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Related to Anabaptists: John Calvin, Amish, Mennonites


Anabaptists (ănˌəbăpˈtĭsts) [Gr.,=rebaptizers], name applied, originally in scorn, to certain Protestant sects holding that infant baptism is not authorized in Scripture and that baptism should be administered to believers only. A convert if baptized in infancy must be baptized again as an adult (Anabaptists did not consider adult baptism to be a repetition, as their critics charged, since infant baptisms were annulled).

Anabaptists were prominent in Europe during the 16th cent., forming part of the “radical” wing of the Reformation; they were harshly condemned and persecuted under Protestants and Catholics alike. Their principal centers were in Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. They baptized converts for the first time near Zürich in 1525 in protest over the city council's decree ordering the baptism of all unbaptized children. These Swiss Brethren, as they were called, separated themselves from the control of the state church established by Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich (and developed in other centers of the Reformation). Thus they became the first to practice the complete separation of church and state.

They modeled their new church after the Christian community of apostolic times, depicted as a free gathering of convinced believers dedicated to leading the saintly life in strict accord with Scripture. Other factors contributing to the development and spread of Anabaptism include the peasant movement (see Peasants' War) and the revolutionary rhetoric of Thomas Münzer, late medieval mysticism and asceticism, and the writings of Andreas Carlstadt and Martin Luther (whose reforms the Anabaptists felt went only halfway).

Although they were never united either politically or doctrinally, three distinct subgroups of Anabaptists can be discerned. The revolutionary Anabaptists, represented by the short-lived theocracy established at Münster (c.1534–35), sought to bring about the New Jerusalem predicted in Scripture using force. Anabaptism is more often associated with the evangelical Anabaptists who were avowed pacifists (the “ban” replaced the sword). The Schleitheim Confession (1527) is a principle statement of their beliefs. They are exemplified by the communitarian followers of Jacob Hutter (see Hutterian Brethren) and Menno Simons (see Mennonites). Finally there are contemplative Anabaptists like Hans Denck (c.1500–1527). Denck submitted to adult baptism but believed the presence of the inner Word in believers precluded any visible organization of the Christian life.


See studies by G. H. Williams (1962), C. P. Clasen (1972), K. P. Davis (1974), and J. D. Weaver (1987).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In the years following Christianity's sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, freedom from the rigid structures of the Roman Catholic Church resulted in movements far removed from Martin Luther's original ideas of reforming the church of his day. Once the process began, various groups quickly formed what later would be called denominations. Points of theology became catalysts for fervent debate. With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, debates spread quickly. Followers of charismatic leaders like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli could distribute convincing sermons and rebuttals to masses of people hungry for spiritual direction.

By 1523, especially in Zurich, Moravia, and the Netherlands, baptism was the topic of conversation that caught the attention of leaders such as Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Feliz Manz. At this time, the long-revered custom was that children should be baptized. This sacrament, in the words of the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, "was the mark of their acceptance into the care of Christ's church, the sign and seal of their participation in God's forgiveness, and [the] beginning of their growth into full Christian faith and life." Because the children were not old enough to be able to make the commitment themselves, their parents and godparents stood in for them. When the children matured to an age of understanding, they then confirmed for themselves their baptism vows.

But for some reformers, biblical precedent seemed to imply that only people who had attained the age of responsibility could be capable of promising their lives to Jesus and the church. Because these theologians could find no scriptural pattern for the two-part process of baptism/confirmation, they began to insist on adult baptism, often called believer's baptism. This meant that people who had already been baptized as infants were baptized again, this time by full immersion into water, following the pattern set by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

These people were called Anabaptists, "ana" meaning "again." They would lead the way for groups such as the Mennonites and various Baptist denominations.

They were, of course, persecuted. Established religions, both Catholic and Protestant, took exception to the fact that their infant baptism was deemed less than adequate, let alone heretical.

But baptism was only the beginning. Anabaptists soon became known as a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. Along with a strict policy of baptized, believers-only membership in the church, they insisted on strict conservative biblical interpretation with a literal reading of the Bible as history and dogma.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



people who have been rechristened; followers of one of the most radical sects in the popular trend of the Reformation in Western and Central Europe during the 16th century.

The social base of Anabaptism was formed by city plebeians, the peasantry, and radical burghers. The variety of its social composition predetermined the heterogeneity of the sociopolitical and the religious-dogmatic aspirations of the Anabaptist movement. Some of their commonly held views were the rejection of baptism for children and the requirement of a second baptism (at the age of reason) upon entering an Anabaptist community; the rejection of any church organization and hierarchy, icons, and sacraments; the rejection of the necessity for any spiritual and worldly powers; the refusal to pay taxes, to take part in military service, or to hold public office; the condemnation of wealth and social inequality and the call for the introduction of communal property; and the belief in a future thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth (chiliasm) as a system of social justice.

Anabaptism originated in the radical mystical sects, such as with the “prophets of Zwickau” in Thuringia and the Sacramentarians in the Netherlands. It initially spread within Germany, where the Anabaptists enjoyed the support of T. Münzer and took active part in the Peasants’ War of 1524–26; it also spread within Zurich, where the Anabaptists split from the radical Zwinglianists. The leading faction of the Swiss Anabaptists, including C. Grebel and F. Manz, was the moderate wing. Representatives of the radical trend—G. Gut, M. Sattler, and U. Hugwald—allied themselves with the leaders of the rebellious peasant forces in Germany and excited uprisings. The rout of the Peasants’ War in Germany, the defeat of the Anabaptists in Switzerland, and their cruel persecution, not only by Catholics but also by Protestants, led to the transference of Anabaptism into several imperial cities of Germany (Strasbourg and Nuremberg), Moravia (where Anabaptists created colonies with entirely communal ways of life), East Friesland, and the Baltic region. The most prominent preachers of Anabaptism at this time were M. Rink, I. Hutter, and Mel-chior Hofmann, who created his own completely mystical version of the doctrine and who predicted the coming of the “kingdom of Christ” in 1533. At the beginning of the 1530’s the centers of the Anabaptist movement were in the northern Netherlands and Westphalia, especially in Münster, where Anabaptists succeeded in seizing power and establishing the Miinster commune (Feb. 23, 1534–June 25, 1535). The Münster revolutionary Anabaptists, led by Jan Matthys and Jan van Leyden, attached the greatest importance in their teachings to the Old Testament, chiliasm, and “heavenly revelation.” Their program foresaw the use of force to destroy the existing order and to establish the “kingdom of Christ” on earth and the introduction of communal property, universal equality, and new family, moral, and ethical norms based on the Anabaptist interpretation of the “holy scriptures.”

The fall of Münster and the suppression of Anabaptists in the Netherlands and other areas caused the movement to disintegrate into a number of independent trends: terrorist and conspiratorial (the followers of J. Batenburg—the so-called Batenburgites), nonresistant (the followers of Menno Simons—the so-called Mennonites), and compromising (the followers of David Joris—the so-called Davidjorists). This fragmentation led to the elimination in the mid-16th century of Anabaptism in its earlier form. The Mennonite and other nonresistant sects prevailed and laid the basis for contemporary Baptism.


Smirin, M. M. Narodnaia reformatsiia Tomasa Miuntsera i Velikaia krest’ianskaia voina, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955.
Chistozvonov, A. N. Reformatsionnoe dvizhenie i klassovaia bor’ba v Niderlandakh v pervoi polovine XVI veka. Moscow, 1964.
Payne, E. A. The Anabaptists in the 16th Century and Their Influence on the Modern World. London, 1949. Zschäbitz, G. Zur mitteldeutschen Wiedertäuferbewegung nach dem Grossen Bauernkrieg. Berlin, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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