Anabaptists | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Anabaptists, religious and social dissenters in 16th-century Europe.


Anabaptists, religious and social dissenters in 16th-century Europe. In Switzerland Anabaptists arose out of the humanistically oriented Reformation in Zürich in 1525; in south and central Germany and Austria, out of joint streams of medieval mysticism and apocalypticism (the expectation that the end of the world is imminent) in 1526; in the Netherlands, out of sacramentarianism (the belief that the sacraments are merely outward symbols) and apocalyptic perfectionism in 1530.

The word Anabaptist derives from Greek, meaning re-baptizer, and came to be ascribed to those who follow the doctrine that baptism should be administered only to believing adults. Leaders of the broader movement that rejected infant baptism included Andreas Karlstadt, Thomas Mntzer, Jakob Strauss and Eberhard Weidensee. Those who practiced adult re-baptism were commonly referred to as Tufer, Baptizers in German, but most referred to each other as the Brethren. In time, most of the Anabaptist groups in diverse regions were named after their respective leaders (Mennonite, Hutterite, Amish).

Major leaders in Switzerland were Conrad Grebel, Ludwig Htzer, Balthasar Hubmaier and Michael Sattler; in Germany and Austria, Hans Denck, Hans Hut, Jacob Hutter (see Hutterites), Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann; in the Netherlands, Melchior Hoffman, David Joris, Dirk Philips, Bernhard Rothmann, and Menno Simons (see Mennonites). In the regions to the east of Germany, especially Moravia and Poland, Anabaptists flourished under more tolerant religious policies.

Radical Departures

The movement was relatively small in numbers, but it appeared in most German-speaking areas of Europe as well as in France, England, Poland, Moravia, Hungary and Italy. It quickly came under intense pressure everywhere because of its radical departure from traditional beliefs and polity, and it was regarded as socially and politically dangerous. In the 16th and 17th centuries, nearly 1000 Anabaptists were killed because of their re-baptism. Not until the 19th century did Anabaptists receive civil rights in Europe. Especially in the early movement more leadership roles were available to women than in other Christian traditions, and at least one third of the martyrs were women.

Although not organizationally linked, the 3 originating groups shared characteristics. The first was emancipation from the tutelages of the past and an insistence upon the freedom of laymen to make their own spiritual choices. The authority of papal and academic hierarchies was rejected in favour of the exclusive authority of scripture, and scriptural interpretation became the prerogative and obligation of the congregation. Every function of civil government in the congregation was rejected. Anabaptists insisted upon religious liberty. While there were several direct connections between the Peasants War (1524-25) which involved a series of violent events immediately preceding the rise of Anabaptism, and the rise of early Anabaptism, eventually most Anabaptists rejected the use of violence and eschewed participation in government and military service (see Pacifism). All adopted a congregational structure with voluntary internal discipline. The church was seen as the continuing presence and activity of Christ in the world. Changes in doctrine and practice are expressed in periodic confessional statements.

Beliefs and Practices

Anabaptists rejected the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by God's grace alone, and insisted that the believer's inward faith must be authenticated and supplemented by outward actions: believers must bear the cross of discipleship, thus participating in the process of becoming reconciled with God and creation. Infants were not baptized because they did not comprehend faith and could not make their own commitment to Christian discipleship. Conscious, deliberate participation in the process of salvation was symbolized in adult ("believer's") baptism, as a mindful decision by each individual. Most believers rejected the doctrine of original sin and held to the doctrine of free will, as maintained by the Catholic humanist Erasmus against Protestants who generally rejected free will.

The emphasis on good works produced a strong strain of perfectionism. The Anabaptist leader in Mnster, Bernhard Rothmann, emphasized that Christ, who was to return soon, was to find his bride (the church) without spot or wrinkle. Perfectionism led to frequent divisions within the movement such as the Amish schism of 1693 in which the main issue was church discipline.

Anabaptists in North America

The migration of various groups from Europe who may be considered heirs to the Anabaptist movement include Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, and the Brethren (see Brethren in Christ), the latter originating in 1708 in Germany with indirect connections to the Anabaptist tradition. Two other groups that practice adult baptism and are closely related to Anabaptists include Baptists, who generally originate from the English Reformation of the early 1600s, and the Schwenckfelders, who also originated during the same early context and debates as the Anabaptists but are now very small in number.

Persecution led to emigrations as early as 1644 when Dutch Mennonites settled in New Amsterdam (New York) and by 1683 migrations of greater numbers of German and Swiss came to North America under the invitation of William Penn and first settled in Germantown, PA. Their travel was funded by wealthy Dutch Mennonites. In 1719 the early Brethren groups also settled in Pennsylvania.

Migration to Canada

The first settlements of Mennonites in the Niagara region of Ontario were established in 1786 and in the early 1800s a large community was founded in Waterloo County. By 1801 Mennonites established the first congregation in Vineland, which continues today as First Mennonite Church, Vineland. Mennonites and Brethren in Christ, along with Quakers, were granted official exemption from military service in 1793, but they were required to pay an annual tax to support the militia. Finally in 1849, after lobbying efforts, the tax was eliminated. Exemption from military service has been granted to these groups, often called historic peace churches, although they have sometimes been required to perform alternative civilian service in times of conscription. In the 1870s, many Hutterites migrated from Russia to the US to escape compulsory military service and then moved to Canada en masse to escape persecution and be allowed exemption from military service.

In addition to the Mennonite and Brethren groups, another Canadian Anabaptist tradition that has recently been formed is popularly known as the Missionary Church. In 1883 the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church was formed out of several smaller Mennonite and Brethren groups as a spiritual renewal movement. In 1987 the Missionary Church of Canada withdrew from the United Missionary Church in the US to form a new national denomination and in 1993 merged with the Evangelical Church in Canada creating the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. There are almost 900 congregations in Canada related to Anabaptism.

See also Evangelical and Fundamentalist Movements and Missions and Missionaries.

Further Reading