On January 21, 1525, a small group of men gathered in the home of Felix Manz in the Swiss city of Zurich. For some months Manz and his friends, Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock, and others, had been convinced that the Catholic Mass and other Catholic teachings were contrary to Scripture. They had followed the lead of their teacher and mentor, Ulrich Zwingli, in calling for reforms in the churches of their city. Zwingli wished for these reforms, but was constrained by the slow hand of the city council, which, though it had ousted the Catholic bishop from leadership, was slow to authorize any real changes in the worship in the city’s churches. But the students of Zwingli wanted even more. Though they agreed with Reformers like Luther that much needed to be changed, they differed with the other Reformers on the nature of the church and the timing of baptism. They had concluded that infant baptism was an abomination, and that only believers’ baptism was consistent with the New Testament. To be even more specific, what they were contending for was not merely believers’ baptism understood generically, but disciples’ baptism, since baptism was to be reserved for “committed disciples who had shown by their steadfast faith, self-discipline and whole-hearted following of the ideals of the gathered community that they were genuine disciples.” That January evening they acted on their convictions. After prayer, Georg Blaurock stood up in the midst of their meeting and asked Grebel, “for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge,” whereupon Grebel complied, and then Blaurock baptized the other adults in the room. They then pledged themselves as true disciples of the Lord “to live lives separated from the world and to teach the gospel and hold the faith.” Thus began the movement commonly known as Anabaptism, but better known to modern scholarship as the Radical Reformation.
It may seem an incidental thing to us, this evening baptismal event with only a dozen or so obscure figures present, but in reality it constituted a very tiny (at the time) but extremely significant revolution in theology. The age-old practice of infant baptism with its implications for politics and social relations was immense. Social expectations, legal enactments and
interpersonal relationships all built on this foundation. So to deny that the paedo-baptism (infant baptism) of all was legitimate and to insist on a later baptism of only a few could not be simply a personal decision with the goal of pursuing greater spiritual fidelity. It inevitably also entailed a stinging indictment of the Christian faith of the others and of the legitimacy of the civil state.
As much as anything, the Radical Reformation constituted a new way of understanding the church—“new,” that is, insofar as it is difficult to find others who sympathized with them any time in their own recent memory. For them the church was a believers’ church. Menno Simons, one of the important theologians in the movement, argued that he was simply applying Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith to the doctrine of the church. If people are justified by faith alone, then only such justified people ought to be “members” of the church. The church then is a “believers’ church” in the sense that only those are members of the visible church who are, by their own testimony at least, members of the mystical body of Christ. Menno further argued that the NT only depicts and teaches the baptism of those who have made a conscious choice to become disciples of Jesus, and that this was consistent with his views on the nature of the church. Luther had done much good in his reforming efforts, as would Calvin, but not enough. While the Magisterial Reformers (those who promoted reforms with the assistance of the magistrates) wished to “reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the Radical Reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church which they believed had ‘fallen’ or apostatized.” Menno viewed his work as a furthering or a completion of what Luther had started.
The implications of such a set of convictions are momentous. If the church is made up only of a believing community, Menno further contended, then it alone is responsible for its ministry, its leadership, its support, and its own reform efforts. This entailed a staggering impact politically. In all of the other reform efforts in Germany, Geneva, Basel, Strasbourg, Zurich and other places (including England), the reform efforts were supported by, and in some cases even initiated by, the political authorities. This in effect “put the state in a position of dominance in the life of the church.” Additionally, these reforms were carried out for the most part only under the approving watch-care of town councils, nobles, princes, and other political leaders. Grebel, Manz, and the other key leaders of the new Radicals rejected this out of hand. The church needs no assistance in carrying out its reforms. Whenever the government adds its lending hand to reform efforts it also looks for some kind of pay-back as well as complete cooperation with the political realities that are in place, whether those political realities are just or not. The Anabaptists in effect said, “We do not need the government’s help in carrying out our reforms, and we do not want its interference.” It was a truly radical position; these men were not, in all likelihood, fully prepared for the storm that was about to be unleashed on them.
The practice of “rebaptism” (the meaning of the term “anabaptist”) was outlawed in Zurich. Felix Manz was executed early in 1527 for “rebaptizing” persons, executed by drowning. The Radicals were proscribed all over Europe, with the exception of Holland. The reason is that their convictions challenged one of the most long-standing and universal beliefs of Western (and, indeed, Eastern) Christendom, the belief that church and state were in some sense two sides of the same coin. It is not that everyone else saw church and state as the same thing. It is not even that kings and popes always got along well. But the common belief, so common that it was part of the fabric of their very lives, was that there was only one state (in any given geographic area) and that there was also only one church, and that this seamlessness was requisite to a stable society. To contend for a different political reality was tantamount to treason or sedition; to contend for a different ecclesiastical reality was to do the very same thing. Starting a new church was seen as rebellion and insurrection. This was at least the view that outsiders took of the Anabaptists, a name that “came to be used in a general pejorative sense to describe those who were believed to oppose the existing social and political order.” There is only one way to deal with usurpers. This is why Manz was drowned by the Zurich authorities, in a kind of parody of his own baptismal practice. But the Radicals believed that practicing mandated infant baptism in the context of an established church was to confuse the church with the world.
The Anabaptists were attempting to break a millennium-old assumption. Their beliefs were counter to Augustine, contrary to the practice of the Medieval popes, counter to the convictions that launched the Inquisition, and they were inconsistent with the compromise position of Luther or the rational approach of John Calvin. Their belief was also not consistent with their own local situation in Zurich in which Zwingli was willing to allow the city council to set the tone and the pace of reform, in effect, to govern the church’s affairs. Grebel. in conversation with Zwingli, rejected the city council’s authority over the churches. He contended that the churches ought to be able to handle their reforms on their own. “The decision of Conrad Grebel to refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the Zurich council over the Zurich church is one of the high moments of history, for however obscure it was, it marked the beginning of the modern ‘free church’ movement.” Furthermore, this action by “Grebel and the Swiss Brethren who gathered around him in the ensuing year(s) planted the seed out of which has come, through the influence of the Anabaptists in Holland and England, the modern Protestant commitment of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, voluntary church membership, and separation of church and state.” These are truly monumental issues! Grebel would pay for his actions with imprisonment in Zurich in 1525/26, but would be released and then die in August of 1526, probably from the plague in Maienfeld. Living only to the age of twenty-eight, he had founded a theological revolution that would live on for generations.
All of the previous theologies advocated the view that there can be only one government and only one church in any locale, and that there was some kind of mutually-supportive symbiosis between them, even though leaders of church and state did not always agree on how to handle any given situation. For the previous “Great Tradition,” the two (state and church) had to find a way to work together for moral, economic, political, and ecclesiastical advancement, in effect, to create a Christian Society. But this was not so for the Radicals, and in many places they paid a great price for their “sedition.” They did not see themselves as rebels, of course, but were simply calling for a new model of church-state relations, a model that actually would be tentatively attempted in the Low Countries by the 1540s. This does not mean that the Radicals in Zurich were advocating separatism. They rejected the Catholic Church and the idea of a state church, but they did wish for “one united church, not a little church outside the big church, for they believed that the majority of the people would accept their program.” They wanted one church, but not a church under the boot heel of the city council. Thus was the desire for true religious liberty born, in the heart and mind of a twenty-something university student who had learned from his mentor (Zwingli) that Scripture alone was the authority for all of life. Would that his mentor had learned the lesson as well as his students.
From the forthcoming book, Seeking the City, by Chad Brand and Tom Pratt.