Thoughts of a Living Christian

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A Catholic Journey: An Exploration of the Theological Journey Between the Two Vatican Councils


The Roman Catholic Church has been an ever-moving, ever-changing entity, with theological shifts marked by drama and often a great Council. The Council of Trent in the 16th century – a reaction to the Protestant Reformation – paved the way for the doctrines dogmatized three centuries later at the First Vatican Council, the 20th Catholic Council. Vatican 1 accomplished only two of its proposed 53 doctrines before the Council was abruptly ceased in 1870, but is associated with the dogmatization of papal infallibility and its heavy reaction to modernism and liberalism. Its decrees went practically unchallenged until the mid-war years of the 1920s and 1930s, when personal spirituality grew, as did the role of the laity in the church as a result. By the 1950s the church was battling a myriad of political and social shifts, and Pope John XXIII – expected to merely be a temporary pope – announced the Second Vatican Council in 1958 (to begin in 1962), to continue and finalize the First, and to influence the Church to open itself up to the world. This Council, the biggest in Catholic history, was remarkably influential, encouraging themes of ecumenism, ecclesiology and equality, among others. This essay analyses the historical and theological journey between these two important Councils, assessing what influenced their occurrences and theological declarations, before concluding with assessing the influence they have on the Roman Catholic Church today.

A Theological Journey

Regarded as occupying the throne of St. Peter longer than anyone except Peter Himself, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) began politically liberal before being removed from authority for 18 months after a revolution in the Papal States in 1848. Upon returning, his liberalism dramatically different, he only held control of the States until 1860 when the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, forced Pius to hand them all except Rome over to him.[1] Pius’ career is notably a reaction against modernism and liberalism, dogmatizing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in 1854, influencing Ecuador to declare Christianity as the only legal faith in 1862, and publishing Syllabus of Errors in 1864, in which he condemned rationalism, socialism, separation of the Church and state,[2] and the idea that “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion.”[3]

His reaction to modernism and liberalism is most obvious in the announcement of the First Vatican Council in 1867,[4] in response to the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars as well as questions surrounding the authority of the church.[5] As McIntire notes, “Vatican 1 sought to define authoritatively the church’s doctrine concerning the faith and the church, especially in response to new challenges from secular philosophical and political movements and theological liberalism.”[6]

Vatican 1 was to be the 20th Council, preceded by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was a reaction to the Protestant Reformation enhancing papal authority, elevating tradition and celibacy, reiterating the seven sacraments and emphasizing the propitiatory sacrificial nature of the transubstantiated Eucharist, among others. Vatican 1 was a push to dogmatize “the papal infallibility that was already inherent in the Council of Trent.”[7] 700 bishops were present for the opening of the Council in December 1869, with 100 from America and 60 from the Eastern Rite.[8]

Pius’ document Dei Filius, published on the third session of the Council hinted at his desire for a dogmatized papal infallibility, in which it states,

For the doctrine of faith, which God has revealed, is handed down, not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly declared.[9]

Some, such as Archbishop Manning and Bishop Senestrey appreciated this desire, vowing to see papal infallibility dogmatized,[10] but others, notably John Henry Newman and Johann Ignaz von Dӧllinger, attacked the idea. Newman argued the doctrine was being accepted too hastily and Dӧllinger argued that previous popes had disagreed with one another, hence the doctrine was contradictory.[11] The doctrine was, however, voted in on the 18th of July 1870 and Pastor Aeternus was published, stating,

We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra (that is, when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority), he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.[12]

The English representative in Rome, Odo Russell, in a letter to Lord Granville lamented, “the supreme absolutism of Rome at last [has] been obtained, established and dogmatized for which the Papacy has contended more than a thousand years.”[13] Any form of ecumenism meant returning to Roman Catholicism and “did not involve any real compromise with Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.”[14] The Council ended abruptly when Victor Emmanuel invaded Rome on the 20th of September 1870 to ensure a united Italy. Pius locked himself in the Vatican and excommunicated anyone involved in capturing Rome. The Council completed only two of the 53 proposed documents, and was adjourned indefinitely due to the Franco-Prussian War.[15]

The doctrines established at Vatican 1 remained unchallenged until the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite incredible social and political difficulties that these years brought, many Catholics cultivated spiritual lifestyles which led to a greater emphasis on and participation of the laity within the church. Further, the ever-encroaching modernism caused theologians to articulate a more individual and personal faith, including the encouragement of participation and individual study.[16] In 1923 Pope Pius XI suggested a council in response to World War One and in 1958 Pope Pius XII hinted at a council to conclude the work of Vatican 1.[17] Yet it was not until after he died that the idea of a council became a possibility.

With the gradual increase of laity participation, it seemed the church was heading in a somewhat liberal direction,[18] and the strong hierarchical structures dogmatized at Vatican 1 began to be seen as emphasizing inequality amongst church members, “not only because among the faithful some are clergy and some are laity, but because there is in the church the power from God by which it is given to some to sanctify, teach, and govern, and to others it is not.”[19] Theologians argued this structure was not existent until post-Apostolic times.[20]

After Pius XII died in 1958, the cardinals had difficulty in electing a new pope, and so elevated Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli to the position at 76 years old, who was merely expected to be temporary[21] and “keep the chair of Peter warm.”[22] He adopted the name John XXIII and desiring for the church to be more involved in the world, quickly announced the Second Vatican Council. 1959-1962 were thus awash with literature debating the announcement, such as the Bishop of Paderborn’s Ecumenical Council of the Church and Hans Küng’s Council, Reform and Renewal.[23]

The 1960s brought a great deal of changes in society, seemingly bringing a process of “dechristianisation.”[24] Catholics were divided on how to respond to these changes, but an element of pluralism became evident.[25] As a result, “the intention was not to erect a Berlin Wall around the faith…but to inaugurate a continuous process of internal debate, renewal and evangelisation,”[26] and opening itself up to the world, unlike Vatican 1 which closed itself.[27] The Council was to give a greater sense of identity in face of all this,[28] and 2540 delegates[29] met over four sessions between 1962 and 1965 to revolutionise the church’s approach to ecclesiology and ecumenism. John XXIII died after the first session, but Paul VI continued the Council.[30] In 1964 Euw wrote that the Council “is accomplishing a thorough re-formation…For the Protestant too this phenomenon should have great meaning,” and that “this Tridentine and post-Trent theology of the Church is being radically reappraised and ruthlessly revised by the Council.”[31]

The Council discussed a range of topics, including implementing a non-Latin liturgy,[32] tradition,[33] and as a result of the Council, 16 documents were published, with two in particular as being seen as “twin pillars”: Lumen Gentium (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) and Gaudium et spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”).[34] These two documents asserted, along with the other 14 documents, that the Church is a mystery, more so than an institution; a People of God, more than hierarchy; a servant; communion; ecumenical, rather than the Catholic Church as the only true Church; and an eschatological community, awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of God.[35] Lumen Gentium asserted that the laity are called to live in the world “by God so that by carrying out their own special function in the spirit of the gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world.”[36] Furthermore, Gaudium et spes, thoroughly aimed out at the world, finds at its core a sense of community,[37] and it is in these documents that Protestants were first recognized as Christian.[38]

McBrien helpfully compares the theological changes implemented by Vatican 2, particularly those implemented by Vatican 1:[39]

Pre-Vatican 2                                                         Vatican 2

Church as institution.                                         Church as mystery.

Church as hierarchy.                                          Church as People of God.

Mission: Word and sacrament.                       Mission: Word, sacrament and service.

Church as absolute monarchy.                       Church as communion.

One, true Church.                                                 Church as ecumenical community.

Triumphalism (Church as Kingdom).           Church as eschatological community.

Hence, quite a drastic shift is obvious.

Journey Since Vatican 2

Oviedo describes two parties who have responded negatively in the aftermath of Vatican 2. The first is the “Disappointed Party,” who expected much more than what eventuated; the second, the “Alarmed Party,” who felt too much was changing, too quickly.[40] Hagstrom notes that even today the teachings are not well known.[41] However, closer inspection will reveal that the Council influenced a lot. Smith argues that lots of activity, joint prayer gatherings and ecumenical discussions occurred immediately after.[42] The generation of Catholics of the time experienced “a sense of euphoria similar to the time of the Enlightenment…Many people in the Church felt a sense of freedom and progress as never before.”[43] Some ecumenical progress, albeit minimal, has been made. The Pope has met with Anglican leaders, evangelical protestants and has engaged with social and political issues.[44] It should, therefore, be seen that since Vatican 2, the Catholic Church’s engagement with ecumenism and with the world has increased. Furthermore, more laypeople are assisting services, and more Catholics are reading the bible for themselves.[45]

An influential thinker was Schillebeeckx. Perceiving a greater biblical slant in the documents of Vatican 2, Schillebeeckx poured over and incorporated recent biblical studies into his theology regarding the meaning of Christian faith.[46] Furthermore, he stated shortly after the Council, “The fundamental gain of this constitution is that it broke the clergy’s monopoly of the liturgy,”[47] and then, in 1989, “the co-responsibility of all believers for the church on the basis of our baptism and the Spirit essentially includes the participation of all believers in decisions relating to church government.”[48] Hence, he was influenced by Vatican 2’s encouragement of the ministry of the layperson.

Vatican 2 expressed openness to greater ecumenical discussion, furthered by theologians such as Schillebeeckx, among others in post-conciliar years. Gaudium et spes notes that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel,”[49] and “under the light of Christ…the Council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to co-operate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.”[50] McIntire argues that the solution to the divisions is not returning to Rome, but in an open future.[51] Furthermore, in light of the efforts made already, Sundberg is convinced there is a future for ecumenism.[52] Others agree, some going further to call for a Third Vatican Council.[53] The controversial Catholic writer, Hans Küng was among them, in 2001, arguing that the Church “should convene a Vatican 3, which will lead this church from Roman Catholicism to an authentic Catholicity.”[54]


The ambitious Pope Pius IX has clearly had significant and ongoing influence on the Church, even to this day. His reaction to a growing modernism and a push for the separation of church and state resulted in the First Vatican Council and its defining dogmatization of papal infallibility. The Council put in place strong hierarchical positions, which eventually made inequality within the Church to become obvious, and rejected any ecumenical approach that would entail acceptance of Protestantism as Christian. Though it was cut short in 1870, the main themes were picked up again at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, though through a different perspective. Initiated by Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, this Council responded to a growing need for the Church to open itself up with the world. The Church recognized Protestantism and Orthodoxy as Christian, encouraged ecumenism, elevated the role of the laity and deemphasized the hierarchical structure of the church. The Council’s influence has since encouraged a greater participation in political and social issues in the world and engaged in a greater amount of discussion with non-Catholics. The influence of these great Councils has been obvious and it is clear their influence will continue for many years to come.


Atkin, Nicholas, and Frank Tallett. Priests, Prelates & People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chadwick, Owen. Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Council, Second Vatican. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Melbourne: A.C.T.S Publications, 1964.

Council, Second Vatican. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965.

Council, Second Vatican. “Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Euw, Charles K. Von. “The Second Vatican Council: A First-Hand Report.” Andover Newton Quarterly 4, no. 3 (1964): 15-22.

Hagstrom, Aurelie A. The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2010.

Hill, Jonathan. The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Hudson plc., 2007.

Kennedy, Philip. Schillebeeckx. Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993.

Kung, Hans. The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Manschrek, Clyde L. A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964.

McBrien, Richard P. “If Pope Has Final Say, Why Fuss with Councils?” In Report on the Church: Catholicism after Vatican 2, edited by Richard P. McBrien. New York: HarperCollins Publications, 1992.

McBrien, Richard P. The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

McGrath, Alister. The Christian Theology Reader. 4 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

McIntire, C. T. “Vatican Council 1.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984.

McIntire, C. T. “Vatican Council 2.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984.

Neuhaus, Richard John. “What Really Happened at Vatican 2.” First Things October (2008): 23-27.

Oviedo, Lluis. “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008): 716-730.

Pius. “Syllabus of Errors.” In A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, edited by Clyde L. Manschreck, 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964.

________. “Dei Filius.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

________. “Pastor Aeternus.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Russel, Odo. “Russell to Granville.” In The Roman Question: Extracts from the Despatches of Odo Russell from Rome, 1858-1870, edited by N. Blakiston. London: Chapman and Hall, 1962.

Schillebeeckx, E. Vatican 2: The Real Achievement. London: Sheed and Ward, 1967.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Church: The Human Story of God. London: SCM Press, 1989.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008): 211-231.

Smith, Virginia. “Catholicism Welcomes the World.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

Sundberg, Walter. “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998): 172-78.

Wintz, Jack, and John Feister. “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

[1] Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc., 2007). 363.

[2] Clyde L. Manschrek, A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964). 366-68.

[3] Pius, “Syllabus of Errors,” in A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Church, ed. Clyde L. Manschreck(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1964). 372. In other words, that Protestantism was certainly not Christian.

[4] Manschrek. 368.

[5] Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 4 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 30.

[6] C. T. McIntire, “Vatican Council 1,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984). 1237.

[7] Manschrek. 115.

[8] Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett, Priests, Prelates & People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). 137.

[9] Pius, “Dei Filius,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 32.

[10] Atkin and Tallett. 137.

[11] Hill. 364. Dӧllinger sought a document rumoured to be held within the archives. This document, Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, was believed to be a daily handbook of the papal chancellery between 750 and 1050 and was believed to contain evidence that the 7th century Pope Honorius was guilty of heresy and implies his excommunication by later popes. Thus Dӧllinger wanted the document to further his argument against papal infallibility. Following the Council, there was much controversy surrounding the documents held within the Vatican Library and Archives. When the Italian army invaded in 1870, it was feared that either a) the documents would fall under State ownership and thus sensitive material would then become public knowledge, or b) Vatican officials would destroy any sensitive documents before they were made public. All documents henceforth were impossible to get to, and so Liber Diurnus was never used against the doctrine of papal infallibility, despite the archives eventually opening under Pope Leo XIII (Owen Chadwick, Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). 72 – 108.

[12] Pius, “Pastor Aeternus.” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 432.

[13] Odo Russel, “Russell to Granville,” in The Roman Question: Extracts from the Despatches of Odo Russell from Rome, 1858-1870, ed. N. Blakiston(London: Chapman and Hall, 1962). 459.

[14] Atkin and Tallett. 138.

[15] Ibid. 139-140. Cf. McIntire. 1237.

[16] Atkin and Tallett. 232-33.

[17] Ibid. 289.

[18] Ibid. 233.

[19] McGrath. 389. Furthermore, as Hagstrom discusses, laity were seen as merely children, not the subject of conciliar teaching for 400 years, (Aurelie A. Hagstrom, The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2010). 11) and insisted with greater fervour that Roman Catholicism was the only source of true salvation, (Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). 8).

[20] McGrath. 389.

[21] Atkin and Tallett. 289.

[22] Hagstrom. 10.

[23] Atkin and Tallett. 290. This announcement came as a shock to many, as McBrien wrote on July 15, 1966, “The Second Vatican Council must have been a puzzling phenomenon for the Catholic who had always regarded the Church as an absolute monarchy. After all, in 1870, the First Vatican Council defined the infallibility of the pope. Presumably that should have been the council to end all councils.” (Richard P. McBrien, “If Pope Has Final Say, Why Fuss with Councils?,” in Report on the Church: Catholicism after Vatican 2, ed. Richard P. McBrien(New York: HarperCollins Publications, 1992). 3).

[24] Atkin and Tallett. 265.

[25] Ibid. 266.

[26] Ibid. 265.

[27] Ibid. 292. As Atkin and Tallett argue, “Vatican 1 in 1870 was an exercise in trench-digging, an attempt to establish the Church as a fortress against an unregenerate and irreligious outside world. Vatican 2 was conceived less as an event than as an initiation of a process which would harmonise the Church and the political and social environment,” (ibid. 292).

[28] Hill. 434.

[29] Including over 1000 from across Europe, 956 from America, 279 from Africa, 300 or so from Asia and a surprisingly small 20% were Italian, traditionally the most prominent, (Atkin and Tallett. 291).

[30] McGrath. 78.

[31] Charles K. Von Euw, “The Second Vatican Council: A First-Hand Report,” Andover Newton Quarterly 4, no. 3 (1964). 15.

[32] Which received great criticism from Conservatives who argued Latin united people from many nations and changing it would remove the mystique. This change was pushed heavily by those involved in missions, such Duschak from the Philippines who argued that mass should have any European elements entirely stripped away and should be available for inter-faith services, (Atkin and Tallett. 292-93). The document Sacrosanctum Concilium, published during the 2nd session of Vatican 2 offered a series of theological statements as well as practical recommendations regarding the Eucharist, linking the sacrament with the everyday life of the church, (Second Vatican Council, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 486-87).

[33] Which, contrarily to Trent, was decided as being important in biblical interpretation, but not another source of revelation, and hence not equal to the Bible, (Atkin and Tallett. 293).

[34] McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. 153, 182.

[35] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Melbourne: A.C.T.S Publications, 1964). and Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965).

[36] Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. n.31. This clearly sets Vatican 2 apart from Vatican 1 and Trent.

[37] Cf. Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. n.19, 22 and 32.

[38] McIntire, “Vatican Council 2.” 1240.

[39] McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. 181.

[40] Lluis Oviedo, “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?,” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008). 716.

[41] Hagstrom. 1. Hagstrom argues this is so, “because the sixteen documents produced by the council are not exactly beach reading.” (p.1).

[42] Virginia Smith, “Catholicism Welcomes the World,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 44.

[43] Oviedo. 718.

[44] For example, in 1966 the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Church met with Pope Paul VI to establish the “Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission,” which has published several publications since formulation. (Peter-Ben Smit, “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008). The ARCIC published The Church as Communion in 1990, The Gift of Authority in 1998, and in 2007 released a document on ecclesiology. (ibid. 213.).

In 1994, the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants published a joint document on ecumenical ecclesiology. (Walter Sundberg, “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?,” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998). 176.

In 1979, the Pope visited America, where he stated, “I want to greet all Americans without distinction. I want to tell everyone that the Pope is your friend and a servant of your humanity.” (Jack Wintz and John Feister, “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 6). The Catholic Church engaged with social and political issues, in 1983 on war and peace, 1986 on US economy, and 1999 and 2003 on civil responsibility. (ibid. 7).

[45] Wintz and Feister. 6. Interestingly, as laity involvement has increased, ordained ministers have decreased.

[46] Philip Kennedy, Schillebeeckx (Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993). 13, 67.

[47] E. Schillebeeckx, Vatican 2: The Real Achievement (London: Sheed and Ward, 1967). 27.

[48] Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (London: SCM Press, 1989). 209.

[49] Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. n.4.

[50] Ibid. n.10.

[51] C. T. McIntire, “Vatican Council 2,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001). 1240.

[52] Sundberg. 176.

[53] Richard John Neuhaus, “What Really Happened at Vatican 2,” First Things October, no. (2008). 24.

[54] Hans Kung, The Catholic Church: A Short History (New York: Modern Library, 2001). 200.


Christianization of African Slaves in North America


The colonists of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted slavery to help build the early American colonies. From 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, thousands of Africans were brought to America into slavery, yet little evangelism occurred. Slowly, masters would teach slaves of Christ, until Africans were able to establish their own churches. This essay seeks to analyze the rise of Christianity amongst African slaves with some reflections for the contemporary church.

Christianity Amongst African Slaves in North America

In 1619, the Dutch first brought Africans to Virginia, originally as indentured servants, but when found to be excellent workers, soon became permanent slaves, in the form of chattel slavery.[1] African slaves were easily marked by skin color,[2] leading to racial discrepancies. Hence, there was very little evangelistic effort toward African slaves at first, Christianity being a minor issue for many colonists, and went unquestioned for some time.[3] Some Quakers and German Mennonites went unheeded when they raised concerns regarding slavery in Pennsylvania in 1688,[4] but “the greed of national and colonial leaders was more in evidence than concern for Christian faith and mission.”[5]

The major issue pertained to the question of civil emancipation in the act of baptism, which, to some, conveyed social freedom.[6] On the issue, the Virginia General Assembly adopted an act in 1667, stating that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffree-dome,”[7] based on the belief that spiritual liberty is separate to civil freedom, a doctrine of “transcendent freedom.” Some even saw them as less than human.[8]

Between 1650 and 1700, the slave population grew dramatically, from 300 to over 6000 slaves in Virginia.[9] Despite major evangelical efforts toward these slaves didn’t begin until mid-18th century,[10] the first decade of the 18th century saw Samuel Sewell publish “The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial”[11] and Francis le Jau instruct and baptise slaves.[12] The Great Awakening in the 1730s was the first wide scale attempt at evangelizing slaves,[13] Methodism being popular due to the active approach of preachers welcoming slaves into the congregation. Volunteer black preachers were largely influential in spreading Christianity to other slaves.[14] Many believed Christianity was a good form of social control over slaves,[15] but according to Noll, “When they found…that the Bible had more to say about Jesus lifting burdens than slaves obeying masters, blacks discovered a secret their masters did not want them to know,”[16] and African church attendance grew dramatically.

In 1757, the antislavery Quaker John Woolman lamented, “These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being,”[17] and by 1776 he had persuaded the Quakers to officially become antislavery. Furthermore, several purely African churches were established, such as a Baptist Church at Silver Bluff, South Carolina and the African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.[18] In 1777, the African Richard Allen received freedom and became a Methodist preacher and arriving in Philadelphia, he said, “I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instructing my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people.”[19] While at St. George’s Methodist Church, he and some friends were humiliated, so left to establish the Free African Society, the first establishment by blacks for blacks.[20]

In 1787, the Northern States declared slavery as illegal, with John Leland, an antislavery leader in Virginia stating that “slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature.”[21] By 1820, African churches were even sending missionaries to Africa.[22] However, many Southern States remained proslavery, and as a result of the North rejecting slavery and the British Empire abolishing it in 1833, as well as pressure after the revolt initiated by Nat Turner, the South hardened its slave codes. Thomas Dew and Richard Furman argued for theological reasons for slavery,[23] and tension between the North and South grew around this religious debate over the validity of slavery,[24] until 1861 when civil war broke out until 1865, bringing defeat for the South and abolishment for all America.[25]

Contemporary Significance

The two most significant questions that the contemporary church faces is 1) whether or not racial prejudices or social status differences influence our evangelistic effort, and 2) whether there are any practices the church finds acceptable today, but may find unacceptable in 100 years. In either case a major lesson to be learnt is to avoid allowing differences climax into war. However, this is obviously difficult if not impossible. The church must seriously analyse itself regularly in order to stop seemingly small issues developing into large issues that become universally acceptable, yet are doctrinally incorrect. This self-criticism must regularly be aimed toward how people approach racial and cultural differences, with an eye toward avoiding racial bigotry.

[1] G. T. Miller, The Modern Church: From the Dawn of the Reformation to the Eve of the Third Millenium (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997). 131; Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992). 77; Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). 15. Chattel slavery refers to the state in which a master owned a slave’s body like one would own cattle, horses, etc. (Miller. 131).

[2] Miller notes, “If white servants escaped, they melted into the general population; however, wherever Africans went, people recognized their bondage or, if legally free, their former bondage. Escaped slaves were easily rounded up and returned,” (p. 131).

[3] Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007). 295; Noll. 77; Miller.132.

[4] Noll. 77.

[5] Handy. 4.

[6] Charles H. Lippy, “Slave Christianity,” in A People’s History of Christianity: Modern Christianity to 1900, ed. Amanda Porterfield(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007). 297. Cf. Miller. 132.

[7] Quoted in Handy. 70.

[8] J. Earl Thompson, “The Contradictions of Liberty,” Andover Newton Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1976). 165. Miller expands, arguing that some thought the church should only look after humanity’s spiritual needs, hence pastors shouldn’t be involved in political matters, (p. 136).

[9] Handy. 70.

[10] Hill. 333.

[11] Miller. 137.

[12] Noll. 79. Francis wrote in October 1709, “On Sunday next I design God willing to baptise two very sensible and honest Negro Men whom I have kept upon tryal these two Years. Several others have spoken to me also; I do nothing too hastily in that respect. I instruct them and must have the consent of their Masters with a good Testimony and proof of their honest life and sober Conversation: Some Masters in my parish are very well satisfied with my Proceedings in that respect: others do not seem to be so; yet they have given over opposing my design openly; it is to be hoped the good Example of the one will have an influence over the others,” (Noll, p. 79).

[13] Miller. 132.

[14] Harry V. Richardson, “Early Black Methodist Preachers,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 3, no. 1 (1975). 1-3. Fountain discusses why Christianity was so successful among African slaves, concluding that a huge influence was the similarities Christianity had with African traditions. Monotheism, the symbolism of water, prayer, song and a belief in an afterlife were very easily accepted by most, allowed them to incorporate their own traditions into the Christianity being preached to them, (Daniel Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). 19-20). Furthermore, Lippy similarly notes that the spirituality of the Africans was so strong that it wasn’t difficult for them to believe in the Christian God, but formed a Christianity of their own, incorporating elements such as the “Ring Shout” into services, which developed into call-response style sermons and preachers would often walk around the congregation, as would people in the congregation, (Lippy. 295-297).

[15] Miller. 133. Cf. Noll. 78. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or marry, and were sometimes even bred for profit (Miller. 132-134).

[16] Noll. 79.

[17] John Woolman, “John Woolman’s Journal,” in Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Douglas V. Steere(Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984). 184

[18] Miller. 137.

[19] Quoted in Noll. 201.

[20] Ibid. 202. Other influential people include Lemuel Hayes, who was the first African to be ordained in a predominately white church, but retired in 1818 after racial antagonism (ibid. 200). Another was Jupiter Hammon, one of the first African preachers to have his writings published, which included poetic expression “to encourage slaves to know and expect that they had every equality in the salvation of Jesus Christ,” (Sonda O’Neale, “Jupiter Hammon and His Works: A Discussion of the First Black Preacher to Publish Poems, Sermons and Essays in America,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 9, no. 1 (1982). 99).

[21] Quoted in Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960). 365.

[22] Noll. 204.

[23] Their reasons were largely based on texts such as Paul’s letter to Philemon, and they argued that God cannot permit anything immoral, hence the fact that he permits slavery means that is, in fact, moral.

[24] Miller. 138-140.

[25] Hill. 442-444.

Epistle to Diognetus 5.1-6.10

We read this at college the other day, in a unit on the church. I found it particularly interesting, so I hope you enjoy it too! The author and recipient (or, at least, intended recipient) are unknown and was written 2nd century. It is considered one of the first apologetical texts of the church. Enjoy!


5.1. For Christians have been distinguished from other persons neither by country nor by language nor by customs. 2. For nowhere do they dwell in cities of their own, nor do they use any strange dialect, nor do they strive for a peculiar lifestyle. 3. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by some intellect and thought of the curious, nor are they proponents of human dogma as some are. 4. Rather, while dwelling in both Greek and barbarian cities, according to the lot which has fallen to each, and following local customs as regards clothing and food and the rest of life, they display the marvelous and admittedly strange character of their own citizenship. 5. They live in their own countries, but as aliens. They participate in everything as citizens, but they endure everything as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign country. 6. They marry just like all persons do and they beget children, but they do not discard unwanted children. 7. They set a common table, but they are not promiscuous. 8. They live out of their lot “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” 9. They spend their time on earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven. 10. They obey the established laws, but they surpass the laws in their own lives. 11. They love all persons, and yet they are persecuted by all. 12. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they come back to life. 13. They are poor, and yet they enrich many; they lack everything, and yet they have plenty of everything. 14. They are dishonored, and yet they are praised in the dishonors. They are blasphemed, and yet they are justified. 15. They are reviled, and yet they are blessed; they are insulted, and yet they honor others. 16. Though they do good, they are punished as evildoers; though they are punished, they rejoice as those who come back to life. 17. They are fought by Jews as foreigners and persecuted by Greeks; and those who hate them cannot give the reason for their enmity.

6.1. To say it simply, what a soul is in a body, that is what Christians are in the world. 2. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout all the cities of the world. 3. A soul dwells in the body, but is not “of the body”; and Christians dwell in the world, but they are not “of the world.” 4. The soul, though invisible, is guarded in the visible world, but their devotion remains invisible. 5. The flesh hates the soul and wages war against it, but it does it no harm, because it is hindered for indulging in its pleasures; and the world hates Christians, but it can do them no harm, because they resist its pleasures. 6. The soul loves the flesh, which hates it, and also the limbs; and Christians love those who hate them. 7. The soul has been confined to the body, but it itself sustains the body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, but they themselves sustain the world. 8. The sould dwells immortal in a mortal tent; and Christians dwell in corruptable things awaiting incorruption in heaven. 9. When badly treated as to food and drink, the soul does better; and when buffeted day by day, Christians increase still more. 10. God has appointed them for such a commission which it is not right for them to refuse.

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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