(This section is based on an article by Alan Kreider in the book ‘Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland’).
The name that was used for these persecuted refugees from Flanders, the name ‘Anabaptist’, was a name given them by those who persecuted them. In the long story of the Christian church, it was a name with a history. In the early Christian centuries it was used for the Donatist heretics, who rebaptized those who had already been baptized by clergy they considered to be apostate. At the time of the Donatist controversy it was made a capital offence to rebaptize someone, and those who did so were called ‘Anabaptists’. This name was purposely revived in the 16th century so that the death sentence could be imposed on the ‘Brethren’, or the ‘Defenceless Christians’ – two of the names they actually used for themselves.
But in 16th century England the title was used very loosely. As Alan Kreider says, ‘there were many people who called others, whom they didn’t like, Anabaptists. “Anabaptist” was the way that one stigmatized someone whose social or theological stance was more radical than one’s own. But everyone in the period agreed: there were no English Anabaptist congregations, and there were very few English Anabaptists’. The persecuted Flemings in prison concurred with this; they wrote:
They pretend there are so many thousands of us in the country, who want to take possession of countries and cities; whereas no such thoughts have entered into our hearts, for it is impossible to take possession of countries and cities without violence and bloodshed… We have not so easy a faith, that they flock to us in crowds; only here and there may be a household, which are very solitary.
Nevertheless, fear of Anabaptism was widespread, and opposition to it was famously incorporated into the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, as follows:
The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.
It seemed that everyone wanted to make sure others knew that they weren’t Anabaptists. Contemporary Baptist theologian Nigel Wright is fond of saying, “When Baptists want to appear respectable they talk about their Puritan roots; when they want to appear radical they talk about their Anabaptist heritage – and most of the time most Baptists have wanted to appear respectable!”
But why did the established Church of England in the 16th century see these people as such a threat? Alan Kreider points to the concern for social cohesion at the time, the fear of a Muenster-like revolution, despite the fact that all parts of the Anabaptist movement had repudiated the ethics and social strategy of Muenster. In 1575 it seemed that the moderate Protestantism represented by the Queen and the Church of England was on the ascendancy, but extremists on both sides were simply biding their time, as the civil war of the next century showed. For the stability of the country it was felt to be necessary to maintain the underlying assumptions of Christendom, and it was precisely these assumptions that the Anabaptists seemed to be challenging.
Alan Kreider lists six areas of disagreement between the Anabaptists and their Anglican persecutors.
First, heresy. The Anabaptists knew that the leaders of the Church of England referred to them as ‘heretics’. And indeed there was some justification for this. The first article which the Bishop of London demanded that they sign referred to a bizarre doctrine called ‘The celestial flesh of Christ’ – the idea that Christ got his human flesh not from the Virgin Mary but directly from heaven. This teaching was adopted by Dutch Anabaptists, including Melchior Hoffman and Menno Simons, although most 16th century Anabaptists repudiated it, and Mennonites have long since abandoned it.
But as Alan Kreider points out, ‘the church authorities viewed an amateurly constructed statement on the incarnation as heresy to be extirpated at all costs, but they did not consider their own behaviour to be a deviation from the gospel or from the earliest Christian traditions’. To the Anabaptists, doctrine was not just a matter of theory, but of walking as Christ walked. And judged by this light, how was it, they asked, that persecution is not wrong teaching? Why isn’t persecution heresy?
Second, establishment. To the Anabaptists the Church of England was an alliance with the civil power; as Bishop Sandys put it in one of his sermons, “One God, one king, one faith, one profession, is fit for one monarchy and commonwealth”. But to the Anabaptists this was an unacceptable path for Christian disciples; being a Christian meant submitting to the Lordship of Jesus and evaluating all other allegiances in the light of that primary allegiance. And to them, whether or not Queen Elizabeth really knew Jesus, it seemed plain that she embodied policies which seemed to disobey him, policies of violence and persecution. Furthermore, it seemed clear to them that the Church of England, in submitting itself to the English state, was compromising its loyalty to Jesus at several key points such as the use of violence, the swearing of oaths, and the persistence of huge differences in wealth and power between the rich and the poor.
Third, ecclesiology. To the Anabaptists, membership in the Church of England was based on compulsion: everyone in England was legally required to belong to it, and many who were thus declared its members by law were in fact behaving in ways that were incompatible with Christian discipleship. To the Anabaptists this was an inevitable result of compulsion; it doesn’t produce committed disciples who will live out the way of Jesus. The true church, in contrast, would be made up of volunteers who would commit themselves of their own free will to following Jesus together, and thus within every nation would live the life of a community of resident aliens.
Fourth, baptism. The Anabaptists saw infant baptism as yet another instance of religious compulsion. Baptism was important to them, and in their minds it was a matter of Christian obedience to follow the biblical order of first evangelism, second faith and baptism, and third teaching, an order that, to them, precluded infant baptism. But perhaps the most telling of their complaints is found in a little aside in one of their letters, where they say of their persecutors, “They accuse us of being disobedient to the magistrate, because we do not have our children baptized”. Baptism, to them, could not possibly be a matter of compulsion, either for parents or for their ‘speechless children’, as they called them.
Fifth, hermeneutics. The Anabaptists saw their Anglican persecutors as having an inconsistent way of interpreting the Bible. Bishop Sandys and his fellow-clergy appealed to Deuteronomy 13:5: “It is the Lord’s commandment; let the false prophet die”. But if Deuteronomy were to be the law for Christians, the Anabaptists reasoned, “we would have to kill not only the false prophets, but also the adulterers, whoremongers, and those who take the name of the Lord in vain and curse”. In contrast, the Anabaptists had adopted an alternative hermeneutic whereby the words and the way of Jesus provided the interpretive key to the rest of the Scriptures; everything else was judged by their light.
Sixth, learning and status. The Anabaptists viewed themselves as simple poor folk and saw the representatives of the Church of England as their social and intellectual betters. Nonetheless, throughout the whole process of their imprisonment and trial they held onto their self-respect. Alan Kreider comments:
They were holding on, it seems to me, to the intuition that they could see things that others were missing. The gospel talks about persecution, but never about imposing it; persecution, as numerous New Testament texts pointed out which the Anabaptists never tired of quoting, is the price of following Jesus seriously. Thus the Anabaptists could, perhaps with a wry smile, appropriate to themselves the Pauline self-designation – “the off-scouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). And we might, as we contemplate their day and ours, begin to ask, “In what social setting can one best read the Bible with understanding? Is there perhaps a hermeneutical privilege of the ‘off-scoured’?
So the initial contact between Anabaptism and Anglicanism did not have a happy ending, and although in the next century there came to be Baptist congregations in England, some of which had some contacts with Dutch Mennonites, nevertheless for three hundred years the distinctive Anabaptist voice was silent in Britain.
But in recent years that situation has changed, and I would also argue that subtle shifts in the Anglican ethos over the years have made Anglicanism a much more congenial place to practice an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity than it once was. Of this, more in the next section…