Some of God’s People have been known as Anabaptists – Acts 19:1-5

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Over the last couple of months I have said that I would not be ashamed to be called a “Donatist,” a “Montanist” or an “Albigense.” But something that I haven’t done is stop someone, telling them, “Hey, why don’t you address me as one of the Waldenses,” or “Call me a Paulician.” With tonight’s subject, I will change my approach just a bit. If you walk outside the front of our building and look up at the sign over the door, you’ll see that I actually do call our church “Anabaptist.” Not only am I not ashamed to be called an “Anabaptist,” I actually encourage people to do so. While agreeing with most of the Novatian’s doctrines, it would be probably be inappropriate to call our church a “Novatian” congregation, because we are separated by centuries and personal relationships. But all of those groups that I have just named have been called “Anabaptists” from time to time, and true Baptist churches are still practicing a kind of anabaptism today.

I believe I have told you several times how much I like the little book “Chamber’s Etymological Dictionary.” It is about a hundred years old, and was published primarily to explain the source of common words. But it is also highly accurate in other ways. When I googled the word “Anabaptist” the first three dictionaries on which I clicked all tried to talk about the Anabaptist Mûnster rebellion, which I will get to in a few minutes. But those references are highly misleading, because anabaptism is about 1,500 years older than Mûnster. This little dictionary properly says, “Anabaptist, n, one who holds that baptism ought to be administered only to adults (by immersion), and therefore that those baptized in infancy ought to be baptized again.” The words “ought to be baptized again” are in italics. Then it concludes with “(Gr. ana, again, baptizo, to dip in water, to baptize.)” My big dictionary which I took to university back in the 1960’s defines “Anabaptist” as any of several religious groups who started rebaptizing people back in the 16th century. While that is correct up to a point, it is not completely true, and thus it is thoroughly misleading.

What is the actual origin of the Anabaptist movement?

First, it needs to be said that there never has been an Anabaptist “movement.” A movement is “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.” It sounds like some sort of conspiracy. But what Paul did in Acts 19 with a certain group of professed disciples in Ephesus, was not the beginning of a conspiracy or movement. Without getting into the details, those men had been immersed under what they thought was the authority of John the Baptist, but Paul baptized them again. He rebaptized them, in Greek he “anabaptizo” those people – although that word is not in this scripture.

Jumping forward 1500 years, the Protestants began using the term more commonly than their Roman cousins. Luther, Calvin and others began pointing their fingers at the Waldenses and other pre-reformation groups, calling them “Anabaptists,” and doing so with a sneer in their voice. Like the Catholics, the Protestants have usually hated and even murdered the “Anabaptists.” There were pockets of Baptistic people who were offended by the name, pointing out that the adults who they were immersing had not been really been baptized when they were christened as babies. On the other hand, there were other churches which embraced the term – as I do. Either way, “Anabaptist,” became more and more common as the Protestant Reformation continued, but it did not apply to those Protestants themselves.

Again, who were the first “Anabaptists,” and when did people start applying that term to God’s churches? Mosheim, the Lutheran historian put it this way – “The origin of the sect, who from their repetition of baptism … are called Anabaptist, but who are also denominated Mennonites, from the celebrated man to whom they own a large share of their present prosperity, is hid in the remote depths of antiquity.” Mosheim equated “Baptist” with “Mennonite” and sometimes interchanged the names. He said, The Mennonites “suddenly started up, in various countries of Europe, under the influence of leaders of dissimilar character and views; and at a time when the first contests with the Catholics so engrossed the attention of all… The modern Mennonites affirm, that their predecessors were the descendants of those Waldneses, who were oppressed by the tyranny of the Papists….” Going on Mosheim wrote, “In the first place I believe the Mennonites are not altogether in the wrong, when they boast of a descent from these Waldenses, Petrobrusians and others, who are usually styled witnesses for the truth before Luther. Prior to the age of Luther, there lay concealed in almost every country of Europe, but especially in Bohemia, Moravia, Switzerland and Germany very many persons, in whose minds were deeply rooted that principle which the Waldenses, Wycliffites, and the Husites maintained, some more covertly and others more openly; namely that the kingdom which Christ set up on the earth, the visible church, is an assembly of holy persons; and ought therefore to be entirely free from not only ungodly persons and sinners, but from all institutions of human device …. This principle lay at the foundation which was the source of all that was new and singular in the religion of the Mennonites; and the greatest part of their singular opinions, as is well attested, were supposed some centuries before Luther’s time, by those who had such views of the Church of Christ.”

Robert Barlcay, a Quaker, and no friend of the Baptists wrote – “We shall afterwards show the rise of the Anabaptists took place prior to the Reformation of the Church of England, and there are also reasons for believing that on the continent of Europe small hidden Christian societies, who have held many of the opinions of the Anabaptists, have existed from the times of the apostles. In the sense of the direct transmission of Divine Truth, and the true nature of spiritual religion, it seems probably that these churches have a linage or succession more ancient than the Roman Church.”

And speaking of the Roman Church, I’ll repeat the statement of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Hosius – “The Anabaptists are a pernicious sect. Of which kind the Waldensian brethren seem to have been.”

And Zwingli, the Swiss reformer is quoted to have said – “The institution of Anabaptism is no novelty, but for three hundred years has caused great disturbance to the church, and has acquired such strength that the attempt in this age to contend with it appears futile…”

I have used the word “Anabaptist” several times over the last two months, because from the beginning that was a word thrown against people like us by the church of Rome. John T. Christian says that even before the time of the Roman Church, the Montanists “insisted that those who had ‘lapsed’ from the true faith should be rebaptized, because they had denied Christ and ought to be baptized anew.” Therefore the Montanists were called “Anabaptists.” Augustine back in the 4th century called the Donatists “Anabaptists.” I pointed out several weeks ago that Baptist historian David Benedict denied that the Donatists were true Baptists, because that is what he had been taught by the Protestants before his conversion. But then he began his own independent study, after which he called them both Baptists and “Anabaptists.” Robert Robinson says that the Novatian churches were “Anabaptists.” Of the Waldensians, historian Wall, not only called them “Anabaptists” but “antipaedobaptists” – that is opponents of infant baptism.

The point is, there have been rebaptizers of one sort or another in every age since Paul first rebaptized those men in Ephesus.

But can we be dogmatic on what the early “Anabaptists” believed.

Yes, we can, at least on one point – they believed people needed to be rebaptized when they joined them. But after that statement we can get into trouble. Just as the 21st century name “Baptist” can mean a great many different things, the 16th century name “Anabaptists” meant a variety of things as well.

Listen carefully to the following quote – “I would engage to show that baptism as viewed and practiced by the Baptists, had its advocates in every century up to the Christian era … and independent of whose existence (the German Anabaptists), clouds of witnesses attest the fact, that before the Reformation from popery, and from the apostolic age, to the present time, the sentiments of Baptists and the practice of baptism have had a continue chain of advocates, and public monuments of their existence in every century can be produced.” That is a statement with which I don’t any criticism. But I have a lot of criticism against the man who made the statement – Alexander Campbell. The Campbellites practice “anabaptism,” but they rebaptize because they believe in baptismal regeneration, and only through their ministers can water wash away sin. The Church of Christ Campbellites are “anabaptist” heretics. In other words, just because someone is an “Anabaptist,” it doesn’t mean that he rebaptizes for the right reason or that the rest of his theology is Biblical.

It is a sad, sad fact the most famous individual “Anabaptist,” was a mad man named Thomas Mûnzer, when in fact he was not a true “Anabaptist” at all. Mûnzer had been a Catholic priest, but then he began to follow another former priest, Martin Luther, in that man’s rebellion against Rome. For a time Luther and Mûnzer were tightly linked. Some called Mûnzer “Luther’s curate,” and Luther called him his “Absalom,” probably because he “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” Eventually Mûnzer and Luther had a falling out, and Mûnzer declared that he had become an “Anabaptist” while Luther went on to hate the “Anabaptists.”

It is said Mûnzer had a very down to earth preaching style, and he had a humility which endeared him to just about everyone. After some time, people began gathering around him, calling themselves “peasants.” Mûnzer and his disciples published a set of articles, which were read everywhere they went to preach. They said, every congregation shall be free to elect its own pastor. That sounds pretty Baptistic. The people’s tithes shall be applied to the support of their pastor and the residue given to the poor – okay. But then – vassal service shall be abolished. Forests are not the property of nobles and princes; anyone shall be able to hunt and fish therein. All arbitrary and increasing duties and rents shall cease. The gentry shall not be able to take away the people’s property. And the right of nobles to tax the inheritances of widows and orphans shall be abolished. At the conclusion of these articles the peasants promised to give up any of those principles which were contrary to the Word of God. Now, do these points sound like Baptist doctrine or the planks of some sort of political platform?

With doctrines like these, very friendly to the impoverished slaves of the pope and the king, Mûnzer became a popular man. History tells us that Luther became his enemy, and encouraged the princes to put down his rebellion. In a tract Luther wrote, “Strike, strike, slay, front and rear; nothing is more devilish than sedition; it is a mad dog that bites you if you do not destroy it. There must be no sleep, no patience, no mercy; they are all the children of the devil.” How do we explain Luther’s attitude? Remember that like the Catholics the Reformers wanted that homogenous society where religion, government, education, economy, recreation and everything else blend together. It was just that the Reformers wanted that united society under their flag rather than the pope of Rome. As such Mûnzer had become as much an enemy of Luther just as he was of the German princes. On May 15, 1525, with several thousand of his followers, Mûnzer met the armies of German Princes, and no less than 5,000 peasants lost their lives. They died not fighting for religious liberty or Biblical truth, but for a political cause. But because Mûnzer claimed to be an “Anabaptist” he has gone down in history as one of our lunatic heros.

As J.T. Christian has written, “Thomas Mûnzer, the leader of the tumult, was never a Baptist, but all his life was a Paedobaptist dreamer.” He quotes Harry S. Burrage, “Indeed, in no sense of the term and at no period of his career, was he an Anabaptist, though strangely enough he is often called the founder and leader of the Anabaptists.” And D.B. Ray says “the authors of the Royal Encyclopedia are positive in their statement that the Baptists have no connection with the Munster mob.” Ray says, “No one, now except an extremely wicked or ignorant man, will, in the face of these historic facts, persist to affirm that the Baptists originated with the Munster affair.” Thomas Mûnzer is another example of our enemy’s attempt at re-writing our history against us.

There is another name often associated with the “Anabaptists” Menno Simons. Simmons was born in Holland in 1496 and was educated to become a Catholic priest. While observing the mass one day, he was struck with the thought that the bread and wine could not possibly be the literal body and blood of Christ. When he witnessed the martyrdom of an Anabaptist he became more serious in his studies. In 1537 he was baptized by Obbe Philip, a well-known Anabaptist, and soon he became one of their leaders. He was not the founder of the Mennonite faith, and of course the Anabaptists had been around for centuries before Simons came along, but in northern Europe his name became synonymous with both. Today, although claiming a relationship to Menno Simons, modern Mennonites have fallen into the Protestant slough, and are no more related to the original Anabaptists than are the Lutherans or Catholics.

What did the bulk of the Anabaptists believe as the Reformation was getting underway? What did the original Mennonites believe before they started falling away? W. A. Jarrel calls Henry Burrage one of the highest authorities on the Anabaptists. Burrage asks, “What were some of the ideas that characterized the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century? The following are especially worthy of attention: That the Scriptures are the only authority in matters of faith and practice. That personal faith in Jesus Christ only secures salvation; therefore infant baptism is to be rejected. That a church is composed of believers who have been baptized upon a personal confession of their faith in Jesus Christ. That each church has entire control of its affairs, without interference on the part of any external power. That the outward life must be in accordance with such a confession of faith, and to the end it is essential that church discipline should ‘be maintained. That while the State may properly demand obedience in all things not contrary to the law of God, it has no right to set aside the dictates of conscience, and compel the humblest individual to set aside his views, or to inflict punishment in case such surrender is refused. Every human soul is directly responsible to God.” These ideas characterized the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. They characterize true Baptists today. Burrage even adds, “Their hymns, which happily have been preserved, show no trace of revolutionary or fanatical doctrines, but abound in devout sentiments pertaining to Christian experience and hope, and exhortation to fidelity and steadfastness in the faith, although persecution and death should be the result.”

If these are indeed among the principle doctrines of the Anabaptists, then I will continue to identify with them. But what about all those doctrines not mentioned – like the deity and virgin birth of Christ, the realties of Heaven and Hell and such things? The reason they are not often mentioned in the history of that day is that such things were believed by most of the Protestants, and they didn’t come up in their debates with the Anabaptists. Even the Catholics believed in the deity of Christ and the reality of Hell.

Despite radical Anabaptists like Mûnzer, there were thousands of these people in the 16th century and following. They were descendants of the earlier Waldenses, Albigenses and Paulicians, who essentially believed what you and I believe at Calvary Baptist Church.