Themed Set: Anabaptists

One of the recurring themes that these grim annals encounter is the Anabaptists; one might almost say that the movement’s birth pangs can be written in the blood of its martyrs.

Despised in the 16th century of both Catholics and Lutherans, so-called “re-baptizers”* were hanged, burned, drowned, beheaded, and harried from pillar to post across Europe.

Anabaptists frequently suffered execution by drowning in Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries: an allusion in the execution spectacle to the disputed baptism rite. Pictured: Maria of Montjoie (Maria van Montjou), martyred on the German border in 1552.

They’re forerunners of today’s Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish, among others; to find these amiable sects numbered among civilization’s existential threats over the disputed timing of a proper Christian ablution is to remember that the past is another country.

Of course, there was more to it than that.

To challenge infant baptism was to challenge the clergy’s power over the ceremony, and in turn to challenge the vertical hierarchy so essential to the period’s conception of the world.

If the polemical Catholic charge against what we might anachronistically term “mainline Protestantism” was that the Reformation opened the road for disordering everything, Anabaptists looked like that very reductio ad absurdum made flesh. (Martin Luther was certainly keen to dissociate himself, as was John Calvin, who termed Anabaptists a “nefarious herd.”) Anabaptists took to primitive, fraternal Christianity — the kind thought to have existed among the immediate heirs of the Apostles before the Church became another word for the Man. They rejected as un-Scriptural the authority ordained ministers claimed as God’s interlocutors. Many Anabaptists also worryingly disdained private property. To a greater or lesser extent, these critiques (cousins of which had long drawn official persecution) contradicted the power of established Christian elites both secular and ecclesiastical.

And though pacifism was a prominent part of Anabaptist thinking from the start, the movement’s idealism also fueled millenarian apostles bearing swords, and this too terrified Christendom.

The 1524-1525 Peasants War (idealized by a later era’s Communists) was led by Thomas Müntzer, who was influenced by proto-Anabaptist preachers and who himself rejected infant baptism. A decade later, Anabaptists seized control of Münster and briefly turned that city into a polygamous theocracy.

Surely Anabaptism, then being speedily reshaped by events, would connote a very different thing for us today absent the bloody defeats dealt to these revolutionaries — and absent the many executions that its persecuted adherents endured. We give this site over for the next several days to Anabaptist martyrs: not necessarily its most illustrious ones, but representatives of the many people stirred in those days to make a testament of faith on the scaffold.

* “Re-baptizer” is the literal Greek root of the term Anabaptist. Affixed by their enemies, the word was long rejected by the Anabaptists themselves on the theological grounds that infant baptism was an empty ritual — and therefore adults weren’t being re-baptized at all, but simply baptized for the first time.

On this day..

3 thoughts on “Themed Set: Anabaptists

  1. Hello,

    My message is not about Anabaptists so being here off-topic it may not appear as a comment.

    But I would have liked to tell Kevin Sullivan – who lives in Louisville, Kentucky – that until today I didn’t know the author Ryan David Jahn – who wrote in 2011 or 2012 a novel inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, which gave rise to the study of the social phenomenon known as the bystander effect – was also living in Louisville.
    I incidentally noticed that in his Wikipedia page.

    I wanted also to say – this relates to the death penalty and executions topic – that some days ago I became aware of the existence of the following book :
    I Killed for the Law, The Career of Robert Elliott and Other Executioners
    Author : Leo W. Sheridan
    ( This seems to be his only book. )
    Published by : Stackpole Sons, 1938
    ( So before Robert Elliott’s death in October 1939. )
    I had never before heard mention of this book. It proves to be a scarce title.
    Though not as scarce as the much better known book ” Agent of Death ” by Robert G. ( Graves ) Elliott and Albert Beatty ( a journalist ) published by Dutton in 1940 ( there were 3 printings in that same year but this does not make the book less scarce ).
    The book I had made a query about in December 2013, which was kindly answered by Meaghan Good who took the time to borrow this book at her local library and e-mailed me scans of the content ( thank you once again Meaghan for that ! )
    The Louisville connection here is accidental, Kevin.
    But I just saw one copy currently listed on Abebooks is offered by a bookseller in Louisville.

    Hope this link is accessible :

    Bookseller: All Booked Up
    Address: Louisville, KY, U.S.A.

    Best Regards


  2. The “thought to have” part was an attempt to explicitly disclaim any position on that Truth as pertains the early Christians. Perhaps “they thought” would have been a better way to put it. If it’s the “The Man” part — I suppose we just disagree. Thank you for reading (and commenting)!

  3. “Anabaptists took to primitive, fraternal Christianity — the kind thought to have existed among the immediate heirs of the Apostles before the Church became another word for the Man.”

    Piffle. If you want to embrace the doctrine of the Anabaptists. freely do that of course. If you want to reject the dogmas of the Catholic Church, freely do that of course. You rather glibly pretend, however, that the Anabaptists somehow have ‘the truth’ re the dogmatic subjects while the Catholic Church does not. But I do love your site!

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