739: ANABAPTISM AND ITS ORIGINS by BOB ALLAWAY

“Zingcreed is pleased to reprint the text of a talk given by Reverend Robert Allaway to the London Catholic Workers group on 1st June 2017. Bob gave up a career as a scientist to become a Baptist minister in North London. He is an evangelical and chairman of the council of the organisation Faith and Thought (faithandthought.org). Anabaptists are one of the 3 Christian groups in Britain that Zingcreed approves of wholeheartedly (See the Zingcreed manifesto), and although their numbers are few they continue to exert a big influence on Christian thinking. Their history is absolutely fascinating, and I hope you find this piece as interesting as I do.
In solidarity
Peter Turner.”

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    Anabaptism and its origins – Bob Allaway
    “The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title and
    possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.”
    Article 38 of the ‘39 Articles of Faith’ of the Church of England!
    In this paper, I will first give the ‘official’ account of the start of the Anabaptist
    movement (and, for that matter, of the various Baptist denominations, although they
    have not always acknowledged this).
    I will then argue that the real state of affairs was more complicated, with different
    forms of Anabaptism arising independently in many different places. I will also
    suggest that some of these movements may owe more to earlier lay-Catholic
    spirituality than to the official Reformation.
    The Church is Reborn
    Zurich: 1525. Since 1518, Zwingli has been the leading priest and preacher at the
    main church in the city. He had stayed by his people when plague struck, caring for
    the sick and dying till he caught it himself, but had miraculously survived.
    Consequently, the people had tremendous respect and affection for him, and listened
    attentively as he preached through Matthew’s Gospel. Zwingli brought them the
    words and deeds of Jesus in their own Swiss-German dialect, and pointed out
    obvious contradictions with the Catholic Church of his day. Somewhat incongruously,
    however, the traditional Catholic Latin Mass continued alongside his preaching.
    A band of enthusiastic students, the well-educated sons of leading citizens, gather at
    Zwingli’s home, to study the Bible with him, in the original Greek and Hebrew, and to
    discuss theology. In recent months, however, they have become increasingly
    frustrated with their hero. While, in their company, he has made scathing criticisms of
    the contemporary liturgy of the Mass, he refuses to change anything in his actual
    practice, without the permission of the city council (who, incidentally, pay his salary!)
    The city council, however, is more concerned with keeping everyone happy than with
    doctrinal purity, so is making as few changes as possible, as slowly as possible.
    Now, in the privacy of their discussions, Zwingli suggests some really radical ideas.
    Those baptised in the New Testament, he says, were baptised by their own choice,
    on profession of their own faith. Might it not be better if we ceased to baptise infants,
    but waited till they were old enough request baptism for themselves? However,
    Zwingli voices such ideas as a purely theoretical, academic debating point. He would
    not dream of putting such ideas into practice. The city council were reluctant enough
    to change the Mass; no way would they change baptism. For Zwingli’s students, this
    is pure hypocrisy.
    They challenge Zwingli to a public debate on baptism, on January 10
    th
    and 17
    th
    1525.
    Zwingli gives a half-hearted defence of infant baptism, but the city council declare
    him the victor. However, many of the ordinary spectators are impressed by the
    students’ arguments.
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    The students think, if this is the pattern of church life that God wants, should we not
    just do it, without waiting for any human permission? Some of them begin to meet
    privately, to pray for God’s guidance and for the strength to follow it.
    And so, to quote a contemporary account, on the night of 21st January, 1525, after
    such prayer, “George Cajacob arose and asked Conrad [Grebel] to baptize him, for
    the sake of God, with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And
    when he knelt down with that request and desire, Conrad baptised him … After that
    was done, others similarly desired George to baptise them.”
    This ‘true baptism’, in their own eyes, was, to traditionalists, a re-baptism,
    ana-baptism, an offence that could be punishable by death. By it, those students
    were declaring their infant baptisms, and the church that practised it, null and void.
    They were no longer just reforming the church, but totally recreating it, as a free
    association of believers, who would seek to follow Jesus, free of any interference by
    the state or religious hierarchy. They began to proclaim this view with apostolic zeal
    and, although they were all soon killed, the ideas they had unleashed spread like
    wildfire among ordinary believers. This is seen by the various ‘Anabaptist’
    denominations, as well as modern Baptists, as the beginning of their faith tradition.
    But, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ …
    Other voices
    Before their own (non-violent) revolutionary action, the students were aware that
    there existed others, who were more zealous than Zwingli. In 1524, they had heard
    that Thomas Müntzer in Allstedt, Germany, had already introduced a reformed mass
    in German for his congregation and appeared to have written against infant baptism,
    so they wrote to him, seeking to know more. It soon became apparent, however, that
    Müntzer did not share their pacifism. He advocated revolutionary communism and
    became a leader of a peasants’ revolt, in 1525. (The former East Germany had his
    portrait on one of their banknotes!) Consequently, the Swiss dissociated themselves
    from him, and the movements derived from them ‘air-brushed’ from their history any
    influence he may have had on them.
    Incidentally, the students’ pacifism was something else they had learnt from Zwingli.
    Quoting his own experiences as a mercenary, before his conversion, he had
    preached eloquently against war. It would only have confirmed their opinion of him
    (had they lived that long) when he then died on the battlefield, in 1531, having
    marched out with the army of Zurich against a neighbouring Catholic canton!
    While the early Anabaptists certainly had no truck with Müntzer’s violence, were they
    really untouched by his appeal for community of goods? In 1528, a group derived
    from the Swiss Anabaptists were fleeing to Eastern Europe to escape persecution.
    On the way, they pooled their few possessions, on the model of Acts 2: 44, 45. This
    was the origin of the Hutterite denomination, whose members live in communes
    known as Bruderhofs, and which still exists in the USA and Canada.
  • 3
    In the 20
    th
    century, Eberhard Arnold founded a Christian commune in Germany, and
    his movement was, for a time, affiliated with the Hutterites, and adopted the name
    Bruderhof for their communities. Three of their Bruderhofs are in this country, in
    Kent, Sussex and London, respectively. I was intrigued that the latest issue of their
    Plough Quarterly magazine describes Müntzer in its back pages as a ‘forerunner’.
    In Holland and North Germany, there were movements of Catholic lay-spirituality that
    could also be seen as forerunners. For example, the ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas
    à Kempis (a Dutch Catholic), opens with a comment on Jesus words in John 8:12 (“I
    am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will
    have the light of life.”): ‘By these words, Christ urges us to mould our lives and
    characters in the image of his, if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from all
    blindness of heart.’ This reminds me of the ‘contemplative’ German Anabaptist Hans
    Denk’s oft quoted injunction, ‘No one can truly know Christ, unless he follows him in
    life’. Similarly, ‘Gelassenheit’: ‘yieldedness’ (to God) is frequently found in the
    writings of both earlier mystics and later Anabaptists.
    This great tradition of lay-mysticism in German/Dutch Catholicism, meant that the
    radical reform that developed there resembled modern Pentecostals more than
    Baptists. Women were able to play a larger role. Prophecies and visions abounded.
    All sorts of heretical ideas and wild predictions circulated. At their best, some of
    these Anabaptists, like Hans Denk, were gentle contemplatives, although they so
    stressed the inward ‘baptism of the Spirit’ that the outward water baptism almost
    became irrelevant.
    At their worst, they could be downright demonic. In 1534, in the city of Münster,
    North Germany, Anabaptist sympathisers won elections to the city council, but were
    then swept aside by a bunch of ‘prophets’ intent on turning Münster into the New
    Jerusalem by force. (Perhaps, a bit like what happened in Russia in 1917?) Having
    enforced rebaptism and the community of goods, their leader announced that
    polygamy was to be introduced and that he, as a new Messiah, was to become ruler
    of the world! Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic rulers put aside their differences to
    besiege the city together. They eventually took it in June 1535 and massacred its
    inhabitants. Thereafter, their propaganda ensured ‘Anabaptist’ in the popular
    imagination was synonymous with ‘terrorist pervert’ rather than ‘God-fearing pacifist’.
    The Anabaptist movement in North Germany was rescued by a former Catholic
    priest called Menno Simons. He gathered the remnants of the movement into
    congregations and brought them into line with the Biblical teaching and practice of
    the Swiss. Consequently, this denomination became known as Mennonites.
    While it is understandable that Menno wanted to dissociate his churches from the
    prophetic excesses of the North Germans, this also ignored some valuable spiritual
    insights in their forerunners. The whole point of the Reformation was pastoral. At a
    time when life expectancy was low, people were helped to know God’s forgiveness
    and acceptance directly, through faith in Christ, without the mediation of a church
    that could use its spiritual monopoly to control or extort money from them.
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    That sense of direct contact with God was already experienced by the mystical
    stream in North German lay Catholicism, that fed into Anabaptism there. By
    downplaying such subjectivity, the Mennonites laid themselves open to the equal
    danger of an outward legalism. A Mennonite was seen as someone who dressed
    soberly, rather than someone who had experienced inward assurance of salvation.
    My final neglected forerunners have an unacknowledged link with my own Christian
    tradition, the Baptists. The earliest (17
    th
    Century) English Baptists tried to stress
    that they were respectable citizens, nothing to do with those way-out, continental
    Anabaptists. In fact, it is now recognised that they were heavily influenced by
    meeting Dutch Mennonites. One obvious link is that, like them, they baptised by
    pouring water. Although there are occasional records of the Swiss baptising by
    immersion, they were indifferent to the mode of baptism, and pouring was easier.
    Yet, a little later, a separate group of English Baptists arose who baptised only by
    immersion, and this became universal Baptist practice. We know they acquired this
    stress from a small Dutch denomination called the Collegiants, because they sent
    one of their members to Holland, to be immersed by them, and he then came back
    and immersed the others. But who led the Collegiants to so stress immersion?
    George Huntston Williams, a great historian of the Radical Reformation, believes it
    came to them from Polish Anabaptists, who are the first recorded as making
    immersion their universal practice. This makes sense, as they would have had
    contact with Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, who baptise infants
    by immersion. (And ‘immersion’ is what the Greek baptizo means.)
    As well as later becoming a place where persecuted Mennonites and Hutterites found
    shelter, Eastern Europe had many links with earlier reform movements. Chelčicky had a
    lot in common with the later Anabaptists, and Waldo, founder of the Waldensians, may
    have finished his days in that area. (Some early Waldensians anticipated Anabaptist
    ideas.) We know Poles visited Holland in the 17
    th
    Century. So why have Baptist
    historians had a blind-spot for any antecedents in the East? Unfortunately, the Polish
    Anabaptists were very rationalistic. If the Dutch were proto-Pentecostalists, the Polish
    were proto-Unitarians. No way would any Baptist (or Anabaptist) historian acknowledge
    influence from such heretics!
    I have spoken of Baptists and Anabaptists; you may wonder how they differ.
    A major difference between the Baptist and Anabaptist traditions is that the Baptists
    have tended to stress talking about Jesus to people, and so have tried to show
    people that they are ‘just like them’ to create opportunities for such witness, whereas
    the Anabaptists have witnessed by living an alternative lifestyle. At its finest, this was
    so shaped by the Spirit of Jesus that, for example, in 1569 Dirk Willems ‘turned back’
    to save his pursuer from drowning, and so was captured and burnt alive.
    One final point: ‘Anabaptists’ are not a historical curiosity. Until a few years ago,
    there was a Mennonite study centre in Highgate (its library is now housed in Bristol
    Baptist College) and there was a Mennonite Church in Wood Green until last year.

 

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