The term Anabaptist has come to be applied to a broad religious movement at the beginning of the Radical Reformation (1520-1580). Anabaptism was not a centralized or homogeneous sect. The early origins of the Anabaptist are still being debated. There have been estimates of up to forty independent sects within the general category of what has been termed Anabaptism.
Anabaptist comes from the Greek meaning "rebaptiser". The term was usually used as a form of derision. Individuals did not refer to themselves as Anabaptists, some groups used the term Brethren to describe themselves. By 1525, Anabaptist congregations were spreading across most of German speaking Europe.
Continental Anabaptist congregations rejected the corrupted doctrines and practices of the Roman Church, and the new Reformed Protestants Churches of the Reformation. Anabaptists sought instead to reestablish a true Christian community based on their concepts of the early New Testaments congregations. They saw themselves as the new saints of the one true Church.
Regional leaders, or "Spirituals" as there were also known often established the norms for the local Anabaptist congregation under their leadership. These leaders often espoused widely varied messages to their congregation. Some of them were marked early as enemies of the State and hunted down, imprisoned, or executed.
Most Anabaptist congregations held a general core of spiritual values. They attributed little importance to most questions of theology, and religious ceremonies in general. They placed a high value on the inspired Word of God, and a love for their fellow man. Discipleship was a valued tenet. They shunned contact with the corrupted worldly society outside their own communities.
A central issue of theological disagreement with the Anabaptist position was the question of infant baptism. Anabaptists argued that infant baptism had no New Testament authority. For the Anabaptist, the approved methodology of baptism was a personal pledge of faith of a committed believer coupled with their act of "adult baptism" which would than assure the converts' real spiritual salvation. This was known as "believers baptism" or "rebaptism".
Baptism became a metaphor of Anabaptism, the wakening or rebirth to a new religious nature or life. Contrary to general belief, the use of immersion for baptism was not considered the norm among Anabaptists, but it was not excluded.
The Eucharist or Holy Communion was rejected as a sacrament, but was observed as a memorial service based on New Testament ideals. They preached complete religious freedom based on a literal Bible, and the total independent control of their own congregations and the election of their own clergy. They postulated their own unique form of succession by their Elders only, an Anabaptist form of apostolic succession.
Anabaptists advocated the doctrine of free will as did the Roman Church and others. They denounced the predestination theology of Calvinism. Anabaptists also embraced the doctrine of the "celestial flesh of Christ", where Christ did not develop from the mortal flesh of his mother Mary. Some Anabaptists preached a form of anti-Trinitarianism while other held traditional views on the Trinity.
Anabaptists held a rather strict social ethic. They preached the separation of the Church and State, including the abolishment of any State religion. They viewed the State as a potential enemy to their faith, and community. Those who "carried the Sword" for the State were considered in a state of sin, and were to be avoided and thought to be condemned in the eyes of God, also known as Magistery.
Anabaptists did not reject all aspects of "rendering unto Caesar", but they were generally quite limited in what they did allow. Members were often fined or imprisoned for their acts of civil disobedience, the breaking of local codes and laws such as refusing to take public oaths, paying taxes, and the taking up of arms.
A few Anabaptist leaders espoused their own radical beliefs of the imminent coming of the Millennium of the Saints. These more militant congregations started to prepare for the overthrow of the current ungodly and corrupted world of Man. Some of these militant Anabaptist groups developed into quasi-communistic communities.
Militant Anabaptist uprisings were occurring in Europe. The former Catholic town of Münster in Westfalen had been transformed into a bastion of militant Anabaptism (1532-35). Catholic and Protestant Europe raised an army to oust these militant Anabaptists. The town was put under siege in Jan. 1535. It was captured a few months later by traitors escaping from the city. Münster became a general hew and cry against all Anabaptists, not just the militant few.
Based on their radical theology of social change and religious beliefs, the Anabaptists came to be persecuted by most civil authorities and State officials in Europe. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Catholic Church soundly denounced the Anabaptists and their cause.
By 1540, most of the early regional Anabaptist leaders had been either imprisoned or had been executed. Persecutions against the Anabaptists continued in various portions of Europe into the 1580's.
Some of the more pacifist congregations were able to survived these
purges in Holland and in Northern Germany under the leadership of the
In the late Tudor period (1530's-1603), the distinctions between the Anabaptist and the other Continental radical sects were often vague or blurred. English officials often lumped many European sects under the general heading of Anabaptism. Anabaptists became a default term for many a radical theology.
Foreign Anabaptists were known in England from as early as the 1534's mostly former Dutch or Flemish congregations seeking religious freedom. Anabaptists often found in England a kindred society especially among its former Lollard communities. The port communities were favored havens.
During the reign of
English Anabaptists became active after 1550 based on the availability of Anabaptist literature in English translations. Anti-Anabaptist literature was available from the early 1550's. Actual numbers of English Anabaptists during this period are difficult to determine. Many divergent groups held common Anabaptist views, but were not themselves Anabaptists. The Free Will Men, a dissident sect, were sometimes referred to as Anabaptists by their critics.
A Strangers Church (Reformed) was established at Austin Friars (London) by order of Edward VI in 1550. This congregation was modeled on the Continental reformed churches, and were generally considered outside of the local bishops control. Other similar congregations would appear in other large communities.
The Crown needed foreign artisans and business in England. The Strangers Church was a concession to foreign reformed church members. It also served as a control point for those reformed church members from mingling into the local parishes.
Ironically these congregations were far more reformed in actual fact than anything officially allowed under the current Church regulations. Anabaptist's worshiped here, or in secret. Many members of these Strangers Churches often attended other local parish services which facilitated the spread their beliefs into the larger general community.
During the short reign of
The family Legatt or Legate consisting of three brothers, all were
active in and around London ca. 1590-1612. They were cited as having
Anabaptist or Seeker beliefs. One was drowned, a second died in prison for
English separatist congregations in exile on the Continent during 1580-90's
probably provide a conduit for early English Anabaptist traditions.
Separatist congregations such as
During the period from 1612-1660, the term Anabaptist was often used to describe or smear certain other sects who seemed to hold or practiced believers baptism or baptism by immersion by their opponents. These included the General Baptist, the Particular Baptist, and other sects of the Interregnum.
English Anabaptists views influenced other dissenters views including: Brownists, Barrowists, the early Baptists, and other nonconformists groups. Small pockets of support continued into the 18th century. Like the Lollards before them, Anabaptists submerged themselves into the fabric of their local communities. Being an Anabaptist, and holding some Anabaptist views still clouds the history of this period.