It has sometimes been assumed that the evil connotation of the epithet Anabaptist is associated primarily with the dreadful Munster episode of 1534-35. However, the fairly extensive polemic literature of the period before that time, written by Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bader, Rhegius, Faber, Bugenhagen, Menius, Bullinger, and others, gives abundant evidence that it was a designation of severest reproach and condemnation long before Munster. The Augsburg confession of 1530 condemns the "Anabaptists" specifically in three articles, though in part based on misinformation. Abundant citations could be given showing that the term "Anabaptist" in all its forms and translations was always essentially one of condemnation as of grievous heresy and crime. More, in his Confutation of Tindale's Works (1532), speaks of "pernitious and Anabaptistical opinions." This completely evil connotation of the name, which makes it truly and opprobrious epithet, carried through the 16th century and on down through the following centuries until modern times. It is this sense of condemnation and execration which has made some modern historians, particularly Mennonites, hesitate to use it, but usage is gradually overcoming the objectional sense.
The original use of "Anabaptist" in the 4th and following centuries was to refer to the rebaptism of those who had been baptised by heretics, or of those who had been baptised by bishops who had temporarily and partially recanted under persecution. There was considerable controversy over both points in North Africa; over the former from Tertullian's time on (A.D. 200) and over the latter in Augustine's time (Donatist controversy). In both cases the Roman Bishop's position won out, namely, that rebaptism should not be required nor permitted. Those who insisted on rebaptism were in effect repudiating therefore the authority of the church.
The Anabaptists of the Reformation period, however, did not repudiate infant baptism because they denied the validity of office of the bishop or the authority of the church (although they did in fact deny both) but rather because they denied the readiness of an infant to receive baptism on New Testament terms. They called for baptism only on confession of faith and commitment to discipleship by the candidate. They denied that infant baptism was baptism at all and hence denied that they were "rebaptizers." However, their real objection to the name "Anabaptist" was no this minor technical one; it was rather their refusal to be classed as heretics and to be reckoned as not being the true church. Their intensity of feeling on this must be understood in the light of their deep conviction that they were the true church and that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches were the false churches. Naturally also they did not wish to be classed as heretics subject to the death penalty merely on the basis of a epithetical identification with the Anabaptists of earlier centuries whom the imperial law condemned to death. They wished to stand on their own faith and to have their testimony and doctrine received on its own merits.
Although the meaning put into "Anabaptist" before 1553 was bad enough, additional overtones were added after Munster. Already frightened by the rapid spread as well as obstinate steadfastness and evident spiritual power of the movement, and already firmly believing the Anabaptists to be a threat to the existing order and social stability, the leaders of church and state were now sure of it for the Munsterites were actually militant revolutionaries and perverters of Christian ethics.
Hitherto the Anabaptists had lived irreproachable lives, but now the scandalous behavior of the King of Munster and his henchmen was known to all. So the invective against the Anabaptists now rises to a shrill crescendo. The Protestants in particular were concerned to vindicate themselves of the Catholic charge of complicity in and responsibility for the Anabaptists by going to extreme lengths of condemnation. The epithet "Anabaptist" was thus filled with even more venom than before, if that could be possible. It became the synonym for everything dangerous to church and state, much like "Bolshevik" or "Communist" in contemporary America.
Furthermore, the epithet was used indiscriminately of all types of left- groups, whereby the sins of the worst were applied to all. In retrospect Thomas Muntzer, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt in 1525, was now dubbed an Anabaptist and his sins were added to the others. In fact, he came to be thought of as the originator and most typical leader of the movement, even though he never practiced nor taught rebaptism, and had no connection with the true Anabaptist movement.
The Anabaptists themselves used no common name, indeed they were not a unified organized movement throughout, although the Swiss-South German, Dutch-North German, and Hutterite wings were soon separately organized and disciplined. Their most common self-designation was "Brethren." Because of the strong leadership of Jakob Hutter (d. 1535) among the Moravian Anabaptists, who adopted community of goods, this group was soon called "Hutterisch" or the "Huttererian Brethren," while the non-communist group being originally of Swiss origin was called "Swiss Brethren," even though they lived in many places outside of Switzerland such as the lower Rhine region. In Holland after 1545 the group came to be called "Mennists" after their chief leader Menno Simons, a name which gradually developed into "Mennonist" and then "Mennonit."
The 17th-century English Baptists took the major part of "Anabaptists" for their name and passed it on down to their 10,000,000 modern spiritual descendants.
More Anabaptist History