“Why did the Anabaptist radicals reject the Zwinglian reformation?”

Good question, and the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. You could say that they believed in believer’s baptism, in discipleship, in a purified church pursuing Christlikeness, and in the Kingdom of God… and you would be right. However, if we were to take a step back from well-worn discourses of Anabaptist theology, we will also find that they were addressing more than what people believed. They were stepping beyond the sphere of religious concern and on the toes of the magistrates, princes and feudal lords, inviting violent opposition. The “peaceful Kingdom of Christ” in the Anabaptist imagination staked radical claims with regards to how people lived and how society was ordered in response to the struggles of a peasant population reaching its “boiling point” because of unjust suffering.

The research paper for this week’s study by Dr. Daniel Rhodes is an interpretation of Anabaptist history and the doctrine of separation in relation to 16th century peasant history. He suggests that one way to understand the tumoltous legacy of early Anabaptism, torn between the Stablers (staff-bearers) of Schleitheim, the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites and the Schwertler (sword-bearers) of Munster and other regions, is to consider the economic, social and political context of the Anabaptist revolution, both peaceful and otherwise. Friesen (2006) similarly highlights the historical commonalities and links between Anabaptists and the peasants who revolted, links apparent to 16th century writers but that were dismissed by Anabaptist historians of the early 20th century. Rhodes (2019) provides a historical framework for exploring Anabaptist origins from this point of view, which this discussion will explore.

… the gospel was to be preached, but “radicals seeking to implement the life depicted in these teachings were to be squelched” (Rhodes, 2019)

Rhodes (2019) describes Anabaptism as arriving into a world rife with “frustration” not only with the theology of Christendom but with social conditions as well. The peasants lived under the restrictive rules of serfdom and were heavily taxed. The Protestant Reformation would initially address some of the peasants’ foment and supply “imaginative momentum” (Rhodes, 2019) towards a more thorough revisioning of the societal order, but it soon comfortably coalesced with the magistrates, princes and feudal lords and became reluctant to step “over the line”. This was seen in edicts by the prince of Saxony and the Zurich city council – the gospel was to be preached, but “radicals seeking to implement the life depicted in these teachings were to be squelched” (Rhodes, 2019). The Reformation was placed in the hands of rulers, and, thus, under the Nuremberg Edict of 1523, anything “that might lead to disobedience, dissention and revolt in the holy empire, or that might cause Christians to be led astray” (Friesen, 2015, cited by Rhodes, 2019) was to be avoided. The message was clear – only “spiritual” reform was allowed. Respectability and the status quo were now to be maintained at all costs.

The Anabaptists, in contrast, were hardly respectable. The reformers moved towards the state, and the Anabaptists away from it. They were enraptured with a vision of the Kingdom of God as separate from the world of Christendom. They saw the entirety of the gospel lived out in a non-ecclesiastical, non-hierarchical community of brothers amongst whom the community of goods was practiced. They believed that all could draw near to Jesus, in unity with the brethren rather through institutions controlled by religious and political elites. It requires no imagination to connect these beliefs to the social environment in which they were developed.

When Grebel and other friends in the town spoke out against Zwingli and marched with Reublin and Stumpf, they made the rebellious goals of the rural communes their own and merged their anticlerical struggle with a political battle: the radicals formed themselves into a religious and social-revolutionary movement. For this early period… it is almost impossible to distinguish between the rebelling peasants and those who would emerge as Anabaptists after 1525. (Matheson, 2000, cited in Rhodes, 2019).

Indeed, writings from the orchestrator of the Peasants’ Revolt, Thomas Munzter, reflect his polemical exchanges with Martin Luther, who by then had taken the side of the princes against the peasants (Taubes, 1991). Munzter accused Luther of refusing to accept peasants as being made equal before God by baptism. Both Anabaptists and peasant revolutionaries recognized the fundamental problems of systemic inequality and injustice. They developed a variety of responses, violent and nonviolent, with the line between these hardly distinct. This is perhaps exemplified in the participation of early Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, whose pamphlets were read amongst the Swiss Anabaptists, in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1525. In response to the rejection of the sword by the Swiss Brethren at Schleitheim in 1527, Hubmaier wrote “On the Sword”. He would attempt to establish Anabaptist rule in the city of Waldshut. The early Anabaptists, thus, explored a range of views and responses on the sword and on the means of establishing the change they desired to see in society. They were not in complete agreement in this regard, as seen in the decades following.

Rhodes (2019) interprets Anabaptism as unified around a “radically social gospel” rather than well-defined and uniform doctrines of “baptism and nonviolence”. The early Anabaptists, he asserts, “directly challenged the traditional hierarchical society” established by imperial edicts, establishing a brotherhood intended to be the “public and corporate performance of Christ” and separate from the world’s corruption, politically and spiritually. Theirs was more than a doctrinal reformation but a kind of political revolution. For some, this was manifested in peasants’ revolt and other more violent expressions, for others in peaceful ecclesiological “church-being” and the establishment of a “counter-world” that was seen as no less of a threat than violent revolt. Their pacifism was radical, and indeed a form of political, social, economic and theological rebellion.

What does this speak into the situation in the world today? Parallels can be drawn – We have magisterial, top-down hegemony on one hand, concerned with the preservation of the status quo and eagerness to mold the gospel according to established powers in exchange for favour and influence. Then, there is the option of violent revolt on the other. Finally, we have the Stabler, the peaceful revolutionaries.

For these, the answer to systemic injustice is neither to manipulate nor violently overthrow the system, but to depose its reality by bringing the light of a different system and a different Kingdom to the darkest corners of the earth, come what may.

Discussion Questions

One of the hardest questions a nonresistant disciple of Jesus may ask is, “How do we love our suffering neighbour?” If we had lived during times where our neighbours were being kidnapped and enslaved, or being raided upon and massacred, or barred from eating and drinking at the same tables as we were, what would be do? How do we manifest the radical gospel, using the means of the gospel and not the weapons and methods of the world? Who are the neighbours, the “least” and the “lowest”, that Jesus would commune with and call us to love today?

Secondly, how do we understand the gospel? Anabaptists have long rejected the idea of intellectual assent to a theoretical gospel, to forensic justification without right living (Friedmann, 1979) calling instead for existential discipleship. Faith should not be abstract and distanced from the real world, but must take on being. The Anabaptists emphasized instead the entanglement of human beings in brotherhood, going to far as to assert that no vertical relationship with the divine could be separated from horizontal, human relationships (Friedmann, 1979, p.81). Friedmann (1979) goes as far as to claim that Anabaptists rejected “theology” as it existed in their day in favor of existence. How does the early Anabaptist story that Rhodes highlights encourage us with regards to viewing the gospel in a tangible and actionable light? Additionally, what are some potential points of disagreement with this emphasis? How is this different from the way that you have heard the gospel presented?

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