Are Contemporary Baptists related to 16th Century Anabaptists?

July 22, 2014

by Ron F. Hale

Why did there need to be a group of Free Church people called Baptists?

By the 4th Century, Constantine, and his successor Theodosius, had wedded the power of the state government to the spiritual role of the church. As this earthly force evolved, it imposed Christendom onto men by the power of civil law and had the authority to exterminate you if you rebelled.

Many early Christian beliefs and practices of the apostolic age were lost to a sacramental system that dispensed grace at the will and method of payment of the state-church.

After reviving the lost New Testament practice of believer’s baptism, Anabaptists were hunted by the state-run churches because this endangered the very “entrance” to the Church. Refusing to have your newborn baptized into the Church was not a rejection of a denomination or a local Church; it set into motion a full-throated judicial- law enforcement system that could pronounce you a heretic and burn you to ashes in the name of Almighty God.

By the thousands, Anabaptists were slaughtered into oblivion—well, almost.

Those of us “carrying water” for believer’s baptism and a simple non-sacramental Lord’s Supper can claim kinship with either the “fruit” of their doctrine or the “root” of their descendants from the 16th century.

Modern day Mennonites have a clear kinship to the Radical Reformers called Anabaptists—but what about any contemporary Baptist group? Proceeding on, I wish to share the work and wisdom of two respected Southern Baptist scholars of Anabaptistica and our remarkable similarities to the early Anabaptists.

Clearly, our mode and meaning for baptizing believers has stout Anabaptist resemblance. Our historic struggle for religious liberty in the New World bears the image of the persecuted Anabaptists. Our distaste for the ecclesiology of a state-run church still causes those Baptists among us who have studied church history to break out in holy hives just as it did Hubmaier, Grebel, Manz, Marpeck and others.

Undoubtedly, we do not and have never baptized infants! On this point alone, one could reasonably assume that modern day Baptists have connectionalism more so with the Radical Reformers due to their historic emphasis on believer’s baptism than with the Magisterial Reformers and their continuance of the Roman Catholic practice of baptizing babies.

Research, books, and essays over the last 75 years has revealed a strong identification with our Anabaptist friends, while the “DNA blood test” continues to be scrutinized each year as new documents are found and translated from German, Dutch, and Latin into English. Tragically, the books and written materials by many early Anabaptists were burned along with the bodies of these men and women.

Dr. Paige Patterson’s opening sentence in his chapter of the book The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists maintains: “The perennial discussion concerning the origins of the contemporary Baptist movement has been adjudicated to the satisfaction of most scholars in favor of an English nativity and the fecund womb of seventeenth-century separatism.” Yet, he quickly adds that Baptist historians Robert A. Baker and William R. Estep join a minority chorus with a discordant note, insisting that paucity of written historical records should not obscure the remarkable similarities between Baptists and many of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century.[1]

Allow me to share a historic snapshot comparing the “remarkable similarities” of contemporary Baptists to many of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century.

Author William R. Estep brings to light an almost forgotten disputation between the Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists) with the established leaders of the Reformed Church of Bern. In 1538, the discussions took place over a six-day period on various subjects of which “baptism” was a heated point.

The Anabaptists were mostly unschooled laymen but with great biblical understanding and memorization. Many of the early Anabaptist clergy and theologians had already been burned at the stake or drowned in the rivers of Europe. The learned Doctors of theology found the Anabaptists to be a worthy match.

On the subject of infant baptism, the Swiss Brethren set forth these principles:

First – the nature of baptism rules out the possibility of infant baptism. New Testament baptism requires prior conviction for, and repentance of, sin, and faith in Christ.

Second – baptism is a symbol and not a sacrament. It has no meaning where faith in Christ is absent.

Third – Christ has set for us an example through his own baptism.

Fourth – through the Great Commission, he has explicitly commanded us to teach and baptize.

Fifth – baptism is not analogous to circumcision.[2]

After 476 years, do you know any Baptist theologians, pastors, or laymen who would disagree with these Anabaptists on the cherished subject of believer’s baptism?

In the end, I would join with Drs. Patterson and Estep that advocating for a trail of Baptist successionism back through the Anabaptists to the apostolic age is not necessary. However, contemporary Baptists should be very thankful to the early Anabaptists for committing to the authority of Scripture (over church tradition). This is our true connection!

Standing on the authority of the Scriptures gave the Anabaptists the courage to withhold their babies from the state-church font, contend for believer’s baptism and a non-sacramental Lord’s Supper–while seeking to reform the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church—and while trying to stay alive long enough to raise their families in a … Free Church!

Until Jesus comes—may contemporary Baptists lifeguard the treasures the Anabaptists had the courage to reintroduce to the Faith once delivered to the Saints! If we do not—who will?

© Ron F. Hale, July 14, 2014

[1] Paige Patterson, “What Contemporary Baptists Can Learn from the Anabaptists” in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists”, (ed. Malcolm B. Yarnell III; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 11.

[2] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptists, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 206. An expanded explanation of each point in found on p. 206-207.