The Anabaptists were a radical religious group that developed from the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther. However, both Zwingli and Luther rejected the Anabaptists because they deemed them to be too radical. Though the Anabaptists had some support in various parts of Western Europe, they were rejected by Protestants and Catholics alike and all but hunted down.

What did the Anabaptists believe in? In general they believed in:

  • Adult baptism (learned repentance)
  • Mass to be a memorial service for the baptised
  • Free will
  • Pacifism; Anabaptists refused to do military service
  • Secular laws and oaths were not recognised
  • Pastors supported by their congregation
  • Tendency towards equality

However, the Anabaptists had no generally accepted doctrine as each group adopted their own specific beliefs and there was no central organisation. The Anabaptists also had no overall leader so there was no John Calvin or Luther-like figure. The influence of the Anabaptists was never extreme because its origins were far from precise. Whereas Luther, Calvin and Zwingli could be specifically associated with a geographic area, the Anabaptists could not. There is some evidence that the Anabaptists developed in Zurich after 1523. Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were the early ‘leaders’ of the movement. They had discussed with Zwingli child baptism. By 1525, adults in Zurich were being baptised in rivers. This was bitterly opposed by Zwingli and Zwingli agreed that Anabaptists should be drowned in a decree of 1526. This destroyed the group and they survived in a few isolated areas of Switzerland or moved to other areas. The Anabaptists in Strasburg were seen as being too radical for Martin Bucer and were expelled from the city.

Small groups of Anabaptists cropped up throughout Western Europe. Poorer people and peasants tended to gravitate towards the Anabaptists but its success in any small area was the result of what locals did as opposed to what any general leader could organise. With no central leader, the group had no central organisation and suffered accordingly.

Though there was no Anabaptist ‘leader’ the likes of Hans Huth, Balthasar Hubmaier and Jacob Hutter might be considered to be the more famous ‘leaders’. Hans Huth was a wandering bookseller. He was active in South German villages until he was caught by the authorities in Augsburg, tortured and killed. Hubmaier was active in Moravia when he won over a number of converts. He was arrested in 1528 and burned. His wife was drowned in the River Danube. Hutter set up eighty Anabaptist settlements in Moravia. Despite the respect they gained for hard work and sobriety, Hutter was arrested in 1536 and many of his followers fled to Poland or went to what was to become the United States of America.

The Anabaptists found a base in the Germany at Munster in 1534. The community brought in the death sentence for disobedience and adultery but allowed polygamy. In 1535, Munster was taken over by the authorities and the leaders of the community were killed. By 1566, there were in the region of 3,000 deaths of Anabaptists in the Netherlands alone.

A few Anabaptists appeared in England. They were usually those who fled the Netherlands because of the persecution they faced. However, if they were caught they suffered the same fate as those in Europe. Between 1530 and 1535, a number of Anabaptists were burned at the stake. As late as 1575, two Anabaptists were burned in London.

Why did the Anabaptists arouse so much hostility and fear especially as they were small in number and disorganised on a European scale? There are three main reasons.

They held beliefs that were unacceptable to the majority, be they Catholic or Protestant. Some beliefs were offensive in a religiously sensitive era and certain behaviour, such as polygamy, was frowned upon.

Anabaptists also seemed to threaten social stability. If it is true that the Anabaptists came out of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, this event was linked to social upheaval and to the demand for social equality. It was an event that was also linked to Luther’s comment that “you can be a slave and a Christian”.

The Anabaptists also held views that were a challenge to other Protestant beliefs. If the Anabaptists were allowed to spread it would have almost certainly been at the expense of Protestant faiths as opposed to Catholicism. Therefore the Anabaptists could be seen more as a threat to the Protestants and this resulted in them not being tolerated wherever they went.