“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.
1Anabaptism and its origins – Bob Allaway“The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title andpossession 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 Anabaptistmovement (and, for that matter, of the various Baptist denominations, although theyhave not always acknowledged this).I will then argue that the real state of affairs was more complicated, with differentforms of Anabaptism arising independently in many different places. I will alsosuggest that some of these movements may owe more to earlier lay-Catholicspirituality than to the official Reformation.The Church is RebornZurich: 1525. Since 1518, Zwingli has been the leading priest and preacher at themain church in the city. He had stayed by his people when plague struck, caring forthe sick and dying till he caught it himself, but had miraculously survived.Consequently, the people had tremendous respect and affection for him, and listenedattentively as he preached through Matthew’s Gospel. Zwingli brought them thewords and deeds of Jesus in their own Swiss-German dialect, and pointed outobvious 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 atZwingli’s home, to study the Bible with him, in the original Greek and Hebrew, and todiscuss theology. In recent months, however, they have become increasinglyfrustrated with their hero. While, in their company, he has made scathing criticisms ofthe contemporary liturgy of the Mass, he refuses to change anything in his actualpractice, without the permission of the city council (who, incidentally, pay his salary!)The city council, however, is more concerned with keeping everyone happy than withdoctrinal 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 wouldnot dream of putting such ideas into practice. The city council were reluctant enoughto change the Mass; no way would they change baptism. For Zwingli’s students, thisis pure hypocrisy.They challenge Zwingli to a public debate on baptism, on January 10thand 17th1525.Zwingli gives a half-hearted defence of infant baptism, but the city council declarehim the victor. However, many of the ordinary spectators are impressed by thestudents’ arguments.
2The students think, if this is the pattern of church life that God wants, should we notjust do it, without waiting for any human permission? Some of them begin to meetprivately, 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, aftersuch prayer, “George Cajacob arose and asked Conrad [Grebel] to baptize him, forthe sake of God, with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. Andwhen he knelt down with that request and desire, Conrad baptised him … After thatwas 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 studentswere 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 freeassociation of believers, who would seek to follow Jesus, free of any interference bythe state or religious hierarchy. They began to proclaim this view with apostolic zealand, although they were all soon killed, the ideas they had unleashed spread likewildfire 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 voicesBefore their own (non-violent) revolutionary action, the students were aware thatthere existed others, who were more zealous than Zwingli. In 1524, they had heardthat Thomas Müntzer in Allstedt, Germany, had already introduced a reformed massin 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, thatMüntzer did not share their pacifism. He advocated revolutionary communism andbecame a leader of a peasants’ revolt, in 1525. (The former East Germany had hisportrait on one of their banknotes!) Consequently, the Swiss dissociated themselvesfrom him, and the movements derived from them ‘air-brushed’ from their history anyinfluence 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 hadpreached 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, havingmarched out with the army of Zurich against a neighbouring Catholic canton!While the early Anabaptists certainly had no truck with Müntzer’s violence, were theyreally untouched by his appeal for community of goods? In 1528, a group derivedfrom 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. Thiswas the origin of the Hutterite denomination, whose members live in communesknown as Bruderhofs, and which still exists in the USA and Canada.
3In the 20thcentury, Eberhard Arnold founded a Christian commune in Germany, andhis movement was, for a time, affiliated with the Hutterites, and adopted the nameBruderhof for their communities. Three of their Bruderhofs are in this country, inKent, Sussex and London, respectively. I was intrigued that the latest issue of theirPlough Quarterly magazine describes Müntzer in its back pages as a ‘forerunner’.In Holland and North Germany, there were movements of Catholic lay-spirituality thatcould also be seen as forerunners. For example, the ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Thomasà Kempis (a Dutch Catholic), opens with a comment on Jesus words in John 8:12 (“Iam the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but willhave the light of life.”): ‘By these words, Christ urges us to mould our lives andcharacters in the image of his, if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from allblindness of heart.’ This reminds me of the ‘contemplative’ German Anabaptist HansDenk’s oft quoted injunction, ‘No one can truly know Christ, unless he follows him inlife’. Similarly, ‘Gelassenheit’: ‘yieldedness’ (to God) is frequently found in thewritings of both earlier mystics and later Anabaptists.This great tradition of lay-mysticism in German/Dutch Catholicism, meant that theradical reform that developed there resembled modern Pentecostals more thanBaptists. 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 ofthese Anabaptists, like Hans Denk, were gentle contemplatives, although they sostressed the inward ‘baptism of the Spirit’ that the outward water baptism almostbecame 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 werethen swept aside by a bunch of ‘prophets’ intent on turning Münster into the NewJerusalem by force. (Perhaps, a bit like what happened in Russia in 1917?) Havingenforced rebaptism and the community of goods, their leader announced thatpolygamy was to be introduced and that he, as a new Messiah, was to become rulerof the world! Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic rulers put aside their differences tobesiege the city together. They eventually took it in June 1535 and massacred itsinhabitants. Thereafter, their propaganda ensured ‘Anabaptist’ in the popularimagination was synonymous with ‘terrorist pervert’ rather than ‘God-fearing pacifist’.The Anabaptist movement in North Germany was rescued by a former Catholicpriest called Menno Simons. He gathered the remnants of the movement intocongregations and brought them into line with the Biblical teaching and practice ofthe Swiss. Consequently, this denomination became known as Mennonites.While it is understandable that Menno wanted to dissociate his churches from theprophetic excesses of the North Germans, this also ignored some valuable spiritualinsights in their forerunners. The whole point of the Reformation was pastoral. At atime when life expectancy was low, people were helped to know God’s forgivenessand acceptance directly, through faith in Christ, without the mediation of a churchthat could use its spiritual monopoly to control or extort money from them.
4That sense of direct contact with God was already experienced by the mysticalstream in North German lay Catholicism, that fed into Anabaptism there. Bydownplaying such subjectivity, the Mennonites laid themselves open to the equaldanger of an outward legalism. A Mennonite was seen as someone who dressedsoberly, rather than someone who had experienced inward assurance of salvation.My final neglected forerunners have an unacknowledged link with my own Christiantradition, the Baptists. The earliest (17thCentury) English Baptists tried to stressthat they were respectable citizens, nothing to do with those way-out, continentalAnabaptists. In fact, it is now recognised that they were heavily influenced bymeeting Dutch Mennonites. One obvious link is that, like them, they baptised bypouring water. Although there are occasional records of the Swiss baptising byimmersion, 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 byimmersion, and this became universal Baptist practice. We know they acquired thisstress from a small Dutch denomination called the Collegiants, because they sentone of their members to Holland, to be immersed by them, and he then came backand immersed the others. But who led the Collegiants to so stress immersion?George Huntston Williams, a great historian of the Radical Reformation, believes itcame to them from Polish Anabaptists, who are the first recorded as makingimmersion their universal practice. This makes sense, as they would have hadcontact with Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, who baptise infantsby immersion. (And ‘immersion’ is what the Greek baptizo means.)As well as later becoming a place where persecuted Mennonites and Hutterites foundshelter, Eastern Europe had many links with earlier reform movements. Chelčicky had alot in common with the later Anabaptists, and Waldo, founder of the Waldensians, mayhave finished his days in that area. (Some early Waldensians anticipated Anabaptistideas.) We know Poles visited Holland in the 17thCentury. So why have Baptisthistorians had a blind-spot for any antecedents in the East? Unfortunately, the PolishAnabaptists were very rationalistic. If the Dutch were proto-Pentecostalists, the Polishwere proto-Unitarians. No way would any Baptist (or Anabaptist) historian acknowledgeinfluence 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 Baptistshave tended to stress talking about Jesus to people, and so have tried to showpeople that they are ‘just like them’ to create opportunities for such witness, whereasthe Anabaptists have witnessed by living an alternative lifestyle. At its finest, this wasso 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 BristolBaptist College) and there was a Mennonite Church in Wood Green until last year.