Why the Term “Anabaptist”?

September 1, 2011

By 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 he didn’t understand why I shared a kinship with the Anabaptists as my spiritual ancestors, or that the name “Anabaptist” might indicate being against baptism.

The reason the name “Anabaptist” was given to them because of their beliefs about baptism, about which they felt the early reformers and Catholics had ignored Scripture. They were called Anabaptists because they rejected infant sprinkling and believed baptism was only for believers in Christ, normally by full immersion in water. Thomas White says, “They were rebaptizers because they viewed second baptism as the first legitimate baptism.”[1] The Anabaptist leaders discovered through reading the Scripture that baptism in the New Testament was for believers. So their practice caused them to contradict or oppose the traditional mode of the day — sprinkling infants. Despite their first staggering attempts at pouring instead of immersion most eventually believed immersion was the only sufficient mode of baptism.

The hotspots were in Northern Germany and particularly in Switzerland. The Anabaptist leaders such as Grebel, Hubmaier, Sattler, Simmons, Denck, and Manz all believed in justification by faith and welcomed the reformation view of being saved by grace through faith and not through works. They all favored the break with Catholicism. However, most of the Swiss movement (viewed as revolutionaries) later said that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did not go far enough in teaching and endorsing believer’s baptism. Hubmaier endorsed complete religious freedom to decide this crucial matter without government coercion.[2]

The perceived “radicals” also were opposed to state controlled religion, which cost several Anabaptist leaders their lives at the hands of Catholics and Protestants. Most notable was the ruthless persecution by Zwingli in Switzerland. The Anabaptists believed that Scripture alone should be the primary authority for the local church, rather than maintaining many Catholic traditions as did the magisterial Reformers. The Anabaptist movement has thus often been called “the Radical Reformation.”

Baptists today are sort of split concerning our affinity with the Anabaptists. Some Baptists say our origins are with the English Baptists from around the early 1600s under John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who were more organized and suffered less persecution. Others, like me, still claim kinship with the orthodox Anabaptist groups.

Anabaptists were a diverse movement with no central authority, which led to some Anabaptists advocating unorthodox beliefs and (on a few occasions) unbiblical practices. These views, though, do not represent the mainstream views of Anabaptists that have survived today. The men I have listed earlier were orthodox 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 through the practice according to Gal. 3:27 and I Cor. 15:3-4.

Baptism does not save you, but it is important to follow Christ through the kind of baptism that Jesus had and the early church administered. Taken in the light of these truths, the Anabaptist movement was not as “way out” and “radical’ as some have surmised. They were just more biblical that the magisterial reformers. We are hard pressed to say this practice was not that important, especially to the early Anabaptist martyrs.[3]

[1] Taken from Thomas White, Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological seminary and editor of the “White Papers” devoted to Baptist identity and history in response to my initial article July 12, 2011.

[2] Ibid. The Anabaptists’ advocacy of religious liberty was spelled out in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.

[3] My manuscript Baptist Revival has more information on the reason these committed believers were called Anabaptist. For more information about the Radical Reformation, check out William R. Estep’s The Anabaptist Story.

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Richard Klassen

Thank you for your balanced comments on your relationship with Anabaptism. I have seen a lot of misunderstandings through the year but thankfully in later years there has been a growing understanding of what is true Anabaptism.
As a lifelong Anabaptist, however, I take a bit of issue with your statement that most Anabaptists switched to immersion baptism. I know many do but personally I know more that baptize by pouring than by immersion. I was baptized by pouring and as a pastor that continues to be my main method as well, although I sometimes immerse as well.
A few years ago I had opportunity to do a study of the mode of baptism for a course I was taking. I found that the evidence for immersion is not nearly as overwhelming as Baptists claim. The fact of Jesus coming out of the water is in itself not a proof either way. All of the pictures dating back to the early church show baptisms in which they both stand in the water and the baptizer scoops up water and pours it on the head of the new believer. Similarly, other evidences were not as clear as often maintained – space is too limited here to go into all the details.
The thing is that we do not wish to persuade others to necessarily follow our methods but that we would at least be acknowledged as the genuinely baptized believers that we are. Or is it actually works that saves us? (You are only saved if you do the right work of being immersed.)
Generally speaking I find that Anabaptists tend to have a deeper and fuller theology of baptism because we place so little emphasis on the method and rather concentrate on the meaning. As an example of this I remember a few years ago seeing a Baptist booklet on instruction in preparation for baptism. It had one page about baptism, of which about three-quarters was about the mode and the rest about meaning. In our own similar booklet we have one sentence about mode and the rest is about the meaning.

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