By Keith Malcomson
"The Radical Reformation"
In many ways the movement which later was given the name Anabaptist flowed forth out of the initial work of the Reformation. Most if not all of its leaders came from a Roman Catholic background.
By the time Zwingli received a call to serve as a priest in the city of Zurich he was a thorough student of the Word of God and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He held great power in the city through his preaching and teaching. As we know he rose to be one of the leading lights of the Reformation. Gathering to him were a group of young zealous students and scholars. Amongst them was a man called Conrad Grebal whose father was a member of the Zurich city council.
Although this reform work was initially carried forth slowly and carefully by Zwingli by 1522 it had turned to fervent zeal. His young students were now soaked in the truths of the Greek New Testament. By the end of 1523 some of these men including Grebal had become intensely dissatisfied with what they were seeing of the Reformation in Zurich. Their one and only standard was the written Scripture. They longed to return to the simplicity of the New Testament pattern for the Church.
In October 1523 a disputation was held at which an open floor of discussion was given on the various subjects of Reform. It seemed that all were agreed that the Bible, Gods Word, would carry the final authority on every subject for the church. To his students Zwingli seemed uncompromising in his loyalty to the written scripture above any authority of man.
Throughout the discussions the watchword was always “What saith scripture.” These young fiery men believed words would lead to action and the changing of the mass to the biblical teaching of the Lords Supper. Most of the talk went on between Zwingli and Grebal. Other issues dealt with were the teaching of purgatory and the use of idols. By the end of the year nothing had come of the talks as far as changing the mass which Zwingli had previously vowed to abolish on Christmas day.
By that date Zwingli had instead yielded to the authority of the city council on such doctrinal issues and had settled down in a midway house of compromise which satisfied the city council but which did not satisfy the young men. Grebal was especially disappointed in Zwingli’s actions. Over the next year Grebal arose as the leader of the young radicals. He rejected the authority of the council over church affairs, also the erroneous teachings of Rome, and led the way in returning to a full biblical pattern for the church.
They met from home to home in order to study the Bible and carried on correspondence with Luther and others in the hope of seeing a full reformation in Zurich. They continued a public active call in the city for a full biblical reform of the church. In January 1525 another disputation was held at which the city council supported Zwingli and rejected the young radicals giving them one of three choices. First, of submitting to the councils rulings in church affairs, second, leaving the city or third, imprisonment.
A New Church Birthed
A few days later on the 21st of January about a dozen men gathered at the home of Felix Manz. They were all cast down in heart by present circumstances. It was in this state that they bowed their knees, heads and hearts before the Most High God of heaven in prayer asking him for his divine direction and mercy. As they arose from prayer one of the brethren, George Blaurock, insisted that Grebal baptize him in water with a true believers Christian baptism after which Blaurock carried on to baptize all the rest.
Little did they realize at the time that a new church was born which would mark the beginning of a new dynamic movement. They were given the nickname Anabaptist, which means re-baptized or to baptize again. The issue of infant baptism had been another teaching which they could see had departed from Scripture. Many of those who were delivered from Rome’s dominion in the Reformation carried with them the remnants of Romish error. They still held fast to a state run, or at least influenced, church. They kept infant baptism. Some kept the mass and other Catholic traditions. None of this was acceptable to the Anabaptists.
Here was the formation of a new church after the order of the New Testament pattern. There was indeed a time when both Luther and Zwingli both confessed to seeing that infant baptism was not scriptural but both stopped short of carrying out a full reform lest it be too much for secular councils.
A believer’s baptism after repentance and faith was just one part of the convictions of these men who desired a return to and restoration of a New Testament church. The written Scripture would hold absolute sway in the “order” of this new church. All things would be tested by the Word of God and conform to it.
Three men took the lead in this new movement, Grebal, Blaurock and Manz. Conrad Grebal was to have a very short ministry yet very effective. From February of 1525 these men went from home to home witnessing, baptizing and conducting the Lord’s Supper. This work began to spread out into St. Gallen, Schauffhausen, and elsewhere. The first full immersion baptism of this movement was conducted by Grebal who baptized a converted catholic priest in the Rhine River.
Grebal preached with great success at St. Gallen which culminated in a great public baptism of a large group of those desiring a believer’s baptism, on April 9th in the River Sitter. There were now about 500 re-baptized followers of this movement in and around St. Gallen. Grebal now returned to Zurich and continued to write on behalf of this work whilst in hiding. These were days of poor health and poverty for him but his zeal burned bright.
In June of that year he moved to his home town of Groningen where he ministered continually for the next four months to small groups gathered in homes. He emphasized repentance, faith and the authority of Scripture. In October at a gathering of these believers and leaders Grebal and Manz were taken captive by the magistrates and imprisoned. After a trial with weak accusations made against them of sedition by Zwingli they were given an indefinite length of time in prison with only bread and water to sustain them through the cold winter and with no visitors allowed.
Over these months many other Anabaptists were imprisoned for their convictions. During his imprisonment Grebal wrote a manuscript on baptism which he finished in the fifth month of his imprisonment. He asked permission to have it printed which made the situation worse. A second trial was held in March 1526 at which the sentence of life imprisonment was given to all those who had been imprisoned. On the very same day it was proclaimed that re-baptism was now punishable by death.
Just two weeks later the prisoners were helped to escape. Grebal now published his scriptural manuscript with great affect. He continued to preach, travel and minister in pursuit of a full reformation in line with the written Scripture. While ministering in Graubunden he fell victim to the plague in the summer of 1526. His was a short life and ministry but he was used of God to start something that all Hell would not be able to stop.
The Work Spreads
The work spread quickly and widely gaining a large following in Switzerland. They tested and challenged both catholic and protestant using only the teaching of the Word of God. They were not a reaction against catholic superstition and tradition; they were a movement returning to Zion. They were a movement returning to Gods order.
Those caught up in this return to scripture in all things simply called them-selves Christians, brethren or believers. Today they are commonly called the Swiss Brethren. They held strongly to the belief that a person could only be considered a part of the church if they had repented of their sins and believed in Jesus Christ unto salvation through His shed blood. This was shown outwardly by a public confession and the act of baptism.
Felix Manz continued to preach and travel with great effect. Everywhere he went he became acquainted with the local prison house but he continued unhindered. During this time he was considered the leader of the movement and his great eloquence and enthusiasm endeared the people to him. His final imprisonment came in October 1526. On the following January he was sentenced to death by drowning. As he was escorted from the prison to the river he witnessed the whole time to his guards and to those on the river bank. He proclaimed aloud his own testimony and confidence in Christ and his willingness to die for the truth and his convictions. His mother’s voice cried out to him exhorting him to remain faithful unto death. He was taken down river where he was tied hand and foot. As they prepared him for death he sang aloud a hymn ‘Into thy hands O Lord I commend my spirit’ which he continued singing until he was cast into the cold water where he drowned.
This was the first martyrdom of this movement in Zurich but certainly not the last. The same day as Manz was put to death George Blaurock was taken and beaten with rods and expelled from Zurich. He now took the lead and led the movement forward for the next two years. He was marked by zeal and boldness and greatly resembled one of the old time prophets. After leaving Zurich he went to Bern where again he and all his followers were expelled. He then went to Biel where he had many followers but again was cast out of the city. After four banishments in a period of four months he left Switzerland.
He was now called to pastor a church in the Adige valley which had lost its pastor by martyrdom. (Klausen, Neumarkt). God blessed this work and great crowds gathered to hear Gods Word. Many new congregations of baptized believers were formed. In August 1529 Blaurock was taken captive at Innsbruck and burnt at the stake in September. His only crime was the rejection of infant baptism, the mass, confession of sins to priests and worship of Mary. He went to his death testifying and preaching the scriptures.
Martyrdom and persecution became the normal pattern of life for the Anabaptists. Another leader of great renown was Michael Sattler. In previous years while a prior of a monastery in Freiberg he had given himself to the study of Paul’s epistles in Greek. The light of salvation dawned on him leading him out of the Catholic Church and soon he joined the first Anabaptists.
In February 1525 he led the way in preaching and writing the Schleitheim Confession which was to have very wide circulation in Switzerland and Germany. It dealt with the scriptural order of the church and other doctrinal issues almost like a church manual. Straight after this he was arrested and imprisoned. The great mark of his heart and life was love.
The king of Austria ordered his cure from Anabaptism, by way of a third baptism, death by drowning. But eventually he was condemned to die by torture and burning. These proceedings took place over two days and as a result he was finally burned at the stake on the 20th May. His faithful wife was drowned eight days later. This martyrdom had a profound affect upon those who were called of God to follow in the way of persecution and death.
The embers of Gods recovered truth were set on fire and so spread across all of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bohemia and Moravia. In their midst were leaders like Hans Denck, Johannes Hut, Wilhelm Reublin, Pilgrim Marpeck and Menno Simons. Later still it spread in Holland, Poland, Transylvania, Hungry and elsewhere.
God raised up many great preachers, teachers and writers in their midst over those early decades. Their grasp of Scripture was simple, balanced, profound and complete. Their writings, confessions and doctrinal statements were solid, convincing and effectual. The spread of these written works were so successful and fruitful that the Spanish inquisition had to attack and deal with them 100 years later.
Amongst them there was a strong conviction that Christ was about to return for His true church. Their hearts cry was Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus. The true Anabaptists were pacifists in belief and so refused to take up arms to defend themselves or to overthrow governments. They had a beautiful and balanced belief in loving the brethren as well as an uncompromising grasp of scriptural obedience to truth.
They saw the fruit of true conversion in a life lived in holiness. They believed in separating from card playing, drinking, swearing, dancing, carousing, following fashion trends or in wearing unsuitable or indecent clothes. They were hard working, tax paying people. Very often they were well taught and educated. They were sacrificial and sincere. They followed discipleship according to the Bible pattern.
Mass executions became the norm. In just one incident in 1529 there were 350 believers put to death at one time. One thousand men were sent forth secretly to track down and kill these believers. In some areas these teachings were stamped out through eradication by death. But the fruit of all this was that the work spread and burned brighter.
The writings of the torture, rape and murder which these Anabaptists had to endure are horrific. Very often they had to flee and live in caves and forests. In later decades the catholic Jesuits set themselves to annihilate the brethren in Moravia and elsewhere. In a period of 18 years at least 10,220 Anabaptists were burnt alive as well as 97,000 imprisoned.