We know the heirs of the communities that were formed as part of the “Radical Reformation”, or “Anabaptists”, as “Mennonite” and “Amish”. While these communities, while visible, have had relatively little influence in either doctrine or culture, some of their ideas are with us today.
The term “Anabaptist” owes its origins to Zwingli (the word literally means “re-baptizers”), and refers to what was perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Anabaptist practice – the insistence that only those who had made a personal public profession of faith should be baptized. Anabaptism seems to have first arisen around Zurich, in the aftermath of Zwingli’s reforms within the city in the early 1520s. It centered on a group of individuals (among whom we may note Conrad Grebel, c.1498–1526) who argued that Zwingli was not being faithful to his own reforming principles … [that] he preached one thing and practiced another.
Although Zwingli professed faithfulness to the sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) principle, Grebel argued that he retained a number of practices – including infant baptism, the close link between church and magistracy, and the participation of Christians in warfare – which were not sanctioned or ordained by Scripture. In the hands of such radical thinkers, the sola scriptura principle became radicalized: reformed Christians came to believe and practice only those things explicitly taught in Scripture. Zwingli was alarmed by this, seeing it as a destabilizing development which threatened to cut off the Reformed church at Zurich from its historical roots and its continuity with the Christian tradition of the past.
The Anabaptists had good reason to accuse Zwingli of compromise. In 1522, Zwingli wrote a work known as Apologeticus Archeteles, in which he recognized the idea of a “community of goods” as an authentic Christian ideal. “No-one calls any possessions his own,” he wrote, “all things are held in common.” But by 1525, Zwingli had changed his mind and come round to the idea that private property was not such a bad thing, after all.
Although Anabaptism arose in Germany and Switzerland, it subsequently became influential in other regions, such as the Lowlands. The movement produced relatively few theologians – the three most significant are generally agreed to be Balthasar Hubmaier (c.1480–1528), Pilgram Marbeck (died 1556), and Menno Simons (1496–1561 [whose name the “Mennonites” bear today]). This failure partly reflects the forcible suppression of Anabaptism by the secular authorities.
Yet it may also reflect the fact that the movement did not have any substantial common theological basis. A number of common elements can be discerned within the various strands of the movement: a general distrust of external authority, the rejection of infant baptism in favor of the baptism of adult believers, the common ownership of property, and an emphasis upon pacifism and non-resistance.
To take up one of these points: in 1527, the governments of the cities of Zurich, Berne, and St Gallen accused the Anabaptists of believing “that no true Christian can either give or receive interest or income on a sum of capital; that all temporal goods are free and common, and that all can have full property rights to them.” It is for this reason that “Anabaptism” is often referred to as the “left wing of the Reformation” (Roland H. Bainton) or the “radical Reformation” (George Hunston Williams).
For Williams, the “radical Reformation” was to be contrasted with the “magisterial Reformation,” which he broadly identified with the Lutheran and Reformed movements. These terms are increasingly being accepted within Reformation scholarship, and the reader is likely to encounter them in his or her reading of more recent studies of the movement [emphasis added].
Probably the most significant document to emerge from the movement is the Schleitheim Confession, drawn up by Michael Sattler (1490–1527) on 24 February 1527. The Confession takes its name from the small town of that name in the canton of Schaffhausen. Its function was to distinguish Anabaptists from those around them – supremely from what the document refers to as “papists and antipapists” (that is, unreformed Catholics and magisterial evangelicals).
In effect, the Schleitheim Confession amounts to “articles of separation” – that is to say, a set of beliefs and attitudes which distinguish Anabaptists from their opponents inside and outside the Reformation, and function as a core of unity, whatever their other differences might be.
McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 9-10). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
As a movement, the Anabaptists did not have the intellectual heft to have much of a lasting influence. Their doctrine of “believer’s baptism” is very much alive today. But unlike the “Magisterial Reformers”, whose “doctrinal intention … was confessional orthodoxy, [and] its academic motivation was certainly intellectual adequacy”, the Anabaptists stressed behaviors and lifestyle, in ways that had neither solid intellectual underpinnings nor a broad popular appeal.