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MB history tour: Chapter One

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The 16th century radical reformation

Suffering for the faith


Early Anabaptist and Schleitheim Confession author Michael Sattler.

The Mennonite story begins in the 16the century, part of a larger movement known as the Radical Reformation.

“Anabaptist” (re-baptizer) was a pejorative label for one expression of a diverse collection of radical religious and political dissenters who saw themselves “completing the Protestant reformation” started by Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The “evangelical Anabaptists,” as some historians have identified them, were centred in four parts of Europe:

  • Switzerland (three associates of Zwingli baptized each other in 1525; the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 gave doctrinal shape to the movement)
  • South Germany/Austria (Hubmaier published a catechism in 1526, the earliest Anabaptist theology; some 60 Anabaptist leaders met to strategize evangelism in what was later called the Martyr’s Synod, as 10 years later only 5 or 6 were still living.
  • Moravia (Jacob Hutter promoted the community of goods)
  • Northern Germany/Netherlands (Menno Simons became Anabaptist in 1537, one of the few leaders to die a natural death).

One of the groups emerging out of this diversity was the Mennonites.

These people suffered for their faith!

Estimates vary; 5,000 to 12,000 Anabaptists were executed by drowning or burning.

 Key ideas of the Anabaptists:

1. Strong emphasis on Scripture.

They shared this with other Protestant reformers. Their captors were often amazed at the knowledge these people (including women) had of the Bible. They emphasized more strongly than the Protestant reformers the role of the Holy Spirit in “illuminating” Scripture.

2. Understanding of the church.

They saw the church as a voluntary community, entered through adult baptism. They rejected infant baptism because it symbolized the merger of church and state. Wanting to keep the church “pure,” they frequently (and controversially) used the ban to discipline people and preserve order.

3. Strong emphasis on Nachfolge (following after) or discipleship.

Their understanding of discipleship was closely related to their understanding of salvation. Unlike Lutherans who separated justification and sanctification, the Anabaptists kept them more intertwined: faith was tested and verified by behaviour. If one walked as Christ had walked, that is, kept His commandments, then one was saved.

The emphasized lifestyle or ethics and the principle of love. This showed itself in offering aid to others, refusing to use military force, and re-distributing wealth.

4. Emphasis on the Holy Spirit.

They talked more about the Spirit than other reformers, and believed they lived in the age of the Spirit. Most, though not all, maintained a balance between Word and Spirit. The Spirit is the illuminator of Scripture, comforter in times of suffering, and the one who transforms sinners into saints.


Notes by Bruce Guenther, Pastors Credentialing Orientation 2005

Read on:

MB history tour: Chapter Two

MB history tour: Chapter Three

MB history tour: Chapter Four

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