Swiss Anabaptists   2 comments

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After the Waldensians (more or less) came the anabaptists. I suspect Waldensians became anabaptists, but the history is unclear on this. I use the small “a” because they weren’t just one group. Anabaptists were heavily persecuted by all sects of Christianity who aligned themselves with governments. Anabaptists were separatists who rejected infant baptism and believed that the outward church should consist only of saved and baptized believers. For this reason, they re-baptized adults who professed Christ and had been previously made ritually wet as infants. The preposition ana means “again”. Anabaptists were those who “baptized again.”

It is really difficult to classify anabaptists as a single group (which is why I don’t), for there was wide diversity among them. Some claiming the anabaptist title were fanatics, pantheists, mystics, anti-Trinitarians, extreme millennialists, and other Christian heretics who brought great shame upon the Reformation.  The majority were spiritual people and devoted students of the Bible who felt the Reformers were not purifying Christianity of Roman Catholic dogma quickly enough or properly applying the principles taught in the New Testament.

Prior to 1523, most anabaptists in Switzerland were known by the generic term “Brethren”. They were among the least understood and most persecuted groups of the early Reformation — the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and even some other Anabaptists opposed the Brethren violently.

They believed in:

  • Separation of church and state. They called for this for the protection of the church from persecution by the state. They held no government offices, opposed military service and some became completely pacifistic.
  • Liberty of the conscience. They opposed the establishment of state churches, asserting freedom of religion and teaching that the faithful for free to believe according to the dictates of their conscience, even though an individual could be wrong. The Reformers thought this was a “radical” belief because the Reformers believed you had to adjust your beliefs to their beliefs or be jailed and possibly executed within their domains.
  • Purity of the churches. For the anabaptists the church was not an institution but simply a local fellowship of believers who voluntarily joined a congregation following a salvation experience, placing himself under the governance of the church for so long as he and the church were in agreement. This relationship could be severed by either party.
  • Believer’s baptism. While anabaptists were flexible on some points, they were completely inflexible on the subject of baptism. They opposed infant “baptism” as unscriptural and felt it was the churches’ responsibility to test those who came seeking baptism to assure they were actually believers.

Anaptists stood for religious liberty at a time when neither Catholics nor Protestants fully appreciated the importance of freedom of conscience. They were the forerunners of the modern Brethren, the Amish, the Mennonites and the Baptists (although many modern Baptists include a fair dollop of nationalism in their religious “liberty” cocktail) . Their emphasis on the purity of the external local church set a standard for congregationalist churches going forward.

They would also, in many subtle ways, influence the founding of the United States, for they stressed individual standing before God, voluntary interaction, and freedom of conscience, which were precursors to the concept of individual liberty. They were horribly persecuted and many were martyred for believing what they read in the Bible. While some of them did fight back, those are not the recognized “heroes” of the faith. The majority of the anabaptist Swiss Brethren held to the principle of non-aggression, and some to non-violence, while steadfastly refusing to give up their beliefs.

And, for that, I consider them to be courageous. There is something to be said for quietly turning the other cheek while saying “No, I will not comply to that which is ungodly.” Christians today should take a good hard look at what living for faith in times of persecution really means. The Swiss anabaptists didn’t give up their faith even when they were faced with burning or drowning for their refusal.

Are any of us that brave today?

2 responses to “Swiss Anabaptists

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  1. Many Anabaptists eventually came to the new world and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where the Church of England still persecuted them to a degree. There is a Brethren college just North of the town I live in. My friend Rob Hewitt co-wrote ‘Where the River Flows Finding Faith in Rockingham County, Virginia 1726-1876’ ISBN 10: 0966891953 ISBN 13: 9780966891959 which chronicles some of the challenges they faced in settling in the Great Valley of Virginia. I myself am a member of a Mennonite Church, so I feel we owe these first pioneers of Faith quite a bit!


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