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Definition: Anabaptist from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1532) : a Protestant sectarian of a radical movement arising in the 16th century and advocating the baptism and church membership of adult believers only, nonresistance, and the separation of church and state

Anabaptist adj

Summary Article: Anabaptists
From The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

The expression “Anabaptists” originated in the 16th century as a derogatory term identifying “rebaptizers” who invalidated the rite of infant baptism. They were severely belittled by their Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed contemporaries as seditious and “fanatical,” and scholars since the 1960s still commonly classify Anabaptists and antisacramental “Spiritualists” (Sebastian Francke) as the “Radical Reformation” in distinction to a Protestant mainstream. Recent research emphasizes the complexity of their origins and cautions against popular characterizations, such as that all Anabaptists were descendants of pacifist rebaptizers. A millenarian group in Germany under Hans Hut actually had roots in the more militant and revolutionary dissent of Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, while a Dutch community inspired by the apocalyptic spiritualism of Melchior Hoffman reconstructed a polygamous theocracy and eventually brought tragedy upon the German city of Münster in the 1530s.

An important nucleus of pacifist Anabaptism had its beginnings in Zurich in the 1520s. While agreeing that Eucharistic theology and liturgy needed reforming according to the simple pattern of the New Testament, leaders of the emerging movement seceded from Zwingli, desiring ecclesiastical autonomy from the temporal government. These were the earliest pioneers of religious disestablishment in the early modern period. After retracting his own objections to infant baptism, Zwingli along with Swiss “radicals” held a public disputation in Zurich in 1525. In that same month, at a small gathering in the home of Felix Mainz, George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him. Persecution of Donatists under ancient Christian Roman rulers provided Charles V with imperial precedent against sectarian baptizers. Trials, burnings and drownings by Catholic and Protestant authorities are recounted in the Martyrs mirror (1660). Michael Sattler, one of the more famous of the Swiss Brethren martyrs, drafted the “Schleitheim Articles” (1527) distinguishing features shared by many Anabaptists. These include adult believers' baptism, congregationalism, discipline by the “ban,” separation from social and cultural “evils,” refusal to swear oaths, and pacifism. Balthasar Hubmaier uncommonly approved of lay Christians holding civil offices.

Anabaptist communities scattered throughout the Empire into Moravia, where Hutterites (after Jakob Hutter) developed isolated communes, and the Low Countries, eventually experiencing greatest liberty in North America. One of the larger Anabaptist communities in the world today is descended from Menno Simons (1496-1561), from whom the “Mennonites” derive their name. Simons shepherded refugees of the Münster calamity into peaceful communities united by believers' baptism. For Simons, as for many other Anabaptists, religious establishment had corrupted the primitive church. Baptism and ecclesiastical membership are only proper for persons who can attest to experiencing regeneration and who voluntarily seek Christian discipleship. Although significant contact was established with English nonconformist émigrés in Holland, it is questionable to what degree Baptists were directly influenced by the Mennonites. A confession unifying Mennonites was drafted in Dordrecht in 1632.

Map 6 The Radical Reformation, 16th century

Anabaptists have experienced many internal tensions and divisions. The Amish (after Jakob Ammann) split from the Mennonites in the 17th century to preserve “shunning” of unrepentant members and to avoid religious and cultural conformity. In the 19th and 20th centuries Amish, Mennonite, and pietist Brethren of the “Old Order” refused to assimilate forms of modernity, including automobiles, higher education, urban life and professions, Protestant revival methods, and modern fashion. Despite their differences, Anabaptists share the core values of Christian discipleship and simple devotion to the Bible, and many have taken this into the realm of global missions and social outreach.

SEE ALSO: Amish; Hoffman (or Hoffmann), Melchior (1495?-1543); Hutter, Jacob and the Hutterites; Mennonite Churches; Simons, Menno

  • Schreiber, W. I. (1962). Our Amish neighbors. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Christian History (2004). Christian History and Biography, issue 84 (Fall).
  • Estep, W. R. (1996). The Anabaptist story: An introduction to sixteenth-century Anabaptism, 3rd edn. Eerdmans Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Lindberg, C. (1996). The sheep against the shepherds: The Radical Reformations. In Lindberg, C. , The European Reformations. Blackwell Oxford, pp. 199-228.
  • Van Braght, T. J. (2001). Martyrs mirror (trans. Sohm, J. F. ). 2nd repr. edn. Herald Press Scottsdale, PA.
  • Williams, G.; Mergal, A. M. (eds.) (1957). Spiritual and Anabaptist writers: Documents illustrative of the Radical Reformation. Westminster Press Philadelphia.
  • Williams, G. H. (1992). The Radical Reforma-tion, 3rd edn. Sixteenth Century Journal Kirksville, MO.
  • Michael Whiting
    Wiley ©2012

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