first posted on Cutting
Edge in April 2002
modern-day Baptist Bible colleges and seminaries in America are teaching
that the modern-day Baptist movement is a product of the Reformation.
This makes it a simple step to claim that the Baptist doctrinal
heritage is also from the Reformation.
If the beginning of the Baptist movement indeed took place in
1641, our Baptist forefathers in America, who long believed otherwise,
were in total error! It is
interesting to realize that the view that Baptist history extends only
back to 1641 was unknown until 1886, when William H. Whitsitt, then
president of Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote articles which appeared in
“...Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia claiming that Baptists as
a denomination had emerged from English Separatism in the early
His volume entitled A Question in Baptist History appeared
in 1896 and was published in Louisville, Kentucky, by Charles T.
Dearing. Let it be observed
that until that time most Baptists did not question the fact that an
unbroken line of succession of truth existed from the time of the New
Testament and onward. Great controversy developed insomuch that Dr.
Whitsett’s statement so disturbed Baptists that “...relentless
warfare was waged on Whitsett and the seminary by some Southern Baptist
newspapers and correspondents. At
length seminary trustees became convinced that harmony could be restored
only by President Whitsett’s resignation, which was offered and
accepted in 1899.”[ii]
Armitage, America’s best known Baptist historian, wrote thus in the
Preface to his History of the Baptists: “It is enough to show
that what Christ’s churches were in the days of the Apostles, that the
Baptist churches of today find themselves.
The truths held by them have never died since Christ gave them,
and in the exact proportion that any people have maintained these truths
they have been the true Baptists of the world.”[iii]
This interpretation of Baptist history has become known as principle
successionism, and the present author has seen no evidence that has
caused him to repudiate this position.
Dr. Whitsett claimed that immersion was re-discovered by the
Baptists in England in 1641. However, additional scholarship has revealed that immersion
as it was taught in the New Testament, was practiced anew long before
1641. Before addressing that subject, I believe it is important to
realize that modern-day scholarship points out that truth surely endured
from the days of the New Testament onward.
Verduin wrote: “The one encouraging fact is that there was at all
times, all through the Middle Ages, a sustained protest against the
distortions that had come with the Constantinian change – and that
this sustained protest finally and ultimately was able to blow apart the
Constantinian colossus. In
and with the protest the New Testament and its delineation of the
Christian Church remained a part of the heritage of man.”[iv]
another volume, Dr. Verduin wrote: “Anabaptism was not a tempest in a
teacup. The whole
Reformation was influenced by it, perhaps more than by any other
tendency of the times. There
was hardly a court in Europe that did not have matters pertaining to
this eruption of ‘heresy’ on its docket.
And yet, as Cornelius has pointed out, the movement had no
apparent head. This is
unthinkable – on the assumption that it all began with the events of
1517. It is as though a
movement like communism could erupt spontaneously from the North Sea to
the Mediterranean without any names attached to it, no mention of Marx
or Lenin. The strange silence about who was at the head of
Anabaptism becomes completely understandable once we recognize that it
was a resurgence, a revitalization of ideas of long standing, ideas that
were never absent from the medieval scene and can be traced back all the
way to the days of the birth of the original hybrid.”[v]
the so-called “Ana-baptists” a “new sect”?
“In the report of the Council of the Archbishop of Cologne
about the ‘Anabaptist movement,’ to the Emperor Charles V
(1500-1558), it is said that the Anabaptists call themselves ‘true
Christians,’ that they desire community of goods, ‘which has been
the way of Anabaptists for more than a thousand years, as the old
histories and imperial laws testify.’
At the dissolution of the Parliament at Speyer it was stated that
the ‘new sect of the Anabaptists’ has already been condemned many
hundred years ago and ‘by common law forbidden.’
It is a fact that for more than twelve centuries baptism in the
way taught and described in the New Testament had been made an offence
against the law, punishable by death.”[vi]
is pleased to regard the Anabaptists [‘Re-baptizers’]–as runs the
nickname given by the Church to the advocates of the baptism of
believers– as a new sect which suddenly arose after ‘the ancient
Christian practice of infant baptism had maintained its legitimate
right’ for almost fifteen centuries.
But numerous researchers have already shed much light upon the
fact that the so-called ‘Anabaptism’ is to be regarded only as a
reawakening or a continuation of very ancient principles, and, as
Ludemann emphasizes, ‘not as that rootless phenomenon, suddenly
springing up out of the Reformation movement, as hitherto it has been
the Anabaptists came from the Reformation, it is interesting to notice
the attitude of both Calvin and Luther toward them. “In writing to Henry Vlll, for example, Calvin recommended
that the Anabaptists be burned as an example to other Englishmen.
For, he wrote, ‘It is far better that two or three be burned
than thousands perish in Hell.’”[viii]
And of Luther we are told, “His attitude to Anabaptism was molded by a
succession of unfortunate events, and he turned from toleration through
banishment to the death penalty for sedition and for ‘blasphemy’ (a
term which in practice was largely equated with what hitherto had been
the Anabaptists did not spring from the Reformation, but they were in
the line of truth that had endured from the New Testament days.
“It is well known that Pierre de Bruys, who lived in the
twelfth century, attacked the christening customs of the prevailing
Church. He taught that no
one should be baptized until he had reached the age of discretion.
He assailed ‘christening’ not only, but practiced rebaptism.
The word, of course, he did not use (no Anabaptist has ever been
at peace with that word); but the Petrobrusians, as Pierre’s followers
were called, declared: ‘We wait until the proper time has come, after
a man is ready to know his God and believe in Him; we do not, as they
accuse us, rebaptize him who may be said never to have been baptized
Truth is eternal, and Bible-believers through the ages of the Christian
era have always existed. One
must take the time to read such volumes as the History of the
Donatists by David Benedict, The Ecclesiastical History of the
Ancient Churches of Piedmont and of the Albigenses by Peter Allix,
and the History of the Waldenses by J. A. Wylie to witness the
continuation of eternal truth.
Anabaptists realized that they had not come from the dominant Roman
Church. This is clearly set
forth as follows: “Anabaptists held that the primitive church of the
apostles had lost its purity and had ceased to be the church.
This catastrophe was referred to as ‘the fall of the church.’
Even though this is a common Reformation concept, there is no
general agreement as to when the fall occurred.
For the Reformers, it took place with the assumption of temporal
authority by the papacy. Luther dated the fall with Sabianus and Boniface lll, but
Zwingli pinpointed it with Hildebrand and the ‘assertion of
hierarchial power.’ Calvin
was inclined to date it with Gregory the Great.
However, for the Anabaptists, it was the usual procedure to date
the fall with the union of church and state under Constantine.
An anonymous Anabaptist tract printed in Augsburg around 1530
asserts, ‘There was not among the Christians of old at the time of the
apostles until the Emperor Constantine any temporal power or sword.’
Anabaptist interpretation of the church’s all differed greatly from
that of the Reformers. The
Reformers accepted uncritically the Roman interpretation of the
Constantinian era as a period of the church’s triumph.
For them the Reformation was a revolt against papal authority but
not against the Roman concept of the church as an institution.
They believed that the old church needed to be cleansed from
various abuses and errors, but they did not want to be cut off from its
corporate solidarity. Even
after their organizational break with Rome was complete, they still felt
a sense of continuity with the Roman Church of pre-Reformation days.
is the reason why the Anabaptists viewed the Reformers as halfway
tragic it is that so many have dismissed the Anabaptists without a fair
examination of these stalwart saints and Baptist forebears.
Estep points out that “Scholars of preceding generations have
leaned heavily upon the high partisan and quite unreliable accounts of
sixteenth-century Anabaptism in the writings of Ulrich Zwingli, Justus
Menius, Heinrich Bullinger, and Chrisoph Fischer, to say nothing of the
milder but just as erroneous accounts of Martin Luther and Philip
his first edition of The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism,
Franklin H. Littell wrote: “The Anabaptists have commonly been judged
on the basis of insufficient evidence.
It is time for a re-trial.”
In 1963 he wrote: “As this is written it is not too much to say
that, while the process of re-trial is not yet complete, the ‘prisoner
at the bar’ (the Anabaptists) has a much different countenance from
what he had before scholars began to take the evidence of the
Tauferakten and related reports seriously.”[xiii]
than reading the antiquated charges against our Anabaptist forebears
that were made by their enemies – both Catholic and Reformed – I
suggest that our present-day teachers of Baptist history avail
themselves of the current evidence before prosecuting their case!
is important to reiterate that the Anabaptists were separate from the
Reformers regarding their doctrinal position.
They were Bible-centered rather than creed-centered.
“Upon one occasion Menno wrote that if Tertullian, Cyprian,
Origen, and Augustine could support their teaching ‘with the Word and
command of God, we will admit that they are right.
If not, then it is a doctrine of men and accursed according to
the Scriptures. (Galatians 1:8).’”[xiv]
Dr. Clearwaters has asked: “Upon what faith did Calvin write
his theology, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion?’
He wrote this work in 1536 on ‘The Apostles’ Creed,’ to
show that Protestants were loyal to the Apostles’ Creed: and to prove
that the Reformers were not giving to the Church any new Creed but
simply going back to the beliefs of the Apostolic Age. This is the first weakness of Reformed Theology today, it is
based upon the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, instead of the Word
statements made by Abraham Friesen in his most interesting volume point
out that the Anabaptists were Biblicists for they built their faith
directly on the Word of God! And
secondly, the entire thrust of Friesen’s volume points up the fact
that the Anabaptists accepted the Great Commission as a Divine mandate
that was incumbent upon them in their day, whereas the Reformers placed
the significance of the Great Commission only upon the Apostles of our
Lord in the first century. We
shall visit the latter point again, but notice the first Baptist
distinctive in Friesen’s actual quotation as he described the
Anabaptists: “The Bible alone had authority for the Anabaptists; and
if the leaders used Erasmus’s New Testament and his accompanying
Annotations, then it is perhaps permissable to speak of a Direct
influence of Erasmus on the Anabaptists.”[xvi]
his volume, Littell briefly catalogues some of the doctrines of the
Anabaptists as follows: “The
separation of church and state which the Anabaptists represented thus
involved at least two positive affirmations of vital religious
significance: (1) the civic right of a free man to private religious
interpretation, and (2) the Christian duty of the voluntary association
to enforce a strong internal discipline.”[xvii]
In other words, point one has to do with soul liberty, while the
second point calls for an autonomous church of disciplined believers.
As Littell observes, this mandates a separation of sacred and
civic powers. The
Anabaptists and Reformers differed radically at this point.
a regenerate church membership that necessitates adult baptism,
Clearwaters has said: “This is the trap into which all of the
reformers stumbled! And
with Infant Baptism: Luther fastened a state church upon Germany!
Zwingli fastened a state church upon Switzerland!
John Knox fastened a state church upon Scotland!
Henry Vlll fastened a state church upon England!
And all of these in turn became persecutors themselves!”
And in the same section he said: “The Pilgrim settlers used
Infant Baptism to fasten a State Church upon the Colonies!”[xviii]
again in Littell, he states: “Of special significance was the
Anabaptists’ denial of the Mass, and it must be comprehended in terms
of their general reaction to display and formalism.
The radicals refuted the objective merit upon which the Roman
Church rested, and denied the real presence which Luther and Calvin
retained. For them the
Supper was a memorial and symbol of their corporate union with each
other in the Risen Lord.”[xix]
The Lord’s Supper was a “memorial”, and thus they saw it as
an ordinance and not as a sacramental meal.
thereafter adult baptism became a spiritual sword aimed right at the
heart of the cantonal church system.
As persecution increased in the following years the issue of
baptism grew in importance, but from the very first it implied a
significantly different view of the nature of the church which the
Reformers could hardly miss.”[xx]
This surely drew the line of demarcation between Catholicism, the
Reformers, and the Anabaptist view of baptism.
have alluded to Abraham Friesen’s quotation above, but it is well to
note that Friesen reveals that the Great Commission provides the key to
understanding the core of Anabaptist faith and practice.
The Anabaptists view of the Great Commission, too, was clearly
different from that of the Reformers.
The Reformers believed that the Great Commission applied only to
Jesus’ immediate audience. They
believed that “After the Great Commission had run out, at the end of
the Apostolic age, ‘no one any more [had] such a general apostolic
commission, but each bishop or ecclesiastical leader has his own church
role and place.’”[xxi]
But according to Anabaptist understanding of right faith, every
believer was commissioned of the Lord to set forth the Gospel.
“No words of the Master were given more serious attention by
His Anabaptist followers than the Great Commission.”[xxii]
The Anabaptists felt keenly about the Great Commission, for they
said: “‘Our faith stands on nothing other than the command of
Christ. (Matthew 28, Mark 16) .... For Christ didn’t say to his
disciples: go forth and celebrate the Mass, but go forth and preach the
Gospel.’ The very orders
of the words conveyed His intent to His followers: Firstly, Christ said,
go forth into the whole world, preach the Gospel to every creature.
Secondly, he said, whosoever believes, thirdly – and is
baptized, the same shall be saved. This order must be maintained if a
true Christianity is to be prepared, and though the whole world rage
Thayer Addison once summed up the attitude of the Reformers as follows:
‘For nearly two centuries the Churches of the Reformation were almost
destitute of any sense of missionary vocation.
The foremost leaders — men like Luther, Melanchton, Bucer,
Zwingli, and Calvin — displayed neither missionary vision nor
missionary spirit. While
conceding in theory the universality of Christianity, they never
recognized it as a call to the Church of their day.
Indeed some of them even interpreted ‘Go ye into all the
world’ as a command already executed in the past and no longer
operative. And the very few
thinkers who rejected this deadening view remained without influence.”[xxiv]
Menius, the famous Lutheran polemicist against the Anabaptists,
acknowledged the point of difference in reporting ‘that the misleaders
charge we are not true servants of the Gospel because we are sinners,
and don’t ourselves practice what we preach; because we don’t wander
a round in the world like the Apostles, but stay put and have definite
residence and also have our appointed pay’ ....
Menius stated flatly that ‘God sent only the apostles into all
summation, the essence of the Anabaptist position demanded that the
evangel comes first, then faith, and finally baptism.
This, of course, repudiated infant baptism. A failure to respect
this Scriptural sequence indicated a lack of respect for the mind of
Christ. Baptism of those in
whom faith was stirred by the preaching of the Gospel was the logical
culmination of the mandate!
the Anabaptists were greatly at variance in the understanding of the
difference between the Old and New Testaments.
“Marpeck’s most creative contribution to Anabaptist thought
was his view of the Scriptures. While
holding the Scriptures to be the Word of God, he made a distinction
between the purpose of the Old Testament and that of the New.
As the foundation must be distinguished from the house, the Old
Testament must be distinguished from the New.
The New Testament was centered in Jesus Christ and alone was
authoritative for the Brethren. To
hold that the Old Testament was equally authoritative for the Christian
was to abolish the distinction between the two.
Failure to distinguish between the Old and New Testaments leads
to the most dire consequences. Marpeck
attributed the peasants’ revolt, Zwingli’s death, and the excesses
of the Munsterites to this cause. Making
the Old Testament normative for the Christian life is to follow the
Scriptures only in part. In
Marpeck’s eyes the pope, Luther, Zwingli, and the ‘false
Anabaptists’ were all guilty of this fundamental error.
Though Marpeck did not include Calvin in his list, was it not at
this same point that the renowned reformer of Geneva made his most
serious blunder? If Marpeck
had made no other contribution to Anabaptist theology than this one
insight, would it not be sufficient to make him worthy of
before coming back to the subject of believer’s immersion, let me
point out that while Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli became the noted
theologians of their schools of the Reformation, the outstanding
theologians of the Anabaptists never had the opportunity to write
extensively. Men such as Michael Sattler and Balthasar Hubmaier were
martyred before they had opportunity to organize a systematic Anabaptist
have claimed that modern-day immersion among Baptists existed prior to
1641, and now I must return to that premise.
Surely no one who has read any history of the Anabaptists would
claim that all Anabaptists espoused believer’s immersion, but the
Anabaptists championed anew believer’s baptism.
However, some of the Anabaptists practiced believer’s
wrote as follows: “Some time during the month [February, 1525]
near Schauffhausen, he (Grebel) baptized Wolfgang Ulimann, a former
monk, by immersion in the Rhine River.
Ulimann prior to his baptism had reached Anabaptist convictions
which led him to request baptism at the hands of Grebel, but not out of
a platter (nit wolt mit ainer schussel mit wasser allain begossen)! Whereupon Grebel and Ulimann promptly went down into the
Rhine where Grebel, according to Kessler, ‘put him under the waters of
the river and covered him over’ (in dem Thin von dem Grebel under
getruckt and bedeckt werden).”[xxvii]
Donatists existed from approximately 311 a.d. to 420 a.d. in North
Africa. Did the Donatists
immerse? “As both the
Catholics and the Donatists practiced immersion in baptism, there could
be no dispute between them on the mode of baptism.”
“Because the Donatists required faith not only of the person
baptized, but also of the baptizer, Optatus accused them of esteeming
themselves more holy than the Catholics.”[xxviii]
let us consider the ordinance of Baptism by immersion as it was
practiced among the Waldenses.
1463, in the mountains of Reichenau, and again in 1467 at Lhota, there
were general gatherings of brethren, at which many persons of rank and
influence were present, where they considered afresh the principles of
the Church. One of the
first things they did was to baptize those present, for baptism of
believers by immersion was common to the Waldenses and to most of the
brethren in different parts, though it had been interrupted by pressure
his volume of 1882, Henry Burrage wrote: “There has been some
discussion recently in reference to the practice of immersion by the
Anabaptists of Switzerland. Attention
has already been directed to the immersion, early in 1525, of Wolfgang
Ulimann in the Rhine at Schaffhausen, and of the converts of St. Gall a
few weeks later. I find no
further examples in the records. But
the fact that the Senate at Zurich subsequently decreed (Zwingli, Opera,
lll s. 364) that anyone immersing a candidate in baptism–qui
merserit baptismo–should be drowned, is a significant hint.
Kessler (Sabbata, i, s 270) tells us that at St. Gall the
Anabaptists had a ‘Taufhaus,’ or baptistry.
Sicher, a Romanist eye-witness (Arx, Geschichte d. Stadt, St.
Gallen, ll, s 501) says: ‘The number of the converted [at St.
Gall] increased so that the baptistry could not contain the crowd, and
they were compelled to use the streams and the Sitter River.’
John Stumpf, in his Gemeiner Loblicher Eydgenossenchaft,
who during the period under survey lived in the vicinity of Zurich, and
was familiar with the history of the Anabaptist movement, says that
generally the early Anabaptists of Switzerland were ‘rebaptized in
rivers and streams.’”[xxx]
immersion was well known is also suggested by a statement made by Ulrich
‘most unkindest cut of all’ occurred when he said, ‘Let him who
talks about going under “go under” [the water]!’
It may well have been this unkind word that inspired men to truss
up Felix Manz so that he could not swim, and to send him thus bound to
the bottom of the Limmat! Manz
had talked about ‘going under’ in baptism; well then let him have
his fill of it!”[xxxi]
positive that immersion was practiced by the 16th-century
Anabaptists is found in the confession of Martin Luther when he wrote
his tract entitled The Babylonish Captivity of the Church. He wrote: “Baptism then signifies two things, death and
resurrection; that is, full and complete justification.
When the minister dips the child into the water, this signifies
death; when he draws him out again, this signifies life. . .For this
reason I could wish that the baptized child should be totally immersed,
according to the meaning of the word and the signification of the
mystery; not that I think it is necessary to do so, but that it would be
well that so complete and perfect a things as baptism should have its
sign also in completeness and perfection, even as it was doubtless
instituted by Christ.”[xxxii]
he closes his volume, Burrage lists distinctives of the Anabaptists that
present-day independent, fundamental Baptists are pleased to emulate as
well. These follow: “1.
That the Scriptures are the only authority in matters of faith and
practice. 2. That only
personal faith in Christ secures salvation; therefore, infant baptism is
to be rejected. 3. That a
church is composed of believers only who have been baptized on a personal
confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
4. That each church has the entire control of its affairs, without
interference on the part of any external power. 5. That while the State
may demand obedience in all things contrary to the law of God, it has no
right to set aside the dictates of conscience, and compel the humblest
individual to surrender his religious views, or to inflict punishment in
case such surrender is refused. Every
human soul is directly bound to its God. One man shares equal rights with every other.”[xxxiii]
others deny their relationship to the Anabaptists, but I, for one, am
pleased to claim the ancestry of separatism rather than that of
reformation. Baptists have
never been part of Rome but continue on in the succession of eternal
| Deputation Director
H. Leon, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press,
Gaines S., Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists (Nashville: Broad
Press, 1958), 2:1496.
Thomas, History of the Baptists (New York: Bryan Taylor &
Co., 1887), 111.
Leonard, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eermans Publishing Co., 1964), 45.
Leonard, The Anatomy of a Hybrid (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1976), 161.
E. H., The Pilgrim Church (Edinburgh: Pickering & Inglis,
Johannes, Baptism (London: The Paternoster Press, 1957),
William R., Renaissance & Reformation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 241.
Franklin H., The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York:
The Macmillan Company), 11.
The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, 194.
William R., The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman Press,
X1 of the Introduction.
The Anabaptist Story, 129.
Richard V., The Biblical Faith of Baptists (Detroit: Published
by the Fundamental Baptist Congress of North America, 1964), 221.
Abraham, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission
(Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Co., 1998), 39.
Franklin H., The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York:
The MacMillan Co., 1952) 67.
The Anabaptist Story, 81-82.
The Anabaptist Story, 25.
David, History of the Donatists (Pautucket: Nickerson, Sibley
& Co., 1875), 19-20.
Henry S., A History of the Anabaptists (Philadelphia: American
Baptist Publication Society, 1882), 203-204.
Leonard, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, 217.
Albert Henry, A Manual of Church History (Philadelphia:
American Baptist Publication Society, 1931), 2:63.