THE ANABAPTISTS AND THE REFORMATION
FEW people have fared so hard at the hands of historians as the Anabaptists. Until a generation ago, writers of every school did little more than repeat the rash and unjust and often slanderous statements of the contemporaries of this sect. For these sixteenth-century denunciations there are some obvious excuses to be made. The Anabaptists were the most universally troublesome of all the anti-Catholic parties. They were most vexatious to the Romanists, because they were the most logical, consistent, thorough-going, and determined opponents of the Papacy and all its works. They were equally vexatious to those who conducted the reformations in the various states, because these were all more or less illogical, lukewarm, and inclined to compromise with the old order, for the sake of obtaining the support of princes and governments, without which support reform was believed to be, and perhaps would have been, impracticable. It was natural that such a party, a veritable Ishmael among the reformers, should come to be disliked, distrusted, feared by all, and that it should be denounced with commensurate warmth and energy.
Then, too, certain groups of this party, falling under the spell of preachers whose learning and sense were no match for their eloquence, and misled by a certain specious but false exegesis of Scripture, were betrayed into a fanatical expectation of the immediate Parousia and the founding of Christ's millennial kingdom. Under the stress of this fanaticism these Anabaptists fell into disorders and excesses, the stigma of which would in any case have fallen upon the rest, even had not their opponents eagerly seized upon this pretext to involve the whole party in a condemnation as fierce and bitter as it was undiscriminating and often unjust.
Certain groups among the Anabaptists, led astray by a too literal interpretation of Christ's words and of apostolic precedent, professed principles of non-resistance, avoidance of oaths, non-payment of taxes, community of goods, — doctrines that might easily be supposed, even by the sincere among their contemporaries, in their application to involve the entire subversion of the existing civil and social and religious order. That men should shrink from a revolutionary programme so comprehensive and radical need surprise nobody. The surprising thing would be if these Anabaptist vagaries had found any favour in the sixteenth century. They barely find tolerance now, to say nothing of favour.
But, worse than all, the Reformation coincided with a time of great social changes and deep social unrest. Many things had helped to bring about the decay of feudalism and the decline of the knights and lesser nobles, but the invention of gunpowder had dealt the final blow. In the last analysis, social and political supremacy, in the case of any order, rests on force. So long as the mailed knight on his mailed horse was the invincible force, to him fell honours and wealth, lands and power. But the arquebus and cannon changed all this. Knighthood had to give place to manhood. The meanest peasant with a gun in his hand became more than the military equal of the knight, whose armour was no protection against bullet or ball, and whose lance, sword, and mace lost all their terrors for the man in leather jerkin. Infantry, not cavalry, became the strength of armies. With this decline of the military power of the knights began also the decay of their social and political importance. They fought against their fate desperately, but they might as well have set themselves against the tides.
The first result of this social change was a marked increase in the power of kings and ruling princes. Feudalism made for decentralisation: it was anti-national, the apotheosis of individualism. That is to say, feudalism was this in practice. The great feudatories were always turbulent, always rebellious against the authority of their nominal suzerain, the king, so that the royal authority was a mere shadow. But in the sixteenth century this was rapidly changing: the power of the nobles was declining, while the royal authority was becoming a thing to be reckoned with and feared.
Parallel with this decline of the nobility, and contributing much to hasten the process, was another great social change, the accumulation of large fortunes by the more enterprising among the burgher class. The multi-millionaires of our day have their counterpart, on a smaller scale, among the merchants, manufacturers, and printers of the free cities of the sixteenth century. Many of these so prospered that they were able to live in a splendour that vied with that of kings and far outshone the state of ordinary nobles. While the castles of the knights still lacked what we should now reckon the ordinary necessaries and decencies of life, the town house of the wealthy merchant or tradesman was the abode not only of comfort but of luxury. The attempts of the nobles to equal this splendour of apparel, this sumptuousness of living — attempts all the more determined because the high-born noble despised his burgher rival — only resulted in their more rapid impoverishment and more speedy extinction.
As the drowning man clutches at the proverbial straw, the knights in their distress tried to wring more money out of the class dependent upon them, the peasants. For a time, therefore, the lot of these long-suffering people, whose emancipation was in the end to come out of this very turmoil, grew worse rather than better. They had been scourged with whips before, now they were scourged with scorpions. The result was that the peasantry were seething with dissatisfaction, ready for any desperate revolt at the first promise of betterment of their fortunes, only too willing to lend eager ears to any who would prophesy that the good time coming was almost here. And with this state of things the first throes of the Reformation and the circulation of Luther's brave early demands for freedom exactly coincided. It is no marvel that the peasants expected more than was then possible, that they were misguided by fanatics into a premature uprising. Nor is it any wonder that some of the Anabaptists were drawn into this movement. Many of them were from this peasant class, knew fully their wrongs, sympathised with their hopes and aspirations, and, it must be added, became partakers of their errors and excesses.
A scapegoat for these errors must be found. The Roman Catholic writers of the period were inclined to lay all the blame on Luther and his writings. This was unfair, but Luther and his followers became greatly alarmed lest the princes of Germany should adopt this view of the case and decline to support his reformation. They therefore fixed upon the Anabaptists as the party that should be made to bear all the reproach of the social disorders of the time. The rest was easy. It was only necessary to make the name Anabaptist a general term of opprobrium, like "scoundrel," "villain," "heretic," and apply it recklessly to any party or to any man disapproved by the speaker or writer, to all who had published unorthodox opinions or been guilty of unworthy deeds. This was done for generations by writers who repeated these wholesale slanders without taking the least trouble to discover the facts. What wonder that the name Anabaptist still reeks with foul suggestions, after standing through more than three centuries for the sum of all wickedness, the synonym of all that is falsest in doctrine and vilest in practice?
One of the earliest notes of dissent from this unsparing condemnation, if not the first of all, was sounded by a Roman Catholic writer. Dr. Cornelius, of Bonn. He first spoke an effective word in mitigation of judgment upon the Anabaptists, and declared that their real history had yet to be written His contributions to our knowledge of the Münster affair are not only of great value in themselves, but his labours encouraged other scholars to delve among the records for the facts regarding a much-misunderstood and greatly abused people. The next great service was rendered by Dr. Josef Beck, Counsellor of the Austrian Supreme Court of Judicature, whose Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer (Historical Writings of the Anabaptists) marks an epoch in the study of these people. With great industry he gathered from archives and libraries a vast mass of original Anabaptist literature, to which he added a rich collection of his own; and from these sources he collated, condensed, and edited a volume that for the first time gave the world an inside view of Anabaptist teaching and history.
It is not practicable, nor is it necessary, to speak of all who have since laboured in this field with diligence and success. One writer should be noted, however, as easily surpassing all others during the past two decades in the extent and value of his work, — Dr. Ludwig Keller, State Archivist at Münster. Dr. Keller's special contribution has been to show the genetic relation of the Anabaptists of the Reformation period to the older reform-parties. And if at times his conclusions have outrun his facts, and depended for their soundness rather on his historical insight than on any definite proofs he has been able to bring forward, this cannot be said to vitiate the greater part of his work.
Whether documentary proofs will ever be forthcoming to establish a clear historical connection between the Anabaptists and the older evangelical sects who taught similar doctrines and practices, is a question that for the present had better be relegated for discussion to such as are confident that they possess the gift of prophecy. That there is a genetic connection we are fairly entitled to assume, by the practice of all historical investigators, not as a thing completely proved, but as a convenient and safe working hypothesis. Take a parallel case. It cannot be said to be established, by satisfactory historical proof, that there is a genetic connection between the heretical groups or parties known as Paulicians, Bogomils, and Albigenses. They are widely separated in time and space, and visible links to connect them there are none. Yet the Manichæan element common to their theology and organisation is so distinct as to make it certain that a genetic connection subsists between them, whether it can be traced or not. Documentary proof is only one method, after all, of convincing the human reason as to historical fact: there are other methods that are both effective and valid. Historical investigation, though it is quite right to rely mainly on documents, cannot altogether ignore other methods of reaching truth.
The characteristic feature of all these older reform-parties is that, beginning in each instance as a revolt from a corrupt and impure Church, and attempting to return to the Scriptural ideals of faith and practice, these parties reach at length an identical conclusion: that a pure church cannot exist except on the basis of believers' baptism, and that the baptism of infants is totally unwarranted by the Scriptures. In many other details these parties differ; in this they are a unit. This was the conclusion of the earliest of these parties, the Petrobrusians; as to that, the testimony of their great Roman Catholic opponent, Peter the Venerable, leaves no possibility of doubt. The same conclusions were reached by the followers of Peter Waldo — by those, at least, on the French side of the Alps, if we may accept the unanimous testimony of their contemporary Roman critics and persecutors. Neither of these bodies is called Anabaptist by their contemporary and hostile chroniclers. This may be because they did not commonly rebaptise adults who had (in their view) received a null-and-void so-called baptism in their infancy. They may never have seen that logical consistency required this of them — we know that for a time such was the case with the Swiss Anabaptists — and they may have contented themselves with making their protest against the baptism of infants. Or, it may be that they rebaptised, but the Roman writers were ignorant of the practice, or did not think it worthy of mention. Neither of the last two suggestions seems very probable.
These earlier evangelical parties, though severely persecuted, — perhaps in consequence of such persecution, — had spread themselves widely abroad. Originating in Southern France, they had not only made their way across the Alpine passes into Northern Italy, but had sent their missionaries throughout Switzerland and Germany. Roman Catholic literature testifies unmistakably both to the extent and to the success of this evangelisation. Communities of Waldenses were gathered everywhere, and the severest persecution did not succeed in utterly eradicating these heretics from the regions in which they once obtained a foothold. That a secret existence of the sect was maintained in many quarters is proved by the fact that the authorities occasionally lighted upon such a case. The possibility, the credibility even, of many such survivals down to the Reformation era, is sufficiently established by the history of the Unitas Fratrum, which was preserved in secret, even the due succession of its bishops being maintained, for more than a century. The close correspondence in doctrine and practice between Petrobrusians and Waldenses, between Waldenses and Anabaptists, even in the absence of definite documentary proofs, warrants the conclusion that in these successive sects we really study the history of a single evangelical movement, which, in various regions and under different names, has persisted without a break from the twelfth century (and perhaps earlier still) to the present day.
If such is the case, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century are not so related to the Reformation as has generally been supposed. They are not, that is to say, an offshoot of the Reformation, though they might, indeed, be called its root, since they are both older and more primitive in practice. Among the "Reformers before the Reformation" whose labours deserve to be better recognised are those evangelical preachers who for centuries had been gradually leavening Central Europe with the truths of the gospel, and preparing the way for the great spiritual revolution to come. A history of their labours cannot indeed be written; material may never be discovered for such a history, though doubtless large additions will yet be made to our present knowledge by scholarly diligence. The broad outlines even are vague and conjectural. We can only infer from a few known facts, and from certain observed phenomena in connection with the Reformation, that the influence of this evangel upon the people has been too lightly estimated by many who have passed for critical historians.
However scholars may finally agree upon the question of the origin of the Anabaptists, certain things concerning them are now comparatively plain. The great majority of them were peaceable folk, law-abiding people, asking nothing but that they might be permitted to worship and serve God in their own way, and wishing no harm to those who held to different ways. There was a mystical element in their doctrines, the foundation stone of which was the conviction that to be a Christian is to be united by faith to the Son of God, so as to be a partaker of his nature. This cannot be, save by a complete change of nature, character, life. One cannot be a Christian, therefore, by inheritance, by education, by sacraments; repentance, faith, regeneration, are necessary to produce this intimate personal relation with Christ. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom: to enter it one must be born again.
This notion of the essential nature of Christianity led them to their idea concerning the Church. This outward embodiment of the kingdom should be, so far as is humanly possible, composed of those only who have been regenerated by the Spirit, who have become vitally one with Christ by faith, and are continuing in such union with him, as is shown by their bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit. Such a Church could not possibly exist if it were ruled by princes and town councils; hence the Anabaptists insisted on the sharp separation between the secular and the spiritual—as we should say, between Church and State. The civil magistrate, in their view, had nothing to do with matters of religion. He had discharged his full duty when he had protected the innocent and peaceable, and punished the evil-doer. For this he bore the sword and was a minister of God; anything more was a usurpation. And it equally followed that entrance into such a Church as they contemplated must be made by the voluntary act of the individual concerned, and could not possibly be accomplished for him by another. Infant baptism was therefore objectionable to them, not only because they found it to be neither taught by precept nor warranted by example in the Scriptures, but because it was essentially an impertinence, the anticipatory doing by others of that which it was alike the privilege and the duty of every believer to do for himself. As an act performed without faith, it was to them null and void. Hence they always resented the name Anabaptist (re-baptisers), and protested that it was a complete misnomer, since they administered the first and only real baptism — the baptism of a believer — and that the so-called baptism of an unbeliever is no baptism at all, but an empty and meaningless form. As Hübmaier pithily put it for all of them, "Water is not baptism, else the whole Danube were baptism, and the fishermen and boatmen would be daily baptised."
There was but one other principle on which all Anabaptists were agreed: the supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice. They rather assumed than asserted a doctrine of inspiration, and confined themselves generally to an assertion of the authority of the Bible without defining the grounds on which such authority rested. They made no such distinction as is attributed to certain heretical sects between the Old Testament and the New. They received the whole Bible as equally authoritative, but not equally authoritative for all purposes. Here they made a distinction, namely, that the New Testament is our sole source of knowledge of all that pertains to the Christian Church, and they would not admit the validity of arguments drawn from Jewish institutions to prove what should exist under the gospel.
The mystical element in Anabaptist teaching is apparent in what some of them say about the interpretation of Scripture. A special illumination is not only promised to every believer, but is indispensable for the understanding of the word of God, since the natural man cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit, but spiritual things must be spiritually discerned. Though we may trace some likeness here between their teaching and the doctrines of the earlier Montanists and the later Friends, we miss altogether that exaggerated notion of an inner light of the Spirit which is superior in authority to the external word. This inner light, according to the Anabaptist, is bestowed not to supersede the written word, but to make it possible for the humblest believer to understand and follow that word. With the Friend, the seat of authority is and must be within himself; he must listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking to his own soul, though it supplement, even if it contradict, the written word. With the Anabaptist, the seat of authority is the declared will of God in the Scriptures, and the light of the Spirit is given to make these plain to him; and he is always to test the supposed voice of the Spirit to his soul by comparing these utterances carefully with the written word.
And yet, in spite of this admirably sane theory of the Scriptures and of the office of the Spirit, groups among the Anabaptists fell into grievous errors, which were most unfortunate in their results. For one thing, they greatly weakened the party by the divisions and the controversies that naturally ensued; and then the follies and excesses into which some fell, in consequence of error in interpreting Scripture, covered the whole party with opprobrium and gave a decent pretext for persecuting all with unrelenting fury, as has already been pointed out. Even from their persecutors, however, we may frequently discover that there was no real ground for so severe treatment — or, rather, that the real ground of these persecutions differed from the grounds alleged. The real offence of the Anabaptists was not that they were seditious, turbulent, fomenters of social revolution, and therefore dangerous subjects, potential rebels even when not in actual rebellion. That was true of a few among them, but nobody ever seriously believed this of the majority. The real offence of the Anabaptists was that they were Anabaptists — that they held and taught just such things as are above set forth. Their doctrines were too Scriptural, too spiritual, too incompatible with those that in many places were being forced on unwilling people, in the name of reform, by irreligious rulers obviously actuated by ambition and greed. Their doctrines were too often eagerly received by the common people, who lacked the learning requisite for the perversion of the plain sense of Scripture, and found their Bibles and the Anabaptist teachings to agree wonderfully. There was, in fact, no reconciling these teachings with those of state churches, set up, as they often were, by unworthy princes and ungodly town councils — churches in which little or no attempt was made to discriminate between regenerate and unregenerate. These were reasons enough — these were the real reasons — why governments everywhere tried to harry the Anabaptists out of their lands.
Time, which works so many changes, is bringing about the vindication of these greatly wronged people. It is now known, and every year sees the fact more generally acknowledged, that they were treated with a cruelty as unjust, unnecessary, and unwise as it was brutal. The brutality may be excused in part as the universal sin of the age. The folly and injustice are not so easily forgiven, since many of those in places of influence and power sinned against light. The Anabaptists experienced the fate that usually befalls any man who has the misfortune to be out of joint with his times. Not all their teachings, it is true, have won their way to general acceptance — some of them may never gain such a victory — but many of their fundamental contentions are commonplaces of Christian thought to-day, and their ideal of the total separation between the spiritual and the temporal is inwrought into the texture of American institutions. The time is rapidly approaching when the Anabaptists will be as abundantly honoured as, in the past four centuries, they have been unjustly contemned.
If this is true of the Anabaptists as a whole, what shall be said of their leaders? These have not escaped the general fate of the party. They were burned, they were drowned, they were beheaded, they were tortured, they were beaten with rods; while they lived they wandered as outcasts from city to city, or dwelt in caves of the earth; and after they had sealed their testimony to the truth with their blood, men whom the world calls great in piety and good works often conspired to cover their names with undeserved infamy. Not a few of these leaders were men of the highest culture, the broadest learning of their times — scholars not unworthy of a place beside Erasmus and Melanchthon, preachers whose eloquence was not inferior to that of Luther or Zwingli. It was their misfortune to be on the losing side of a great controversy, and they were obliged to pay for their allegiance to truth and righteousness not only life and fame, but honour. Their very names are known only to a few curious scholars, and their writings — if any have escaped the zeal of rival persecutors, Catholic and Protestant — are to be found in dusty archives or the dark corners of libraries and museums.
It is with the hope of doing something to rescue from his undeserved oblivion one of the greatest Anabaptist leaders that this biography has been undertaken. The rage of persecution did not succeed, in his case, in destroying what his busy pen sent forth, and we have fairly adequate materials for a biography. Not quite every line, but nearly
DR JOHN ECK.
- A captious critic might object that Dr. Cornelius should not be described thus, since he belonged for the last thirty years of his life to the Old Catholics. But at the time he wrote this book he was in full communion with the Roman Church, had shown no symptom of separation from it, and was, so far as anything appeared, in full sympathy with all its doctrines. What else but a Roman Catholic should one call him in 1855?
- This was published in 1883, as vol. xliii. in the Fontes Rerum Austriacarum, Second Series, and also reprinted separately.
- That some of the Petrobrusians, at any rate, rebaptised is proved by the fact that Peter puts these words into their mouths: " We wait for the proper time, after a man is prepared to know his God and believe in him; we do not (as you accuse us) rebaptise him, but we baptise him who can be said never to have been baptised."—Contra Petrobrusianos Hæreticos, Migne's Latin Patrology, clxxxix., 729. These words might be taken from a treatise of Hübmaier, so well do they express his ideas.
- A case in point is that of Ludwig Hätzer, beheaded at Constance in 1529. The Anabaptist chroniclers are unanimous in saying that he "was condemned for the gospel, and witnessed in knightly fashion for the truth with his blood." Nevertheless, the Archives of Constance say that he was condemned for bigamy, which he had confessed. Everything in his life and writings gives the lie to this record, which is open to suspicion from the fact that Anabaptism was not then a capital offence in Constance, and some other pretext must be found to put him to death. In later years Hätzer was accused of advocating polygamy, and of having as many as twenty-four wives! We find no contemporary attestation to these slanders where we should most expect it if there were any truth in them. For example, Capito's letters to Zwingli (Zwingli, Op., vii., 420, 422, 455, 456, etc.), though they accuse Hätzer of many things, do not mention immorality. Füsslin rejects the charge altogether. Neue und unpartheyische Kirchen und Ketzerhistorie, iii., 269.