1. HISTORY AND THE HOLY SPIRIT: A QUAINT REMINDER TO A SIMPLER TIME?
In the ebb and flow of the history of the European nations appears a movement of the Holy Spirit among Germanic peoples that is relegated to insignificance or totally ignored in the history books. Today, we know their descendants as the Mennonites or the Amish. Tourists driving through country settings in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri or even here in Minnesota, view these people as novelties, a quaint reminder to a simpler time. They usually appear in black clothing, travel in horse-drawn buggies and lead a separated life from the rest of society.
Some of us know that they refuse to sew buttons into their clothing and only use hooks for clasping their shirts and coats. Many communities of Mennonites and Amish still speak "Platt-Dutsch", or Low German, and refuse to recognize any other church but their own. They are spread all over the Western hemisphere, their communities extending from Canada to South America.
In nearly every place, their dress and separatism distinguish them from the cultures in which they live. The more conservative branches are hard workers, farmers, living off of the produce of the land, and their work ethic pays off: many of them are also very wealthy.
Where do these people come from? Do they have a story to tell us? Why do they remain aloof from the rest of the world? Or is there more than meets the eye? In order to understand the Anabaptists one must understand the reasons why they came about. In this paper, I will focus more upon their origins and the earlier days of the move of the Holy Spirit among the Germans than on the more contemporary periods of Anabaptist history.
2. THE REFORMATION ERA
In the upheavals of the Reformation era, in the Germanic regions, men and women were waking up to the reality of a Living Christ for the first time in over 1,000 years!
Having accepted Roman Catholic Christianity in the shadow period of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes became subjects of the Roman Pontifex Maximus. Prior to this, the Germans had already accepted Christ, but the Jesus they had accepted was not the Jesus approved of by the Nicene council of 325 A.D.
Arius, the Egyptian priest who largely provided the rallying cause for Constantine's convocation of the first ecumenical council, was excommunicated and died prior to the council being gathered. However, his heresy, which taught that Jesus was not essentially the same as God the Father, was widely received in the Christian world in spite of its unpopularity with the church leaders of the time (early 4th century).
3. ULFILAS, A MIXED BLESSING
After the Nicene Council hammered out the correct doctrine, the gospel with a variant of the Arian Christ made its way into the Teutonic tribes through a captured boy named Ulfilas. He took it upon himself to convert the Germanic peoples who captured him, to give them their own alphabet and he then translated the Scriptures into German. Today he is mentioned in the history books as being the one who initiated the lower Germanic peoples to the Gospel, albeit with the Jesus of Arius' interpretation.
However, quickly upon his heels came the newly empowered Roman Catholic Church and they proceeded to "clean up" the Christianity of the Germans, mostly by forced "conversion" to Catholic Christianity and thus, a Christ-ward movement that had been initiated by a Capodocian slave was wiped out. The heavy cloak of Roman Catholic Christianity would darken the move of God's Spirit for the next millennia. The Germans were so extremely "purged" of the Arian element to an extent that they completely forgot their first roots in the Gospel through Ulfilas.
4. LISTENING TO THE BIBLE IN THEIR OWN LANGUAGE: THE FAITH OF THE "LOWLY" GERMANS
Centuries rolled by and the Germans remained loyal adherents to Roman Catholic Christianity. When the Reformation began and the Germans and German speaking Swiss began to read and hear the Bible for the first time in their own language, they were terrified. They were terrified at how far away they were from God and obedience to the gospel that they began to leave the Roman church in droves and followed the Reformers, such as Zwingli and Luther. They thought that for the last 1,000 years they were loyal to God because they were loyal to Rome, the pope, and Mary.
In the centuries after Ulfilas, they had been conquered by the sword, one of the only things that they had understood before being conquered by the Roman clerics and priests. Their faith in Christ was growing and had they been left unhindered to follow Christ, He would have brought about clarity about who He really was.
Many historians believe that the reason why the Germans north of the Danube, or the northernmost border of the Roman Empire, adopted Arian Christianity is that they did so only to be a thorn in the side of anything Roman. Since the Romans held to the Nicene description of Jesus, the Germans adopted the anathema position of Arius, even if they did not really believe in Arius' doctrine. Whatever the case might be, the wild spirit of the Germans began to be tamed by the love of God and during a four century span the Roman church was able to subdue them and bring them underneath her wings after Ulfilas' influence ended.
5. GERMANS "FIND" THE BIBLE AND BEGAN THE TRANSLATION
During this millennium of subservience, from approximately 500 AD to 1500 AD, the Germans were very energetically involved in Roman Catholic Christianity. They were strongly involved in the monastery movement and convents and devoted themselves to the ministry of the Church. It was the German Franks who unified Christian Europe under the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, the Germans were the very ones who later "found" the Bible and began to read, at first in Latin and then later in the original textual languages. They began to translate the Bible into German and with the advent of the printing press, were able to disseminate the Scriptures to the general population. At this time, most of the populace was illiterate so the Reformers who were Roman Catholic clergymen became convicted of their need to make their stand for Christ. Much like in good King Josiah's day, the "finding of the book of the law" sent shock waves of change throughout Europe.
6. "SCRIPTURE ALONE," AND INFANT BAPTISM
The German Reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli, set about to change Roman Catholic Christianity in their sphere of influence. Luther eliminated many of the sacraments but did not eliminate infant baptism, images, or the Mass (immediately). Zwingli also eliminated most of the sacraments and pulled down the images but also stopped at eliminating infant baptism. Not able to claim "apostolic succession" as their claim to ecclesiastical authority, the Reformers picked up the terms "sola scriptura" and "sola fide", "Scripture alone" and (sound) "doctrine alone", as their claim to authority. In a way, these men claimed more authority than the Roman Catholic Church did and would exercise their authority.
One of the problems these men of God faced was that at that time, through infant baptism everyone was considered a Christian, regardless of bad fruit. To remove infant baptism would be to introduce the idea that the church would not have control over all individuals. One of the controlling influences of the institutionalized church was that if everyone was baptized into the church, even at the age of eight days old, and the church remained melded with the secular power, everyone would be under the control of the state and church.
In practice, anyone not considered a Christian was either forced to become one (by the sword) or they were given to the sword and killed. A proper Christian would seek to fulfill the sacraments, and excluding one or all of them was considered un-Christian behavior to be severely chastised. Therefore, at this time, there was no separation of church and state as we know it today. To be a citizen of a country was also a new idea in this time, and the Germans had not yet felt the surge of nationalism. To be a German was to be a Catholic. To break away from this was to move into uncharted territory which meant certain death.
7. THE REFORMERS'S ZEAL FOR PERSECUTION
The Reformers knew this but they also knew that to keep their position they had to keep the secular government happy. That meant that they could take their reform only as far as the secular princes and authorities would allow. There were some who wanted to go on ahead following Christ, defying the church and secular authority. Some of these would be the ones who would become the Anabaptists. There was no other move of God going on in those days. One remained a Catholic, became a follower of one of the institutionalized Reformers, or stepped totally out of the bounds of church authority and joined with the "re-baptizers" as their name is correctly translated from German. The Reformers would become their biggest persecutors.
8. THE SPROUTING OF THE ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT
The Anabaptist movement was a movement among German and Dutch speaking peoples beginning in two different cities, Zürich and Nürnberg. Conrad Grebel and Georg Blaurock in Zurich, the city of the Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, were a part of Zwingli's reform church. They were both very encouraged with the steps Zwingli was making until Zwingli refused to reject infant baptism. Because the implications of Zwingli's failure to reject infant baptism were far reaching, they decided that they would not compromise what they had learned from reading the Holy Scriptures and on January 21, 1525, they went to a meeting at Felix Manz' house were they fell under intense conviction and fear.
These men cried out to God and asked Him to show them His will. In the next moment, Georg asked Conrad to baptize him and he did. After that, Georg baptized Conrad and the rest of those at the meeting. With that, the movement spread from Zürich. Officially, these men had already been baptized in the institutional church, twice, first as infants and second after completing the catechism school at the age of twelve before taking first communion. Their decision to become re-baptized provided the impetus for the name the movement was given.
In Nürnberg, another German named Johannes Denck, decided to quit living a lie and become obedient to Christ in his every day life. Instead of holding to sound doctrine for his salvation, Denck decided he was going to do what the gospels compelled him to do. His family and co-workers noticed the change in his life and shortly thereafter, he was brought before the city council to give account of his "odd behavior". He refused to compromise his faith in Christ and they expelled him from the city. He lost his job, his possessions, even his wife and child because he refused to recognize the authority of the city government to dictate his conscience.
9. ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT: A RESPONSE TO THE WORD OF GOD
It might seem that these three prominent men were beginning another movement by withstanding the church and secular authorities. However, upon closer examination, these men were reacting to society by responding to the Word of God which was being written upon their hearts. From Zurich, Blaurock and Grebel and those whom they baptized began spreading the faith and it spread like a wild fire all over southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Hans Denck also took to the road and preached wherever he went and men and women came to Christ finding real life.
Why were they still searching? After all, weren't the Reformers meeting their needs? As I mentioned above, the Reformers did just that - reformed what was already corrupt. They were essentially unable to bring about a large change in the spiritual lives of their congregants from how it had been under Roman Catholicism. That is why even today, the Lutheran and Reformed churches struggle to get hold of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. To be fair, they did usher in a freedom to seek other means to "have church", but their experiment is still going on today.
10. THE DEMAND OF THE ANABAPTISTS
What was the difference with the Anabaptists of the 16th and 17th centuries? The Anabaptists were calling for a total destruction of the existing ecclesiastical order (along with secular meddling) in order to rebuild a totally new community based upon Christ only. While the Reformers proclaimed their cause and based it upon "Scripture alone" and (sound) "doctrine alone", the Anabaptists cried out that the community of Christ should be based upon Christ (and His presence) alone.
11. THE SLAUGHTERING OF THE ANABAPTISTS
The sad part about the Anabaptists' story is that for the most part, they were slaughtered. The persecution that they endured was very much like what the present day Chinese Christians endure. As soon as a leader was raised up to pastor the flock of God, he was martyred. Another was raised up, and the cycle continued.
One of the longest surviving Anabaptist leaders was Menno Simmons, from which we derive the name Mennonite.
The sadder part is that they were martyred under the auspices of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all had their hands reddened by the blood of the Anabaptists, either literally or figuratively. All of them ordered the deaths of Anabaptists by giving their blessings to the secular arm to carry out capital punishment. They all viewed the Anabaptists as a menace and they loathed them. Every one of them declared that if anyone under their churh authority were to become an Anabaptist, he would do so at the loss of his life.
The Jehovah's Witnesses tell those who ridicule them today that "those whom you ridicule, you make famous". The Reformers make themselves look terrible by the bloodshed of the Anabaptists and instead make the Anabaptists look like lambs led to the slaughter. But by the end of the revival period, over 100,000 would become part of the Anabaptist movement, with thousands being led to the beheading block, the burning stake, or being drowned in rivers and lakes.
12. NOT ANOTHER CREED, NOR ANOTHER CHURCH
The Anabaptists did not seek to become melded with the secular power so they did not have a cohesive body or structure until much later in their history, in the 17th century. The reason for this was because the movement thrived under persecution. The blood of the Anabaptist martyrs was like fertilizer on the soil and caused the seed of the Word of God to be fruitful in the hearts of the Germans. The Anabaptists did not set out to form another denomination or another creed. They set their hearts like flint to obey Jesus Christ at all costs, even if it meant going against the flow of the Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church, and the secular governments.
During the first 100 years of their existence, the Anabaptists did not have much time to formulate ministry projects or build church buildings. They were chased around from village to village and usually did not successfully elude the authorities. They were beheaded and burned at the stake as heretics, all the while singing praise to Jesus and preaching the gospel to the crowds of watchers. The charges brought against them, if brought against someone today, would be ignored by the secular government. Yet, in their deaths, many would come to Christ and carry on their clarion call to freedom in Christ.
Freedom in Christ? Death, no cohesive structure, no creeds, no plans? How can one think the Anabaptists found freedom in Christ? They did or else they would not have been able to stand in the face of such intolerable treatment. They found that Jesus was not about buildings; they met in houses. They found that Jesus Christ was not like the fearful church bosses, He was humble, meek, and gentle. They found that God could dwell in their hearts by faith, and they found that He loved them with an everlasting love that smiled in the face of hatred, abuse, reviling, cursing, persecution and even death.
They found that Christ Jesus did not care as much about knowing Scriptures and believing in sound doctrine as He cared about us believing in and knowing Him personally and experientially. They found that obedience to Christ and His words was not optional and that if they did obey, they could know Him in a real way and their joy would be made complete. They did not expect to live long after they gave their all to Him; they knew the penalty was death. But they saw Him who was invisible and knew that death would not be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. These Germans had come home to Christ after a long absence and they were not about to leave Him again!
13. EVENTUAL COOLING DOWN OF THE ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT
Persecution might further the cause of Christ, but where there is a way of escape from the continual running and pressure, men will seek it. The Anabaptist movement eventually cooled down when two things happened: the Reformed churches decided to quit persecuting them and the Anabaptists found places where they could live in peace. When this happened, the Anabaptists found themselves in basically two camps: the Mennonites and the Hutterites. Within these two main groups, there were many various smaller groups.
The sad part about this cooling off period is that the Anabaptists, who are sometimes called the Reformers' "step-children", did not have any unified doctrinal distinctives. Their unifying confessions of faith came much later in their history when they were able to find safe havens to live in and migrate out of Europe for the New World.
For the most part, each group would have agreed with the Reformers that "sola Scriptura", only the Word of God was important. Each group would practice the "Believer's Baptism", from which they were derogatorily named the "re-baptizers". Each group practiced the "night-time meal", which is the breaking of bread and sharing of wine as a celebration in remembrance of Jesus' death. Each would agree that living in a community of believers was essential to fellowship.
All would agree that to obey the commands of Christ was inherently tied to salvation. Menno Simmons taught that the justification by faith doctrine as taught by Luther did not go far enough. Every believer must, after being justified by faith, live out their faith in a practical way for the edification of all men. Therefore, each Anabaptist group holds to a doctrine of holiness, some extreme some less so. But, each group and each sub-group had an area which they felt was more important to emphasize.
14. DISTRACTED BY THE EXTERNAL ISSUES
Ultimately, the Anabaptists, who started off so powerfully with the Holy Spirit, became distracted with external issues. Common even in the early days was that one group would excommunicate the other group over a petty issue. One would say that women should wear a head-covering which covered even the ears and the other group would reject this and say it was too legalistic or go the opposite direction and say it was too licentious still.
The examples that I could cite here are vast and would take a volume of books to list. Menno Simmons, from whom we derive the name "Mennonite", originated the practice of excommunication and shunning, later came to abhor it when it was abused and used for such petty reasons. He felt that the body of Christ should walk in love. Another practice of the Anabaptists still practiced today is called "the shunning".
A person, family, or rival group is totally ignored once they have been excommunicated from the other group. I have two friends whose fathers won't associate with them because their sons don't adhere to the same code of dress as their fathers do. "Es ist ganz schade", or, "it is quite sad" that a movement which began so powerfully could degrade into petty squabbling; but this is the legacy of the Anabaptist movement.
Splintered today nearly as much as their former enemies (the Reformation churches), there are almost as many the number of varieties of Mennonite and Hutterite congregations in the world today as there are Protestant, evangelical denominations in the entire world! Yet, even though splintered, today we outsiders categorize them still as the Anabaptist "denominations". I admire the early Anabaptists for the stand they made for Jesus in the face of certain death and sure persecution and they serve as an example and an encouragement for me today.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Hoover, Peter. The Secret of the Strength, Benchmark Press, Shippensburg, PA. 1997
Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. The Christian Hymnary Publishers, Sarasota, Florida, reprinted 1991, copyright 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
Roth, Mark. Anabaptist Menonites, a website at http://www.anabaptists.org/