George Blaurock. Conrad Grebel. Felix Manz. Jakob Hutter. Balthasar Hubmaier. Menno Simons. These are names no longer known to most Christians. But their stories, convictions, persecution and, eventually, martyrdom are testimonies to faith in the face of persecution. These were the leaders of what some call the Radical Reformation that occurred in the sixteenth century. Learning about these men and their teachings has influenced my life in many ways.
First, what is the Radical Reformation? Some use the term radical in a derogatory way. However, as my church history professor once said, it also means “root,” as in returning to one’s roots. In this understanding, the Radical Reformation was a movement in the early 1500s among a small group of reformers focused on returning to the origins of the early church. Perhaps, what made them the most famous was their decision to baptize only adults. They did so because they believed only adults could confess faith in Jesus Christ. This stand caused them to be labeled Anabaptists or re-baptizers.1
Today, the Mennonites, German Baptists, Amish, Hutterites and others are the direct descendants of this movement. Many other churches, including Baptists, claim a spiritual connection to this group. Of course, historians debate how closely they were connected and there are at least some documents from the early Baptist churches in England denouncing Anabaptists. But all of that aside, the following teachings from these men and the movements developed from them have influenced my faith.
In This Article:
Constantine and Christianity
According to “Anabaptists,” a great danger lurks in western christianity. Today that is still true within the evangelical church in the United States. We have forgotten a fundamental truth: salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
“Now, wait!” you say, “I hear that message preached every Sunday!”
It is true, and it is preached in my church as well. But remember, to be a Christian is to be able to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Too often, we forget the be able element and instead label inanimate objects as Christian, such as Christian buildings (i.e., churches), Christian music (or radio stations), Christian movies, Christian schools, or even Christian nations. Then, we judge our faith by participation in Christian culture. This issue is called the Constantinization of Christianity, and it endangers our spiritual lives.
Historians will rightly tell us that Constantine only made Christianity legal in Rome (the Edict of Milan). It wasn’t until AD 380 that Theodosius made it the state religion. However, Anabaptists trace the connection of church, state and culture to Constantine. The problem with this connection is that we have associated things with being a Christian and then built Christian living and spirituality around those things.
Consequently, Christianity is no longer focused on faith in Jesus but on participation in church services at the building, listening only to Christian radio stations and music, watching Christian movies, reading Christian books and using Christian businesses. In short, being a Christian is more about involvement in Christian culture than faith in Jesus.
Even worse, when countries are considered Christian, a person becomes a Christian not by faith but by citizenship. And that is the history of Europe — a history against which the Anabaptists fought.2
The Anabaptist fathers and later adherents have taught me that only people can be Christian, not things. It reminded me that Christians give their testimony through music. Radio stations play music encouraging the Christian faith. Grand Canyon University employs Christians to profess the message of Jesus Christ and teach from a Christian worldview. But it is only people who are Christians.
Once I understood this concept, I could focus on living and expressing my faith in Jesus Christ rather than hiding in a culture and calling it spirituality.
Pacifism at All Levels
Another place of influence from the Anabaptist fathers is pacifism. And, I will be frank. I struggle with this teaching. Sometimes I believe it is right for a Christian to participate in taking life, such as in military service or through the justice system. I am also a proponent of self-defense in certain cases. Yet, the testimony of these men constantly confronts me and challenges my belief.
Jesus taught peace rather than violence; those who follow Jesus must live and teach the same. This simple truth is a core belief of the Anabaptist fathers. Felix Manz was the first rebaptizer to be executed for his faith. His executioners took him into a river, shackled him and dumped him into the water — death via baptism. On the same day, George Blaurock was beaten with rods. Later, he was tied to a stake and burned alive with another Anabaptist, Hans Langegger. Balthazar Hubmaier and his wife were later murdered for their faith. Thousands of Anabaptists were put to death without a thought for their self-defense. These deaths were so common that some historians claim martyrdom was the hallmark of the anabaptists.3
It is not enough for Christians to be challenged in areas that we already accept. Just as living and expressing faith in Jesus is the right approach, so is allowing other believers in Jesus to challenge us in areas of faith where we disagree. That is true especially when those areas are connected to culture (such as the right of self-protection or the American spirit of independence that can often lead to stubbornness and pride).
Baptism of the Believer
Concerning baptism, I want to be especially careful. The mode of baptism is not what we call a first-order doctrine — something on which salvation depends (at least, not in the Protestant tradition). However, it is vital to the Anabaptists and (or) later English Baptists from whom most Baptist churches in the United States draw their spiritual history.
The Anabaptist fathers believed that salvation came only through faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, baptism is, as my Baptist church says, an outward expression of an inward faith.4
The influence on me, then, does not concern baptism itself. Instead, it is about how we go about life. It is a reminder that I chose to follow Jesus Christ. I have been washed of my sins by placing my faith in Jesus and his work on the cross. Then, I gave testimony to that through baptism.
It is a testimony that I must live out daily, even when tired after a long day teaching, frustrated by traffic on the freeway, feeling cheated by someone at the drive-through, or annoyed when the drive-through is spelled drive-thru!
Ultimately, we are all human, and these fathers of the Radical Reformation were not always perfect. Blaurock struggled with pride, even confronting a preacher in a Reformed church, stating, “You were not sent to preach, it was I,” and then taking the pulpit. Manz struggled to defend himself in the presence of Ulrich Zwingli (a reformer yet enemy of the Anabaptists). Still others twisted Anabaptist theology until it violated the basic concepts noted above and started the Münster Rebellion (and later engaged in polygamy, among other issues).
But the core teachings of these men have challenged me from the first day I learned of them. And they still do so today.
Read more Theology Thursday and learn from GCU's knowledgeable faculty on faith, spirituality and ministry. Explore the variety of theology and ministry programs offered by GCU’s College of Theology today.
1 Kreider, G. R. (2017). Anabaptists: Forgotten voices of the Reformation. Voice. Retrieved June 12, 2023.
2 Estep, W. R. (1996). The Anabaptist story: an introduction to sixteenth-century Anabaptism (3rd ed., revised and enlarged). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
3 Hale, R. (2017). Our radical, often-martyred ancestors. IBSA NewsJournal. Retrieved June 12, 2023.
4 Finger, T. (1994). An Anabaptist theology of baptism. In Webber, R. (Ed.). The sacred actions of Christian worship. Library of Christian Worship 6. Star Song.
Approved with by faculty for the College of Theology on July 21, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.