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Reformation Radicals

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By
Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
(412)822-7255
In considering the religious groups which were involved in the struggle against the Catholic church during the period of the Reformation, two groups immediately stand out: the Lutherans and the Reformed. These groups had wanted only to reform the Catholic church, and in effect became continuations of it in their respective countries. Although these two branches differed in many respects,(1) they were also quite similar.(2) However, there were other groups which were present at this time which did not fit into the mold of the Lutherans or the Reformed. These groups included the Anabaptists, the Mystics, and the Humanists. Each of these groups had their own doctrines which, although they were contrary to Catholicism were equally at odds with the more popular branches of the Reformation. It will be the purpose of this paper to investigate the characteristics of these groups and decide their place within the Reformation.

The best known "radical"(3) group during this period was the Anabaptist movement. In order to appropriately evaluate this group, it would be proper to begin with a background of the movement. Crucial to this is the answer to the queation, 'Where and when did the Anabaptists begin?' Many have said that the Anabaptists began in Switzerland during the fifteenth century. However, history does not seem to indicate that this was the exact point of their origin. Mosheim writes,

I believe the Mennonites (a form of Anabaptists) are not altogether in the wrong when they boast of a descent from these Waldenses, Petrobrusians, and others, who are usually styled witnesses for the truth before Luther...the greatest part of their singular opinons, as is well attested, were aporoved some centuries before Luther's time, by those who had such views of the church of Christ.(4)

A Quaker, Robert Barclay, adds,

The rise of the Anabaptists took place prior to the Reformation of the Churh of England, and there are also reasons for believing that on the Continent of Europe small hidden Christian societies, who have held many of the opinions of the Anabaptists, have existed from the times of the apostles.(5)
Finally, Dr. Ludwig Keller, a Reformed historian states, "It can be proved that Baptist churches existed for many decades and even centuries before the Reformation.(6) Statements like these, coupled with a careful examination of the history of New Testament churches, clearly indicates that the Anabaptiats were not products of the Protestant Reformation. They were a completely separate group long before Luther and Calvin began their ministries. The Anabaptist heritage was never part of the Catholic church. To put it another way, Sir Iaaac Newton wrote, "The Baptists are the only body of known Christians that have never symbolized with Rome."(7) Thus, in contradiction to what must be considered as popular, contemporary, Protestant thought, the Anabaptists did not come apart from the Catholic church as a branch of the Reformation.

The fact that the Anabaptists did not come out of the Roman church should help to explain why their views were so ''radical" when compared to the Lutherans and Reformed. Newman lists thirteen characteristics of the Anabaptist movement.

  • 1. Based on the New Testament principle of self-denial and brotherhood, they tended strongly towards communism.
  • 2. They instisted upon churches composed exclusively of professed believers and so of the truely regenerate.
  • 3. They believed that the practice of infant baptism was unscriptural, antiscriptural, and incompatible with the maintainance of churches of the regenerate.
  • 4. They repudiated any connection between church and state.
  • 5. They denied the right of a Christian to exercise magistracy.
  • 6. They regarded oaths as expressly prohibited by Christ.
  • 7. They regarded carnal warfare as completely contradictory to the spirit of the Gospel.
  • 8. They regarded capital punishment as anti Christian.
  • 9. They were opposed to the Augustinian system of doctrine, and insisted upon the freedom of the will and the necessity of good works as the fruit of faith.
  • 10. They renounced worldly plesaures and comforts.
  • 11. They believed in the solemnity of the Lord's Supper, which was for baptized believers only.
  • 12. They were very extreme in their separation.
  • 13. They always instituted a system of connectional church government between local churches.
These characteristics separated the Anabaptists from the Reformers. It was on account of these differences that great persecutions came upon the Anabaptists. These persecutions came not only from the Catholics, but also from the Protestants. Both groups considered the Anabaptists to be dangerous revolutionaries who were attempting to upset the eatablished order. Latourette claims that violence all but stamped them out on the Continent.(9) Yet they did survive.

Having examined the background and the characteristics of the Anabaptists, it would be profitable to examine the various segments within the movement during the Reformation. The first of these will be the Swiss Anabaptists. Zurich was one of the chief centers of the Anabaptist. There were perhaps two reasons for this. First of all, Switzerland had religious freedom. This reduced the persecution of the Anabaptists. Secondly, Zwingli laid great emphasis upon the Bible and this encouraged the rise of Anabaptist concepts also. It was in Zurich where Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz led the Anabaptists. Grebel was converted in 1520 and became closely associated with Zwingli. He was drawn to Zwingli because of his belief that infant baptism had no Scriptural warrant. However, in 1525, things began to change. Zwingli backed off from his stand against infant baptism. He desired to have the city council determine which religious practices were to be allowed. Grebel and Manz disagreed with this. In fact, Grebel went so far as to write a letter to Luther, urging him to apply the Scriptures with less compromise. Because of this disagreement, the city council ordered Grebel and Manz to discontinue their movement. This was done following attempts by Zwingli to defeat the Anabaptists in debates. Finally, in 1526, the council ordered that all Anabaptists were to be punished by drowning. As a result of this, the movement was practically nonexistent in Zurich by 1535.(10)

Another segment of the Anabaptist movement was to be found in Germany. This movement was led by Balthasar Hubmaier. Hubmaier was a priest, and a former pupil of John Ech, Luther's opponent at Leipzig. In 1523, he left the Catholic church. He pastored at Waldshut, near the Swiss border, and this gave him the opportunity to become associated with the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. He too was friendly at first toward Zwingli, but in the end broke away from him. He held that the Bible was the sole law of the church, and that the proper order of Christian development was: preaching the Word, hearing, belief, baptism, works.(11) Because of this he was forted to flee to Zurich, where he was imprisoned and tortured. Upon his release he went to Moravia, where he assumed leadership of the Anabaptists there, many of whom had fled the Zwinglian persecution. While there he was once again captured, and then burned at the stake by order of the Emperor in 1528.

A third segment of the Anabaptist movement was to be found in the Netherlands. This group was led by Menno Simons. He had been a Roman Catholic priest, but adopted the Anabaptist beliefs in 1536. The main reason for this decision was his realization that the Bible did not allow infant baptism. He assumed the leadership of the "brethren", which was the name used by the Dutch Anabaptists. Although under the condemnation of death, he travelled extensively and evangelized many converts. Upon his death, the Dutch Anabaptists adopted his name as theirs, and became known as the Mennonites.

The Anabaptists also had several missionaries. Melchior Hoffman travelled widely through Scandanavia preaching the Gospel. Hana Deuch travelled to a number of cities, as did Ludwig Hetzer.(12) Thus, it becomes plain that the Anabaptists had a great influence upon the times in which they lived.

A final question concerning the Anabaptists may be raised: 'Why did they attract such a following?' Those who joined the movement could expect only hardships and death. Newman answers this question when he writes,

Men of deep, religious earnestness, mastered by this idea (the idea that the Bible should be the only rule for faith and practice), came to see the inconsistency of the State-Church movements of Luther and Zwingli, in which the godly and ungodly mingled in church-fellowship and participated in all Christian ordinances, with the church purity and the seperation of believers from the ungodly exemplified by apostolic practice and required by apostolic precept. They longed for a church of the regenerate, where brethren and sisters in Christ could associate together in true Christian love.(13)
This longing was satisfied by the Anabaptist movement.

A second radical group was thc Mytics. These were individuals who separated from the Catholic church, but did not become involved in any one large ecclesiastical group. Some of them gathered small groups around them, while others went out strictly on their own. These mystics believed that they were Guided by the Spirit through inward illumination. While some felt that the Scriptures aided in this illumination, others disregarded them. The vital idea was the need for a personsal appropriation of Christ. Outward forms were of no importance, but rather a unity with God was to be achieved through contemplating Christ.

Several of these mystics should be mentioned. The first of these was Sebastian Franck. A fonmer priest, he converted to the Reformed faith, but was accused of having Anabaptist tendencies. He came out against the emphasis upon writing, and also against organization and external observances. He believed that each man had within him a divine element, which was the source of spiritual life. He gloried in the heretics, and included in that group all who had gone a separate path in search of truth. A close friend of his was Caspar Schwenkfeld. He was a Hussite, and greatly supported the cause of Luther. However, because of disagreements with Luther over the subjects of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and justification, he left the Reformers. He was very much opposed to confining the Christian faith within precise dogmas. He stressed instead the inner experience of the grace of God. He became a wanderer. Those who followed him called themselves "Confessors of the Glory of Christ." However, persecution eventually caused them to be scattered.

Other Mystics can be named. Jacob Boehme was a Lutheran, but believed in visions and revelations. He interpreted his visions and used this "illumination" to mold his views on Christ, God, and man. Jacob Kautz was another Mystic who set forth his position in a series of seven articles, written in 1528. He declared that the external Word is "not the true living eternally abiding word of God, but only the witness or indication of the inner word."(14) Among his teachings were the doctrine of universalism and the denial of the propitiatory nature of the death of Christ. A final Mystic was Johann Bunderlin. He was more radical than Kautz. He had the conviction that the ordinances should not be practiced by the Christians of that day. He wrote, "Christians need neither baptism nor the Supper...Christ baptizes in the Holy Ghost and in fire, as from the beginning of the world this has taken place in every believing heart."(15)

There was one more group of radicals which was present during the time of the Reformation. These were the Humanists. These individuals stressed the importance and use of rationalism. They emphasized, "the ethical aspect of New Testament teaching, and were inclined to be anti-Trinitarian and to regard Christ as an example and a leader to be followed rather than the divine-human Redeemer.''(16) This was only a natural consequence of their basic doctrine, which was the primacy of man. Because the Humanists took an optimistic view of man, they believed that man was competent to work out his own salvation. This of course did not agree with the beliefs of the Reformers and thus the Humanists were left on their own.

There are several of these Humanists who should be noticed. The first of these is Johannes Campanus. Campanus was educated at Cologne, but was expelled because of his oppositon to the scholastic teachers. He became influenced by a group of semi-pantheistic freethinkers. These individuals believed that all men would eventually be saved. They also believed that while the outward man could sin, the inward man could not because it proceeded from God. They also denied the existence of Hell.(17) This influence, coupled with his humanism, had a profound influence on his theology.

A second Humanist was Michael Servetus. He was educated in the classics, which are the foundationa of Humanistic thinking. He believed that baptism gave the kingdom of Heaven to men. He also denied that the preincarnate Logos was the Son of God. Views such as this were especially popular in the countries of Italy and Poland. Lelio Sozini, an Italian, travelled extensively in these two countries, and used his powers of reason to answer questions of faith. His nephew, Faustus Socinus, spent over twenty-five years in Poland, where he taught that Christ's death did not save, but rather that it was an example for man to imitate in order to obtain Heaven. He was a great leader of the anti-Trinitarians in Poland during that time.

The Anabaptists, Mystics, and Humanists were all considered to be radicals during the time of the Reformation. However, in many cases it is difficult to tell where one group stops and the next begins. All three groups were opposed to infant baptism, which was the major breech between them and the Reformers. It is for this reason that both the Mystics and the Humanists are often lumped in with the Anabaptists. However, it must be understood that these three groups are not even similar, let alone identical. The Anabaptists desired for the Bible to be their only rule for faith and practice. The Mystics did not allow for the Bible to be the rule, but rather looked inward for personal illumination from God. This often led to heresy, as did the view of the Humanists which stated that rational thinking was the key to discovering Spiritual truths. These last two groups overlap in certain areas as a number of Mystics were also schooled in the ways of Humanism. However, let it once more be said that the Mystics and Humanists, although anti-pedobaptist in nature, have no allegiance with the true Anabaptist movement. It ia undeniable though that all three of these "radical" groups had profound influences upon the Protestant Reformation.


1. When comparing Calvanism (Reformed) with Lutheranism, it is seen that Calvanism, a) was more evangelical; b) was more consistent in theology and polity; d) put a greater emphasis on the Christian life; d) was less national and more universal in spirit. Albert Newman, A Manual of Church History, vo1. II (Valley Forge; Judson Press, 1902), p. 202 .

2. Both groups sought to be the church of the entire comunity. Both believed in infant baptism, and attempted to bring into the church all those who were born in the community. Both maintained close relations with the state. Kenneth Latourette, A History of Chriatianity, vo1. II (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p. 78.

3.It might be understood that this term is used by the Protestants because these groups did not adhere to the Lutheran and Reformed beliefs. While the Mystics and the Humanists may indeed be radical, it should become obvious that Anabaptists are not.

4. John Von Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History vol. III (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1861), p. 200.

5. John Christian, A History of the Baptists, vol. I (Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1922), p. 200.

6. Ibid., p. 86.

7. J.M. Carroll, The Trail of Biood (Lexington: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1979), p. 3

8. Newman, op. cit., pp. 153-156.

9. Latourette, op. cit. . p. 779.

10. Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 332.

11. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), p. 327.

12. Though both of these men were part of the Anabaptist movement, their views bordered on those of a spiritualiatic mystic. Walker, op. cit., p. 379.

13.Newman, op. cit., p. 151.

14. Ibid., p. 183.

15. Ibid., p. 184.

16. Latourette, op. cit., p. 788.

17. Newman, op. cit., pp. 188-189.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cairns, Earle. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954.

Carroll, J.M. The Trail of Blood. Lexington: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1979.

Christian, John. A History of the Baptists, vol. I. Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1922.

Cramp, J.M. Baptist History. Philadelphia: American Bantist Publication Society, N.D.

Fisher, Geroge. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922.

Latourette, Kenneth. A History of Christianity, vol. II. New York: Harper and Row, 1953.

Mosheim, John Von. Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, vol. III. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1861.

Newman, Albert. A Manual of Church History, vo1. II. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1902.

Williston, Walker. A History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.



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