Sixteenth-century Anabaptists were ardently disliked and despised. This fact is nowhere more aptly illustrated than in the nasty nicknames given them. Indeed the name Anabaptist itself, which means “rebaptizer,” was probably designed to these people under the penalties of Roman civil law—which, in a series of imperial edicts from approximately 390 to 420 A.D., decreed death to those who rebaptized or were rebaptized. The Reformers had destroyed or disregarded canon law and judicial procedures, which had been developed over many centuries by the Roman Church. In order to draw up laws more suitable to their view of Scripture and the church, Reformers chose edicts and patterns of jurisprudence ready at hand in the Justinian Code, compiled under Roman Emperor Justinian’s orders in the 530s. On the basis of those edicts, therefore, the Reformers and princes decreed the death penalty for rebaptizers, thereby giving the name Anabaptist itself an unfavorable reputation. Indeed, second generation German Marxist Karl Kautsky has concluded that “Anabaptist” in the sixteenth century bore the emotional stigma of the term “Bolshevist” in the early twentieth-century West.

There were other naughty nicknames: (1) Fanatics (Schwarmer) or people with bees in their bonnets, who followed no rational order of social behavior but upset every social convention by stubbornly insisting on a radical separatist religious existence, as if they alone understood divine matters or even God himself; (2) Corner-preachers (Winkelprediger), who conducted their illegal religious enterprises in secret hideaways and spurned the light of open, forthrightly-public pronouncements of their views. The fact of early edicts banning their private religious gatherings did not spare them this nickname; (3) Mob-spirited factionalists (Rottengeister), who played upon the emotional immaturity and latent grievances of the lower classes of society with their own brand of passionate rhetoric; (4) Donatists, who like their fifth-century forebears considered themselves a spiritual elite, not fit for company with common Christians; (5) Revolutionaries (Aufrüherer), who promoted civil disobedience and revolt under the guise of preaching and practicing religious piety. English translations of these terms cannot quite convey the degree of contempt or hatred of their sixteenth-century German originals; even present-day German dictionaries have succeeded in domesticating and taming some of these unruly names.

Why did people use these names? And why did they despise and then persecute the Anabaptists? Our own secularist, post-Christian West has difficulty understanding persecution for religious reasons. It will be the task of this essayist to describe and to explain attitudes toward these Anabaptists by different groups of people in the sixteenth century. This will not be an apology for the Anabaptists, because most Westerners now consider their religious divergences to be relatively harmless.

The Common People

Early on both peasants and townfolk displayed an openness to the Anabaptists, without much inquiry as to their reputed heretical views. All Europe was awash in fresh religious fervor. Many people were, of course, disturbed by suggestions of too much change in religious practices. Such changes could impair and even harm the faith of simple, transparent and steadfast Christians, as Luther understood so well. But there were many other people for whom the freshly-opened Bible led to novel ways of understanding and living out its message. (Of course Roman Christians before and during the Reformation read the Bible; many of them knew its contents extremely well. Still the Reformation built and developed its own momentum on this freshly interpreted Scripture, even to the point of elevating Scripture to an authority above that of the Church, which had much earlier decided exactly which books could be accepted as part of the Bible.)

A peasant carting his onions to market a few miles distant; a furrier who plied his craft in several North German towns; a housewife or nun to whom some new word about Christ or the saints raised questions about religious practice that had lain dormant; a weaver or a shearer who joined with fellow clothmakers in any of several Lowlands towns; a schoolteacher whose natural theological curiosity pressed him to reexamine both Scripture and also the Latin Fathers—all of these and many more found themselves open to the new and strange words of itinerant Anabaptist missioners who, in the spirit of the times, did not necessarily reveal their own identities and who moved on to other towns and villages after only a few days of instructing new converts. In the summer of 1525 peasants still smarted from their recent defeat and the cruel deaths of their friends at the hands of the lord’s mercenaries. Many of them still believed in a Christian, biblically-based equality or egalitarianism, and they longed for a more just, even distribution of wealth. They continued to recite the older peasants’ revolutionary couplet:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who then was the gentleman?

Peasants bitterly resented restrictions on hunting and fishing and the enforced payment of tithes to a church that they considered corrupt, especially among the local clergy and mendicant friers and preachers. Townfolk were caught in economic cycles with downturns that no one understood but that caused untold suffering and deprivation. They also resented the wealth and privileges of their local clergy, and especially of those monasteries near at hand. To such people an Anabaptist gospel of simple discipleship and of sharing of goods so that none are needy appeared to be deeply and properly Christian—the way God would have his people live. And both peasants and townfolk, like all people in those times, interpreted the Turkish threat to European civilization and even planetary movements as ominous signs of the impending end-times. Repentance in order to join God’s people was the answer. (There were, of course, a few upper class people who also found the Anabaptist truth convincing, nobles as well as city patricians.)

But from 1535 to 1550, especially in South Germanic regions, the Anabaptist message fell on stonier ground. Newspapers of sorts and broadsides, both intermittently published, broadcast the jucier details of that Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. The larger movement, therefore, suffered some degree of disgrace. It had never been united. But even those who had declared nonresistance to be biblical some ten years before Münster found themselves discredited. And it became increasingly dangerous even to listen to an Anabaptist missioner after some feudal lords began to obey the 1529 imperial mandate decreeing death to Anabaptists. The favorable tide had turned. After 1535 Anabaptist converts embraced the cause because they were too dissatisfied with any other religious option, or because they found Anabaptist steadfastness in torture and execution itself compelling. Consequently, the movement, never large, probably decreased in number although we have no reliable statistical data to help us measure their number or influence.


Feudal lords, judges, bailiffs with responsibility for social order, and city magistrates—all found the Anabaptists both nettlesome and personally troubling: what should be done with them? On the one hand Anabaptists gravitated in effect toward a religious pluralism which no one in the sixteenth century was willing to accept as viable. Society would break up. Political chaos and even revolution were the only possible results of religious differences within a given political body. And the more religiously earnest among them all felt a divine call to propagate the true faith among, and to regulate the moral behavior of, their subjects. It is easy for us in secular states to overlook that genuine concern, especially in princes or rulers whose own lives were anything but morally exemplary. But what should be done to punish these religious dissidents? A few princes and magistrates—for example Philip of Hesse, Ulrich of Württemberg, and the Strassburg Council—could not bring themselves to exercise the death penalty for religious offense. As Philip once declared, to do so would mean that one would need to kill all Jews and Catholics also. So there developed a lively correspondence among these rulers, and with theologians and jurists as well, on the topic of how to deal with Anabaptists. A few isolated feudal lords, sufficiently distant geographically from their overlords (the Liechtensteins in Moravia, for instance), felt that they could afford to harbor and protect Anabaptists without suffering from their own overlords. These lords reaped the benefits of the Anabaptists’ artisan and agricultural skills in return. In Moravia for example, Anabaptists contributed economic prosperity, innovations in medicine and improved methods of roof thatching. But most rulers would not tolerate them. Many feared in them a reappearance of peasant unrest and revolution and at the very least exiled them. Of course many had them executed—Catholics by the traditional burning at the stake (with a small bag of gunpowder tied around the neck of the victim to ensure an early death, as a humanitarian gesture), and Protestants by drowning and beheading.

One can gain a clearer idea of rulers’ and judges’ degree of apprehension about the Anabaptists by looking at the questions put to them in trials. For example, in August 1533 some twenty-five Anabaptists were caught in the small village of Sorga, Hesse, and interrogated in court on 9 August. Each one was asked nine questions, as follows: (1) Do you attend our preaching, and if not why not? (2) May a Christian tolerate temporal government? (3) Do you pay war taxes? (4) Will you defend the fatherland in case of military invasion? (5) Was the recent Peasants’ War of God or not? (6) May a Christian in financial need take the goods of another Christian? (7) May a Christian own private property? (8) Why do you hold community of goods with others? [None of these Anabaptists did.] (9) May the government rightfully require the payment of tithes and taxes? Many political authorities regarded question 1 and questions 6 through 8 as political. That would make all of them political in essence, with no interest expressed in ascertaining the more explicitly religious views of the captives.

Thus, the questions illustrate the degree to which political authorities thought that the Anabaptists constituted a political threat to society.

To rulers at least, another measure of the revolutionary character of the Anabaptists was the refusal to swear an oath. Most rulers and theologians thought that the civic oath was a major means of holding society together. The annual oath of allegiance and support in each town of any size, on the appropriate saint’s day in the town square, was a festive occasion. But it also demonstrated to the fullest possible degree the fundamental intention of the town’s citizens to honor their social obligations. Most sixteenth-century people continued to believe that whoever violated his sworn word suffered more the penalties of divine damnation than the civic punishments which might be meted out—after all in the oath God had been called upon as witness. No matter how blasphemous a sixteenth- century man might be, he usually had enough fear of God in him to turn the civic oath into a formidable force for truth-saying. To many rulers, therefore, the Anabaptists’ rigid adherence to Jesus’ command not to swear an oath appeared both politically subversive and also impious. To refuse to swear was tantamount to a declaration of revolution. The Anabaptists themselves were uncomfortable with the singular political interpretation of their non-swearing. They were trying to maintain that truth-saying was constant for a genuine Christian, not something that one decided to do only on some special occasion. In the face of storms of protest on their refusal to swear the civic oath, they had few opportunities to make that point. In our own day when the legal penalties of perjury apply equally to affirmations and oaths, we fail to understand fully the sixteenth century significance of the refusal to swear a formal oath.

The Reformers

Only a few of the Protestant Reformers demonstrated much sympathy for, or even understanding of, the Anabaptists’ religious views. Wolfgang Capito, and during the first eighteen months of the movement Martin Bucer also, both of Strassburg, showed sympathy, especially for individual Anabaptists such as Michael Sattler. Catherine Zell, the dynamic, influential wife of Matthew, Strassburg’s cathedral preacher, even offered Anabaptists protection. By 1526 in Zurich, 1528 in South and Central Germany, and 1532 in the Lowlands, Reformers’ attitudes had hardened. Some became implacably hostile. It was the Reformers who singled out the issue of baptism as decisive, even though to the Anabaptists themselves it was not the most important issue. To the Reformers the denial of baptism to infants literally damned them—even the Zwinglians and Calvinists who denied the sacramental power of baptism believed that the rejection of infant baptism excluded the child from the nurture and fellowship of God’ s people. To Luther that denial was blasphemy—a rejection of a power of God to act redemptively in a manner of His own choosing, through the Word and water of baptism. This issue separated the Anabaptists from Christian fellowship and community in the eyes of all of the Reformers. By the 1550s some Reformers had compiled formidable lists of Anabaptist “errors.” But most of them were derivative from the twin accusations of blasphemy in baptism and sedition in nonswearing of oaths (or nonresistance).

The Reformers wrote against the Anabaptists frequently and in detail to counteract their potential influence among the common people. The Reformers’ fear was obviously earnest; they believed that the Anabaptists’ religious alternative could only bring literal damnation.

To most Reformers the moral improvement that Anabaptists preached was sheer hypocrisy, not to be taken seriously except insofar as it was effective in attracting converts. Most of the Reformers decided, sometimes after several years of soul-searching (Luther never quite liked the decision), that Anabaptists had to be killed for the good of society and the benefit of religious truth. They were pressed on the issue by rulers who systematically inquired of many of them, especially in the 1530s. Of the various Reformers who declared themselves in writing on the Anabaptists, Justus Menius and Urbanus Rhegius of the Lutherans wrote with the greatest degree of knowledge of Anabaptists. Melanchthon and Luther wrote less, and understood less well, although Melanchthon had supervised the theological interrogation of several. As far as we can tell, Luther met only one Anabaptist in his entire life, and that one was a radical spiritualist. Among the Swiss Reformed Heinrich Bullinger wrote the most, with a higher degree of credibility than did his predecessor Ulrich Zwingli or his contemporary Calvin. But none of the major Reformers ever set about systematically to acquire information about this group they preferred to dismiss as deluded. To all of them the Anabaptists were an enormous hindrance to the progress of God’s Kingdom.


Most Catholic religious writers who bothered to touch on Anabaptism signed off the movement as a wilder perversion of Protestantism in general. They blamed Luther for the entire lot. An occasional observer wrote in greater detail, if no less hostility, from a closer acquaintance with bonafide Anabaptists—Erhard and Fischer writing about the Hutterian Brethren at the end of the sixteenth century, for instance. There were a few other reform-minded Catholics who found some kinship of spirit with Anabaptists, even when they rejected them as schismatic: Georg Witzel, Jacob Strauss and Reprecht von Mosham, for example. All three bore their own grievances against the abuses of Rome, and the first two spent some years as Lutheran pastors only to reject Lutheranism for ethical reasons similar to those of the Anabaptists. The topic of Catholic reactions to the Anabaptists deserves further study.


This tiny movement of not more than a few thousand adherents throughout the sixteenth century, nevertheless, aroused a high degree of anxiety and fear, both in rulers and theologians. The number of those who were killed—probably only several thousand—is not itself a satisfactory measure of the degree of fear Europeans felt. We rightly see the Reformation era as one of great religious enthusiasm and also fluidity. Why then should these Anabaptists, who went underground early on, have become the cause of so much alarm and outright fear? The answers to that question remain basically simple, even when they are not fully satisfying to our own minds. (1) Anabaptists’ earliest successes in gaining adherents turned them into rivals of the Reformers and reform minded Catholics. (2) They were thought to be the nucleus of a fresh political revolution drawing egalitarianism from the Bible. That politically seditious flavor was reinforced by the events of Münster. (3) They destroyed the unity of the faith, and that could only arouse the wrath of the Lord. God would surely punish Europe severely. No matter that others did the same; each Reformer thought that his religious way was the only biblically correct one, and that others erred because their spirits were evil. (4) They were some special spawn of Satan who had always found pious-acting adherents throughout the centuries.

Surely these Anabaptists deserved more than censure and condemnation. They deserved death itself!

John S. Oyer, Ph.D, is professor of history at Goshen College, Indiana