Thursday, March 24, 2022

BAPTIST BITES: Anabaptist Forebears

     Today I’m eager to continue our series on the Baptists: how did we get here, what we believe, and why. We’ve reached the point where we need to set up some historical context. There are several early leaders and groups that bore small seeds of who we’d later become, but for our purposes we need to concentrate on the major players. This time, we look briefly at the Swiss Reformation and the Anabaptists.

     We usually associate the Protestant Reformation with great names like Martin Luther and John Calvin, but it actually sprung up in a few countries. For instance: in Switzerland, where priest Huldrych Zwingli began to speak out against corruptions and errors in the Roman Catholic Church. His “disputation” of 1523 was so effective that the city council of Zurich decided to adopt his reforms and convert to Protestantism. He preached for more radical changes than Luther, though. For instance, Zwingli held that the bread and wine of Communion did not in any way become the body and blood of the Lord; they were only symbols. We Baptists maintain that belief to this day. We also take from Zwingli the belief that God does not hold sin accountable against infants and young children until they have grown enough to understand and choose freely between good and evil, to understand their own sin and repent.

     But just as Zwingli went farther than Calvin, there were followers of Zwingli who believed his reforms didn’t go far enough. For instance, they became convinced from their studies that infant baptism was not Biblical. They saw no instances of infant baptism in the Bible, but only free decisions to be baptized upon conversion. This spiritual DNA is strong in Baptists still. The group held its first adult baptism in 1525 under the leadership of Konrad Grebel. In 1527 they (calling themselves the Swiss Brethren) adopted a formal statement of their faith, the Schleitheim Confession. The Confession had seven articles, some of which would resonate with Baptists today, some not. But certainly, their first article on Baptism would resonate with us well. It says in part,

“Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death…”

     The fourth article on Communion also agrees in large part with Baptist belief (the elements are a remembrance, not the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood, and to be taken by true believers only). There are other articles which some (probably most) Baptists would depart from today, like refusing to take oaths, and reading the Sermon on the Mount so seriously as to refuse violence or war of any kind.

     But some of the Anabaptists’ beliefs caused political leaders to seek their banishment or extermination. When infants were baptized in State-controlled churches, those children were registered for 1) taxation and 2) conscription in military service, if that became necessary. The Brethren’s reforms sought to break the Church away from all state control. This was not to be tolerated, so even as the Schleitheim Confession was being drafted, some of the spiritual leaders were being rounded up and executed.

     Two features kept the Anabaptists from having the influence they could have had. One was their prohibition on war or violence. Though Baptists have much in common with them, most have not gone along with Anabaptist pacifism. Second was a tragic and confusing radicalization of men who followed a minister named Melchior Hoffman. Hoffmann shared many Anabaptist beliefs, and even called himself one, but many of the Anabaptist leaders thought that he was too radical, particularly in his obsession with the end times. He drew many followers, though, including a baker named Jan Matthijsz and a tailor named Jan van Leyden. Matthijsz took apocalypticism even further. He went to the city of Munster, calling himself a prophet, and began to preach that the city would soon become the New Jerusalem. Some of the misguided among Anabaptists flocked to Munster, and they were able to take over the city. The Catholic bishop sent an army to put down any resistance against his authority. Matthijsz was killed, and van Leyden took over. Van Leyden was even more deranged, calling himself the new King David, executing those who would not accept believer’s baptism, setting up a radical socialist system and instituting polygamy. Munster became a slaughterhouse. Finally the army of the Bishop was able to gain entrance after a long siege, and the “Anabaptist” leaders of the Munster Rebellion were tortured and killed.

     After this, the European powers tended to paint all Anabaptists with the same brush, lumping them all together with the radical revolutionaries (though other Anabaptist movements, like the Mennonites were quite moderate, nonviolent, and respectful of governing authority). The feeding frenzy was on, though, and Anabaptists were hunted, tortured and exterminated throughout Europe. Finally they reached Holland, where they found religious tolerance.

     Though the main channel of our Baptist heritage runs through the English Separatists (which I’ll cover next month), it is unquestionable that Anabaptist beliefs had some influence in forming who they would eventually become. Some areas of our theology are owed to them. One of our early English Baptist founders, John Smyth, actually pursued affiliation with the Mennonites along with his congregation. But for now, I hope you have found this little portrait of some of our Anabaptist ancestors to be fascinating. I hope that a picture is beginning to form in your mind of how some of our Baptist beliefs came to be.

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