Why Were the Anabaptists Persecuted During the (Counter-) Reformation?

Why would a peace-loving people, who saved their pursuers, be persecuted? Why would the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems be burned to a horrible death at the stake after rescuing his enemy from drowning?

Many Anabaptists, especially leaders, were drowned, beheaded, or burned at the stake. 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. Earthly governments, which each were united with Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, required them 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 obedience to the Sermon on the Mount kept them from following laws that contradicted God’s law, like the laws mandating infant baptism. This was extremely serious in those days, and could get you killed. In fact, even if you’re a Protestant, you might want to consider that you may hold views that might have got you beheaded by Luther or Calvin.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 seemed to the government that they were dangerous.2See this article. Since they did not accept the state religion that bound all their citizens together under the civil law, nor did they 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 them suspicious. Besides, the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant groups had become united with the kingdoms of the world that they could 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 young men were badly treated for conscientiously objecting to fight. 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 put 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.

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