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(Greek ana, again, and baptizo, baptize; rebaptizers).

A violent and extremely radical body of ecclesiastico-civil reformers which first made its appearance in 1521 at Zwickau, in the present kingdom of Saxony, and still exists in milder forms.

Name and doctrinal principles

The name Anabaptists, etymologically applicable, and sometimes applied to Christian denominations that practise re-baptism is, in general historical usage, restricted to those who, denying the validity of infant baptism, became prominent during the great reform movement of the sixteenth century. The designation was generally repudiated by those to whom it was applied, as the discussion did not centre around the question whether baptism can be repeated, but around the question whether the first baptism was valid. The distinctive principles upon which Anabaptists generally agreed were the following:

Origin and history

The question of the validity of baptism appears in two great phases in ecclesiastical history. The first controversy raged at an early date (third and fourth centuries) and regarded the minister of the sacrament (baptism conferred by heretics). It was at a much later date that the second discussion originated, in which the subject of infant baptism was the point controverted. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Petrobrusians rejected infant baptism and they and many subsequent medieval heretics (Henricians, Waldenses, Albigenses, and Bohemian Brethren) held views resembling in some respects the tenets of Anabaptists. There is, however, little if any historical connection between the Anabaptists and those earlier sects. Luther's principles and examples exercised more influence over the new movement. Private interpretation of the Scriptures, however, and inward teaching by the Holy Ghost could be claimed by any individual, and logically led to the extreme Anabaptist views.

Anabaptism in Saxony and Thuringia (1521-25)

Nicholas Storch, a weaver (d. 1525) and Thomas Münzer, a Lutheran preacher (c. 1490-1525), together with the other self-styled "Prophets of Zwickau" made, at the Reformation, the first attack on infant baptism. The doctrines of the absolute equality of all men and complete community of goods and the resulting disturbances soon brought them into conflict with the civil authorities of Zwickau. Storch, before any repressive measures were taken against him, left with two associates for Wittenberg (1521), where he continued his preaching. Carlstadt was soon gained over to the cause. The combined agitation of Carlstadt and Storch at Wittenberg, and Carlstadt's iconoclastic proceedings forced Luther to leave the Wartburg and appear on the scene. He preached against the new apostles with such vehemence that they had to leave the city. Storch until his death at Munich travelled through Germany, spreading his doctrines, especially in Thuringia (1522-24) where he was one of the principal instigators of the Peasants' War. Münzer rejected infant baptism in theory, but retained it in practice. He was expelled from Zwickau (1521) and went to Bohemia, where he had but little success as a propagandist. In 1525 he came as preacher to Alstedt (Electoral Saxony) and married a former nun. He was soon surrounded by a large following, introduced a German religious service and attacked Luther as well as the then existing order of things. His sojourn at Mühlhausen (Thuringia), which was interrupted by a journey through the south of Germany, was equally successful. Henry Pfeifer, an apostate monk, who became his co-labourer at Mühlhausen, had prepared the ground for the new gospel. Münzer and Pfeifer became absolute masters of the city, and crowds of peasants and burghers who, discontented with prevailing conditions, flocked around them, pillaged and devastated the surrounding country. To quell the insurrectionary movement John, the Elector of Saxony, Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, and Henry, Duke of Brunswick, united their forces and attacked the peasants, led by Münzer at Frankenhausen (1525). The insurgents were utterly defeated. After the battle Münzer was discovered at Frankenhausen in a bed in which he had hidden, and was delivered up to the executioner. He received the sacraments of the Catholic Church before his death, while his associate Pfeifer, still impenitent, underwent the death penalty (1525).

The Swiss Anabaptist Movement (1523-25)

Like Luther, Zwingli, the originator of the Reformation in Switzerland, soon found more radical competitors. In 1525 some of his associates separated from him and preached rebaptism and communism. The party found two capable leaders in John Denk and Balthasar Hubmaier. Its following, recruited especially from the working classes, became considerable, not only in Switzerland, but also in southern Germany and Austria. Augsburg, Nuremberg, and, at a later date, Strasburg became the chief centres of the movement. Resistance to its spread came from two sources. The Anabaptists' teaching added substantially to the causes of the Peasants' War which broke out (1524) in the very territory where the Anabaptists had carried on their propaganda. As a consequence the defeat of the peasants (1525) meant, to a great extent, the dispersion of the Anabaptists. On the other hand, some town councils as that of Zürich (1526) decreed the severest penalties against their adherents. Still in spite of defeat and constant repression, the sect continued to live.

The Anabaptists in Münster (1533-35)

The spread of the Anabaptists in lower Germany and the Netherlands must largely be ascribed to the activity of Melchior Hofmann, a widely travelled furrier. The arrival of some of his disciples (Melchiorites) at Münster in Westphalia (1533-34) marks the beginning of the most extraordinary period in the history of the Anabaptists and the city of Münster. In the latter, Bernard Rothmann a chaplain, and Knipperdollinck a cloth-merchant, had already succeeded in diffusing Lutheran ideas. They joined the Anabaptist movement, of which John Matthys or Matthiessen, a former baker, and John Bockelsohn or Bockold, a Dutch tailor (more generally known as John of Leyden), became two great local representatives. Knipperdollinck was elected burgomaster (February, 1534) and the city passed under the complete and unrestricted control of the partisans of rebaptism. Münster, instead of Strasburg, was to become the centre of the projected conquest of the world, the "New Jerusalem", the founding of which was signalized by a reign of terror and indescribable orgies. Treasures of literature and art were destroyed; communism, polygamy, and community of women were introduced. Rothmann took unto himself four wives and John of Leyden, sixteen. The latter was proclaimed King of the "New Sion", when Francis of Waldeck, Bishop and temporal lord of the city, had already begun its siege (1534). In June, 1535, the defence became more and more hopeless, and John, as a last means of escape, determined upon setting fire to the city. His plan was frustrated by the unexpected capture of the town by the besiegers (24 June, 1535). The King, his lieutenant Knipperdollinck, and his chancellor Krechting were seized, and after six months' imprisonment and torture, executed. As a terrible warning, their bodies were suspended in iron cages from the tower of St. Lambert's church.


The Anabaptists in England

Along with the fanatic element, there was always in the Anabaptist party a more pacific current represented especially by its Swiss adherents. The effect of the fall of Münster and of the determined repression of Anabaptists by Catholics, Lutherans, and Zwinglians alike, was the very pronounced and ultimately complete elimination of the violent features of the movement. Menno Simonis, formerly a Catholic priest, who joined the party in 1536, exercised a beneficient influence in that direction. The very name Anabaptists was superseded by others, particularly that of Mennonites. It is under the latter designation that the Anabaptists exist today, principally in Holland, Germany, and the United States. Another result of the capture of Münster seems to have been the appearance of the Anabaptists in England, where they come into frequent notice shortly after this time and continue to be mentioned during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their following there was in all probability largely composed of Dutch and German refugees. The penalties of death and banishment enforced against them prevented the sect from acquiring importance. The Anabaptists' teaching respecting infant baptism was adopted by the English and American Baptists.


Kerssenbroch, Anabaptistici furoris monasterium inclitam Westphaliae metropolim evertentis historica narratio, ed. Detmer (Münster, 1899, 1900); Cornelius, Geschichte des m nsterischen Aufruhrs (Leipzig, 1855, 1860); Janssen, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes (Freiburg and St. Louis, Mo., 1897) II, 231-238, 394-416, 557-571, III, 109-121, 326-351, tr. Hist. of the German People (St. Louis, Mo., and London, 1900, 1903), III, 256-263, IV, 87-117, 217-222, 291-310, V, 150-165, 449-485; Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism from the Rise of Pedobaptism to A.D. 1609 (Philadelphia, 1897), with extensive bibliography, 395-406; Idem, A History of the Baptist Churches in the United States (New York, 1894), in Amer. Church Hist. Series, II, 1-56; Bax, Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (London, 1903); Burrage, A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland (Philadelphia, 1905); Tumbult, Die Wiedert ufer (Leipzig, 1899).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1907). Anabaptists. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Anabaptists." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert H. Sarkissian.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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