Anabaptists were a large group of Christians who were active before and during the Protestant Reformation. As a group, Anabaptists no longer exist: they were almost completely exterminated during the Reformation. However, those who did survive those terrible persecutions have evolved into many different Christian groups who hold some or all of the Anabaptist ideals, notably Mennonites, the Amish, certain Brethren Churches, and others.
They were victims of terrible persecutions by Protestants. They were brutally burned alive. Roman Catholic inquisitions and persecutions of heretics are well-known, but we should not forget that the days of the Protestant Reformation were days with the smell of burned human flesh; in large cities, not a day went by without the burning of some "heretic." And it should be made quite clear that Protestant leaders were directly responsible for these brutal persecutions. Many Anabaptists were deceived in the beginning of the Reformation by naively believing in the leaders of the new Protestant movement. They had some hope - however, when they recognized the danger of the real nature of Protestantism, it was too late for them to be saved from Protestant persecutions.
We believe that before the Reformation, there were many genuine Christians who were hiding because of the persecutions enacted by the Roman Catholic Church. Anabaptists were one of these groups, which had itself evolved from previous groups, such as the Donatists, before 1000 AD. We know that Christianity had spread all the way to Ireland before Constantine (in the 4th century). Early Christians had their meetings at house churches without any official appointed priesthood. The big question is what happened with all these Christians after Constantine and the formation of the State-Church. Did all these Christians accept the idea of the union between the Church and the State? Certainly not: they had to hide from a new danger, which was a greater danger than all persecutions under heathen Roman emperors. The new danger was, namely, the false Roman Catholic Church.
We would suggest that you read two works of Leonard Verduin, who has examined the extant documents written during the trials of Anabaptists. The works in question also deal with the comparative history between the State-Church and other groups of Christians whom it persecuted. Verduin deals with their history and analyzes the roots of the development of the hybrid State-Church. His first work is The Anatomy of the Hybrid, and the second work is The Reformers and Their Stepchildren.
We have a profound respect for the Anabaptist movement: they were a major light in the dark Middle Ages, representing spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Many Anabaptists were intellectuals par excellence with a classical education, and thanks to them many manuscripts of the Bible were preserved. (Classical education involves a universalistic kind of education, such as fluency in Greek and Latin, thorough knowledge of the ancient Greek and Latin literature, the art of rhetoric and scholastic logic, knowledge of history, geography, mathematics, etc.) Many of them were ex-Catholic priests who understood that the Catholic worship was not very pleasing to our Lord. It is interesting that you could not preach in Anabaptist meetings unless you could speak Greek or Hebrew fluently, but that should not surprise us, since at that time there were no bibles translated into the vernacular so that common people could read them. Most importantly, Anabaptists engaged in copying Bible manuscripts. They tried to spread the Gospel to the common man. During the Inquisition and Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists were accused of being possessed by demons because of their incredible depth of knowledge. All these claims can be verified by historical documents written during their trials, documents discovered at the end of 20th century.
Anabaptist churches were neither Protestant nor Catholic. Protestantism is just an offshoot from the Roman Catholic Church. No mystery then that Protestants burned "heretics." It is a great wonder that someone becomes a genuine follower of Christ at all. Considering what so-called "Christians" have done throughout history would be a good reason to reject Christianity, as so many intelligent people do.
Anabaptists were persecuted for three reasons:
- Anabaptists were against the union between State and Church, which they regarded, rightly so, as a spiritual prostitution.
- They were against infant baptism.
- They were against the teaching of salvation by grace alone. They said, rather, that you were saved by God's grace through faith, and not by grace alone. They taught that salvation is a gift which has only one condition, namely living faith. It is necessary to have a living faith, faith that is confirmed by having fruits of the Holy Spirit.
All these claims can be verified by historical documents written during their trials - and here we are referring to the trials caused by the Protestant Reformation. From historical works that are based on these documents, we can conclude only this: the days of the Protestant Reformation had a disastrous effect on the subsequent history of Christianity because of the many distorted ideas about God and salvation that it nurtured. These distorted ideas influenced and catalyzed the formation of our modern average Christian mind-set, so that it is quite shocking to say nowadays, in Christian circles, that we are also saved through moral works, and not through a dead faith with no works. And we, as genuine followers of Christ, claim that Protestant doctrines about God and salvation are false teachings. If our claim is surprising, please read our article "Faith and Work," which clarifies why we are so adamant in our Anabaptist belief, which the entire Bible clearly teaches. However, in this article, we are concerned with a historical look at Protestant doctrine on the relation between faith and works.
Many Christians consider themselves as belonging to a Protestant branch of Christianity, even if they belong to Churches that are not State-Churches. Some Christians would say that they are Protestants. They think that they could trace their theological lineage in such a way that the line of theological development would proceed from the Apostolic Church right on into the Postmodern era, through a historical development via such movements as the Anabaptist and the Reformation. However, it is quite wrong to have such a historical perspective of Christianity. Anabaptists and Protestant Reformers did not share the same theology. Protestant theology was sacralist, inherited from the Roman Catholic Church. To repeat, Protestantism is just an offshoot from the Roman Catholic Church.
The common element in both Protestant and Catholic theology was the sacralist element, in that the State and the Church should be politically united, where the Church had the right to use the sword against heretics. The service was also ritualistic: just visit an Anglican or Lutheran church, and observe how extremely ritualistic their worship is. Protestants differed from Catholics on the question of icons and the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), the role of the Pope, and, yes, the doctrine of salvation. Granted, their doctrine was and is that you should have faith in Christ. But what does it mean for Lutherans, to have faith? It means to be baptized and belong to the State-Church, and nothing more than that, although nowadays many Lutherans advocate Ecumenical union with the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, they practice infant baptism. Anabaptists were persecuted because they rejected infant baptism, for they taught that the condition for baptism is to have faith (cf. Acts 8:36-37), and not the other way around.
Let us take a closer historical look at the very central doctrine of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith and its bearing on the place of good works in the scheme of salvation. We will not theologically discuss this doctrine here, but focus rather on its historical origin in Luther's Reform. The theological aspects of the doctrine are discussed further in the article "Faith and Work."
In his haste to establish the doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works, Luther diminished the importance of good works; the only place he had left for good works was at the very end, as a sort of postscript or appendage, something that needed attention after salvation was an accomplished fact. We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect. Luther was primarily interested in pardon rather than in renewal. His theology was a theology that addressed itself to the problem of guilt, rather than to the problem of pollution. There is an imbalance in this theology between what God does for man and what He does in man. It was this imbalance that caused Luther to collide with the Epistle of James, by trying to throw the Epistle of James out of our bibles.
Anabaptists showed from the very outset a critical attitude towards Luther's disparagement of good works. They did not go along with his one-sidedly forensic theology. They complained that "Luther throws works without faith so far to one side that all he has left is a faith without works." They suggested that Luther's "sola fide" was heresy, if taken as it was taken by some, to mean faith unaccompanied.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation have throughout history persecuted and killed millions of genuine followers of Christ, and we should not forget Luther's and Calvin's direct and disastrous influences on the brutal murder of the whole Anabaptist movement.
We are not surprised by the sufferings of Anabaptist Christians. Compare Apostle Paul's words concerning the persecution of followers of Christ with the Anabaptist case:
2 Timothy 3:12
Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
1 Corinthians 4:10-13
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.
Observe especially the last verse: "being defamed ... we are made as the filth of the world." Quite strong words. As we see it, Anabaptists were literally defamed and made the filth of the world, by being burned as filth. Many history books tend to ignore them, and are even written to disrepute them.
As you have noticed, in our historical account of Anabaptists we have talked about brutal killings, grotesque burnings of innocent men and women, and, indeed, about crimes against humanity. And we are entitled to do so, since Anabaptist history is a history of terrible human sacrifices and great tragedies. Any genuine follower of Christ should not forget the tragedy of the Anabaptists. Generally speaking, the history of the true Church is a history of persecutions. But in spite of these persecutions, there were always genuine followers of Christ spreading the Gospel. They had many names. We know one of these groups, namely the Anabaptists.