Christianity in the Reformation Era 5
Anabaptists, Early Low Country and France

Class 5

Emergence of the Anabaptists

& Early France & Low Countries Reformation Activity


“Anabaptism” is an umbrella designation for the groups in the radical Reformation that rejected infant baptism in favor of adult commitment as the basis for becoming a Christian and forming a Christian community. Anabaptism first emerged out of disputes about the tithe, religious images, and baptism in Zurich between 1523 and 1525. In the area around Zurich and beyond, early Anabaptism overlapped with the unrest of the Peasants’ War, and several Anabaptist leaders briefly introduced Anabaptism as the official religion of a few small towns. The suppression of the peasants influenced Anabaptists to become more self-consciously separatist, continuing some of the aims of the “Common Man” in a much more circumscribed form. The most important early Anabaptist groups were the Swiss Brethren, the South German/Austrian Anabaptists, and the Hutterites, all of whom were severely persecuted in the wake of the Peasants’ War.

Anabaptism, the most important strand in the radical Reformation, was based on the view that only a self-conscious, informed commitment to Christ could be the foundation for becoming a Christian.

Anabaptism (specifically the Swiss Brethren) first emerged in Zurich in 1523–1525 out of disputes between Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, and others with Zwingli concerning the tithe, images in churches, and finally, the nature of baptism and its relationship to faith.

The earliest Anabaptists argued from the principle of justification by faith alone that infants should not be baptized, because they did not have faith. The Bible contains no explicit mandate for infant baptism.

Grebel and others were disgusted by Zwingli’s willingness to let the city council dictate the pace of reform.

The Zurich city council, working together with Zwingli, declared that all infants should be baptized (January 1525), after which the first adult baptisms took place in defiance of the law.

The rejection of infant baptism repudiated the sacrament by which people were traditionally understood to become Christians and to be initiated into their local communities.

From the outset, Grebel’s and Mantz’s Anabaptism was radically pacifist and insisted on the direct, explicit following of Christ in discipleship.

Anabaptist discipleship might be seen as one outgrowth of the emphasis on the imitation of Christ in late medieval Christianity.

Early Anabaptist leaders in general were critical of Luther, Zwingli, and other reformers for emphasizing justification by faith alone at the expense of transforming the actual behavior of Christians.

Early Anabaptism overlapped chronologically and geographically with the unrest of the Peasants’ War, in which some Anabaptists and future Anabaptists were involved.

Traditionally, scholars understood the violence of the Peasants’ War and Anabaptist pacifism as entirely distinct from each other, but more recent scholarship has shown elements that they held in common.

Grebel and Müntzer disagreed about armed resistance but shared a disdain for the traditional use of the ecclesiastical tithe.

Many Anabaptists were sympathetic to the aims of the “Common Man” to drastically remake the social, political, and ecclesiastical order.

As Anabaptism spread during the early months of 1525, it overlapped with the peasant revolts around Zurich and beyond.

In several communities, Anabaptist leaders, among them Balthasar Hubmaier, led short-lived attempts at “civic Anabaptism” and endorsed civic alliances with the peasants.

Numerous people who later became Anabaptists were participants in the Peasants’ War. Not all early Swiss Anabaptists held the pacifistic views of Grebel and Mantz.

The suppression of the “Common Man” in the Peasants’ War influenced Anabaptism, leaving separatism as the only means to preserve certain of its goals in a restricted form.

When the Peasants’ War ended in defeat, Anabaptists concluded that if the world rejects truth, then truth must reject the world.

If society as a whole could not be remade according to Christian principles of fraternal love, equality, and justice, then separatist communities of committed Christians could endeavor to do so on a small scale.

The most important early Anabaptist groups were the Swiss Brethren, the South German/Austrian Anabaptists, and the Hutterites, all of whom were severely persecuted and imbued with a mentality of suffering and martyrdom in the years after the Peasants’ War.

Michael Sattler’s seven Schleitheim Articles (February 1527) articulated the strongly separatist pacifism that would mold the Swiss Brethren in subsequent decades.

The separatist rejection of the larger society alarmed political authorities, whether Catholic or Protestant, in the wake of the Peasants’ War.

The separatism of the Swiss Brethren persists today in North America among the Amish, who are historical descendants of the Swiss Brethren.

The South German/Austrian Anabaptists were part of a short-lived movement indebted to the apocalyptic legacy of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants’ War.

South German Anabaptist leaders, such as Hans Hut, dropped Müntzer’s revolutionary violence but retained his apocalyptic expectations.

After Hut’s death in 1528, a relative lack of leadership, combined with severe persecution, largely undermined this branch of Anabaptism by the early 1530s.

Jacob Hutter, an Austrian by birth and upbringing, established an important Anabaptist community in the early 1530s in Moravia, before his own execution in 1536.

Most of the Hutterites were Austrian Anabaptists seeking refuge in Moravia from persecution under Ferdinand I.

The Hutterites, unlike the Swiss Brethren, practiced communal ownership of goods, based in part on the Acts of the Apostles

The Spread of Early Protestantism – France and the Low Countries

Overview:   In the 1520s and early 1530s, Protestant ideas spread and found adherents in France, the Low Countries, and England, but in none of these regions did the Reformation become a widespread movement at the time. In each of these countries, differences can be found in the matrices for the reception of Protestant ideas and in the institutions that assisted or resisted the spread of Protestant views. Accordingly, the small Protestant communities were affected in divergent ways in each country and developed differently in these years.

The Protestant Reformation did not become a widespread movement in the Low Countries, France, or England during the 1520s or 1530s.

Protestant views were often embraced in eclectic, unsystematic ways.

All three countries were overwhelmingly Catholic during this period.

In the Low Countries, the Reformation faced strong repression from mostly cooperative secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

Several factors favored the Reformation's growth in the Low Countries.

Holland and Flanders in particular were highly urbanized regions that boasted high literacy rates.

The Netherlands had a strong tradition of Christian humanism.

Observant Augustinian monasteries were important in fostering the initial spread of Luther’s ideas.

Charles V’s determined opposition to the Reformation, combined with basically cooperative local authorities, prevented it from taking hold.

Towns and provinces in the Low Countries lacked the de facto political autonomy of German territories and imperial free cities; thus, Charles V had no powerful princes with whom to contend.

Between 1518 and 1522, a host of official measures forced the reform minded into either-or choices.

Two Augustinians from Antwerp who sided with Luther were executed in Brussels in July 1523. They were instantly proclaimed as the first two martyrs for the evangelical cause.

Because of repression, early Protestants were forced “underground,” meeting in small gatherings called conventicles.

Former priests seem to have taken the leadership initiative, although we also have evidence of lay involvement.

Socially, most adherents seem to have been independent, urban craftsmen, plus a few artists and members of the clergy.

In France, King Francis I’s attitude was crucial to the course of the early Reformation. Early receptivity to humanist-minded reform became sharp opposition to Protestantism after the Affair of the Placards (October 1534).

France was much more rural than southern Germany or the Low Countries, which made patronage more important than urbanization for the prospects of the Reformation. The most important early patron for reform was Guillaume Briçonnet, the bishop of Meaux.

Though not himself a follower of Luther, Briçonnet brought to his diocese the leading French humanist, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, who, in 1512, articulated a doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Lefèvre's presence, along with several reform-minded preachers and a number of evangelical tracts published between 1523 and 1525, made Meaux the “cradle of the French Reformation.”

Francis I’s distinction between elite, educated reforming efforts in controlled settings and popular, disruptive heterodoxy in public was the key factor that affected his policy toward evangelical ideas.

Institutionally, the Parlement of Paris and the faculty of theology of the University of Paris were strongly opposed to the Reformation but could not proceed against it without the king.

Francis I protected the Meaux circle, which was broken up during his absence in 1525.

The watershed in the early French Reformation was the Affair of the Placards on October 17–18, 1534.

Francis I was committed to Catholicism, but did not want to abandon humanist reform in France simply because of unrest in Germany.

The inflammatory broadsheets denouncing the Mass that were posted during the Affair of the Placards led to a severe retaliation by the king, who now worked cooperatively with other institutions.

The Affair of the Placards effectively collapsed the distinction between safe and dangerous reforming ideas in France. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era 5 - Anabaptists, Early Low Country and France

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