The Zurich authorities had handed down their ultimatum: all unbaptized infants must be baptized within eight days, or those responsible for withholding them would face imprisonment or banishment. After much prayer and soul-searching, on the night of January 21, 1525, a small group of believers decided “to obey God rather than men.” They inaugurated believer’s baptism, baptizing those who confessed their faith in Christ and requested baptism. In less than two years their three leaders, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock, were dead or banished. Manz, after many imprisonments, was executed by drowning in the Limmat River on January 5, 1527, becoming the first Protestant to die at the hands of Protestants. Regrettably, he was not the last.

These believers preferred to be known as Brethren in Christ, but they soon came to be called Anabaptists (ana- in Greek means “again”). Subsequently not only they and their spiritual descendants but many other groups, only superficially related to them if at all, were called Anabaptists. The careless and polemical use of the term has long muddied the waters of historical investigation. We need to make finer distinctions and to strive to understand what the real Anabaptists were saying.

Anabaptism was born when the Reformation itself was still in its swaddling clothes. The meeting at Worms, from which Luther emerged as an outlaw, was less than four years in the past, Luther had not yet married, and Zwingli was still saying Mass in Latin. However, in many respects the reform movement led by Zwingli in Zurich had outrun its German counterpart. The actions of the radical social reformer Thomas Müntzer and his peasant supporters had driven Luther to turn against the peasants and to retreat ...

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