The great spiritual movement of the 15th and 16th centuries had for its most general characteristic, revolt against authority. This showed itself not merely in the anti-papal reformation of Luther, but also in the anti-feudal rising of the peasants and in a variety of anti-ecclesiastical movements within the reformation areas themselves. One of the most notable of these radical anti-ecclesiastical movements was that of the Zwickau prophets, (Marcus Stübner, Nikolaus Storch and Thomas Münzer): the most vigorous and notorious that of the Münster Anabaptists. Although they have been called the "harbingers" of the Anabaptists, the characteristic teaching of the Zwickau prophets was not Anabaptism. (See, however, Anabaptists.) For although Münzer repudiated infant baptism in theory, he did not relinquish its practice, nor did he insist on the re-baptism of believers. The characteristic teaching of the Zwickau movement, so closely linked with the peasant rising, was the great emphasis laid upon the "inner word." Divine revelation, said Münzer, was not received from the church, nor from preaching, least of all from the dead letter of the Bible; it was received solely and directly from the Spirit of God. It is this daring faith in divine illumination that brings the Zwickau teachers most nearly into touch with the Anabaptists. But if they are not typical of Anabaptism, still less are the later representatives of the movement in the last sad months at Münster.
The beginnings of the Anabaptist movement proper were in Zürich, where Wilheld Reubli (1480-1554), Konrad Grebel (d. 1526), Felix Manz (d. 1527) and Simon Strumpf separated from Zwingli and proposed to form a separate church. They repudiated the use of force, advocated a scriptural communism of goods, and asserted that Christians must always exercise love and patience towards each other and so be independent of worldly tribunals. But their most radical doctrine was the rejection of infant baptism as unscriptural. They rapidly gained adherents, among whom was Hans Brödli, pastor of Zollikon. Their refusal, however, to baptize infants, and the formation of a separate church as the outcome of this refusal, brought upon them the condemnation of Zwingli, and a number of them were banished. This act of banishment, however, drove Jörg Blaurock, Konrad Grebel and others to take the step which definitely instituted "Anabaptism": they baptized one another and then partook of the Lord's Supper together. This step took them much farther than the repudiation of paedobaptism. It formed a new religious community, which sought to fashion itself on the model of primitive Christianity, rejecting all tradition and accretions later than New Testament records.
Its members claimed to get back to the simple church founded on brotherly love. The result was that their numbers grew with astonishing rapidity, and scholarly saints like Balthasar Hubmaier (ca. 1480-1528) and Hans Denck (ca. 1495-1527) joined them. Hubmaier brought no new adherents with him, and in 1525 himself baptized 300 converts. This baptism, however, was not immersion. Blaurock and Grebel baptized each other, and many adherents, kneeling together in an ordinary room. Hubmaier baptized his 300 from one bucket. The mode was sprinkling or pouring. In all this the Anabaptists had maintained one central article of faith that linked them to the Zwickau prophets, belief in conscience, religious feeling, or inner light, as the sole true beginning or ground of religion; and one other article, held with equal vigour and sincerity, that true Christians are like sheep among wolves, and must on no account defend themselves from their enemies or take vengeance for wrong done. Very soon this their faith was put to fiery test.
Not only were Catholics and Protestants opposed to them on doctrinal grounds, but the secular powers, fearing that the new teaching was potentially as revolutionary as Münzer's radicalism had been, soon instituted a persecution of the Anabaptists. On the 7th of March 1526 the Zürich Rath issued an edict threatening all who were baptized anew with death by drowning, and in 1529 the emperor Charles V., at the diet of Spires, ordered Anabaptists to be put to death with fire and sword without even the form of ecclesiastical trial. A cruel persecution arose. Manz was drowned at Zürich and Michael Sattler (ca. 1495-1527) burned to death after torture in 1527; Hubmaier was burned in 1528 and Blaurock in 1529, and Sebastian Franck (1499-1542) asserts that the number of slain was in 1530 already about 2000.
Two results followed from this persecution. First, the development of a self-contained and homogeneous community was made impossible. No opportunity for the adoption of any common confession was given. Only a few great doctrines are seen to have been generally held by Anabaptists - such as the baptism of believers only, the rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith as onesided and the simple practice of the breaking of bread. This last, the Anabaptist doctrine of the Lord's Supper, was to the effect that brothers and sisters in Christ should partake in remembrance of the death of Christ, and that they should thereby renew the bond of brotherly love as the basis of neighbourly life. In the second place, the persecution deprived the Anabaptists of the noble leaders who had preached non-resistance and at the same time provoked others to an attitude of vengeance which culminated in the horrors of Münster. For Melchior Hofmann (ca. 1498-1543 or 1544) having taken the Anabaptist teaching to Holland, there arose in Haarlem a preacher of vengeance, Jan Matthisson or Matthyszoon (Matthys) (d. 1534) by name, who, prophesying a speedy end of the world and establishment of the kingdom of heaven, obtained many adherents, and despatched Boekebinder and de Kniper to Münster. Here the attempt was made to realise Matthisson's ideals.