The Anabaptist Story

by William R. Estep
© 1975 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Chapter 1

The Birth of Anabaptism

On a crisp October night in 1517, the thirty-first to be exact, a black- garbed Augustinian monk made his way undetected to the castle church. The place was an insignificant medieval German town named Wittenberg. With swift, determined strokes he nailed one of the most inflammable documents of the age to the church door, which served as the village bulletin board. Within a fortnight all Europe was echoing the sound of the inauspicious hammer. A month later the hardly-audible taps had become sledge hammer blows assailing the very citadel of the roman Catholic Church. For the Austin friar of that October night was Martin Luther and the apparently innocent Latin manuscript was his first fusillade against Rome, the Ninety-five Theses.

Whether Luther recognized the fact or not, the Reformation was launched. Pope Leo X was soon to find the church going to pieces under his pontifical feet and the roof falling in around his jewel-studded tiara. This was the time of epoch-making events, only one of which was the publication of the Ninety-five Theses.

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The Zurich Reformer

In that eventful year, 1517, another German-speaking priest was wrestling with the tantalizing new Greek text. Born high in the Toggenburg Valley of the Swiss Alps seven weeks after the birth of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli had already become a thoroughgoing humanist and a great admirer of Erasmus. At Einsiedeln, where he was then serving as people's priest, Zwingli first began to apply himself seriously to the study of the New Testament. The young priest found it increasingly difficult to resist its truth. By the time Zwingli had accepted the call to Zurich as people's priest of the Grossmünster, he had resolved to preach nothing but the gospel. By 1522 the Reformation in Zurich had quickened its pace. Zwingli was indisputably in control. This came in spite of his admitted immorality before coming to Zurich and the open opposition of some Zurichers to his call. During the brief span of three years he succeeded in overcoming opposition and endearing the people to himself and his cause.

Zwingli's Leadership

The Reformation in Zurich was not a haphazard development. Rather, under Zwingli's guidance, it proceeded along clearly defined lines. The Swiss reformer well knew that pulpit eloquence alone could not accomplish the task of reform. Thus, to preaching he added teaching and the disputation. Finally, he sought legal support from the ruling authorities of Zurich, the city council.

In Zwingli, the scholar, the humanist, and the evangelical reformer where blended into an attractive and forceful personality. Consequently, there were drawn to him a number of gifted young humanists, primarily interested in study of the Greek classics. Into this group by November, 1521, had come a youthful vagabond scholar by the name of Conrad Grebel. Grebel's father was a member of the Great Council of the city of Zurich. This new association gave Grebel an opportunity to continue his studies of the Greek language and literature into which he had been initiated a few years before in Paris.

Love of learning and admiration for Erasmus characterized the young humanists. Taking advantage of this, Zwingli soon introduced them to the Greek New Testament. By 1522 they, too, had become zealous for reform, particularly Grebel. But less than three years later their convictions had driven them far beyond Zwingli. The public break between Zwingli and his erstwhile disciples came with evident finality at a fateful disputation in January, 1525. The council proclaimed Zwingli the victor and denounced the radicals. The alternatives were quite clear. The little group could conform, leave Zurich, or face imprisonment. It chose the last.

The Birth of Anabaptism

A few days later, January 21, 1525, a dozen or so men slowly trudged through the snow. Quietly but resolutely, singly or in pairs, they came by night to the home of Felix Manz, near the Grossmünster. The chill of the winter wind blowing off the lake did not match the chill of disappointment that gripped the little band that fateful night.

The dramatic events of the unforgettable gathering have been preserved in The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren. The account bears the earmarks of an eyewitness, who was probably George Blaurock, a priest who had recently come to Zurich from Chur.

And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon them, yes, they were so pressed in their hearts. Thereupon they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Informer of Hearts, and they prayed that he would give to them his divine will and that he would show his mercy unto them. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to suffer on account of it.

After the prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God's sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained minister to perform such work.

After his baptism at the hands of Grebel, Blaurock proceeded to baptize all the others present. The newly baptized then pledged themselves as true disciples of Christ to live lives separated from the world and to teach the gospel and hold the faith.

Anabaptism was born, With this first baptism, the earliest church of the Swiss Brethren was constituted. This was clearly the most revolutionary act of the Reformation. No other event so completely symbolized the break with Rome. Here, for the first time in the course of the Reformation, a group of Christians dared to form a church after what was conceived to be the New Testament pattern. The Brethren emphasized the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism.

The introduction of believer's baptism was not an unpremeditated act. Even though is revolutionary character might well have struck the hearts of those assembled on that January night with fear, it was no spur-of-the-moment decision. Rather, it was a culmination of earnest searching of the Scriptures and a corresponding dissatisfaction with Zwingli and his state-supported program of reformation.

More Anabaptist History

Books for your consideration:

The Anabaptist Story

Martyrs Mirror

An Introduction to Mennonite History

War, Peace, and Nonresistance

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