The Anabaptist movement began in 1525 and was an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation is recognized as starting in October 1517, when an Augustinian monk nailed a document to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. The document on that church door challenged the mighty fortress that the Roman Catholic Church had become. Within days that document, which became known as the Ninety-Five Theses, had ignited the fire of reformation across Europe, perhaps to an even greater extent than Martin Luther himself had anticipated.
It was also in 1517 that another German-speaking priest was beginning to apply himself to a serious study of the New Testament. He was serving as people’s priest at Einsiedeln during that period of extreme wrestling with Biblical truth. By the time he accepted the call to serve at the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was determined to preach nothing but the Gospel.
Zwingli used preaching, teaching, and disputation to guide the progress of the Reformation in Zurich. His personality attracted a number of gifted young intellectuals who were interested in studying the Greek classics. In November 1521 a young scholar named Conrad Grebel joined Zwingli’s group of students. Grebel’s father was a member of the Zurich city council. The students were incredibly zealous for learning, which prompted Zwingli to introduce them to the Greek New Testament.
Zwingli’s students quickly became zealous for reform. However, a group of those students, including Grebel, went beyond Zwingli in their understanding of what Scripture teaches, particularly in regards to baptism. Zwingli and his former disciples engaged in a public dispute in January 1525. The city council declared Zwingli the victor and denounced the young radicals. The small band of radicals had three options. They could conform to Zwingli’s teaching, leave Zurich, or face imprisonment. Which would you have chosen?
Several days after the debate between Zwingli and his students, approximately a dozen men traveled through the snow to the home of Felix Manz, located near Zwingli’s Grossmünster. History was in the making as those men considered their next step. The events of that momentous night have been preserved in The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (A. J. F. Zieglschmid, Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, p. 47). These words seem to be from an eyewitness, generally thought to be Jörg Cajakob, who came to be known as George Blaurock.
“And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon them, yes, they were so pressed within their hearts. Thereupon they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Informer of Hearts, and they prayed that he would give to them his divine will and that he would show his mercy unto them. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to suffer on account of it.
After the prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained minister to perform such work.”
After his own baptism, Blaurock proceeded to baptize the rest of those present. The newly baptized believers pledged themselves to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, to be separate from the world, to teach the Gospel, and to maintain the faith. The Anabaptist movement had been born. This group, which came to be known as the Swiss Brethren, broke with the Roman Catholic Church to an extent that not even Luther and Zwingli had dared to approach. The Swiss Brethren sought to form a church according to the pattern they saw in the New Testament. This meeting was arguably the most revolutionary act of the Reformation.
The Swiss Brethren emphasized a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as being both essential for salvation and a prerequisite for baptism. This conviction about baptism being only for adult believers had not been arrived at recklessly or hastily. Rather, it was the result of an intense and earnest study of the Scriptures. Even though they were not able to convince Zwingli about the need for further reform, this small group of committed Christ-followers acted on their convictions by withholding their children from the infant baptism that continued to be administered by Zwingli and other Reformed preachers. In so doing, they risked imprisonment and death for the sake of Christ and the Scriptures.
The meeting on January 21, 1525 was the beginning of a movement. The worldwide Anabaptist church (which includes Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren, and related churches) now counts 1.77 million baptized believers in over 80 countries.
Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 3rd ed., revised and enlarged. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. Pages 9-15.