Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

A part of the legacy of Martin Luther's protests that led to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. Church leaders and reformers such as Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland were dependent upon government sanctions at the city or state level to enact their religious reforms. Some, however, did not feel that waiting for political action to gain state approval was in their best interests. Specifically, these young students, artisans, and members of the merchant classes wanted to discard such rituals as infant baptism and the Mass. In 1525, the radicals broke with the state church in Zurich and rebaptized each other in a member's home.

Labeled "anabaptists," meaning "rebaptizers," this group founded a church based not on state sanctions but on voluntary choice. Anabaptists rejected the authority of civil government over religious affairs. They stressed living apart from worldly society and thus rejected military service, violence, the taking of oaths, or the bringing of legal suits.

More important, the anabaptist challenge to the unity of church and state, with the latter controlling much in the former, was a threat to the social order. Like members of the many diverse religious nonconformist groups in Europe at the same time, Anabaptists were threatened, arrested, persecuted, and executed by the thousands in subsequent decades. A book, The Martyrs' Mirror , found in anabaptist homes today, records many of these events. This persecution drove Anabaptists farther south into more rural and more tolerant areas of Europe. There, leaders such as Menno Simons encountered and converted the peasant and rural populace to break with Rome.

Anabaptists today include such groups as Mennonites and Amish; some scholars would include also the Quakers and Moravians, even though there are discrepancies between their belief systems and those of traditional Anabaptism. Some of these differences include infant baptism, church-style architecture, and an educated clergy for Moravians, and a unique vision of the nature of God for Quakers. Anabaptists are noted for their pacifism (which they share with the Quakers), and many worked in voluntary service as conscientious objectors during the world wars.

Barbara J. Denison


L. Driedger and L. Harder (eds.), Anabaptist-Mennonite Identities in Ferment (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990)

J. H. Kauffman and L. Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald, 1975).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500