Why Were the Anabaptists Persecuted During the Counter-Reformation?

Why would a peace-loving people, who taught nonviolence, be persecuted? Why would the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems be burned to death, after rescuing his enemy from drowning?

Many Anabaptists, especially Anabaptist leaders, were drowned, beheaded, or burned at the stake. During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, European governments, whether they were Roman Catholic or Protestant, would not accept them. A few states tolerated Anabaptists, but most did everything possible to rout Anabaptists out of their territory. Why?

The answer is simple: Anabaptists knew that they owed their allegiance to the Kingdom of God, not to the earthly nations in which they lived. At this time, earthly governments were each united with Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. They required all citizens to be baptized as infants into the state church.

But Anabaptists could not accept infant baptism or membership in a church that was synonymous with the world. Their allegiance to the Kingdom of God and their obedience to the Sermon on the Mount kept them from following laws that contradicted God’s law, like the laws mandating infant baptism.

In those days, rejecting infant baptism was extremely serious, and could get you killed. In fact, even if you’re a Protestant, Luther or Calvin might have advocated for beheading you for your theological beliefs.1James White admits that in this video. It seems rather odd to look up to the Reformers for their theological doctrines, when they would have killed us for ours.

But it wasn’t just that Anabaptists were unable to obey certain laws. It appeared to the government that they were dangerous.2See this article. Since the Anabaptists didn’t accept the state religion, which was intended to bind all citizens together under the civil law, and since they couldn’t give their allegiance to the state, Anabaptists were viewed with suspicion. Nations don’t like their citizens to have loyalties that conflict with national loyalty.

Thus, the Anabaptist two-kingdom ethic made the Roman Catholics and Protestants suspicious. Besides, the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant groups had become united with the kingdoms of the world. Why wouldn’t they wield all the power of the government against religious dissenters?

So, while the leaders of the Protestant reformation enjoyed relatively long lives full of religious and political acclaim, the leaders of the Anabaptist movement were hunted down and martyred. For example, all three founders of the Swiss Brethren, Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock, died within five years of founding their religious movement.3Conrad Grebel, after being banished, died of illness, but the other two were both executed.

Today, many Protestants and Roman Catholics have come to respect the Anabaptists, and we don’t face persecution from other Christians. But even today, after most Western governments have accepted the Anabaptist position of separation of church and state, things haven’t always been easy. During World War I, for example, many Anabaptist s were badly treated for holding to nonresistance and the two-kingdom view. Today, in the West, we see very little persecution, but our ways are still not fully accepted. Often people judge us for not voting in elections, or they might say that that our position against self-defense is cowardly. The world doesn’t have much room in it for those who want to radically follow God.

Now, if Anabaptists place their first loyalty in the Kingdom of God, does that mean that Anabaptists are bad citizens of their earthly nations? Not at all. The early Anabaptists obeyed every law they possibly could. They paid their taxes and lived in peace with their neighbors. Governments that weren’t overly zealous recognized them as an asset.

Today we still pay our taxes, we don’t protest or lobby, and we obey the laws of whatever nation we find ourselves in. We aren’t perfect, and there are Anabaptists who willfully disobey their government, but we are in general good citizens.

And even though we don’t want to be persecuted, none of this article is intended as a complaint. Anabaptists believe that God has given earthly nations the authority to rule the people who are within their borders, and we accept that. God asks us to dedicate our lives to him, and if we must lose our lives for his sake, that’s the noblest and most sacred death that we could die. As nonresistant Christians, we count our lives to be a small price to pay for the wonderful redemption that Jesus will bring for all the world when he returns.

  • 1
    James White admits that in this video. It seems rather odd to look up to the Reformers for their theological doctrines, when they would have killed us for ours.
  • 2
  • 3
    Conrad Grebel, after being banished, died of illness, but the other two were both executed.

2 thoughts on “Why Were the Anabaptists Persecuted During the Counter-Reformation?”


    I’m a Catholic, but have a lot of respect for groups such as the Amish and Mennonites etc., even though they may be a little anti-Catholic. Unlike other Protestants, they don’t practice contraception or remarry after divorce, so I think have a better chance of being saved due to greater obedience to God’s natural moral law. From a Catholic perspective, I would disagree with the Anabaptist opposition to infant Baptism because faith in Christ is dependent on God’s grace in the first place, and the Sacrament of Baptism is simply an initiating instrument of this grace.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the appreciation, Terence. I agree that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be anti–each other, and we should always be ready to forgive. Still, I hope that you can understand why, after being persecuted for not being Roman Catholic, many Anabaptists would be a little slow to appreciate Roman Catholicism.

      In the next month or so, we’ll be posting some articles on infant baptism, and you’re very welcome to interact with those when they come out!

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