A Brief Overview of Anabaptist Beginnings
An Anabaptist approach to Christian faith is sometimes called “the third way,” and it emerged in the midst of great societal upheaval in Western Europe in the early 1500s.
In the Late Middle Ages (1300s and 1400s) in Western Europe a hierarchical system that mingled civil, social, and religious laws benefitted those with power and kept the rest “in their place.” This meant, among other things, that everyday people struggled to survive under the crushing tithes and taxes levelled by the Roman Catholic Church and civil government leaders who effectively ruled in tandem.
The established church taught that the rigid hierarchical social order was divinely ordained. But when Johannes Gutenberg improved printing technology in the mid-1400s and began making books broadly available and affordable in Europe, peasants and artisans reading the Bible for the first time interpreted its message differently. Add in the questions of humanist Renaissance thinkers such as Erasmus, and the voices demanding reform became louder and more insistent.
The big changes that came to Western Christianity during the 1500s are collectively called the Protestant Reformation. Those labelled Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) embraced Protestant church reforms but called for even more change. The Anabaptist movement came to be labelled the Radical Reformation.
Protestant reformers kept the church/state relationship intact, using infant baptism to usher one onto both the church and state rolls. Anabaptists believed that joining the church is a conscious, adult decision to be honored by adult baptism and lived out in visible ways in communion with others. Following God and acquiescing to the demands of the state were two entirely different things they argued.
Beginning in January 1525 adults began baptizing each other, and some parents chose not to have their infants baptized. These moves effectively made them the ultimate troublemakers: traitors in the eyes of government authorities and heretics in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church and all other major reform movements. Persecution began immediately.
While the first adult baptisms happened in Zurich, Switzerland, preaching and reforms along the same lines were already underway in other parts of Europe including significant movements in South Germany and Austria as well as in North Germany and the Netherlands. These wellsprings of Anabaptist agitation shared emphases on:
- adult baptism
- community discipline
- understanding the Eucharist as a memorial meal, not an actual sacrifice
- commitment to help each other in practical ways, called “mutual aid.”
Two additional key questions for many early Anabaptists centered on the use of violence to bring about change and the pledging of loyalty oaths in court or to join guilds. Many Anabaptists believed these violated the Scriptural injunctions to “love your enemies” and to “swear not.”
While Valued Leadership focuses primarily on the values and practices of the early Anabaptists, it is important to emphasize that Anabaptist movements and stories have continued over almost five centuries, and churches meet on every populated continent as well as in rural, suburban, and urban settings.
Mennonite World Conference, a global conference of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ churches, stated in 2014 that there are more than 1.7 million baptized believers in 243 national conferences of churches in 83 countries. The totals by continental region are: Africa 38.3%, North America 29.8%, Asia and Pacific 17.8%, Latin America and the Caribbean 10.5%, Europe 3.6%. Currently about two-thirds of baptized Anabaptist believers are African, Asian or Latin American. There is much to study and learn from this diversely-peopled, dynamic history.
In 2006 Mennonite World Conference affirmed the following Shared Convictions:
By the grace of God, we seek to live and proclaim the good news of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. As part of the one body of Christ at all times and places, we hold the following to be central to our belief and practice:
- God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator who seeks to restore fallen humanity by calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
- Jesus is the Son of God. Through his life and teachings, his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.
- As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s Spirit calls to turn from sin, acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, receive baptism upon confession of faith, and follow Christ in life.
- As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in the light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.
- The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
- We gather regularly to worship, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to hear the Word of God in a spirit of mutual accountability.
- As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
In these convictions we draw inspiration from Anabaptist forebears of the 16th century, who modeled radical discipleship to Jesus Christ. We seek to walk in his name by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we confidently await Christ’s return and the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
Many current Anabaptist groups are affiliated with Mennonite World Conference. However, other groups that are part of the Anabaptist movement are not members. Some of the larger Anabaptist groups in the United States that are unaffiliated with Mennonite World Conference include the Amish, Church of the Brethren, Hutterites, and Old Order Mennonites.
For more information on early and current Anabaptist beliefs and practices please see the Resources page.