Why I Don’t Freak Out About the Anabaptists

I have surprised some folks in the last few days by arguing that I believe some Continental Anabaptists likely had some theological influence on the first English Baptists. This doesn’t really surprise me. As previously noted, most contemporary historians reject (or at least downplay) any connection between Anabaptists and Baptists. It probably also surprises some readers that I am a Calvinist who thinks we probably learned (or at least resonated with) a thing or two from the very non-Calvinistic Anabaptists.

I thought I would follow-up my case for a convergent view of Baptist origins (see here and here) with an explanation of why I don’t fret over the strong possibility of some Anabaptist influence upon the first Baptists. To that end, I offer the following qualifications:

Qualification 1: When I speak of Anabaptists, I do not mean every group that would be considered part of the so-called radical reformation. In his magisterial The Radical Reformation, George Huntston Williams divides the radical reformation into three broad categories: Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Evangelical Rationalists. The groups that comprised the latter two categories were mystical, heretical, or both.

William Estep furthered the discussion in his excellent The Anabaptist Story by differentiating between “normative” Anabaptism and radical aberrations. The normative Anabaptists included movements and individuals like the Swiss Brethren, Balthasar Hubmaier, Menno Simons, and Pilgram Marpeck. In my courses, I refer to these as mainstream Anabaptists. The Dutch Mennonites who interacted with the English Baptists were heirs to the normative/mainstream Anabaptist tradition(s).

So when I refer to Anabaptists, I do not mean antipedobaptist revolutionaries like Thomas Müntzer or the Zwickau Prophets or tragedies like the Münster Rebellion. The antipedobaptist revolutionaries did not actually embrace believer’s baptism; they simply rejected infant baptism. In other words, they were not actually Anabaptists. In the case of the Münster Rebellion, that was actually an apocalyptic movement that was an aberration among Anabaptists, who of course tended more toward pacifism and separatism.

Here’s a good historical axiom we should all heed: one should never define movements by their lunatic fringe or worst moments. Though the analogy is not perfect, it seems to me that those who dismiss all Anabaptists because of the Peasant’s Revolt or the Münster Rebellion are like those who dismiss Calvinism because Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva. It just doesn’t hold water.

Qualification 2: When I speak of Anabaptist influence, I am speaking primarily about matters related to ecclesiology. Mainstream Anabaptists embraced some theological oddities and even heterodoxies. The community of goods, the ban, and pacifism are oddities, at least in my mind. Menno Simons’ belief in the so-called “celestial flesh of Christ” (which he picked up from the apocalyptic Melchior Hoffman) was heterodox.

As a general rule the earliest Baptists rejected community of goods, the ban, and pacifism. They also rejected the Anabaptist idea that Christians could not serve as magistrates. Some of the early (and later) General Baptists regrettably followed Menno’s bizarre Christology, which to me is clear evidence of influence by, or at least affinity for, Anabaptism.

Though the early Baptists disagreed with the Anabaptists on any number of points, they did embrace Anabaptist-like ecclesiology. Of course they agreed with the Anabaptists on believer’s baptism. But Baptists also agreed with Anabaptists on regenerate church membership, congregational church polity, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience. Now admittedly these latter Baptist/Anabaptist distinctives were also found among the English Separatists. But that doesn’t really matter because I am not arguing that Baptists “got” any of their convictions–even baptism–from the Anabaptists. I merely contend that the Anabaptists influenced the Baptists, even if they were also influenced by the Separatist movement. In fact, I think the Anabaptist influence was less significant and substantive than the Separatist influence. But there is a difference between “less” and “none.”

Qualification 3: When I speak of the relationship between Anabaptist ecclesiology and Baptist ecclesiology, I am not suggesting that the latter uncritically appropriated the practices of the former. This was obviously not the case. For example, the earliest General Baptists practiced believer’s baptism by pouring, just like the particular Anabaptist sect that influenced them. But as early as 1614 you had General Baptists like Leonard Busher arguing for immersion, a view that at the very least he did not get from the Anabaptists that had influenced his congregation (they poured). Besides this example, I have already mentioned other ecclesiological variations like Baptists not forbidding believers to serve as magistrates and rejecting the ban as an appropriate church disciplinary practice.

Qualification 4: When I speak of the relationship between Anabaptists and Baptists, I am not suggesting that all Baptists were influenced to the same degree by their Anabaptist forebears. To be clear, I think the General Baptists were influenced more than the Particular Baptists.

But–and this is a big “but”–that is not to say that the Anabaptists had zero influence on the Particular Baptists. Richard Blunt traveled to Holland to confer with a group of immersing Mennonites (and possibly was immersed by them) before he led in the immersing of some members of the J-L-J Church in the early 1640s. Furthermore, there were Particular Baptists who had enough affinity for Anabaptism (and even the Quakers!) that there was movement back and forth between the two groups until after the English Civil War.

It is common today to argue that the 17th century Particular Baptists were more or less Puritans (or better, Independents) who dunked, and that is partly true. But this was not the case for all first generation Calvinistic Baptists. It was not until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that various Calvinistic evangelicals realized they had more in common than different. This is why the Second London Confession of 1677 was based upon the (Congregationalist) Savoy Declaration of 1660, which in turn was based upon the (Presbyterian) Westminster Confession of 1647. We must be careful not to read the theological precision of 1677 back into the 1640s and 1650s; simply put, early Particular Baptists were a diverse lot, as were their General Baptist cousins.

To summarize, I do not believe there is any historical reason to ignore Anabaptist influence upon the Baptists, though I also do not wish to see an overemphasis on this point. As I mentioned in my previous article, I suspect there are several reasons for contemporary hesitancy in this matter. Some Baptists shudder at Anabaptist sectarianism. So do I. Some Calvinistic Baptists are uncomfortable with the Anabaptist emphasis on libertarian free will, sometimes de-emphasis of justification by faith, and fuzziness on substitutionary atonement. Ditto. Lots of Baptists are skittish about the lunatic fringe of Anabaptism. You betcha. And some seem to suspect there are present attempts to “Anabaptize” the SBC. And there may be. But none of this changes what I think is good historical evidence that the earliest Baptists were influenced, to varying degrees, by some Anabaptists.

I don’t freak out about the Anabaptists. And neither should you.

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