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Anabaptists: Baptism & the Lord's Supper

Like some, I had often thought that the origins of baptists began with Anabaptists. I knew that the name had the idea of baptized again, or, re-baptized, and that this re-baptism was only for people who consciously made a decision for Christ even though they had been baptized as infants. However, as I have recently discovered, even though both groups share the name “Baptist’ in their names, the people we know today as Baptists did not originate from the Anabaptists.[1] If the Anabaptists were not the forbearers of today’s Baptists, who were they? Where did they come from and why are they called Anabaptists? Were they the fanatics who tried to institute God’s kingdom by force?[2] What were their religious beliefs and practices? Were they like most other religious groups, composed of people of varying beliefs and practices?

            This paper will begin by touching on the beginnings of the Anabaptists to give a background from which to begin discussing the beliefs and practices of sixteenth century Anabaptists. Because of the breadth of information regarding Anabaptists, I will focus on the Anabaptist views of on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like modern groups of believers, we will see that there was some variety of doctrine and practices within Anabaptist life regarding these two topics.

Anabaptist Beginnings

The beginnings of Anabaptist can, like all Protestant groups, be traced back to Martin Luther when he nailed his manuscript of ninety-five theses to the door at the Wittenberg church[3] in 1517. In that same year, Ulrich Zwingli was studying a Greek text of the New Testament produced by Erasmus and had made the decision to preach the gospel and nothing else.[4] In five short years, the Reformation was gaining momentum with Zwingli in control in the Swiss town of Zurich.

Zwingli had attracted a group of young scholars whom he introduced to the Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Reform soon gripped these young men to the point that they eventually broke[5] with Zwingli in January, 1525 after a disputation.[6]  Not long after, about a dozen young men met near Grossmunster where they prayed for God’s will. According to The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to “baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge.”[7] Grebel did so after which Blaurock baptized all others present who then pledged themselves to live separated from the world, “to teach the gospel and hold the faith.”[8]  The Anabaptists were born.


Baptism is probably what springs to mind when Anabaptists are mentioned. Therefore, we will start with Baptism. Prior to the Anabaptists, Infant baptism was the accepted norm across Europe. Baptism brought you into the community of church and society. In many places, you needed a letter showing your baptism in order to work. Zwingli, although a reformer, saw infant baptism as a union of church and state your entrance into society, any challenge to infant baptism was viewed as a threat to the very threads of society, of the stability of church and state.[9]

By contrast, Anabaptists viewed baptism as a voluntary, carefully thought out statement that the believer rejected the flesh and had entered a new life following Christ. Since baptism was the “rite” of entering the church, and church meant Christians, those baptized became members of a communal body where they were subject to the “rule of Christ” and any process of discipline if needed.[10] This would rule out infant baptism as they are unable to carefully consider anything, much less rejecting the flesh and following Christ. In a short disputation, Balthasar Hubmaier said, “Whoever wishes to do so, let him show, in German, with plain, clear, simple Scriptures, that small children should be baptized.” He also said that he would prove “that the baptism of infants is an act without any ground in God’s word.”[11]

Some questioned the Anabaptists refusal to baptize infants using the doctrine of original sin. If there is original sin, then every infant born has original sin and should be baptized because of original sin. Anabaptists had various arguments on this issue. Some in Germany may have discounted the idea of original sin saying instead that man was created good and pure. If that is so, infants needed no baptism. According to the Hutterites, man inherited an evil tendancy from Adam, however, infants and children were potential sinners, not actual, so God would not hold that against them. Some argued a belief very common today among the Christian community, that infants and children were not held accountable for sin until they had the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil.[12]

Hubmaier, in The Sum of a Christian Life, 1525, points out that baptism occurs after a man “has inwardly and in faith surrendered himself to the new life.” “In doing so, he indicates to the Christian Church, that is to all the sisters and brothers who live in the faith in Christ, that he has been so taught inwardly in the Word of Christ and that he is so minded, that he has already surrendered himself according to the Word, will, and rule of Christ to live henceforth for him,”.[13] Hubmaier, in A Short Justification, 1526, speaks of three types of baptism: “that of the Spirit given internally in faith; that of water given externally through the oral confession of faith before the church; and that of blood in martyrdom or on the deathbed.”   Using Luke 12:50 – 53; Luke 10:34; 1 John 5:8; Rom. 8:15-17; and Jas. 5:13-15. Hubmaier goes on to say that all Christians must partake of these three baptisms.[14] Although other Anabaptists, like Hans Hut, also believed in a three-fold baptism, Peter Riedemann, believed in a rebirth, that “man first heard the Word; then he believed it; and then his faith was sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit” and only such people should be baptized.[15]

I am not sure how Hubmaier would deal with a true believer who has been baptized by water with a confession before the church but dies suddenly of a heart attack before any persecution or any anointing with oil by the elders could occur. However, it is clear that Hubmaier  held that only a believer would intentionally choose baptism knowing that persecution would undoubtedly follow. This would rule out infants as candidates for baptism and subsequent church membership. In fact, Anabaptists saw Satan as the originator of infant baptism with the results of several Anabaptist groups destroying their baptismal founts.[16]

What were some of the practices and ceremonies observed at an Anabaptist baptism?  It was certainly different than most today. You would go to the minister with your desire to be baptized. The minister would interrogate you regarding the “law, the gospel, the articles of faith, [your] moral views, and [your] ability to recite prayers.” If you passed this examination, you would be presented to the church who would then pray for you. After publicly affirming the Christian faith, “[your] willingness to resist the devil, and [your] desire to be baptized” and in many cases publicly rejecting your infant baptism, you would be baptized by the pouring of water over your head.[17]  Some Anabaptist ministers, such as Hut, would teach from the Bible and then baptize believers by making a cross on their forehead with moistened fingers or by pouring water over their head.[18]

The Anabaptists would use whatever means at hand to baptize; water from cups, bowls, ditches, water towers, or streams. It is claimed that two baptisms somehow were performed without water. Apparently Jorg Zeller in Franconia in 1527 and Claus Scharf in Muhlhausen in 1537, were able to baptize someone without water.[19] How this can be done, I am not sure; maybe they used ale, or some other non-water liquid. Be that as it may, both were reprimanded “by the brethren” for their actions.[20] Notwithstanding the varying methods of baptism, baptism was a central tenet of the Anabaptist faith. Although there were differences as to what baptism meant, virtually all Anabaptists held that baptism is only for professing believers and that pouring water over the head of the convert[21] was the norm.[22] The understanding  that the Biblical  mode of baptism was by immersion was still a century away.

The Anabaptists insistence that infant baptism was not only meaningless, but of the devil, and that believers had to reject their infant baptism before receiving believer’s baptism did not win them any friends.  Nor did their assertion that baptisms performed by unworthy ministers were meaningless.[23] Calvin called such assertions “foolishness” and “an evident error.”[24]  The contempt Calvin held for the Anabaptists can be seen in his comments when he called them “the nefarious herd of Anabaptists,”[25] and “O pernicious pest! O tares certainly sown by the enemy’s hand, for the purpose of rendering the true seed useless!”[26]      The Anabaptists’ rejection of infant baptism and baptism performed by “unworthy ministers” did not endear them to the church or the state.

Two conditions guaranteed the persecution of Anabaptists; actually, anyone differing from the established church in an area was guaranteed persecution. Already stated was the Anabaptist position on baptism. The Diet of Augsburg (1555) was the other.[27] An understanding in Europe was that if a city or territory’s government sanctioned a religion (Christian only), all other interpretations contrary to the sanctioned religion must be false. Both Catholics and Protestants agreed there was only one true faith (they disagreed on which one) and that the government should establish and protect the true faith. The Peace of Augsburg sanctioned this principle by ruling that if “Catholicism or Lutheranism was established” by a government (cuius region, eius religio),[28] “the other was legally excluded.”[29] If one of the two major groups were excluded, the Anabaptists would certainly be excluded, and they were.

Anabaptists were declared heretics and revolutionaries and were to be immediately arrested.[30] Spies were hired to infiltrate the Anabaptist ranks, travelers were stopped on roads and interrogated, and a few people would report others thought to be Anabaptists.[31] The local governments finally figured out that the best way to locate Anabaptists was to determine who was not attending church or communion.[32] As the local governments became adept at ferreting out Anabaptists, they moved from ejecting them from the city to imprisonment to execution.[33] Was this effective in convincing the Anabaptists to reject their new faith? Many did, but some did not; apparently the Protestant controlled territories were more lenient than the Catholic controlled territories. There are examples of Protestant officials sentencing women to light agricultural work while Catholic officials would generally order the death sentence.[34]  Because of the differing extremes in punishment, there may have been less rejection of the Anabaptist faith in the Protestant controlled areas than in the Catholic controlled areas.


The Lord’s Supper

            Just as the Anabaptists’ view of baptism caused problems with the established church and government and caused them to be labeled as heretics, so did their view of the Lord’s Supper (hereafter referred to as communion). One could say that the two views of communion in the sixteenth century followed party lines; that is, the Roman Catholic Church had their view and the Lutheran Church had theirs.

            The Roman Catholic Church’s view of communion was one of transubstantiation, that is, the substance of the bread and the wine actually change into Jesus’ body and blood when the priest pronounces the words of consecration, leaving only an appearance of bread and wine.[35] Since the bread and wine are now Jesus’ body and blood, they are now vehicles by which grace is conveyed to those partaking of communion.  Since the Catholics consider communion one of their sacraments, a means of conveying grace, and was one of the signs of being a member of the Catholic church, anyone knowingly denying any of those sacraments would be considered a heretic.

            The Lutherans had a different view of communion. Luther proposed the doctrine of consubstantiation instead of the Catholics’ transubstantiation. In this view, Luther felt that the bread and wine did not actually change into the flesh and blood of Jesus, but that Jesus was “truly present” in the communion to forgive sins and renew the spiritual life of believers.[36] Unlike the Catholics, Luther’s issue with the Anabaptists over the communion was not so much over the presence of the Lord during communion, but over who was worthy to partake of it. Of the Anabaptists’ position on one’s worthiness to partake of communion, Luther said that the Anabaptists’ standard of worthiness was “a perfection of faith which cannot be attained . . .” which . . . “would make the Sacrament void and superfluous.”[37] Clearly, the view of the Anabaptists regarding communion was much different from those of the Catholics and the Lutherans. What were their views?

            The Anabaptists saw communion as a time of remembering Christ dying for His own and as a celebration of the unity of the church.[38] Since a community of believers represented Christ’s body, the elements of communion were “signs of unity as well as signs of sacrifice.[39]

            Conrad Grebel suggested that plain vessels be used lest people began attaching special meanings to the vessels themselves. Grebel also believed that you must eat and drink in Spirit and love according to John, chapter 6.  He also felt that communion should only be done in community, never on one’s deathbed as that smacked of the Catholic sacramental system, and that it should be done often.[40]

Hubmaier, in a booklet titled, A Simple Instruction, rejects the idea of transubstantiation holding to a view that communion, “like baptism, was a symbol and sign.”[41] Using 1 Corinthians 11, Hubmaier states that the verse must be taken in context. The bread was not crucified so cannot be Jesus’ body, “so the bread must be the body – in remembrance.”[42] Hubmaier used a picture of the emperor Nero as an illustration. The picture is not Nero, “That is a remembrance of Nero.[43] Hubmaier insisted that “the Last Supper is nothing else than a remembrance of the suffering of Christ, what has given his body for our sake and shed his red blood on the cross for the cleansing of our sins.”[44]

While other Anabaptists held to similar beliefs, similar to what we hold today, that “the real body of Christ the Lord is not present in the sacrament,”[45]  and only those “united the one body of Christ”[46] should partake of communion, there were some who expounded further on what partaking of communion meant, in fact, they attached greater meaning and significance  than we do today. While virtually all of the communions that I have participated in focus on remembering what the Lord has done for us, many Anabaptists attached deeper meanings to communion.

Hans Denck pointed out that just as bread and wine, when eaten, supports the life of your physical body, the Lord’s body, when “chewed and spiritually eaten, that is, known and believed” will give life to your soul.[47]   Hans Schlaffer goes farther regarding fellowship.HHHHan

            One participating in communion is stating his desire to commit “himself to the community in . . . love and suffering, wealth and poverty, honour and dishonour, sorrow and joy, death and life, indeed, that he is ready to give life and limb for brothers, as Christ gave himself for him.”[48] One wonders what would happen today if ministers in American churches started teaching this level of  commitment regarding communion. Some Anabaptists allegorized communion saying that the bread Jesus broke was the gospel and the wine was Jesus’ suffering.[49]  A Christian receives the bread when he receives the gospel message and receives the cup when he physically suffers for Christ.

            Riedemann explained that Jesus instituted communion to demonstrate to his disciples the unity of the body of Christ that they were now part of. That “as the bread is made a loaf by the bringing together of many grains, even so we, many human beings, who were scattered and divided, of many minds and purposes are led by faith into one . . . that none other than this alone is Christ’s meaning.”[50]

            Finally, Menno Simons wrote that “if you would be a proper guest at the Lord’s table and . . . rightly partake of his bread and wine, then you must also be his true disciple . . . and upright, pious, and godly Christian. . . . He has left this sacrament with you in order that you might by it faithfully observe and carefully conform yourself to the mystery represented by this sign or sacrament. . . .the matter represented by it, if rightly understood and fulfilled in actions, constitutes a sincere Christian.[51] 

The ideas represented here clearly establish the fact that Anabaptists believed that communion was not the mystical event as described by the Catholics nor was Jesus actually present when the believer partakes of the bread and wine as taught by Luther. They clearly understood that communion was a time of remembrance of what Jesus did for believers. They also attached a strong idea of community and unity to communion and the willingness for the believer to partake in whatever the community experiences, even suffering and death.

History demonstrates that Anabaptists were not only willing to suffering and die for their beliefs, but did. Between the years 1525 and 1618, 845 it is known that 845 Anabaptists were executed.[52]  Of those executed, 790 were executed between the years 1525 and 1539. Of the 790 executed between 1525 and 1539, about one-half were executed in the Hapsburg territories. Why did the Hapsburg territory consist of the largest numbers of executions and why were 94% executed in the first 14 years of this period? 

The Hapsburg territories included areas such as Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, and Luxemburg.[53] Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during the early part of the sixteenth century,[54] was also Catholic and issued various edicts to stem the spread of Protestantism and especially Anabaptism.[55]  This would certainly explain the large number of executions during the first fourteen years. The notable decrease of executions after 1539 may be due to Anabaptists recanting their faith, leaving the area, or going underground. Whatever the reason for the decrease, it was dangerous to be a professing Anabaptist in the first years.


Just looking at the sixteenth century Anabaptist’s views on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, one can see how radical the break was with both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran church. The severity of the break is seen in the early persecution and deaths of Anabaptist martyrs who took a stand contrary to both Catholics and Lutherans on many issues.  Rather than seeing baptism as a means of washing away original sin, and as a means of entering both church and society, the Anabaptists recognized from scripture that the rite of baptism was only for people who had made a conscious decision to follow the Lord. Their rejection of infant baptism placed them at odds with both the Catholics and the Lutherans who saw this as a challenge to both church and society.

Rejecting the Catholic’s view of communion as Christ being actually present in the elements, was attacking a Sacrament, a vehicle by which grace is conveyed to the participant. Any attack on a sacrament was seen as heresy which called for the heretic being put to death. It was not the Anabaptist view of communion which caused problems with Luther, it was their view on who was worthy to partake of it. Luther saw their view as impossible to meet therefore rendering communion worthless. Considering that either Catholics or Lutherans were in control of a province, and because of the Peace of Augsburg, anyone espousing or practicing a religion outside of the state-sanctioned religion (Lutheranism or Catholicism) were deemed at best trouble-makers, at worst heretics and thus persecuted to the death.

In spite of this, the Anabaptists did not disappear from the earth. Their legacy and beliefs are alive and well today in many parts of the world, including Britain, Europe, and the United States of America. There are about ¾ million Anabaptists in the world today; we do not know them as Anabaptists but as Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, the Brethren, and other names.[56] While Southern Baptists, as well as other Baptists, did not directly descend from Anabaptists, I feel we do owe some of our heritage to them. Their belief in what we know as believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper being a time of remembrance and thankfulness to Jesus comes directly from the teachings of the early Anabaptists. For their sacrifices, sufferings, and beliefs we should be thankful and honor them for what they have done and what they have passed on to us. Hopefully if the time comes for Baptists today to take a stand on God’s word, we will be able to do so as faithfully as did the early Anabaptists who did not fear him who could only kill the body. I will close with the first and last  verse from a sixteenth century Anabaptist hymn which shows their absolute confidence in God’s word for ever.


Rejoice, rejoice, ye Christians all,

and break forth into singing!

Since far and wide on every side

The Word of God is ringing.

And well we know, no human foe

Our souls from Christ can sever;

For to the base, and men of grace,

God’s word stands sure for ever.

Praise God, praise God in unity,

Ye Christian people sweetly,

That He his word has spread abroad –

His word, his work completely.

No human hand can him withstand,

No name how high soever;

And sing we then our glad Amen!

God’s word stands sure forever. [57]


[1] Michael D. McMullen, Baptist History Lecture, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO, 26 July, 2005.

[2] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1963), 1.

[3] Ibid, 7.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] A disputation was an invitation to debate in which a student/scholar would post points in the form of theses on a bulletin board on the campus.

[7] Ibid, 9-10, quoting A.J.F. Zieglschmid, Die alteste Chronik der Hutterischen Bruder(New York: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1943), p.47.

[8] Estep 10.

[9] McMullen, Baptist History Lecture, 26 July, 2005.

[10] Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism in Outline, (Kitchener, Ont.; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 162.

[11] As quoted by John Allen Moore, Anabaptist Portraits, (Scottdale, PA & Kitchener, Ont: Harold Press, 1984), 195.

[12] Ibid, 97.

[13] As quoted by Klaassen, 165.

[14] As quoted by Klaassen, 166 – 167.

[15] Peter Riedemann, Account of Our Religion, Doctrine and Faith, Given by Peter Riedemann of the Brothers Whom Men Call Hutterians, Translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg, Suffolk, England, 1950, as quoted by Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism, A Social History,1525 – 1618, (Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press, 1972), 99.

[16] Clasen, Anabaptism, A Social History, 1525 – 1618, 95.

[17] Ibid, 103 - 104.

[18] Ibid, 104.

[19] Ibid, 451, footnote #32.

[20] Ibid.

[21] William R. Estep, Jr., ed.,  Anabaptist Beginnings (1523 – 1533), (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1976), 69.

[22] Clasen, 105. Allegedly, Wolfgang Uolimann “waded naked into the Rhine river at Schaffhausen” to be immersed by Grebel.

[23] William Balke, trans. by William J. Heynen, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 55.

[24] Ibid, 55.

[25] Ibid, 31.

[26] Ibid, 31.

[27] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. Charles V

[28] Ibid.

[29] Clasen, 358 – 359.

[30] Ibid, 360.

[31] Ibid, 361 – 362.

[32] Ibid 363.

[33] Ibid, 370.

[34] Ibid, 369.

[35] Leo Rosten, ed., Religions In America, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 357.

[36] Ibid, 356 – 357.

[37] Balke, 57.

[38] Klaassen, 190.

[39] Ibid, 191.

[40] Conrad Grebel, Letter to Muntzer, 1524, quoted in Klaassen, 191-192.

[41] Moore, quoting Hubmaier, 217.

[42] Hubmaier, as quoted by Moore, 217-218.

[43] Ibid, 218.

[44] Balthasar Hubmaier, The Sum of Christian Life, 1525, as quoted by Klaassen, 193.

[45] Michael Sattler, Trial, 1527, as quoted by Klaassen, 194.

[46] Sattler, Schleitheim Confession, as quoted by Klaassen, 195.

[47] Hans Denck, Recantation, 1527, as quoted by Klaassen, 195.

[48] Hans Schlaffer, A Pleasant Letter of Comfort, 1527, as quoted by Klaassen, 196.

[49] Attributed to Jorg Volk, 1528, as quoted by Klaassen, 197.

[50] Peter Riedemann, Account, 1542, as quoted by Klaassen, 202-203.

[51] Menno Simons, Distressed Christians, 1552, as quoted by Klaassen, 209-210.

[52] Clasen, 437.

[53] Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Vol. Two: The Reformation to the Present Day, (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1985), 94.

[54] Oxford Dictionary, s.v. Holy Roman Empire.

[55] Ibid, 95.

[56] McMullen, Lecture, July 26, 2005.

[57] Sixteenth century hymn, God’s Word Stands Sure Forever, by Balthasar Hubmaier, trans. by H.C. Vedder, as quoted by W.R. Estep, Jr., Anabaptist Beginnings, 169, 172.