On those rare occasions when someone asks me whether I am a Catholic or a Protestant, I tell them, “Actually, I am neither; I am an Anabaptist.” Often this elicits a blank stare. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; “Anabaptist” is not a household word. But it is also a real shame that a movement that literally changed the world is not better known, especially among Christians.
In 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and about a dozen others baptized each other in the home of Manz’s mother in Zurich, Switzerland. This may not seem a big deal, but their simple act broke a thousand-year union of church and state, set in motion a revival that swept through Europe, and is considered the beginning of a what came to be known as Anabaptism.
If we fast-forward to today, there are about four million Anabaptists around the world. They include Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren members, German Baptists, and members of many other groups, including (of course) the Bruderhof – although we are a later branch on the Anabaptist tree, so to speak. If you are now imagining horses and buggies, suspenders and straw hats, these are only a tiny part of the picture. Today, there are more Mennonites in the Congo than in Canada. In fact, two-thirds of Anabaptists live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So what happened in the 495 years between Conrad Grebel and now? Well, quite a lot.
In very broad strokes, the Anabaptists were different from members of other churches because they believed (and still believe) that Christians should be free to live by their consciences, even if this means breaking the laws of the country in which they live. As you might expect, this attitude brought them into conflict with princes, kings, and lords. And which laws did they refuse to follow? With the exception of a violent group called the Münsterites (which came to a sad end), Anabaptists refused to take part in violence of any kind, which meant they would not join armies or even pay taxes that would fund wars. Unsurprisingly, this angered the nobility. They also refused to baptize their babies, pointing to their recently translated German-language Bible as a testament that believers should be baptized as adults. This angered both Catholic and Protestant church officials.
Mainly because of these two points of disagreement with society at large, the Anabaptists were hounded from one kingdom to the next, establishing communities and then having to uproot and move on again. They spread outward into Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), and elsewhere, even influencing the Baptist church that was in its infancy in England. Because of the ongoing persecutions, large groups of Anabaptists moved to North America: first the Amish and Mennonites in the 1700s and later the Hutterites in the 1800s. Meanwhile, missionary efforts (especially by the Moravians and the Mennonites) took Anabaptists to the farthest corners of the earth.
So how did the early Anabaptists change the world? Well, we can thank them for rediscovering adult baptism (which is now practiced by many Protestant churches as well); we can thank them for the idea of religious freedom, which has become important to Christians of all denominations and to people of other faiths too; we can thank them for rediscovering the idea of Christian nonviolence. We can thank them for insisting that the conscience is more important than the law of the land, for having the courage to reject fashion and wear simple clothing, for fostering Christian communities that are family-based rather than only for single men and women, for demonstrating that it really is possible to live a life where everything is shared, as described in the Book of Acts. All these things have changed the world more than we can imagine, and continue to do so.
Besides spreading these big and important concepts, Anabaptists have also come up with some very beautiful down-to-earth ideas. These include the Amish barn-raising, colorful patterned quilts, the beautiful Moravian star, not needing a church building, and holding worship meetings under the open sky, in “God’s cathedral.”
If someone had told Conrad Grebel that in five hundred years his actions would be inspiring Christians in war-torn Africa to stay strong in the face of persecution, what would he have said? He probably would have said “Praise the Lord!”
So, the next time someone asks you whether you are a Catholic or a Protestant, you could explain that there’s another option. It might lead to an interesting conversation.