Why the name Anabaptist?

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

I had a discussion with someone on Facebook a few months ago about believer’s baptism by immersion (a cherished Baptist belief). It became apparent we were not communicating when they didn’t understand why I shared my kinship with the Anabaptist as my spiritual ancestors and the name seems to indicate they were against baptism.

The reason for the name Anabaptist being given to them was the early reformers during reformation time called them that for this reason: They rejected infant sprinkling and believed baptism was only for believers in Christ by full immersion in water. The Anabaptist leaders discovered through reading the scripture that baptism in the New Testament was for believers by full immersion. So their practice caused them to contradict or oppose the traditional mode of the day of sprinkling infants.

The hotspots were in Northern Germany and particularly in Switzerland. The Anabaptist leaders such as Grebel, Hubmaier, Sattler, Simmons, Deneck, Manz all believed in justification by faith and welcomed the reformation view of being saved by grace through faith and not through works. They were all for the break with Catholicism. However, they felt Luther, Zwingli and Calvin later did not go far enough in teaching believer’s baptism by immersion and endorsing the practice. They also were opposed to state-controlled religion which costs several Anabaptist leaders their lives at the hands of Catholics and Protestants. Most notable was Zwingli’s ruthless persecution in Switzerland through these means. They also believed the local church was the primary teaching about the church in scripture as you assemble together as believers. For these differences the Anabaptist movement has often been called “the Radical Reformation”

Baptists today are sort of split concerning our affinity with the Anabaptist. The more Calvinistic Baptists say our origins are with the English Baptist around the early 1600’s under John Symth and Thomas Helwys. Officially they were more organized then with less persecution although initially some persecution still existed in England.  Others like myself still claim kinship with the orthodox Anabaptist group.

To be sure some of the Anabaptist were unorthodox and had unbiblical practices. Since Anabaptist had no central body, these beliefs were bound to differ even to the point of some being heretics. These views though do not represent the mainstream views of Anabaptist, however, that have survived today. The men I have listed earlier were not unorthodox when it came to basic Christian beliefs as compared to the other reformers like Luther and Calvin. We must not throw the baby out with the “immersion water”.

The Bible is abundantly clear that baptism of believer’s is by immersion. Jesus “came up straightway out of the water” after his baptism in Matt. 3:16. To identify with Christ in immersion seemed to be the standard practice of the church in Rom. 6:3-5. We also identify with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection with us through the practice according to Gal. 3:27 and I Cor. 15:3-4.

Baptism does not save you but it is important, I believe, to follow Christ through the kind of baptism Jesus had and the early church administered. Taken in this light the Anabaptist movement may not have been as “way out” and “radical’ as some have surmised. We are hard pressed to say this practice was not that important especially to the early Anabaptist martyrs. My manuscript: “Baptist Revival” has further information on the reason these committed believers were called Anabaptist.