W. Robert Godfrey
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Some of you may have been to parts of the United States (such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania) where you have seen a bearded man in plain clothes driving a horse-drawn carriage down paved roads—perhaps with a number of cars behind him moving slowly. He may be moving toward a farm where plows are still pulled by horses and where he lives in a beautiful farmhouse with no electricity. Such an Amish or Mennonite man pursues a simple and separated life, committed to pacifism and humility. This way of life may well seem to us noble and inspirational in many ways.

This pious man seems the polar opposite of a man such as John of Leiden, who in 1535 set himself up as the king of the New Jerusalem in the German city of Münster. Guided by prophetic teachings, he and his violent apocalyptics took over the city, set up a community exclusively restricted to true believers who practiced common ownership of property along with polygamy, and executed any opponents. But after a few months, the city was retaken, and John of Leiden and his supporters were defeated.

Despite the immense differences between our Mennonite and John of Leiden, historically they have been grouped together under the common sixteenth-century label of “Anabaptism” (historians today usually use the label “Radical Reformation”). The dominant—and far and away the largest—religious movements of the sixteenth century were clearly Lutheranism, Calvinism, and renewed Roman Catholicism. While most of the “Anabaptist” groups were quite small, they made a significant impact on perceptions of religious reality at the time. For Roman Catholics they represented the destructive, destabilizing logical outcome of the Reformation. Lutherans and Calvinists sought to make clear that they were utterly different from those Anabaptists.

It was the opponents, of course, who came up with the label “Anabaptist,” which means “rebaptism.” Although these disparate groups did reject infant baptism and taught that Christians needed to be baptized only after they became believers, they rejected this label, insisting that they were not rebaptizing anyone; rather, they were baptizing people properly for the first time. Even though it described only one element of their teaching, their opponents had chosen this label deliberately, because the Code of Justinian (the great legal code from the ancient world) had declared that re-baptizing anyone was a capital crime. That code was still in effect in parts of Europe, and the appellation “Anabaptist” made clear that such a person was a dangerous criminal indeed. As a result, numerous Anabaptists were executed for their religion. Ever since then, students of the sixteenth century have puzzled over this label and the movements it covers.

Today, historians have largely rejected “Anabaptism” and replaced it with the label “Radical Reformation,” which was suggested by the Harvard historian George Huntston Williams. Williams argued that his label did not have negative connotations and positively united the various groups in terms of the more radical way in which they rejected medieval Roman Catholicism. While this label has been criticized as perhaps too political and perhaps demeaning to Luther and Calvin as not being truly radical, no better alternative has met with broad approval.

This discussion of labels reminds us that labels and groupings are important to the ways in which we understand reality. It is true that all the groups gathered together under the label “Anabaptism” or the “Radical Reformation” in one way or another rejected the ancient, catholic consensus about the church and culture and/or about Christ and God, but it is equally true that these groups differ so much from each other that uniting them under one label perhaps distorts as much as it clarifies. What is clear is that the Reformation’s fracturing of the medieval church’s control over all religion in Europe allowed various religious movements to emerge and survive.

Standard histories of the Reformation—such as the new study by Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650 (Yale University Press, 2016)—analyze a variety of individuals and groups under the heading “Radical Reformation.” Some leaders were well-educated and careful students of the Bible, while others were poorly educated, charismatic figures. Some stressed communal elements of Christian life, while others were rather individualistic and mystical. We will look briefly at the history and characteristics of the three groups that had the most historical impact.

The Apocalyptic Revolutionaries

One strain of the Radical Reformation has been called “apocalyptic.” For this group, the end of the world seemed at hand, and often the book of the Revelation became the inspiration of their vision. They believed that the end of the age was to be ushered in violently by figures inspired by the Holy Spirit. One early apocalyptic figure was Thomas Müntzer, who claimed to be a spokesman for the Holy Spirit and who was active in the Peasants’ Revolt in the mid-1520s. Müntzer claimed to be so full of the Holy Spirit that he could protect his followers by catching bullets in his sleeves. As spokesman for the Holy Spirit, he also was dismissive of dependence on the Bible, saying “Bible, bubble, babel.” Luther said of him, “He thinks he has swallowed the Holy Ghost feathers and all.”

Later, Melchior Hoffman became a central figure as Bible teacher and spokesman for the Holy Spirit in a similar kind of apocalyptic movement, prophesying that Strasburg would become the New Jerusalem. Some of his followers, however, took over the city of Münster in 1534 and began to establish a theocracy there as the New Jerusalem. Only rebaptized believers could remain in the city. Jan Matthijs from the Netherlands led the movement until he was killed in April 1535 and was replaced by John of Leiden. Private property was outlawed, and polygamy was introduced. John declared himself king and messiah and told the population of Münster,

In like manner was David, a humble shepherd, anointed by the prophet, at God’s command, as King of Israel. God often acts this way; and whoever resists the will of God calls down God’s wrath upon himself. Now I am given power over all nations of the earth, and the right to use the sword to the confusion of the wicked and in defense of the righteous. So let none in this town stain himself with crime or resist the will of God, or else he shall without delay be put to death with the sword.

When some did not accept this declaration immediately, he continued:

Shame on you, that you murmur against the ordinance of the Heavenly Father! Though you were all to join together to oppose me, I shall still reign, despite you, not only over this town but over the whole world, for the Father will have it so; and my kingdom which begins now shall endure and know no downfall.1

This theocratic kingdom united Roman Catholic and Protestant forces in response, and the city fell in June 1535. John of Leiden was captured, tortured for months, and then horribly executed, the flesh torn from his body with red-hot tongs. His dead body was publicly displayed in a cage hanging from a church tower in the center of the city and left there until it had rotted away. The cage still hangs from the tower in Münster.

The actions of these violent, theocratic movements determined the attitudes of almost all other Europeans in the sixteenth century toward the “Anabaptists.” For example, the Belgic Confession, article 36, states: “We detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.” The visceral antipathy to the Anabaptists saw no distinction between violent and nonviolent groups.

It was not just the violence, however, that so concerned sixteenth-century critics. The Anabaptist rejection of Christian involvement in the common life of society threatened the whole stability of Christian civilization. Much later, Abraham Kuyper captured this concern when he wrote: “When he [Jesus] comes to this earth, the King does not overturn human society as such. He does not do what the Anabaptists throughout history have tried to do, namely, to introduce a new state of affairs for social life.”2


Within the Radical Reformation, the anti-Trinitarians were another movement. They have often been called “evangelical rationalists,” which seems to be a particularly inappropriate label, considering that they were not evangelical in terms of embracing the gospel as recovered by Luther. They were not rationalists but rather claimed to accept the Bible as their authority. They did teach, however, that the doctrines of Trinity and classic Christology were irrational, and so in some ways they may be considered proto-rationalists. These anti-Trinitarians argued that the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus were Roman Catholic traditions that should be subjected to the same biblical judgment as the doctrine of justification. Here we see not so much an Anabaptist rejection of Christ and culture, as a rejection of the ancient, catholic consensus on God and Christ. The major Reformers, of course, argued that by any biblical standard the ancient doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ were clearly taught in the Scriptures.

Michael Servetus (1511–53) became one of the earliest explicitly anti-Trinitarians. Educated as a physician in Spain, he became known in the 1530s as one who rejected the eternal divinity of Jesus. This heresy was most serious. Servetus was condemned to death by Roman Catholic authorities, but he managed to avoid arrest. John Calvin tried several times in the 1530s and 1540s to convince Servetus of his errors, but Servetus persisted in his teaching. Early in 1553, Servetus published yet another defense of his anti-Trinitarian views, Restitution of the Christian Religion. This title was a clear attack on Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin had warned Servetus to stay away from Geneva, but Servetus went there in August 1553 intentionally to cause trouble for Calvin. He was arrested, tried, and publicly executed there in October.

More widely influential were Lelio Socinus (1525–62) and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539–1604), who became significant promoters of the anti-Trinitarian position. Lelio, an Italian jurist, apparently was influenced by the death of Servetus. In 1579, he moved to Poland, where he became the leader of an already well-established anti-Trinitarian group, which had formed initially in the Calvinistic churches in Poland but by 1565 had separated and was for a time known as the Minor Reformed Church of Poland. (The use of the word Reformed by these Polish unitarians did not help the genuinely Reformed cause at all.)

Faustus Socinus, who was a talented theologian, managed to unite his Polish followers in confession that Jesus was simply human, that the Christian life was following the Sermon on the Mount, and that the death of Jesus was not a substitutionary atonement but a moral example of love. In the city of Rakow, he established a center that published a catechism in 1605 summarizing their teachings. The resurgence of Roman Catholicism in Poland through the influence of the Jesuits there led to the expulsion of the Socinians from Poland in 1660.

The Quietly Withdrawn

Yet another strain of Radical Reformation was led by students of the Bible who adopted a form of Christianity fundamentally moral in character, where baptism became more a matter of obedience than a source of grace. They wanted to separate from any cooperation with the state—Christianity was not to compromise with the world, but to provide a righteous community that withdrew from the world to live a simple, pacifist life.

Michael Sattler is an early example of such Anabaptism. He was a Roman Catholic monastic who became an Anabaptist and then had to flee from place to place. In 1527, he presided over an Anabaptist conference and prepared the Schleitheim Confession of Faith that summarized their convictions. It stands as a basic statement of Anabaptist faith, calling for baptism only for the believers who pursue righteous living (which included separation from worldliness, particularly military service and oath taking). Anabaptist congregations also needed to practice the discipline of excommunication. Later, in the same year in which he had written the confession, he was arrested and brutally tortured and executed.

Menno Simons (1496–1561) ultimately became the most famous of all the Radicals. He was from Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, had become a priest, and then embraced the Reformation after reading Luther. As the calamity at Münster unfolded, he became more radical in a different way, converting to a vision of Christianity of sincere believers who rejected the medieval view of sacraments as a means of grace and withdrew from traditional cooperation with the state. In 1539, he wrote a summary of his convictions titled Book of Fundamentals or Foundation of Christian Doctrine. His followers refused to serve in the military, take oaths, or occupy civil office. They organized disciplined congregations of Christians who lived holy, humble lives.

In 1535, Menno converted to Anabaptism just before the rise of John of Leiden, whom he utterly repudiated. While John was alive, Menno wrote “The Blasphemy of John of Leiden,” in which he made clear his differences: “So all false teachers forget the covenant of God whereby they are bound to Him, as, O God, many do at present who have forgotten all that upon which they were baptized, namely, the cross, and would recommend and make use of the sword.”3 Further, he wrote: “Greater antichrist there cannot arise than he who poses as the David of promise. This David is Christ as the Scriptures testify abundantly.”4 Still, Menno believed that the time was short before the end:

Alas, it is about time to awake! Remember that the angel of Revelation has sworn by the eternal and living God who made heaven and earth that after this time, there shall be time no more. From the Scriptures we cannot conclude but that this is the last festival of the year, the last proclamation of the holy Gospel, the last invitation to the marriage of the Lamb, which is to be celebrated, published, and sanctified before the great and terrible day of the Lord.5

He believed that true conversion was to a righteous, separated life. “In the first place we teach that which Jesus the teacher from heaven, the mouth and word of the Most High God taught (John 3:2), that now is the time of grace, a time to awake from the sleep of our ugly sins, and to be of an upright, converted, renewed, contrite, and penitent heart.”6 He wrote of his opponents on baptism and the church:

Truly, I do not know how a worse heresy could be invented, notwithstanding that these miserable men cruelly cry against us, saying, Heretics! Heretics! Drown them, slay them, and burn them! And this for no other reason than that we teach the new life, baptism on the confession of faith, and the Supper in both elements in an unblamable church, according to the holy Gospel of Christ Jesus.7

More specifically, he taught that one had to be baptized as a believer to be saved:

Besides we have also shown how very weak, useless, and groundless all the arguments of the world are, by which they defend infant baptism, so that the before-mentioned despisers of God may know and understand that they are not baptized according to the evangelical commandment of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. It follows that they are not in obedience to the divine Word, and if they are not in the obedience which has the promise (I speak of those who have come to years of discretion), then they cannot inherit or obtain the promise, as long as they do not believe the Word of God and obediently fulfill it in all respects. Let everyone consider carefully and save his own soul; for our God is a consuming fire.8

Menno spent most of the rest of his life teaching and writing in the Netherlands and northwestern Germany. His later years were troubled by differences in his movement over the extent of discipline required in a righteous church, and he died sick and exhausted in 1561. His movement—the Mennonites—continued, the largest and most influential of the Radical groups.

Today, some look back to the Radical Reformation (particularly to the Quietly Withdrawn) as forerunners of the modern church. The end of religious coercion has been widely accepted in the West, and the separation of church and state as well as the voluntary character of church membership are nearly universal convictions in America. But it is not at all clear that these developments in the modern world are the result of Anabaptist teachings.

Some historians see the influence of Anabaptism in the rise of the modern Baptist movement. Others (with whom I agree) argue that while there is agreement in rejecting infant baptism, there is little agreement on any other point. The modern Baptist movement really emerged from seventeenth-century English Calvinist circles, sharing with paedo-Baptist Calvinists common views of church and soteriology as well as of Christ and culture.

Rather than anticipating modern Christianity, the Radical Reformation is better seen as a new expression of medieval dissent and call for reform. We use the label “the Reformation” to describe the great religious event of the sixteenth century led by Luther. Yet throughout the medieval period, various movements pursued what they called “reforms in the life of the church.” Some remained within the church, such as new monastic movements seeking to purify the moral character of the ascetic life; others moved outside the church and were much more radical in their rejection of received Christianity. Two groups in particular bear interesting similarities to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. In the thirteenth century, the Cathari (also known as the Albigensians) were apocalyptic and violently rejected the established church of their day. By contrast, in the late twelfth century, the Waldensians tried to cooperate with the church but ultimately were forced to withdraw and separate in order to pursue a simple approach to their faith.

In this Luther year, we need to ask ourselves how we should evaluate these Radical movements in relation to the Reformation. The Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, believed that the church needed to be reformed by the word of God, not restored or reborn after years of nonexistence. They were not revolutionaries but proponents of continuity with the past while pursuing improvement.

The Reformation was primarily a theological movement, seeking to reform the teaching of the church. That reform certainly affected the lives of Christians in profound ways, but it was the saving work of Jesus as taught in the Bible that was the central concern. By contrast, the Anabaptists, like the medieval church, focused primarily on the moral character of Christianity. Many of them were sincere, courageous, and self-sacrificing, but the Reformers understood the Bible more correctly and more profoundly. The church today needs to be inspired by and follow not the Anabaptists but the Reformers.

W. Robert Godfrey is president emeritus and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  1. Cited in Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 296.
  2. Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege: Living under Christ’s Kingship, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 400.
  3. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 1984), 33f.
  4. Simons, 37.
  5. Simons, “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” 109.
  6. Simons, 108.
  7. Simons, “Christian Baptism,” 232.
  8. Simons, 235.
Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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