Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

The Persecution of Anabaptism: 16th Century Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist Perspectives


The Anabaptist movement is one part of the Reformation that is shrouded in controversy and questionable motives. Appearing early in the 16th century, the radical movement grew out of teachings by the Protestant preachers Zwingli and Luther. Protestantism was rapidly gaining strength, and Anabaptism emerged as a radical extension of the Reformed theologies. They rejected infant baptism and civil authority[1], and “though Anabaptists were recognized as Christians, their status as heretics in the eyes of all of the emerging confessions nonetheless pushed them to the religious and political boundaries”[2]. Eventually, the true colors of Anabaptism shone, and were persecuted from virtually all angles.

This essay will discuss this persecution, concentrating on the three greater persecuting groups, Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. Part one will discuss firstly the 16th century context, particularly in regard to the treatment of sects considered heretical, followed by an overview of Anabaptism; part two will discuss the theology and reasoning behind the persecution of the radical movement.

Part One – Historical Context

The Context of the 16th Century

When studying history, it is vital one does not allow his or her own presuppositions effect the interpretation. The 16th century was an unsettling period; the Protestant religion, enforced by such theologians as Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, was growing in rapidity, and the power that the Roman Catholic Church possessed was dwindling. The idea of free thinking was spreading, allowing for “enthusiasts…spiritualists, fanatics, and Anabaptists”[3] to appear.

These Anabaptists were persecuted, for (a) their theology, deemed unacceptable by Catholic and Protestant theologians, and (b) as a result of 16th century political philosophies[4]. These philosophies included execution of those considered heretics[5]. Furthermore, Lindberg argues, refusal of infant baptism was a “capital offense since the days of Roman law under the emperors Theodosius and Justinian”[6].

Anabaptism is generally acknowledged to have come out of Zurich. At that time, Switzerland had no standing army. Instead, all citizens were expected to bear arms when required. It was considered a civil liberty, as were tithes and taxes[7]. In addition, the Catholic Church and the State often worked together. Eire regards the relationship between the two, arguing that they often used one another for their own gain, but would generally stay out of the realm of the other[8]; arguably, a symbiotic relationship.

According to Walker, pre-reformation heretical sects were often tortured and executed. He even goes so far as to compare the treatment of these sects with the treatment of contemporary terrorists[9]. It can be surmised, therefore, that heresy was feared as a threat not only to the Roman Catholic Church, but also to the state itself. Government authorities were in a position to deal with heretics – as defined by the Roman Catholic Church – however they felt necessary.

As will be discussed, neither the actions nor theology of the Anabaptism movement were compatible within its context.

The Radical Anabaptism Movement

The origins of this radical sect are unclear and diverse, but a major centre for Anabaptism arose out of Zurich, influenced inadvertently by Zwingli. Zwingli, having been inspired by the writings of Luther, was a primary reformer in Zurich, who believed that, in order to implement the new church, the authority lay with the State[10]. Hence, the reformation took longer than Zwingli’s students would have liked.

One of these students in particular, Grebel, “was deeply disappointed by Zwingli and the magistrates’ slowness in ‘cleansing’ the churches”[11]. A smart, wealthy man, Grebel eventually began to question Zwingli’s teachings. Slowly he and a small following separated themselves and held services of communion independently[12]. Grebel was totally pacifist, “a consequence of Grebel’s still more basic conviction as to the captaincy of Christ over the true milites Christi, recruited for service as a suffering church, making an ideal of absolute nonviolence”[13].

The role of the civil government increasingly became a topic of heated debate. While Zwingli was content to be patient, his radical students became impatient, refusing infant baptism. Eventually the Anabaptists were banned from assembling and discussing their views by the Zurich city council[14]. Furthermore, the council ordered that all unbaptized infants be baptized, under threat of banishment[15]; “those therefore who have hitherto allowed their children to remain unbaptised, must have them baptized within the next week: and whosoever will not do this, must with wife and child, goods and chattels, leave our city, jurisdiction, and dominions, or await what will be done with him”[16]. As a response, these radicals met at the village of Zollikon that evening – 17th January 1524 – where they baptized each other[17]. Despite calling themselves the Swiss Brethren[18], they were labeled ‘Anabaptist’, a derogatory term “applied to those who believed that only adults able to make a profession of faith may be baptized”[19].

Felix Mantz owned the house outside of which the first Anabaptists were baptized. Along with Grebel, Mantz studied under Zwingli, who even commended Mantz on his grasp on Hebrew[20]. Mantz continued to grow in popularity and influence, developing his radical theology, despite his ideas being rejected.

Zwingli believed Mantz to be creating too great a division within society, who pressed for his new community of elite believers; a church completely separate from state and society. It was generally accepted that “a community without a common ideology was not only at the mercy of one that was united…but was also subject to a civil war that could imperil the very existence of the state”[21]. As stated earlier, 16th century Switzerland (and most of Europe, for that matter) enjoyed a close relationship between the church[22], the people and the state. This included bearing arms, paying taxes and tithes, swearing oaths and infant baptism – all of which the Anabaptists rejected. Due to rejecting traditions such as these, an act not only considered heretical but a violation of citizenship[23], Zwingli saw them as a threat; “he regarded these evangelicals as quarrelsome, envious, back-biting, and hypocritical extremists who lacked charity and undermined the government”[24].

Because of the threat that they posed, persecution on the Anabaptists quickly increased, in an attempt to stifle the movement. As persecution increased, so did the resistance of the Anabaptists, who interrupted sermons – both Catholic and Protestant alike. Eventually, Zwingli and the Council of Zurich, in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of Anabaptism, decreed that many Anabaptists be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes even drowned[25]. On January 5 1527 Mantz was the first to be executed by drowning. Mantz’s persecutors believed drowning was appropriate, as “against the waters of baptism he sinned…so by the water shall he die”[26]. After Mantz, thousands more were executed[27].

Up until this point, the Anabaptists were pacifists, “perfect quietists, preaching the duty of non-resistance and the wickedness of bearing arms, even in self-defense”[28]. However, this was not the case amongst all Anabaptist groups. Inspired by an Anabaptist preacher, Rothmann, the city of Münster was declared by many millennial Anabaptists to be the New Jerusalem[29].

What is arguably the culmination of the persecution endured by the Anabaptists, this North German village was witness to the constitutional and eschatological Anabaptism turn from pacifism to a militant community, attracted to Old Testament prophecy. In particular, Rothmann became obsessed with seeing in the New Jerusalem, located at Münster[30]. Despite being Lutheran initially, Rothmann grew in his radical nature, and by 1534 held a great deal of influence and began preaching his ideas of goods, as he would “emphasize Christian stewardship and the duty of the Christian to use his possessions for the common good”[31]. Later that year, he was rebaptized and went on to baptize fourteen hundred citizens[32].

Eventually the city essentially adopted an attitude not dissimilar to modern communism and grew violent, demanding any who would not accept the radical beliefs be banished or killed[33]. In 1535, the prince-bishop of the area besieged Münster. However, when he “massed his troops to besiege the city, these Anabaptists defended themselves by arms” and “as the siege progressed, even more extreme leaders gained control…they claimed that Old Testament ethics still applied, and thus they felt justified in reintroducing polygamy”[34]. June 1535 heralded the slaughter of Münster; the attackers “were convinced that persecution was the only way of containing [the] potential violence”[35], seeing the Anabaptists as being more violent than anyone else.

The Münster debacle was the climax to the Anabaptist persecution, but was not the conclusion to it. The Anabaptist beliefs continued, albeit far less radical, in Menno Simons, who continued the movement discreetly, spreading the movement elsewhere. Anabaptism never received any persecution on the same level as before, but nor did it attempt to overrule Catholicism or Protestantism as the movement once tried[36].

Part Two – Theological Context

The Differing Theologies

Oyer argues that the Reformers believed the Anabaptists to be sectarian, separating themselves without reason and becoming excessively subjective. They “turned the reconciling work of God into a subjective human response to that work of God”[37], and the Catholics blamed the Reformers for the emergence of Anabaptism, who called Anabaptists “schismatics”[38].

Zwingli found their theologies to be contradictory, Luther found their entire organization confusing[39], Calvin labeled them as “poor fools”, “scatterbrains”, “ignoramuses” and “enemies of government”[40], and the Catholics associated them with the Devil, labeling them “messengers of the Antichrist”[41].

The closest that the Anabaptists had to a confession of faith was the Schleitheim Confession of Faith (1527), but even this was not completely accepted. In this confession, there were seven statements as outlined below[42]:

  1. Baptism. Reserved for those who truly understand repentance and the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
  2. The Ban. Those not living a ‘Christian’ life – i.e. those who are seen to be living in sin, rather than in Jesus’ resurrection – are banished from the community of believers.
  3. Communion. After being baptized, being united with the body of Christ, a person may participate in communion, a ritual remembering Jesus’ unifying work of atonement.
  4. Separation. The church must establish itself as distinct from society and the state, and all Christians may not associate themselves with anyone not of the Church[43].
  5. One Pastor. There is one leader of the church, who has the authority and responsibility to ban, admonish, teach and lead prayer.
  6. Pacifism. As Jesus Christ is the Christian’s only protector, the sword is a wicked tool of the devil, and the only forms of discipline may be the ban and the command to sin no more.
  7. Oaths. No Christian can partake in taking oaths, as Jesus forbade it Himself. This is to insist on the perfection of the Law, rather than civil authority.

Sattler was the instigator of this confession, but was burnt at the stake later that year. By 1540, it was accepted that discipline was an important conviction, emphasizing a daily Christian walk, shaped purely by Jesus’ teachings, which was a major influence on the above seven convictions. Out of this the theme of love developed, hence establishing themselves as completely pacifist[44].

These theologies erred with Catholicism on several accounts. Baptism, in particular, was an important differentiation. The Catholic Church believed that “regardless of our age at Baptism, we continue to be similarly connected to that event with a bond that transcends conscious memory… ‘The water, which is the divine experience . . . now holds us, owns us,’ says Fragomeni. ‘It is the power of God into which we are baptized.’”[45] Thus, you are baptized through Christ’s power to wash away sins and continue to grow in your understanding of atonement and baptism. Contrary to this, the Anabaptists – as stated above – believed that baptism came after one was properly able to understand it, as an adult. Baptism was a sign of a renewed community, as the body of Christ, and true baptism was an inner baptism by the Spirit, leading to the symbolic act of water baptism[46].

Regarding baptism, Luther argued that the Anabaptist position “displaces God’s grace by the work of faith, and thus brings back the uncertainty of salvation prevalent under the papacy,” who believed “the good news of the sacrament of baptism is that God chooses the sinner, not vice versa”[47]. Further he argued that the Anabaptists used eloquent words to convince others that because water can only touch mere skin, the water does not wash away sin[48]. Furthermore, baptism is “indispensable and foundational for Christian life and ecclesial community”[49] and the purpose of baptism was to “save, that is, to deliver one from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the Kingdom of Christ and live with him forever”[50]. Regarding the taking of oaths, he believed that despite Christ telling us we should not swear oaths, we can read Abraham’s swearing to his king not as a sin, but as a sign of respect to authority. Thus, “the authority of the civil government must not be lowered in our estimation, as the foolish mob of the Anabaptist raves”[51].

Calvin, despite having little first-hand contact with Anabaptists[52], labeled the Anabaptists as ignorant, stating that “these vermin differ from all other heretical sects in that they not only err in certain points, but they give rise to a whole sea of insane views”[53]. He was astounded by the varying nature of the different Anabaptist groups, who had “so many absurd views that it is a marvel how creatures who bear the human figure can be so void of sense and reason as to be so duped and fall victim to such brutish fantasies”[54]. For Calvin, infant baptism was a far older tradition than the Catholic Church, but in fact had divine origins[55]. Furthermore, he states that:

Scripture shows, first, that it points to that cleansing from sin which we obtain by the blood of Christ; and, secondly, to the mortification of the flesh, which consists in participation in his death, by which believers are regenerated to newness of life, and thereby to the fellowship of Christ…it is also a symbol to testify our religion to men.[56]

It is therefore evident to see that Calvin believed baptism to be both a beginning of relationship with Christ, and a growth activity, contrary to the Anabaptist belief, who saw baptism as the ritual occurring as the culmination of one’s daily walk with Christ.

Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists all believed the church and state were compatible, and “believed that the visible church embraced all professing Christians”[57]; both theologies contrary to the Anabaptist position, which stated that the state and society were evil. Due to their radical beliefs that baptism symbolized a Christian’s fulfillment in Christ, thus becoming able of living sinless lives, they did not embrace all who professed to be Christians, banishing those not seen to be living a sinless lives[58].

The Persecution Considered Justifiable

Due to these contradictions in theology, culminating in the Anabaptist attempt to usher in the New Jerusalem, they were deemed heretical by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Furthermore, due to their disturbances of civil authority, and essentially refusing citizenship, the state became wary of them, and then threatened by them as they took control of Münster. Hence, they were being persecuted from all angles.

The Catholics, Lutherans and Calivinists all “at least agreed in perceiving the Anabaptist groups as a threat to sixteenth-century society”[59]. Anna Bijns, a Catholic poet and teacher stated that the “Anabaptists had come to epitomize the dangers of heresy”[60], but believed that the persecution should go further than what Luther was comfortable with. Advocating that heresy deserved death, she argued that if God had not wanted the executions to occur, he would have sent a sign[61]. When this sign did not appear, the persecution continued.

Bullinger, an adamant follower of Zwingli, hated the Anabaptists, accusing them of excessive spiritualism and literalism in biblical interpretation. The Lutheran, Melanchthon, believed that all Anabaptists be executed, taking Luther’s evaluation to the next step. Another Lutheran, Menius, “hated the Anabaptists and thought their leaders should be executed”[62]. Despite initially resisting the use of force, Luther came to believe that “hell was sufficient punishment for the Anabaptists”[63]. While the Catholics demanded the death penalty for Anabaptists, being the major instigators of execution, all Protestant groups demanded expulsion, imprisonment and occasionally execution[64]. Luther believed them to be “not mere heretics but open blasphemers; are rulers are in duty bound to punish blasphemers”[65].

As discussed above, heretics were executed, to refuse infant baptism was a capital offense, and refusing to pay taxes, tithes and bear arms was essentially a rejection of citizenship. The persecutors of the Anabaptists thus felt themselves to be justified.


The Anabaptists were subject to great persecution from the Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics. Emerging from a difference in theology out of Zurich, Anabaptism spread rapidly, preaching seven major themes, outlined in the Schleitheim Confession of Faith. Their major theological differences consisted of the rejection of infant baptism and their separation from state and society, an action considered a capital offense. These theological differences had great consequences, including the execution of thousands, as heresy was punishable by death.

The persecution culminated at Münster, where the Anabaptists took control violently, establishing a government similar to communism, and separated themselves from the surrounding churches and civil authority. Attempting to usher in the New Jerusalem, through eschatological interpretations primarily based in the Old Testament, the Anabaptists grew in violence and eventually both Catholics and Protestants united to destroy these radicals.

A violent period in a tumultuous time in Christian history, the persecution of Anabaptism was deemed justified by all religious authorities of the time, and by the state, who were threatened by the Anabaptists and pressured by the Catholics and Protestants. Despite seeming archaic by us in the 21st century, the persecution was considered at the time the best response to Anabaptism.


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.

Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618. London: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Dinn, Jim. “Make a Splash at Sunday Mass.” U.S. Catholic April (2005): 24-27.

Dowley, Tim, ed. The History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 1977.

Eire, Carlos M. N. War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Farley, Benjamin Wirt, ed. John Calvin: Treatises against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines. USA: Baker Book House Company, 1982.

Gassmann, Gunther, and Scott Hendrix. The Lutheran Confession. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Institute, Christian History. “Zwingli and Calvin.” Worcester, PA: Vision Video, n.d.

Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant. Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Lindberg, Carter, ed. The European Reformations Sourcebook. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Vol. 1 (Genesis 1-5), Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Missouri Concordia Publishing House, 1958.

Matheson, Peter, ed. Reformarion Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Pollmann, Judith. “”Each Should Tend His Own Garden”: Anna Bijns and the Catholic Polemic against the Reformation.” CHRC 87, no. 1 (2007): 29-45.

Smith, Preserved. Reformation in Europe. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Walker, Greg. “Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England.” History Today May (1993): 42-48.

Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.

[1] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

[2] Peter Matheson, ed. Reformarion Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007). 233.

[3] Lindberg. 199.

[4] Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618 (London: Cornell University Press, 1972).

[5] Christian History Institute, “Zwingli and Calvin,”  (Worcester, PA: Vision Video, n.d.).

[6] Lindberg. 215.

[7] Ibid. 204.

[8] Carlos M. N. Eire, War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 285-287.

[9] Greg Walker, “Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England,” History Today May, no. (1993). 42.

[10] Lindberg. 212.

[11] Ibid. 212.

[12] George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962). 91-99.

[13] Ibid. 99.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lindberg. 214.

[16] Carter Lindberg, ed. The European Reformations Sourcebook (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). 130.

[17] Tim Dowley, ed. The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 1977). 401-402.

[18] Williams. 122.

[19] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 200. The term literally means re-Baptists.

[20] Williams. Zwingli even recommended Mantz become lecturer in Hebrew.

[21] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 201.

[22] Depending on the canton, there was either a focus on Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. In Zurich, the emphasis was on Protestantism, as taught by Zwingli.

[23] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 215.

[24] Ibid. 201.

[25] Walker. 216.

[26] Christian History Institute.

[27] Dowley, ed. 404.

[28] Preserved Smith, Reformation in Europe (New York: Collier Books, 1962). 85.

[29] Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973). 6.

[30] Williams. 362.

[31] Ibid. 367-368.

[32] Ibid. 368-369.

[33] Klaassen. 6-7.

[34] Dowley, ed. 404.

[35] Klaassen. 7.

[36] Dowley, ed. 405.

[37] J. S. Oyer, “The Reformers Condemn the Anabaptists” (paper presented as a public lecture at the Young Center for Pietist and Anabaptist Studies, Elizabethtown (PA) College. Feb 23rd 1995) 3-15. 5.

[38] Ibid. 5.

[39] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 200.

[40] Benjamin Wirt Farley, ed. John Calvin: Treatises against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines (USA: Baker Book House Company, 1982). 16.

[41] Judith Pollmann, “”Each Should Tend His Own Garden”: Anna Bijns and the Catholic Polemic against the Reformation,” CHRC 87, no. 1 (2007). 37.

[42] Lindberg, ed. The European Reformations Sourcebook. 133.

[43] This is very reminiscent of the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, of which Jesus and his apostles attempted to amend. The fact that the Anabaptists insisted on similar exclusivity is not surprising, however, as they placed much emphasis on the Old Testament.

[44] Dowley, ed. 402-403.

[45] Jim Dinn, “Make a Splash at Sunday Mass,” U.S. Catholic April, no. (2005). 25.

[46] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 208.

[47] Ibid. 208.

[48] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 1 (Genesis 1-5) (Missouri Concordia Publishing House, 1958). 160-161.

[49] Gunther Gassmann and Scott Hendrix, The Lutheran Confession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999). 94.

[50] Ibid. 97.

[51] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol 4 (Gen 21-25) (Misouri, Concordia Publishing House, 1958). 78.

[52] He made contact when some Anabaptists arrived in Geneva from the Netherlands in 1537 who asked for two disputations with Calvin and his good friend and companion Farel through the year. Both times the favour swung drastically away from the Anabaptists who were promptly banished by the Geneva council. In Strassburg, Calvin encountered and even converted a few more before returning to Geneva. (Farley, ed. 21-22).

[53] Ibid. 39.

[54] Ibid. 40.

[55] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989). 529.

[56] Ibid. 530.

[57] Lindberg, The European Reformations. 202.

[58] Ibid. 202.

[59] Ibid. 200.

[60] Pollmann. 36.

[61] Ibid. 37.

[62] Oyer. 4.

[63] Clasen. 381.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol 13 (Selected Psalms 2) (Misouri, Concordia Publishing House, 1958). 61.

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