Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Anabaptists

ANABAPTISTS (re-baptisers, from ἀνά and βαπτίζω), a name sometimes applied indiscriminately to all denominations of Christians that deny the validity of infant baptism, but restricted in general usage to certain sects which became prominent in Germany and elsewhere at the period of the Reformation. In both cases the designation originates with opponents, and is repudiated by the great majority of those to whom it is applied. Believing, as they do, that the baptism of infants is no baptism, they naturally object to a name which implies that their baptism of such persons as may have been baptised in infancy is a second administration of the rite. It is therefore desirable to avoid the use of the term as descriptive of those who hold what are otherwise known as antipaedobaptist views. In its more limited sense the word has been too long in use, and is too well known to be now discarded, though it is open to the further objection, in addition to that already stated, that it describes a sect by one of the least important of its distinctive doctrines and practices. The Anabaptists of Germany are historically noteworthy, not because they insisted on re-baptism as the condition of admission to their communion, but because the enthusiasm of the Reformation manifested itself in them in a form and manner altogether peculiar. Their views as to the true constitution of the church and its relation to the state, and the efforts they made to realise these views, furnish a problem, partly theological, partly historical, of which a satisfactory solution is not easy. To one who looks merely at the extravagance and lawlessness which appear on the surface, fanaticism and madness may furnish a sufficient explanation of the whole Anabaptist movement, but a deeper insight will find many elements in it that are quite inconsistent with the supposition of nothing more than bare-faced imposture in the leaders, and blind delusion in the followers. There is an obvious genetic, though not historical connection between the Anabaptists and those earlier sects (Novatians, Donatists, Albigenses, Waldenses) which did not practise infant baptism. It is more important, however, to trace the relation between the Anabaptists and the great body of the Reformers. Anabaptism, as a system, may be defined as the Reformation doctrine carried to its utmost limit; the Anabaptists were the extreme left in the army of the Reformers. It is true that they regarded each other as in different camps; but their mutual denunciations cannot conceal the fact that even the most peculiar doctrines of the Anabaptists were to them only corollaries, illegitimately drawn, as the more orthodox Reformers thought, from the fundamental principle, common to both, of the independence of the individual judgment, and the supreme importance of the subjective element, personal faith, in religion. The connection of this principle with their theory of the church and its relation to the state, their doctrine of the sacraments, and even their political rising, is so obvious that it need not be dwelt upon. The history of the Anabaptist movement in its outward development is brief but eventful. In 1521 their first rising took place at Zwickau, under the leadership of Thomas Münzer, the Lutheran pastor of that place. (See Münzer.) Compelled to leave Zwickau, Münzer visited Bohemia, resided two years at Altstadt and Thuringia, and in 1524 spent some time in Switzerland. During this period he proclaimed his revolutionary doctrines in religion and politics with growing vehemence, and, so far as the lower orders were concerned, with growing success. The crisis came in the so-called Peasants War in South Germany, in 1525. In its origin a revolt against feudal oppression, it became, under the leadership of Münzer, a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force his ideal Christian commonwealth, with absolute equality and the community of goods. The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen (May 15, 1525), followed as it was by the execution of Münzer and several other leaders, proved only a temporary check to the Anabaptist movement. Here and there throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands there were zealous propagandists, through whose teaching many were prepared to follow as soon as another leader should arise. A second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster, in Westphalia (1532-5). Here the sect had gained considerable influence, through the adhesion of Rothmann, the Lutheran pastor, and several prominent citizens; and the leaders, Johann Matthyszoon or Matthiesen, a baker of Haarlem, and Johann Bockhold, a tailor of Leyden, had little difficulty in obtaining possession of the town and deposing the magistrates. Vigorous preparations were at once made, not only to hold what had been gained, but to proceed from Münster as a centre to the conquest of the world. The town being besieged by Count Waldeck, its expelled bishop (April 1534), Matthiesen, who was first in command, made a sally with only thirty followers, under the fanatical idea that he was a second Gideon, and was cut off with his entire band. Bockhold, better known in history as John of Leyden, was now supreme. Giving himself out as the successor of David, he claimed royal honours and absolute power in the new “Zion.” He justified the most arbitrary and extravagant measures by the authority of visions from heaven, as others have done in similar circumstances. With this pretended sanction he legalised polygamy, and himself took four wives, one of whom he beheaded with his own hand in the market-place in a fit of frenzy. As a natural consequence of such licence, Münster was for twelve months a scene of unbridled profligacy. After an obstinate resistance the town was taken by the besiegers on the 24th June 1535, and in January of the following year Bockhold and some of his more prominent followers, after being cruelly tortured, were executed in the market-place. The outbreak at Münster was the crisis of the Anabaptist movement. It never again had the opportunity of assuming political importance, the civil powers naturally adopting the most stringent measures to suppress an agitation whose avowed object was to suppress them. It is difficult to trace the subsequent history of the sect as a religious body. The fact that, after the Münster insurrection, the very name Anabaptist was proscribed in Europe, is a source of twofold confusion. The enforced adoption of new names makes it easy to lose the historical identity of many who really belonged to the Münster Anabaptists, and, on the other hand, has led to the classification of many with the Münster sect who had no real connection with it. The latter mistake, it is to be noted, has been much more common than the former. The Mennonites, for example, have been identified with the earlier Anabaptists, on the ground that they included among their number many of the fanatics of Münster. But the continuity of a sect is to be traced in its principles and not in its adherents, and it must be remembered that Menno and his followers expressly repudiated the distinctive doctrines of the Münster Anabaptists. They have never aimed at any social or political revolution, and have been as remarkable for sobriety of conduct as the Münster sect was for its fanaticism. (See Mennonites.) In English history frequent reference is made to the Anabaptists during the 16th and 17th centuries, but there is no evidence that any considerable number of native Englishmen ever adopted the principles of the Münster sect. Many of the followers of Münzer and Bockhold seem to have fled from persecution in Germany and the Netherlands to be subjected to a persecution scarcely less severe in England. The mildest measure adopted towards these refugees was banishment from the kingdom, and a large number suffered at the stake. It has already been explained that the application of the term Anabaptist to those English sects that had nothing in common with the German Anabaptists except the practice of adult baptism, is unjustifiable. (See Baptists.)