An Isolated Religion

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


Dirk Willems' Rescue

Dirk Willems was an Anabaptist prisoner who famously saved the very man who would later persecute him from drowning

In mindset as well as location, the original Anabaptists were isolated.

Left in the wake of Martin Luther’s famous Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century were numerous smaller, odder new religions starting to form. In 1525, Konrad Grebel and a group of his followers, who believed “necessary” reforms were needed, broke off from Huldrych Zwingli’s branch of Christianity in Switzerland. These people called themselves Anabaptists, or re-baptizers, because they baptized people as adults instead of as infants. The Anabaptists believed people could only be baptized into a faith if they so chose, and since infants couldn’t make decisions on their own, they would have to wait until a person was old enough to choose to be baptized.

Around 1525, when the Anabaptist movement took root in Switzerland, there were many different groups of Anabaptists, each with their own varied beliefs united only under the name. On February 24, 1527, a committee of people representing several Anabaptist communities met in Schleitheim, Switzerland, and drafted a set of laws they called the “Brüderlich Vereinigung,” or Brotherly Union. These laws later became known the Schleitheim Confession. The set of rules had seven articles, but was fairly short as the Anabaptists wanted no ambiguity and wanted to spread their relatively simple church system.

Infant Baptism

Infant Baptism

The first article of the Confession concerns the main topic of the Anabaptists: baptism. They believed baptism should be given to anybody who truly believed in Jesus. For this reason they abolished what they called the “chief abomination of the Pope” in Anabaptist churches, infant baptism. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article opinionating the Anabaptists, infant baptism was “rejected without scriptural warrant,” although in the actual Schleitheim confession the Anabaptists refer to six different places in the Bible to support their views (Schleitheim Confession Article I). Furthermore, the Catholic Encyclopedia can’t really be viewed as an unbiased source on the Anabaptists, seeing as all the sources on the Catholic Encyclopedia are from the relatively conservative 1800s. The first adult baptism was said to have taken place in January of 1525. Adult baptism was against the political law created by the Catholic Church, and punishable by death. King Ferdinand of Hungary summed up the Catholic view on adult baptism by saying, “the best antidote to Anabaptism (the second baptism) is a third baptism, drowning” (Wikipedia, 2011). In fact, three months after the Schleitheim Confession had been written, the Catholic Church executed the man credited for leading the meeting, Michael Sattler.

The second section of the Confession concerns itself with excommunication, a popular punishment among the Catholics at the time. An interesting fact to note is that in trying to suppress the religious reformations of the 16th century, the Catholics routinely tortured and punished transgressors as “salvation from their sins.” The Anabaptists used excommunication a bit more leniently, giving a person just a secret warning after the first two sinful offenses, while only using full excommunication as a weapon after the third.

The Brüderlich Vereinigung’s third article talks about the communion, or the consuming of bread and wine in the church. The Anabaptists thought this should only be done with those who were baptized of their own will, to ensure that those who “lie in evil have no part in the good” (III). This separation is taken a step further in the fourth section of the Confession, in which the Anabaptists almost declare isolation from the rest of the world. They believe there should be a complete and utter separation of all things good and evil; or at least what they thought were good and evil. They declare that they should have no part in anything run by the Catholics or Protestants, because anything not sanctified by Anabaptist principles are “nothing but an abomination” (IV). Although the other sects of Christianity shared many beliefs with the Anabaptists, they justify the complete shunning with the statement that “everything which is not united with our God and our Christ cannot be other than an abomination which we should shun and flee from” (IV). The Anabaptists use some form of the word “abomination” five times in this section, describing the religions they had grown out of, which is ironic seeing as it’s the same word Lutheran theologians used to describe the Anabaptists’ rejection of infant baptism (Oyer, 184). The Anabaptists aren’t really making a complete all-knowing separation of good and evil, they just want to isolate themselves from people they don’t like.

The fifth section of the Confession describes how virtuous the Anabaptist pastors are supposed to be, although if they do sin then they are subject to the same laws as the common folk. Returning to the sixth article, the seventh section is all about the Anabaptists’ views on swearing and oaths. The Anabaptists explicitly ban swearing because when one swears, he isn’t actually changing a part of himself, and there is no guarantee that he will keep the promise. They don’t want people to disgrace God or the bible by swearing on them and not being guaranteed to keep the promise. The Anabaptists repeat their theme of many counter-arguments by arguing that the New Testament never explicitly bans swearing by god, while it was actually commanded in the Old Testament. Their explanation for banning swearing comes from Jesus’ banning swearing by earth and heaven, so if God is greater than both of these then swearing by God should be banned as well. The Anabaptists make a special exception in the case of swearing to testify. People who testify promise nothing, and since a testimony is a description of the past or present which already or is happening, they cannot lie and have no reason to break the promise. These rules about swearing and giving testimony really are more political laws than religious ones, but this section of the Schleitheim Confession gives a valuable look into how the Anabaptists were interpreting and presenting their biblical views.

The sixth article deals with the role of violence, or rather anti-violence, in Anabaptism. The Anabaptists argue that the sword and armor are unholy, “devilish weapons of force,” and that the only tools they would use to deal with sinners are excommunication and warnings. In the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Schleitheim confession, despite the Confession’s anti-violence teachings, they call the Anabaptists a “violent and extremely radical body of ecclesiastico-civil reformers” (Weber, 1907). In truth, the Swiss branch of Anabaptism held to their isolated, anti-violent morals stated in the Schleitheim Confession. Other areas and forms of Anabaptism, however, like those in Münster, Germany, started fighting against the church and invading cities to try to establish the “new Jerusalem,” or places where the new religion could have a special center of religion. Anabaptism never really got its own central city or country, but it has survived up until this day in different forms spread around the globe.

Amish Family

Today, the English and American Baptist churches all use the same rejection of infant baptism, although much of the other laws have become milder to suit the present culture. In Holland and Germany there are groups of Mennonites, whose religious practices are nearly identical to those of the Anabaptists. In the United States, the Amish, descended from the Mennonites, continue to epitomize the Anabaptist ideal of separation from the rest of the world. The Anabaptists started out as a fringe radical religion in the 16th century, but were never fully defeated by the Catholics or Protestants and remain around to this day.


Works Cited

“The Schleitheim Confession.” Anabaptists. Rod and Staff Publishers, Inc. 1985. Web. 31 Oct 2011.

“Schleitheim Confession.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2011. Web.

Weber, Nicholas. “Anabaptists.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Web. 1 Nov 2011.

Oyer, John. Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists. The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2001. Web.

Wenger, John C., and Arnold Snyder. “Schleitheim Confession.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 7 Nov 2011.

Wikipedia contributors. “Anabaptist.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Nov 2011. Web. 2 Nov 2011.


Pictures Cited

– Dirk Willems’ rescue

– Amish Family

– Infant Baptism Drawing

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