At times of historical celebration, there is often debate as to the veracity of classical interpretations of a movement’s beginnings. Such a debate is with us again, as we begin to commemorate the significance of the Reformation itself, in general, and the significance of one aspect of this general Reformation, the faith movements of Anabaptism. With this in mind, the question arises: Do we still hold to the traditional view that the earliest known incident of genuine Anabaptist (adult baptism) action within the Reformation context took place in Zurich, Switzerland, in January 1525?
As for the beginning point of the Reformation, the traditional interpretation is that it took nothing other than one simple action of Martin Luther, supposedly tacking a broadside of 95 theses onto the Wittenberg door of All Saints’ Church that morning of Oct. 31, 1517, to ignite a brand-new movement within Western history, called the Reformation. The ground had been well-prepared over the preceding years — there was much debate — but only through Luther’s action was the spark ignited.
As for the beginning point of Anabaptism, the traditional interpretation is that it took nothing other than one simple action of Conrad Grebel, baptizing George Blaurock on Jan. 21, 1525, to ignite a brand-new Anabaptist movement which countered the movements of Luther, Zwingli and Catholicism. The sixteenth-century Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren recounts the story of how Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him, which Grebel then proceeded to do, with the Chronicle then going on to interpret this action as follows: “This [moment of action] was the beginning of separation from the world and its evil ways.” The ground had been well-prepared over the preceding years — there was much debate — but only through this specific action was the spark ignited.
Indeed, Conrad Grebel, through his act of baptizing Blaurock, became known in Switzerland as “the first Anabaptist.” In 1538, in a Bern disputation, the Reformed (state-church) preacher, Peter Kuntz, asked Anabaptist Hans Hotz: “What church commissioned the first Anabaptist, Conrad Grebel?” Hotz answered: “Grebel was the first to teach me, and I realized and perceived that he believed and followed what he taught me. I also found that it was in accord with the testimony of Scripture. I therefore accepted him as one who was commissioned by God.” Hans Hotz’s testimony 10 years earlier, in 1528, speaks further to Anabaptist beginnings, that “Blaurock was the first to have taught him, thereby strengthening him — along with Feliz Mantz” — the second and third prominent leaders within the movement. Hotz’s testimony documents unswerving continuity within this Swiss Anabaptist movement, going back to when the “first Anabaptist, Conrad Grebel,” baptized George Blaurock, most likely on Jan. 21, 1525, a movement that continues to this day.
Wherein lies the significance of the 1525 birth of this Swiss Reformation-era Anabaptism? In 1525, the act of baptizing, outside the protocol of the established church, was a sectarian act, splitting up society’s established corpus christianum. The very act of adult baptism, in and of itself, separated this fledgling minority movement from general society’s established church, and was thus seen as a criminal act, subject to the severest penalties. Dare we bypass its significance, and opt for a later time of synthesis as some are currently suggesting — say, the act of Schleitheim which eventuated in a written brotherly agreement in 1527 — as being the birthing point of an Anabaptist movement which would have continuity through the centuries?
There seems to be good reason to stay with 1525 as the point of Anabaptist origins, even if, between 1525 and 1527, during a time of widespread spontaneous growth of the Anabaptist movement, there were outliers who digressed from the faith and practices of the original Zurich group. Hotz himself testified post-Schleitheim, obviously understanding the defining moment of Swiss Anabaptism to come in that momentous year of 1525 through the efforts of Grebel, Mantz and Blaurock.
True, the Schleitheim Agreement of 1527 was an attempt to identify the primary motifs of Anabaptism, in seven points. And true, this agreement became a central document for ongoing Anabaptism through the centuries. Yet in comparing the 1527 agreement with the letter that Grebel sent to Thomas Müntzer in 1524, we also find direct theological continuity regarding what the primary Anabaptist motifs consist of — centering in the affirmation of a gathered community of disciples who seek to live out and model the nonviolent and forgiving love of Jesus.
The strength of the Schleitheim Agreement is found in its confirmation of the living faith as expressed by Grebel, Mantz and Blaurock. But how could this be otherwise, when Michael Sattler, the main writer of Schleitheim, himself had been taught by those who founded the movement? Michael Sattler, namely, had been with Grebel, Mantz and Blaurock in Zurich, in November 1525.
In the 21st century we take the cardinal principle of religious liberty for granted, along with the idea and reality of a separation of church and state. In the 16th century, however, it would not only have been difficult for a citizen — or magistrate — to even understand, but it also would actually have been utterly inconceivable for one to imagine a well-functioning society where church would be separate from the state, or even where the established (state) church would accept other faith groups as legitimate within their geographic jurisdiction. A voluntary (free) church separate from the state was unheard of and religious liberty disallowed.
Roland H. Bainton writes: “The Anabaptists anticipated all other religious bodies in the proclamation and exemplification of three principles which are on the North American continent among those truths which we hold to be self-evident: the voluntary church, the separation of church and state, and religious liberty.” And here, it was not for Martin Luther to espouse these, by now, self-evident principles. Indeed, he cried out in 1523: “vnd vnter tausent kaum eyn recht Christ ist” (“among a thousand there is hardly one true Christian”). And a year earlier he exclaimed: “Es feylet aber an leutten, die datzu tuglich sind” (“However, the people are missing who in this regard are virtuous”). For Luther, one in a thousand was not yet enough to launch a thorough-going Reformation. On the other hand, in Zurich, on Jan. 21, 1525, a small handful of these one-in-a-thousand individuals of virtue, intent on following Jesus together, dared to act, touching off a unique Reformation movement which endures to this day.
Leonard Gross is executive director emeritus of the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church.