Anabaptists (Gr. a rebaptizer), a name sometimes applied to all those sects of modern times of which rebaptism has been a distinguishing mark. The justice of the appellation has never been acknowledged by those to whom it has been applied. In receiving converts to their communion, they administered baptism, not as repeating the sacred rite, but as a valid baptism, in place of one which was imperfect or void. Thus, the Baptists repel the name Anabaptists, not, as some suppose, for the mere purpose of repudiating an alleged connection with the fanatics of the reformation, but because it does not represent correctly their practice. They baptize, as they allege, according to the original institution of the rite, and therefore claim to be Baptists; they never repeat baptism in the case of any who, in their judgment, have been so baptized; and they therefore deny that they are Anabaptists. It may be doubted whether the word, as now applied to Baptists, is not always intended as a reproach; certainly it should be excluded in that application from respectable modern literature, as giving an unnecessary offence. - The title belongs historically to large classes of people who sprung up in various countries of Europe during the period of the reformation.
Though applied to them against their remonstrances, it has become fixed in literature as a historical term, and is too convenient for practical purposes to be expelled by any considerations of critical justice. Whether these various classes agreed or not in things more essential; whether they were furious and fanatical, or gentle and pious; whether setting up mock kingdoms by force of arms, or conscientiously abstaining from the use of arms altogether, they were alike in the visible thing of repeating baptism, and hence were designated by a common name, and too often visited with common penalties and maledictions. It is the business of the historian to discriminate between these classes, to look beyond names for historical facts, and to redeem from the reproach of many generations great numbers of people whose faith was in essential harmony with the faith of Protestantism, whose lives were pure, and whose deaths were a rare and honorable martyrdom. In this historical discrimination something has been already effected.
Illustrations generally accessible may be found in Burnet's "History of the Reformation in England," Brandt's "History of the Reformation in the Netherlands," Mosheim's "Institutes of Ecclesiastical History," and especially in the "Dutch Martyrology," published by the Han-serd Knollys society, London, under the editorial care of Edward B. Underbill. - Precisely when or where the Anabaptists of the reformation period first appeared, whether in Germany or Switzerland, it is difficult if not impossible to determine. They sprung up like rank vegetation, under sudden and refreshing rains, after drought and sterility. The solution of the problem is found in the fact that the seeds were in the soil. The better classes of them claimed a descent from the Waldenses, the Wycliffites, and the Hussites, who had struggled for a church separated from the world and distinguished by the holiness of its members. Consciously or unconsciously, ideas like these must have been working in the minds of multitudes in various countries. When, therefore, the reformation came, opening the Bible to the people, announcing its revelations as the highest law, and inviting the human mind to freedom of thought, these principles acquired sudden and prodigious force.
Ardent minds, bent in the direction of a primitive Christianity, and of a social order corresponding thereto, were dissatisfied with the partial reformation which contented Luther and Zwingli, and demanded more. This demand, sharpened by discussion, became a popular movement, and, pushed to its last development, took the opposite directions, on the one hand, of a wild, ungovernable, and licentious fanaticism, subversive of all social order, and on the other, of a mystical though sincere and genuine piety, characterized by some harmless eccentricities of faith and by separation from the world. These parties, so diverse in character and tendencies, went under the common name of Anabaptists, because they were distinguished by the common, visible badge of rebaptism. - The usual references in illustration of the character of the furious Anabaptists are the following: In 1521 they made their appearance at Zwickau, and, accepting as their leader Thomas Munzer, took part in the peasants' war, and shared its sanguinary results. Munzer and his associates are represented as having claimed a divine commission not only to establish a community of holy persons, but also to extirpate magistrates by the sword.
He excited his followers to revolt against the civil authorities, and assured them of the immediate deliverance of Christendom from the grievous oppressions of its rulers. They were totally defeated, May 15, 1525, near Muhlhausen, and the leaders were put to death. Itinerant prophets still, however, spread the principles of the sect. They declaimed against the wickedness of the times, and demanded a community of saints, without distinction of rank or office. They claimed an internal light, which was of more value than learning in interpreting divine revelation. No Christian might exercise the functions of a magistrate or take an oath. Property was to be shared in common among the faithful. In 1533 they began to concentrate their operations at Minister. John Matthias of Haarlem and John Boccold of Ley-den were their leaders. They had gained over to their cause Rothmann, the preacher who introduced the reformation into that city, and Knipperdolling, a leading citizen. Seizing the arsenal and the senate house, they placed Matthias at the head of affairs, and his authority became arbitrary and complete.
The inhabitants were trained to military duty, the fortifications were strengthened, and the faithful were invited to come from every quarter to aid the struggles and share the triumphs of Mount Zion, from which they were to proceed to the conquest of the world. Count Waldeck, prince and bishop of Minister, surrounded the city with an army. Matthias sallied out and gained signal advantages. His fanaticism rose with his success, and, issuing forth again with only 30 followers relying on their spiritual pretensions, was with all of them put to death. John Boccold was now raised to the throne of David, in obedience to divine commands made known in visions. He wore a crown, clothed himself in purple, coined money, and appointed judges. But the fanaticism, when it had reached the height of spiritual folly, passed by an easy transition to license and sensuality. The obligations of matrimony were declared invasive of spiritual liberty, and freedom of divorce and licentiousness followed. King John himself multiplied his wives, honoring, however, one of them only as his queen. The example of the monarch was not lost upon the people, and the name of Minister during the reign of the Anabaptists has passed to history as the synonymc of unbridled and indecent lust.
The city was taken June 24, 1535, after a brave defence, in which Rothmann was slain. John Boccold, and Knipperdolling and Krechting, leading associates, were tortured with red-hot pincers, and then hung up in iron cages, which are still preserved in Munster. Thus in 15 months perished the kingdom of the Anabaptists. Even now, however, the delusion did not cease. It subsided indeed into its more spiritual character, and its excesses were chiefly individual and local. But the fanaticism of this class of Anabaptists remained the reproach of the reformation, and the terror of civil society. - There was another class of Anabaptists, widely different from those who have been described. In some instances, undoubtedly, when the former class fell back upon their purely spiritual views, the two parties coalesced. Brandt refers to an instance in which the moderate were brought into difficulty by being found in such association with the fanatical. The distinction, however, is real, and may be traced. It is a mistake to suppose that the rejection of infant baptism during the reformation was found among the unlearned only.
Melanch-thon, Zwingli, and Œcolampadius were all troubled by the questions which arose respecting the adjustment of this rite to the personal faith required by Protestantism. Some of those who became leaders of the Anabaptists were the associates and equals of these reformers. Mantz, Grebel, and Hubmeyer were men of learning - the last of great genius and eloquence. Mantz had been the friend and fellow student of Zwingli, and was an early martyr in the cause of the Anabaptists, Zwingli himself pronouncing his sentence in the words, " Qui iterum mergit, mergatur." The persecution of such men and their followers in Switzerland shocked the moderate of all parties. In expressing his views of this persecution, Erasmus pays a tribute to the character of the sufferers in these words: "A people against whom there is very little to be said, and concerning whom we are assured there are many who have been reformed from the worst to the best lives; and though, perhaps, they may foolishly err in certain opinions, yet have they never stormed towns nor churches, nor entered into any combinations against the authority of the magistrate, nor driven anybody from his government or estate." These people, so persecuted, demanded a church composed of spiritual persons, introduced into it by a voluntary baptism.
They demanded likewise the separation of the church from the state, and the noninterference of the magistrate in matters of religion. Anabaptists of the same class were found in the Netherlands in large numbers. The record of their sufferings, their martyrs multiplied by thousands, furnishes a melancholy and affecting chapter in human history. "William of Orange, founder of the Dutch republic, was sustained in the gloomiest hours of his struggles by their sympathy and aid, and has left his testimony to their loyalty, industry, and virtue. That great prince, however importuned, steadfastly refused to persecute them. The same class were found in England during the reign of Edward VI., and Burnet declares that books, not flames, were used in reply to their arguments. - One of the doctrinal peculiarities of the Anabaptists, which seems to have been almost universal among them, related to the origin of the human nature of Christ. They denied that he took his flesh of Mary, explaining his incarnation by a higher miracle. Doubts have arisen, on the one hand, as to whether they believed in the reality of his human nature, and on the other, as to whether they believed him to be a divine person.
The records of the examination of some of them before the courts ought to remove all questions of this kind. They believed fully in his complete humanity, and their answers show that their questionings in regard to the origin of his human nature did not necessarily imply any departure from the common views of his divinity. Menno Simonis became their chief leader, and the instrument of their organization into a recognized body of Protestant Christians. Mennonites and Anabaptists have from his time been interchangeable terms, and the communities so called have descended to the present age. (See Menno Simonis, and Mennonites.)