A Brief Anabaptist/Mennonite History

Mennonites in America trace their spiritual and denominational origins to the third wing of the Reformation in Europe during the sixteenth century. Martin Luther led a reformation movement in Germany beginning in 1517. Ulrich Zwingli was the leader of the Swiss reformation begun in Zurich in 1522. Among the students in the school of ministers in Zurich were several men who were dissatisfied with the pace and the extent of the reforms Zwingli initiated. The issues of greatest concern were the validity of infant baptism and the nature of the Church. These men were later labeled Anabaptists (rebaptizers) by their enemies because of their practice of adult or believers baptism.

In regards to the Church, sixteenth century Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed churches were official state churches. All infants were baptized into church membership, thus resulting in a society where nearly all were Christian by virtue of baptism. Those who refused to have their children baptized were considered a threat to the state church and the viability of society. Additional issues emerged as the Anabaptist movement withdrew from the Swiss reformation. Those issues had to do with the nature and essence of true Christianity and the doctrine and practice of nonresistance to evil (Christian pacifism).

The Anabaptists subscribed wholeheartedly to the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. On such fundamental matters as the doctrine of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, human depravity, the new birth, and the literal return of the Lord Jesus, the Anabaptists were in agreement with the Reformers. However, their radical Biblicism led them to differ with the Reformers on the aforementioned issues of infant baptism and the nature of the Church. This led the Reformers and the Catholic Church to condemn them as heretics and to persecute them fiercely. Banishment, imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom resulted. Over two thousand Anabaptists were martyred from 1527 to 1550. The last Anabaptist martyrdom occurred in 1571.

The following is a brief summary of the issues that were unique to the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and led them to leave the state churches even though it put them in great peril.

I. Radical Biblicism

In short, the Anabaptists believed that God speaks man’s language and says what He means and means what He says, They believed that the Sermon on the Mount is the ethic by which Christians ought to live. Such radical teachings as loving your enemies, turning the other creed, returning good for evil, the non-swearing of oaths, and other such lofty ethics Jesus taught can be substantially practiced by those who are truly regenerate. Menno Simons said: We seek nothing on this earth but that we may obey the clear and printed Word of the Lord, His Spirit, His example, His command, prohibition, usage,and ordinance by which everything in Christ’s Kingdom and Church must be regulated. Thus the commands of churchmen and magistrates were ignored when they violated Scripture. They believed that the Bible is the primary source for doctrine and practice.

II. The Essence of Christianity is Discipleship

One of the greatest tragedies of the Protestant reformation was that there was no evidence of amendment of life among the members of the Church. Luther in his later years even lamented the fact the “the impiety of the people is greater under the Gospel than it was under the papacy.” The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity that made regeneration and holy living a matter of intellectual assent of Scriptural doctrine rather than one of the transformation of life. True repentance and faith are evidenced by newness of life! They believed in salvation by grace through faith but insisted that true repentance results in holy living. While the Anabaptists agreed with the Reformers that justification by faith results in right standing before a Holy God (forensic righteousness), they believed furthermore that Scriptural salvation also results in an inner moral cleansing (intrinsic righteousness).

Their exemplary lives were noted by the Reformers and the common people. They were on occasion accused of teaching sinless perfection and/or works religion, both of which they vehemently denied. To them, true Christianity resulted in radical discipleship. True disciples follow the example and teachings of Jesus in holy living and cross bearing.

III. The Disciplined Church of Believers Only

In the early Christian era, the Church was a distinct entity from the State and the unregenerate society. Christian sacralism (official societal Christianity) was introduced with the radical changes brought about by Constantine from 311 to 325. After centuries of official state religion, in which a sacramental view of salvation developed, the Catholic Church held that the Church is a God-ordained institution that conveys the grace of God to the people through the sacraments administered by the priests. To their credit, the Reformers saw the Church as an institution of God for the proclamation of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. This was a move in the right direction, but fell far short of the scriptural and Anabaptist view.

The Anabaptists held that the Church is a God-ordained institution where the Word of God is preached and sustained by brotherly admonition, correction, encouragement, and discipline. The Church is comprised of those who are truly regenerate, committed to mutual accountability, and who voluntarily join the fellowship of believers. Since infants cannot exercise faith and make personal commitments, and since Scripture does not teach infant baptism, the Anabaptists refused to have their babies baptized. They embraced believers baptism, which the Catholics and the Reformers saw as a threat to a cohesive and functional society. Thus the vigorous harassment and persecution that followed.

The teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 and the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 5:1-13 are the primary basis for the Anabaptist/Mennonite practice of Church discipline. When sin or deviant doctrine occurred in the life of a member of the Body of Christ, Scripture teaches that he/she should be approached privately. If no redemptive response occurs, then several more are to appeal to the erring one. Should that appeal fail, then it is to be told to the Church. If one refuses to hear the Church, then he/she is to be dis-fellowshipped. Discipline is not to be viewed as punishment, but as a means of lovingly restoring one overtaken in a fault. (Galations 6:1)

IV. The Ethic of Love and Nonresistance

The early Church prior to Constantine did not allow any of its members to be soldiers, nor to hold any political office which called for the use of force in the execution of its duties. During much of that early era, the Church was an underground and persecuted people, yet there were extended periods of time in which that was not the case. When politicians or soldiers were converted, they had to give up their coercive office or soldiering before they could be received into fellowship in the Body. This teaching and practice was based on the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48 and the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:14-13:8.

Since the Anabaptists were radical Biblicists and also were intent on reconstituting Apostolic Christianity, it naturally followed that they would rediscover this long-neglected doctrine. Loving one’s enemies, doing good to them, and praying for them meant to suffer wrong, even unto death, rather than to seek justice or revenge. At Jesus’ trial before Pilate, He told Pilate that “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight. but now my kingdom is not from hence.” ( John 18:36) The application of these teachings applies to all human relationships, not just in times of war. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Conclusion

During the first two generations of Anabaptism, they were zealous in evangelism; however, fierce persecution did drive them to become an underground church that became largely silent regarding their faith. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Anabaptist Mennonites emigrated to America to escape persecution and the military draft for their young men.

The Old Order Amish and other very conservative groups still reflect this loss of evangelism and missions in America. However, many Mennonites began to revive the Anabaptist vision during the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century. While our first commitment must be to the Lord and to His Word, the legacy of faith that is ours from our Anabaptist forefathers challenges us as members at the United Bethel Mennonite Church. Our deepest desire is to be found faithful by the Lord of the Church in the model of the Apostolic Church and the sixteenth century Anabaptists.

Written by Walter Beachy