The Anabaptists were one of several branches of “Radical” reformers (i.e. reformers that went further than the mainstream Reformers) to arise out of the Renaissance and Reformation. They were called “Anabaptists” or “re-baptisers” because they insisted that water baptism should be reserved for adults only. This conviction led them to baptise one another as adults, even if they had been baptised as infants.

History and Development 

Anabaptism originated in Zurich in the 1520s as a result of the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli. Some believed that Ulrich Zwingli did not go far enough in his reformation and so George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz began to agitate for truly biblical reform, including believer’s baptism and a “gathered” church, i.e. a church where members attend because they had believed and been baptised, not because of State intervention or mandatory church attendance.

The first adult baptism took place in Zurich, Switzerland, in January 1525. Political authorities quickly declared the movement to be illegal, but the baptisers flourished, practicing their faith in secret. In a few years, there were groups of baptisers throughout Europe. They called each other “brothers and sisters in Christ” not Anabaptists.

Anabaptist doctrines were not new inventions, or even very distinctive. Almost all the Anabaptists, when asked to give an account of their faith, simply repeated the Apostles’ Creed, which they called the “Twelve Articles of the Faith,” or simply, “the Faith.” The Anabaptists taught the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer to their children and to converts.

The Anabaptists were characterised generally by believers’ baptism; refusal of infant baptism; an emphasis on piety and good works; an aversion to the state-run churches whether Catholic or Protestant; a policy of non-violence and non-resistance; believing that it was not right to swear oaths. They mostly held to a soteriology (doctrine of salvation) that resembled Protestantism, with an emphasis on the reality of free will and the necessity of good works to accompany faith. Essentially 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 re-establish 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.

The Anabaptists have been persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. Historic Protestant literature treats them as scandalous groups who always preach false doctrine and lead people astray. Outside of Anabaptist circles, it has only been in the twentieth century that the rest of the world has begun to give the Anabaptist movement its place in church history.

The Anabaptists had some internal divisions. In 1690, some Alsace-Anabaptists broke off from the Swiss Anabaptists (now Mennonites) and under Jacob Amman’s direction, started following a stricter religious discipline. This group are known as Amish. To avoid persecution, the Amish migrated to North America in the 1700s and 1800s, settling in small isolated communities. Today, there are no Amish people living in Europe. 


When Anabaptists were asked what they believed, it was common for Anabaptists to answer, “I believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God, our Lord and Saviour, and in the Holy Spirit.”

The Anabaptists were part of the Reformation movement. They agreed that salvation is by faith, not by sacraments or works of penance. They also agreed with the reformers that the final authority for Christians is the Bible.

But the Anabaptists did not agree with the more famous reformers on all points. What made the Anabaptists a distinctive reform movement was the way they emphasised and interpreted common Christian teachings. Their most important emphases were:

• the authority of Scripture and the Holy Spirit
• salvation through conversion by the Spirit of God
• Discipleship.

The Anabaptists have three unique beliefs:

Believer’s Baptism - The Anabaptists held that a person must first believe in the gospel before he could be accepted into the Church with the sign of water baptism. This is in accordance with the teachings of their Lord Jesus who placed believing ahead of baptism (Mt 28:19 and Mk 16:16).

Pacifism - The Anabaptists held that one could not obtain or protect his rights by the use of force. This is in accordance with the teachings of their Lord Jesus who commanded his followers not to resist an evil man (Mt 5:39 and Mt 18:36).

Community of Goods - The Anabaptists held that one could not have private property but must share all his goods in common with Christ’s brothers and sisters. This is in accordance with the teachings of their Lord Jesus who said that no one could be his followers unless they gave up all of their possessions (Luke 14:33, also Mt 6:19-34, Mt 19:21, Luke 12:33, John 13:34-35, Acts 2:44-47 and Acts 4:32-5:11).

The Anabaptists taught, as they believe Jesus did, that the way to the Kingdom of God is on a “narrow path.” Each of the three unique Anabaptist beliefs makes the path “narrower.” Believer’s Baptism is widely held by many Christian religions, not just the Anabaptists. “Believer’s baptism makes the path narrower, but not too narrow.” The second belief, Pacifism, is held by some Christian religions or segments of various Christian religions in addition to the Anabaptists. “Pacifism really narrows the path to the Kingdom of God; few are willing to accept it.” The third belief, Community of Goods, is held mainly by the Hutterian Brethren Church (which began in 1528). “Community of goods makes the path way too narrow for most people.”

What sets the Anabaptists apart from other Christian religions is their view of Jesus Christ. Other Christian religions that do focus on Jesus, such as the evangelicals and other Protestants, tend to see Jesus primarily as a child in the manger and as a sacrifice on the cross, he is their saviour. This is shown in their songs and in their confessions of faith.

The Anabaptists see Jesus not only as their saviour but also as their teacher, the one who teaches them how to live their lives while on this earth. They believe that obedience to his commands is required; therefore they try to live as he taught. This is the reason why they are a separate people; following the hard narrow path to the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught and lived.

It might be accurate to say that evangelicals and other Protestants today stress the salvation aspect of the Gospel (evangelism, witnessing, building large congregations) and interpret this as faithfulness to their religion, while Anabaptist groups today are concerned with discipleship, seeing this as faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus.

There are a number of people who identify Anabaptism with ‘plain’ living. By ‘plain’, they mean beards on men, and head covering and dresses on women. Some go farther and say that a ‘plain’ church is one where the members use a horse and buggy for transportation (Old Order Amish and some conservative Mennonites). Those who stress the ‘plain’ aspect of Anabaptism usually have strong opinions on what constitutes ‘plain’ living, which frequently results in splits within the church over such matters as the use of telephones, rubber tires on tractors, and clothing styles.

Anabaptists Today

The heaviest concentration of the Anabaptist population remains in the Midwest USA, with the largest Amish community in the world located in and around Holmes County, Ohio. The current Amish population is estimated at 192,000. The larger Anabaptist population (Amish, Brethren, Hutterite, and Mennonite) is estimated to be 850,000.




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