Impatient Radicals: The Anabaptists
The Reformation of Ulrich Zwingli was scripturally based, one in which the Bible was understood to lie at the basis of the changes being instituted. In the dramatic challenge to the established church which came forth from Zwingli the basis of the reform was self-consciously scriptural.
To the nuns at the Oetenbach cloister in 1522 Zwingli had affirmed most strongly the scriptural principle of authority and asserted that the Bible was basically easy to understand if one but trusted God and depended on his Spirit for enlightenment. He affirmed that the Word of God is “certain and cannot fail.” Furthermore it was clear and could be understood by any who truly remained open to the message contained therein. Thereby Zwingli opened the door to the interpretation of Scripture to the whole church. It was not necessary to depend on the ecclesiastical authorities for truth. It would come directly from God through his Word.
It was this foundation on which the Reformed Church had been formed at the First Zurich Disputation in January, 1523. Preaching in Zurich was to be according to the Word of God. Zwingli himself had concluded in his fourteenth article before the disputation: “Every Christian should use the greatest diligence so that the Gospel of Christ alone is preached everywhere.”
The Reformation in Zurich was not of a monolithic whole. There were some nominal followers of Zwingli who were “evangelical” merely because they opposed the Catholic Church, and a few others because they wanted to be free of the moral restraints that the church sought to maintain. Zwingli had little sympathy with these weak followers.
One group of Zwingli’s devoted early followers was to cause him serious problems. The early leader of this cadre of rigorist Christians was Conrad Grebel, the son of an aristocratic Zurich family. Like Zwingli, Grebel was trained as a humanist, having studied in Basel, Vienna and Paris. He became an early ardent supporter of Zwingli, penning a short poem of appreciation to the end of one of Zwingli’s treatises in 1522, the Archeteles. He was clearly persuaded by Zwingli’s vision of true biblical Christianity.
During these early years of the Reformation, Grebel became friends with another follower of Zwingli, Felix Manz. Together the two were committed to the restoration of primitive biblical Christianity and believed that Zwingli was likewise committed.
In the early years of the Reformation in Zurich, as elsewhere, there was considerable unrest lying just beneath the surface. Not all of the issues were religious, although they had religious overtones at times. Some radicals were attacking the payment of rents, tithes, and interest. At the same time there were occurring sporadic outbreaks of iconoclasm in churches in Zurich and outside, much of it intensified by the preaching of Zwingli and his colleague at St. Peter’s, Leo Jud.
During the course of 1523 a serious question was being raised in Zurich about the speed of the Reformation. In an effort to maintain the control of the fast-moving events, the City Council called for a second disputation, which took place in October, 1523. In this disputation it was decided that images should eventually be taken out of the churches and that the Mass was not to be considered a sacrifice. It was decided that the changes would take place only gradually—after the people and their pastors had been thoroughly educated in the reasons for the changes. Only thus could one be certain that changes would be thorough and heartfelt.
Soon after the disputation, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and several others, began to question not the basic content of the reform, but the speed with which it was being carried out. Zwingli was much more the gradualist. Grebel and Manz were ready to wipe out the abuses at one blow.
Zwingli’s radical followers became increasingly impatient with their leader. They came to believe that he was not as committed to change as were they. They began to meet together to read and study the New Testament. The more they did so, the more convinced they became that a radical reformation was called for. Their attempts to convince Zwingli to move faster were turned aside. They became more and more frustrated.
In September, 1524, Grebel and several friends who were to become the core of the radical movement wrote a letter to Thomas Muntzer. They said, in essence, “We have discovered that the shepherds have remained in error, even our very own leaders. And we have been in error too, until we have begun to take the word of God in our own hands and to read what it is that God expects of us in living a godly life of true faith and practice.”
Clearly, in their impatience, the radical Zwinglians began to depart from the great Reformer. Certainly they were still Zwinglian in one significant way: They were committed to the Bible, but their biblicism was of a more radical sort. They came to affirm that only that should be accepted which was expressly allowed in the Scripture. Zwingli, on the other hand, was convinced that the reforms must be linked to the authority of the civil magistrate.
Soon the radicals began to question the advisibility of infant baptism. In a letter to the City Council toward the end of 1524, Felix Manz set forth several arguments to the effect that infant baptism was not biblically justifiable. In response the Council called for a disputation which took place in January, 1525. The Council’s decisions went against the radicals. They decreed that children be baptized within eight days of birth, and further, it was even forbidden for the radicals to meet together in private.
The radicals would wait no longer. To continue in the practice of infant baptism would be contrary to everything that they now believed was right and true. A few days later the radical brethren met together in the house of Felix Manz. After praying together, one of the brethren, Jorg Blaurock, asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him. He in turn baptized those who were present. This event is considered today to be the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
In the days that followed that meeting in the home of Felix Manz, several more baptisms were administered to believers who confessed publicly the repentance of their sins. The number of adherents grew. On the following Sunday Blaurock entered the pulpit at Zollikon near Zurich to proclaim the Anabaptist call to repentance and baptism and had to be forcibly evicted.
The council was quick to act. After arresting and examining the majority of the offenders, it was decided that the leaders must leave once and for all, or suffer more serious punishment. The rank and file were fined; the leaders left Zurich, only to be arrested later in the summer in nearby Grunigen. After another disputation and two trials, the three were given life prison sentences but escaped. Grebel died of the plague while in exile. Blaurock fled to the Tyrol where he continued his ministry, eventually dying at the stake in 1529.
Felix Manz was arrested again in late 1526 and on January 5, 1527, was drowned by the authorities with the approval of Zwingli and, apparently, the Christian population of Zurich. He served as a martyr for his faith among the Anabaptists and is considered such until today.
A letter from a present-day Anabaptist to Ulrich Zwingli:
I address you as uncle because in a real sense we are still family and we do owe you much as a father in the faith. To you, we acknowledge, we do owe much, but to the Bible which you taught us even more.
How the passions of the moment reveal the weaknesses of our human frames. We were all caught up in a rising tide of history and we were both fully committed to Christ and the Word of God but how obvious it is now that our commitments are always expressed through our natures that have so much to learn of the love of Christ and the unity of the Spirit.
You insisted on reforming the existing church. We demanded a return to the New Testament. You didn't fully reform, and we didn't fully return. And, we have continued to experience further splits and divisions and mean words, but so have you. Nevertheless, God in His love has still given grace and a ministry to both our movements.
As we look back now, we can both see the issues in a new light and how they could have been handled differently. The enemies as well as the issues have taken new form in my generation, these four centuries later. Can we learn from the mistakes of Zurich? How would you proceed differently? How would we? Both the times and the gospel require our answer! May we begin with forgiveness.
Dr. H. Wayne Pipkin is Professor of Church History and Director of the Institute for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland
Copyright © 1984 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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