What is Anabaptism?

jesus12-follow-jesus_footsteps_beachNine years ago this month, I travelled to the UK to begin a three-month sabbatical leave, the first and only sabbatical I have ever taken. I made the decision to spend my time continuing my reading and exploration of Anabaptist Christianity. A lot of people were surprised that I elected to do that in England (rather than, say, Goshen, Indiana), given that there is no ethnic Mennonite tradition in England. But I did this deliberately, because I was not interested in learning about ethnic Mennonite culture per se, but rather in Anabaptism as a spiritual tradition, a tradition of discipleship.

As it happened, in the course of the sabbatical I became less confident that generic Anabaptism and Mennonite history and practice can be separated – generic ‘Anabaptism’, ungrounded in the real practice of a real, flesh and blood congregation, can easily become a mirage rather than a movement made up of flawed and fallible human beings – but I remain grateful for the time I spent in the UK. It was through the website of the Anabaptist Network in the UK that I had first been captivated by Anabaptist thought, and I relished the opportunity to meet the people involved in the Network, to spend time at the London Mennonite Centre (now The Mennonite Trust) reading in their library, and to continue my reading and pondering over the course of the three months I was in England.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that I knew nothing of Anabaptism before that day some time in 2005 when I first (accidentally) clicked on the website of the Anabaptist Network. I’d had Mennonite friends for years, I’d read some of the novels of Rudy Wiebe, and I’d read about the Anabaptists in church history classes in college. But, of course, I’d read about them from the perspective of people who disagreed with them – never allowing the Anabaptists themselves to explain their convictions to me. Now I did, and immediately I felt at home.

I did not become a Mennonite – although I came close for a while – and so it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Anabaptism was a ‘phase’ I went through. That would be a wrong conclusion. I continue to this day to think of myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican’. Many of the key emphases of Anabaptism – discipleship as the controlling paradigm of the Christian life, the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus, reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus, the separation of church and state and the primary loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King above any allegiance to the state, a distrust of clericalism, every-member ministry, a preference for simple worship and simple living, pacifism and nonviolence, reconciliation – have continued to be central to my understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be ‘church’. The Anabaptist in me continues to challenge the Anglican, just as sometimes the Anglican continues to challenge the Anabaptist. I know that I am no longer entirely comfortable as an Anglican (if I ever was), but I am sure I would not be entirely comfortable as a Mennonite either. And maybe that’s a good place to be.

Still, the seven ‘Core Convictions‘ of the Anabaptist Network continue to express some of my deepest ideals of what being a Christian is all about – even if I am not in entire agreement with every single detail of them. Stuart Murray Williams has written a fine book exploring them – ‘The Naked Anabaptist‘ – and that book has been an inspiration to me as I continue on this journey as an Anabaptist Anglican. I have no idea where that journey will lead, but one thing I am sure of is that it’s not ‘just a phase’ I’m going through.

Early in 2007, before I went to England on my sabbatical leave, I wrote the following article on Anabaptism. I continue to stand by it for the most part, and republish it today to introduce people who’ve started reading my blog since then to the spiritual riches of the Anabaptist way.



“Okay, Tim, so you say you’re going to study Anabaptism on your sabbatical. Now, what the heck is that?”

Good question, and it’s not one I can give a short answer to. In this post, I’ll say a little about the early history of the Anabaptist movement.

I should say at the outset that the word ‘Anabaptist’ was not a name the early followers of this movement gave to themselves; it was a name given to them by others who disagreed with them. It means ‘rebaptizer’, and comes from the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe an infant baptism was a valid baptism; therefore they practiced adult believers’ baptism. More about that later.

Anabaptism was originally a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in parts of western and central Europe. The early Anabaptists consciously put the person of Jesus (as he is revealed in the gospels) at the centre of their Christian faith, in contrast to the mainstream Reformation leaders who often appeared to be more interested in the teachings of St. Paul.

The Anabaptists believed that Christians are born again to a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus (‘discipleship’), and in this life they especially emphasized simple living and economic sharing, nonviolence and love for enemies, and truth-telling (they refused to participate in war or take oaths in court because of this). They tried to establish believers’ churches, free from the control of the state, in which they attempted to restore a simple New Testament Christianity as they understood it. In this New Testament Christianity there was no distinction between clergy and laity; all were followers of Jesus, and all joined together in interpreting the Bible and in doing Christ’s work. Although the movement had similiarities with both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, it is best understood as being neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a distinct Christian tradition with its own vision of what Christian faith and life is all about.

The early Anabaptists came mainly from the poorer end of society, and many of them were in fact illiterate, although a few were university graduates, monks, and priests. The movement was driven underground by persecution from both Catholics and Protestants, who saw it was a threat to the order of society, in which church and state were one and the same, under the control of the powers-that-be. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were executed for their beliefs, by burning at the stake or by drowning (a cruel parody of their belief in adult baptism). There were four main geographical branches of the movement: the Swiss Brethren, the South German and Austrian Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites. It was not an organized movement, and pinning down its essential beliefs is sometimes difficult.

Anabaptists were radicals who believed that the Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican reformers had not gone far enough; they had made the Bible authoritative for doctrines, but not for ethics or the way church was organized. Anabaptists believed the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) should be followed for these things as well. Hence their rejection of war and violence, or the oath, or the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, or the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people (the list could go on).

Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperors first tolerated Christianity, and then made it the official religion of their empire, the ‘Christendom’ worldview had seen church and society as one. In Christendom, people did not choose to become Christians as they did in New Testament times; rather, they were assumed to be Christians because they lived in a Christian country and had been baptized in a state church as infants. Churches were under the control of the local prince, who decided the religion of his subjects, and the churches generally refrained from emphasizing aspects of the teaching of the New Testament that threatened the prince’s power (like pacifism, for instance, or simple living). Anabaptists challenged this, and sought to re-establish the New Testament vision of the church as an alternative to society, a counter-culture, a resistance movement, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

Anabaptism was largely a church of the poor. Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with very few wealthy, academic, or influential members. They were seen as subversives and were strongly opposed by those with a vested interest in the wealth and power structures of society. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.

“Well, what has all this got to do with us today, and why are you planning to spend three months studying an obscure sixteenth-century movement?” For a couple of reasons.

First, the Christendom system has largely collapsed in our time. Church and society are no longer one and the same. Society in general no longer believes or practices the Christian faith, and no longer helps people to become Christians; in fact, rather the opposite. The Church is no longer in a position of power in society; we are a marginal movement, like the Anabaptists and in fact like the New Testament Christians. How do you do Christian mission in this new situation? The Anabaptist tradition has a lot to teach us about this.

Second, the things the Anabaptists believed are highly relevant to us today. They believed that the decision to become a Christian is a free choice, not something coerced by state or family. They believed that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the centre of the Christian life. They believed that the Bible should be interpreted by the standard of Jesus, and that if parts of it seem to contradict Jesus, we should understand them according to his life and teachings. They believed that churches are fellowships of disciples who minister together and help one another –even holding one another accountable for their discipleship – rather than passive communities under the rule of a priest who alone has the authority. They believed that Christians should not accumulate excessive wealth and should share what they have with those in need. They believed that the teaching of Jesus requires Christians to love their enemies, to reject war and violence, and to speak the truth at all times.

As I said, I think these things are highly relevant for us today. I think they challenge us to base our life as a church and as individuals on the teaching of Jesus and the early apostles and not on traditions that grew up during the Christendom era.

In my next post I will say a little more about the distinctive beliefs of the Anabaptists.

(Note: this post is largely based on this article from the Anabaptist Network website).

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