their logical conclusion as earlier Mennonite interpreters such as Cornelius H. Wedel and John Horsch held, is a view that can no longer be sustained. For Anabaptists differed with the major Reformers both on the principles of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), and even more radically on sola fidei (by faith alone). Because of their profound concern for ethics, they adopted variants of a synergistic soteriology which bore resemblance to some late medieval views. But there was also ambivalence among Anabaptists as to whether they were reformist or restitutionist (Wray, 1954; Meihuizen, 1970). As Hans J. Hillerbrand (1971) pointed out, restitutionists have great difficulty dealing with recent history. This point has also been made by Dennis Martin (1987), who argued that restitutionists, in contrast to reformers, can really build no lasting traditions since their revolt against a corrupt immediate past makes them suspicious even of any new institutions or traditions they may establish.

Finally, the question as to whether Anabaptism was medieval or modern has been vigorously debated. The link of Anabaptism to mysticism, its synergistic soteriology, and its version of imitatio Christi, all point to pre-Reformation forms of piety (Ozment, 1972; Davis, 1974; Packull, 1977). Alternatively, it has been argued that Anabaptism was the true harbinger of modernity in its emphasis on voluntarism, toleration, and pluralism in religion (Bender, 1955, Zeman, 1976). The early Swiss Brethren, claimed Fritz Blanke, were a vanguard striving toward a new dawn (Blanke, 1961). A carefully nuanced statement on this subject describes social tendencies in Anabaptism that moved in the direction of modernity (Goertz, 1985).

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See also Christology; History, Theology of; Mennonites.

Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 23-26. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.

Written 1990 by W Klaa?, Revised 1998 by JDS & CCA, Original Page created 1998 by JDS & CCA, ©1996-2003 by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. All rights reserved.

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