Editor’s note: The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation collided with the reality that there are still martyrs today. Ron F. Hale, a former IBSA director of evangelism, examines the Anabaptist movement that catalyzed a second Reformation of sorts, and gives Baptists another piece of their spiritual heritage.
On the heels of the Reformation came the Radical Reformers, who questioned everything that didn’t have scriptural authority. Infant baptism and the observance of Mass caused the greatest angst for Anabaptists. And like shooting stars against the backdrop of the Dark Ages, many forces came forth to snuff out these bright lights.
Sixteenth-century Anabaptists were put to death by state-church authorities as they launched the most revolutionary act of the Reformation. Thousands died—burned at the stake, drowned in the rivers of Europe, run through with swords, or starved in putrid prisons.
The wheels of this revolution began turning as young intellectuals gathered around the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli in serious study of the Greek New Testament. Some of the young theologians became convinced that Zwingli and others lacked sufficient reforms in purifying the church and recovering New Testament practices.
In all this Reformation talk, don’t forget the Anabaptists.
On the evening of Jan. 21, 1525, several men who became known as the Swiss Brethren met without Zwingli in the home of Felix Manz in Zürich. After earnest prayer, George Blaurock (a Catholic priest) begged Conrad Grebel to baptize him with true Christian baptism upon his confession of faith in Jesus.
After Blaurock received his own baptism, he baptized the others as they came humbly, promising God and each other to live separated from the world and to preach the gospel. The next morning, these young men hit the streets preaching and baptizing new believers as they boldly lived out the Great Commission of Jesus.
The Zurich council vigorously suppressed this movement and established an ordinance that the teaching or preaching of Anabaptism was against the law. The radicals were derisively labeled “re-baptizers.”
Withholding your baby from the baptism font or re-baptizing citizens upon their profession of faith became illegal. Sam Storms, a pastor and former professor at Wheaton College, indicates that more than 5,000 Anabaptists were executed in Switzerland by 1535.
Felix Manz was the first person to be executed from the tiny group that met in his home on that historic night. With the support of Zwingli, Manz was taken from the Wallenberg prison tower on a cold winter day. He was taken to the fish market by the Limmat River to be read his death sentence. He was forced into a boat and escorted to a little hut in the middle of the river by a pastor and his executioner. Felix Manz was shackled and pulled from the top of the fishing hut, disappearing into his watery grave.
George Blaurock, the first to be baptized that fateful night, was later burned at the stake on Sept. 6, 1529, in Klassen (now Austria), after winning and baptizing hundreds to Christ.
The movement continues
The Anabaptist movement would grow to be important beyond the issues of Mass and infant baptism. It became a new paradigm of doing church. The old parish concept of every baby being baptized as a new member of the church was being replaced by a “free church” model where only those mature enough to confess Christ as Lord and follow him in believer’s baptism would be regenerate members of the local church. These members would observe the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal without sacramental and medieval trappings.
Michael Sattler became important to the movement as the writer of the Seven Articles, the first Anabaptist declaration of faith. The articles, now referred to as the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, became widely circulated and accepted. However, Sattler became a marked man.
On May 20, 1527, he was tortured prior to being burned at the stake. A part of his tongue was cut out, his flesh was burned with red-hot tongs. His faithful wife, Margaretha, was drowned eight days later.
If biblical authority was the major issue between Magisterial Reformers (those associated with Martin Luther and John Calvin) and the Roman Catholics, believers’ baptism became that between the Anabaptists and the Magisterial Reformers. Anabaptist historian William Estep said, “Believers’ baptism was for the Anabaptists the logical implementation of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.”
Dr. Balthasar Hübmaier of Friedberg became the ablest defender of the Anabaptist position on believers-only baptism in the 16th century. Estep called him the Simon Peter of early Anabaptists.
Hübmaier saw that the regenerate nature of the church presupposes a certain degree of maturity, personal faith, and volition. Since infants cannot confess sins and believe, then infant baptism had to be dismissed as unscriptural. Since neither John [the Baptist], Jesus, nor the apostles taught or practiced infant baptism, Hübmaier never tired of denouncing this practice. He saw no saving power in church water. Nor could he find any New Testament evidence of a godfather or spiritual sponsor being able to believe for the infant undergoing baptism.
Hübmaier and his wife were martyred in Vienna in 1528. Baptists owe a debt of gratitude to them and other Anabaptists who stood firmly—even unto death—on Scripture, rather than church tradition, as the final authority on matters of faith and practice.
Ron F. Hale has served as a Southern Baptist pastor, denominational leader, and religion writer. He currently ministers on the pastoral staff of a local SBC congregation in his hometown of Jackson, Tenn.